Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: 30 Years Old Today

Paisley Park/Warner Bros, released 30th March 1987

Album chart position: #6 (US), #4 (UK)

Singles released: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (#3 US, #10 UK)
‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (#67 US, #20 UK)
‘U Got The Look’ (#2 US, #11 UK)
‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ (#10 US, #29 UK)

At the time of Sign O’ The Times’ release, the general critical consensus seemed to be that it was a great double album but, shorn of a few tracks, would have made a sensational single album. But what the press probably didn’t know was that Prince had actually intended to release a triple album!

He believed the three-record set Crystal Ball would have been be a huge artistic statement after a relatively disappointing 1986, but the idea scared the hell out of Warner Bros and also his manager Bob Cavallo. Prince was reluctantly forced to back down.

The tracks intended for Crystal Ball but later abandoned for Sign O’ The Times were ‘Rebirth Of The Flesh’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’, ‘The Ball’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Shockadelica’, and ‘Good Love’ (all hoovered up from two other aborted album projects, Dream Factory and Camille). But even after Prince removed these, he was still left with a 16-track double album, a brilliant mix of the sacred and profane, and a record which many fans (me included) believe was his finest hour.

I can still remember first hearing the title track. It was recorded on 15th July 1986 in a single ten-hour session at LA’s Sunset Sound. Prince was experimenting with a new piece of kit – the Fairlight sampler/synth – but characteristically made the technology swing in a way that no other artist could. The track also demonstrates his love of space; it’s essentially just a minimalist blues featuring a three-note melody line, some sampled drums/bass and a bit of electric guitar. Listening again on the day after the Westminster terror attack of 23rd March, the song’s lyric also seems as relevant now as it was in 1987:

Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died
Sister killed her baby cos she couldn’t afford to feed it
And we’re sending people to the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June

It’s silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain’t happy
Until a man truly dies

‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’ are pure party-time – it’s scarcely believable that Prince alone could generate such a raucous studio atmosphere with only Susannah Melvoin’s backing vocals, a few ‘party’ guests and Eric Leeds’ sax for company. The latter also represents his first recorded attempt at hip-hop (unless you count the brief ‘rap’ in ‘Girls & Boys’), typically supplying something usually missing from the genre: humour.

‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, recorded in Prince’s Minneapolis home studio on 15th March 1986, may be his most psychedelic recording, the soundtrack to a dream with seemingly-spontaneous musical moments that no one else could have created. He demonstrates his mastery with the LM-1 drum machine and, vocally, sets up a novel ‘Greek chorus’ effect.

‘Forever In My Life’ takes a melody line very similar in approach to Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ (and maintains Sly’s key of G) but again demonstrates Prince’s remarkable sense of space and also features another extraordinary backing vocal arrangement. The heartfelt lyric was written when he believed he would settle down with fiancée Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Wendy) – sadly it wasn’t to be.

‘It’, another bold experiment with the Fairlight, returns to the cold, sexualised world of 1999, while ‘Hot Thing’ is its flipside, a funky, James Brown-inspired one-chord romp with some great Leeds tenor sax.

‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (another song about Susannah/Wendy), ‘Strange Relationship’ (another big nod to Sly), ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’, ‘Starfish And Coffee’, ‘U Got The Look’ and ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ are just brilliantly performed, beautifully written pop tunes with dashes of psychedelia and soul.

According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince was very influenced by Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love during the recording of SOTT, the track ‘Cloudbusting’ a particular favourite. Other songs showed contemporary influences too – Quiet Storm classic ‘Adore’ was apparently Prince’s response to the popularity of Luther Vandross’s Give Me The Reason and Patti Labelle’s The Winner In You (and it also hugely influenced the neo-soul movement, particularly D’Angelo’s ballad style). ‘U Got The Look’ – the last song recorded for Sign O’ The Times on 21st Decemeber 1986 – was apparently inspired by Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ single.

Sign O’ The Times sold 1.8 million copies in the US, a very similar number to Parade. Some believed the slightly disappointing sales were due to the choice of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as the second single; it is strange that ‘U Got The Look’ didn’t get the nod. But if Prince’s popularity was levelling out in the States, it was growing across Europe, as we’ll explore soon.

Advertisements

Post-Tutu Blues: David Sanborn’s A Change Of Heart 30 Years On

Warner Bros Records, released March 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

4/10

On 17th July 1986, Tampa-born sax great David Sanborn broke off from his own European tour to guest with Miles Davis and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival, playing on ‘Burn’, ‘Jean-Pierre’ and also ‘Portia’, one of the standout Marcus Miller compositions from the soon-to-be-released Tutu. Though obviously nervous, Sanborn acquitted himself well, getting stuck in with some tasty modal solos and prompting many Miles smiles. Hopefully the performance would bode well for Sanborn’s next studio recording.

Unfortunately not. Sanborn made some fine albums during the 1980s – Hideaway, Voyeur, As We Speak, Straight To The Heart – but A Change Of Heart was not one of them. It was the kind of over-produced, under-composed, unfunky ‘fusion’ record that Tutu should have killed off once and for all.

I bought A Change Of Heart on cassette when it came out, proudly showing it off to a cool family friend who had previously introduced me to loads of great music. I hoped he would be impressed by my purchase. He turned his nose up, mumbling something about ‘Bloody muzak…’ I was puzzled and a bit embarrassed. Listening back 30 years on, he was right about A Change Of Heart but wrong about Sanborn. It would be a shame if A Change Of Heart was a listener’s first experience of his music.

The opening two Marcus-written-and-produced tracks – ‘Chicago Song’ and ‘Imogene’ – deliver a quality that the rest of the album never even remotely comes near. Miller was in constant demand around this time and presumably couldn’t commit to the whole album. ‘Imogene’ is a classic ballad with a haunting fretless bass melody and beguiling bridge, while ‘Chicago Song’ transcends its simple melody with an irresistibly funky rhythm section and biting Hiram Bullock guitar bridge. It’s still part of Sanborn’s live set to this day.

The rest of A Change Of Heart seems designed for the latest Don Simpson movie or an episode of ‘Miami Vice’. Syndrum overdubs and unsubtle Fairlight samples prevail alongside ugly synth sounds and flimsy melodic motifs, without a whiff of jazz or R’n’B. Producer/synth players/writers Ronnie Foster, Philippe Saisse and Michael Colina toil away fruitlessly and even Sanborn’s licks don’t stick.

Sanborn toured A Change Of Heart extensively with a great band featuring Bullock and Dennis Chambers on drums, even popping up on primetime UK music show ‘The Tube‘ playing Michael Sembello’s smooth jazz ballad ‘The Dream’. He was clearly at his commercial peak (the album made the top 100 in the US and UK) but the creative rot would prevail to the end of the ’80s. He got back on track with the release of 1991’s Another Hand.

John Scofield’s Blue Matter: 30 Years On

scofieldGramavision Records, released February 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street 1987

9/10

Occasionally a musician appears out of nowhere, ‘fully-formed’, or at least it can seem that way during one’s formative years. In my lifetime, there have been a few: Lewis Taylor, Omar Hakim, Trilok Gurtu, and probably a few more. Drummer Dennis Chambers, who plays brilliantly throughout Blue Matter, would definitely be one too.

My muso schoolmate Jem Godfrey had lent me John Scofield’s superb Still Warm album sometime around 1986. Before then, I knew John’s playing mainly from Miles Davis’s Star People, one of my mid-’80s favourites. So when the Steve Swallow-produced Blue Matter dropped in early ’87, I was primed and ready – and instantly gripped.

john-scofield-blue-matter_b

The presence of Hiram Bullock‘s rhythm guitar on three tracks gives a good indication of Scofield’s approach on this album – it’s R’n’B/funk-based jazz/rock, with great grooves, neat chord changes and no gratuitious displays of instrumental technique for technique’s sake – though Scofield and Chambers were of course quite capable of some serious chops, evident on the killin’ ‘Trim’.

The dynamic title track is clearly influenced by Miles/Marcus Miller’s ‘Tutu’ with its half-time groove, walking synth bass and enigmatic chords, but Chambers’ brilliant contribution (closely monitored by the excellent Gary Grainger on bass) transforms it into something totally new.

In the first minute of the tune, he achieves a novel ‘bouncing ball’ snare drum effect and then unleashes some of the most kick-ass kick-drum playing in music history. Chambers had already turned some heads playing with George Clinton, but, even if he had never picked up the sticks again after 1987, ‘Blue Matter’ would probably have put him right up in the drum pantheon.

‘Heaven Hill’ – named for Sco’s favourite brand of bourbon? – a slow blues with surprising chord changes and tasty gospel-tinged piano playing by Mitch Forman, influenced a whole host of ‘fusion’ guitarist/composers such as Robben Ford, Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale (compare it to Henderson’s ‘Slidin’ Into Charlisa’). ‘Now She’s Blonde’, ‘Time Marches On’, ‘The Nag’ and ‘So You Say’ manage to be both funky and catchy while retaining enough harmonic interest and ‘dirt’ to go way beyond the smooth jazz tag.

The Blue Matter band got quite a live following around this time, with good reason. They were somewhat of an antidote to the Chick Corea Elektric Bands and Al Di Meolas of this world, as musically jaw-dropping as those artists were/are. Scofield himself acknowledged as much during an interview with Howard Mandel in 1988: ‘What I hate about fusion music is the gymnastics. We are often playing to audiences who want to hear fast and loud and I have to watch myself. I’ve never been that good at doing fast stuff. Luckily, it doesn’t come easy to me. Now, Dennis Chambers is a chops phenomenon. On his solos, he destroys the drums. But he also has inbred musicianship, so it’s exciting and not so calculated…’

Hiram Bullock’s From All Sides: 30 Years Old Today

hiramAtlantic Records, released 18th November 1986

7/10

Bought: Record & Tape Exchange, Shepherd’s Bush, 1990?

In the mid-’80s, London seemed to be Hiram Bullock’s second home. The late great New York-based guitarist was in David Sanborn’s band at the Wembley Arena in November ’84 (alongside Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick and Steve Gadd, one of my first ever gigs) and also appeared in town regularly with Carla Bley and Gil Evans during this period.

At a Sanborn Hammersmith Odeon gig around ’86/’87, Hiram embarked on a solo, and, with the aid of a wireless unit, promptly jumped off the stage to serenade the stalls. He then vacated the auditorium, soloing all the while, and a few minutes later appeared in the front row of the balcony, still blazing away, illuminated by a single spot. What a dude.

Such shenanigans would earn himself column inches in the jazz magazines and a cult following but sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the great guitarists of the ’80s or any other decade, effortlessly mixing up the blues, funk, bebop and rock.

hiram_bullock_from_all_sides_album_back_1024x1024

By mid-1986, he had enjoyed ten years as a first-call session player (Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Brecker Brothers et al) as well as being part of the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Late Night With Letterman‘ bands. He had also recently hooked up with his one-time bass student Jaco Pastorius in the PDB trio (with drummer Kenwood Dennard) and produced Mike Stern’s excellent Upside Downside (guitar-wise, they have a lot in common).

In short, he had paid his dues. It was time for a solo album. Though From All Sides is in many ways a classic ‘journeyman’ record, covering all the bases from funky fusion (‘Window Shoppin‘, ‘Cactus’) through R’n’B (‘Funky Broadway’) to smooth Sinatra-influenced balladry (‘Really Wish I Could Love You’), it’s never boring, helped also by some good guest spots – Kenny Kirkland supplies a classy solo to ‘Window Shoppin’ while Sanborn lights up ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’. On the witty ‘state of the world’ blues ‘Mad Dog Daze’, Bullock even comes over a bit like a Johnny Guitar Watson for the ’80s.

The album also benefits greatly from mostly sticking to the same excellent rhythm section – Charley Drayton on drums, Will Lee on bass, Clifford Carter on keys – which gives some consistency from tune to tune. Hiram plays some brilliant solos, even on somewhat cheesy material such as ‘When The Passion Is Played’ and ‘Until I Do’. The production is state-of-the-art for ’86, ie. extremely high on treble and compression but short on low-end.

But From All Sides is still mostly a blast, driven on by Hiram’s irrepressible energy and good vibes, though the followup Give It What U Got was a big improvement – more on that later.

Level 42’s ‘Level 42’: 35 Years Old Today

levelPolydor Records, released 1st August 1981

Here’s another key exhibit to support the motion ‘1981: The Greatest Ever Pop Year’. When three caulkheads – bassist/vocalist Mark King and brothers Phil (drums) and Boon Gould (guitar) – hooked up with keyboardist/vocalist Mike Lindup in London, they were fairly speedily signed to indie label Elite Records.

After adding their ‘fifth member’ Wally Badarou – who had just begun his epochal keyboard work with Grace Jones – they released the ‘Love Meeting Love‘ 12” single in the summer of 1980. It got the attention of Polydor, who speedily re-released it and then the follow-up ‘Flying On The Wings Of Love‘. Both stalled outside the UK top 40 but there was suddenly a massive industry buzz about this band.

At this stage in their career, Level 42 were very much lumped in with the new wave of Brit-funk and jazz/funk bands, leading to an instant following, lots of noisy club gigs and many a provincial Soul Weekender alongside ‘Funk Mafia’ DJs with nicknames like Froggie and Wolfie. None of this harmed Level’s popularity, though in truth they had little in common with the dancefloor scene – their sound was a much edgier proposition, with more guitar, a distinct jazz/rock influence and a punky energy. As one fan apparently commented to Boon after a November 1980 all-dayer supporting Shakatak: ‘We didn’t expect Status Quo’. No matter – Polydor signed them to a five-year deal soon after that gig.

Legendary Bluesbreakers/Fleetwood Mac producer Mike Vernon was chosen to helm their debut album – Mark King was apparently most impressed that he had worked on Focus’s Moving Waves. Vernon turned out to be a superb choice. They all convened first at the very haunted Vineyard Studios in South-East London (later owned by Stock, Aitken and Waterman) to record ‘Love Games’. It gave them their first hit in March 1981, scraping into the UK singles chart at number 39, and leading to their first appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’.

But these guys lived and breathed music. Though songwriting didn’t come particularly easy early on in their career, there was an infectious, thrilling, percussive propulsion to their sound. It helped that they were all drummers (with the exception of Boon Gould). Obvious influences such as Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Stanley Clarke merged with less obvious ones like Yes and Fairport Convention (mainly Phil Gould’s passions) to produce a very tasty brew, naturally easy on the ear. And after barely a year of singing, Mark King’s vocals were even starting to match his prodigious talent on the bass.

Level 42 presents a great variety of material littered with intricate, memorable arrangements. Wally Badarou’s mastery shines through throughout the album but especially on ’43’ – on the right channel, he sprinkles in shards of Prophet 5 synth, almost taking on the role of rhythm guitarist.

Why Are You Leaving‘ is a superb quiet-storm ballad, not unlike something George Benson might have come up with in the Breezin’ era. Stanley Clarke is a towering influence – ‘Heathrow’ nicks the ‘Lopsy Lu’ shuffle (and also features a fantastic Gary Barnacle electric sax solo) while ‘Dune Tune‘ rather spiffingly riffs on ‘Desert Song’ from Clarke’s classic School Days album. Phil Gould’s sparkling glockenspiel solo on ‘Starchild’ only emphasised how versatile the band really were.

slipstream

Level 42 is also a decidedly more lush and expensive-sounding album than any other ‘Brit-funk’ band managed to produce. The evidence is Slipstream, a compilation which featured the band’s ‘Turn It On’ alongside other contemporary bands such as Light Of The World, Freeez, Morrissey Mullen and Incognito. The Level track sticks out a mile.

Level 42 reached number 20 in the UK album chart, apparently a pleasant surprise to Polydor. Two UK tours followed in quick succession before they embarked on a seven-date German trip supporting The Police, which, by all accounts, didn’t go particularly well. During one gig, a firecracker was hurled in the general direction of Mark King, lodging itself between his bass and elbow. Looking down, he recoiled from the mic in horror, believing he had been shot!

Despite Level 42‘s solid chart placing, there was still uncertainty about the future of the band – King was headhunted by Jeff Beck for a possible power trio with Simon Phillips on drums, and a few jam sessions ensued. Also, Barnacle’s band Leisure Process had recruited Mark and Phil for their upcoming album and there was talk of the them making the permanent switch. Thankfully, neither project materialised – one of the great bands of the 1980s were back in business. Next stop: The Pursuit Of Accidents.

Funk, Junk & Pulp Culture: Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick

aliens-ate-my-buick-52dea191dc659EMI/Manhattan Records, released April 1988

9/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This was Dolby’s ‘Marmite‘ album – the one that really tested his fanbase. A relocation to the States after marrying soap actress Kathleen Beller (Dolby’s companion on the front cover) led to a new home in the Hollywood Hills (apparently a very large, rather creepy movie-star mansion), the recruitment of a great new band The Lost Toy People via an advert in a local paper and a wholesale embracing of American black music.

In many ways, Aliens is Dolby’s reaction to the work of George Clinton and Prince. Of course, he’d duetted with the former on his Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends album. But it’s also a rather uptight Brit’s view of American culture complete with tacky local detail: smog alerts, Bel Air bimbos, pink leather upholstery, weird license plates.

dolby

A very brave (or foolhardly) bit of sequencing puts ‘The Key To Her Ferrari’ right at the front of the album. A fake-jazz/B-Movie swinger with a vaguely ‘50s rock’n’roll feel featuring lots of Zappaesque spoken word stuff from Dolby and some brilliant close-harmony female vocals, it’s all pretty stupid but the band plays fantastically and everyone sounds like they’re having a great time. However, you do wonder how many listeners made it past such an uncompromising track.

The lead-off single ‘Airhead”s delirious mash-up of funk and pop is pretty irresistible despite its fairly un-PC lyrics. Mr Clinton contributes the funny and funky ‘Hot Sauce’ which packs in an incredible amount of good stuff into its five minutes including a Spaghetti Western prelude, a reference to Cameo’s ‘Candy’, a touch of salsa and even a killer James Brown-style piano break.

Ditto ‘May The Cube Be With You‘, featuring Clinton and Lene Lovich on backing vocals, the Brecker Brothers on horns and a brilliant groove from P-Funk bass/drums team Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers.

But, as with most Dolby albums, the treasures are mostly found in the more introspective, less gimmicky moments. ‘My Brain Is Like A Sieve’ easily transcends its title and faux-reggae arrangement to become a superb and quite downbeat pop song in the Prefab style. ‘The Ability To Swing’ is a cracking piece of funk/jazz, with some excellent lyrics, possibly Dolby’s most (or only?) covered song.

‘Budapest By Blimp’ is very much the centrepiece of Aliens and its stand-out track, an epic ballad harking back to the Flat Earth sound with a great, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Larry Treadwell (one of many on the album) and some superb, driving bass from the late Terry Jackson.

The only slight misfire is ‘Pulp Culture’, initially interesting but quickly grating with coarse lyrics and a melody line too similar to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Have A Talk With God’. It’s worth noting, though, that according to Dolby, the entire song (including his vocals) is made up of Fairlight samples.

The album’s moderate success (it reached number 30 in the UK albums chart and 70 in the US) was probably not a massive surprise – it was totally out of sync with anything in British or US pop. Aliens probably rather reflected Dolby’s interest in music video and movie soundtracks (he’d just finished scoring ‘Gothic’ and ‘Howard The Duck’).

The ‘Marmite’ element doesn’t bother me, though – I’d put Aliens up there with The Flat Earth as his best album, a perfect companion piece to other classics of summer 1988 such as Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Scritti Politti’s Provision and Prince’s Lovesexy. It’s strong beer but I love its pungent textures. And let’s not forget Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork.