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.

Three Angry 1980s Songs About Managers

Grey_Double-Buttoned_Suit_JacketManagers, eh? In 1997, David Bowie said, ‘They’re a species I really have nothing to do with’, an unsurprising position considering his disastrous earlier experiences with Tony Defries. By the late ’70s, he’d sworn off them forever.

But, in the rock and pop world, it’s almost a rite of passage to be ripped off by a manager. As the old music biz saying goes: where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.

There were certainly a number of dodgy characters hanging around in the 1980s, generally wearing cheap suits and deafening aftershave. Japan/Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell knows where all the bodies are buried: he told all in ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay’, his jaw-dropping account of record business skulduggery. And Giles Smith’s hilarious ’80s memoir ‘Lost In Music‘ outlined his doomed-to-fail attempts at pop stardom whilst being hamstrung every step of the way by chronically-inept ‘career adviser’ Pete The Bastard.

Basically, for every Bruce Findlay (Simple Minds), Ed Bicknell (Dire Straits) or Paul McGuinness (U2) – the nominal ‘fifth member of the band’ – there’s probably a Colonel Tom Parker or Defries in the wings.

Here are three prime 1980s acts who turned on their ex-managers in the best way they knew how.

3. XTC: ‘I Bought Myself A Liarbird’ (1984)

For many years, songwriter Andy Partridge was unable to discuss this song due to ‘legal issues’ with the band’s former manager Ian Reid (the sticking points seemed to be a huge unpaid VAT bill and also work/life balance, or lack of it…). Partridge delivers a pretty caustic portrait of the ‘starmaker machinery behind the popular song’, as Joni Mitchell called it. XTC settled out of court with Reid in 1989.

I bought myself a liarbird
He came with free drinks
Just to blur the lies falling out like rain
On an average English summer’s afternoon

I bought myself a new notebook
Sharpened my guitar and went to look
If this biz was just as bongo as the liarbird made out

All he would say is ‘I can make you famous’
All we would say: ‘Just like a household name’
Is all he would say

Methinks world is for you
Made of what you believe
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your bible
Or on the back of this record sleeve

I bought myself a liarbird
Things got more and more absurd
It changed to a cuckoo
And expanded, filling up with all I gave

I bought myself a big mistake
He grew too greedy, bough will break
And then we will find that liarbirds
Are really flightless on their own

Methinks world is for you
There’s no handing it back
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your prayer book
Or on the side of a cornflake pack

I gave away a liarbird
A couple less drinks
And now I’ve heard the truth shining out like sun
On an average English winter’s afternoon

2. John Martyn: ‘John Wayne’ (1986)

This Eastern-tinged, dramatic doom-ballad was initially written as a diatribe against Martyn’s early-’80s manager Sandy Roberton. The main problem seemed to be ‘cashflow’, judging from the lyric below… After a rewrite and the adding of a soupçon of humour (as well as some of John’s ‘strangled duck’ vocals, as he called them), it also became a cheeky portrait of the type of ball-busting, all-American bullyboy represented by Duke Wayne and Martyn’s old favourite Ronald Reagan. He even managed to include a classic Pinteresque euphemism: ‘I’ll measure you – fit you up!’

You know you’ve got it coming
I’ll tell it to you straight
I’m coming for you very soon
I’ll never hesitate
I’ll measure you
And fit you up

I am John Wayne
I do believe I’m John Wayne
I am John Wayne
Drink your milk!

Don’t you dare look behind you
You know I will be there
You’ll feel my breath on your neck
Turn, face me if you dare

I am John Wayne
I believe I’m John Wayne
Get on your horse!

You felt the money flowing
You watched the beast arrive
Watch the money going away
Time to skin the lamb alive

1. Prince: ‘Bob George’ (1987)

Black Album curio ‘Bob George’ was recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound as a present for Sheila E, and premièred at her Vertigo club birthday bash on 11th December 1986. Engineer Susan Rogers explained the genesis of this bizarre, self-mocking, X-rated piece: ‘Prince felt (Billboard music critic) Nelson George had become very critical of him all of a sudden, at a stage in his career where he needed all the help he could get. (Manager) Bob Cavallo also ticked him off.’ Roots of this discord may have lain in Prince’s wish to release the triple-album Crystal Ball as the follow-up to Parade, a wish that fell on deaf ears during negotiations with Prince’s record company Warner Bros. Maybe Prince felt that Cavallo hadn’t pushed hard enough on his behalf, terminally affecting their working relationship – Cavallo was given the push just after the release of the Batman album 18 months later. (Is ‘Bob George’ also a homage to/pastiche of Miles Davis? Ed.)

Prince: An Appreciation And Farewell

Prince_logo.svgIt’s never easy describing why a personal hero meant a lot to you – heaven knows I still haven’t been able to set down anything cogent about David Bowie’s life and work. But I may be coming nearer to working out why Prince Rogers Nelson had such an effect on the way I heard – and still hear – music.

Before the release of  1986’s Parade, I was a confirmed chart-pop fan, but also into the weird rock of Frank Zappa, fusion of Weather Report and straight jazz of Courtney Pine, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

Parade seemed to offer a perfect synthesis of all these forms. And, quite incredibly, one guy was pretty much responsible for all of it – and he was a brilliant singer and dancer too. Put simply, for fans and musicians of my age, Prince was the nearest thing to a Bowie/Ziggy figure.

His extravagantly-flamboyant stage persona also sometimes blinded people to the brilliance of his musicianship. Pre-Parade, that might have put me off initially too. But has there ever been a better keyboard/guitar double threat? (Steve Winwood, Johnny Guitar Watson and Lewis Taylor are decent competition but he surely outstrips all three.)

He obviously had natural talent but he worked extremely hard too – in his teenage years, he was living Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. Influenced by Sly Stone, Graham Central Station, Funkadelic, Tower Of Power, Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell, he was busy getting his chops together in his home music room and during various high-school battle-of-the-band competitions in Minneapolis’s North Side. As he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1990: ‘Anyone who was around back then knew what was happening. I was working. When they were sleeping, I was jamming. When they woke up, I had another groove.’

On the bass, he took care of business. Along with a few other of his contemporaries (he credited future New Power Generation member Sonny Thompson as being a key early influence), he patented the Minneapolis bass sound, a rumbling, busy style, heavily influenced by Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham. But he also had a much more effervescent, Stanley Clarke-flavoured side as well, a good example being the incredible ‘I’m Yours’ from 1978’s For You.

On guitar, his sweet, creamy, heavily-distorted lead lines, usually injected with a healthy dose of delay, were coming out of the Carlos Santana and Ernie Isley school, but he also had many licks all of his own. For me, his lead guitar peak was 1985-1989; what an incredible tone, beautiful phrasing and a very ‘vocal’, very human sound. But he also had a funky ensemble rhythm guitar style out of Steve Cropper and Jimmy Nolan school. My favourite examples of Prince guitar would have to include ‘Lady Cab Driver’, ‘Bambi’, ‘My Love Is Forever’, ‘Alexa De Paris’, ‘The Question Of U’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Get Some Solo’, ‘One Of Us’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Batdance’, but there are many more. His playing throughout the ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and  ‘Lovesexy Live’ concert films is sublime.

On keyboards, he was equally proficient. As NPG drummer Michael Bland pointed out, his piano playing had a touch and rhythmic approach similar to Thelonious Monk. He also patented the Minneapolis synth sound (alongside other influential players such as Ricky Peterson and Jimmy Jam), exemplified by his work between 1980 and 1983 on solo albums and releases by The Time, Vanity 6 and Sheila E. And he loved playing hot, churchy, gospel-flavoured organ too – check out ‘Hot Thing’ from the ‘Sign O’ The Times’ film or his superb Hammond playing on the Parade tour.

On drums, he was, by contrast, a late developer. Before discovering the Linn LM-1 drum machine in 1981, his playing was functional rather than spectacular. Purple Rain engineer Susan Rogers has talked about how much Prince’s drumming improved once Sheila E came into his life around 1983 – he very much wanted to impress her, and she taught him a few licks too. But he definitely had his own touch on the drums: check out the 12” version of ‘Mountains’, ‘Tambourine’, ‘Lady Cab Driver’ and ‘Sexual Suicide’ for some good examples. He was also very influenced by The Time mainman Morris Day’s playing – ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin’ on Crystal Ball is quite illuminating.

Of course, it’s all very well playing lots of instruments, but it’s a question of arrangement. Good ingredients are important but you’ve got to know how to mix them up. Prince was a master. A lot of his ‘producing’ decisions (ie. what to put in and what to leave out) came about because he very, very rarely left a song unfinished – he would work very long hours without a break to achieve exactly the sound he had originally heard in his head. This is why his best stuff sounds so fresh today – it has enough melody and groove for the casual listener but also retains a precious, ‘unfinished’ quality.

As a young musician in the ‘70s, Prince was very much a student of funk, soul and rock, but he came to jazz too later in life, inspired by his work with Eddie Minfield, Sheila E, Miles Davis, Eric Leeds and Matt Blistan in the mid-‘80s. He tried a ‘one-man-band’ approach to jazz/rock/funk with his Madhouse project, and worked successfully with Leeds on his two Paisley Park solo albums, but was more successful when he integrated the jazz influences into his own ‘pop’ albums and gigs. The ultimate for me was the Lovesexy tour, when the band could turn on a dime, going from cool Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker licks to blazing hard rock.

For every great single that came out in the mid-to-late-’80s, there was a great B-side. We fans had to hear as much as possible. My friend Marlon Celestine was our source for amazing bootlegs; the brilliant original demos for The Family album, ‘Others Here With Us’, ‘A Place In Heaven’, ‘Movie Star’. What will happen to all these tracks now? Was Prince planning to let us hear everything? There was talk of opening the vaults and adding the outtakes to the ‘special edition’ re-releases of the Warner Bros studio albums. I wonder who owns these masters now.

Another important aspect of Prince was his sense of humour. Friends, collaborators and lovers have reported how hilarious he could be away from the media glare. He didn’t let it out very often on his own official albums, but you can hear it loud and clear on ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin’, ‘Mutiny’, ‘High Fashion’, ‘Movie Star’, ‘Housequake’, ‘Jerk Out‘, ‘Chocolate‘ and Sheila E’s Romance 1600 album. There are apparently many other ‘comedy’ tracks in the vaults. His cheekiness came out often on stage too – check out ‘Blues In C/If I Had A Harem’ from ‘Lovesexy Live’, and there are plenty of other examples.

He was also a true Gemini, and as such it’s important to note how vitally important many women were to his career, and how often he sought their musical and personal company: Susan Rogers, Peggy McCreary, Wendy & Lisa, Susannah Melvoin, Jill Jones, Mavis Staples, Sheena Easton, Ingrid Chavez, Sheila E, Cat Glover, Boni Boyer, Rhonda Smith, Mayte, Rosie Gaines, Candy Dulfer, Marva King, 3rdeyegirl – just a partial list. Yes, one might question some of his attitudes towards women when he put together the bands Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6 (and there’s some strange stuff in ‘Purple Rain’) but he was a very young man then. His ‘Camille’ songs (‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, ‘Good Love’, ‘When 2 R In Love’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’ etc.) present a perfect fusion of his male and female sides, and of course the design of his ‘90s Symbol heavily emphasised both genders.

Prince went out of his way to promote musicians who were important to him, figures such as Larry Graham, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis and Chaka Khan. He came to George Clinton’s rescue in the late 1980s when George had a huge tax bill to pay – Prince signed him to Paisley Park for one album (The Cinderella Theory) and the sizeable advance took care of his debt. He later enlarged on his feelings about George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic during this elegant speech inducting them into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame. Prince was also a musical philanthropist – he gave away instruments to schools and encouraged real playing in an age of samples and loops. He also played many, many charity shows throughout his career, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Then there was the spiritual element to Prince’s music, increasingly visible as the ‘80s progressed. He was a living embodiment of the sacred/profane dichotomy. The man who wrote ‘Sister’ and ‘Lady Cab Driver’ ended the decade by telling us: ‘Look to the light’. He could write ‘I Love U In Me’ one day but then follow it up the next with ‘God’. The entire Lovesexy live show (and album) was designed as a battle between good and evil. I wasn’t sure if I liked or understood the spiritual stuff back in 1988, but I loved the way he provoked questions. Still do.

In December 1987, when he had a change of heart and pulled The Black Album from release at the eleventh hour, believing it to be too angry, too dark, and an unrepresentative piece of work, he rush-released Lovesexy instead. Here was an artist of integrity. (Apparently one frame in the ‘Alphabet Street’ video features the words: “Don’t buy The Black Album. I’m sorry.” Or does it? I could never find it back then… Maybe it was a great bit of Warner Bros PR.)

I never saw Prince play live, to my great regret. I passed up a ticket for the famous London O2 run in 2007. It just didn’t sit right. The nearest I got to seeing him perform was a signing session at HMV in Oxford Street with the NPG in 1995. Around that time, he was way more visible on British TV than he had ever been before, memorably appearing on ‘The White Room’ and also being interviewed on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Show’. He seemed quite happy subsuming himself into a group ethos – there are shades of Bowie and Tin Machine.

Over the last few weeks, the press has frequently reported that the essential book about Prince is Matt Thorne’s biography. It’s good, but the killer is surely ‘Prince: The First Decade’ by Per Nilsen. There you will read about the recording of every single one of his albums from 1978 to 1988, find out what was happening in his private life throughout that time and also hear from all his key collaborators. Nilsen’s ‘Prince: The Documentary’ is also superb.

Though I struggled with a lot of Prince’s music in the ’90s and beyond, he seemed to live a pretty ‘noble’ life in a period when many musicians of his generation and popularity kind of lost their way. There was certainly a conscious retreat towards the end of the ’90s, but then look at what was happening in the wider world around that time – the Disneyfication of the music business, the dumbing down of culture generally. He chose not to play the whole global branding game (he never launched a clothes line or fragrance, for example), he took on his record company, temporarily withdrew the name ‘Prince’, resolutely promoted himself as a musician and spoke up about many of the things that troubled him. That may explain a lot. We shall see, though I’m not looking for any ‘theories’ or ‘explanations’ concerning his death and trying not to hear news reports.

In 1990, Prince told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘When I pray to God, I say, “It’s your call – when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But as long as you’re going to leave me here, I’m going to cause much ruckus!”’

He did it. C ya.