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.

Angela Bofill: Angel Of The ’80s

angelaThe strand of jazzy soul music developed by artists like Minnie Riperton, Phyllis Hyman, Chaka Khan, Jon Lucien, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford and Carl Anderson probably reached its commercial apex with Anita Baker’s eight-million-selling 1986 album Rapture.

angela bofill 01

But perhaps the most underrated singer in that style was Angela Bofill, an ever-present on the US R’n’B charts between 1978 and 1984. Best known for her sultry ballads and Latin-tinged mid-tempo jazz/soul tracks, I stumbled upon an Angie Best-Of sometime in the early ’90s and have been a fan ever since.

Her voice has a lovely, yearning quality, with power, range, great enunciation and a hint of Whitney Houston about it. But you’ll never hear Bofill’s music on the radio, at least here in the UK, and it’s a shame that she didn’t quite manage that breakthrough pop hit.

angie

Born in the Bronx to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, Bofill studied classical singing at the Manhattan School of Music. After a tip-off from Latin Jazz flautist Dave Valentin, she was initially mentored by producers Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, recording her successful first two albums Angie and Angel Of The Night for the fledgling GRP label.

Moving to Arista Records under the supervision of legendary impresario Clive Davis, she worked with some big-name producers throughout the ’80s: George Duke, Narada Michael Walden, Norman Connors and The System (David Frank/Mic Murphy). Narada particularly seemed a good fit for her, co-writing a few killers such as ‘Tropical Love‘ and ‘Too Tough‘ and teaming up with future ‘American Idol’ judge Randy Jackson on bass to make a phenomenal rhythm section.

Angela also made a wonderful guest appearance on ‘Where Do We Go’, the standout track from Stanley Clarke’s lacklustre Hideaway album of 1986, and there were also interesting duets with Boz Scaggs and Johnny Mathis around the same time.

But her most impressive material was self-penned. ‘You’re A Special Part Of Me’, ‘Gotta Make It Up To You’, ‘Song For A Rainy Day’ (which she also produced), ‘I Try’ (memorably covered by Will Downing in the early ’90s), ‘Accept Me’, ‘Rainbow Inside My Heart’ and ‘Time To Say Goodbye’ are all stand-outs which demonstrate her fine musicianship as well as vocal skills. It’s a shame her composing, producing and arranging talents were never properly utilised, though she left us with a few classics nevertheless.

Angela made a comeback in the mid-’90s with Love In Slow Motion, a nice album featuring three superb tunes – ‘All She Wants Is Love’, ‘Soul Of Mine‘ and the very Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis-esque ‘Love Changes‘ – which matched anything from her ’80s peak. She also made a notable appearance at the 1998 Montreux Jazz Festival with Billy Cobham and George Duke.

Unfortunately serious illness befell Angela in 2006. Two strokes have limited her recording and live appearances, but she did make a brief return to the stage in 2012: ‘The Angela Bofill Experience’ featured stories from her life and career, with artists such as Maysa Leak, Phil Perry and Melba Moore performing signature songs.

Since then, things have been quiet, but we send good vibes from London. Angie’s certainly not forgotten in these parts.

Marvellous Marvin Gaye: Five From 1983

marvin

Marvin entered 1983 with mixed emotions. His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.

But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career) and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.

Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.

The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs.

Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.

Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game. Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV.

He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly. Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career. It still makes the hairs stand on end.

Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.

His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.

Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.

Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.

Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.

Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.