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.)