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’s Parade: 30 Years Old Today


Warner Bros/Paisley Park, released 31st March 1986


On 17th April 1985, just ten days after the end of the Purple Rain tour, Prince walked into LA’s Sunset Sound studios, sat at the drums, taped the lyrics of four new songs onto a music stand, picked up his sticks and instructed engineer Susan Rogers: ‘Don’t stop the tape when I stop playing. Just keep rolling.’ He then played through ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, ‘New Position’, ‘I Wonder U’ and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ without pausing. This guy worked fast. The recording sessions for Parade had begun.

Prince, Brussels 1986

Prince, Brussels 1986

The album would see Prince continue his extraordinary mid-’80s run of form, surely comparable to Stevie Wonder’s fabled 1972–1976 period. He couldn’t release albums fast enough and the wider world was waking up to just how prolific he really was. His striking new horns-and-orchestra-driven sound, by turns jazzy, funky and psychedelic, lost him some fans in the States but made him a huge star in Europe.

Parade showed off the amazing versatility of Prince (drums, bass, guitar and keyboards) and his main collaborators Wendy (guitar) & Lisa (keyboards). It’s a trip, an anti-boredom album full of glorious contradictions – it features his first instrumental track but still contains four classic dancefloor singles; it’s his densest, most ‘produced’ ’80s album (alongside Lovesexy) and yet features his first all-acoustic track, recorded completely live in the studio; Clare Fischer’s orchestral arrangements are always high in the mix but rub shoulders with the Sunset Sound’s ancient sound effects library; Prince utilises ultramodern tech like a guitar synth and a Fairlight sampler, but the main solo instruments are Eric Leeds’ tenor and baritone sax. And there is zero electric lead guitar, barely 18 months after Purple Rain.

References this time around were The Beatles, ’80s Miles Davis, show tunes and funk-era James Brown. The biggest influence though is late-’70s Joni Mitchell. Parade is the nearest Prince ever got to the kaleidoscope range of her classic albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Hissing Of The Summer Lawns. There were also more vocals in Prince’s music than ever before: Wendy, Lisa, Susannah (Wendy’s sister and Prince’s fiancée) and Sheila E all contributed massively to the occasional West Coast/Bangles sound.


By 2nd June 1985, nine songs for Parade were in the can, though three would later be left off the final album – the spooky ‘Others Here With Us’, frothy ‘All My Dreams’ and superfunky ‘Sexual Suicide’. Prince was also now working on not one but two other albums, Jill Jones and Mazarati’s debuts. By late June, he was also scouting locations in the south of France for the upcoming ‘Under The Cherry Moon‘ movie. But, true to form, he couldn’t stop recording – he set up a makeshift recording studio in his Antibes hotel suite.

Parade‘s first three tracks – ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, ‘New Position’ and ‘I Wonder U’ – pass by in the blink of an eye, gloriously odd, genuinely psychedelic funk miniatures. Very few have taken on the mantle of this style of music since 1986, though D’Angelo had a good go on the superb Voodoo album.


‘Under The Cherry Moon’ is almost a ’30s-style jazz number featuring asthmatic synths, fantastic piano playing and a daring melody line. I’d like to hear Tom Waits’ cover. If you listen very closely, you can hear the rattle of Prince’s necklace as he lays down the drum track.

‘Girls And Boys’ is a classic one-chord funk tune whose blaring guitar synth adds an engaging weirdness. Saxophonist Eric Leeds makes his mark on Prince’s music for the first time (though had already featured prominently on The Family’s album). ‘Life Can Be So Nice’ features fake harpsichord, sampled flute, piercing cowbell, some intricate acoustic guitar and a heavily-treated kick drum. It’s discordant and thrilling with an envelope-pushing vocal arrangement and some bizarre lyrics. The last minute of the song is a Latin/fusion jam in the Santana or Weather Report vein.

‘Venus De Milo’ is a sumptuous piece of symphonic muzak with some gorgeous trumpet from Matt Blistan (renamed Atlanta Bliss by Prince!) while ‘Mountains’ is another classic single, largely penned by Wendy & Lisa. The 12” mix has to be heard. ‘Do U Lie’ is an intoxicating little slice of soft jazz with cocktail guitar, spoken word, strings and accordion.


‘Kiss’ is another effortless classic. It was the first single to be released from Parade, hitting US number one in April ’86, though apparently loathed by the Warner Bros suits. Initially given to the band Mazarati for their debut album, it was reclaimed by Prince when he realised the potential of the track. He kept their backing vocals and gave them some money.

‘Anotherloverholenyohead’, recorded on December 16th 1985, was the last track recorded for Parade. Lisa’s crystalline, densely-voiced piano sounds like it was recorded in a school assembly hall, and there’s more peculiar guitar synth and a few incredible bass runs from Prince. The full-length version made for another classic 12” single.

Album-closer ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ is Joni all the way. Its improvised, rubato prologue is very reminiscent of the opening to ‘Cotton Avenue‘. Prince delivers an amazing lead vocal but the song needs a stronger chorus (‘Sometimes I feel so bad’) and Wendy & Lisa’s backing vox are extremely rough. The track divides opinion – some find it moving, some mawkish (I’m in the latter camp) – but it was a pretty brave choice to close such an important album.


The Parade sessions also spawned some fantastic B-sides: ‘Alexa De Paris’, ‘Sexual Suicide’, ‘Power Fantastic’, ‘4 The Tears In Your Eyes’, ‘Love Or Money’, ‘All My Dreams’ and the notorious ‘Old Friends 4 Sale’. All are well worth seeking out.

Then came the European tour. A funk revue. Horns, dance routines, backing vocals. Again, virtually no lead guitar. Europe loved him – there were riots in Holland – but the tour didn’t even make the States, which many insiders believe was a big mistake. Instead, there were several separate shows under the banner of the Hit & Run Tour. Sample some of the show here. You won’t regret it.

Despite the success of ‘Kiss’ in the States, three follow-up singles peaked outside the top 50. Prince believed that Warner Bros’ choice of second single (‘Mountains’) was wrong – it should have been ‘Girls And Boys’. Parade sold considerably less (1.8 million) in the States than Purple Rain (10 million) and Around The World In A Day (4 million).

By the end of the tour, it was all change: Wendy & Lisa were out of the band, Prince and Susannah had broken off their engagement and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ had stiffed. But there were still a couple of amazing albums left in the tank which we will focus on in due course.