What People Were Saying About Sign O’ The Times Was; ‘There Are Some Great Songs On It And Some Experiments On It.’ I Hate The Word ‘Experiments’.
1987 was the quintessential Prince year. Not just for the music that was released under his own moniker (Sign O’ The Times) or was scheduled for release (The Black Album), but also for the amount of released material to which he directly contributed by supplying songs, production or performing:
- 21-01-1987: Madhouse: 8
- 19-02-1987: Sheila E: Sheila E (6 out of 10 songs)
- 02-03-1987: Prince: Sign O’ The Times single (B-side, 1 song)
- 19-03-1987: Deborah Allen: Telepathy (1 song)
- 27-03-1987: Prince: Sign O’ The Times
- 17-04-1987: Nona Hendryx: Female Trouble (1 song)
- 26-05-1987: Jill Jones: Jill Jones
- 01-06-1987: Prince: If I Was Your Girlfriend single (B-side, 1 song)
- 17-07-1987: Sheena Easton: No Sound But A Heart (1 song)
- 19-09-1987: Taja Sevelle: Taja Sevelle (2 songs)
- 18-11-1987: Madhouse: 16
- 20-11-1987: Prince: Sign O’ The Times movie
- 07-12-1987: Prince: The Black Album
A total of 53 Prince songs were released in 1987. The amount could have been as high as 61, if The Black Album was relased as scheduled on December 7th, 1987. What stands out is the extremely high level of the releases. Even satellite projects like Madhouse and Jill Jones received A-class material. That explains the separate Madhouse story, published earlier this year. Later this year more 1987 stories will be published about the Jill Jones and The Black Album releases.
Besides the album, the Sign O’ The Times Tour took place and the (concert)film Sign O’ The Times was released in 1987. Therefore, this article is divided in 3 parts:
Three notations are used for the name of this album: Sign “” The Times, Sign Of the Times and Sign O’ The Times. The correct way is the first one, but the third one is commonly used in stories, forums, online media and communities. This notation will be used in this article.
Sign O’ The Times, the album
When the first announcements concerning a new album were made public, the press nearly exploded, particularly In Europe. A new album by the genius Prince was longed for. The disbanding of The Revolution was considered a shock, because Prince, with The Revolution, had left an indelible impression with the genius album Parade (which was released on March 31st, 1986) and the concerts he had given in Europe, where he had been only once before (in 1981 promoting Dirty Mind, the first truly great work by Prince).
The single Sign O’ The Times, released in February 1987, gave some clue about what was coming. However, no-one expected it to be that good. But, before we get into that: how did the album come about?
The Revolution/Dream Factory
The first time I saw Prince live, was with The Revolution. At the time the fantastic album Parade, released in March 1986, was 5 months old. In the meantime the new Prince & The Revolution album was already finished: Dream Factory. Two configurations of Dream Factory are known, an album that started as a compensation towards, particularly, Wendy & Lisa to exercise more influence on The Revolution and its output.
The first configuration of the album was a real band effort, but along the way Prince’s output, once again, proved to be too big. More and more songs were being replaced. The proposed single album (compiled in April of 1986) had turned into a double-album in early June. The last known configuration, dated July 18th, comprised 18 songs, 8 of which were eventually released on Sign O’ The Times. A total of 25 songs were considered for the project Dream Factory. Of the 25 songs, besides the 8 that became part of Sign O’ The Times, 9 were released at a later time, or given to others. The July 18th configuration of the album has been released as a bootleg.
After the July 18th configuration Prince kept on recording songs. Among them Hot Thing, The Ball and Forever In My Life. The recording was interrupted by the Prince & The Revolution Parade tour of Europe and Japan. It turned out to be the last time. On September 9th, 1986, Prince & The Revolution played their last ever show: The Revolution was fired in October of 1986. Dr. Fink, Miko Weaver and Brown Mark were asked to stay, to which the first two complied.
After disbanding The Revolution Dream Factory was shelved. A new project replaced it: The Dawn, a musical. Several songs were recorded for this project, among which the phenomenal Crucial. In the same month Prince recorded the, equally phenomenal, song Shockadelica (see Prince, top 50, songs 25 to 11 for particulars). During his studio-time Prince received a call by Quincy Jones proposing to record a duet with Michael Jackson, titled Bad. Prince was honored, but declined the offer. The song was not very interesting musically and Prince knew he sat on a big pile of exciting and interesting new material, which surpassed the level of Bad by miles. Besides that: the opening line to the Jackson song was Your butt is mine, reason enough for Prince to pass on the offer.
Just days after The Revolution’s disbanding Prince was hauled up in his favorite studio in Los Angeles, Sunset Sound, where he would record songs every day for the next three months. Housequake was one of the first songs to be recorded. On Housequake he used a recording-trick with a sped-up voice. He began thinking about a project for the sped-up voice as it were a character.
The character was named Camille, an alter-ego. The idea of a new project inspired even more. Within a period of 10 days five new songs were composed and recorded, all using the sped-up voice. One of the five was the heartbreakingly beautiful If I Was Your Girlfriend, one of Prince’s finest songs ever. In early November of 1986 a test pressing was made of the Camille album (recently a copy was auctioned, marking it the first time physical evidence could be presented of its existence). The project was given a Warner Bros. catalog number and a releasedate of January 1987 was proposed.
But Prince was unstoppable. He kept on recording. The Camille project slowly faded into the background. New songs: among others, the beautiful Adore, Play In The Sunshine and overdubs for a Prince & The Revolution live-track recorded in Paris during the Parade tour: It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night. And thus a new project was born: Crystal Ball, intended to be a triple-album. It consisted of 22 songs, largely compiled of the projects Dream Factory and Camille, supplemented with a number of recently recorded new songs (among which the monumental Joy In Repetition). The album was a solo-project by Prince, which contained the infamous line Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.
As to be expected, the idea of releasing a triple-album was not met with great enthusiasm by Warner Bros. President Mo Ostin listened to Crystal Ball at Sunset Sound and told Prince that the album was not going to be released. There were objections to the high marketingcosts and the amount of money consumers were supposed to pay for such an item. I remember reading that the, after the first huge numbers, disappointing sales of Bruce Springsteen’s live box Live 1975/85 weighed in significantly on Warner Bros.’ views on the Prince project.
However, Warner Bros. was prepared to release a double-album, but Prince was reluctant at removing songs from the, in his view, perfect Crystal Ball. In the end he had no choice but to downsize Crystal Ball to two albums, of which the song Sign O’ The Times was to be its central theme. The recently recorded new song U Got The Look was added to the album and mid-January 1987 the definitive configuration of Sign O’ The Times was compiled.
At the time of compiling Crystal Ball and Sign O’ The Times the relationship with Susannah Melvoin ended. Susannah was the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin. Prince’s relationship with Susannah had inspired multiple songs, but Wally was the farewell-song. Shortly after Christmas 1986 Prince recorded the song Wally. The song implicitly referenced the end of the relationship with Susannah, which apparently shook up Prince considerably. Prince’s regular engineer Susan Rogers was present during the recording and describes the song as the most honest song he ever made; the song contained a very sincere emotional undercurrent. After the song was completed, Prince began adding all kinds of extras to the song up to the point the song became less and less. Susan Rogers understood that the additions were deliberate and pleaded Prince to stop, which resulted in Prince ordering her to destroy the recording. She refused, so Prince destroyed the recording personally. This was the first and, according to many, only time Prince destroyed something. This was probably too painful (or honest) for him. The next day he re-recorded Wally, but with different lyrics and without the emotional subtext. Wally has never been released. I have not heard it to this day. After Prince’s death, The Roots drummer Questlove tweeted that he had heard Wally, adding Don’t ask, making clear he would not reveal his source.
The complete route to Sign O’ The Times
Based on the available data, the route to Sign O’ The Times looks as follows:
Colored titles have been released on other albums or moved to other projects. The colors correspond with either an arrow of the same color and are therefore incorporated within another project, or (without arrow) incorporated on another released item.
The 1986 projects that ultimately led to Sign O’ The Times, from left to right in time.
Separate songs, not part of a major project, recorded in 1986 or January 1987.
Sign O’ The Times
Sign O’ The Times is the 9th studio album, Prince’s 2nd double album, released on March 31st 1987, but in Holland it was available on March 27th. I bought it at Diskoland, Heerhugowaard (The Netherlands) as two separate cd’s. At the time, I had my own flat in Amsterdam, but during the weekends I regularly visited my hometown to go out. Because my father didn’t own a cd-player yet, I first heard the cd’s on Sunday March 29th 1987 in my Amsterdam apartment. I only knew the song Sign O’ The Times, which had been released as a single on 02/18/987. The B-side La, La, La, He, He, Hee was not on the album. The album was released by Paisley Park Records in cooperation with Warner Bros. Records. It is the successor to Parade, which was released a year before on March 31st. It is the first album to be released after disbanding The Revolution.
The album consists of a wide range of different styles, like funk, soul, (psychedelic) pop, electro and rock. Four singles were culled from the album, among which the titlesong and one of his most beautiful songs If I Was Your Girlfriend. Later during the year the concertmovie Sign O’ The Times was realeased, which was a (shortened) representation of the Sign O’ The Times Tour. The album was a huge success among critics and musicfans and ended up in the high regions of all end-of-year lists and, nowadays, is regarded as one of the best albums of all times and as the best album released by Prince.
The Linn LM-1 drum machine is used intensively on this album. Many songs have sparse instrumentation. On this album Prince (once more) experiments with the, at the time state-of-the-art digital sampler, Fairlight CMI. The song Sign O’ The Times was made with it, with Prince just using the default Fairlight sounds. Many songs employ the sped-up-voice technique. These songs weren’t credited to Prince, but to Camille, Prince’s alter ego
Despite the general idea that Sign O’ The Times seemed less ‘produced’ than his previous albums, Susan Rogers claims that “we spent more time and money on Sign o’ the Times than anything he’d ever done. Much more work went into it.”.
And? Is this album worthy of all this praise? Yes, and more! It’s a breathtakingly good album, containing a vast number of classic songs, which actually were classic at time of release.
A review of the last masterpiece of the vinyl era, song by song.
Sign O’ The Times
The single, released on 02/18/1987 prior to the album. Recorded by Prince himself in July 1986. The song is minimally supported by the Fairlight sampler, with Prince’s programming being responsible for the inventive drums and bass. Sparse synthesizer and a bluesy guitar (particularly on the longer album version) are added to the song.
More contemplative songs, like this one, were often composed on Sundays by Prince. The song references the Challenger disaster from January 1986.
As a single-choice this song isn’t that obvious, as it isn’t that easy to listen to for its minimalism and heavy lyrics. But it worked nonetheless: Sign O’ The Times was a major hit.
The clip to the song stood out. Prince was nowhere to be seen. It consisted solely of computer generated letters scrolling the lyrics over the screen.
The song starts off with:
In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same
At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples’ high on crack and totin’ a machine gun
© 1987 Prince, Sign O’ The Times
Just one verse and already we are surrounded by the AIDS epidemic, drugs, gangs and guns. This is not going to be a cheerful ride. A little atypical of Prince, but what a song! What a way to start an album! The problems keep on piling up, and yet it ends on a positive note, with an attempt to make the world livable with your loved one:
Sign o’ the times mess with your mind
Hurry before it’s too late
Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby
We’ll call him Nate
If it’s a boy
© 1987 Prince, Sign O’ The Times
Play In The Sunshine
Coming directly after Sign O’ The Times this song decidedly feels less heavy than its predecessor and builds on that song’s ending: despite all the gloom and problems, try to make something of (your) life.
The lyric “dance very dance like it’s going to be the last time” reminds of the theme of the song 1999 (Everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die here today / But before I’ll let that happen / I’ll dance my life away).
Live drums, uptempo with a lot of ingenious breaks (Drummer, drummer, do your thang) and interludes: great song!
And then: Shut up, already. Damn!. Housequake starts:
Housequake intro, for a long time the clip on my answering machine
One of his best songs, and surely one his funkiest. The drum programming on this song is stunning. Together with the funky rhythm guitar, the bass and the horn section it’s an almost breathtaking experience. Except for the horns, the song was performed by Prince alone. A Camille track, originally intended for the Camille album.
Come on y’all, we got 2 jam
Before the police come
A groove this funky is on the run
© 1987 Prince, Housequake
The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker
The song sounds a bit monotone due to a technical problem. The new home studio was installed, but hadn’t been used yet. At the time of recording this song, the console was partly up and running. At the end of the day it was clear what caused the malfunction, but Prince decided to keep the recording as it was. The song was written after Prince dreamt (!) the song. The song references Joni Mitchell’s Help Me (‘Oh, my favorite song she said / And it was Joni singing /’ Help me I think I’m falling’), off her 1974 album Court And Spark.
The lyrics are lively and funny: Prince has an argument with his girlfriend and goes to a restaurant alone (Yeah, lemme get a fruit cocktail, I ain’t too hungry). The waitress (Dorothy) says ‘You’re kinda cute — wanna take a bath?’. They decide to spend the night together, and not have sex, because Prince is kinda going with someone. Prince keeps his pants on in the tub and during the course of the night he learns how to be a friend to his girlfriend. So he goes home, gets in the tub with his girlfriend, and the fighting stops.
Rumor has it that this song was a proposed single. The cover pictured here is supposed to be proof of that. I don’t know for sure.
A song about sex. And what a song this is! The beat is relentless, the other (musical) accompaniment sparse and the singing full of fire.
I think about it baby all the time, all right
IT feels so good it must be a crime, all right
I wanna do it baby every day, all right
In a bed, on the stairs, anywhere, all right
I wanna do it baby all the time, all right
Cuz when we do it girl, it’s so divine, all right
© 1987 Prince, It
Starfish And Coffee
The sound of an alarmclock. Starfish And Coffee is written by Prince. The lyrics are credited to Prince and Susannah Melvoin, at the time his fiancée and lover. The music is playful and upbeat, with a backwards played drumbeat.
Enclosed here the story about the realization of the song, as told by Susannah:
Starfish And Coffee
By Susannah Melvoin
I remember Fall in Minneapolis vividly, the air smells like water and earth and the lakes that spread throughout the city become deserted of people, they now walk around the lakes bundled up in what is the last fall jacket one can get away with wearing. I loved it and I loved what was to be an extremely beautiful time in my life. Instead of the long drawn version, I can narrow down one particular day in the fall of 1986? maybe 87? That was to be the day I wrote Starfish and Coffee with Prince.
Sitting around the kitchen table was Prince, his engineer Susan Rodgers, and myself.
It was a time Susan and myself spent every day with him recording or keeping each other company. Prince and I spent many hours together, either in the studio working, or driving around Minneapolis talking to each other and listening to music. We talked about our histories and our secrets but on a couple of occasions I told him stories of a 12-year-old girl named Cynthia Rose. My sister Wendy and I knew Cynthia intimately because we shared six years in a classroom, plus a bus ride to school with her. It was the Bus rides that I got to know Cynthia.
Cynthia never had much interest outside of her own personal space, so watching her was an unedited version of what was going on her head. I’m certain if Cynthia were in school today she’d still be as interesting and extraterrestrial as she was then. I think Cynthia was dropped off from another world filled with extraordinary images. Images only Cynthia knew the meanings behind.
Her Favorite number for Many years was the number 12. I knew this because she’d rock back and forth in her seat asking you if you knew what her favorite number was for the day… It was always a shock to her that you knew her favorite number was 12. I’d say “I think it’s twelve, right Cynthia?” She was totally amazed and joyous that you guessed it right. Who’d a guessed it. Again I’d watch how she would ecstatically experience the world.
Cynthia would tell you over and over again how amazing and meaningful the number 12 was. I’d ask why? The answer never changed, it was always because “it makes me happy”. While she etched with her finger on the damp foggy school bus window a huge happy face. Much of those bus rides Cynthia sat rocking in her seat gently repeating her favorite number. Cynthia would also tell me what she had for breakfast, and every day it was STARFISH AND PEE PEE. I never understood the combo meal. And frankly nobody else could, this seemed like the deal breaker for most kids. More importantly the kids in our class who had no interest in how Cynthia came to get her morning breakfast. I thought it was tender and funny, and listened to her tell me anything she wanted to say whether it was firmly planted on earth or from her planet of tender hearted people who love numbers and draw smiley faces…
Sixth grade was the last year our class was to be together. It was the first bus ride that year that something was different about Cynthia. She sat quietly in her seat staring out of the window. When we arrived at school, and as the bus pulled into the lot, Cynthia turned my way, looked me in the eyes and asked, ”If I wanted to know something special?”.
I couldn’t wait!
We stepped outside of the bus, walked a couple feet, when she leaned into me and said…”DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT MY FAVORITE NUMBER IS?”
I said, its twelve right?
Cynthia’s answer? ….. IT” S 20!!!!
then in her beautiful Martian like way she smiled into her hands and said,” because it really makes me happy!”
Running off in her Groucho Marx, Martian kind of way, repeating the number 20.
That year turned out to be a very funny year for Cynthia and myself. On two occasions I happened to leave class for a ladies’ room visit. I’m about to walk out of the bathroom when I hear water splashing and giggling in one of the stalls. I somehow had a feeling it was Cynthia Rose, the giggle sounded unattached to a real person, it sounded naive and desperate almost like the sound of crying into a jacket; muffled and hysterical.
So, I knocked on the stall door asking if it was Cynthia. More giggles, no answer. I looked under the stall and saw Cynthia’s shoes. I asked what she doing in there? when she threw the door wide open with a big red apple in between her teeth, soaking wet hair and face, took a bite of the apple and said “I was bobbing for apples in the toilet!” “it’s so much fun!”.
I was horrified by what she was doing…
Cynthia looked at me for what was the last time we would have eye to eye contact, she became long faced and reflective, something I’d never seen her experience, Cynthia took my hand while I grabbed as many paper towels I could gather to dry her off. Cynthia looking at my hands drying hers without a peep from her.
This is the story about the exceptional Cynthia Rose, who was just one of 25 kids named, Kevin, Christopher, Wendy and Susannah just to name a few of us. Who spent everyday together for six years. Moreover, for those six years every day we started off greeting Ms. Kathleen outside her classroom door. We’d all be in line outside the classroom, she’d open the door, one by one we would greet and shake her hand walking to our seats for just another day at school. And all of us were ordinary except for Cynthia Rose.
This is a true story I would tell Prince every so often when asked about it. We both agreed that she was worth writing about, Cynthia being so tender. We both wondered if Cynthia Rose was still living and number’s drunk. Because, it made her Happy.
It was this fall afternoon in Minnesota at our kitchen table when Prince came up the stairs from his studio, sat next to me and asked if I would to tell him the whole story of Cynthia Rose. A few hours later he asked if I’d write it down for him.
On that afternoon when Prince asked if I’d write this story, I would have no idea what was about to transpire downstairs in his studio. Prince requested I not go downstairs until he was finished with the track. But just before he went downstairs he sat down at the table and said to me “the Pee Pee ‘s got to go.“ then asked if Coffee was doable instead. Yes, yes yes of course…
Ten hours later Susan Came Upstairs to get me. I walked into the studio, Prince was standing at the console with a tired gentle smile on his face and said “here it is”!
The rest is history.
© Susannah Melvoin (starfishcoffeeofficial.bandzoogle.com)
Written with Carole Davis (a temporary lover), this is the song thats doesn’t quite live up to the rest. It’s not a bad song, but it seems somewhat mediocre, especially when compared to the pure genius surrounding it.
So much better when we take it easy
So much better when we take our time
© 1987 Prince & Carole Davis, Slow Love
Stunning song! Hot Thing‘s beat alone is one of the many highlights on this album. Sign O’ The Times is a classic for Hot Thing‘s beat alone! Add to that a Oriental synthesizer motif and beautiful horn arrangements by Eric Leeds. A hightlight in Prince’s body of work. This song can’t be played enough!
Hot thing, baby U dance so good
Hot thing, baby I knew U would
Hot thing, tell me what U see
Hot thing, When U smile, when U smile, when U smile
Are your smiles, are your smiles 4 me?
© 1987 Prince, Hot Thing
Forever In My Life
Beautiful song that consists of a, once again, beautifully programmed drumbeat, supplemented by an acoustic guitar during the last 30 seconds of the song. Remarkable is the background vocals (Prince) preceding the lines, instead of running behind, the result of an error during the recording. When Prince heard the result, he liked it so much that he decided to keep it. The song is about Prince wanting to settle down, because he found the love of his life.
The lyrics are filled with compliments to his lover, but it works perfectly (without becoming corny). The lyrics are deliverd with conviction:
U are my hero, U are my future (no past)
When I am with U, I have no past
Oh baby my one and only desire (make this feelin’ last)
Is find some way in this doggone world (sugar it’s true)
2 make this feelin’ last (I know I do)
Oh baby it’s true, I know I do (2 with U)
And I just wanna tell U that I
want 2 with U, yeah
And baby if U do 2
Forever, forever, I want U baby, baby forever (U can make right)
I wanna keep U 4 the rest of my life (U are my saviour)
All that is wrong in my world (U are my light)
U can make right (Forever I want U in my life)
U are my saviour, U are my light (La da da da da da da da)
Forever I want U in my life (La da da da da da da da)
© 1987 Prince, Forever In My Life
Particularly during the Sign O’ The Times Tour this Forever In My Life was a definite highlight. The song was extended into a beautiful gospel, including vocal climaxes, often containing heartbreaking screams and shouts. Sometimes (part of) the lyrics to It were worked into the song.
The song reminds of Sly & The Family Stone’s Everyday People.
U Got The Look
Third single off the album, a duet with Sheena Easton. A bluessong, sped-up in its entirety. The song is credited to Camille, but wasn’t part of the project itself. The song has a robotic beat and contains beautiful guitar work by Prince. The interaction between Sheena Easton and Prince works perfectly:
Well here we are, ladies and gentlemen
The dream we all dream of
Boy versus girl in the world series of love
© 1987 Prince, U Got The Look
If I Was Your Girlfriend
An orchestra warming up, Look at the bargains on offer here, ladies followed by a short piece of Mendelsohn’s Wedding March. The undisputed highlight on the album is about to start. Number 2 in my Prince song top 50. This song possesses a striking beauty, musically as well as lyrically. Once again a brilliantly programmed drumbeat, supplemented with minimal, subtle synthesizer motifs and beautiful (background)choirs. Everything fits.
A Camille track, released as the album’s second single. A very strange choice, because the song isn’t easy, particularly thematically. It wasn’t a hit, which proves once again that sales don’t represent (the quality of) music.
The lyrics appear to be inspired by the (natural) relationship (Revolution guitarist) Wendy has to (fiancée) Susannah: they are twins. The intimacy that exists between the two is something Prince longs for. He wants to be the (female) friend who she’ll come to, even when Prince hurts her (as a lover).
If I was your one and only friend
Would U run 2 me if somebody hurt U
Even if that somebody was me?
Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be
© 1987 Prince, If I Was Your Girlfriend
To end the singing part with:
If I was your girlfriend
Baby can I dress U
I mean, help U pick out your clothes
Before we go out
Listen girl, I ain’t sayin you’re helpless
But sometimes, sometimes
Those are the things that bein’ in love’s about
Sugar do U know what I’m saying 2 U this evening?
Maybe U think I’m being
a little self-centered
But I, I said I want 2 be
all of the things U are 2 me
Surely, surely U can see
© 1987 Prince, If I Was Your Girlfriend
The (backgound)choirs (Prince) woven into the song are all stunningly beautiful and inventive. Prince singing his lyrics sped-up, slowed-down, high and low. He convincingly proves his mastery at simplicity, beatprogramming, melody and instrumentation; vocalist and poet in one. Every time I hear the song, I can’t get my head around the fact he did all of this by himself.
The song continues with spoken lyrics about all the things he could/would do for his lover and/or girlfriend:
Of course I’ll undress in front of U!
And when I’m naked, what shall I do?
How can I make U see that it’s cool?
Can’t U just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend U could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, 4 U naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get U off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would U tell me?
© 1987 Prince, If I Was Your Girlfriend
The song ends with the heartfelt desire to:
Yeah, we’ll try 2 imagine what silence looks like
© 1987 Prince, If I Was Your Girlfriend
Once again a Camille track. Contrary to the previous song, wherein the desire to get so close to the other, that the couple almost melts into each other, this song is about a man playing psychological games with his girlfriend. He wants her, and he doesn’t. He grants her everything, yet nothing. The game they play, says a lot about her and him.
I guess U know me well, I don’t like winter
But I seem 2 get a kick out of doing U cold
Oh, what the hell, U always surrender
What’s this strange relationship that we hold on 2?
Baby I just can’t stand 2 see U happy
More than that I hate 2 see U sad
Honey if U left me I just might do something rash
What’s this strange relationship?
© 1987 Prince, Strange Relationship
This song originally stems from 1982 and was updated for the Dream Factory project. Wendy & Lisa got a lot of freedom on this song. They added an Oriental feel to it. After disbanding The Revolution a lot of their additions were reversed, but not all. They are prominently present in the (background)choirs and on, mixed to the background, instruments like tambourine, sitar, flute and conga’s. A top song by Prince.
I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man
This song also stems from 1982 and was also revived for the Dream Factory project. The fourth single to be culled from the album, this is a rocking song containing lots of guitar work and a memorable motif. Halfway through the song a long midsection starts, which is very funky and also contains a lot of (great) guitar work. Once again, a song Prince did all on his own, from start to finish.
This song is about a woman who is left by her lover and, consequently, searches for a replacement. Prince is in for a one-night stand, but states that he can never fill the void her lover left behind.
I asked if she wanted 2 dance
And she said all she wanted was a good man
And wanted 2 know if I thought I was qualified, yeah
And I said, baby don’t waste your time
I know what’s on your mind
I may be qualified 4 a one night stand
But I could never take the place of your man
© 1987 Prince, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
One of the first songs on his regular albums that directly focuses on redemption through believing/religion. Prince had previously shown signs of a deeply religious conscience on record; the most poignant being the B-side God off the Purple Rain single. And God is named on all previous albums, particularly in the Thank you notes.
Just as in the titlesong the world is pictured filled with problems. Also just as in titlesong, there is a solution. In this case ther solution is to put your trust in The Cross: the cross which embodies the life (and suffering) of Christ in Christianity.
The song starts off with a softly strumming guitar and an Oriental motif. Subtle drumming enters the song and tension starts to build. Halfway through the song the tension explodes in an orgy of guitar, drums and passionate vocals. Great song!
Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry, he is coming
Don’t die without knowing the cross
Ghettos 2 the left of us
Flowers 2 the right
There’ll be bread 4 all of us
If we can just bear the cross
© 1987 Prince, The Cross
It´s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night
Contains the well-known chant oh-we-oh ooh-oh, which was appropriated by the Prince audience and was regularly started during concerts. The chant itself isn’t by Prince, but stems from the March Of The Winkies of the 1939 movie The Wizard Of Oz.
Composed by Prince, Doctor Fink & Eric Leeds. The basetrack to the song was recorded at the Prince & The Revolution concert of August 25th, 1986 in Paris. Through (a lot of) overdubs the jam evolved into It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night, the longest song on the album, clocking in at 9 minutes.
One of the overdubs is a rap by Sheila E., named ‘transmississippirap’. It’s a rapped version of a part of Edward Lear’s poem “The Table And The Chair”, which Sheila E. performed over the phone. At the time she was on the other side of the Mississippi river, hence the name of the rap.
The song has a very strong live-vibe and two of the most recurring motifs, which were incorporated in songs during the fantastic Parade tour, are present in this song. The song ends with Confusion!, after which the band creates a whirlwind one last time. Not intended as a farewell to The Revolution, but well worthy of it.
Stunningly beautiful ballad by Prince. Originally titled Adore (Until The End Of Time). One of the Prince songs that were never released as a single, and nevertheless gained a lot of airplay on the radio. That’s the reason the song is popular with the public (Adore is also part of The Hits/The B-Sides, released in 1993). The song is an utterly romantic ode:
Until the end of time
I’ll be there 4 U
U own my heart and mind
I truly adore U
If God one day struck me blind
Your beauty I’d still see
Love is 2 weak 2 define
Just what U mean 2 me
© 1987 Prince, Adore
The love is so pure and full of surrender that even the angels are crying (from emotion) as the couple makes love:
When we be makin’ love
I only hear the sounds
Heavenly angels cryin’ up above
Tears of joy pourin’ down on us
They know we need each other
They know U are my fix
© 1987 Prince, Adore
Luckily Prince keeps his humor. There is a line not to be crossed: U could burn up my clothes / Smash up my ride adding immediately Well, maybe not the ride. Classic song!
Love is 2 weak 2 define how much I adore U, child
© 1987 Prince, Adore
Contributions by others
Everything on the album is performed by Prince, with the following exceptions:
- Wendy Melvoin: guitar and background-vocals on Slow Love and tambourine and conga on Strange Relationship;
- Lisa Coleman: background-vocals on Slow Love and Fairlight sitar and flute on Strange Relationship;
- Eric Leeds: saxophone on Housequake, Slow Love, Hot Thing and Adore;
- Atlanta Bliss: trumpet on Housequake, Slow Love and Adore;
- Susannah Melvoin – background-vocals on Play in the Sunshine, The Ballad of Dorothy Parker and Starfish and Coffee;
- Sheila E.: drums and percussion on U Got The Look and precussion and rap on It´s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night;
- The Revolution (Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Eric Leeds, Atlanta Bliss, Susannah Melvoin, Dr. Fink, Miko Weaver, Brown Mark en Bobby Z.): It´s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night;
- Jill Jones: vocals on It´s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night;
- Sheena Easton: vocals on U Got The Look.
The singles Sign O’ The Times and U Got The Look contained B-sides, not available on any other format:
La, La, La, He, He, Hee
B-side to Sign O’ The Times: very strong uptempo dance song, with Sheena Easton guesting on vocals. The lyrics are partially written with her. The song was created as the result of a bet, daring Prince to prove he could get a song out of the syllables la, la, la, he, he, hee. Bet won, case closed.
B-side to If I Was Your Girlfriend: a Camille track. The song was written in reaction to an album by the same name by former The Time guitarist Jesse Johnson. Prince heard that Johnson’s album was to be called Shockadelica and stated that a great albumtitle had to have a great titlesong. Johnson disagreed, so Prince wrote this song, recorded it and had it played on a Minneapolis radio-station one week prior to Johnson’s album release.
The albumcover depicts Prince’s new band’s rehearsal space. The stage is littered with flowers and the front of a Cadillac is placed in front of the drum-riser. Prince is partly visible, as if he’s walking away from the scene. The background hinted at the stage setup for the upcoming tour.
What did I think at the time when I heard it in my Amsterdam flat? What did I think about the Camille tracks?
I remember vividly the excitement I felt when I could finally listen to the cd’s: such wealth: next to Sign O’ The Times, 15 new songs! One amazement after the other. The album was nothing like what came before. The musical richness of Play In The Sunshine, the weirdness of The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, the horny It, the ernest Forever In My Life, the sparseness of The Cross and the party in It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night: such splendor!
At the time the fact that Camille was in fact Prince using a sped-up voice, was not common knowledge. I had to get used to it: mostly a (very) good sign. I had to make an effort, so those were going to be my favorites. And, lo and behold, that turned out to be true: it didn’t take long for Housequake and If I Was Your Girlfriend to get played more often than not. From that time onwards, I have heard these songs on a weekly basis.
After Prince’s untimely death in April of 2016 I compiled my top 50 Prince songs. Two songs in the top 10 are from this album. A total of 8 songs (of 50) are part of this album, making it the royal warrant holder of favorite songs. Also, this is the first and only album I had to re-buy, due to wearing out the compact-discs.
I’m never quite sure whether to pick Parade, Sign O’ The Times or Lovesexy as my all-time favorite Prince album. Given the numbers (from the top 50) it should be Sign O’ The Times.
If I were to rate this album on the scale from 1 top 10, it would be a 9.99 (Slow Love doesn’t get the 100% score…). No album I know scores higher than that…
Sign O’ The Times, the tour
After disbanding The Revolution, Prince immediately started the formation of a new band, centered around Sheila E. Her own career faded into the background, as a result. Her last Paisley Park album Sheila E was released on February 19th 1987. No promotion was done for the album. A pity, really, for the album contains some great songs, among them the fantastic Koo Koo.
At the end of December 1986 the new band was ready to go. However, Prince was on the look-out for a dancer. She was found: Cathy Clover, abbreviated to Cat. Cat had two offers to consider: either go with Prince or go with David Bowie on his, soon to be started, Glass Spider tour. They both wanted her and both were prepared to give her a role in the image and choreography of the upcoming tours. Cat chose Prince, because she had been a fan for years. The band was now complete and the long process of rehearsals started, making the band know each other and to study the new material. It was Prince’s most complete band to date. All musicians were among the best to be found and the level of musicianship was incredibly high.
On March 21st 1987 Prince presented his new band at a tryout in (a sold-out) First Avenue in Minneapolis, where 3 years earlier Purple Rain had been filmed. The audience was confronted with a new band, a new image and new music. The concert opened with Prince introducing the band, after which he stated and for those of you on valium, my name is Prince (original as they are, bootleggers often called their releases 4 those on (of you) valium. The band then opened the show with a rousing Housequake: nice way to open a show! The set contained only one ‘old’ song: 1986’s Girls & Boys, with a beautiful funky arrangement. During this show Strange Relationship was also played, which didn’t make it to the tour. Unbelievable, because the performance here is stunning and it would most definitely have been a show highlight were it to be part of the upcoming tour. All in all a very fine tryout, which laid the foundation for the very near future.
When the tour was announced in Europe, reactions were ecstatic. 9 months after the Parade tour Prince would tour Europe again, starting on May 8th up to June 29th 1987. The shows all sold out immediately.
33 shows in 14 cities were announced: Stockholm (3), Gothenburg (1), West Berlin (2), Zürich (3), München (2), Frankfurt (2), Vienna (2), Dortmund (2), Stuttgart (1), Milan (4), Paris (4), Utrecht (4), London (2) and Antwerp (1).
Almost the complete European press was present at the tour opening in Stockholm. Dutch newspapers were also present. The headlines pretty much summed the spectacular show up: Impressive total-theater in Stockholm’s icehockeystadium, European tour by Prince starts off stunningly and Prince just keeps on growing. Dutch musicmagazine Oor had Prince articles in every issue and was subsequently accused to be nothing more than a Prince fan-magazine (which they made up for after Prince’s passing, by publishing two humongous idiotic in-memoriams). In other words: tension was professionally built up.
At the time Prince was to hit Holland, The Netherlands were in the middle of a typical Dutch summer, meaning: rain. Prince had ordered that the field of Utrecht’s Galgenwaard stadium was to contain seats. When the rain started pouring down Prince personally ordered holes to be drilled in each seat, so the visitors were able to sit. As if the audience would remain seated…
I had tickets to only one show: June 21st 1987, which stood out for Forever In My Life not being played… But, despite that, what a show it was. Just the opening alone, Prince alone on the stage obscured by smoke. The typical Prince guitar wails and then that Sign O’ The Times beat. The band entering the stage sideways like a marching-band: impressive! And then: highlight after highlight: the speakers at the back of the stadium which were switched on at the end of I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, Prince gliding between Cat’s legs during Hot Thing, a beautiful and touching If I Was Your Girlfriend, the medley Let’s Go Crazy, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain and 1999 and the encore: It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night. Everything was impressive. (Dutch) Newspaper de Volkskrant, especially at that time known as the Dutch grouches, was ecstatic about the Utrecht concerts:
The concluding statement in the second-to-last paragraph sums it all up: […] visitors from another world who came by just to show how music can sound.
In The Netherlands a new phenomenon was introduced: the audience switching on and off their cigarette lighters to the beat of the drums. Prince loved it and called it “a neat trick”.
Madhouse was the support act during the tour. The setlist usually contained:
A typical night during the Sign O’ the Times Tour had the following setlist:
- Sign O’ The Times
- Play In The Sunshine
- Little Red Corvette
- Girls & Boys
- Slow Love
- I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
- Hot Thing
- Now’s The Time (Charlie Parker cover)
- If I Was Your Girlfriend
- Let’s Go Crazy
- When Doves Cry
- Purple Rain
- Forever in My Life
- The Cross
- It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night
End of the tour
Initially the tour would leave for England after the Dutch shows, but Prince decided otherwise, due to expected (heavy) rain in England. At such short notice no other venue could be found, so the English shows ended up being canceled. Instead, 3 concerts were planned at Rotterdam’s Ahoy. These shows were to be filmed. Prince had another new idea: a (concert)movie. I could get tickets, but didn’t, as I didn’t really have the funds and I didn’t want to go alone. Priorities… Regret it to this day…
Warner Bros. and Prince’s management wanted to upgrade the tour to a world tour, to get Prince to tour the Unisted States and Japan to promote the album, but Prince wanted to focus on Europe alone, because his latest albums were received better there than in the US and because Sign O’ The Times was already becoming old. He had other, new ideas and wanted to record new material. The film was recorded as a compromise, giving other audiences at least a chance to experience the tour.
According to many closely connected with Prince’s career, the decision to blow off the tour, was the single greatest mistake Prince made during his career, particularly in the American market. The rationale being that Prince could have reached a lot of extra audiences and that sales figures for the Sign O’ The Times album could have been higher. Anyway, the rest of the world didn’t get to see one of the best concert tours of all time.
On September 5th 1987 the (cassette) recordings of the concert I went to (including the support act) arrived by mail. Party all over again!
Sign O’ The Times, the movie
In the Summer of 1988, one month prior to Prince visiting The Netherlands once more with yet another new tour (Lovesexy), I went to the, now non-existent, movie theater Alhambra in Amsterdam, to see the Sign O’ The Times movie. I went with my mother, who was there in Utrecht, and would go and see Prince again for the Lovesexy tour.
The movie comes very close to the real thing. The energy comes across very well, the song’s performances are perfect and the movie has a strong live-feel. Barring Litte Red Corvette, the movie contains only Sign O’ The Times songs. The undisputed highlight of the movie is Forever In My Life. It is incorporated into the song, and the end of the song is one prolonged chicken-skin moment, wherein the choirs are beautiful and Prince (literally) screams with desire: one of the most impressive live recordings of all time.
The movie was very well received and comparisons with the Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense, until then the best concertmovie, were made regularly, often giving Prince the benefit. However: the movie being great as it is, but to be fair, the memories of the Utrecht show outshine the movie.
Because the recordings made in Rotterdam were too dark and inferior quality-wise, a lot of re-shoots were done at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios.
To single out the definite album from Prince’s genius albums he made in his heyday, is nearly impossible. During the 8 years he was lord and master in the musicworld every album, every tour, was different, more, better. With or without The Revolution didn’t even matter. But I can live with Sign O’ The Times being the highlight (be it just for the fact that it’s a double-album). This album perfectly sums up all that is Prince: his daring, his vision, his hyper musicality, his immeasurable command on so many instruments, his variety, his ambition and humor.
After all these years Sign O’ The Times remains a pure expression of a genius, performing at the peak of his abilities.
What do you think of Sign O’ The Times? Let me know; it is highly appreciated!
Prince – Sign O’ The Times vinyl: turntablelab.com
Prince – Sign O’ The Times, announcement OOR 5, 03/07/1987: OOR
Prince & the Revolution – Dream Factory (bootleg): princeofftherecord.com
Exit The Revolution, Prince drumming – Sign O’ The Times Tour, Prince – Sign O’ The Times innersleeves, Prince & Cat 1987 and Prince new band: prince.org
Prince – Camille: stanleylieber.com
Sunset Sound Recording Studio Logo: fourplayjazz.com
Prince – Crystal Ball (bootleg), Linn LM-1 drum computer, Fairlight CMI digital sampler and Prince – Hot Thing: pinterest.com
Susan Rogers: discogs.com
Prince – Sign O’ The Times ads, Prince – Sign O’ the Times video, Prince – Sign O’ The Times (single), Prince – If I Was Your Girlfriend and Sign ‘O’ The Times Tour: princevault.com
Prince – Sign O’ The Times: startribune.com
Prince – Play in The Sunshine: rottentomatoes.com
Prince – The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (proposed cover): medium.com
Prince – It, Prince – Strange Relationship and Prince – Adore: scribd.com
Prince – Starfish And Coffee and Prince – Starfish And Coffee (Cynthia Rose): starfishcoffeeofficial.bandzoogle.com
Prince – Forever In My Life: onbekend
Prince – U Got The Look: resident-music.com
Prince – I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man: sleevographia2.free.fr
Prince – The Cross: rottentomatoes.com
Prince – Sign O’ The Times platinum award: rrauction.com
Prince 03/21/1987: Daniel Carrington
Prince – Sign O’ The Times recordings Ahoy Rotterdam: tapeop.com
Prince – Sign O’ The Times movie poster: moviepostershop.com
Prince – Sign O’ The Times movie stills: sharemania.us
Prince – Sign O’ The Times label: recordpusher.com