Remembering Prince's Greatest Epic

30 Years of "Sign 'O' The Times"

by Chris Gerard

21 April 2017

 

The Power of Love


It’s no accident that each half of Sign ☮ the Times ends with expressions of fervent love and devotion.

The first half of Sign ☮ the Times ends with one of the purest and most achingly devotional expressions of love that Prince ever recorded. “Forever In My Life” is an electric folk song, Prince singing with gospel-like fervor atop a simple groove from the Linn with a bounce of synth on every fourth beat that functions both as a rhythmic device and a bass. Apart from the flecks of acoustic guitar as the song fades to black, there is no other instrumentation. Prince keenly understood the value of sonic space, allowing each carefully-placed sound more impact than if it had been buried in a torrent of instruments.

“Forever In My Life” exposes Prince’s raw emotional vulnerability, a testament to the power of love and longing to grip him so deeply he feels it down to his bones. Prince never stopped believing in the power of love, and the eternal romantic idealism expressed in “Forever In My Life” surfaces frequently throughout his repertoire. It’s all so hopeful and idealistic it’s hard not to feel some measure of sadness in the knowledge that “forever” is a very long time and things don’t often turn out like they do in daydreams.

If “Sign ☮ the Times” proved a challenging first single, its follow-up was on another plane entirely. Most of Prince’s inner circle pushed for “Housequake”, “Hot Thing” or “Adore” (which was already getting airplay on R&B radio) as the next single, with the idea to hold the most commercial song, “U Got the Look”, for the third slot to prolong the album’s momentum. Prince was adamant, though, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was released as the second single from Sign ☮ the Times on 6 May 1987. The song is a psychosexual exploration of the frustration felt when a lover confides more deeply and intimately with her best friend than with him. This actually seems a rather common and understandable dynamic. Many people, men and women, have a true best friend and confidante with whom they will share their most intimate thoughts, including about their significant other.

In Prince’s version of romantic commitment, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” isn’t the first time Prince wanted to be all things, basically his lover’s entire world. Consider his first major hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, written nearly a decade earlier: “I wanna be the only one that makes you come running… / I wanna be your brother / I wanna be your mother and your sister, too / there ain’t no other / that can do the things that I’ll do to you”. The same should be true in the opposite direction as well, as Prince makes clear in the song he wrote and premiered for his February 1996 wedding to Mayte Garcia, “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife”. Prince often portrays the ultimate relationship as a mutual complete fulfillment for both parties, a scenario in which others aren’t strictly necessary.

Prince’s yearning to fill every role and to gain his lover’s trust seems both sincere and driven at least in part by lust, as he cajoles the object of his affection to get naked, telling her at one point “can’t you just trust me?” It’s hard for the listener to gauge the sincerity of his wheedling. There is a bit of obsession there, a hint of the need for control. There are sexual politics and social dynamics in play that are nuanced and go far beyond the typical relationship song. Musically he’s once again stripped-down, with a slow-grooving rhythm on the Linn, a sly, serpentine keyboard riff and pops of slap-bass. The result is hypnotic, with Prince’s voice (as Camille) altered in both the lead part and the strange choral backing harmonies for which his voice is slowed down and multi-tracked.

Despite its undeniable brilliance and the opening thrust provided by the smash title track, the quirky “If I Was Your Girlfriend” proved an impossible sell at Top 40 radio. The sexual ambiguity of the title and the strangely feminine quality of the Camille voice rendered it impossible for radio programmers to touch. The lack of a video which may have helped explained the song’s concept certainly didn’t help. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” stalled at #67, spending only six weeks on the Hot 100—a shocking result for the second single from a new Prince album, but also a sign of things to come as Prince’s mainstream viability waxed and waned. The single’s poor performance dampened the album’s sales and almost completely derailed its commercial momentum.

Thankfully, waiting in the wings was an uber-catchy remedy that quickly spiked Prince back up near the top of the pop chart. “U Got the Look” was the last song recorded for Sign ☮ the Times, in December 1986. It’s the only song on the album that wasn’t part of any of the earlier discarded projects, and its production—with a hard electronic backbeat way up in the mix—is noticeably different and perhaps more stereotypically ‘80s-sounding than anything else on the record. Needing a potential hit single to launch the album’s second half, Prince didn’t waste the opportunity when powerhouse vocalist Sheena Easton happened to stop by while he was working on the track to see if he was interested in producing her next album. Instead, he drafted her to sing the steamy chorus on “U Got the Look”, and Easton delivers a bold and sexy performance. Even though it was intended specifically to be a hit, it’s not a throwaway. “U Got the Look” is an infectious and melodic jam with clever lyrics that include some razor-sharp one-liners. “Did I say an hour? My face is red, I stand corrected!”

 

“U Got the Look” came to the album’s rescue after the predictably disappointing showing of “If I Was Girlfriend”. The single reached #2 in the US the week of 17 October 1987, blocked from the top spot by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s buoyant pop smash “Lost in Emotion”. One interesting tidbit—check out the star-power in the Top 3 the following week. Prince dropped down a slot to #3 with “U Got the Look”, while Madonna climbed to #2 with “Causing a Commotion” and Michael Jackson jumped from #4 to #1 with “Bad”. It’s the only week in Hot 100 history in which Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson occupied the top three spots at the same time. Ironically enough, Michael Jackson had wanted Prince to perform with him on “Bad” as duet, and Prince understandably declined as diplomatically as possible.

The two oldest songs on the album, both originating in 1982, are sequenced back to back. “Strange Relationship” is a track Prince dusted off during the Dream Factory sessions and handed to Wendy & Lisa for input. After the Revolution’s dissolution, Prince revamped the song with an edgier and leaner vibe, pushing Wendy & Lisa’s colorful contributions (including a sitar sample from the Fairlight) almost inaudibly down in the mix and handing the vocals to Camille who delivers a much sharper performance than Prince’s original forlorn take. The lyrics are particularly harsh by Prince standards, such as the stinging line, “I didn’t like the way you was / I had to make you mine”. Whether this is a reflection of Prince’s perception of his treatment of women or just a character he’s inhabiting is anyone’s guess.

 

The fourth and final single from Sign ☮ the Times, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is the album’s most straightforward pop/rocker with an immediate chorus and an electrifying guitar solo. Prince recorded it in 1982 and then abandoned it to the Vault until he dusted it off for The Dream Factory, leaving much of the old recording but adding new vocals and guitar. Its origins help explain the decidedly retro feel in the acoustic rhythm guitar and percussion. For the most part Sign ☮ the Times is not a guitar-oriented album, so perhaps that’s why he used a protracted ending to provide the album’s most prominent showcase for his virtuosity as a guitarist. The song became another major hit for Prince, reaching #10, with a video culled from the concert film named after the album that Prince put together as an attempted replacement for a US tour. Most artists would follow such a substantial hit with another single, but by this time Prince had moved on and the promotional efforts for Sign ☮ the Times were essentially over.

Prince had always merged spirituality and sexuality in his music, but “The Cross” was his most pious expression of faith yet. It begins as a solemn gospel hymn strummed on an acoustic guitar, Prince’s vocals thick with sincerity as he again relates the fact that as humans “we all have our problems / some are big, some are small”. As we already know,  love is the answer, but this time it’s religious love and faith in a higher power rather than romantic love. After a quiet opening, a heavy drum beat and snare fills emerge at the 1:21 mark, and then at the 2:30 point the song erupts into a full-fledged blues-rock anthem with hard-slamming drums which perceptibly increase in tempo as the song progresses and layers of thick electric guitar. Prince repeats the lyrics from the first section, this time with blazing intensity as the potent spiritual anthem crashes towards its powerful climax.

Prince bares his heart and soul on “The Cross”, and follows it with nine minutes of pure funk exuberance. Overflowing with joyful energy, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” showcases Prince the bandleader at his most playful and dynamic. The song was built in the studio over a very basic live recording with the Revolution in Paris on the Parade tour. The live portion was just a framework—the audience noise, the rhythm, Prince jawing to the audience, and the call and response chanting. Everything else, including the beautifully constructed vocal arrangement and the white-hot “Transmississippi Rap” performed by Sheila E. over the telephone, was created in the studio. The always-tight combo of trumpeter Matt Bliston and saxophonist Eric Leeds sizzle both with lighting-crack riffs and blazing solos. The end result sounds very much like a wild celebration unfolding on stage, a kinetic musical mood pill more powerful than any antidepressant.

There’s a poignant aspect to “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”: it’s one last moment for the Revolution to shine, a glorious homage and a jubilant send-off. Prince may have decided to move on, but in his own way he paid tribute to the band that will always be associated with his greatest success. As much of a solo work as it is, Sign ☮ the Times would not have been possible without Prince’s years with the Revolution which undoubtedly helped broaden his musical canvas enormously.

For Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman in particular, it was difficult hearing the final version of Sign ☮ the Times, especially considering all of the work they contributed to countless songs that are still languishing in the Vault to this day. Coleman has described hearing the final product with unmistakable sadness: “We listened to it like, ‘Oh wow…we are gone’. It was like a breakup and seeing your boyfriend with another girl.” Given how the project changed from The Dream Factory, with all of their prominent contributions, to the final version of Sign ☮ the Times, the disappointment is understandable.

Prince ends his greatest work with what many consider to be his greatest ballad: “Adore”. Sumptuous romantic ballads had been part of Prince’s sound since the beginning, including classics like “Do Me, Baby” and “International Lover”. He would revisit this style many times, with “Insatiable” and “Scandalous” perhaps the two most prominent examples. A compilation of Prince ballads would be a magnificent collection indeed, but even among all the other great ones “Adore” stands alone. It’s an epic song of romantic majesty, brimming with passion, longing, humor, and eternal optimism, all delivered in perhaps Prince’s most stunning falsetto vocal performance. “Adore” has spawned endless imitations, but nothing compares 2 Prince. Nothing.

It’s no accident that each half of Sign ☮ the Times ends with expressions of fervent love and devotion: “Forever in My Life” and “Adore”, with its repeated hook “until the end of time / I’ll be there for you”. Sure, we can be cynical when we hear vows about love “until the end of time” and realize that life viewed through the lens of love’s first bloom is quite often a temporary glow. Prince never subscribed to that cynicism. He was a true believer in the power of love. While it recognizes faults and complications not only in the world around us but within ourselves, Sign ☮ the Times is nevertheless a positive album, a celebration of life, love, sex and music, with an underlying hope that things in the world can and should be better. He says it again and again, even on this album created during a period of romantic and professional turmoil, the same thing John Lennon said: “Love is the answer… and you know that for sure”.

The 30th anniversary of Prince’s greatest album falling so closely with the one-year anniversary of his passing seems somehow appropriate. This is why we care about Prince and why so many were flattened with devastation when he died. When people say Prince was a genius, listen to this album and you will understand why. Sign ☮ the Times is weird, bold, unafraid, diverse, curious, soaked through with a constant flow of influences and imagery, overbrimming with original ideas, constructed with exquisite care and attention to detail, and played with the magnificence of a true virtuoso. If one album can be said to distil all of Prince’s best qualities within its confines, without question it would be Sign ☮ the Times.

We do no justice to Prince’s memory by wallowing in the tragic circumstances that engulfed him at the end. Obviously, life goes on and those details will be hammered out, with or without us. The investigation over his death, the business entanglements, the future of his vast body of work and the Vault are all like frazzled ropes flying in the wind, increasingly slippery and hard to grasp as individuals with varying goals and interests try in vain to tie them all together in a knot. It will happen eventually, but we need not choose to focus on any of it, or to allow the chaos to inhibit the only salve that exists to us: his music. That is Prince’s legacy. All of the surrounding noise, words in the wind, will diminish and fade to dust in a way that his music never will.

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