One year after Prince's shocking death, we celebrate his greatest musical achievement as it passes its 30-year anniversary: Sign ☮ the Times
The grim business of death and inquiry and blame will proceed as it must, but let it be remote, a violent room better left undisturbed. I don’t need to know how human Prince was. We already know that through his music, a staggering legacy spanning four decades. We must celebrate it, revel in it. The mark Prince made upon the world, his glistening purple symbol carved deep into our collective psyches, cannot be diminished no matter the circumstances in which he slipped away from all who loved him.
For a new fan, or one looking to revisit and explore his labyrinthine discography, there's much to discover. Although of course, the quality of Prince’s albums vary, even 1998’s New Power Soul, arguably his weakest, is worth buying if only for the breathtaking ballad “The One”. Most of his albums, including many from his woefully under appreciated post-Warner Bros. years, are consistently excellent. One logical way to approach his work is to start at the beginning and proceed chronologically from 1978’s For You, recorded when Prince was a prodigious teenager already playing nearly all the instruments on his debut album, to 2015’s excellent HITNRUN Volume 2, released only months before his death.
Obviously Purple Rain and 1999 are widely loved by even the most casual fans, and there have been a few Greatest Hits compilations issued over the years that focus on his classic Warner Bros. years but ignore his later period. All of these could be potential starting points for an exploration of Prince’s catalog. However, if one seeks Prince at his creative zenith, the best solution is to dive right into a landmark double-album that just notched a significant milestone a few weeks ago: Sign ☮ the Times.
Sign ☮ the Times hit its 30-year anniversary right on schedule, 31 March 2017, exactly 365 days after its predecessor Parade did the same. A musical quilt work of dizzying versatility, Sign ☮ the Times has been so lavishly praised over the years that it seems practically obligatory for it to be near the top of any of those “best of” album lists so ubiquitous these days. Numerous publications have recently honored Sign ☮ the Times to mark its three-decade anniversary, and all this rhapsodizing is not just retrospective appreciation -- critics slathered the collection with praise immediately upon its release, too.
While the exalted status of Sign ☮ the Times in Prince’s pantheon is unquestioned, the album’s torturous genesis reflects some major turning points in his career. It was recorded during a period of fractious transition as Prince slashed ties with his iconic band the Revolution, including much-beloved collaborators Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, and forged ahead as a solo artist. The album’s development also strained his relationship with Warner Bros., which of course would intensify dramatically several years later with disastrous results for both parties.
Sign ☮ the Times is sometimes viewed, with some justification, as a bit of a commercial letdown. It certainly could have -- and should have -- performed at a higher level, especially in America. Several factors were in play. By 1987 respect for Prince as an artist was in full bloom, but the mainstream cachet he enjoyed during the 1999 and Purple Rain era was gone. His increasingly idiosyncratic musical whims and the thunderous failure of his second movie Under the Cherry Moon (1986) helped send some of the fans who wore their Purple Rain cassettes into ribbons of nothingness into the waiting arms of artists like INXS, George Michael, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Def Leppard and Terence Trent D’arby, all of whom were riding high with blockbuster albums, and alternative bands like R.E.M., The Cure and Depeche Mode, who were soaking up new listeners almost as quickly as global stadium troubadours U2.
Although Sign ☮ the Times wasn’t quite the megahit that Prince and Warner Bros. had envisioned, it was still a successful. The double-album reached #6 and spent 54 weeks on the Billboard Hot 200, a chart tenure bested only by three of his classics: Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain. Sign ☮ the Times generated three Top 10 hits in the US, second only to Purple Rain, which notched four. Sign ☮ the Times even grabbed the attention of Grammy voters -- it was nominated for the prestigious Album of the Year award, but lost out to U2’s The Joshua Tree.
The relative success and failure of an album have as much to do with a particular time and place in history as anything else. Purple lightning was never going to strike again, Prince knew it, he didn’t chase it, and he allowed himself to indulge in a musical canvas of endless possibility. This is exactly the approach that allowed him to be as great as he undoubtedly was. Prince still craved commercial success, but only on his own terms. The formula was there for Sign ☮ the Times to have been much bigger, but it was hampered by a daring and ultimately unwise choice for second single, the absence of a major American tour, and the lack of a tenacious long-term promotional push that can send an album soaring. Unlike other major pop stars, Prince wasn’t interested in aggressively milking a project endlessly to move as many units as possible. He was so prolific that by the time he might be promoting a 4th, 5th or even 6th single, he’d already lost interest as he zoomed full speed ahead with his next project.
Commercial considerations aside, Sign ☮ the Times holds an almost mythical quality for those who love nothing better than to get lost in a head-trip through Prince’s fantastic netherworld, an ever-shifting dimension of countless twists, turns, and delights. The sprawling collection is Prince at his most wildly diverse and inventive, but it’s not just the dabbling in different sonic flavors that makes it so great. Without the strength of the songwriting and the ace musicianship, everything else falls apart. In the end Sign ☮ the Times is just a tight-as-fuck collection of pop/rock/R&B tunes that are ingeniously constructed and sequenced.
Of course, always hovering like a fantastic daydream around the edges of any discussion about Sign ☮ the Times, especially among the most die-hard fans, is the inescapable thought of “what might have been”. During the sessions leading up to the release of Sign ☮ the Times, largely from early 1986 through the end of the year, Prince recorded dozens of top-tier songs, enough for a massive box set of all new high-quality material. The 16 songs that comprise Sign ☮ the Times ultimately emerged from this ocean of first-rate material, but this represents only a small fraction of Prince’s recorded during 1986. Many of these songs have long been bootlegged in varying degrees of sound quality, whirring around the Sign ☮ The Times jewel-box-like tantalizing gems always just barely out of reach. And who knows what else was recorded during this period but has never been leaked or heard? Prince’s studio archives spanning his entire career are a treasure beyond price, but 1986, in particular, may represent the richest bounty of them all.
Prince fans have been pining for a comprehensive anthology devoted to Sign ☮ the Times for many years, and now that the fabled Vault is finally creaking open in the wake of Prince’s shocking death last April, perhaps it will happen. This past November the first crack emerged -- the 1999-era “Moonbeam Levels”, long one of his most beloved unreleased tracks, was included on the 2-CD retrospective 4Ever. More recently, Warner Bros. announced a much larger offering from the Vault. Due in June, the long-awaited reissue of Prince’s greatest success, Purple Rain, will include "two incredible albums of previously unreleased Prince music and two complete concert films”. But ask just about any Prince fan what should be covered next by an expanded archival release and a vast majority will say Sign ☮ the Times (although it’s gonna take a lot more than two additional audio discs to do it properly).
The album is the culmination of at least three much-mythologized earlier projects that were ultimately discarded. It seems that Prince’s initial plan was to follow Parade with another new album with the Revolution to be called The Dream Factory. Three track-listings at various stages of the album’s development have been circulating for years, but their veracity is uncertain and opinions vary among Prince insiders as to their legitimacy. Wendy & Lisa, in particular, have been dismissive of the purported track-listings, mentioning a completely different album to be called Roadhouse Garden, an assertion also backed up by Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink. However, Wendy’s sister and Prince’s then-girlfriend and background singer, Susannah Melvoin, remembers creating cover art for the album, engineer Susan Rogers saved a handwritten track listing of the album’s second (and best) known sequence, and other Prince insiders have given credence to The Dream Factory theories.
In any event, assuming these track-listings are correct, the earliest known configuration of The Dream Factory was purportedly compiled by Prince in April 1986 and included multiple pieces with significant contributions by Wendy & Lisa, and Wendy’s sister and Prince’s then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin. Most of these songs, like “Teacher Teacher”, “It’s a Wonderful Day” and “A Place in Heaven”, remain officially unreleased but have been widely bootlegged. Only three cuts from this alleged early version of The Dream Factory ended up surviving multiple chopping blocks and making Sign ☮ the Times: "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker", “Starfish & Coffee” and "Strange Relationship" (albeit in significantly remixed form).
The Dream Factory ballooned to a double-album as Prince continued recording new songs and revisiting older ones. Some of them, like the unreleased gems “All My Dreams” (recorded in 1985 and originally intended for Parade) and “In a Large Room with No Light”, are on par with any of the best work Prince has released. The final known sequence of The Dream Factory came in mid-July 1986, only three months after he hit the top with “Kiss”. Prince had added several more solo tunes to the set, slicing away many of the more collaborative tracks as his relationship with Wendy & Lisa had become increasingly strained over the course of the year. Several of these mostly solo cuts would make Sign ☮ the Times: "Slow Love", "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", "Sign ☮ the Times" and "The Cross".
Discord between Prince and his band had been steadily brewing as the Parade tour progressed through the summer of 1986. The situation was complicated, with Wendy & Lisa fighting for artistic input and songwriting credits while also being impacted by Prince’s often turbulent relationship with Susannah Melvoin. The expanded new-look Revolution that Prince had cobbled together for the latest tour (including former bodyguards who were now a prominent part of the show as dancers and comic foils) caused resentment as well. Money was also an issue. Bassist Mark Brown received a lucrative offer to tour with Stevie Nicks and was considering taking the gig, but Prince convinced him to stay and finish the tour.
Once the Parade tour was over in September 1986 with two nights in Yokohama, Japan, it became obvious to all parties involved that the status quo was no longer tenable. On 7 October 1986 Prince invited Wendy & Lisa to his home and announced his decision that he was breaking up the Revolution and letting them go. He fired drummer Bobby Rivkin the same day, replacing him with Sheila E. Mark Brown also left, leaving keyboardist Matt Fink as the only core member of the original Revolution still associated with Prince. He scuttled plans to release The Dream Factory. It would have been a triumph in its own right, an expansion of the breezy experimentation of Parade with an even stronger and more focused batch of songs, but the Revolution was done and the dream factory closed for good.
For Prince, there could be no looking back. He was in the midst of a creative groove the heights of which he’d never reach again, and suddenly without his popular backing band. With the failure of his second movie weighing on him, Prince felt enormous pressure to deliver a knockout album, a masterwork that would rock his critics and doubters back on their heels. Recording both at Los Angeles’ Sunset Studios and his new home studio outside of Minneapolis, he and engineer Susan Rogers huddled for long hours nearly every day producing new music at a feverish pace.
His first concept following the abandonment of The Dream Factory was from way out in left field and involved a character that allowed Prince to inhabit another realm entirely. The use of pseudonyms was nothing new for Prince. He’d invented names like Alexander Nevermind, Jamie Starr, and the Starr Company for various songwriting, production and performance credits over the years. He was also able to explore different facets of his musical psyche (and find a home for some of his constantly overflowing coffer of songs) through his work on side-projects and protégés like the Time, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, Sheila E., the Family, Madhouse, Jill Jones and others. These are Prince albums in all but name, as he wrote, produced and recorded just about everything but lead vocals.
All the Drama, Distilled
Camille is first mentioned on “Shockadelica”, a piece of hard-edged funk seared with blazing guitar recorded on 16 September 1986, after the completion of the Parade tour but before the disbanding of the Revolution. About a month later, while working on “Housequake”, another track with varispeed vocals, the concept of Camille solidified and Prince decided to devote a full album to his androgynous alter-ego. He quickly hammered out a batch of Camille material, all with the altered vocals, including the Sign ☮ the Times stand-out “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and the sprightly “Good Love”, which would eventually land on 1988's Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack.
By November 1986, the eight-song Camille was finalized and scheduled for release, but Prince abruptly discarded the project only a few weeks after it was conceived. He merged most of the Camille material with nine of his solo-recorded Dream Factory tracks plus six additional songs into the massive three-disc, 22-track opus Crystal Ball. A 3-LP set of all new studio material was almost unheard-of in pop/rock history. Crystal Ball would be the ambitious masterwork Prince intended to up the ante on his stature as an artist, and he’d be doing it without the Revolution -- nearly all of the tracks are almost completely solo recordings.
Like The Dream Factory and Camille before it, Crystal Ball never made it out of the gate. Warner Bros. rejected the triple-album concept, considering it too expensive to produce and not commercially feasible. They felt that critical acclaim was not necessarily a good indicator for strong sales and that the price-point on the album would just be too high for average fans to bear. Warners had always allowed Prince to do what he wanted, but Crystal Ball was a bridge too far. The company’s head Mo Ostin personally asked Prince to carve a third of it away and create a double-album. Prince was irate and fought for his grand vision, but ultimately had no choice but to agree. It was a bitter pill that soured Prince’s attitude on the entire finished project, which he considered incomplete.
In a process that must have been excruciatingly difficult, Prince brought the axe down on Camille’s "Rebirth of the Flesh", the epic ten-minute "Crystal Ball" (an ambitious piece that he considered one of his finest achievements), "Rockhard in a Funky Place", "The Ball" (parts of which were recycled in 1988 for “I Know” on Lovesexy), "Joy In Repetition" (which made it essentially unchanged onto 1990's Graffiti Bridge), "Shockadelica", and "Good Love". The album’s final piece snapped into place with “U Got the Look”, a duet with Scottish pop princess Sheena Easton that Prince recorded in December 1986 to inject a potential pop hit into his eclectic mix. Prince worked with Susan Rogers carefully to sequence the new album, striving for a coherent and logical flow not only for the collection as a whole but for each of the four sides.
In the end, out of all the marathon recording sessions over the prior year, all the possible configurations, all the cancelled projects and all the drama, it came down to the 16 songs that comprise the Sign ☮ the Times we know and love today. For all the discussion of what “might have been”, it’s hard to compile a 16-track sequence from all the material Prince produced in 1986 that the public has heard in at least some form into a better collection than the final version of Sign ☮ the Times. It imposed a tight focus to his prodigious year of recording, ensuring every single track would be top-tier.
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Once Sign ☮ the Times was finally wrapped up and announced, anticipation soared. Even though Parade hadn’t exactly shattered sales records, Prince was still a global superstar less than three years removed from the cultural milestone that was Purple Rain. A new Prince album was still big news, and expectations for Sign ☮ the Times were sky-high.
The opening track and title song were released as the first single on 18 February 1987. Like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss” before it, “Sign ☮ the Times” is a minimalist masterpiece. Written, recorded and mixed in a single day, it’s built around a sparse Linn drum machine pattern and a popping bass hook that’s actually an electronic sample played on the expensive new toy Wendy & Lisa had brought into the sessions at Sunset Sound, a Fairlight CMI digital sampler. Prince simply used the stock sounds pre-programmed into the machine for not only the bass groove but also for the very ‘80s orchestral hits that strike repeatedly during the song’s lengthy instrumental ending.
Against that funky backdrop, Prince lets loose a torrent of somber observations about the ills of society, sung with genuine soul and passion. He slides in some bluesy guitar licks, and ghostly brushes of keyboard add an element of unease. By the end he’s found his solution, the same as it ever way: love. “Let’s fall in love / get married / have a baby / we’ll call him Nate… if he’s a boy.” Yeah, there are serious problems in the world, but he’s looking to the future with hope and optimism, not dread. “Sign ☮ the Times” reflects the innate impulse of humans to move forward and persevere despite all the challenges. So many of the things he’s singing about still have relevance and resonance today. Also important to remember is that very few artists by 1987 had directly addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis in their music. Very few.
The stark and serious “Sign ☮ the Times” is not exactly what pops into mind when one imagines an obvious Top 40 hit, and the stakes were high. Prince had invested an enormous amount of time, energy, creative juice, and money into this project. It was a bold and risky choice but he obviously believed in the song very strongly, and in the end, he was proven right. Even with its heavy subject matter and without the benefit of a true promotional video at a time when MTV was still a vital musical force, Top 40 radio embraced the song enthusiastically.
“Sign ☮ the Times” jetted to #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart. Prince had another smash on his hands, and once again he did it with something totally unexpected. For the b-side, instead of choosing one of the dozens of songs left over from the prior months’ sessions, he perhaps predictably recorded a new song. Laid down only a month before the single’s release, “La, La, La, He, He, Hee” is a colorful number that he wrote after a rhyme Sheena Easton told him from a song she had written about her cats.
Sign ☮ the Times was released in early spring, but music writers gushed and swooned over the album like fluttery Southern belles on a steaming hot August afternoon. It dominated the year-end critics' polls and quickly earned the reputation as one of Prince’s finest works, a widely-held consensus that remains true today. Many fans were taken aback at first as they tried to wrap their minds around a Prince album so deep, different and hard to immediately penetrate, but they embraced it quickly enough with an enthusiasm that has endured three decades and counting.
After opening the set with the somber title track, Prince follows with “Play in the Sunshine”, a summertime romp with obvious parallels to “Let’s Go Crazy”. It’s a manic freak-out erupting with the urgent need to blow off steam in the face of the sometimes unbearable stress of the daily grind. Peak excitement comes with the frenzied chant “play! play! play! play! play!” and a blistering guitar solo sparking with restless energy. Anybody who questions Prince’s reputation as a peerless musician should listen to “Play in the Sunshine”, particularly the complicated instrumental breakdown starting at the 3:50 point through the end, and consider that Prince plays every single piece of music on the song. He also handles all of the vocal parts except for Susannah Melvoin’s contributions. Prince’s ability to inject the exuberance of a live band performance into parts that he’s overdubbed himself in the studio demonstrates an astonishing grasp of the feel of music at an intuitive level. Prince had it. Drummer, do your thing and turn it the hell up.
Prince plays nearly everything on “Housequake” as well, a sweat-drenched James Brown-style funk workout warped through Prince’s prism of singular weirdness. Camille is on the mic amping the house-party revelry into a frenzy of excitement. “Don’t wait for your neighbor! Green eggs and ham!” Why? It doesn’t matter. Doin’ the Housequake. With its call-and-response vocals, weird whirls of keyboard, a stuttery electronic rhythm on the Linn and machine-gun horn riffs, “Housequake” wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s far from a lazy homage or lapse into formula, as Prince transforms these influences into something utterly unique.
If there is a unifying factor on Sign ☮ the Times other than the paint-splatter diversity, it’s Prince’s consistently amazing programming on the Linn LM-1, a drum machine that is inexorably associated with his classic sound. One of Prince’s most compelling rhythmic creations is the complex and skittery groove upon which “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is built. The strange flatness of the beat is the result Prince’s eagerness to start recording in his new home studio before engineer Susan Rogers could test and properly adjust the new console after a power failure during its installation. Prince liked the effect and kept it, adding another touch of quirkiness to the album.
Recorded two weeks prior to the release of Parade in mid-March 1986, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” was the first track Prince produced in his new home studio and the earliest that ended up on the final version of Sign ☮ the Times (excluding songs that Prince had worked on earlier in the ‘80s and revisited). Inspired by a dream, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” exposes Prince’s coy and subtle side. Usually wickedly direct with his sexuality, here Prince is more veiled and suggestive in his poetic recounting of a fleeting love affair. Most of the time the reigns of dominance are firmly in Prince’s hands, but here it’s Dorothy Parker who is the seductress.
We go from a jazzy-cool sexual riddle to a bold ode to getting laid, “It.” This is not a song about romantic sex or tenderness, just naked lust and desire. “It” rests on a prominent beat that’s high in the mix and provides the backbone for Prince’s crunchy multi-layered vocals, a chime-like synth pattern slithering in the background and jolts of orchestral synth hits. Prince allows the track to plenty of time to stretch out, milking the groove and the nifty effects from the Fairlight, and sliding in a lyrical guitar solo at the 1:47 point.
“Starfish & Coffee” is a whimsical pop confection that displays a sweetly sentimental side to Prince that emerges in his music very rarely. The lovely imagery, based on Susannah Melvoin’s memories of a childhood classmate, is a poetic sketch of a happy and wonderfully strange young girl, Cynthia Rose. She lives in her own enchanted world, never without a smile no matter what trouble and turmoil might be bubbling outside her halo of sunny optimism and beatific wonder. “Starfish & Coffee” is an ode to the power of individuality, of challenging societal norms and expectations, and declining to succumb to the rampant cynicism that inflicts so many of us like a malicious virus. A graceful whisk of backward guitar, an echo of the Beatles’ dreamy psychedelia, ends the song with a flourish.
“Slow Love” is an old-school R&B waltz, a sensual midnight sway under the moonlight. Prince’s shimmering falsetto emerges at the end of each ascending line of verse with delicate beauty. Largely written by British singer and actress Carole Davis, “Slow Love”, with its elegant arrangement and seductive lyric, presents Prince in full romantic bloom. It’s easy to understand why this is one of the few tracks on which he kept Wendy & Lisa’s contributions. Their harmony vocals are magic, and perhaps Prince meant it as a swan song acknowledging their important influence on his music and career. While beautiful, “Slow Love” is bittersweet as well. It serves to emphasize Wendy & Lisa’s absence from the rest of the album, one last taste when we want so much more. It feels like goodbye.
There are no goodbyes in “Hot Thing”, just an audacious quest to lure a young lady into an erotic fantasy world unlike any she’s ever experienced. “Hot Thing” is a smokin’ slab of new wave-powered funk, oozing with lust. Prince’s vocal is swollen with the burning desire of a man focused on the hunt. Eric Leeds’ sax erupts in fiery bursts throughout the track with all the propulsion and intensity of sexual release. Searing through the sexy electronic groove is an exotic keyboard riff beamed straight from a steamy red-light district playroom party at peak 3AM debauchery. Prince allows the molten groove to play out past five minutes, relishing the blistering funk he knows he’s delivered, and the extended 12-inch mix is even more fierce.
The Power of Love
“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.