Remembering Prince's Greatest Epic: 30 Years of "Sign 'O' The Times"

One year after Prince's shocking death, we celebrate his greatest musical achievement as it passes its 30-year anniversary: Sign ☮ the Times

I don’t need to know how human Prince was. We already know that through his music, a staggering legacy spanning four decades.
A year has passed since Prince left us, and lurid details of what transpired on 21 April 2016 and during the months and years prior continue to emerge. Some fans devour every crumb of news or speculation obsessively, while others prefer to keep these cold shards of reality at a distance. Fortunately for those who have no interest in dissecting how a dream was shattered, there are far more opportunities to bask in the vast and diverse sonic realm Prince created than to endure the slow torture of his ongoing post-mortem.

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.

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