Bryget Chrisfield explores the creation, impact, and astonishing legacy of her favourite classic records. This month: Prince’s Sign o’ the Times (1987). Warner are set to release a number of different re-releases this month.
“In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little na-ame/ By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the sa-ame/ At home there are 17-year-old boys and their idea of fu-un/ Is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples’, High on crack, and totin’ a machine gun” – Sign o’ the Times.
Way to kick off the opening statement of this album, Prince!
In monotone-rap style, Prince delivers this significant social commentary over sparse instrumentation: twitchy, syncopated rhythms and a funky groove that was largely created by exploring the then-new and groundbreaking Fairlight synth’s presets (with keyboard programmer Todd Horriman). The song’s chorus is just the one word (“Ti-imes”) repeated, and the official music video for Sign o’ the Times features just the lyrics – like a karaoke video minus the usual cheesy visuals.
The first album to be released after the dissolution of The Revolution, Prince wrote, produced and recorded Sign o’ the Times, which is actually an amalgamation of multiple different Prince projects since he was simultaneously working on two albums: The Revolution album Dream Factory (eight songs from which appear on Sign o’ the Times) and the pseudonymous Camille (which saw Prince adopting a female persona, complete with pitched-up vocals – the polar opposite to Emma Louise’s 2018 album Lilac Everything, on which her vocals are pitched-down from soprano to baritone).
Once The Revolution were dismissed, Prince consolidated material from these shelved albums, added some new cuts, and voila! A triple-album set of 22 songs titled Crystal Ball, which was eventually released in 1998 by The Artist (Formerly Known As Prince) via Prince’s own NPG Records. Prince had initially presented Crystal Ball to Warner Bros. Records, but his label refused to release it; Sign o’ the Times – a double album – is a trimmed-down version of Crystal Ball (plus one new song: the Sheena Easton-feating belter U Got the Look, which opens the album’s second disc).
Easton recounted first meeting Prince back in the ‘80s: “I walked into the studio and there was no 12 bodyguards, just him. He was very quiet and shy.”
Susan Rogers – Sign o’ the Times engineer/long-term collaborator – revealed that Prince would often ask her to leave the room before he recorded vocals: “We’d get the track halfway or three-quarters of the way there, and then set him up with a microphone in the control room. He’d have certain tracks on the multi-track that he would use and he’d do the vocal completely alone. I think that was the only way he could really get the performance.” And on the rare occasion that Rogers remained in the room? Prince would turn his back to her to record.
It was around this time that Prince started resenting his label for restricting his output. He also wanted to own his original master tapes. There were the public appearances where he scrawled the word “SLAVE” across his face, most notably during his Best International Male acceptance speech at the 1995 BRIT Awards. “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you,” is how His Royal Purpleness explained this powerful visual statement. Prince also announced he would no longer go by this name, but rather a ‘Love Symbol’. Since this glyph was impossible to type, news outlets received floppy discs containing a font download. Media soon began referring to him as The Artist (Formerly Known As Prince).
Rewatching the Sign o’ the Times concert film reminded me that Prince had classical ballet training. Those effortless pirouettes and entrechat (jumping then crossing and uncrossing feet in mid-air)! And Prince’s backing band during this film’s performance footage showcases an array of badass, talented females. All hail, Sheila E! Her drum solo is astonishing.
Those fortunate enough to be in attendance at one of Prince’s Piano and a Microphone shows held around Australia a couple of months prior to his death will be forever grateful to The Ticket Gods for granting their successful purchases. This scribe was in the audience for the 6pm show of night one in Melbourne, during which Prince publicly grieved the passing of ex-girlfriend/protégé Vanity (Denise Matthews); the news of her passing had reached him shortly before showtime. Punters certainly experienced something special as a self-described “distraught” Prince poured out his feelings of loss via song. As he closed out his Purple Rain encore with those (agonisingly real) high-pitched cries, sitting solo at the piano, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Every cell of Prince – and all of the details of his surrounding existence – were theatrical. Don’t hate me, but I was fortunate enough to sight Prince in the flesh and not on a stage, back in 2012. While queuing outside Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar – hoping to gain admittance to the afterparty for the final show on Prince’s Welcome 2 Australia tour – police suddenly appeared on the street in front of the venue as a black luxury vehicle pulled up to the curb. We all screamed and held smartphones high in the air, hoping to capture a glimpse of someone we couldn’t quite make out yet.
Both of the vehicle’s rear doors opened, slowly, and a couple of elegantly dressed ladies exited – one from each side. Providing options, the mystery females opened matching red umbrellas in unison and hovered beside the car’s rear doors. Prince exited via the driver-side. Cue deafening squeals. Our gazes were fixed on the red umbrella of choice, under which we saw Prince moving swiftly around the front of the car toward the Hi-Fi entrance, hunched over and holding his jacket together across his chest to guard against the cold. Prince suddenly punctuated his mission with a rhythmic jump, as if scaling an imaginary, low fence – like the famous Jerome Robbins travelling sequence/Cool choreography from West Side Story. A showbiz entrance. Prince never did anything ordinary.
But even though The Purple One’s reign was tragically cut short more than four years ago, his legacy lives on. Start saving those pennies, ‘cause a “Super Deluxe Edition” reissue of Sign o’ the Times – which promises a whopping 63 previously unreleased tracks plus footage of Prince’s benefit performance at Paisley Park (including an onstage collab with Miles Davis!) – is scheduled for release next month. Need a teaser? Witness 4 The Prosecution (Version 1), a preview track/ previously unreleased Prince song, is out now and further proves what we already knew: most artists could only dream about composing a song even half as dazzling as one of his princely offcuts.