Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: An oral history

Published:Thursday, 24 Sep 2020 09:09

Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: An oral history

On 29 March, 1987, Prince swept the board at the Razzies.

His second feature film, Under The Cherry Moon, was named worst picture, while he scooped worst actor and the track Love Or Money took home worst song.

But Prince had already moved on. A day after the Razzies ceremony, he released the album of his career: Sign O’ The Times – a record that finally united all the strands of Prince’s phenomenal talent.

Over two discs, he goes from apocalyptic newscaster (Sign O’ The Times); to whimsical storyteller (Starfish And Coffee); androgynous sex beast (Hot Thing); prayerful Christian (The Cross); funk band-leader (It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night) and pop craftsman (U Got The Look) – all without breaking a sweat.

Behind that dizzying scope lay a disorganised, almost chaotic, recording process. Prince was creatively on fire, sometimes completing two or three songs in a day. At the same time, he got engaged to and separated from his creative muse, Susannah Melvoin; and fired his beloved backing band, The Revolution.

The turmoil resulted in a huge outpouring of creativity. Seldom can so much work have been recorded, shelved, recycled or thrown away as in the period 1985 to 1987.

In the end, Sign O’ The Times was a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from the remains of three completed, but discarded albums: Dream Factory, Camille and the triple-disc Crystal Ball set.

Now, 33 years on, Prince’s estate is releasing an expanded version of Sign O’ The Times which includes 45 unreleased tracks from the recording sessions.

To get a better understanding of how it came together, here’s a history of the record and its subsequent tour, featuring new and archive interviews from the musicians who were there, and some of Prince’s most famous fans.

Image copyright The Prince Estate
Image caption The master tapes for Sign O’ The Times, submitted to Warner Bros in early 1987

‘The songs came out like a sneeze’

Prince [1986 radio interview]: “I work a lot. I’m trying to get a lot of things done very quickly so that I can stop working for a while. Everyone’s afraid I’m gonna die.”

Susannah Melvoin [Singer, co-writer, Prince’s former fiancée]: “His work ethic was crazy. If you couldn’t keep up, you were out.”

Eric Leeds [Prince’s saxophonist, 1985-2003]: “He was just in the studio almost every day, you really had no sense of where any of this music was going to go.”

Susan Rogers [Prince’s recording engineer, 1983-1987]: “The songs came out like a sneeze, one track after the next, after the next.”

Prince: “I hear things in my sleep. I walk around and go to the bathroom and try to brush my teeth and all of the sudden the toothbrush starts vibrating. That’s a groove, you know? You gotta go with that, and that means drop the toothbrush and get down to the studio or get to a bass guitar, quick! My best things have come out like that.”

Susannah Melvoin: “He’d call you up at three o’clock in the morning and he’d say, ‘I’m cutting, what are you doing?’ And then he’d hang up, and you knew you had to be at the studio. It was time to work. There were no conversations. You were on his time schedule.”

Susan Rogers: “He was so unique in terms of his cognitive profile. As a PhD [in Psychology] I’ve done some research into the neurobiology of creativity and that has made me more aware of just how unique Prince was. To use his own lyrics, ‘Those kind of cars don’t pass you every day.'”

Duane Tudhal [Senior researcher for the Prince Estate archives]: “I think he was at a point where he thought, ‘I want to wow them with a three CD set,’ especially after the failure of Under The Cherry Moon. What better to come back and say, ‘OK, that didn’t work. Watch this.'”

Welcome to the Dream Factory

Recorded in 1985 and 1986, Dream Factory was a collaborative songwriting project with The Revolution’s Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin (Susannah’s sister). Light and playful, it contained early versions of songs like Strange Relationship and Starfish And Coffee.

Wendy Melvoin [Guitarist, The Revolution]: “It was such a beautiful time of exploration.”

Lisa Coleman [Keyboards, The Revolution]: “Sometimes the work was just work. But this? It was like kindergarten for songwriters. As musicians, as songwriters, we were a little bit nuts.”

Matt Fink [Prince’s keyboard player 1978 – 1990]: “I love all that Dream Factory material that he did with Wendy and Lisa. Songs like In A Dark Room With No Light, or All My Dreams. I loved the the throwback to the 1930s movie soundtrack vibe. It was like when Paul McCartney would write songs like Lady Madonna. An interesting departure for him.”