- 31 Mar 21
On March 31st, 1987 (March 30th in the UK), Prince released his ninth studio album, Sign o' The Times. To celebrate, we're revisiting Pat Carty's reflections on the iconic double album.
With the greatest respect to the people and the town of Tullamore, the Midlands – although I can’t speak to it now – was not a funky or sexy place to be back in 1987. But there was a man, if he was a mere man at all, with funk faculties beyond Earthly measure, and a degree in getting down that bordered on the divine, who didn’t give a good goddamn where you were. He was going to bring the funk and, by extension the sex, to you. That man was Prince. He was funky.
Like most people in this part of the world and that time, I first got wise to Prince when he broke through with Purple Rain although, for me at least, the follow-ups Around The World In A Day and, most especially, Parade – stick on ‘Kiss’, anywhere, and watch everyone go bananas - were superior records, but even Parade – slab of genius that it is – was overshadowed by what he did next.
Back in the steam age, we didn’t have the internet to track what artists were up to so the first notification we got was the ‘Sign O’ The Times’ single which came out a month or two before hand. Even the cover of it was mysterious – was that Prince himself in a dress? Could have been, I suppose. Then you put it on. It is still unique. He was thousands of miles ahead of everyone else then, and he remains out in front. Not that long ago I was a guest on the Dave Fanning show on fab 2FM, we were discussing double albums and this one came up. Fanning reckoned this song was the best thing Prince ever did. Now, let me reveal a showbiz secret here, Fanning knows nothing about anything, dependent as he is on an expert team of researchers to provide him with even the most loosely structured of sentences, but, a broken clock twice a day and all that, he was close to the money here. A startlingly bare bones electronic groove is fashioned from the Linn LM-1 drum machine he was already an expert on, and the Fairlight CMI sampler – two tools that would pepper the album – and a simple yet devastatingly effective tambourine, over which Prince bemoans the AIDS epidemic and drug addiction before he lets loose with his guitar. Even the mad B-Side, ‘La, La, La, He, He, Hee’ was a gas, built as it seemingly was on a sample of a dog barking, ecstatic horns, and a guitar line that would have the Pope getting naked.
I bought the album the day it came out, in Ray Quinn’s Heartbeat City record shop - it’s still over there on the shelf – and it’s no exaggeration to say it took my head clean off. Before you even put the thing on, there was the cover. Street signs hover over a drum kit and keyboard that sit on a busted car bonnet. The scene is bedraggled with flowers - perhaps a nod to Sgt Peppers - and Prince, who’s out of focus on the right, has thrown his guitar down on the floor, a challenge to anyone who’s got the balls to try and pick it up after they hear this. Only a foolhardy few have tried, and fewer still have succeeded. You played it through – all four sides, in old money – and sat there with your mouth agape, then you put it on again. Back then, I had yet to hear the records that Prince had grown up on – I probably still haven’t heard them all, although I’m in a better position to point out influences now – as those buttons just weren’t there to click and fifteen year old me didn’t have much of a collection to speak of, so this was beaming in as something completely new.
The title track opened things up, then there was the sound of a busy street and ‘Play In The Sunshine’ came in, the soundtrack to the greatest party you were never at. There’s something about a gorilla falling off a wall and four-leaf clovers, the songs breaks down the first time to a slapped bass, then it breaks down again as Prince’s mates call on him to play, he gives in after a few refusals, demands that the drummer do his/her thing, there’s a flash of wah-wah guitar, and then he asks some girl to head off with him. She does, of course, there’s an abrupt stop, and ‘Housequake’ kicks off. Is it even possible for a human being who isn’t called James Brown to be this funky? “Shock-A-lock a BOOM! What was that? Aftershock!” Prince even offers some helpful instructions “You put your foot down on the two, you jump up on the one” Don’t imagine for a minute that I didn’t try this in my bedroom back in 1987, because I did, repeatedly. I leave the results, which involved pulled muscles and bruises, up to your imagination. “You can’t get off, until you make the house shake” I gave it a go. My Da must have wondered what was going on as he passed the bedroom door. He let discretion be the better part of valour, and wisely decided not to investigate.
Prince gave us burgeoning and battered funkateers a breather with ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’ but what kind of weird and sexy shit was going on here? A waitress asks him to take a bath with her, he’s game but he’s already got a missus so he leaves his pants on, we get a blast of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Help Me’, then the phone rings and Prince succumbs. You didn’t get much of this kind of messing on a Smiths record. What’s more, there was a mooted single release of an extended version with a full horn arrangement and an Eric Leeds saxophone solo which we’ve yet to hear, but just imagine. And all that is just side one.
The hard funk of ‘It’ didn’t pussyfoot around. “Anywhere, on stairs, ALRIGHT! I want to do it, baby, all the time” I was fifteen, a walking gland, and I’ve already told you where I was stranded, so you can be damn skippy I was of the same mind. An alarm clock goes off, and Prince heads off to school for three minutes of Beatles action – if The Beatles had been sex heroes from the planet Bonk - describing the weird contents of Cynthia Jones’ lunch box “Starfish and Coffee, maple syrup and jam”. Back to the bedroom for the slow jam of ‘Slow Love’ – what kind of pills was this lad necking? He was going at it like a racehorse only two songs earlier, now he’s taking his time. I was scribbling down notes lest a similar opportunity should ever present itself. Even the sax break was filthy. The priapic p-funk of ‘Hot Thing’ bounces past as our man eulogises another young one he can’t wait to get home. How the hell did he find the time to make records at all? ‘Forever In My Life’ had the backing vocals coming in before the lead, as Prince, in a not completely convincing fashion given what had gone on before, decides he wants to settle down and stop “juggling hearts”. He again manages the unfathomable feat of getting soul out of a drum machine and the acoustic guitar at the end is a masterstroke.
Things get weird on side three, weird enough to make the previous shenanigans seem about as out there as an episode of Friends. First up, Prince manages to imbue Sheena Easton – the woman who gave us ‘9 To 5’ and ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – with cool. ‘U Got The Look’ was a huge hit, only kept off the top of the American charts by ‘Lost In Emotion’ by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (No, me neither). Prince’s vocals were sped-up, this was the voice of his alter ego Camille, and this is a story all on its own.
Sign O’ The Times emerged from the wreckage of three separate abandoned records. The first attempt was Dream Factory, Prince had been working on this with his band but internal squabbling and the dissolution of The Revolution at the end of the Parade Tour put paid to that. Prince then recorded ‘Housequake’ with those sped-up vocals, which pleased him greatly so he decided on a whole album in this style. Being Prince, he decreed that this would come out under the pseudonym Camille, with no mention of his name attached. Like Dream Factory, this record got as far as the mastering stage, but Prince could not slow down. He kept recording, finally deciding to release new songs, combined with tracks from both abandoned records, as the triple Crystal Ball. The good people at Warner Brothers weren’t having that though, feeling that the market would baulk at the probable price and still smarting from the slightly disappointing sales figures of Parade. Prince took their “advice”, cut several numbers, added ‘U Got The Look’ – adapted from a slower, heavier funk groove – and Sign O’ The Times was delivered down from the mountain.
There’s an orchestral swell – a Tangerine Dream sample - then what sounds like a Dubliner saying “look at the parking stoppage here, ladies” – actually a sample from Spyder D’s ‘Big Apple Rappin’’ – and then a blast from Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ before ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ finds Camille intoning, over the Linn and a sparsely slapped bass, about wanting to achieve the intimacy that only exists between girlfriends. But this is Camille, isn’t he supposed to be a woman in the first place? Depending on your point of view, the song gets either sexier or creepier as it goes on. It was apparently written out of jealousy at the closeness between his then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin and her sister, Wendy, the guitar player from The Revolution, and one half of Wendy & Lisa. Susannah and Wendy are twins. Lie down on the couch there, Prince, and tell us what’s really going on. This slice of oddballia was released as a single, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t trouble many cash registers in America. The B-Side ‘Shockadelica’ seems to be about his own obsession with Camille – “the girl must be a witch, she got your mind, body, and soul hitched”. Whatever about the dark goings-on in the gloop of Prince’s psyche, the song does have the best use of “doo-bee-doo-bee” since Sinatra ran out of lyrics at the end of ‘Strangers In The Night’ back in 1966.
It’s probably no accident that ‘Girlfriend’ is followed by ‘Strange Relationship'. The bouncy pop hides some darkness - “Baby I just can stand to see you happy, more than that I hate to see you sad. Honey if you let me I just might do something rash, what’s this strange relationship?” The song actually stretches back to 1983 – there’s a demo version on Piano & A Microphone 1983 - and a more Indian sounding version with prominent sitar and flute was recorded for Dream Factory, while there’s also a rumoured take with another Eric Leeds solo. ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ – first attempted in 1982 – appears as a palette cleanser after that traipse through Prince’s id. The story about a woman asking him for a one-night stand is really just an excuse to get his guitar out for two glorious solos – one screaming, one slow and bluesy. The arrangement slightly resembles the way The Stones’ ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ breaks down to give Mick Taylor space, but probably stems more from Prince’s love of Santana. Lots of rock bands have covered this one – from The Replacements to Eels to the less-gifted likes of Goo Goo Dolls. Perhaps its more straight-ahead rock format is seen as an easier entry point. It doesn’t make any difference though, they all made a bags of it.
Who knew Prince listened to a bit of The Velvet Underground? It would appear he had, given the two chord trick of ‘The Cross’ especially the second section when he stands on the fuzz pedal and gives it his best Mo Tucker, albeit Mo with a serious dose of the funk, behind the kit. God and the ecclesiastical had been missing in action up until this point, surprising given Prince’s established friend o’ Jesus status – he put ‘God’ on the B-side of ‘Purple Rain’ – but the almighty gets his due here. The song received a deserved gospel treatment by The Blind Boys Of Alabama in 2016 in what might be one of the most successful Prince covers not recorded by D’Angelo (his version of ‘She's Always In My Hair’, if you’re asking), and it’s the song that Bono sang with Prince in Dublin’s POD venue after a Point Depot show in 1995.
‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’ recorded live in Paris is really more a jam than a song but it does come close to capturing just how jaw-droppingly awesome Prince was live, although I wouldn’t find that out personally for a year or two yet. Billy Paul, The O’ Jays, solo Smokey, even the great Luther Vandross – they’re all there in the smooth slow soul sweetness of ‘Adore’. Guitarist, producer, drummer, bassist, pianist, dancer, band leader, actor (well…) – Prince could do it all, and make it look easy, but God could he carry a tune too, as the falsetto screams and swoops that close out this masterpiece attest.
1987 was the year of The Joshua Tree, the record that made U2 the biggest band in the world. It remains a stirringly great piece of work, but you couldn’t really call it sexy, or funky. Sexy was a few years away for The ‘2 and when they got hip to it, around Achtung Baby, they took a leaf or seven out of Prince’s book. That same Joshua Tree went on to win out over Sign O’ The Times for the record of the year – and it was a good year, in retrospect - at the 1988 Grammys. Prince described how he felt about that in a later interview: "I'm not saying I'm better than anybody else. But you'll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, 'Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too... But you will not do ‘Housequake.”
He was right, and I’d bet U2 would be the first to admit it. Let’s examine some further evidence, what were the other big records of 1987? R.E.M.’s Document, Appetite For Destruction, Strangeways Here We Come, Tunnel Of Love – fine albums one and all, but they weren’t even at the races compared to the master. Michael Jackson’s Bad? Prince made him sound like a bloke with two broken legs that were nailed to the floor.
What happened next? 1988’s Lovesexy is not the greatest record of all time, although ‘Alphabet St.’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’ are beyond brilliant. Prince decided against leaving his pants on when it came to putting the cover art together, and his naked photo prompted my concerned mother to comment, after spying it in my room, that she wasn’t crazy about the front of that new Michael Jackson record.
I did get to see him on that Lovesexy tour, as I was in London for the summer. One of the regular customers worked in the Wembley ticket office, and she came in at about 5 o’clock one evening, just as I was finishing my shift behind the bar, with two Prince tickets she couldn’t use for that night. My mate Liam and I nearly took the hand off her, and ran for the train. It was only when we got into Wembley Arena that we discovered the tickets were of the VIP variety – hey, these things happen – so we were seated in the same row as a few of the lads from Duran Duran and the then-huge Yazz. Prince drove onto the stage in a Cadillac, preformed another song on a bed, and practically got the mic stand pregnant. I want to tell you that I was up throwing those shapes that I had first attempted back in my bedroom, but I wasn’t. Although, if I had been, they certainly would have been better ones than the Bill-Gates-at-a-disco manoeuvres of Simon Le Bon - how did that fella ever become a pop star? No, I was sat stock-still for most of show, with my mouth again in the wide-open position. I still haven’t seen much to match that performance.
There’s a concert film to go along with the album, also released in 1987, and directed by Prince, because he could do almost everything. It’s so good that I once watched it four times in a row. Admittedly, I was in The Grasshopper Bar in Amsterdam at the time, on the outside of an awful lot of the local produce. The Coff was there too. We turned to each other at least once every five minutes, blissfully unaware of everything else going on across the planet, repeatedly mumbling that this was “the greatest thing we’d ever seen”, as a nearby bartender lost the will to live.
Years later, in 2017, Hot Press was celebrating its fortieth birthday. Everyone involved was asked to pick a favourite album from the preceding four decades, and say something about it. "Just one hundred and fifty words, Carty. And no more!" commissioning editor Róisín Dwyer, wise to my long-winded ways, hissed malevolently as she pounded her desk for emphasis and pointed at me. An impossible task, I thought, although I wasn't stupid or brave enough to argue with her. Here's what I submitted:
“Throughout the ‘80s, Prince sent back vinyl dispatches from some glorious, unreachable dimension filled with champagne, beautiful women, and some of the best records you’ve ever heard. I bought this album the day it came out; my jaw is still on the floor. Soul, funk, rock, blues, gospel, dance, psychedelic pop: it’s all here on his masterpiece, from which it is impossible to pick a highlight, as every song is touched by genius. Bury this record in a time capsule, and a thousand years from now, our post-apocalyptic descendants can use it as the blueprint from which to rebuild music.”
There you go. Rumour has it that a deluxe version of Sign O’ The Times is on the way, a follow-up to last year’s exhaustive and comprehensive run at 1999. If it does a similar job, and includes all the wreckage from Dream Factory, Camille and Crystal Ball, then it’ll be some doorstop. I’ll buy it the day it comes out, carry it home in a handcart, and throw those same shapes I attempted back when Prince first threw me a lifeline. I consider myself blessed to have been on the planet at the same time as that man, if he really was a mere man at all.