Classic Album: Prince - Sign O The Times

The best album of the 1980s?
Prince - Sign O The Times
Prince Rogers Nelson has been busy damaging his reputation for the past decade or two. Despite that - despite all the middling records, the changes of name and giving his latest CD away to the Mail on fucking Sunday - his past achievements retain a granite-like durability. There are few right-minded music lovers who would deny his genius.

Given his subsequent decline, it’s enticingly easy to assume that Prince’s Eighties were monolithic in their success. But that’s not quite true. ‘Sign O’ The Times’ came off the back of ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ and ‘Parade’, both relative commercial flops. For that we can be perversely thankful. Were its two predecessors more successful, it seems likely that Prince’s label Warner Brothers would have had to approve his plans to release the album as a triple record set. Instead, his commercial clout clipped, Warners felt justified in demanding that it be trimmed to a two-record volume.

Perhaps that really was our loss; perhaps ‘Sign O’ The Times’ would’ve been equally fantastic in its original form. However, it can’t be denied that the album that was released eventually in 1987 is a masterpiece. You could deny that it’s the best album of the 1980s, but you’d be wrong.

Like all the best double albums, ‘Sign O’ The Times’ makes a virtue out of eclecticism. Listening to it, you feel that all human life is here. Throughout, the record flits expertly between full-blown excess and austere minimalism. Indeed, for a musician whose career has often been floored by his tendency to gild the lily, Prince is a master of minimalism. The title track is ascetic in its simplicity: for the most part, it consists of nothing more than Prince’s rapped voice and a drum machine; additional instruments only appear to illustrate lyrical points. The song also showcases a lyrical acuity that’s all too often neglected in favour of daft innuendo; the opening reference to AIDS ("a big disease with a little name") is a particularly smart touch.

Prince has always had an, ahem, thing for sex. While it’s far from chaste, ‘Sign…’ is one of his least overtly sexual records. Even when he addresses the subject most directly on ‘It’, his desperate vocal makes sexual infatuation sound like a judicial sentence – even the drum noises make their best impression of the clinkclunk of prison cells.

Despite the occasionally sombre mood, the album is sprinkled liberally with some of the best pop songs of the decade. ‘Starfish And Coffee’ indulges his occasional penchant for psychedelia. ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ is an absolute joy, and features the best breakdown in any song ever. ‘U Got The Look’ was, correctly, a massive hit, and even gets away with an appearance from Sheena Easton, the Esther Rantzen-endorsed TV talent contest winner from Scotland – the equivalent of a Michelle McManus collaboration in 2004. (Actually, Sheena’s a great singer – where is she now?) Elsewhere, ‘Slow Love’ teeters perilously close to cheese with its ‘dim the lights’ loverman shtick, but gets away with only the faintest whiff of Stilton. ‘Housequake’ and ‘Hot Thing’ could slay any dancefloor to this day. Thanks to their brutally pared-down sound, they haven’t dated a bit.

A couple of songs defy categorisation because they’re just plain weird. An unspecified melancholia hangs over ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, articulated only by a synth noise that suggests the keyboard’s batteries are running out. ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ is stranger still. Its curious lyric about gender-hopping makes it the only Prince song that would warrant inclusion in a literary exam paper.

Prince’s influence is far-reaching. There’s the obvious: for example, Justin Timberlake’s falsetto-led future pop is as indebted to His Purpleness as it is to Michael Jackson. But Prince’s sphere of influence extends beyond the pop world and into the predominately white ‘alternative’ genre. For instance, the lascivious funk of the most recent Of Montreal album (one of the best releases of 2007), has Prince’s fingerprints all over it.

Of course, dullards would assert that Prince is himself derivative, taking his cues from James Brown and Sly Stone. Which is true to a certain extent. But, for any artist who wants to fuse funk with art, he remains the benchmark. As for ‘Sign O’ The Times’ itself, the double album remains the Holy Grail for artists who want to indulge in a bout of musical dickswinging, but most recent attempts have failed (step forward, Red Hot Chili Peppers!). It takes a truly great musician who can maintain the listener’s awestruck attention for more than an hour. Twenty years ago, Prince was most definitely that musician.

WORDS BY CHRISTOPHER MONK

Tracklist

Released: March 1987
Produced by: Prince

Disc 1
01. Sign O’ The Times
02. Play In The Sunshine
03. Housequake
04. The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker
05. It
06. Starfish And Coffee
07. Slow Love
08. Hot Thing
09. Forever In My Life

Disc 2
01. U Got The Look
02. If I Was Your Girlfriend
03. Strange Relationship
04. I Could Never Take
The Place Of Your Man
05. The Cross
06. It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night
07. Adore

Musicians

Prince: all vocals and instruments with occasional support from. Susannah Melvoin: backing vocals.
Eric Leeds: saxophones.
Atlanta Bliss: trumpets.
Sheena Easton: vocals.
Sheila E: drums, percussion.
Clare Fischer: string arrangements.
Wendy Melvoin: guitar, backing vocals, tambourine and congas.
Lisa Coleman: backing vocals, sitar, wooden flute. Miko Weaver: guitar.
Jill Jones: vocals.
Gilbert Davison, Todd Hermann, Coke Johnson, Brad Marsh, Mike Soltys, Susan Rogers and “The Penguin”: party noises.
Greg Brooks, Wally Safford, Jerome Benton and “six thousand
wonderful Parisians”: backing vocals.

1987: In The News
• The Simpsons makes its televisual debut on The Tracey Ullman Show.
• Andy Warhol dies at the age of 58.
• Hurricane-force winds batter the south of England.
• On October 19 stock market levels across the world fall sharply; this date is known hence forth as ‘Black Monday’.
• Joss Stone is born on April 11; this date is known henceforth as ‘Black Saturday’.

1987: The Albums
‘Appetite For Destruction’ Guns ‘N’ Roses
‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ Public Enemy
‘Hysteria’ Def Leppard
‘Document’ R.E.M.
‘Warehouse: Songs and Stories’ Hüsker Dü

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-