Friday, March 7, 2008

[007] Sign 'O' The Times

Album: Sign ‘O’ The Times
Artist: Prince
Release Date: March 1987
Label: Warner Bros.
Producer: Prince

“Baby I just can't stand 2 see U happy
More than that I hate 2 see U sad
Honey, if U left me I just might do something rash
What's this strange relationship?"
- from "Strange Relationship"

“Hot thing, maybe U should give your folks a call
Tell them you’re going 2 The Crystal Ball
Tell them you’re coming home late, if you’re coming home at all
Hot thing, tell them U found a brand new baby doll”
- from “Hot Thing”

Let’s talk about the nature of the double album. I think it’s safe to say most music listeners would associate the double album with an artist trying to make a BIG Artistic Statement, capital A, capital S. Sometimes it’s to prove how eclectic they are, or that they’re such geniuses that the music just flows through them, and they have 100 songs that they’ll whittle down to 25, and drop 90+ minutes of music on you (Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness = a whopping 2 hours, not to mention the box set of supplemental b-sides, sold separately of course). It’s kind of funny then that even when offered more songs for the consumer dollar, we as the public turn around and say ‘give us less’ – there’s no doubt that 99% of double albums in Pop/Rock/Rap history would still be better as single albums. Despite its snapshot of a great band breaking apart, there is surely an even better 45-minute album somewhere in The Beatles’ “White Album”, and don’t even get me started on the likes of Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life or the mess of Wu-Tang Forever. Then there’s the bands that want you to pay twice by releasing two separate albums, when one would have been fine – GNR and Metallica, I’m looking in your direction. Hey, I love Radiohead, but think how much more satisfying Kid A would have been if it was filled out with the better half of Amnesiac. For my money, the double albums that work the best are the ones that now, in the age of the 80-minute CD, fit onto one disc: The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., by far the most solid double album, and The Clash’s London Calling are the most notable, along with the 1984 works of Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. But what does it say that Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, a great double album of the 1%, was meant to be a triple album? Shit, it could’ve been a quadruple with all the songs he had! The answer, sort of, is what gets lost in the discussion – that the record label has a say in what they release, artistic genius be damned. For example, just this past fall, Robert Smith was bickering with his label over whether The Cure’s new album was going to be a single or a double, and all the uncertainty forced him to push it back to this coming spring. As stories of legendary double albums go, the genesis of Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times is far more grand and interesting. His Purple Badness had already found success with a double release – the electro funk touchstone 1999, which, considering new-millennium music trends, appears to now be his most influential album, and after the success of Purple Rain, the label was generally OK with Prince doing pretty much whatever he felt.

What he felt like doing was making two albums of psychedelic Pop and skeletal R&B; both the barely mediocre Around The World In A Day and the underrated, elegant Parade bombed commercially, as did Parade’s terrible companion film, Under The Cherry Moon. Prince, the most brilliant Pop Star since The Beatles was in danger of losing everything – the support of his label, his fans, and of radio programmers that had taken a chance on him. So he did what he’s been doing, for better or worse, ever since: recording like a muthafucker. In the last days of 1985, before Parade was even out, Prince began his most productive period, gathering The Revolution to start work on the album Dream Factory, which was to feature increased songwriting input from the band (especially Wendy & Lisa), Prince’s growing interest in Jazz – his parents were Jazz musicians, and at the time, he had been hanging out with Miles Davis – and his first attempts at incorporating horns in his songs. In the ten months from that winter start through October of 1986, Prince assembled three different versions of the album, at first a single album, and then twice a sprawling double. The last version of the album included half of the songs that would eventually make it to Sign: the post-Live Aid, front-page-headline electro-blues of “Sign ‘O’ The Times”, the warped future-pop of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”, the weird, moody seduction funk of “It”, the grade school confection of “Starfish & Coffee”, the jazzy come-on of “Slow Love”, the passive-aggressive “Strange Relationship”, the arena-ready anthem “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, and the stark gospel of “The Cross”. The only problem was Prince was going to have to rerecord them all, because he was about to fire The Revolution.

In the wake of the mass firing (only keyboardist Dr. Fink remained), Prince, feeling that he needed to marginalize whatever The Revolution’s contributions had been, but also inspired by his fresh canvas, went on an even greater tear, producing the best work of his career in a mere three months, mostly by himself. The day after he fired the band, he began anew by recording “Housequake”, yet another in a long line of party joints extraordinaire, mashing up a James Brown stomp, call-and-response vocals, and golden horns with a growing interest in Hip-Hop’s sonics, as well as hiding an absolutely vicious metal guitar riff in the mix. The hilarious vocals – “Does anybody know about the ‘quake? Bullshit!!” – were sung in a pinched pitch that made him sound like a crazy woman (or a sexed-up drag queen or at least like he was sucking helium). Prince then decided to instead make an entire album in this new voice, under the name Camille. The Camille project would have been a sexually fascinating collection, more lascivious funk-pop, remaining explicit, but approaching the subject in new ways. The unlikely song that ended up meaning the most to the project was “Strange Relationship”, a track Prince had been messing with since 1982, and the only song that made it through every stage of this period to make it on Sign. Listening to it now, the palette in which Prince rendered it in illustrates why it’s one of those forgotten tracks in his oeuvre; the synthetic tones are dated, unfortunately framing one of his smartest, most mature examinations of a self-destructive relationship. On the other hand, the Camille highlight is definitely “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, still one of Prince’s best songs; over a muted R&B slow jam pulse, Prince ponders the relationship insecurities of his lover, and the eternal struggle between trust and sex, made even more strange by the fact that the song is supposed to be coming from Camille (Was Camille meant to be a lesbian?? If so – that much more genius!!). And as the song’s coda twists itself into place, like dark storm clouds rolling in, Camille begins to plead, seemingly set to unravel, but the result is a cathartic soliloquy:

“Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room just because you want to undress? We don’t have to make children to make love. And we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm. Your body is what I’m all about. Can I see it? I’ll show you. Why not? You could do it because I’m your friend. I’d do it for you. Of course I’d undress in front of you. And when I’m naked, what shall I do? How can I make you see that it’s cool? Can’t you just trust me? If I was your girlfriend you could. Oh yeah, I think so. Listen, for you, naked I would dance a ballet. Would that get you off? Tell me what will. If I was your girlfriend, would you tell me? Would you let me see you naked then? Would you let me give you a bath? Would you let me tickle you so hard you’d laugh and laugh, and would you, would you let me kiss you there, you know, down there where it counts? I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce, and then I’d hold you tight and hold you long and together we’ll stare at the silence… And then we’ll try and imagine what it looks like. Yeah, we’ll try and imagine what…what silence looks like. Yeah, we’ll try and imagine what silence looks like.”

It amounts to a rant of all the relationship frustrations Prince must have felt, being a bachelor Rock Star, comfortable to explore his sexuality, but unable to find a lover to match his philosophies on the joys and freedom of sex and love. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is Prince as the man who says what you’re afraid to, whispering that what society tells you is kinky is completely normal sexual interaction if your partner is at ease with you. It’s such an honest statement on the realities of day-to-day love, sounding weird and yet identifiable to men (and women) everywhere, setting the tone for the exploratory nature of some of the songs that Prince would write for what would become Sign ‘O’ The Times.

Only half-related side note: Here I would just like to pause and say that if you get the chance to hear the Camille album as intended, do so, as it is a quite a remarkable collection in its own right, much like The Black Album should have been (see below for where to find some of these songs):
Camille tracklist: “Rebirth Of The Flesh” / “Housequake” / “Strange Relationship” / “Feel U Up” / “Shockadelica” / “Good Love” / “If I Was Your Girlfriend” / “Rock Hard In A Funky Place”
These songs within the frame of Sign ‘O’ The Times have always reminded me of another double album: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Half of Zeppelin’s 1975 double offering, 7 of its 15 tracks, had been written previously for other albums dating all the way back to 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. The eight remaining songs, which were actually written in 1974/75 for Physical Graffiti, have a different, mostly darker tone, and taken on their own would have, in my opinion, formed Led Zep’s greatest album. While you’re burning yourself a copy of Camille, burn this too and enjoy:
Imaginary tracklist: “In The Light” / “The Wanton Song” / “Trampled Underfoot” / “Kashmir” / “Custard Pie” / “Sick Again” / “In My Time Of Dying” / “Ten Years Gone”

On the song that would become the eventual title track, Prince addressed social ills like drugs and gang violence more candidly than he ever had before, somewhat following the 80’s trend of charity in Pop music (he had infamously dropped out of “We Are The World”); I say somewhat because the song is half nonsense, undercutting the message a bit in the face of the ghetto snapshots that were coming out of the early salvos of hardcore Hip-Hop (B.D.P., P.E., N.W.A., etc.), but that doesn’t change the fact that the groove is tight, and it was sparse enough to leave him room for guitar wankage in concert. Likewise, the thick-yet-spacious guitar architecture of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” was simply something to rock out to while Prince stretched his narrative of a conflicted one night stand with a single mother over the framework, cast in vivid hues to brighten up a gray story. The spiritual exploration of “The Cross” has been compared to The Velvet Underground doing gospel, but I always hear Neil Young with the ragged edges cut off and cleaned up; either way, it’s Prince most naked, emotional vocal performance, pushing his voice to the breaking point. There is a split-second moment when it even sounds like U2 (who Prince has had an adverse relationship with ever since The Joshua Tree beat out Sign for the 1987 Album of the Year Grammy), and it occurs to me that maybe U2 are The Stones to Prince’s Beatles – think on it for a while. Similar to “The Cross” in its bare bones approach, “Forever In My Life” is a stripped and straight-forward ballad on settling down, with a superb arrangement of multiple Princes singing around each other; its feature that everyone always seems to hang on is the way the backing vocals guide the lead vocal instead of following, and it was an inspired turn, as is the delicious acoustic guitar outro.

Like “Strange Relationship” and “I Could Never”, Prince’s Pop for Sign was very eclectic, and yet patently Purple. “Play In The Sunshine” is the type of song that The Revolution would’ve torn up in concert, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink song with all the rainbow colors and the needles in the red; it’s such an over the top piece of pop that it made Madonna and Michael Jackson sound depressed. “Starfish & Coffee” is basically a children’s song, but it’s wonderful melody and bouncy nursery rhyme structure are fun for all ages. Then there’s “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”, the best song on the album, and one of Prince’s greatest accomplishments. It is a Pop song like no other, one of those tracks you hear, and you’re not quite sure what you’re listening to. His drum programming feels askew, off kilter, like there’s something wrong with the drum machine, not unlike the beat juggling DJ Shadow would do a decade later (the song could easily find a home on UNKLE’s Shadow-helmed Psyence Fiction). Everything in the song is muffled, the bass warped like plastic left on a dashboard in the summer. The synths sound inebriated, like a drunk cartoon that burps and bubbles float out, and they moan their troubles in weird jazz chord progressions. The lyric, about a surreal flirtation between Prince and the titular waitress and how the encounter clears his head of past troubles, is a great example of Pop gibberish, full of non-sequiturs that bounce Prince’s narrator all over the place; there’s no chorus, just verses full of wonderfully odd ideas like Prince taking a bath with Dorothy while wearing pants cuz he’s “kind of going with someone”, leading to equally bizarre exchanges along the lines of, “My pants were wet, they came off / But she didn’t see the movie / Cuz she hadn’t read the book first / Instead she pretended she was blind / An affliction brought on by a witch’s curse / Dorothy made me laugh / Ha ha, ha ha.” This is Prince at his best, so far ahead of the field that he could release this now and it would still sound next-level.

The naughty overtones and space-age funk of “It” (melodic chimes over a stiff, industrial racket) and “Hot Thing” (come-ons so humid you can see steam rising off skin, and sweat on the walls) worked for getting bodies moving, but it was “U Got The Look”, a pop-nirvana duet between Sheena Easton and Prince-as-Camille, and easily one of his greatest creations, that was guaranteed to steam up clubs for years. Its genius mix of disco hooks and serrated new wave guitars and distorted synths showed similar hybrid classics like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and anything by Robert Palmer as inferior, proving Prince was the new King, and to not even try and fuck with him; plus, only Prince could get away with putting “Let’s get to rammin’” in the chorus of a single during the PMRC era. The Swedes especially must have loved it, because it’s been cribbed by Roxette (“The Look”) and The Knife (the spectacular “Heartbeats”). The album ends with a one-two punch: the nine-minute live funk epic “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”, the last of The Revolution’s appearances, and the gorgeous “Adore”. The former plays like a summary of the Funk of yesteryear and a dry run for the rest of the styles Prince would explore before he left Warner. The latter is Prince as tender lover, the diminutive, sorta-effeminate funk elf that could steal your girl in less than a second; the song is a true love classic, working in every which way, from sincere to smirking. Play this for your significant other, and you’re sure to either get a ‘yes’ to that wedding proposal, or receive that booty right quick.

In 1989, Time Magazine called Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times the best album of the 1980’s. That’s a remarkable claim today, in the face of a slew of classic albums by Michael Jackson, U2, Sonic Youth, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Beastie Boys, R.E.M., Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul, Minutemen, Tom Waits, Metallica, and the Purple One himself, to name just a few. All these years later, I look at this album as almost a forgotten classic. I think one of the questions that needs to be asked is what has happened in popular music in the past twenty years to lessen the positive attributes of this album that led Time to such a assertion? Or maybe the question should be, conversely, what’s the rest of the world’s problem for not treating this as an archetype of modern Pop music? It’s confusing – I find myself staring at the tracklist for the album, and I wonder why so many of these incredible songs never get mentioned among Prince’s great compositions, when at least a third deserve the honor. Prince is undoubtedly viewed as a master of the single, packing his thirty year career with classic hit after hit, but he made, at least, three undeniable classic albums in addition to Sign, and yet the only album tracks you ever hear people talking about come from Purple Rain. Sign, as well as 1980’s Dirty Mind, and 1982’s 1999 all contain songs just as good as “Darling Nikki” and “Baby I’m A Star”, but you never hear mention of “Sister” or “D.M.S.R.” or (especially) “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” (not to mention that some Purple Rain-era b-sides, like “Erotic City” and “17 Days” blow half that album’s tracks away). And so, consider that Sign ‘O’ The Times in the public consciousness has diminished because this is the album where Prince decided to grow up. His early R&B supporters (read: Black) were jumping ship at an alarming rate, migrating to the thin sounds of Whitney Houston and New Edition (though Bobby Brown’s great Don’t Be Cruel owes a ton to Prince); Prince was becoming too challenging for his audience, and they weren’t ready yet to acclimate themselves to the new sounds of Hip-Hop, and that’s why something like New Jack Swing succeeded. Prince was aiming for maturation of the soul, examining the gray areas of relationships in addition to looking for sex, and in so doing his commercial focus gave way to collecting a group of songs that spoke to the world as one whole piece of art. And sometimes, a big Artistic Statement, double-sized, triple-sized or otherwise, just doesn’t sell as well.

01/01. “Sign ‘O’ The Times”
01/02. “Play In The Sunshine”
01/03. “Housequake”
01/04. “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”
01/05. “It”
01/06. “Starfish And Coffee”
01/07. “Slow Love”
01/08. “Hot Thing”
01/09. “Forever In My Life”
02/01. “U Got The Look” [feat. Sheena Easton]
02/02. “If I Was Your Girlfriend”
02/03. “Strange Relationship”
02/04. “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”
02/05. “The Cross”
02/06. “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” [live; feat. The Revolution]
02/07. “Adore”

So, yes, you have a double album in your hands, but what about the whole double album’s worth of songs that got shelved? Well, here’s a guide to where, and where not, to find them:
The Black Album: Shelved at the end of 1987 and heavily bootlegged in 1988, it was finally released in 1994 to help Prince get out of his Warners contract. It closes with Camille leftover “Rock Hard In A Funky Place”.
Graffiti Bridge: “Joy In Repetition” was set for Crystal Ball, but ended up on this soundtrack for the forgettable Purple Rain sequel.
The B-Sides [Disc 3 of The Hits]: Here you’ll find slightly altered versions of “Feel U Up” and “Shockadelica”, both of which were slated for the Camille project, as well as “Power Fantastic” from Dream Factory.
Crystal Ball [NPG collection]: Not to be confused with the aborted album, this is a 3 CD compilation of outtakes from 1998, with a bonus fourth disc of the album The Truth. It was a limited edition, so you’ll have a hard time finding it now. It contained alternate or overdubbed versions of “Dream Factory”, the ten-minute “Crystal Ball”, “Sexual Suicide”, “Last Heart”, “Movie Star” (obviously and hilariously written for Morris Day), “Crucial” – all from the Dream Factory/Crystal Ball period – and “Good Love” from Camille.
Good fuckin’ luck – this is what the internet is for: These are the unreleased tracks. Some have been found on bootlegs for years, but because Prince is such a g-man for his music, his purple people keep this stuff from spreading too far. The prize is “Rebirth Of The Flesh”, the Camille and Crystal Ball opener, and the only Camille song not to be officially released (Which I had once, before my old computer crashed & burned! No!!!). Beyond that, it’s a Dream Factory/Crystal Ball treasure hunt: “Visions”, “It’s A Wonderful Day”, “Big Tall Wall”, “And That Says What?”, “Teacher, Teacher”, “A Place In Heaven” & “Neveah Ni A Ecalp A”, “Interlude”, “In A Large Room With No Light”, “Witness 4 The Prosecution”, “All My Dreams”, “Train”, and “The Ball”. Good luck.

NOTE: The Purple One is notorious for ruling the internet with an iron fist, so finding anything of his online that he doesn't make you pay for is a blessing. There's about zippo on YouTube. So enjoy what's here while you can, cuz it might be taken down by tomorrow.

"Sign 'O' The Times/Play In The Sunshine" [live in LA, 09.87]
from the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards

"Erotic City/Housequake/Slow Love/Adore"
from the Lovesexy 88 concert film

"U Got The Look" ['Long Look' version - video]

"It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" [live in Rotterdam, 06.87]
from the Sign 'O' The Times concert film

from the Sign 'O' The Times concert film [live in Rotterdam, 06.87]
- BONUS: "Slow Love"
- BONUS: "Forever In My Life"
- BONUS: "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man"

- BONUS: "Sign 'O' The Times" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Housequake" [live in LA, 1988]

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