I’ve only ever committed one fashion crime: buying an item of peach-coloured clothing. Prince Rogers Nelson is to blame for this gross misdemeanour. It was in the early summer of 1987 and Id just acquired tickets for his forthcoming show at Wembley Stadium. The tickets contained a simple request: to wear something peach or black to the concert. At the time, my 17-year-old self had a wardrobe full of black jeans and black Cure t-shirts as I flirted with the idea of being a goth to try and impress the prettiest girls at my school. However, with my Prince addiction at its most fierce, I decided to branch out and purchased a horrendous over-sized, pastel-peach jacket from Stolen From Ivor in Manchesters Arndale Centre. Tragically, bad weather forced the Wembley gig to be cancelled and the jacket never got a formal outing.
Luckily my obsession with Prince meant I had already seen a sensational show a few weeks earlier in Paris after a coach journey that involved a motorway crash in which I was injured by flying Lionel Richie cassettes. However, in 1987 this level of dedication was normal behavior. Like many, Id fallen for Princes music on 1984s Purple Rain and had subsequently devoured his back catalogue while amassing a huge collection of his protégé bands material (be it the glorious Sheila E or the laughably bad The Family).
By 1987, I felt I was witnessing a truly golden run of creativity; I had loved the psychedelic pop of 1985s Around The World In A Day and the experimental funk of the following years Parade. These albums were being delivered year-on-year; Prince released nine albums in the decade preceding Sign O The Times. With a resolute belief that only a stubborn 17-year-old can possess, I also considered this new double album to be Princes magnum opus; 16 scintillating tracks which neatly encapsulated his outrageous, chameleonic flair for funk, rock, soul, gospel, rap and downright oddness. Then I thought Sign O The Times was the best album of the eighties and, perhaps, the most complete double album in pop history. A quarter of a century later my views havent changed much.
Less debatable is the widescreen scope of Sign O The Times. It seemed to ooze with the confidence a man completely comfortable with his talent. However, in 1987 life wasnt completely peachy for Prince. Commercially, sales of subsequent albums were well down on the astonishing 21 million units shifted by Purple Rain – which is, perhaps, why Warner Brothers were a little nervous when Prince initially wanted his 1987 release to be a triple album.
Indeed, Sign O The Times was the distillation of several projects during a tempestuous time for Prince. After his second feature film, Under The Cherry Moon, had been rightly panned, simmering tensions had also led him to sack his backing band, The Revolution but not before he had recorded a series of tracks with them under the project name of the Dream Factory. During late 1986, Prince had also laid down several tracks under the moniker of Camille (in which he sang in a heavily-treated falsetto, as on Housequake) and these two bodies of work, along with some brand new material were merged into the 22-track leviathan Crystal Ball. When Warner Brothers refused to release a triple album, Prince dropped seven songs and added a brand new one the albums weakest track, the Prince-by-numbers U Got The Look.
Sign O The Times was released on 31st March 1987 on his Paisley Park imprint. Having bunked off school to buy his previous three albums on the morning of their release, fate had this time conspired against me. I was returning from a school trip that day and asked my girlfriend at the time to buy the album and “to not listen to it, please.” She did the former but not the latter. When I arrived home she announced that Sign O The Times was too long and had too many weird songs. The relationship didnt last much longer.
Two of the weird songs my soon-to-be-ex was referring to were The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker and If I Was Your Girlfriend. Both would become central to my view that Sign O The Times was the period when artistically Prince pushed himself furthest. The former is four minutes of subdued funk and nocturnal keyboards and manages the double whammy of being utterly bizarre and completely brilliant. The gloriously descriptive opening lines of Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade / She worked the nightshift / Dishwater blonde, tall and fine / She got a lotta tips précis a bizarre tale in which our hero takes a bath with the Joni-singing Ms Parker.
If I Was Your Girlfriend is even better and perhaps one of Princes greatest songs. Over a squidgy keyboard line, and employing the androgynous Camille-style falsetto, the lyric outlines the gender tension inherent within the rules of a relationship. If I was your girlfriend / Would you remember to tell me all the things you forgot to tell me / When I was you man?, Prince inquires, before the song rushes into an orgasmic frenzy with him trying to imagine what silence looks like. Both tracks took time to unravel their genius, but were a million miles away from the drooling sex-imp personae of so much of Princes previous work.
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