Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: A Retrospective
by Michael A. Gonzales
When Prince finally unveiled the soul sonic mastery of Sign O’ the Times (SOTT) on March 31, 1987, he had both everything and nothing to prove. Having reached his commercial zenith three years before with the electric dreamy rock dream Purple Rain, the powerhouse album and film that made him a superstar, there were still doubters waiting for him to fall.
Prince’s experimental follow-ups Around the World in a Day and Parade (which also served as the soundtrack to his disastrous second film Under a Cherry Moon) were both aurally vibrant displays of his colorful musical palette that drew on everything from James Brown to Burt Bacharach, Nino Rota to Joni Mitchell, but brand new bags ain’t for everybody, and some fans (as well as Warner executives) were getting antsy.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times Album Cover
While us true believers were content to follow our purple clad leader down whatever psychedelic path he chose, other folks were missing those straight-up Prince party jams like “Uptown” or “Party Up,” two upbeat tracks that blared across urban America just a couple of years before his crossover was complete.
Still, when word began to filter through the Prince underground that he’d disbanded his group The Revolution, whose wily white-women members Wendy Melvoin (guitar) and Lisa Coleman (keyboards) had seemingly become vital to Prince’s sound, even the believers blinked, questioning his decision. Not one to be pinned down by the industry, his band or the fans (much like his slippery hero Sly Stone), if we wanted Prince to stay, we had to play the game his way.
Sly & the Family Stone – “If You Want Me to Stay”
Thinking back 30 years as I soared through the stormy clouds and purple raindrops towards that yesterday a million miles away, I crash-landed Little Nemo style in my Harlem bedroom. It was seven o’clock in the morning, and outside the sooty window, the sun was shining. Sitting on the side of the bed with a strong cup of Bustelo in hand, I was already tardy for my gig at a downtown homeless shelter, but they were used to me being late. The stereo was in the corner blasting either WBLS or KISS-FM, but none of that mattered when the morning jock announced that he was about to cue the new Prince single, “Sign O’ The Times.”
Prince – “Sign O’ The Times” Single Artwork
Having never heard the song, time stopped. I might’ve spilled my coffee on my leg or maybe quickly called my girlfriend, Initia (name a Prince album, and I’ll tell you who I was dating when it hit), to tell her to tune in. I might’ve pulled down the shade, turned off the light and jacked up the volume. Back in those days, I liked listening to Prince in the dark while puffing some mind-right, sometimes with headphones on, paying attention to every falsetto yelp, guitar lick, LinnDrum tick and ingenious musical arrangement in his aural arsenal. Propping up a pillow, I leaned against the wall and fell into my own version of “the sunken place.”
The track opened with eerie synth sounds bumbling from beneath the ground, an urban monster electric-boogie C.H.U.D. struggling to the surface. The keyboards textures were dark, a minimal groove as raw as those made in the dub yard of Lee Scratch Perry. However, the darkness of the music was only shade compared to eclipse of the spooky lyrics documenting a postmodern planet Earth on fire, a world where sex could literally kill, crack cocaine cowboys controlled the streets, the government spent more money on technology than people and a rocket ship exploded in the sky.
“1986: Space Shuttle Challenger”
Prince – “Sign O’ The Times”Official Video
Having put his falsetto on the shelf, it was as though Prince had stepped from behind the curtain and was giving us his all-true man. “Prince knew how to be both the hoe and the pimp,” Vernon Reid said recently. “He played both roles so boldly.” While I didn’t realize until three decades later, “SOTT” is an urban blues dirge, a lament for the mess that President Ronald Reagan, the 40th elected president who took office in 1980, dragged us in at the dawn of the decade.
A former Hollywood actor who had played his share of All-American jocks and servicemen, Reagan possessed charm, a savvy wife and “infectious optimism,” as late newscaster Peter Jennings once noted. Out the box, he was on a mission to ‘Make America Great Again’ in a ‘50s sitcom sense, when Negros knew their place, homosexuals stayed in the closet, and anything that wasn’t compatible to the Happy Days imaginary white-picket-fence minds of his administration, was simply exterminated.
Taking office when he was 69 in 1980, that same year, 22-year-old Prince released his revolutionary third album Dirty Mind, proving to the world — and himself — that he was more than a teen-dream pin-up boy, but also a freaky genius on his own path towards pop domination. I doubt Reagan knew who pre-Purple Rain-Prince was, but the bad-ass artist from Minneapolis had his mascara-ed side eye on the right-wing Republican.
Reagan for President Ad ’80
A year after Reagan took office, Prince even went so far as to call him out by name over feedback and guitars on the anti-Nukes rant “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” However, while the two-term president managed not to engage in any nuclear battles, it doesn’t mean he was good for the country. Claiming to put prayer first, Reagan obviously put people last as he became the face of evil that hovered over lower-middle class and poor communities, both black and white. He smashed unions, closed factories, cut social programs and ushered in a brutal recession that was staggering to the country.
As the rich got richer, jobs were lost, schools became worse, and a few years later as the storm clouds got darker, our streets were overrun with guns and crack cocaine that was allegedly connected to the C.I.A. In the gay communities across the world, “a big disease with a little name,” as Prince would sing on the single “SOTT,” was killing thousands. By 1985, when Ronnie was on the re-election campaign trail kissing babies and spreading lies, there were 12,000 deaths from AIDS, an epidemic his administration refused to even acknowledge.
For many in America, who were homeless, dying or beaming up in some desolate dwelling, life was worse than any mash-up of Orwell/Huxley predictions from decades of yore. Between government and private corporations, regular folks were being squashed, and this sense of red, white and blue dread was well reflected within pop culture as a brand of gritty science fiction rooted in the dirt of our real world. That bleak future funk became a central theme for creators ranging from the silver screen dystopias of Blade Runner and Robo Cop to the Bristol board bleakness of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen to the paperback fictions of Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson, whose award-winning novel Neuromancer (1984) defined the movement as cyberpunk.
“Cyberpunk: The Documentary”
Although Prince, unlike David Bowie, didn’t talk much about the books he read, he might’ve been sipping from William Burroughs bug juice, nibbling from John Shirley’s crazed City Come A-Walkin’ or snacking on bits of Illuminati text. However, since most cyberpunk that wasn’t Dhalgren (whose protagonist was coincidentally named “The Kid”) was mostly future culture seen through a white lens, I began calling the black hand side “cyberfunk,” which means as much as my homie Mark Dery’s term “Afrofuturism” from his 1994 essay “Black to the Future.”
With Prince as both creator and often the main character of the narratives, that cyberfunk sensibility could be heard in the electrifying mojos of world building “Uptown” (that imaginary paradise where we all hung-out until Paisley Park was constructed), the sinister synths/guitars feedback screech of “Annie Christian,” the genius chile dreaming electric sheep of “1999” and the double-whammy of chocolate pop that was Purple Rain.
Much like Max Headroom, our man Prince was always 20 minutes into the future, and his music (and persona) helped breathe life into generations of studio futurists including Derrick May, Frankie Knuckles, Dallas Austin, FKA Twigs, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams and Janelle Monáe. Hell, even the names of Prince’s pseudonyms (Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind) and protégés (Vanity 6, Mazarati) sound like characters in some bug-jacked novel with a cover painted by Leo and Diane Dillon.
By the winter of 1987, suffering from Alzheimer’s and talking to the ghosts of all the souls that suffered and died since he’d taken office, Ronnie Raygun’s wrath (as Gil-Scott Heron called him on the funky “B-Movie”) was at its height even as he prepared to vacate the White House 12 months later. Although Prince was one of the biggest artists on the planet that decade, he hadn’t totally erased his working-class roots, and the release of the “SOTT” single served as a battle cry of dread for a generation that was tired of the bullshit.
In addition, the social commentary of “SOTT” stoked anticipation for an album many of us thought (hoped) would be a protest song-cycle on par with Marvin Gaye‘s poignant opus What’s Going On. But since Prince and Warner Brothers hadn’t sent review copies to critics, no civilian, even the big boys at Rolling Stone and Spin, knew exactly what that mutha sounded like until the official day of release.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times Era Photo
Back then, albums were released on Tuesdays and SOTT was no different. After a mostly sleepless Monday night at Intia’s apartment on 22nd Street and 2nd Avenue, I rose early and called in sick so I could spend the day listening to the album. In addition to slaving at the homeless shelter by day, I was also a budding music critic writing reviews for the alternative downtown monthly, Cover, and was supposed to flip them a piece later that week for my column, “Da Cyberfunk Generation.”
Three hours after the dawn, I rushed out the crib and headed to Barry’s Record and Tapes (my personal High Fidelity-esque outlet) a few blocks away. The store’s windows were covered with posters of various groups, but inside, the front racks were all about SOTT, which the manager Patrick was still placing in the slots. Grasping the double-album quickly, I stared at the cover with a mile-wide smile as though I were Charlie Bucket with a chocolate factory gold ticket.
Staring at the stunning Jeff Katz photo, the strange image furthered my cyberfunk thoughts and has since become my favorite Prince album cover; emblazoned with the man himself standing on the edge of the picture looking like the last man on Earth staring at the aftermath of a dope-ass concert in some matrix. Although I don’t know for sure, I think director Malik Hassan Sayeed’s blackadelic rock star P-funky “Left & Right” video he made for D’Angelo in 1999 was inspired by Katz’s photograph.
D’Angelo – “Left & Right”
SOTT, as you all know by now, wasn’t no protest album, but it was the bomb, a wild styled brilliant mess that my buddy Scott Poulson-Bryant later explained in the pages of Spin magazine as being, “All over the place and in the pocket.” I’m not going to front: I used to think that the title track was a little preachy (maybe that part about lil cuz smoking a joint then becoming a heroin junkie was a bit too much), but now I can’t hear enough of Prince’s stressed-out news-junkie persona.
There was no track on SOTT that I hated; back then I wasn’t really first-listen feeling “Play in the Sunshine,” which started with a rockabilly “Delirious” vibe and ended in some cosmic wonderland where the Cheshire cat smiled from a tree as I made my way to the “Housequake.” Familiar as I was to the Chicago house scene, I couldn’t help but think Prince made this track to tell Marshall Jefferson, Jamie Principle and those other Windy City dance freaks that he approved of what they was putting down.
Marshall Jefferson – “Move Your Body”
Jamie Principle – “Baby Wants To Ride”
SOTT had splendid straight-up soul stunners, namely the lushly orchestrated “Slow Love” and “Adore,” which is in my top-five of the best ballads ever composed, right next to “Let’s Get It On” and “Ohh Baby Baby.” One can almost hear some dirty-mouthed Eddie Murphy-inspired comedian screaming, “Back in the ‘80s, there was a lot of fucking going on when a brother put on ‘Adore.’ That’s what I heard anyway.” Besides the red light slow drag of “Adore,” my favorite songs on SOTT are “Strange Relationship,” “If I was Your Girlfriend,” “U Got the Look” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” where at the end he goes straight-up Sly Stone on the groove, the growl and the “Well!”
Prince – “If I Was Your Girlfriend” Single Artwork
Recently, having somehow found the original Cover review I penned, it’s quite telling that my then lapsed- Catholic self completely ignored “The Cross” in favor of the wax poetic party track recorded live with The Revolution, “It’s Going to Be a Beautiful Night.” I’d just like to correct the error of my heathen ways and say that “The Cross” is one of Prince’s best spiritually-based (“The Ladder,” “God”) joints.
Last April, when word went out that Prince was dead, “The Cross” was the first song I played, absorbing the power, strength, love and sitars that the brother put into the track that author Ben Greenman describes in his upcoming book “Dig If You Will A Picture” as “a muscular cluster of power chords that was Prince’s most explicitly Christian song to date.”
Without a doubt there were many dark days in the 1980s, but there were also inventive artists such as Prince who always stood on the edge as he pushed his art further with each new project. “Part of the reason many of us here loved Prince so much was because we wanted to feel free,” noted author Asha Bandele said recently, “and you couldn’t be anymore free than that motherfucker.”
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.