30 great things about Sign O’ The Times, 30 years on

There are other articles (indeed some I’ve written here and here) and books about Sign O’ The Times, the masterpiece released on March 31st, 2017.
There are other, too many, listicles. But how else to celebrate 30 years since it was released in a concise, punchy way? Here goes….

1 The title track. What’s Going On, A Change Is Gonna Come, I Shall Be Released, Everybody Knows. All great state of the protest songs. But they weren’t funky.
2 AIDS, unusual to mention in 1987. Gangs on crack toting a machine gun. Brave for a radio record, the first single off an album following two comparative flops. But spending on space programme? Out. There. Whitney Houston wasn’t singing about that.
3 “Ooh, doggies!” Other ‘classic albums’ do not start their second track like this. Wish they would.
4 “Without the help of margarita and ecstasy”. This is a man thinking clearly, strategically, without the help of most of the Revolution too for that matter, who’d been let go in October 1986, about how to make his best ever record and decided, in album form only, to “make mine a double.”
5 “Shut up already…damn.” What a way to start (and finish) a song.
6 Even three decades after making-of features, documentaries and books about every single pigging classic album known to man (and a few that aren’t), mystery shrouds this record. Prince was at this stage deep in prep with alter-ego Camille being his alter-ego, but was the speeding up and slowing down on Housequake, a mistake by engineer Susan Rogers loved and uncorrected by Prince, an attempt to be Camille, or just a man totally in control of what he was doing in the studio. Princeologists may know but does anybody (else) know ‘bout the Quake? I mean, really?
7 Last word on Housequake. In the States in the ‘80s, black radio used to play album tracks. Which is cool. And Questlove from The Roots heard this track and ran home to tape this off the radio. Which is also cool. And he told this story in his autobiography which, again..well, you get the idea.
8 Storytelling in song is a fine art. Few nail it completely. Billy Joel’s Scenes from An Italian Restaurant, Bob Dylan’s Hurricane, The Divine Comedy’s A Lady of a Certain Age and this, a man meeting a waitress and chatting her up, or her chatting him up, is hardly The Greatest Story Ever Told but it is different. And unusual. And funky again. And fruit cocktail?!?
9 The musicality astounds.The simplicity of the drum machine and keyboard line, clearly knocked up by the wee man, but even in the telling of the tale, the way he weaves his order, the object of his affection singing Joni Mitchell’s Help Me and the “brrrring” ringtone of the cafe all into a couple of lines without breaking his musical flow is matchless.
10 A truckload of musicians namecheck The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd but Joni Mitchell? Nice. As well as frequently performing A Case of You live, here he drops in the opening track from another stone-cold JM piece of greatness, Court & Spark. (For the record, his own favourite Joni album was Hissing of Summer Lawns.)
11 It. Not the finest offering in the man’s canon but his willingness to go to atonal, interesting places (see also Tambourine, Something In The Water Does Not Compute) is part of what makes him different. And Prince.
12 The alarm noise at the start of Starfish and Coffee.
13 The fact it’s the kind of song which would end up on Sesame Street. And did.

14 Important Artists (those initial caps again), with honourable exceptions like The Beatles, Queen, Paul McCartney aren’t silly and playful and fun and child-like. This song, and large chunks of SotT, are.
15 The brass “rolls” (if that’s the technical term) on Slow Love.
16 “The man in the moon is smiling cos he knows what I’m thinking of”…just as well cos there isn’t anyone else on Planet Earth communing with this man’s muse.
17 Hot Thing. Leaving aside the dodgy sexual politics of the lyrics, listening again to this makes you wonder where the brass riffs stop, and Prince’s programmed keyboards begin. And that guitar…..
18 For any British pop fan of a certain age, the fact the Hot Thing was “looking for Big Fun” never failed to amuse.
19 Forever In My Life. People who choose this song at their wedding have got good taste. Even if Prince and Susannah never made it to the altar.
20 “Here we are folks, the dream we all dream of, boy vs girl, in the world series of love.” A theme is emerging. This is the best record for talky-bit intros in the history of records.
21 If I Was Your Girlfriend Clearly, the intro suggests (see also Let’s Go Crazy) that he has given a church wedding some thought. But that brooding, ticking beat that kicks in and takes over the song, with that digitised voice again (is this Prince? Camille? Prince as a girl? someone else entirely?) in a weird but wondrous direction. And all cos the home studio got the wrong tempo and he ended up liking it.
22 That track, It, Forever In My Life, Ballad of Dorothy Parker…listen to how simple they are. As Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip noticed: “It leaves space for things.”
23 Prince is a bath man, not a shower man. He clarifies this on two of this record’s songs. So now we know.
24 “For you naked I would dance a ballet.Would that get you off? Tell me what will. ” You don’t hear Thom Yorke singing that on OK Computer.
25 “Baby I Just Can’t Stand To See You Happy/More Than That, I Hate to See You Sad”. The not-getting-married thing is beginning to make sense by now.
26 The Sign O’ The Times record is amazing in part because it was part of a recording session which included a triple album workout, the Camille project, The Dream Factory, The Black Album…the list is longer than the heels in which he used to dance on stage. But to have tracks like I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man kicking around from five years previous, and drop them in here shows a certain forethought. This album certainly wasn’t all just thrown together.
27 The Cross. He means it, man. Susan Rogers may not have liked his drumming (“too technical”)
but the vocal is as intense as the subject matter demands.
28 The nine minute track on the classic album will introduce feelings of dread from most listenings. The Artist has Something Important to Say. And won’t stop Initialising Capital Letters. Eugh. It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night is a 9:02 party in Prince’s head which doesn’t let up for a second. You wonder if James Brown heard this and felt envy or if he was just too busy dancing.
29 Sheila E’s rap (seemingly down the phone) on It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night is much better than all of Tony M.’s on Diamonds and Pearls put together. Prince got worse at hip hop the bigger it got.
30 Adore is Teddy Pendergrass, Maxwell, The Stylistics, D’Angelo, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and all the other good things with the lights down low. In some ways a strange way to close the album but a sweet way too. Adore does make one thing abundantly clear. The brass lifts, the keyboard, the programmed drum patterns, Eric Leeds’ sax, Prince’s guitar, in particular the soul claps are all brilliant. But Prince’s voice is the greatest instrument by far on Sign O’ The Times. Mess with your mind? No doubt about it.

The Revolution Will Be Televised (We Hope)

Viva The Revolution!
A sad event led to Bobby Z, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Brown Mark and Doctor Fink meeting this week to reminisce about their much-missed friend.
Talk has turned, as it seems to on these occasions, about bringing the band back together.
The fact The Revolution are missing one rather crucial member could be seen as rather important. Like the High Flying Birds without Noel Gallagher and unlike Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, who did all right once the Peter Green element was phased out.
Prince famously marshalled his bands like a Panzer division (or if he was in really sadistically fierce mood, like James Brown) with an ability to change song, mid-song, and riff for 20 minutes into a freeform dance party. Or play three songs in two minutes.
These are tremendously accomplished musicians playing, one presumes, Prince songs.
It could be great. Bring on The New Power Generation and 3rd Eye Girl’s tour. And Sheila E’s and Candy Dulfer’s too. If you’ve played with Prince, you never need to stay off the road for long?
But who could front the Revolution? Which frontman or woman would have the versatility, scale and vision to sing the songs the Revolution could play?
(Out of courtesy, am assuming they won’t be doing new, or their own, material. If they are, stop reading now and I’ll stop writing).
The Revolution’s new singer doesn’t have to be bandleader of Prince’s calibre. Shouldn’t be really. That’s impossible. But a great singer is a must and when the songs are that good, how high do their qualifications have to be?
Here’s an idea.
Scrap the X Factor this year. Make every week Prince Week. Have Wendy, Lisa, Brown, Matt Fink and Bobby as the judges.
If the public picks the wrong winner, the judges get to override the decision. Well, because the public didn’t play on Pop Life, did they?
It could be the longest career an X Factor winner had yet. And the best lives shows yet.
Loser gets to go on tour with James Arthur.

“Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here Tonight…”


Birmingham, NEC 1990 The first time was worth the wait. Tickets for the Sign O’ The Times tour had been discussed with friends, where all were summoned wearing peach and black, but UK dates were pulled. The Lovesexy tour, where Prince emerged from a cat with Cat (of “Cat! We Need You To Rap!” fame), had pulled out the stops but broken the Paisley Park bank. The Nude tour was stripped down, back to basics stuff. Or it would have been without the incendiary guitar-playing, dancing in heels and call-and-response to a dragoon of hits. If there had been a budget cut, no one noticed.
Memories: being so excited led to two loo visits in the half-hour leading up to the concert, buying two T-shirts and listening to the Sign O The Times double album four times on the bus down. Prince got everyone to sing along to Take Me With U, and it was still ringing in my ears when the bus dropped me off at Buchanan Street seven hours after the concert.


Celtic Park, 1992 The Diamond and Pearls tour
A funny period in the wee fella’s character as with any stadium tour, the Diamonds and Pearls tour the pre-match hoopla threatened to get on the nerves. He was pushing the merits of future Baywatch star Carmen Electra (the video messages on a loop kept telling us “Carmen Electra is inevitable”) but they didn’t say it was inevitable she’d end up on Baywatch and commercials for Taco Bell and hair colour products.
The moment he walked out to a Mahalia Jackson song, he reminded you who he was, and why one of his shows could never be Just Another Stadium Tour. Seguing from Bambi, into Delirious into the freeform jam of Willing And Able demonstrates the myriad ways he could make a crowd move.


London Hammersmith Apollo, 2002 He was in a jazz mood at this point of his career, as you would be with Candy Dulfer and Maceo Parker in the band. one of his big hits, When You Were Mine, being the 12th song in after the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster and Track 15 before he slid into mega-hit mode with Take Me With U and Raspberry Beret. Ending a three-hour set – which contained no Let’s Go Crazy, 1999 or Kiss – or with Anna Stesia was bold, surprising and entirely Prince-like. An artist like this reminds us there aren’t really mis-steps just Prince decisions.


London O2, 2007 Snuck in under the wire to see the last night of the 21 dates (ahead of the aftershow with Amy Winehouse singing Love Is a Losing Game) and he started with I Feel For You and pretty much crammed in most of what you’d want including a sublime Sometimes It Snows… in the piano segment and 36 songs, many of them superhits from I Wanna Be Your Lover to The Most Beautiful Girl…, defined and then re-defined crowd-pleasing. Playing the same venue 21 nights in a month might leave some artists looking crumpled and sick of their songs. When you have a catalogue as rich as Prince’s, not a hint of it here.


Madison Square Garden, 2010 This was incredible. Sheila E was back in the band and there were so many hot spots from a 150 minute set, it feels perverse to pick one. But so what? The version of A Love Bizarre with Sheila on vocals and drums and a guest spot from ?uestlove, reinforced the image of Mr. Nelson as the Pied Piper of music. Spike Lee, Jamie Foxx, Naomi Campbell, Professor Cornell West and Alicia Keys were up on stage dancing by the end of the song in the most upscale conga New York has seen for a long time.


Hop Farm, Kent 2011 He did about two and three quarter hours in a field in Kent. A fifteen year-old boy near me was screaming and crying after this set. “I thought I liked music but this has changed everything! I’m going to buy all his records.” It was great to be reacquainted with that feeling.
He brought out Larry Graham for the encore saying “look who it is!” and I’m guessing the 15 year boy didn’t. No matter. They played Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People, and I Want To Take You Higher as well as The Beatles’ Come Together. He also played The Time’s Cool, MJ’s Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, three encores and some Prince songs too. His all-female band, a proto-type for 3rd Eye Girl, smoked it. The performance of Controversy in the encore was a memorable stand-out. If you can produce something that funky, and then bring out a founding member of Sly and the Family Stone, you probably doing more than one thing right.


First Direct Arena, Leeds, 2014 The Hit N Run tour saw Prince make guerilla manouevres in Manchester and London for last-minute gigs which for those of us with day jobs necessitated making plans to go to the bigger venues – in this case, Leeds O2. There were sections of a crowd of undecideds who felt it was OK to talk through The Beautiful Ones on piano. Or maybe that was a sign of this writer’s age. Although he touched on funk, airing Vanity 6’s Nasty Girl and Musicology, it was arguably his rockiest band yet with Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford and Ida Nielsen.
Prince has been through just about every musical incarnation, channeling Count Basie and Cary Grant in Under the Cherry Moon, Rick James on Dirty Mind, Earth, Wind and Fire through his Musicology period and this was obviously the point he fancied being in a gragae band. So playing a slowed-down Let’s Go Crazy, as well as Funknroll, Screwdriver and Guitar really suited this period.

Camden Roundhouse 2014 This was a 5.30pm matinee before the second Roundhouse show, and there were queues round the Chalk Farm Morrisons to let fans in. They were turning folk away without photo ID and for some reason, only a Scotland Supporters Travel card at the last minute saved me. Highlights: all of it really, but the sublime piano cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, an 18-minute Purple Rain which invoked the crowd to a level where it reached prayer, and closing with She’s Always In My Hair left the poor sods who hadn’t bough a ticket for the second show skulking around in reception hoping against hope that might sneak them into the second show (it didn’t). Oh well, there would always be another visit to London, wouldn’t there?


What do you call a musician with a band? The drummer.

Can I count it in?
As befits a man who fined his band if they turned up late, James Brown liked setting the tone of things. He may have relied on drummers as good as Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield but he also liked to have a play on the sticks himself.
So many musicians did. Marvin Gaye drummed with the Funk Brothers. Skip Spence, J Mascis, Jack White, Don Henley, Barry White, Lionel Hampton all started out behind the kit.
Like Liverpool under Alan Hansen, the tight pace on Earth, Wind and Fire records was built from the back. Singer-songwriter Maurice White drummed for them before, unlike Alan Hansen, moving upfront.
Uptown Funk started as a jam in Bruno Mars’ studio in LA with Jeff Bhasker on synth, Mark Ronson on bass and Bruno on…you know what instrument by now.
Kiss sounded like a folk song and was intended for the funk band Mazarati, until Prince heard the re-programmed hi-hat through a Linn Drum, by producer David Z (the bloke who midwifed Lipps Inc’s Funky Town and Fine Young Cannibals’ She Drives Me Crazy) and claimed it for his own.
There are some – Sheila E, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Animal from the Muppets – who couldn’t be anything else other than a drummer.
Then there are other musicians who were comfortable pounding the skins as well as turning their hand to a few other things. Paul McCartney tub-thumped on The Ballad of John and Yoko, Dear Prudence and Back in the USSR. The drums on Superstition came courtesy of the bloke who played the clavinet, sang on, and wrote the thing. Listen to the beats on Prince’s Parade – the first four tracks in one take – before he laid over the rest of the instruments. The rhythm playing on so many other of his tracks (Musicology, Darling Nikki, Tambourine, It’s Going to be a Beautiful Night to name just four) would put men (and women) who did that as their only job to shame.
And that of course leads to good taste in choosing their own drummers. Prince has worked with Sheila E, Michael Bland and Hannah Ford of 3rd Eye Girl – all outstanding. Phil Collins picked Bill Bruford and then Chester Thompson (who also drummed for Frank Zappa, another former drummer) to replace him at Genesis gigs.
The drummer who has the drive and presence of mind to take over a rock band, or become a solo frontman, can be relied upon to pick decent sticksmen. For a part of the band often derided, it can be seen by a bandleader as the weak link which needs to be replaced first. When Dave Grohl played William Goldsmith’s drum parts on the Foo Fighters’ second album, Goldsmith who had done as many as 96 takes on one song, understandably quit. Grohl drafted in Taylor Hawkins.
Tony McCarroll was the first member of Oasis to walk the plank, on the grounds Noel Gallagher could hardly sack his brother, although he did his best to in Oasis’ last days. In the context of music in the past half-century, the attention to detail from the teacher in Whiplash towards Miles Teller’s character makes sense. He is, after all, the drummer.
Other stars not necessarily bracketed in the ultra-muso territory started from the stool. Madonna with her first band The Breakfast Club, Bobby Gillespie at the start of Primal Scream.
Karen Carpenter’s drumming was a long runner-up behind her voice and her brother’s arrangements in what made Carpenters’ records great – but her drumming still helped build their sound.
The reason why so many drummers make the sound of an act is unclear. It could be a throwback to the great drummer-bandleaders like Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Buddy Rich and others. Or the drummers are used to winning the arguments because they clatter about the loudest. He who makes the most noise gets his, or her, own way.
Phil Collins, for many the textbook example of drummer turned frontman turned international rock star, never really wandered far from his kit. Because when you think of his most infamous solo hit, it’s not really the lyrics, or the vocals or any other instruments that stand out. You can hear what coming in the air tonight? The beat. It’s always the beat.