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.

Former editor of Smash Hits and Q, writes on music here, for the BBC Entertainment & Arts website, Reaction.life and others. Favourite artists include Prince, Blur, Pet Shop Boys, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Daft Punk, Joni Mitchell, John Grant, Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder, The Blue Nile and too many others to mention.