35. Prince - Sign O The Times

If Mozart were alive today, he'd be a 5'2" black man living in Minneapolis.  He'd live in his own world that the rest of us have absolutely no conception of.  At four in the morning, it would suddenly dawn on him that he had to have a rhinoceros.  And it would be the responsibility of his staff to find him one.  After the rhinoceros showed up, he'd pet it twice, name it Butterfly, and then go to the kitchen and make himself a peanut butter and pop rock sandwich, because he's just a regular guy.  Just before bed, he'd spend some time in his home studio, laying down tracks for a song that was so simple and brilliant it would bring you to tears on the first listen.  If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were alive today, his name would be Prince Rogers Nelson.

As a twelve year-old white kid living in Sherman Oaks, California, I wasn't exposed to much soul and R&B music.  I heard the hits, but never really embraced much urban music.  And judging by this list, you may say that I never really did.  While that may be true, and to a certain extent I have to admit that, I've had my moments.  Prince was the first of those moments.  I'd always tentatively listened to urban music, but with Prince, I jumped into the deep end almost immediately.  In late 1982, I was watching MTV when the video for "1999" came on.  I sat, transfixed, for the whole song.  I saved up my allowance and got my first Prince album, 1999.  Within a couple of months, I also had Controversy and Dirty Mind.  I've owned every other Prince album since (even the bootlegs I had to pay $50 for at the Pasadena City College Swap Meet, like The Black Album and Crystal Ball).

Being the big Prince fan that I was, I bought the single for "Sign O the Times" in late February 1987, anxiously awaiting his new album but content that at least I had something new.  Since Prince had shown an unpredictability in musical styles over the years, I didn't really know what to expect.  What I got (and we all got) was a song based in simplicity, with compelling lyrics about the state of the world.  Prince composed, arranged, produced and performed the entire song on the then-state-of-the-art Fairlight synthesizer.  Although the Fairlight could sample any number of sounds and then tweak them, Prince only used stock sounds that came with the keyboard out of the box.

Lyrically complex and compelling, the simplistic approach to the music really works well.  You've got the opening "pings" of the keyboard along with the muted drum machine.  The bass line is a bit more funky, but straightforward nonetheless.  Throughout the song, there are bits of guitar train of thought that gives a jazzy feeling to this blues song.  Prince's guitar playing has always been criminally underrated, yet Prince doesn't let his guitar player ego get in the way of what the song needs (when he plays live, though, it's a different matter, but I won't get into that here).  Near end of the song, he adds a snare drum march beat that's a bit muted in the mix for me (which he fixes in the live version - check it out below, it's awesome!). 

Even though it was played all through a modern synthesizer, the song has a strong bluesy feel to it, mixed with Prince's trademark funk.  The lyrics are strictly blues.  There's no silver lining in "Sign O the Times."  He starts right off the bat with a reference to the then exploding AIDS epidemic:

In France a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same

Apparently Prince doesn't agree with space exploration, since the chorus talks about "a rocket ship explodes" (a reference to the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986) yet we still want to fly.  Then the bleak lyrics get bleaker:

Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn't afford 2 feed it
And we're sending people 2 the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer 4 the very first time
Now he's doing horse, it's June

Those last two lines are poetic genius.  To capture the devastating downward spiral of drug addition in two lines amazes me.  And the phrasing where he pauses before telling us "it's June" perfectly captures the almost unbreakable hold that drugs can put on a person.  The world is going to hell in a handcart and Prince is showing us exactly how.  All that's missing from making this a classic blues song is the E-A-E-B chord progression to start it off.

Even though he highlights the despair in the world, he adds the following at the end:

Hurry before it's too late
Let's fall in love, get married, have a baby
We'll call him Nate... if it's a boy

Normally, those may be interpreted as words of hope, but considering that he wants to get married and have a child quickly before the end of the world comes, there's an inescapable fatalism intertwined with the hope.  So his blues song retains its authentic lyrical style.  And that last line, when he pauses again before "if it's a boy" is vintage Prince.  His phrasing is always compelling and "Sign O the Times" may be his most interesting example.

Although there are Prince songs I listen to more often, and could also have made this list if I hadn't restrained myself (1999, Little Red Corvette, Purple Rain, The Cross, When Doves Cry, Kiss - I could go on forever), "Sign O the Times," as a complete package, is deserving of its place on my list.  It's like the movie "Million Dollar Baby."  It's great and it makes you think, but how often are you going to watch it again?  Exactly.  But they're both still great and deserve all the accolades they get.

For this one, I've put a staggering six videos at the end of the post.  There's a good reason, though.  To show Prince's versatility (and his talent at playing live), I've given you the album version of "Sign O the Times" as well as a live version he did on MTV in 1987 where his guitar playing is much more prominent and there's the great snare drum part at the end.  I don't want to ruin it for you, so just watch - you won't regret it.  The last four are all from "An Evening With Kevin Smith," who worked with Prince in the late 90's on a documentary that was never released.  I'm a huge Kevin Smith fan and this is one of the funniest stories I've ever heard in my life.  It's a long story, so it's broken down into four videos.  Check them all out, the whole story is great.  So enjoy them all, I know I did.

(I talked in this post about the small number of soul and urban artists on my list.  Of all of the songs on my list, fifteen are by urban artists.  That's about a 7 1/2 : 1 ratio.  I'm not sure if that's an indication of some subconscious racism on my part or just the fact that I was exposed to more rock/pop than soul, R&B and hip-hop.  Something to consider, for sure, but I still stand by my list.  And while it may sound self-serving, I just picked the songs that I thought were great, not paying any attention to the ethnic diversity of my list.  To pick more black artists, or to make sure I had some latin music on it would do a disservice to exactly those artists that I would've put on the list to make myself look better.)
0 Responses