Playing God
Prince: Sign O’ the Times



we recorded hundreds of tunes between Parade and Sign o' the Times. I only wish I had tape copies!”

—Wendy Melvoin


Prince’s 1987 double-album, Sign O’ The Times, is one of the Purple One’s most popular recordings and not low on my favorites list. Why then, do I dare play God? Well...although Sign O’ The Times is a fine record(s), I feel it could have been not only better, but also Prince’s incontestable masterpiece—it’s about six or seven exceptional cuts away from being that in present form. Now this may sound like a great number to overcome—if superior material wasn’t at hand—but it was and in spades. Many casual fans don’t realize that Sign O’ The Times is essentially a slapdash compilation of material selected from three aborted albums Prince recorded circa 1986-1987: The Dream Factory, Camille, and Crystal Ball. This was perhaps Prince’s most prolific period as a songwriter, musician and producer, and the Purple One still regards the mid-eighties as a very special time for him creatively—a time when he was truly branching out and had great songs to burn. Unfortunately, burning occurred...or to be less extreme, some questionable selections were made. Why did a haunting piece of modern pop like “Joy In Repetition” get edged out by the big band schmaltz of “Slow Love”? Why was a quasi-live and very conventional jam like “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” deserve album cut status, while a distinctive funk gem like “Shockadelica” got demoted to B-Side status? Why can’t I, to this day, hear a cleanly edited, mastered version of the exceedingly catchy “Wonderful Ass”?


In the mid to late 1980s, Prince had an irksome tendency to obstruct his funkier, blacker music. Down & dirty, rhythmically driven songs like “Irresistible Bitch” and “Erotic City” were left off 1999 and Purple Rain; 1986’s Camille, his funkiest and dirtiest album since 1981’s Dirty Mind, was shelved; and a year later, the notorious Black Album met a similar fate. Was this due to the demands of his growing Caucasian fan base or simply to win the favor of his white girlfriends? Who knows? Most likely it had something to do with this guy named Jesus. Despite Prince’s initial reluctance, most of this material has since been released in one format or another; however, much like with Brian Wilson’s SMiLE era recordings, they will never have the same cultural impact they would have had if released in their day. For example, Prince’s ten-minute opus, “Crystal Ball”, was released in 1998 within the box-set of the same name, but the 3-disk set also included a lot of mediocre NPG-era material and as a result, there was little fanfare. If “Crystal Ball” was actually released in 1987, alongside quality tracks like “Sign O’ The Times” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”, it could have been the beginning of a new movement in pop culture! Hell, people may have even taken Prince seriously when he changed his name to a symbol!


If in 1987, Prince had placed a bit more importance on the groove and less on saving our souls, nearly all of Sign O’ The Times would be undistinguishable from today’s hottest music, except for in one respect: it would be superior. However, thanks to Playing God technology, this proposed should-have-been Sign O’ Times can now be explored through Stylus Magazine and your home computer. In my opinion, the below track-listing makes for a more cohesive, edgier and funkier album than the official release. In cases of songs found on the official release, I don’t bother with supplement text. Those familiar with Sign O’ Times will take note that I left the first four tracks of Disc One and Disc Two alone. I love the first half of both discs and would never suggest a change of any kind; it’s only with the second half of both disks I take issue.


Disc One


Sign O’ The Times
Play In The Sunshine
Housequake
The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker

Dream Factory – Not released until 1998’s Crystal Ball box-set, this track was obviously the title-cut for the aborted Dream Factory album; the sessions for this project were March-July 1986 and marked Prince’s final recordings with the Revolution. Even with album title prestige removed, “Dream Factory” is an ingenious and infectious number; a hand clapping, guitar driven funk track, which sounds closer to Outkast and The Neptunes than anything from the 1980s. Its punchy beginning is quite dynamic after the softer groove of “Dorothy Parker”.

Hot Thing

Joy In Repetition – A moody synth ballad recorded in 1986, during the Crystal Ball sessions. A few years later, it would turn up on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack in the company of lackluster songs (save for the superb “Thieves In The Temple”). “Joy In Repetition” makes for an affecting calm between the ass moving tracks “Hot Thing” and “Shockadelica”.

Shockadelica – The B-Side for the “If I Was Your Girlfriend” single, “Shockadelica” was originally a track for the shelved Camille album. With a heart-pumping groove, rocking guitar and head bobbing vocals, “Shocakdelica” is immediately grabbing and uniquely Prince.

Movie Star – For years, a popular track with bootleggers, “Movie Star” was finally released in 1998 on the Crystal Ball box set. When Prince recorded this version of the song in 1986 (during the Dream Factory sessions), he had intended it for Morris Day to sing (this was never to be). Day’s presence—though usually delightful—isn’t required here; Prince’s mock pimping and jive talk certainly hits the mark and makes for hilarious satire.

Wonderful Ass –First recorded in 1983, then recorded again for the Dream Factory project, this snappy track is straight from the Dirty Mind hip, but works great in this context as well. With its low-fi funk and quirky Casanova lyrics, “Wonderful Ass” is a wonderful expansion from “Movie Star”. With hooky synth lines and melodic vocals, “Wonderful Ass” definitely could have been a hit single and predated a slew of chart-toppers praising a woman’s backside. Also, the song features a vocal bridge that’s melodically similar to the INXS hit “Meditate” (released a few months after Sign O’ The Times). If monotone rapping paid off for those Aussies, it could have performed likewise for His Purple Majesty. Yes, Sign O’ The Times did have two hit singles (the title-cut and “U Got The Look”), but why not go for more if possible?


Disc Two


U Got The Look
If I Was Your Girlfriend
Strange Relationship
I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man

Last Heart – Another song recorded in 1986 (during the Dream Factory sessions), which had hit single potential, but wasn’t released in a timely fashion (it eventually turned up on 1998’s Crystal Ball box-set). The smooth yet funky “Last Heart” is Prince at his simplest and most tuneful.

Crystal Ball – A symphonic funk epic, which finds Prince even more sonically ambitious than usual. With help from a tenacious chorus, the song is listener-friendly in spite of its lengthy, experimental nature. From the jagged, libidinous guitar to the sparse hits of jazzy orchestration, “Crystal Ball” should have been a priority release in 1987 and a stirring climax for Sign O’ The Times.

Power Fantastic – I hear the delicate piano work of Lisa Coleman and I’m struck by its melancholic quality; not simply because “Power Fantastic” is a bittersweet ballad, but also because it was one of the last songs recorded with the Revolution (another result of the Dream Factory sessions; later released on 1994’s The Hits box-set). The song’s jazz sophistication works well after “Crystal Ball” and this double album ends on a subtle, eloquent note.


By: Edwin C. Faust
Published on: 2003-09-03
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