Music History

Prince's Sign 'O' the Times turns 25

There is very little argument to make against the suggestion that Prince ruled the 1980s. The decade was jam packed with memorable pop artists making music to treasure for generations to come, but none came close to the eclecticism, the energy, and the downright strangeness that was Prince Rodgers Nelson. While Michael Jackson wanted to be the King of Pop, Prince was the king of sex. While Madonna pursued controversy, Prince breathed controversy. And while Bruce Springsteen wanted to speak for the average man, Prince spoke for God.

Prince, almost more than any other, consciously shaped what became the decade that integrated the visual with the audio. His pro-masturbation song, "Darling Nikki" inspired Tipper Gore to put "Parental Warning" stickers on controversial albums. Just before this controversy, Prince set an unprecedented record for having the number one album (Purple Rain), film (Purple Rain) and single ("When Doves Cry") in the entire country. Even his next two album releases - Around the World in A Day and Parade — while not being recognized in the VH1/Time-Life sense of the word "classic," sold very well at the time and stand up tremendously well in the subsequent decades.

And while there is a overwhelming body of work for Princeophiles to pour over when considering The Artist's legacy, there remains a terrific amount of unreleased projects collecting dust somewhere in the vaults of his kingdom. Legend has it that over fifty completed music videos remain unseen, while dozens of other albums and hundreds of studio recordings linger somewhere out of the public's reach.

In the spring of 1986, Prince began work on one of those destined to be unheard albums, Dream Factory. His backup band, the Revolution, had been contributing an increasingly large amount of creativity to Prince's previous albums, and Dream Factory was intended as an appeasement to their growing frustrations over song credits and royalty rights. But an ever-inspired Prince quickly overtook the project, with Revolution songs being cut and replaced with Prince solo efforts. The Revolution would eventually split apart in 1986 — with some quitting and some being fired — and the following Prince release would be known as a solo album.

During the time of Dream Factory, Prince was also working on the album of his alter ego, the self-titled Camille. Though after the Revolution disbanded, Prince consolidated these two albums into what he wanted to be a three LP release titled Crystal Ball. Though Warner Brothers was not as jazzed about the project as its over-productive creator was.

In the biography Prince: Behind the Music and the Masks, Ronin Ro documents the time when Prince was attempting to convince Warner Brothers to put out his three LP behemoth, inviting WB executive Mo Ostin down to the studio to listen to the album all the way through. "Ostin considered the economics of a triple album," Ro notes, "how many people would pay a whopping thirty dollars [for an album]? Even if critics did hail it as a masterpiece, there was no guarantee it would turn a profit...

When [Prince finished playing the album] Ostin said 'I respect your vision, but it just wont fly.' Ostin wanted Crystal Ball cut into a double album. Prince wouldn't do it. For weeks, they bickered. A few times, Prince lost his cool, screaming at Warner employees, then storming out of conference rooms."

After working so hard, Prince was not going to let any record company stand in his way. His inspiration seemed endless, and after having so much success with pop songs like "I Would Die 4 U," and "1999," there were new, more difficult subjects he was eager to tackle. In a later interview with Chris Rock, Prince reflected "I was getting to a point in my career where I could say anything. I was given that freedom."

On Sunday, July 15, 1986, Prince arrived at the studio to work on another solo effort for Dream Factory. Utilizing a Fairlight sampling synthesizer, Prince created a sparse, almost eerie, hypnotic beat. In Ro's book, the biographer notes that atop the beat Prince "sang about AIDS, drugs, street gangs, gun homicide, and the government focusing on space travel. He called the song "Sign O' the Times" (a title it shared with a Grandmaster Flash rap single). "He had begun to see the effect of crack and drugs on young people," said Paisley Park Records President Alan Leeds. "He's not really a preacher, but it's certainly an anti-drug song." The entirety of the "Sign O' the Times" song was written, recorded, and mixed in a mere ten hour studio session.

In the end, Prince begrudgingly cut his Crystal Ball album down — deleting the title track, which took up nearly half an album side. The album would be renamed after the lead track, Sign 'O' the Times. Premiering on March 31, 1987, the album debuted at number forty on the Billboard charts and quickly rose to twelve in its second week.

Critics almost unanimously praised the album, comparing it to other kitchen-sink classic double-albums like Exile On Main Street and "The White Album." A large European tour was planned to follow the albums success, with a two million dollar stage set replicating the album cover's urban street vibe, complete with street signs reading "UPTOWN, FUNK CORNER, BAR & GRILL," and "GIRLS, GIRLS GIRLS."

At the last minute, Prince cancelled a follow-up American tour — much to the dismay of all around him — in favor of making a concert movie. With Prince directing and starring, the last three concerts in Holland and Belgium were filmed. Despite critical praise, Sign 'O' The Times the film did poorly in theaters and video sales, but has since been deemed one of the ultimate examples of how to combine theater and a rock show.

After 500,000 copies were pressed, Prince demanded his follow-up release, The Black Album, be recalled after experiencing a spiritual epiphany where he discovered the record to be "evil." Prince would see many highs and lows over the next two decades: Loosing money on overambitious projects, recording an (uncredited) guitar solo for Madonna's "Just Like A Prayer," contributing a memorable soundtrack to Tim Burton's Batman, changing his name to an unspoken "Love Symbol," forcing PR execs to call him "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," and then simply "The Artist," and then back to Prince again.

With all the pretense, the costumes, the name changes and the playing-hard-to-get he's done with the press, Prince remains one of a handful of musicians to raise the glitter-spattered bar of pop music several notches, reminding anyone who picks up a guitar or dances upon a stage just how far they have to go before they can even begin to do something groundbreaking.