Sign O’ the Times
Prince
1987

Back when I worked for Seattle Weekly, I had a conversation with our music editor, Bart Becker, about the fragmentation of commercial radio. Each Seattle station was locked into its own fenced-off musical world. Some formats had Reader’s Digest condensed playlists – Classic Rock had compacted Creedence to about eight tracks, for example. We lamented the lack of a commercial station that dared to play rock, reggae, jazz, classical, blues, punk, and country all on the same day.

Of course we were being unrealistic. No station could turn a profit without focusing on one subset of all radio listeners like a red-tailed hawk on a meadow mouse. I bring this up now for two reasons:

1) Bart’s team, the San Francisco Giants, are playing in the World Series, and with a name like Bart Becker you know he should be holding down the hot corner or frantically calling the bullpen for a left-hander.

2) Even though I have listened to several hours of music a day almost every day since I crawled out of the ocean and learned to breathe oxygen, I had never heard a single note from Sign O’ the Times.

Yeah. Radio is fragmented.

Why didn’t somebody tell me?
Sign O’ the Times is so good that I almost didn’t write about it. I’m not worthy! But I started out to review every album Prince ever made and goddammit I’m going to review every album Prince ever made. (Unless Rhapsody doesn’t have one. Prince is not sending me free merch.)

I started by looking at what critics said about Sign O’ the Times in 1987. Everyone compared it to The White Album, which makes sense because both albums are a mess, but nobody mentioned that The White Album was created by John, Paul, George, and Ringo while Sign O’ the Times was created by Prince, Prince, Prince, and Prince. This makes Sign even more monumental.

The songs here come from three different projects. They don’t belong together, especially the songs from the project in which Prince played a woman and speeded up his voice. It never occurs to me to do projects like that. Sign has something for everyone, but much of it is not my style: super-smooth soul ballads (I’ll only accept Barry White), hip-hop (doesn’t come naturally to Prince – he’s a rocker at heart), songs that are so slow they could be outrun by the walking dead, and God. What’s left is more than enough for a wretch like me, but I’m only going to mention the title track, “The Cross,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

“Sign O’ the Times” is an updating of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” In fact, “Sign O’ the Times” would fit perfectly on Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece of the same name. But there is that Prince touch at the end, when he sets aside his concerns about AIDS, natural disasters, and nuclear war and suggests to his listener that we should just get married and have a baby.

“The Cross” is Prince taking on U2 at their most pompous and rocking them right out of Ireland. The song doesn’t even hit its crescendo until 2:28 and it’s over at 4:45. On this album, 4:45 streaks past like a comet. I’m staggered. And I say all this in praise of “The Cross” even though it’s more God.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” may be the most singular song in pop music. Follow along: Prince, who has a girlfriend, imagines himself as his girlfriend’s girlfriend, because then they could be closer than they could be with him as her boyfriend.

If I was your girlfriend
Would you let me dress you?
I mean help you pick out your clothes
Before we got out?
Not that you’re helpless
But sometime, sometime those are the things
That bein’ in love’s about.

But his real question, and the heart of the song, is:

If I was your one and only friend
Would you run to me if somebody hurt you
Even if that somebody was me?

The music is distancing, almost ominous, and his voice is speeded up (in one spot he sounds like Snoopy), but this line has two points of view plus a gender switch. What is this, literature?

Oh, and the song eventually gets sexual. C’mon, it’s Prince.

Summing up
Sign O’ The Times, flaws included, rates five stars from any pointy-headed critic.

But!

This album is not fun, not like 1999 or Purple Rain or The White Album. Nothing on Sign is as plain silly as “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” I realize that I’ve been listening to The White Album for 46 years and to 1999 and Purple Rain for about 30 and to Sign for two weeks, and that artists should always try to grow, but I can already tell that I’m not going to replay Sign O’ the Times, just three or four of the tracks.

I just did…and then I listened to Ringo crooning “Don’t Pass Me By.”

1987 Scoreboard
Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love was the Rolling Stone critics’ best album. The runners-up:

The Joshua Tree – U2
Sign O’ the Times – Prince
Document – R.E.M.
Robbie Robertson – Robbie Robertson
Pleased to Meet Me – The Replacements
Bring the Family – John Hiatt
By the Light of the Moon – Los Lobos
Franks Wild Years – Tom Waits
Babble – That Petrol Emotion

The readers voted for U2’s The Joshua Tree for best album. Their runners-up:

Sign O’ the Times – Prince
Document – R.E.M.
Tunnel of Love – Bruce Springsteen
A Momentary Lapse of Reason – Pink Floyd
Whitesnake – Whitesnake
Hysteria – Def Leppard
Tango In the Night – Fleetwood Mac
…Nothing Like the Sun – Sting
Bad Animals – Heart

If you’re keeping score you may have noticed that African-Americans have been a small part of these Rolling Stone lists. We’ve had Robert Cray, Run-DMC, and Tina Turner once each and Prince three times as opposed to 33 white artists. Los Lobos are Chicano. But what I’m really mad about is that there’s only been two Jews, Paul Simon and Lou Reed. Plus now we have…Sting! You can’t get more Caucasian unless you activate the Perry Como hologram.

Today’s Randoms: WTF Edition 

Thumbs-up
Paul Revere & The Raiders, Collage (1970)
The boys were running on fumes by 1970, plus on this set they’re playing in a higher league: Steppenwolf psychedelia and Guess Who hard rock. This album should’ve sucked the phone.

Wrong! “Think Twice” is good enough to have been the B-side of “Kicks,” “Hungry,” or “Just Like Me.” The tracks “Dr. Fine,” “Just Seventeen,” and “The Boys in the Band” are not bad. “Sorceress with Blue Eyes” is as dumb as its title, but Mark Lindsay shows what his voice can do – a sort of Mick Jagger with Robert Plant’s phrasing – and the guitar break is classic heavy ’60s.

Collage is not worth a purchase – most of it is Crud Gone Wild – but it’s definitely worth a listen.

Thumbs-up
George Benson with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (1964)
I only knew George Benson from his lightweight pop of the ’70s and ’80s (“This Masquerade,” “Give Me the Night,” and his signature tune, “On Broadway”). The New Boss Guitar was a happy surprise. This is jazz, alternately cool and funky.

The album was reissued in 1990 with one extra track, their reading of the My Three Sons theme. It doesn’t fit with the earlier cuts, and it sounds nothing like the music from that antique TV show, but Benson and his band were on fire when they waxed this one. All hail the drummer!

 

Comments
  1. Verlierer says:

    When asked, “What’s your sign, man?”, I always reply, “Sign O’ the Times.”

  2. lindajordan says:

    We’re lucky here. In Everett there’s a public radio station – KSER – that plays all of the above (and more – ‘women’s music’, folk, Celtic, lot of different ‘world music’ etc.) all on the same day, although they’re pretty light on classical. It’s fabulous to listen to the mix. I can go hours without hearing anything I’ve ever heard before, not that I claim to be vastly educated on music.

    And for those of you not in the area – they stream! The only downsides are: because it’s public radio, all the DJ’s are volunteers. This gives the station a feeling of being homey, but if it’s the wrong DJ for you – annoying. And there’s pledge breaks seasonally, because that’s how they pay the bills.

    Awesome station though. And I love the critics top 4 picks, (can’t vouch for the others, ignorance reigns there) Robbie Robertson! Love that album.

    Thanks for the blogs about Prince. I need to go back through and do some more listening.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I’ve listened to KSER and I 100% agree. Great selection of music, amateur DJs who could wreck a free lunch. Our local jazz station here in PDX has the same problem.

      BUT! KSER is a pubic station. They’re not out to turn a profit. Public radio is a whole different beast…though I have to say, KSER is a cut above in that area.

      Thanks for reading, Linda. So far Prince is an inexhaustible subject…though I suspect he’s going to become exhaustible after he changes his name to a symbol.

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