Prince presented many paradoxes in his impossibly prolific and terrifically transcendent career. Everything about the artist was challenging to define and impossible to package in any way beyond ‘brilliant’. His messages frequently ran counter to the way they were delivered and left an aura of mystique surrounding the guitar god. ‘Sign O’ The Times’ offers up another paradox, one of the most glinting in his career, in that it is undoubtedly one of the bleakest songs that the mainstream has ever embraced.
The song itself details the dark side of Ronald Reagan’s America. It touches upon drugs, violence, the AIDS epidemic, nuclear holocausts and Space Shuttle explosions are all touched upon amidst a stirringly sparse melody, with the track’s title coming from a Seventh-day Adventists magazine that foretold the second coming of Christ.
The songs also represented the start of the strangest period of Prince’s career. He had initially wanted to release the song as part of a triple album called The Crystal Ball, but in the first of a series of rebukes, Warner Bros refused to let it go ahead. This blunt refusal was the first seed of resented that eventually flowered into Prince’s infamous name change and those bizarre public appearances he made with the word “slave” written on his face as he battled with the label.
‘Sign O’ The Times’ was the first single from the album of the same name. Prince produced and recorded the LP all on his own, following the disbanding of his usual backing band, the Revolution. This new isolated recording environment presented Prince with a more reflective space which comes across on the record and this track in particular.
Susan Rogers, who engineered the album, reported that Prince wrote ‘Sign O’ The Times’ on a Sunday when the profoundly religious songwriter was at his ‘most contemplative’. The deeply introspective mood in which the song was written imbues the track with a hauntingly reverential feel, making it one of the most unlikely hits of the 1980s.
As for the composition, Prince turned to what was essentially a piece of technology that replaced his band, the Fairlight sampling synthesizer. Using this then-revolutionary piece of kit, Prince was able to construct the song from stock sounds, with simple drum machine beats and electronic overscores going on to form the song’s basic soundscape.
It is undoubtedly one of Prince’s stranger tracks, sparse and sporadically sprinkled with touches of melodic dissonance and downbeat in the absolute. It still somehow remained commercially viable in a way that seems almost unique to Prince.
The track reached number three in the US charts and the iconic sleeve for the single, which shows dancer Cat Glover with a black heart held over her face, spawned the eternally persistent rumour that the picture figure is, in fact, Prince in drag.
The classic song is 34 years old today and still sounds as fresh as ever. You can bask in its melancholy glory once again below.