Delve deep into the making of Prince's 1987 double-LP masterpiece, 'Sign 'O' the Times.'Sign 'O' the Times is Prince's recorded apex, the summation and greatest articulation of all the musical fusions he'd alchemized up to that point. It's the album where he does it all – combining his synth-drums and meta-funk explorations with psychedelia, rock-guitar heroics and mainstream pop on the order of 1999 and Purple Rain. Reflecting both hip-hop's early cutting edge and his own restless muse, with new twists on old themes, Sign 'O' the Times was at once more confident, rangy and visionary than its predecessors. It took Prince's beat-centered, future-forward songcraft not just to the next level but to multiple levels.
Tellingly, the album is a distillation of many projects that exploded from Prince's imagination during the most creative year of his life. The first was Dream Factory, an aborted double album begun with the Revolution in December 1985, just as they were wrapping up Parade. That same month, he wrote a song for Miles Davis ("Can I Play With U?") and recorded an album's worth of jazzy-funk jam sessions – with Sheila E., her bandmate Levi Seacer Jr. and Eric Leeds – that were slated for an instrumental LP, The Flesh, which was also eventually shelved. "On any given night he might just gather us and we'd go in and just play," says Leeds. "He would always say, 'Maybe I'll put this stuff out.'"
In March 1986, Prince inaugurated his new state-of-the-art home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota, with "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," an avant-garde slow jam with stuttering electro beats and vocals that flash like fractals, with different effects and voice tones, as Prince plays the roles of both Ms. Parker and himself, singing a bit of Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" and even voicing the ring of a telephone. "Prince had this dream where he thought of this song – the dream of the bathtub and all that – and he came downstairs and told me, 'Let's go. Let's record,'" says Susan Rogers, Prince's staff engineer and production right hand on Sign 'O' the Times. "The console hadn't been tested yet, so while we were doing 'Dorothy Parker' I'm thinking, 'God, this is awful,' because there was no high end. But I couldn't test it because he was working. Typical of Prince, our session lasted roughly 24 hours. We didn't get out of there until the next day. And he was totally happy. The seed of the song came in a dream anyway, so he used that artistically – he just let the whole thing be kind of muffled."
Prince then recorded "Starfish and Coffee," a song built around piano, co-written (and co-sung) with his fiancée, Susannah Melvoin, and a number of other tracks. By April, he had an 11-track version of Dream Factory assembled on a cassette, and he was even toying with the title as a new name for the Revolution. That month, he had the Number One song in the country, "Kiss," and the Number Two, the Bangles' version of his "Manic Monday."
Touring Europe that summer, Prince was writing at such a clip, he recorded new songs during a Paris soundcheck jam and show. This was the genesis of Sign 'O' the Times' solo-heavy, brass-plated funk jam "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," though Sheila E.'s "Transmississippi Rap," recorded over the phone, was added later. There was even talk about creating a Dream Factory musical; Prince was working on a script.
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