Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 1: It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night

Prince, The Story of Sign O' The Times
Prince, The Story of Sign O' The Times (courtesy the Prince Estate)
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Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 1
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Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times is an audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records. Listen Thursdays at 8 p.m. Central, and read a written version below. The series is also available as a podcast on multiple platforms.

Audio: "Power Fantastic" clip of Prince saying: "Ok ready? And just trip. There are no mistakes, this time. This is the fun track, this one. It might not be the one we keep, but we just have fun with it. Play anything you want. Ready?"

Audio: "Sign O' The Times"

VO: This is Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records.

Susan Rogers: Sign 'O' the Times, we could hear that the flame of youth had dimmed and then we can see and hear him a little bit better. And you hear he's more of a genius than you even thought.

Susannah Melvoin: This particular period of time where five records were made at one time — who does that?

Maya Rudolph: There was a large shift in the Prince universe — in between Parade and this … it's VAST. And it felt more adult to me, this album, and I didn't know why.

Lenny Waronker: it totally freaked me out. When I heard the record I thought oh my god. He's gone to another — just another zone. Unbelievable. And I looked at him and I'm not good at holding back if I believe something so I just said that's a number-one record. And it was!

Audio: "Sign O' The Times"

VO: Welcome back to the official Prince podcast. This is a new season, it is our biggest yet. I am Andrea Swensson, and I'm so excited to be here with you. I'm an author and a radio host at the Current, I live in Minneapolis, and I have been Zooming up a storm with Prince collaborators on both coasts and also right here in the Twin Cities. I've been working on the liner notes for the new Sign O' The Times Super Deluxe box set, which is coming out September 25, and I've also been working on this podcast, all the while attempting to piece together this two-year saga of how Sign O' The Times came to be.

When I tell people I'm working on a project about Sign O' The Times, they often have the same response: "Oh, that's my favorite Prince album!" Or, "That's the best Prince album!"

We're not going to get into that debate right now, but I do think it's important to note up front that although Purple Rain was Prince's most commercially successful release, Sign O' The Times is his most critically acclaimed. This was a moment that Prince proved once and for all that he would not go down in history as a one-hit wonder or a passing phase: he was an artist capable of maturing musically, philosophically, and spiritually, and he had something to say about the world around him.

In 1985 and 1986, when Sign O' The Times was recorded, the world was dealing with a lot of similar issues that we're all confronting today: There was a huge health crisis, with the AIDS epidemic; the ongoing threat of nuclear war; the Challenger explosion setting a dark tone for the year; and deep divides politically and socially. I think that's why, in a lot of conversations I've had about this album, people remark that it feels more relevant now than ever.

The Sign O' The Times era spans two almost entirely different bands, and there were a lot of painful and personal transformations that Prince went through in this period. He disbanded The Revolution during this creative era; he got engaged and then separated from his muse and close collaborator, Susannah Melvoin; and he released a film that didn't exactly get the warm reception from critics that he hoped.

All the while, Prince was flying into a creative overdrive, developing new side projects, albums, and personas like Camille, and overseeing the construction of his massive new recording and production complex, Paisley Park.

Prince was always two steps ahead of the rest of the world, so to tell the story of Sign O' The Times, we actually need to start a couple years earlier, at the moment when Prince and The Revolution were riding high. They'd just wrapped up the wildly successful Purple Rain Tour, selling 1.7 million tickets; they'd already released a follow-up album, Around the World in a Day; and were hard at work on their next soundtrack and film…

Audio: "It's a Wonderful Day"

Wendy Melvoin: Hi, everybody. I'm Wendy Melvoin.

And this is , mind you, this is after Purple Rain. This is like during — this is like during Around the World in a Day, Sign 'O' the Times, Parade, Dream Factory, Roadhouse Garden, Crystal Ball — all these records were all being done at once.

VO: By this point in his musical evolution, Prince had developed a deep level of trust with the Revolution, especially Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. The trio were in a fluid state of constant creation, passing ideas back and forth and writing prolifically. Here's Lisa.

Lisa Coleman: Sometimes we weren't in the same state so a lot of times he would just send a master reel on an airplane and then our engineer or somebody would to go pick it up and we'd be passing the — literally, passing this big cake box. Yeah, he would send us kind of sketches of songs, maybe a little guitar and vocal or piano and drums or whatever it was. And he would just say, "I need some background vocals," or he'd say something he wanted specifically. But then he'd also say — you know — "Just put your stuff on it." So you're like "OK, we've got lots of stuff, so we'll put it on it."

Audio: "Teacher, Teacher (1985 version)"

Andrea Swensson: So I would love to hear more about that "stuff" that you said Prince would ask you to put on his songs. Can you just describe a little bit of that musical collaboration between you and Wendy and the way that that came into play in Prince's music in this time?

Lisa Coleman:Well, I think Wendy and I were just so motivated, inspired and happy to be where we were, working with Prince, and that he had come to the point to trust us so much. You know, we'd jam constantly every day and that builds like this love intimacy thing between all of us and — we would do everything in the studio. Wendy and I would get into the studio, and we were just so inspired we would try everything from let's put a bass part on to doing like patty-cake rhymes and things from our childhood that we'd think of, and it's like "Oh, let's just throw this thing on there," and Prince was like "What was that?" We were just having fun.

Audio: "A Place in Heaven" (Lisa vocal)

Wendy Melvoin: To be as young as I was at the time, and to be that productive, um, was an honorable feeling. And to do it with the person that I was in love with — my girlfriend — and to also be doing it with the artist who I felt was the most important artist of my generation other than two others that I had revered as much was Joni Mitchell and David Bowie. So those three people, and to have me be a part of that every time I stepped back and sort of satellited myself in the room. I had my moments in the quiet moments of the night after a project was done and you'd listen back to your work — and what you know your input was and what made him happy and what made him feel inspired — gave me so much energy and motivation to keep at what I was doing. I felt like my voice was important. And it was even stronger because my musical collaboration with Lisa was so strong at that time. Our sound as a duo was so strong at that point — it still is very strong now. It's almost rarified now; back then, it was used for good.

Audio: "In a Large Room With No Light"

VO: There are 63 unreleased tracks being released from the vault this fall, a large portion of the material was written with significant input from Wendy and Lisa. These recordings showcase just how unique and powerful their voices were to Prince's expanding sound.

Because Prince's creative process was so relentless, it's hard to draw a line around just when the creation of Sign O' The Times began. In fact, the earliest recording happened in 1979, when Prince was only working on his sophomore album. The other early recordings for Sign O' The Times took place in the summer and fall of 1985, just after the conclusion of the Purple Rain Tour and prior to production of the film Under the Cherry Moon in the south of France.

Audio: "Strange Relationship" (original version)

VO: This is an early reworking of "Strange Relationship," produced by Wendy and Lisa at the Complex in Los Angeles on July 1, 1985. It features samples created with a Fairlight digital synthesizer.

Lisa: It was fun because we had like all these amazing sounds that suddenly you could have like a sitar or something, which was so rare back then; you'd have to find a sitar player or something, but this was like it was all right there at your fingertips, so we just had fun. We were just loading songs up with strange sounds and flutes and congas that were fake; all kinds of things like that.

One of the first samplers, so you could actually record like ten seconds of an instrument and then you save it on a floppy disk, and it had like this monitor screen that you used a light pen, which was also like, "Well that's so cool." It was so, "The future is here! We have a light pen and floppy disks!" And it was like, huge.

Audio: "Strange Relationship" (original version)

VO: At the time, there wasn't a specific plan for where some of these more adventurous songs might end up. But there was an idea floating around between Prince, Wendy, and Lisa for an album that could be called "Dream Factory."

Audio: "Dream Factory"

Lisa Coleman: See, the thing about Dream Factory is that it was being made ever since I could remember. Every like spare song that we recorded, every jam there was always like, "Oh, that could be for Dream Factory, "or it was like an idea that had been hanging around for a long time. So there was never a specific, like, "We're gonna make the 'Dream Factory' album now." It was just things that we would collect along the way that didn't fit on whatever album we were doing at the time. They were the cool kind of jams and experiments and even though Prince didn't like the word "experiment" because he felt that it sounded like you weren't finished if it was an experiment. So forgive me for calling them experiments, but I felt very experimental when I was playing.

Audio: "Visions"
VO: This is "Visions," an improvised solo piano piece that Lisa recorded at Prince's home studio in early 1986.

Wendy Melvoin: Like Santa's elves, you know? It was like the North Pole. This little factory was like toys being made, but they were dreams! Songs, chapters, books. But I guess you could say it was like the equivalent of the Brill Building in New York or Motown's building here or — you know — it was like where things were happening. And the Dream Factory came from a really productive time where there was a lot going on at once. And Prince wasn't one to be like flat-footed. He'd always put some other kind of metaphor to describe something, but — so I think "dream" worked perfect with his lexicon of parables — his life of parables.

Andrea Swensson: I like that. I also like that he was constantly envisioning these kind of metaphorical places — Uptown, Dream Factory, Paisley Park — it was almost like he was like manifesting them through the songs.

Wendy Melvoin: All the time. He was always looking for a higher consciousness and a place to feel better. And he wasn't — he wasn't tortured. He wasn't like an internally tortured guy, but he was really contemplative, so he thought a lot about what he could do to make things better for himself, and through that, the vehicle would be songs to give to the world. And didn't he do it? He did it.

Andrea Swensson Yes, yes he did.

Audio: "Colors"

VO: This is "Colors," a solo performance by Wendy that was also intended for Dream Factory.

Wendy Melvoin: I think that later on in his life, his parables became more religiously centered and maybe ethically centered as he got older. But the edge of his exploration wasn't as strong as it was during this period where it was like all bets are off, and maybe that is part of youth. I mean, he was still young at that point doing those things. And you're sort of happily reckless. I think it was John Lewis — our representative who just passed — that said, he said, "Get into good trouble." I think that that's kind of a mandate of Prince, too. Back then it was trying to get into good trouble, and he definitely — if he found a subject matter that was new and unexplored, he would just explore it and there's always be a finished song to it.

Audio: "Neveah Ni Ecalp"

Lisa Coleman: Yeah. That was our thing. even in these modern times now with Black Lives Matter and COVID. We're in a difficult time right now, but we're all very passionate about it and it — you know — and if we were putting out records I'm sure we'd still be trying to describe an alternative life where we can be free and we can love each other and take care of each other and be creative and just enjoy this beautiful earth. I think we all grew up kind of seeing that in the '60s and '70s, in the race riots and things. I remember when I was a kid, and it's one of the things that I really connected with Prince over was that whole human-rights issues. When we first met we would kind of talk about that. And so I loved how his songwriting and his lyrics would always kind of support that thought, that there's a different way; there's another way and we need to love each other and all that kind of stuff that you can get away with saying in songs.

Audio: "All My Dreams"

VO: The Revolution solidified as a band — anchored by Wendy, Lisa, "Dr." Fink, BrownMark, and Bobby Z. — during the creation of Purple Rain. By the time Dream Factory was being conceived, the band was evolving once again. The Revolution now had a live horn section, including Eric Leeds on saxophone and Atlanta Bliss on trumpet, and would also add an additional guitarist, Miko Weaver, and a trio of back-up singers and dancers: Jerome Benton, Wally Safford, and Greg Brooks.

The expanded group made their live debut at First Avenue in Minneapolis on March 3, 1986, to celebrate the release of their new soundtrack, Parade. And around that same time, an expanding collection of musicians would join Prince in the studio to flesh out new songs.

One of the most striking time capsules of The Revolution in this era is a recording of the song "Power Fantastic," written by Lisa, Wendy and Prince, and performed on March 19, 1986, in Prince's new home studio on Galpin Boulevard in Chanhassen, not far from where Prince was constructing a massive creative complex, Paisley Park.

Every person who was part of that session still remembers it vividly, including the musicians Wendy and Lisa, Eric Leeds, Atlanta Bliss, Bobby Z., and Susan Rogers, who was Prince's primary engineer from 1983 to 1987.

Susan Rogers: So what happened is when we were in the south of France doing the Under the Cherry Moon movie, it's around Thanksgiving time and Prince sent Wendy, Lisa and me to London for a week. And our instructions were to go into Advision Studios and just write some stuff; record some stuff and bring it back to the south of France so he could get on with the movie. And we did. Wendy came up with the riff for the song "Mountains." But for Lisa's part, she sat down at the piano as this goddess is wont to do. Gosh, what piano player. I get choked up talking about how she plays piano much less listening to it. And she played this gorgeous piece. Again, there were no lyrics but it was just so frickin' stunning. So we brought these two things home. "Mountains," it was clear what to do with it. "Power Fantastic" became "Power Fantastic" when he finally sat down with it. He wrote lyrics to it; came up with a melody and then brought us all together in the Galpin Road home studio right after the last wire had been put in place. Brings us all in and he says, "I'm gonna have the band come down and we're gonna record this song. Mic the piano upstairs for Lisa. Run headphones up there." We had drums downstairs. We had Eric in the sound lock with the flute. Bobby in that iso booth for the drums. And Prince was the only place he could be, which was in the control room with me.

Lisa Coleman: Yeah that's exactly right. He was sitting like in the control room downstairs and I was upstairs at the piano, and so we couldn't see each other. Usually we would see each other, you know, and he could give visual cues. But this time, yeah, he was just talking in a mic in our headphones and giving us cues.

Audio: "Power Fantastic" (Prince intro and piano free form, keep playing throughout descriptions)

Susan Rogers: But this was when I discovered I didn't have enough headphones to go around. So everybody had headphones except me. I mean, the studio wasn't designed to have that many people recording at once. So what to do? I had to record everyone. I had to be in the control room where he was and where he was singing, but I couldn't listen to anything because if I turned the speakers up all that leakage would've gone into the mic. First, I got all my sounds dialed in, but then I had to turn it all off because he's in the control room with me and he has to do his vocal. He hated that because he was used to doing his vocals all alone. So he had me set up the vocal mic in the corner, the furthest corner of the room, and set it up so that he would face the corner like the stereotypical dunce with the dunce cap being asked to sit in the corner. He goes to the corner, faces the wedge of this corner and sings his vocal. I'm sitting there behind the console hearing nothing but his voice.

Audio: "Power Fantastic"

Susan Rogers: Oh, I mean just magnificent. Just hearing that voice. It was a moment I will never, ever forget. He wasn't pleased, but what are you gonna do? There we are. Yeah, that's a wonderful song, wonderful, wonderful. That's Lisa Coleman though.

VO: Here's saxophonist Eric Leeds, talking about Lisa.

Eric Leeds: So yeah, she's upstairs all by her lonesome. If I recall, Bobby, it was one of the few times that I ever recorded with Bobby on live drums. And once again there are a lot of people out there who want to believe that that's Miles on trumpet on that, and it's not. That's Matt Blistan, and Miles had nothing to do with that horn.

Atlanta Bliss: Oh yeah. What an honor to be thought of as I halfway sound like him.

VO: Here's Matt Blistan, who Prince called Atlanta Bliss.

Atlanta Bliss: This whole song is pretty incredible, especially with the beginning like that. It's like, that's the noise of the world. It's just crazy and crazy and crazy and then all of a sudden it just focuses down. You turn out the lights, turn up the sound and you're all - we're really focused. It's everyone that's listening in the one spot. That's what music is about. That's the whole motion of this song. Yeah, this is probably one of my favorites or all-time favorite tracks.

Wendy Melvoin: Yeah, it was really a special day, because it was not often that he would have the Revolution come to his private space at the house. Back in the day, he would, but once things got really big with him, his home didn't really end up being the hangout zone like it used to. It was much quieter back in those times. So to all be together in his space was a special moment and not common. Kind of a rare moment.

VO: Despite how close knit the Revolution had become in the two years since Purple Rain went mainstream, there was tension in the group. By the fall of 1986, the band would officially dissolve, to be replaced by an almost entirely new lineup of musicians— a dramatic transformation that we're going to explore in greater detail in coming episodes.

Before the band imploded, they would embark on one final tour, known in hindsight as the Parade Tour, and they'd continue contributing in rehearsals, studio sessions, and rigorous pre-show soundchecks to the songs that would eventually make their way onto Sign O' The Times. The path to that critically acclaimed double album is a jagged one: from the collection of songs intended for Dream Factory, many would end up on a triple-album called Crystal Ball — which is not the same "Crystal Ball that Prince would release in 1998, although it does include some of that vault material — and it would eventually be whittled down into the two discs that would make up Sign O' The Times.

Of the 16 tracks on that finished album, 11 of them were finished while Prince and The Revolution were still together — including the album's penultimate track, a live recording of the song "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," written collaboratively on the Parade Tour and captured by a mobile recording truck parked outside Le Zenith in Paris, France, on August 25, 1986.

Audio: It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night

VO: "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" would be co-credited to Dr. Fink, the only member of The Revolution who would remain in the band following the Parade Tour.

Matt Fink: "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," that came out of a jam session at a sound check one night with the band. And then, you know, it's just how it worked. But yeah, he had Around the World in a Day in the can before the Purple Rain tour was done too. So yeah, he was always looking forward and had moved on to the next project already while we were still touring on the previous one.

VO: The bassist Mark Brown, who performs under the name BrownMark:

Mark Brown: Prince was always a couple albums in front. Sign 'O' the Times was actually being created with The Revolution, see. We were working on that stuff way before that album was finished

VO: And the saxophonist Eric Leeds, one of the newest band members at that time:

Eric Leeds: Almost all of that stuff was starting to be done late '85 through '86 when The Revolution was still around. A lot of people equate all of the stuff that we think of as Sign 'O' the Times stuff with that band with Sheila E on drums and other people, because that was the band that went out and played that music, but they had nothing to do with any of the music that was on Sign 'O' the Times album, at least to my knowledge. Alot of that music, Wendy and Lisa might have more to do with some of that music than I would know.

Andrea Swensson to Wendy: "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" is like such a beautiful testament to The Revolution, and I just can't imagine what that was like.

Wendy Melvoin: Brokenhearted. Because at the very end of it, we looked at the credits and it just said, "Thank you, Wendy and Lisa" at the very — the very last credit on the Sign 'O' the Times record, and meanwhile we had done so much work on that record, as you will attest to the deluxe record. So yeah, it was very painful; very painful. But we understood, you know, we're not — yeah, it hurt like hell but, you know, life goes on.

Audio: "Forever In My Life"

VO: Up next on Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times: We're going to dive deeper into the creation of Prince's new home studio in Chanhassen, where he recorded the Sign O' The Times tracks "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," "Starfish and Coffee," "Slow Love," and "Forever In My Life," along with countless tracks that would be shelved in his vault and are now being released. His home on Galpin Boulevard in Chanhassen is also where he built a new life with his fiancée at the time, Susannah Melvoin. Susannah was a significant muse, collaborator, and companion in this prolific era.

Susannah Melvoin: This whole time period was making music, making art, loving each other, feeding each other, sleeping with each other, like just life in this sort of all encompassing way.

VO: And we'll hear more from the incomparable Susan Rogers on her memories of setting up Prince's home studio and scrambling to capture his new ideas as they poured out of him.

Susan Rogers: He was so eager for this damned console to be installed. One of the main things to know about Prince is how on fire his creativity was, and it's coming and coming and coming and he's not going to sit in his room with a little four-track recorder and demo things. If he's going to be playing and singing it's going to go to tape and it's going to be the canonical version as far as he is concerned. He didn't demo things. So he couldn't wait for this console to be finished.

Credits

Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times is produced by The Current, supported by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, and created in collaboration with The Prince Estate and Warner Records and with their support. This story was written by Andrea Swensson; Anna Weggel is our producer. Thanks to Technical Director Corey Schreppel, Digital Producer Jay Gabler, Radio Production Director Derrick Stevens and Managing Director David Safar.

Thanks also to Trevor Guy, Giancarlo Sciama, Michael Howe and Duane Tudahl. To learn more about The Current, visit thecurrent.org. If you haven't subscribed yet, search for Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, to learn more about Prince, visit Prince.com.

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Legacy AmendmentPresented by The Current, Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra. This event is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.