Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 3: The Quake

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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 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.

Susan Rogers: There were earthquakes, you know, the psychological kind in his life, in the world.

Audio: "Housequake"

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.

VO: Hello, and welcome to the third episode of Story of Sign O' The Times. I'm Andrea Swensson, and if you're just joining us, I'm an author and a radio host at The Current in Minneapolis, and I'm also one of the writers who contributed liner notes to the expanded reissue of Sign O' The Times.

This episode tells the story of an earthquake — an actual earthquake, not just a "Housequake" — and the composition of the song "Sign O' The Times." It kind of blew my mind to learn about this, and it's given me a whole new appreciation for a song that already felt so evocative to me, with lyrics that capture the tone and the tenor of 1986 when it was written, and it also feels so resonant in this moment in American history.

We spent the first two episodes taking a really intimate look at what was going on in Prince's life in 1986, both in terms of his relationship to his band, The Revolution, and his relationship with his fiancée at the time, Susannah Melvoin. In this episode, we're going to start to zoom out a little bit, and talk about the world around Prince in this era, and some of the exterior forces that shaped his work on an album that would become an iconic signpost of a turbulent era in American life.

We'll pick up the story with the release of Prince's second film, Under the Cherry Moon, which was also his directorial debut. Purple Rain was such a smash success that expectations for this movie were also really high. But as soon as it hit theaters in July 1986, it became clear that this was not going to be the career-defining film Prince hoped it would be. One person who worked for Prince back then actually told me that it was referred to among his staff as Under the Cherry Bomb

Lenny Waronker: Aw, no, that was tough. That was very tough.

VO: This is Lenny Waronker, who signed Prince to Warner Bros. Records in 1977 and was president of the label in the '80s.

Lenny Waronker: That was tough on him. We went to a preview, somewhere in Pasadena, and it was awful. People were laughing. And he was sitting right behind me, and I was thinking as this thing started to unfold, that the vibe was really bad. And I would look around casually just to see him and finally about three-quarters of the way through or halfway through, I looked around and he was gone.

Susannah Melvoin: He wasn't one to reminisce about the stuff that didn't work.

VO: This is Susannah Melvoin.

Susannah: How I saw him manifest that kind of stuff was work harder. So he may have been less communicative — although he wasn't the most communicative guy in the world — but he would've been even more remote. He would've gone more internal and disappeared into the studio, which I'm sure that's exactly what he did. … I would never hear him say, you know, "I'm disappointed" or "This didn't work" or "I expected something else and it didn't happen, and oh well…" Like, he just didn't have that kind of language. That didn't come out of his mouth. He may have thought it, but the way he dealt with it was to be more remote with humans, the people, and go create more. On to the next.

VO: Prince and The Revolution held the release party for Under the Cherry Moon in Sheridan, Wyoming, where a fan had won a date with Prince through a contest on MTV — that is a surreal story that surely needs an entire podcast of its own. Just two days after that premiere and the day after the film debuted nationwide, Wendy Melvoin of The Revolution remembers arriving at the McNichols Arena in Denver and hearing Prince working on a brand-new sound.

Wendy Melvoin: I walked into sound check and Prince was playing "Sign 'O' the Times" through the monitors and playing his live guitar track and just testing out that drum rhythm and I was like mesmerized and was like, "Oh my god, we're going to another place!"

Audio: "Sign O' The Times" (looped intro)

VO: There was a month-long break scheduled between that July 3 show at the McNichols Arena and Denver and Prince and The Revolution's next shows at Madison Square Garden, and Prince would spend most of that month shuttling between his home studio in Chanhassen, Minn., and Sunset Sound in Los Angeles.

Andrea Swensson: So did you have a favorite space to record with him?

Wendy Melvoin: Sunset Sound, without a doubt.

Andrea Swensson: What was it about that studio that kept you returning to that space?

Wendy Melvoin:The sound out of the room. The sound out of that room was unmatched and quite frankly, Prince learned that board that was in there. It was an API board built by a guy by the name of DeMidio, and Prince knew how to use it so well. I would just watch his hand on the faders and watch his hand on dialing in the EQ. There's a famous three-band dials on an API EQ setting, and I have a seared-in memory of his hands dialing in EQs. He just knew how to use it, and he could splice tape. People don't do that anymore, you know? He could cut tape. He ran that room like it was just — like he was filing his nails. And frankly, he would file his nails and mix.

VO: Lisa Coleman also spent countless hours at Sunset Sound with Prince.

Lisa Coleman: It must have been the basketball hoop in the courtyard, because he always kicked everybody's ass at "HORSE."

VO: By the next year, Prince would soon have a recording and production complex of his own with Paisley Park, where everything he wanted was under one roof, including multiple recording studios, a soundstage for filming and rehearsal, and even a performance venue. But in the early years of his career, he spent a lot of time jetting between various locations — sometimes on a whim — depending on what spaces and tools he needed. In 1986, he was often choosing between working in his home studio in Chanhassen; a nearby warehouse where he held band rehearsals and captured live recordings; and flying to his favorite studio, Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. As Susan Rogers told me, in those days, it wasn't as simple as Dropboxing recording files back and forth, either; his staff was constantly running to the airport to shuttle master tapes to wherever Prince was.

Susan Rogers: That's how you had to do it. So if we had tapes at home in Minneapolis and we were out at Sunset Sound — and this is exactly what happened with the songs "Slow Love" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" — he decides he wants them. Of course, you can send it FedEx and it'll get there overnight, but with him that was not even fast enough. So what we would do is we would send it air cargo. So someone in Minneapolis, a member of his staff, would box it up, wrap it up properly, label it properly, drive to the airport. Go right to the air-cargo counter and send that package on the next flight that goes to Los Angeles. And then some crew member who works for him in L.A. — usually someone who worked for his management — would go out to LAX, get that tape and drive it to Sunset Sound. That's what you could do when you had a lot of money, which he had in those days. You'd put it on the next flight. He did that once with spareribs. He was in Los Angeles and he loved a place called Rudolph's Barbecue in Minneapolis. He loved Rudolph's Barbecue! So he had someone go down there and get just a big meal and pack it all up and put it on a plane and send it out to Los Angeles.

VO: Prince had become such a regular presence at Sunset Sound by the mid-'80s that he would roll in with a semi-truck full of gear — including scarves, candles, a workout station, and a king-size bed with a satin bedspread — and take over Studio 3 for weeks or months at a time.

Lisa Coleman: Yeah, definitely. Candles and drapes, you know, tapestries, and just vibe it up, because studios can be pretty dry when you first walk in and put on the bright lights. So it was important. Yeah, and he put a bed in there or something. There'd always be a place to lie down and either, you know, just write and hang out. There was always a vibe to his music that there was something going on behind it. It wasn't just the song. you know? It was three-dimensional and there was like, "What is he doing in there?" It was like you could imagine him doing things while he's singing. There was just a feeling and an air and that there was something going on. And usually because there was.

Audio: "Everybody Want What They Don't Got"

VO: This is "Everybody Want What They Don't Got," recorded at Sunset Sound on July 12, 1986. Looking at the track list for the Super Deluxe reissue of Sign O' The Times, it becomes clear just how fruitful this month was for Prince — there are eight new tracks being released from the vault that Prince recorded in July 1986 alone, the same month that he wrote and recorded his era-defining songs "Sign O' The Times," "Joy in Repetition," which he would release on his Graffiti Bridgesoundtrack, and "The Cross."

Duane Tudahl: When he was recording, he could record two or three songs in a day, and he did.

VO: That's Duane Tudahl, author and senior researcher for the Prince Estate Archives.

Duane Tudahl: I think the cool thing about Prince is he had so much that he recorded in between projects that it's almost wrong not to know what was there, because it conveys where he was. And with a project like this, we organized it in chronological order, because that's how Prince was recording it. This is what Prince was going through. So you can hear, "Oh, he's happy here"; "OK, he's sad here," and you can kind of get — this is his daily diary. His work was his diary in many ways. A guy who didn't do a lot of interviews, his talking was done through his music, and what he recorded was what he was feeling, what he was thinking. And if he was mad, he did a mad song; if he was upset, he'd to that; if he was in love, he'd do a love song.

VO: On the same day he recorded "Everybody Want What They Don't Got," Prince would also record his most explicitly religious song to date, "The Cross." Susan Rogers remembers that recording session clearly.

Audio: "The Cross"

Susan Rogers: That, as I recall — I don't remember the exact day of the week — but I seem to remember that it was one of our "Sunday songs." That was the term I had for the songs that were asking for redemption. They would often follow songs where he had been blatantly sexual or lustful. So when he would do something that was really lustful like an "Erotic City" from the earlier era, like "We Can F***" — which he ultimately changed to "We Can Funk" — when he would do something like that, there would be a backlash, and he'd do a song like "God" or a song like "The Cross" or "Temptation" or "The Ladder." So it was one of those where I thought, "Oh, he's feeling guilty about something!" And at Sunset Sound, I mic'd up the drums and I do remember about that recording, he went so fast; so fast in fact that the drums on "The Cross" speed up pretty badly. And this was one of those rare, rare times where I thought, "Oh, this won't work." I mean, it's pretty bad speeding up like that. And he didn't care. It served his purpose. I can't think of, certainly working as a producer with other artists, there's no way we'd let that take fly. You'd redo it. But when he would play acoustic drums on his music — this is just mind-blowing to think about and realize, but — he's listening to nothing; no headphones, no click. He's playing the drums with the full arrangement of the song in his head — the vocals, the breaks, the fills. He's playing the drum track de novo, from the new, apropos of nothing. And that was one of those songs. And then he came in and did the other instrumentation, one instrument at a time. An extraordinary piece, extraordinary piece that emerges from this head of his.

Audio: "The Cross"

VO: Prince had just started getting into a groove at Sunset Sound when natural forces took over. As those who lived on the West Coast 1986 might recall, this was a particularly dramatic time to be in L.A.: a series of earthquakes and aftershocks hit the area that July, including a 6.0 magnitude quake emanating from Palm Springs on July 8, and a 5.3 magnitude earthquake that hit the ocean off the coast of San Diego in the early morning hours of July 13.

Audio: Rumble noise sound effects

Susannah Melvoin: We were staying at the Bellagio Hotel, and we experienced this earthquake.

VO: Here's Susannah Melvoin again, who was a constant presence in Prince's life at this time.

Susannah Melvoin: And he did not — he did not like this earthquake. It scared the [expletive] out of him. For somebody who's so in control, that was just, you know, witnessing the power of the planet and the universe and all of it happening at once. It was just too much, and he's like "We gotta get outta here." But as we were getting ready, Gilbert came in with the newspaper, and in the front page of the newspaper, it said "AIDS epidemic out of control." It was the front cover of the L.A. Times. It was such a dramatic moment because he took it and he looked at the front page, and he was like, "Something's happening to the world." You know, there was some moment where he just — all of it just clicked.

VO: Here are some of the headlines from the July 13, 1986, edition of the L.A. Times: "Star Wars Leads All Defense Costs," an article about Ronald Reagan's anti-missile program. "New AIDS Findings to Alert a World at Risk," an article about an International AIDS Conference in Paris, France. Back home in Minneapolis, the Star Tribune was running a series of articles covering a murder trial, and the suspects were in a gang called The Disciples. Prince and Susannah hopped a plane from L.A. to Minneapolis that Sunday, and the very next day, Prince flew back to Sunset Sound. By Wednesday, he had finished his new song.

Audio: "Sign O' The Times"

Susannah Melvoin: And when I heard it, I was like, "Boy, did he tap in; boy, does he know how to use fear and uncertainty and loss of control and knows how to channel that. Listen to that song!" I was awestruck by that. I was awestruck by that. I certainly didn't do any of that. I just shook in my knees — it was so scary!

Susan Rogers: Yeah. You know what they say about musical artists, especially prolific ones: Everything influences you. Everything. And for a man who was on output to a much higher degree than most other artists, who was making more than he was taking in, he would get a lot of mileage out of inspiration. So when an unusual event would happen, like an earthquake or maybe a headline in the newspaper about AIDS or the Challenger explosion and things like that, when something unusual would happen, that would serve as inspiration for new pieces very readily for him, because he pretty much didn't do anything other than make music.

Andrea Swensson: What was your impression of it as it was being composed in the studio?

Susan Rogers: I knew that he was searching for his next stylistic gesture. his music was evolving. He was well aware that rap and hip hop were more than just fads; that rap and hip hop were now stylistic trends that had a purchase on popular music, and it's going to go for a while. He had said, back when we were at the Flying Cloud Drive warehouse, back in the days of Around the World in a Day, he had said, "The future of music is going to be just bass and drums and vocals." He was saying that in the early '80s. So I believe with "Sign 'O' the Times," with that stripped-down approach, he was not trying to compete with rap or hiphop; not at all. He would've made the beat different if he had been. But he was trying to be part of a trend of music that distinctly separated melody and rhythm, and didn't work so hard on harmony being the glue to hold those elements together; just melody, just rhythm. Let the harmony be implied from the melody or not.

VO: One of the first people to hear the song "Sign O' The Times" outside of Prince's immediate circle was Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records.

Lenny Waronker: "Sign 'O' the Times" was interesting. The first time I heard it, I had a meeting with Prince and Bob Cavallo at Bob's office, and Prince wanted to play me this jazz record that he had done. It was good. And it was fun having Prince take me through the record, because he'd have all these observations based on the chord changes and the vibe and all that stuff. So it was a lot of fun. When he was the artist, he was fabulous. He was just fabulous. And he said, "I stole that from Fleetwood Mac" or "I did that" or whatever. But always fun and even self-effacing to some extent. So, Bob walked in the office and he said to Prince, "Why don't you play Lenny 'Sign 'O' the Times,' the single?" And so he said OK, because, you know, he didn't like to let go of things until he was ready, but he did it.

Audio: "Sign O' The Times"

Lenny Waronker: …And it totally freaked me out. When I heard the record I thought, "Oh my god. He's gone to another — just another zone. Unbelievable. It's just unbelievable." And I looked at him, and in those days, you could say things like, "That's gonna be a number-one record," which I usually never said because nobody knows. But I just felt it, 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.

VO: We've been spending most of this series so far dialed into Prince and his immediate surroundings, and I want to take a moment to widen the lens and talk more about what was happening in the world around him. I knew just who I wanted to talk to about this, too.

Audio: "Teacher, Teacher"

Daphne Brooks: I'm Daphne Brooks. I teach at Yale University. I am the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies, and as of July, music.

VO: Daphne also wrote a powerful essay for the liner notes for the Sign O' The Times reissue.

Daphne Brooks: It's ironic to call '86 and the '80s "simpler times," but given the twin pandemics that we're living through right now, it was just a different way in which all sorts of, you know, diseases permeating the American body politic were manifesting themselves. So, you know, Ronald Reagan takes office in 1980. We now have the tapes in which he refers to African leaders as "monkeys," so if there was ever any question of Ronald Reagan's racism, which anyone who's African American and Latinx and Asian American and indigenous from California, and like myself, being African American from California, knew it very well. But the Reagan/Bush regime was very much designed to restructure the Republican party, finally and resolutely, around racial polarization and anti-black structural reform, eviscerating the advances made by the Civil Rights Freedom movement. And then, of course, in Prince's opening lines to "Sign 'O' the Times," he reminds of the fact that we were in a pandemic then. The AIDS epidemic, which disproportionately — and again it's eerie to use these words: disproportionately affecting black and brown neighborhoods as well as queer communities — it's very present in the universe. The strangeness of the '80s though — and this is kind of the world that we've inherited, too — is that on the one hand you have all of these very pronounced violences towards marginalized peoples, but the gains in civil rights representation lead to a cultural revolution such that you have, for the first time, a multiplicity of "crossover" African American pop superstars. Of course, the Purple One would've also, you know, the trifecta of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and then there's also Lionel Richie who's hanging out there, which people forget that. That was a big and very controversial move for him to transition out of the Commodores into "Lady." There's the boom in Black independent cinema. So it's a very dizzying kind of moment, and in some ways, you know, culture is both possibility, right? On the other hand, it can actually distract you from seeing the ways that the police state is designed to forever repress black and brown peoples. I think that Prince really was so mindful of the nuances of those kinds of the paradoxical ways that Black life was unfolding at that moment.

Audio: "It"

Daphne Brooks: People were slow to understand the radical political life of Prince's music, right? It was easy to talk about the jouissance of his sound, you know, its deep resistant eroticism and the pleasures of a kind of Bohemian Blackness that could thrive in the public sphere, right? But those were political statements, to say this is about resisting the narrow definitions of what Blackness is. And if we think ideologically that way, if we can shift our minds to think about how expansive Blackness is, then in the best universe, it means, "I'm not going to put my knee on your neck for eight-plus minutes." That, at the end of the day, is what, you know, his music was really fighting for.

Audio: "Housequake"

Andrea Swensson: I would love to hear just a little bit of your personal memory of hearing Sign 'O' the Times for the first time. Like, how did that hit you when you first heard it?

Daphne Brooks: Man, it hit me like an earthquake. Being from California. And it was my freshman year, spring, at UC Berkeley — University of California, Berkeley — go, Bears! They were playing "Housequake" on the radio.

Audio: "Housequake"

Daphne Brooks: It must've been within the first week that they were spinning it, and these sisters had it blasting and their door open, and people were doing a Soul Train line. And I was like, "Oh my god!" It was that voice, and it was also — we haven't talked about his comedic side, which was so prominent, like master trickster; you know, that song is a compendium of all of his virtuosic trickster aesthetics, including my favorite, my favorite moment: "What was that? Aftershock!"

Audio: "Housequake"

Daphne Brooks: And if you're from California, that's a real thing. And I just felt like the world was opening up. It was such a sly and buoyant and dangerous sound. And I thought, "OK, no more Revolution, but another revolution is about to begin."

VO: Up next on Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times: With most of the songs that would appear on Sign O' The Times already recorded, Prince and The Revolution embark on one final tour, and play their last show together in Yokohama, Japan.

Wendy Melvoin: And by the time we were in Yokohama and he destroyed his Cloud guitar at the end of "Purple Rain," but he did it in a way that was a big "f*** you." And we knew it. We just knew it. We just knew it. We got back to our hotel room and I said to Lisa, "I think we're gonna get fired."

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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