Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 4: Strict and Wild and Pretty

by

Prince, The Story of Sign O' The Times
Prince, The Story of Sign O' The Times (courtesy the Prince Estate)
Play/Pause
Listen:
Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 4
Download MP3
| 00:31:23

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.

Andrea Swensson (to Lisa Coleman): He said, "I think they love me so much, and I love them so much, that if they came over all the time I wouldn't be able to be to them what I am, and they wouldn't be able to do for me what they do."

Lisa Coleman: Wow.

Andrea Swensson (to Lisa Coleman): What do you think that means?

Lisa Coleman: We knew the guy, but the professional persona was somebody who was pretty mysterious and very powerful and sort of a lone wolf, but we started getting so close, that the lone wolf started going away. But, you know, he knew what his purpose in life was, and it was to be Prince.

Audio: "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Mind"

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: Hey, I'm Andrea Swensson. We started this episode hearing from Lisa Coleman, keyboard player in the Revolution and close friend and collaborator of Prince's in the prolific era that led up to the creation of Sign O' The Times. Lisa was responding to a quote that Prince gave to Rolling Stone writer Neal Karlen in the summer of 1985, just before he would begin to significantly change the composition of his band.

I've had a chance to speak to nearly everyone who played in a band with Prince in 1986, including members of The Revolution, members of his side projects, and members of what would become his new band — a precursor to his ever-evolving New Power Generation. That band solidified on New Year's Eve, 1986, and debuted on the Sign O' The Times Tour.

When you look back on an artist's career, it can all seem so orderly: we watch each album come out; we study the different photographs and aesthetics. For Prince, it's clear that where he was during the Purple Rain era is completely different than where he was during the release of his second film, Under the Cherry Moon and the soundtrack Parade, and then during Sign O' The Times, even though they all came out within three years of each other. But the process of creation, especially for an artist as prolific and path-forging as Prince, is messy. Personal and professional relationships get intertwiened, and when change comes, it can be really painful. At first, Prince's transition away from the musical chemistry he'd tapped into with the Revolution was gradual; there wasn't really a clean break — until finally, there was. And it happened just before Prince would complete his sprawling three-disc set called Crystal Ball, and just six months before he would edit down that massive collection into the double album Sign O' The Times and release it into the world.

A few months after Prince talked to Rolling Stone and gave that quote reflecting on his relationship with his closest bandmates, he also recorded an interview for MTV in October 1985. At one point, he would reflect on his first formative concert experience, when his stepfather placed him onstage to dance alongside James Brown when he was around 10 years old.

Prince to MTV, 1985: "The reason I liked James Brown so much is, on my way backstage, on my way out, I saw some of the finest dancing girls I've ever seen in my life. And I think in that respect, he influenced me. By his control over his group — his dancing girls, his apples and his oranges."

VO: For as tight as the Revolution was following their massive Purple Rain Tour, there were constant reminders that this was all unfolding according to Prince's creative vision.

Mark Brown: Hi, I'm BrownMark with The Revolution.

Matt Fink: Hi. This is Matt Fink, aka Dr. Fink from Prince and The Revolution.

Eric Leeds: I'm Eric Leeds. I was a saxophone player in Prince's band primarily from 1985, '86 through early '89 in the tours that were in support of Purple Rain, his album Parade, Sign 'O' the Times and then Lovesexy.

Mark Brown: One of the number-one things that I took away from the college, the "University of Prince Funkology," was how to be a leader; you know, you gotta take the lead. You can't be afraid to step outside the box. Who cares what people think.

VO: Changes started happening to The Revolution's lineup in late 1985, following the dissolution of one of Prince's main protégé acts at the time, The Family. The group's lead singer, St. Paul Peterson, had departed to pursue a solo career, and Prince invited the Family's Jerome Benton and Eric Leeds to join The Revolution. By the time the expanded group made their live debut in early 1986, they had gained a total of three dancers — Jerome, Wally Safford, and Greg Brooks — an additional guitar player, Miko Weaver, and a live horn section made up of Eric Leeds and trumpet player Matt Blistan, who Prince renamed Atlanta Bliss.

Eric Leeds: Matt and I, we had played together in jazz bands, we had played together in funk bands, and our role in Prince's band during those years, we kind of looked at each other — we were the anti-horn section, because we kind of filled in a lot of his gaps and it was very interesting how Prince used the horns in those days because certainly on some songs we were used as a more traditional R&B funk horn section would be. But a lot of the times, we were there just to kind of provide little counter lines to what was going on in the rhythm section.

Atlanta Bliss: When Eric and I joined, we called ourselves the Counter Revolution. we couldn't say we were the Revolution because the Revolution is that quintessential band.

Eric Leeds: There was a Revolution, and now you've got to deal with all of us, because all of a sudden everybody that had been in The Revolution besides Prince — there were five of them, and also looking up one day and they're now, what? One, two, three, four, five — there are six more. And it was an adjustment for them. It literally was.

Matt Fink All of us in The Revolution were a little miffed by it. We were so used to having this tight little family unit and all of a sudden, he brings in these new people. It can be a little like a foreign object coming in, invading your body, you know? No, it wasn't that severe! But yeah, we were all talking about it at the time, going, "I don't know about this, this doesn't feel right; the chemistry is changing."

Lisa Coleman: Eric really brought a lot to the band with his horn arrangements and stuff. But there was also a feeling, to be totally honest, we did feel a little bit territorial and possessive of the band. So when more and more people started coming onstage and at the end of the night like, "Baby, I'm a Star," we would call it the "Bugs Bunny Revue"; like, "What's going on here? This is turning into like Looney Tunes."

Andrea Swensson: So as the band started to evolve, did it seem like a new chapter was beginning? Like, did you get the sense that, "OK, now we're going to be moving in a new direction?"

Matt Fink: Absolutely yeah, musically and otherwise, because as soon as you're bringing horns in, then that creates a whole new thing he could play with, musical toy that he didn't have before other than doing it on synthesizer. And then he could be James Brown's, you know, younger brother.

Audio: "In a Large Room with No Light"

VO: This is the vault track "In a Large Room with No Light," written by Wendy and Lisa and recorded on May 4, 1986. It features an interesting cross-section of the musicians that Prince was collaborating with at this era: there's Wendy and Lisa from the Revolution; Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss from the expanded live band; and his Bay Area collaborators, Sheila E., and Levi Seacer, Jr. At the very beginning of 1986, Prince had holed up with this same collection of musicians for an intensive series of jams referred to as the "Flesh Sessions," and it was clear Prince was searching around for a new direction and sound.

Eric Leeds: Right after Christmas of 1985, for the next few weeks, I was out in L.A. with Prince, and we were in the studio off and on almost every day. And we were doing a lot of jam sessions with Levi and Sheila, Wendy and Lisa, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that his long-term vision was that Sheila was going to end up being the drummer in the band.

Levi Seacer: I spent a lot of time with him before I actually got in his band.

VO: This is the guitarist and bassist, Levi Seacer, Jr.

Levi Seacer: And so he's checking us out, and then eventually we went on a tour with him where we opened up, right? And Jerome Benton, he says, "Prince likes you, man." He said, "You gonna be in the next band!" And I'm saying, "What are you talking about? Because The Revolution is here. I don't understand what you mean." I felt like I was in his band before I was in the band. It's weird.
Andrea Swensson: Yeah, it really seems like he was kind of scoping you out, seeing if you might work.

Levi Seacer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like James Brown; that's what James Brown used to do. James Brown had two or three bands all the time.

Audio: "And That Says What?"

VO: Prince was clearly energized by his new horn section. In the Super Deluxe reissue of Sign O' The Times, many of the vault tracks from 1986 feature horn parts from Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss — like this track, called "And That Says What?" because of Prince's giddy comment captured at the end of the track. It features Wendy Melvoin on bass, Lisa Coleman on piano, Eric Leeds on sax, and Matt Fink on keys.

Prince (from Audio track): "And That Says What?"

VO: In addition to clocking countless hours in the studio that summer, Prince also kept his evolving band busy with grueling, lengthy rehearsals — which were held leading up to a pair of high-profile shows at Madison Square Garden in early August 1986, and the Parade Tour that would take them across Europe that month and end in Yokohama, Japan.
Shifting into more of an old-school funk bandleader role, Prince had developed an intricate system of cues and turnarounds that the band could pull out a moment's notice — like yelling "Ice cream!"

Audio: "Soul Psychedelocide"

Matt Fink: He had all kinds of hand cues and like that - the ice cream thing. And then one time, he had a handkerchief that he would drop and you'd have to watch it and as soon as it hit the floor, boom! You'd hit a big horn punch. And when he shook his hand like this, right, he'd go [sings], and then there was a lick that we'd all play. All of a sudden it would — he'd time it just right so it was at the end of a bar or the bar before, and he was doing this, so you're counting off, the horns would come in the band — everybody [sings the part] and that was the hook. And we'd hit that. And that was how all those licks were. They were just little James Brown-y horn licks à la Prince, and little turnarounds, but he learned all that from the other masters that came before him.

VO: This song from the vault is called "Soul Psychedelocide," also referred to as "Ice Cream." It was recorded at the band's Washington Avenue rehearsal warehouse just before the Parade Tour. In a song that he wrote that month, "Joy in Repetition" — which was intended for his scrapped three-disc album Crystal Ball and eventually was released on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack — Prince references the song and the band in this era.

Audio: "Joy in Repetition" from Graffiti Bridge (includes mention of band playing for hours and "Soul Psychedelicide")

Lisa Coleman: Yeah. I have to tell you, when I heard the title "Joy in Repetition," when I heard that line, I had to laugh, because it's like, "Dude, that is all we do all day long." The band playing for months? Yeah, that would us, that would be us. Because at rehearsal we'd have grooves that would last literally hours. Literally hours.

VO: Despite how well-oiled and refined the band was at this moment, as the Parade Tour embarked from Chanhassen to New York and then Europe, tensions were brewing between the core members of The Revolution and Prince. Here's Wendy Melvoin.

Wendy Melvoin: While Sign 'O' the Times was being recorded we were finishing Parade, we were finishing Roadhouse Garden, and certain things for Crystal Ball and The Dream Factory. They were all being swirled around but we were getting ready to go and do the Parade tour. And up until that point the band had not really been making very much money, and I don't know who instigated it, but someone said, "Maybe we should ask for a raise?" And that kind of started the end. Because by that point, other people wanted to sign us to labels and have us do our own record — me and Lisa were like "Count me in! Let's do this, and produce this record, and do this and dadada!" We were highly sought after at the time, and we didn't want to go, but we weren't making any money, right? "Welll, maybe we should just ask for a small little raise." It wasn't much, and I'm not even going to get into the price. But it was just the idea of it. It really didn't sit well with him.

VO: Unbeknownst to the other members at the time, BrownMark had already started negotiating a new deal with Prince in an attempt to resolve some ongoing disagreements they'd been having about pay and publishing credits.

Mark Brown: I had already knew I was going to quit after Purple Rain. I had enough. But me and him remained friends, see, and our relationship shifted more business. You know, I was now a writer, a producer; I had written for Atlantic, Warner Brothers, Motown, SOLAR. I did a contract — sworn to secrecy under that contract. I couldn't tell anybody. But I did this contract to make it look like I was still — I still existed in his world as the bassist to The Revolution.

Wendy Melvoin: By the end of the Parade tour, there was tension between us. It was the best tour we'd had. It was more musical than ever, and we were still writing a lot of stuff on the road, and we were still being productive, but there started to be this thing where little things would happen, like The Revolution knew when Prince put Wally and the three guys in the Parade tour &mash; Wally, Brooks and Jerome. When those guys were at the front of the stage we were like, "It's a sea change, folks. Something's happening. It's a sea change."

Mark Brown: That whole tour — Parade tour — I was behind the piano and he put three guys in front of me. If that's not him letting me know that he's angry — you know, he basically let me know he's mad at me.

Lisa Coleman: Prince was an odd person, and every once in a while, he would call us into his dressing room and just simply say, "I'm gonna end the band. We're breaking up, so play like you've never played before." I think he was trying to inspire us or light a fire under us to play extra hard that night or something. He did that a couple times, where he said he was going to end the band: "We're breaking up; this it." He'd call you in, and he'd either be like, "You look beautiful tonight," or it would be like, "We're breaking up. So it was like, "Oh my god. AHHHHH!"

Audio: "It Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Lady Sings"

Wendy: But knowing him and being friends, you know when people are testing and shifting, and it's not the same, and maybe that glance isn't as long into the eyes of the person that you then — you know, things like that. Like maybe you walk through the hallway and you know you're standing there but you don't look at them. Things like that started happening. 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."

Lisa Coleman: You know I remember that last sound check; he had some other musicians come up, some of Sheila's band, and it was like "What's going on here?" He would look at me and Wendy and like to say, "Lay out," and that was so unusual because, you know, we were his right hand, you know? And then suddenly at sound check for him to say, "Shh; don't play." It was like "What?" Because he had other musicians up there, and he was having fun with them, and he wanted to see what they could do and how badass they were, and so it felt like something was going on. And then that night of the gig was when he smashed his guitars on "Purple Rain." It was like, "Uh-oh. What's happening here? Why is he so mad?" That's what I felt. I felt like, "Why is he so mad?" I even thought, "Did something happen?" Like, did the crew f*** something up or did something actually happen? But it was just the crest of the wave was just breaking and there it was, and that was it.

Mark Brown: By the end, the last gig in Japan, he went on a rant. He was, you know, smashing stuff onstage and he was pretty angry. I knew what a lot of that was about.

Audio: part in "Purple Rain" where guitars are smashed

Wendy: He did it, and we knew it. I looked at Bobby while he was playing drums, and I mouthed to him, "We're f****d."

Andrea Swensson: Oh wow.

Wendy Melvoin: And I looked at Lisa and I said, "I don't think—" And Bobby was like, [whispers] "It's over."

Andrea Swensson: Wow.

Wendy Melvoin: We just knew it. We just knew it.

Matt Fink: It was definitely not in character with what he would do. I mean, he'd throw guitars and stuff, but always throw them at the guitar tech and they'd catch them. He wasn't like purposely doing a Jimi Hendrix, you know, and a full smash.

Andrea Swensson: Wow. So then when the end actually did come, did you believe that it was true?

Lisa Coleman: No. No. I was still — me out of everybody too. Me, I was the most like, "No, it's gonna be fine! He does this all the time. It's just another tantrum." But Wendy did. Wendy was like, "Oh my god, it's over. He's done. He's gonna fire us."

Wendy: We got back to our hotel room and I said to Lisa, "I think we're gonna get fired. I think he's gonna fire us." She said, "Why do you have to be so negative? No he's not." And I said, "I just think he's gonna do it."

Lisa: And I was like, "No, no, no way, it's cool, we're good." We were, like, looking at houses to buy in Minneapolis, and in my mind, it was like it was all good. We were doing so much work and we had come so far and it was like I couldn't understand how he could suddenly just like [imitates screeching brakes], "No, I'm doing something else now." But that's exactly what he did.

Wendy: So we all flew back to the United States. Me and Lisa flew home to L.A., and we got a call from Bobby and Bobby said, "He's really upset. He wants to let us all go. He's really upset." And I said, "Well, we don't wanna go. What can we do?" So Prince flew out to L.A., and me and Lisa met with him. And, um, he fired us. Had a little dinner with us and said, "I know that — I know that you guys can't go where I'm gonna go next."

Lisa Coleman: And it's like, "Well, what do you want us to do?" And then I remember the words "nipple-less bras" and "crotchless panties." You know, I mean it got kind of grotesque and, I felt like, "No, you can't ask me to do that. That's not what we're doing now. I mean, we did that; we took our pants off and shook our booties in the '80s and we got attention, and now we can grow up a little bit." I just had a different view. And so there you go. He had a different view than I did. I was at Tower Records one time after this happened, and I heard these fans talking, and they were saying, "You know The Revolution was a great band, but now, Prince is so hot." And so I kind of understood: he still wanted to be hot and not just like suddenly we're Tom Petty or somebody just writing songs, you know what I mean?

Andrea Swensson: I do.

Lisa Coleman: He needed to be, like, on fire all the time.

Wendy Melvoin: At the time, Lisa and I were very quiet about it, and we didn't really want to talk to the press about it. But it was a heavy, heavy time. It was a heavy time. We didn't quite understand it, but we totally understood it. He was done. He was just done; ready for something else and he subsequently did that over and over and over and over. But when you're young and you're in the most successful time, you don't think it's going to happen to you.

Audio: "Train"

VO: After his conversation with Wendy and Lisa, Prince let his longtime drummer Bobby Z. go as well, and then he called Matt Fink.

Matt Fink: It was shocking and sad and I really felt for my bandmates that this was happening. I felt really bad. And then he — Prince himself — put it as an option to stay or go. It was interesting. It was like, "I had to let these people go. You're welcome to stay but I would understand if you chose to leave now." That's exactly what he said.

Andrea Swensson: Hm.

Matt Fink: It's really weird. I mean, it's really like putting it in my hands. I mean he didn't have to say anything. He could've just said, "Well, you're still in the band; these guys are out; blahblah," you know, and that would've been the end of it. And in a sense it was almost like a test of loyalty, maybe. In hindsight, at the time, I didn't even think about loyalty. I just thought, "Oh, no, I have no reason to go at this point; nope. I don't know. Why would I?"

VO: BrownMark got a similar offer.

Mark Brown: Right after he disbanded The Revolution, he called me out to Paisley, and he asked me to be in New Power Generation. Sign 'O' the Times album. Matt had already contracted with him to do it. Everybody else was let go. I said, "Prince…" You know, it was Sheila E on drums, it was Levi, Miko Weaver, me — it was going to be a phenomenal band, but — I was like, "I gotta move on." I said, "My time is over." I said, "I gave you my best years," and I said, "I got nothing to show for it, you know? I got some fancy cars," I said, "a studio, but, you know, it's time for me to really find out who I am." And he respected me for that, because he kind of just shook his head and he said, "I can respect that."

VO: On October 17, 1986, a press release was sent out to announce the disbanding of The Revolution. It began with a quote from Joni Mitchell that said: "He's driven like an artist. His motivations are growth and experimentation as opposed to formula and hits." And speaking to Ebony that year, Prince would state his new vision using three simple, beguiling words: "I feel that we're on the brink of something," he said. "It's going to be strict and wild and pretty."

Audio: "Rebirth of the Flesh"

VO: On October 28, 1986, with the news of the Revolution's breakup still fresh, Prince would record the song "Rebirth of the Flesh" at Sunset Sound. Using his sped-up Camille voice, you can hear Prince reflecting, "It ain't about the money, we just wanna play."

Audio: "Rebirth of the Flesh" (continuing)

VO: Prince would spend the rest of 1986 cranking through dozens of songs at Sunset Sound, creating a new persona — the androgynous Camille — and a new side project, Madhouse. By the end of November, he would turn in the expansive 3-disc album Crystal Ball to his label, Warner Bros. Records, certain that he'd just delivered a creative masterpiece.

Audio: "The Ball"

VO: Coming up next on Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, you're going to hear from Lenny Waronker. He was the person at Warner Bros. who had to call Prince and tell him that they would not release his three-disc opus, and that he needed to edit it down.

Lenny Waronker: So I called him at the studio, at Sunset Sound, He picks up the phone and he just says — this is the opening line; it wasn't hello or any of that stuff. It was "I hear you don't like my album."

Susan Rogers: He was angry. He was angry and disappointed. And he, at this point, was not used to not getting his way with the label.

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.

Stream Purple Current

Get the latest stories about Prince’s musical legacy and updates on what’s playing on Purple Current.
Purple Current

Legacy Amendment
Presented by The Current, this service is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

 

Related Stories