Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 5: It Be's Like That Sometimes

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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, Episode 5
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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.

Lenny Waronker: So I called him at the studio, at Sunset Sound. He picks up the phone, and he just says, "I hear you don't like my album."

Audio: "It Be's Like That Sometimes"

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.

Hey! It's Andrea Swensson. That track you're hearing is called "It Be's Like That Sometimes," and it's one of the many unreleased tracks from Prince's vault that are included on the new Super Deluxe Reissue of Sign O' The Times. Elements of it would end up in "Eye No," a song on his 1988 release, Lovesexy. But at the time it was recorded, in October 1986, it was one of dozens of songs that Prince was tracking between the breakup of his hit-making band, The Revolution, and the completion of Sign O' The Times.

Years later, while writing the liner notes for his 1998 compilation of unreleased music, Crystal Ball, Prince would look back on this period. Writing about the track "Good Love," he said, "This track was recorded during an intense period of musical change 4 Prince — he had disbanded the Revolution and moved 2 L.A., booking Sunset Sound Studios — sometimes 4 months at a time. 'Shockadelica,' 'Feel U Up,' and parts of the Black Album were also recorded during this period. Prince was happy he reflected and very optimistic about his musical possibilities with a new line-up of musicians, which included Sheila E."

By the time the news of The Revolution's breakup was reported in the papers, Prince had already set up camp at Sunset Sound and was recording one or two songs a day.

Coke Johnson: When they came back from tour, the 18-wheeler pulled up and they brought all this stuff from the tour in and decorated the studio.

VO: This is engineer Coke Johnson, who worked closely with Prince at Sunset Sound.

Coke Johnson: That's when the king-sized bed showed up.

VO: Yes, a bed.

Coke Johnson: Instead of having a couch out there, he moved in a big ol' full king-sized bed that had a big purple comforter on it because it sat high so he could sit on the edge of it and play his guitar. I think a lot of times he sat out there and wrote in his little notebooks what he was feeling and what was going on in his life, because everybody wanted a piece of him, and they all were pulling him here and pulling him there. And he had lawyers and accountants and architects trying to get his approval on building Paisley Park. I remember one day, one of the architects showed up, and he had built a three-foot-by-three-foot piece of coroplast, and it was a mockup of Paisley Park down to the dream window pyramids on the top to a T with little trees in the yards and stuff; tried to show Prince what the design concept was. And I think Prince had told him, you know, what he wanted, and the guy brought it into the room; he set it in the studio and then he invited that guy to leave. No gratification at all! I don't know if he ever told him, "Good job." He expected perfection out of everybody he worked with. And because he expected that, that drove everybody to really put their all into it.

Audio: "Witness 4 the Prosecution" (Version 2)

VO: One of the songs Prince recorded during this period was a reworking of "Witness 4 the Prosecution" on October 6, 1986. Prince intended to give this new version to the country star Deborah Allen, and the next day, he tracked another song for her, "Telepathy," that she would ultimately release.

As Prince went into overdrive creating new material in the studio, he would work such long hours that he needed a bench of engineers at the ready. In the fall of 1986, that often meant that Coke Johnson was trading off behind the board with Prince's primary engineer Susan Rogers.

Coke Johnson: He would work you into the ground. And so I could work with Prince, and we could tag team him. A lot of times either she or I would be sleeping. There was a break room right across the hall with a couple nice couches, and so we could take little catnaps in there.

VO: The studio was a deeply personal space for Prince; as Coke recalls, not even Prince's bodyguard would be allowed in the actual recording rooms. Which meant that Coke — who Prince called "Cuz" — logged countless hours alone in the studio with Prince.

Coke Johnson: So he always referred to me as "Cuz," short for "cousin," you know — if he wanted me in the studio he'd come over the talkback and say, "Cuz, studio three." He loved Doritos; he loved Famous Amos cookies, the little bags where they were always fresh. He liked Perrier water and he liked Evian water. We kept all of those in the break room in case he wanted to take a break. And it was rare that he would drink much coffee, but if we'd been recording for seven or eight hours and it was 10 o'clock at night, he would say, "Cuz. We need a cup of coffee." And I'd say, "Really?" Generally, it was with a little bit of cream and a sugar cube. And if he said "Two sugars," that meant you were going to be there for another four hours, because he was such a purist, that even a sugar buzz would get him wound up.

VO: With The Revolution's breakup still fresh, Prince seemed to pivot in this period toward creating music for other people, trying on different personas and personalities. In the span of just one week that October, he recorded songs for Deborah Allen, Jill Jones, and Joni Mitchell — who struggled to find herself in the lyrics for the song Prince penned for her, "Emotional Pump."

Audio: "Emotional Pump"

VO: While exploring the more feminine side of his songwriting, Prince also tapped into a piece of technology that could shift his voice into new registers. By mid-October, he'd become fascinated with recording in a voice he would call Camille.

Coke Johnson: He was writing so many songs and doing so much stuff that he got tired of his voice singing the solo on all the songs. So we got a couple of special effects devices. One of them was called the Publison Infernal Machine, which is a pitch-changing device where he can sing in his normal voice and it'll come out like on, "Bob." You know that song?

Audio: "Bob George"

Coke Johnson: Bob, ain't that a bitch. He could actually sing in his normal register and we could transpose it down or we could transpose it up. When he started singing in his falsetto in his head tone it was such a pure tone, there was nothing out on the radio that sounded anything like that. And I think he liked that. And then he was just trying to find the right song or the right vehicle to exploit that sound.

Audio: "Rebirth of the Flesh"

Coke Johnson: And so we started collecting all those songs. He had six or seven of them that he had sung with that higher voice, and he didn't want to throw them away because they were good songs. So I think that's where he was putting together the Camille album.

VO: Although a test pressing was made, the Camille album was abandoned before it could be officially released. But its mere existence has become a fascination for Prince scholars and fans. With the release of the Super Deluxe edition of Sign O' The Times, it's possible to experience the full collection of Camille tracks, which started with "Rebirth of the Flesh" …

Audio: "Rebirth of the Flesh"

VO: And included "Housequake" …

Audio: "Housequake"

VO: "Strange Relationship" …

Audio: "Strange Relationship"

VO: "Feel U Up," which Prince released as a B-side to "Partyman" in 1989…

Audio: "Feel U Up"

VO: "Shockadelica," which was released as a B-side to "If I Was Your Girlfriend," and references Camille…

Audio: "Shockadelica (Extended Version)"

VO: "Good Love," which was released on the 1988 Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack…

Audio: "Good Love"

VO: "If I Was Your Girlfriend" …

Audio: "If I Was Your Girlfriend"

VO: And "Rockhard in a Funky Place," which would end up on The Black Album.

Audio: "Rockhard in a Funky Place"

VO: Even The Black Album was an ephemeral creation in this period; a handful of the tracks were mixed together to soundtrack Sheila E's birthday party that December.

Coke Johnson: I just assumed that those were for the party only, that those would never be released, because we spent a while mixing those things out. We made some tapes that would be slammin' for Sheila E's birthday. He seemed really driven back in that particular three- to four-month period. He didn't have The Revolution around. He was in the studio, in his element, doing what he enjoyed doing and he was making himself happy — along with me! (laughs)

Susan Rogers: I was very puzzled around that time.

VO: This is engineer Susan Rogers.

Susan Rogers: I was puzzled because he wasn't talking about it; he wasn't showing it. There were big changes going on his life. I knew how important The Revolution was to him. Bobby was one of his oldest friends, and Wendy and Lisa were, again, among his oldest dearest friends. For him to lose his band, I knew that he was struggling. There were deep tensions there and he would not — this frustrated me as a Prince fan — he would not write about it. He would not sing about it. He would not say anything about it. Because in addition to all that, he had this tension going on with Susannah because what's she supposed to do when her sister leaves and here she is? And I kept waiting for the songs. I mean, gee, if you ever wanted inspiration, there's a great way to be inspired. Your world kind of falling moderately apart. But Prince did not acknowledge weakness. When we were on tour if he had a cold or the flu, he'd take that DayQuil and he'd hit the stage. He did not like making excuses. He did not like admitting any kind of a weakness.

Audio: "Play in the Sunshine"

Susan Rogers: So musically and artistically around this time, the tension was there in the room, but the music is generally pretty upbeat — things like "Play in the Sunshine" and "Housequake" and even the dance stuff that we did, like "Le Grind" and "Cindy C" and this happy, joyful stuff. I can see it when I watch the movie Sign 'O' the Times and the concert that we did over in the Netherlands, watching it recently after all these yearss it gives me the impression of just manic, untethered joy — like being really joyful, but without a reason to be. It's not tied to a birthday or Christmas or a happy event like getting married or — it's just joy for the sake of joy. And that's a little bit puzzling and a little bit troubling, but from that feeling, he got a masterpiece from it. To some extent, he plumbed the depths of what he was feeling, like with "Sign 'O' the Times" and with "The Cross" and with "Adore," with "It." And to another set of songs, he's not touching it. He's not touching what he's feeling. It's music made from the neck up. It's purely cerebral, yet it's so damn good. Most artists would be hard pressed to pull that off. You have to be a true maestro to be able to be that good.

VO: That "joy for the sake of joy" may have seemed dissonant to those around Prince in that tumultuous era, but looking back at Prince's work all these years later, I think that's part of Sign O' The Times' lasting appeal: it captured the full spectrum of the human experience, from reckoning with deeply personal disappointments and spiritual epiphanies to embracing resilience and joy — in other words, as Yale professor Daphne Brooks described in a previous episode, he was finding ways to celebrate the expansiveness and limitless possibilities of Black artistic expression. As Daphne reminded me, the Camille persona was just another example of the ways that Prince that pushed away boundaries.

Daphne Brooks: The technique that first piqued my ears and still is the detail that is most alluring to me and inspiring is the emergence of the Camille persona. And she or they — as our younger fans might call that character right now — they come to us initially through "Housequake."

Audio: "Housequake"

Daphne Brooks: The longer genealogy and thinking about a character like Camille is obviously through something like P-Funk; it's so central to Prince's DNA And the fact that P-Funk was so revolutionary in playing with Afro-futuristic kinds of characters through technological calibrations of vocals clears a space for Prince to then actually design and inhabit an expansive, heterogeneous, polygender universe, right? So that's one particular example of how I think of Prince as having taken kind of the building blocks of funk and pushed them to their limits in these ways that made really radical statements about, again, the malleability and gloriously constructed possibilities attached to identity performance.

Audio: "If I Was Your Girlfriend"

VO: By the end of November 1986, Prince had assembled what was to be his next artistic masterpiece: the 22-track, triple album Crystal Ball. It included eight tracks from his abandoned Dream Factory album, which he'd primarily completed with The Revolution's Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, and his fiancée at the time, Susannah Melvoin; another seven tracks from the Camille project; and another handful of songs he'd just completed that fall at Sunset Sound.

Audio: "Rebirth of the Flesh"

VO: The track list was finalized on November 30, 1986, and submitted to Warner Bros. Records. And if Prince had been in charge of the label, that three-disc set is the version we would have all heard in early 1987. But for the first time since the runaway success of Purple Rain — and with the dust still settling from his film Under the Cherry Moon's disappointing reception earlier that year — Warner Bros. pushed back. You're going to hear now from Lenny Waronker, former record producer and record executive at Warner Records. His relationship with Prince started a decade before Sign O' The Times. They met when Prince was in the process of signing to Warner Bros. in 1977, and Lenny remembers visiting Prince in the studio when he wanted to prove to the label, at the tender age of 19, that he was capable of producing himself.

Lenny Waronker: We took him in the studio, and I really didn't want him to think he was auditioning. We just wanted to see what he did, you know? And he started with an acoustic guitar, got that down; put the drums on it. And as he was putting the drums on, you could tell he had it covered. Because I was really concerned about not auditioning him, I said to him, "After you've finished putting the drums on, we can stop, and if you want, you can have the tape or whatever," and he looked at me and it's one of the few things he said that day, but he said, "No, I gotta finish," and he was very firm about that; firm enough to where I backed off and said, "OK, OK, whatever." And we were in the control booth, which was very, very thin, especially with all those big, 24-track tape machines. He was sort of sitting on the floor, and I was walking across the booth to talk to the engineer, and as I'm stepping over him, he looked up at me and he said, "Don't make me Black." And he then went on to say that he's competing with everyone, and named artists from different genres, different times: the Beatles, and Sly and the Family Stone, Eric Clapton. I mean he went on and on and on, and again, it was jumping genres, which really made it interesting. It was like, geez, there's an enormous amount of ambition, and there's also the ambition to be great. That was a big thing for me - you know - it was like, "You better get this guy and stay the hell out of his way," for the most part.

VO: And for the most part, that's how Prince and Lenny's relationship played out. Executives from the label rarely visited Prince in the studio, and Prince would visit the Warner Bros. offices on his own terms to share his latest music with Lenny and his colleagues. But when Prince handed in his three-disc album Crystal Ball, the label felt lukewarm about it.

Audio: "The Ball"

Lenny Waronker: It was the first time that we had stepped in. When the album came in I listened to it, and I realized I was having a very difficult time getting through it. Part of that is just me, and the other part is that it felt long. It felt like there were 20 songs.

VO: There were 22 songs in total.

Lenny Waronker: And so there was a meeting that took place in Bob Cavallo's office, with Steve Fargnoli, Bob and Joe and Mo and myself.

VO: Bob Cavallo, Steve Fargnoli, and Joe Ruffalo were Prince's management at the time; Mo Ostin was the CEO of Warner Bros. Records.

Lenny Waronker: I got there a hair late, and I could hear what they were talking about, which was trying to get it down to one album. They were all worried, you know, about the size of the thing. And I listened for a while and finally I just said, "You guys, there's no way. There's no way that he's gonna take three albums and condense it into one, based on what I've heard. I think the approach should really be, 'Let's do a double album.'" He can get away with that easily, and it would make for a better album I thought. And I gave them the reasons again, you know — the artistic reasons — why it would be impossible, I thought, to win that battle. And why battle? Why not present it in a way where you're talking about what's best for the record. So, they wanted me to talk to him about it. I thought, "Oh god, here we go…" you know. Because it was never easy with bad news or what he perceived as bad news.

So I said, "All right, but don't say anything to him. I'll pick my time and my place. I want to do it in a neutral place." So [I] went home, went out to dinner, came back; it was about 11 o'clock. Had a phone call from Steve Fargnoli. He was one of three managers, and Steve said, "Prince wants to talk to you."

And I said, "Steve, did you tell him?"

He said, "Well, I had to. He knew there was a meeting."

So I just said. "All right."

So I called him at the studio, at Sunset Sound, and I remember the woman who picked up the phone put me right through. In other words, Prince had told her I would be calling and make sure that this call gets in here. I called and got him immediately. 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," which was typical of him because he could challenge you. And I said, "That's not true. I didn't say that. The thing I said is I think it would be a phenomenal album, but I think that it needs to be edited."

I had just gotten back from a vacation in Hawaii and I read this fabulous book about this book editor, Maxwell Perkins, who found F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, etc., etc. So I told Prince about this famous book publisher and all he wanted to do was make sure that the books were as good as they could be and as tight as they could be. And I said, "In your case, there's no Max Perkins. You're that guy. You're gonna edit it."

I was just trying to get him to think about what's best for the record. He didn't say much. And then at the very end, he just said, "You know what? I'm going home to Minneapolis," and hung up. So I figured "Oh man, I blew it." The next morning, I went to the office and got two A&R people who I really trust to sit with me and go through all the songs and see if we could edit it down, or at least have our version to have him respond to it. And I called Bob Cavallo, who was sort of a senior manager and a longtime friend of mine, somebody I really respected. And I said, "I know I'm gonna have to go to Minneapolis to get this done, and we decided we would put the album together with, what we thought were the stronger songs," and he said, "What are you talking about, 'Fly to Minneapolis'? He's been up all night editing the album!"

Andrea Swensson: I like that you went the route of saying, "You are both the artist and the editor in this analogy."

Lenny Waronker: Yeah, it was the only way to do it. And by the way, it was the right way to do it. We're not as good as he is, you know.

VO: Years later, Prince would reflect on this exchange with Lenny and the label. In 1996, when his conflicts with Warner Bros. had reached a fever pitch, The Artist said in an interview, "I delivered three CDs for Sign O' The Times. Because the people at Warner were tired, they came up with reasons why I should be tired too. I don't know if it's their place to talk me into or out of things." In another interview that year, he added, "These are the same people who would tell Mozart he writes too many notes, or that Citizen Kane is a long movie."

Susan Rogers: I do remember that when he told me we've got to take it apart — the sequence that we had — he was angry. He was angry and disappointed. And he, at this point, was not used to not getting his way with the label. And I remember him huffing and puffing and being angry about the way some people act and the way some people think and the way some people behave and what kind of a world we're living in and blahblah.

Audio: "Bob George"

Susan Rogers: And I did not know the context in which he was so angry. I didn't get involved in his business affairs or his personal affairs for that matter. But I remember he was angry about that, and then eventually there was acceptance and we moved on. And it was the better choice. The double album was the better choice, but it wasn't what he wanted and this was one of the — it had been a long since he hadn't gotten what he wanted.

Audio: "U Got the Look"

VO: There is only one song on Sign O' The Times that wasn't on the three-disc Crystal Ball — and Prince recorded it at the 11th hour, on December 21, 1986, with Sheena Easton.

Susan Rogers: I remember that we spent an extra-long time on "U Got the Look." Originally the song was a slower tempo, so we had the tape machine slowed down. It was going to be a slow, kind of deep-funky kind of thing. It was very clear that he was considering this to be a song like "Pop Life" or "When Doves Cry," that this was a major song to him on this record; perhaps a single, I don't know. But we spent a long time, at least a full day, with it in that lower tempo, and he decided he didn't like it. Typically, if he decided he didn't like it that's when a song — tape would come off the machine. He's finish it up; we'd make a mix of it; it'd come off the machine and the tape would go straight into the vault. But in this case he did something unusual: He just kept working on it. So we stripped down the whole top line, we vari-sped the tape machine to speed it up — made it a whole different thing; made it a pop thing and that's why the drums sound so bright and high-pitched, high in tone. It's because we sped it up from their original tone. So as he's working on it, he's friends with Sheena, they have a phone call, he invites her down to the studio and she comes down and they put up a mic and he's written lyrics for her and she sings. It was very quick. She was a pro just like he was. Her voice was always warmed up, and she did a great vocal part.

Audio: "U Got the Look"

VO: Coming up next on Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Prince assembles his new live band and prepares to introduce them to the world with a big European tour. You'll meet more of the musicians who Prince brought along for the ride — including the incomparable Cat Glover.

Audio: "Hot Thing"

Cat Glover:I tried on a dress, came to Minneapolis; all of a sudden, I see photographers, and they dressed me like Prince. I didn't know what was going on. They just dressed me, gave me his guitar, and Prince said, "Play something."

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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