Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 7: Peach and Black

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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.

Audio: "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" (Live)

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! Welcome to the seventh episode of this podcast! I'm Andrea Swensson, I'm an author and a radio host in Minneapolis, and this series is dedicated to unpacking the many twists and turns that Prince made on his way to releasing his critically adored, epochal double album, Sign O' The Times.

In this episode, we're going to talk about Prince's epic Sign O' The Times Tour, which swept across Europe in May and June of 1987 and was filmed for the concert movie Sign O' The Times. This is the tour that introduced Prince's first post-Revolution band to the world, and he would emerge as the enthralling bandleader of a dazzling and much more theatrical stage show. For this tour, Prince was even directing the audience to join in the production; ticketholders were instructed to attend the shows wearing peach or black.

There are so many incredible stories about the Sign O' The Times Tour, but I thought we'd start at the same point where the Sign O' The Times film begins: by staring into that electric blue, hypnotic orb.

Audio: plasma ball crackle

LeRoy Bennett: My name is LeRoy Bennett. I was Prince's production designer, also co-creator/creative partner in basically everything that we did together.

Andrea Swensson: I was wondering if you could start by telling the story of the plasma ball.

LeRoy Bennett: Oh my god. OK. Well, the plasma ball — it was a very trendy thing at the time in the '80s. I don't know who bought it for him, but we had a plasma ball in the rehearsal or in the studio. I can't remember where it came from.

Matt Fink: [makes plasma light noise] That stuff? Well, you'll never guess who introduced that to Prince.

VO: This is Dr. Fink.

Matt Fink: We were in New Orleans on tour, and I went into an art gallery and lo and behold, it was an art gallery designed specifically to show off these plasma balls that were made by an artist. And I said, "Wow, that is just really cool," so then I got all the information about it, and I brought it to Prince; I said, "This is really great, this could be cool on stage."

LeRoy Bennett: He was fascinated by it. And for those who don't know what a plasma ball is, plasma ball is a glass sphere approximately 10 inches filled with plasma gas that had a central core of an electrical charge in the middle of this sphere that charges the plasma gas, and if you put your fingers close to it on the outside of it, it would be the grounding, so you'd get these little lightning bolts kind of happening. Well, Prince wanted an eight-foot diameter one. When you start to increase the size of something like that, the voltage goes up, and so going from 10 inches to eight feet is a massive amount of difference. It becomes ridiculous, and the amount of RF — radio frequency — that it would set off into an arena when we started it would take out all the computers in the entire building, let alone onstage. Prince would've said, "Well, just figure it out." The thing was that kind of turned him off a little bit was we told him that he had to stand on a real thick rubber mat, and if for any reason there was — he became a ground he would turn into a pile of dust. He would basically explode, and we didn't want that. So he said, "OK, no plasma ball." (laughs)

Audio: "The Ball"

VO: In the last episode of this podcast, we were talking about the story behind the now-iconic cover art for the album, which features a backdrop from a local production of Guys and Dolls that Prince's team borrowed from the nearby Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Although the actual backdrop from that cover artwork had to be returned to the theater after the photo shoot, the vibe of it stayed with Prince. He would end up asking Roy to design the entire set for the live show around it.

LeRoy Bennett: Sign 'O' the Times was a full-on theatrical show, the first time we'd stepped that far into something. The stage set was based off of the backdrop that was from the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. I wanted to make the backdrop its own character within the show and its own personality. And so I decided to take all the buildings in the picture; obviously, I didn't copy them, but it was just — I wanted to make this forced perspective kind of somewhat industrial, whimsical, theatrical city scene was done in the very theatrical flats way and then I also added all the neon signs. So they were real neon signs, which was a whole other thing in itself.

VO: As the band watched the stage set grow and grow, the scale of the production became clear. Here's trumpet player Atlanta Bliss.

Atlanta Bliss: I don't believe we're going to have all this neon onstage with us. And how are they going to transport all this neon on stage? Man, we're going to Europe? You're going to — how you going to get this to Europe and it's not going to break? Yeah, it was an amazing stage. The pods that were above us were — I think they were like eight or 10 feet wide, and Roy had these things rotate around us and spin and all the neon and the stage and everything. It was just amazing.

LeRoy Bennett: It became this really funky, eclectic, urban world. And that really was the essence of what the album was. It was a night club, it was night life, it was intimate bedroom stuff, it was all of that. And that's what we tried to create.

Audio: "Hot Thing"

Cat Glover: I didn't have anything to do with that heart. Let's make that clear. That was not my idea! I was following directions and a lot of things happened on that heart. Lots of things.

VO: This is Cat Glover, who had some particularly steamy scenes with Prince onstage.

Cat Glover: I think I was 26 or 27, but everyone thought I was 19.

Andrea Swensson: Oh wow.

Cat Glover: [sings "Hot Thing, barely 21…"] I was older than that, so — I was like OK, I'll do the dance, but you know I'm older than this.

VO: Sign O' The Times was released on March 30, 1987, in the U.K., and March 31 in the U.S., and the Sign O' The Times Tour kicked off in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 8. The tour routed Prince and his new band through many of the same cities he'd just played the previous year with The Revolution on the Parade Tour.

LeRoy Bennett: Parade, based off of the movie, that opened Prince's eyes to Europe a lot. The European audiences in general are way more musically educated. There is a lot more sophistication than there is here in America. And because his musical mind was in another stratosphere, universe, they could relate to it; they understood it; they followed him, and he just loved that.

Cat Glover: I love Europe, number one; and I think, the Europeans are more susceptible to things than we are here. The culture, the food, the clubs … I was just really excited because everyone over there were just so excited to see Prince. That's why Prince did not tour Sign 'O' the Times in America, because he told us Europeans are more susceptible, they love him more over there.

LeRoy Bennett: He felt at home. He felt he didn't have to be commercial; he could play what he loved, do what he loved, feel the freedom of being able to do all that stuff. They suddenly became his friends; they became his people.

VO: In the U.S., mainstream audiences were introduced to Prince through Purple Rain concert experience; his Purple Rain Tour sold over 1.7 million tickets. But in Europe, the entry point for many Prince fans were the Parade and Sign O' The Times tours, which would often set up camp in each city for three- or four-night runs.

Audio: "Play in the Sunshine" (Live); Prince says, "Hello Holland, and welcome!"

VO: From June 19 to 22, 1987, Prince took over a soccer stadium in Utrecht, Holland, setting up chairs to host nearly 15,000 fans each night. I've gotten the chance to connect with a handful of Dutch fans who were actually at the show on June 20, 1987, which was recorded and has been remastered and included in the Super Deluxe reissue of Sign O' The Times.

Pascal Comvalius: So my name is Pascal Comvalius. And growing up just in that era in the '80s as a teenager — I was 16 at the time when I went to the Sign 'O' the Times concert — it was sort of like I sneaked out just to the house, otherwise my parents would be very upset if I would just skip school.

Roald Bakker: My name is Roald Bakker. I was 19.

Patrick Jordens: Well, my name is Patrick, Patrick Jordens. I was 18. And by the way, more than happy to skip school for Prince! [laughs]

Angelo Schifano: Whenever I run into people that are not really big Prince fans, maybe casual fans, and if they have only one record at home it's always Sign 'O' the Times. And if they have only seen him live during one tour, it's always Sign 'O' the Times. So that says something about the appeal, about the, I think, sort of crossover that he made at least on the European side of the pond.

Roald Bakker: We stayed overnight to get tickets. I remember that. It wasn't like these days of course. You had to not sleep to get tickets.

Pascal Comvalius: The shows kicked off in Stockholm, so a lot of just journalists went especially to these early, early gigs. They start just reporting about them. So we're already reading all the stuff that's going off like, "Wow, this has to be madness. Everybody is blown away by this."

Patrick Jordens: I think I called Roald and other friends that were going, and I said, you know, "We have to wear something peach or black." It was in the ad in the newspaper: "Wear something peach or black." It was on the tickets, I think, as well.

Pascal Comvalius: I wore black, then I went to The Body Shop, and I had peach perfume, peach-scented shampoo, and I would just wash my hair, and that was my combination of peach and black, and I wore it for years! (laughs)

Patrick: On the part of Prince, it was a great move, because you know what happens? People did wear peach and black. So Utrecht wasn't really a rock and roll city. Their concerts weren't usually in Utrecht; they were usually in Rotterdam. And Prince just flooded Utrecht with peach-and-black people. So it really added to the atmosphere of the show.

VO: As another longtime Prince fan and scholar from Holland told me, Prince put a lot of effort into crafting the experience his audience would have at his shows — right down to the seats they would sit in.

jooZt: I'm jooZt Mattheij. I am the editor of princevault.com. In Europe, it's very normal to have festival-style performances, so standing room only. But he didn't want that, so he requested specially that there would be 6,000 seats placed in the stadium. It was in a football stadium so they had to put seats there and everything. It was very, you know, unheard for in The Netherlands. We don't do that. But then, of course, before the show, it rained a lot, and the seats were set up, so Prince came to sound check on the 19th, and he saw that on all the seats was a little puddle of water. So he personally then ordered for all the seats to — for a hole to be drilled in, so that the water would be away.

Pascal Comvalius: Didn't he also have, like, tambourines on the first rows? Like, being on the chairs?

Roald Bakker: Yeah. I think Patrick is getting one of them.

Patrick Jordens: Yeah! That's right. Exactly, yes!

Andrea Swensson: Aw.

Patrick Jordens: [shakes tambourine] This one is from Utrecht.

Audio: "Four"(live in Utrecht)

VO: The opening act for the Sign O' The Times Tour was Madhouse, Prince's experimental jazz side project. The original live lineup of Madhouse included Eric Leeds, Dr. Fink, Levi Seacer, and drummer Dale Alexander.

Patrick Jordens: I was watching Madhouse like my life depended on it because I loved it. I lot of people were not paying attention, but when I was looking at Madhouse, I looked to the side of the stage, and I see Prince, and he's watching Madhouse from the side of the stage, and he's hanging on some kind of bar. He's swinging, and then he jumps off and he stands there a little bit, and no one sees him but me, I think. So I tap Roald, and I say, you know, "Hey! Look over there; it's Prince." And he sees me getting Roald and pointing at him, and then he waves at us — never forget it! It was beautiful!

VO: As the sun went down each night, Madhouse would wrap up their opening set and Prince would prepare to take the stage. Here's Levi Seacer Jr.

Levi Seacer: I think we were about two weeks in, and we're all backstage. It was an outside show. It was a little cool that night, so we're all blowing on our hands, trying to stay warm. And then Prince walks by, and I say, "Hey, good luck tonight."

And he stopped me. He gave me the meanest look I'd ever seen. He said, "Don't ever say 'good luck'."

I'm like, "Hey, I'm sorry, man, I didn't—"

He said, "No, let me explain: What we do isn't about luck. Did you guys have a hard three months trying to learn this show? Didn't I put you through the wringer?"

I said, "You sure did, oh my god."

He said, "So it's not about luck; we're ready. We're soldiers. You guys are well-trained. Even on a bad night, we're going to have a good show. That's why I rehearse you like that. So don't ever say it's luck, because if you're going on luck, then the show's gonna suck. If you go on the fact that you worked hard, you're always gonna have a good show."

And I said, "You know what? That's why he's the best." That's why, right there. "That little thing you just told me? That's why you're the best." Yeah.

Audio: "Sign O' The Times" (Live)

Patrick Jordens: Yeah, he started by himself. So he rips his guitar, and then you hear the Linn Drum blast through the stadium, and he's just standing there by himself, and that was just the best opening you can imagine.

Pascal Comvalius: Yeah, I still get goosebumps right now: He's here, and he's going to kick ass. And that was fantastic, and then all of a sudden, he had these drummers just coming from the sides. You're like, "Holy, holy crap, I cannot believe what I see." So that was majestic.

Audio: "Sign O' The Times" (Live) with drumline

jooZt: It was a whole new show, you know, within 10 months with a new band and everything, and, well, the stage setup, and it was amazing. I was blown away by it. Then I really realized this is someone special that I should, you know, dedicate my life to almost, musically speaking. And in a way, it also spoiled me for live acts now, you know? I don't really go anymore because I saw Prince live many, many times, and I don't care what act you go to, it's not going to be as good as Prince. I'm sorry, but it's just not!

LeRoy Bennett: Nothing will ever replace a live show. I know whatever we're going through with the COVID crisis and all that stuff and all this — these virtual concerts and stuff. It's not the same thing, because there's an energy flow that flows between the audience members and the audience and the artist, and the more the energy starts to click, the better the show is. It's just this thing, it just flows; you can never replicate it. It's the way things smell; it's the way things — you hear it, you see it, you feel it. That energy flowed heavily in our shows.

Audio: "Housequake" (Live)

jooZt: "Housequake" is really interesting, because it has the stop-and-go thing with the audience when they shout "Quake!" You know, that's really special.

Audio: "Housequake" (Live)

Cat Glover: Europeans show much love because they do chant the things that Prince asked them to chant. They sing. They light their lighters a lot more. They're just so appreciative.

jooZt: The crowd was very affectionate, and something that was invented sort of that night — you can see the Sign 'O' the Times film — was the lighter wave. You can see it during "Forever In My Life," you know, everybody flicks their lighter on the beat of the song.

Audio: "Forever In My Life"

Patrick: And that is really where Prince got the idea, because he does that in the movie as well. He used this audience trick in the Sign 'O' the Times movie, and we were there when it happened. And the next day, they themselves came out with their lighters up during "Forever In My Life," saying, "Hey, guys, you did it yesterday; do it again."

VO: Rather than continue on to play the Wembley Stadium in London as he'd originally planned, Prince opted to extend his time in Holland, adding three more shows in Rotterdam June 26 through the 28, before closing out the tour in Antwerp, Belgium.

Patrick Jordens: You got the feeling that Prince came over to Europe, lived all his life; he was writing also here, and he was probably recording here as well. Well — he was recording the Sign 'O' the Times movie, obviously, and Susan Rogers has told us that, you know, he always had his recording equipment with him. 96:22 he was just living - continuing to live his life in Europe, touring, playing. You felt like you became part of Prince's life. You were his entourage, if you will, and that was just an amazing feeling, and when he left, you know, some of us really had the blues.

VO: There are a lot of theories about why Prince decided to cut his European tour short, and move the production to Paisley Park to finish a live concert film rather than tour the U.S. — especially given how critically acclaimed the album had become back home.

Alan Leeds: This is Alan Leeds, and I was Prince's tour manager from 1983 until 1989.

Andrea Swensson: So for someone who might not understand what term is, how would you describe being Prince's tour manager? What does that mean?

Alan Leeds: It would take a week, because being a tour manager is an umbrella term, and the job definition depends entirely on the artist and the type of tour. It's everything from babysitting the band and Prince and making sure everybody's in the right place at the right time, to assembling a crew and staff that's loyal and fully understands the situation and compatible with the artist. And basically, all the logistics. He had cancelled any idea of touring the States with this show. I thought it was a real loss not to do that, because by the time we did tour the States with Lovesexy in 1988, again after a European run, the heat of the Lovesexy album had kind of died down, and as remarkable as that production was, that tour didn't have the impact that a Sign 'O' the Times tour would have a year and a half earlier.

LeRoy Bennett: There's a lot of reasons. Because ultimately, there was a storyline that played. As abstract as it was, it was this kind of abstract story line to connect all the songs and segue them together. I think he just decided, "Let's just shoot this whole thing at Paisley Park as the story that I want it to be - the way I want it to be seen on film and the way I want it" because film is forever.

Alan Leeds: I think he realized that the marketplace wanted to see the show. So that's number one. Number two is he realized that it should be documented, that he wanted his legacy to include a proper documentation of the show, just as he had with Purple Rain. And basically every tour he did was documented somehow, even if it was just his own private footage. So I'm sure he was anxious to have a proper video recording of the concert just for the archive and knowing that at some point in 2020 — God willing, he'd still be with us to do it — but there would be people who would want to see that all these years later.

VO: Although some scenes for the Sign O' The Times film were captured on the final leg of the Sign O' The Times Tour, the majority of the production happened in July of 1987 at Paisley Park.

Matt Fink: We knew about the film I think before we went on tour.

Cat Glover: He had all these brilliant ideas and however — we don't know what he's up to until it's all put together. It's like, "Why am I sitting on a bed and there's thunderstorms?" I didn't know where he was going with that, but then when I saw it all put together, I go, "Oh… OK." And then he got this storyline that me and Brooks were in a relationship, but Brooks cheated on me, and in the beginning of the movie, Prince is playing the drums and I'm talking to him about trust and love and he just wants money. And then Prince is listening to all this and Prince is trying to be my boyfriend in the movie and telling me to leave Brooks. So I didn't get all that because it was pieced together, you know — you have to guess, "OK, why am I doing this? OK, yeah."

Levi Seacer: Everything he was doing back then, he was always at least a year ahead of himself, if not two. Now he couldn't tell everybody that because it would just divide everybody's attention up from what we need to finish now. But he himself was always ahead, and I think that during that time he was probably — he was probably thinking about the film when we were rehearsing. And so while we were rehearsing, he's like, "Hmm, that'll work in the film. That'll work. Hmm. Oh! I didn't plan on that, but that's" &madsh; you know, he's writing it down. And then at some point he's like, "I'm ready to do this," and he felt like he didn't really have to explain things to people. He felt like, "I work hard enough. Why do I have to explain? This is what I wanna do; let's go."

Cat Glover: To me, Sign O' the Times is what's going on today. I want people to know that the Sign O' the Times movie was Prince's heart. That was his little baby. Everybody worked really hard; so did I as a dancer, and Miko and Levi and Bonnie Boyer, rest in peace.

VO: For American audiences, the Sign O' The Times concert film was their first big introduction to Prince's new live band. It premiered on October 29, 1987, in Detroit and then opened the next month nationwide.

Andrea Swensson: So did you both see that in the theatres, the movie?

Fred Armisen: Yeah, oh yes.

Maya Rudolph: Yeah, it was so exciting. 29:00

VO: This is Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, two lifelong Prince fans who have woven tributes to him into their work as actors and comedians.

Fred Armisen: I just couldn't wait to go. I remember just that opening shot. The camera goes across each bandmember.

Maya Rudolph: The drumline is unbelievable.

Fred Armisen: Oh, it's great. It's great. I was at the height, at the time, of my Prince fandom, and every subsequent album surprised you even more. Parade already — I was, I just couldn't — how does he reinvent himself this quickly? it almost seems like a brand-new career, and brand-new artist every album.

Maya Rudolph: Yeah, that's true. There was this unbelievable anticipation of feeling like you were held in the arms of whatever you were about to experience and willingly, you know. I think I was 14, 15, and it felt more adult to me, this album, and I didn't know why. I couldn't put my finger on it. I was very struck by him saying, "Now he's doing horse," knowing that he meant heroin and that he was speaking about drug use. That really was intense to me as a Prince fan at that age, and it felt like really dealing with like a really serious issue. And it felt grittier in a different way. I think one of the things that informed this idea of him getting older is I think he's wearing glasses. And that kind of, as a kid, I was like, "Oh, he's - he's more mature. He's a little bit more of a well-read gentleman."

Audio: "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker"

Fred Armisen: Just the sound of it itself — I still haven't figured out, which means — I mean that in the way that like, I love it. So even for today, I still can't wrap my head around even what style of music it is. I don't know. I can't put it in a category, and I don't mean that like, "Oh, he did many different styles." I mean that I think "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" is a — that's not a genre that I, to this day, recognize what that even is.

Maya Rudolph: And I'm still very puzzled by a lot of it. There was a large shift in the Prince universe, you know, between Parade and this; it's vast. Vast. And a lot was not explained. And as a fan, I don't think I asked a lot of questions but then later on, I was like, "Wait a minute, what happened — what happened to them? Where's the thing that I got used to?" And yet you hear a lot of it on this album. You hear a lot of those muscles and those elements that make that particular sound that Fred's talking about completely unique unto itself.

Maya Rudolph: You were going to say, "How great are Prince fans"?

Fred Armisen: Yeah! Remember going to the shows, how great they were? Never had a negative experience ever. Everyone was just the best!

Maya Rudolph: I think it's also there was such a level of respect for him. There was such a level of reverence for him. That was a uniting factor — that we all knew that we were in the presence of a unique individual.

Fred Armisen: Totally. It was never like, "Well, this might be one of those off nights." Every single show was the best show.

Maya Rudolph: Fred and I got to be in the room for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of "My Guitar Gently Weeps." That was amazing to see, and that's what I'm talking about — watching everyone on the stage watch him was unbelievable. I will never forget it as long as I live.

Audio: "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night (medley)" live New Year's Eve at Paisley Park

VO: Coming up next on Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times: it's our final episode! I know. I don't want to stop. On episode 8, you will hear the behind-the-scenes tale of Prince's only onstage collaboration with the jazz icon Miles Davis.

Eric Leeds: While Miles is playing, Prince turned around to the band and threw up his arm to give us one of the signals for the band to hit one of these cues, and no one paid him any attention. It was probably a good thing that nobody did it because it could've been like a musical train wreck otherwise. But everybody in that band — all we were doing, particularly me and Matt Blistan, you know — all we're doing is looking at Miles and we're laughing because … that's Miles Davis.

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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