Everybody has to make their definitive “state of the world” style statement at some point in their lives, where they attempt to deal with the big, complex issues that seem to dominate society. Some do it with greater success than others. Compare the ground-breaking social commentary of Marvin Gay’s “What Going On” album with, as an example, Tin Machine’s rather clunky attempt at dealing with a similar social focus on their debut album. It is a minefield. In 1987, Prince released what many people consider to be his definitive moment of political and social commentary upon the world: “Sign O’ The Times”.
Take a moment to enjoy the ground-breaking, lyrics based video that featured nothing of Prince other than his words and music:
Yeah, we have become overtly used to bands chucking together a cheap and cheerful “lyrics video” to accompany a newly released track on YouTube so they can start earning some revenue prior to perhaps putting together the obligatory official video that sometimes is clearly not worth the effort (especially in these days of shrinking promotional budgets, if you are still even on a record label).
The comparison with Tin Machine is worth pursuing. On the “Tin Machine” album, you have songs like “Crack City” which deals with the devastating impact that Crack Cocaine was having across cities particularly in the USA (although it also had a terrible impact in some large UK cities such as Manchester and Glasgow). However, David Bowie, who was the central creative driving force behind the Tin Machine project (despite his continual assertion that he was a n equal part of a totally democratic band), was roundly derided for trying to write squalling alt-rock songs that explored the devastation of drugs from the safety of his rock-star mansion. Yet, Prince (who by this time was primarily working out of the developing Paisley Park studio complex) could easily have been accused of the same rock-star talks social awareness condescension but this did not occur. Instead, Prince was roundly praised for what many considered to be a sensitive understanding of the complicated and conflicting social and political issues that seemed to slowly be tearing at the very fabric of society.
Maybe it shows different attitudes based upon different genres of music. Soul music has always had connections with social and political communication perhaps because it has always been most closely connected with the African-American community in America, and particularly with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Musicians like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder did much to be seen as figureheads for creating music that communicated the experience of these turbulent times, and Prince was possible seen here as the spiritual successor to these legendary artists. Compare this with the reputation that rock has had, perhaps unfairly, for primarily being good-time party music about getting fucked-up. Hmmm, maybe it is not surprising that Tin Machine didn’t stand a chance.
In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same
At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples’
High on crack and totin’ a machine gun
It wasn’t the first song that I had ever heard that claimed to signify a sign of the times, that went to The Belle Stars who created a brilliant pop song earlier in the 80s. It also won’t be the last, especially considering that Harry Styles has just released his attempt at creating his sign of the time – I might just post it at the very end for purposes of comparison only. However, in my humble opinion, Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” will forever be the greatest so perhaps people had better just starting coming up with a different name, eh?
It is built around a simple structure of a synthesised drum rhythm and some basic Fairlight synth sounds (such as the classic orchestral stab that appears towards the end of the song). However, the essential elements are Prince’s vocal and the commanding slices of blues guitar that cuts through the synthetic overtone of the music to give it real warmth and humanity. Just as Prince had revolutionised the R n B charts of the late 1970s / early 1980s, here was another example of Prince being quietly revolutionary in his use of old and new technology to create something that really sounded totally unlike anything else that was around on the radio or in the charts at the time.
Just as a side issue, one of specific things that is referred to in the lyrics of “Sign O’ The Times” is the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that happened in January 1986, where the space shuttle exploded during the flight into space. I mention this because I had a good friend in sixth form, Rob, who told us that he had a dream of the shuttle exploding sometime prior to the actual event. I remember walking into school on the first morning after the disaster to be greeted by Rob looking ashen and decidedly fucked up due a lack of sleep. I’m not necessarily going to suggest that Rob had powers of ESP or some kind of alien DNA telepathy etc. I’m sure that it can be explained rationally by the laws of consequence of something. However, when you are a teenager, this kinda thing tends to mess with your mind on a temporary basis.
(Oh, if you are worried about the potential lasting impact upon Rob, he is a very happily married family man who has a very successful life in the television industry – and does an excellent side order in documentaries on life-long passions such as his teenage devotion to OMD, which I wholeheartedly support as “Architecture and Morality” was one of my most important albums in the early 80s).
It’s silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly
But some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies
Prince passed away on 21st April 2016, and it was the second devastating body blow to me in terms of music icons dying, after David Bowie had died in the January of the same year.
They were both true individuals and even mavericks in an industry that has increasingly come to rely on replicating the successful formats of other artists rather than encouraging and embracing unique creativity even in the face of commercial failure. Yeah, some things are more important than money. Love is one of them. Music is another. If you don’t agree, bugger off and read another blog.
As with Bowie, this will not be the last Prince song that will be making an appearance in my blog of songs that have been an integral part of my life at different times. “Sign O’ The Times” (both the song, and the incredible double albums that spawned it) were important companions at a time when I was struggling to find music that connected with me emotionally, morally and even spiritually – and it was one of the few tapes (yes, remember those?) that saw me through the early days of university in Nottingham when I was separated from my girlfriend (who would become my wife and soul-mate), my oldest friends and my family whilst wondering if the course I had chosen (BA Hons in Creative Arts) was genius or a total pile of crap – something that I still can’t even decide to this very day. “Sign O’ The Times” was one of the more positive and uplifting tapes that accompanied my hours of working on art in my room in halls, for times when listening to “The Wall” may have resulted in me throwing myself out of the window (which would have been a melodramatic action of little consequence seeing as my room in halls was actually on the ground floor).
Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died
A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it
And yet we’re sending people to the moon
In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June, unh
That reference to “horse” or Heroin is another one of those potential mind-fuck moments considering that Prince was preparing to start treatment for opioid addiction at the time of his death, when his body was found unresponsive in an elevator. It was later estimated that his body had been there for six hours and he was declared dead at the scene, despite the best efforts of paramedics to revive him. Another terrible and tragic example of how drugs can lead to the ruin of the most inspired and imaginative and incredibly talented of souls ever to walk the earth.
That is not how I want to remember Prince. Rather , I prefer to remember him at the peak of his powers, and for me that is “Sign O’ The Times”.
Oh yeah, I did say I’d post the Harry Styles track for a bit of a contrast…