Prince's "Sign O The Times"
April 20, 2012 9:47 PM   Subscribe

We shrugged when friends told us Prince's Sign "O" the Times was the greatest rock concert movie ever. There are limits to how great a rock concert movie can be, and we figured Jonathan Demme's--and Talking Heads'--Stop Making Sense had stretched them as far as they were liable to go. But even though Sign "O" the Times was directed by the artiste, whose previous cinematic exploits haven't exactly put him in Demme's class, Prince has come up with a contender. Where Demme goes for a sinuous, almost elegant clarity, Prince's movie is all murk, scuzz, steam, and, oh yeah, sex. With all due respect, which one sounds more like a real rock concert to you? - Robert Christgau

Prince was arguably at his creative peak in 1986 as he wrote and assembled the wildly diverse collection of songs that would end up on his acclaimed 1987 double-album ‘Sign o’ the Times.’ It was a cobbled together patchwork of songs that had originally been recorded for various unreleased projects - the aborted ‘Dream Factory’ LP, an album to be credited to the alter-ego “Camille” featuring Prince’s vocals manipulated and sped-up, and the proposed 3-LP set ‘Crystal Ball’ which was whittled down to 2 discs at the record company’s insistence. Many of the tracks recorded during this period remain unreleased but have been widely bootlegged, so in some respects the mystique of ‘Sign o’ the Times’ has always suffered a bit for imaging what it might have been. But while diehard fans will continue to pine for the release of outtakes from the era, it hardly seems fair to judge an album by what it doesn’t include – and without question ‘Sign o’ The Times’ is still a phenomenal record. The diversity, perhaps owing to the unfocused nature of its genesis, is its greatest strength. - Christian Gerard
posted by Trurl (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Now that's entertainment.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:55 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm convinced that Sign ☮ The Times is Prince's masterwork. It has been with me since it was released, I've purchased 3 copies of it on CD (because I lend it out and it never comes back, and damn that fucker is expensive), it never fails to please anyone I share it with, and it is endlessly inventive, strange, and familiar all at the same time.

The movie of the same name, IMO, is a bit of a mess. It wasn't recorded in front of a real audience, it lacks in a certain energy, and it's way too overwrought with Prince's endless ego.

That said, I saw it in the theater during its brief run, and continue to rewatch it regularly. It's probably the best, most watchable of all the movies Prince made across the years. I recently tried to rewatch Graffiti Bridge, and couldn't make it through, despite my loving the album it's based on. I think The Beautiful Experience is an interesting enough filming of Prince music, but SOTT continues to have a visceral something which not even Purple Rain manages to achieve.

I do wish for a slightly better version of the SOTT movie. One done in front of a real audience, one which feels a bit looser and a bit less shaped and controlled... But as far as capturing an artist and his band at the peak of whatever they were right before they stopped being that, it's a work of genius. I keep hoping it will get a quality revival in theaters someday. More than any other work by Prince, it's probably the singular album and film which captures the full potential of his unique genius.
posted by hippybear at 11:11 PM on April 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I've been listening to a lot of James Brown lately so the first link was a big smash up against my head. In a good way.

Prince was picking up on JB's stage legacy but supercharging everything and, well, making everything really 80's. And that's awesome!
posted by mcmile at 11:26 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

While the audio in the linked video is most likely from an actual concert, they are either lip-synching on a soundstage or the editor is splicing together shots from different shows, if not both.
posted by Ardiril at 12:29 AM on April 21, 2012

Hippybear, what an awesome standup for the value of this movie. Definitely watching now.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:52 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

God, I love Prince. I have seen him live a few times in the last 5 years and he still has it in abundance. But it's his really early work that get me most worked up, and it's this era of his career that often gets forgotten. I think the enormous popularity of SOTT and Purple Rain in the States helped make this the case. Those are the albums that mark his maturity, but for me, it's the youthful verve and original arrogance that made Prince a genius. If you haven't already, please listen to his albums For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999. Glorious
posted by 0bvious at 1:56 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh Yeah
U got the Look (with Sheena Easton)
Starfish and Coffee (and Muppets)
If I was your girlfriend
I could never take the place of your man
And if you can get it to work here is the whole damn thing !
posted by adamvasco at 5:28 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll just leave this here.
posted by punkfloyd at 6:15 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

they are either lip-synching on a soundstage or the editor is splicing together shots from different shows, if not both.

I doubt Prince would have been able to move like that and sing at the same time without gasping so I vote for lip-synching.

I'm convinced that Sign ☮ The Times is Prince's masterwork.

"High on crack, totin' a machine gun." It still works.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:29 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I waver on which of Sign O' The Times, The Dreaming, or Skylarking is the best popular album of the ugly eighties, but there's no doubt in my mind about them constituting my holy trinity. They're also my best antidote to the now-fading Boomer insistence that all great American culture happened in the sixties.

Now shut up, already.

posted by sonascope at 6:34 AM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

they are either lip-synching on a soundstage or the editor is splicing together shots from different shows, if not both.

I doubt Prince would have been able to move like that and sing at the same time without gasping so I vote for lip-synching.

No, that's a live performance. If you notice, all the falsetto parts where Prince is really moving around like mad, the vocals are being doubled by his backup singers giving him the freedom to do his dancing. The parts where he's using his more normal voice, talking and exhorting the crowd and stuff, he's planted in front of a microphone.

Prince of this era really did move around a lot. His stage show was frenetic and a real party, and he did things with his body which didn't seem to obey the laws of physics.
posted by hippybear at 6:45 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anyway, there IS some splicing in that performance of Beautiful Night. All the shots showing a giant crowd watching him, those are from the actual concerts he filmed in Europe to make the movie. Sadly, those filmings ended up being mostly crap and were discarded for performances at Paisley Park Studios in front of a small crowd of locals and hardcore fans. But to give the illusion that he had a huge audience, they cut in shots of the large audiences from the European concert shoots.
posted by hippybear at 6:50 AM on April 21, 2012

adamvasco's link to I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man seems busted. This one works. What a song!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:26 AM on April 21, 2012

I was seven when Sign O The Times came out. I didn't know that the ☮ symbol was a peace sign, but I did know that Prince was all about the sexy sex sex. So I came to the conclusion that ☮ meant sex, because that was the kind of sign he would have.

A few weeks later, one of my classmates wore a tie-dyed shirt with a large peace sign on it, and I was shocked, because EWW BECKY LIKES SEX.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:46 AM on April 21, 2012 [10 favorites]

So I came to the conclusion that ☮ meant sex, because that was the kind of sign he would have.

But really, the sign that means sex that Prince would have is this. Rendered in ASCII as O(+>.
posted by hippybear at 7:52 AM on April 21, 2012

However the film was assembled, it worked. The "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" clip is the greatest expression of exuberance I've encountered in any medium of art.

The shot where Miko Weaver is swingng his entire body and instrument to emphasize the beat reminds me of a story that I think came from a Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis interview in Musician magazine. His Royal Badness was rehearsing The Time, who were complaining that it was too difficult to execute his choreogaphy while performing the instrumental parts. He basically told them to shut up and work harder, saying "Y'all got to be steppin'."

They shut up, worked harder, got to the point where they could simultaneously play and step, and were then pleased at their ability to put on the killer live sets The Time became known for. (So much so that Prince kept them off the reviewer-dense New York City stop of the "Triple Threat" 1999 tour at Radio City Music Hall for fear of being upstaged.)
posted by Trurl at 7:53 AM on April 21, 2012

"Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain Live March 30, 1985 at Syracuse, New York. Performing The Best Guitar Solo Ever Played in Music History. Prince awesome intro start @ 3:25 and the Greatest Solo Ever start @ 10:14..." Purple Rain, all 17 delicious minutes
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:59 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I know Purple Rain isn't on SOTT, but this version of Purple Rain blew my socks off and I thought you'd like your socks blown off too.
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:08 AM on April 21, 2012

Let me also give some love to Boni Boyer, who - while unavoidably overshadowed by Sheila and Kat here - was an essential part of the band at this historic juncture.

There's a bootleg of the October 3, 1988 aftershow in Roseland, New York City on the Lovesexy tour. Medleyed with the beautifully heartbreaking version of "Just My Imagination" Prince was performing in his aftershows at the time, Boni gets to sing a number called "Down Home Blues". "Y'all sure you want me to sing this blues?" she asks the crowd. "I'm gonna git nasty on it."

They were and she did and it was Good.
posted by Trurl at 8:16 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not a fan of Prince's ballads generally, but the ones on this album are terrific. And the rest of the album, well, what can I say that hasn't been said? Almost every one of his 80s albums was a mind-altering event for me. This was no exception. I remember all the whitebread guys in my college dorm wincing at the seemingly outré implications of "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and thinking to myself, shit, if you only were able to actually get this song instead of being put off by it, maybe your minds would be altered too. But then I remembered that that was the last thing these guys wanted to happen to themselves.
posted by blucevalo at 8:36 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a fan of Prince's ballads generally

We've found a witch! May we burn her?
posted by hippybear at 8:58 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

The thing about Prince was he was always a little ahead of me back then. I was a huge Prince fan, but when Sign o the Times came out I was underwhelmed. Shortly I realized it was my favorite thing he ever did, and still is.

I didn’t even know there was a movie.
posted by bongo_x at 9:52 AM on April 21, 2012

when Sign o the Times came out I was underwhelmed

Part of my problem with it was the production. Like that other double-album masterpiece Exile on Main St., it took time before the thinness of the sound could be understood as part of the gestalt.

The sound of SOTT is that of the Fairlight CMI - then a state-of-the-art digital sampling synthesizer, today an iPhone app.
posted by Trurl at 10:09 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The full glory of Fairlight CMI, as featured in a previous MetaFilter post.
posted by hippybear at 10:13 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

God DAMN, I loved Prince back then. I blew off a final exam and drove four hours to one of his shows (opened by Shelia E. OMFG!) and then drove back to school after. Never told my mom I flunked that class (or why), but it WAS SO WORTH IT.

I think it was Sign ☮ The Times that I saw in a theater, with a mostly African-American audience. First time I experienced the audience talking back to the screen.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me begin this story by saying that when I was a boy, I had two babysitters named Wilson. Matt Wilson and Dan Wilson, who were about a decade older than me and lived down the block from me. They later went on to form a band called Trip Shakespeare, which was quite popular in the Twin Cities, and even later went on to solo careers. Dan founded Semisonic, enjoyed chart success with "Closing Time," and eventually won grammies for songs he wrote with the Dixie Chicks and Adele.

When I started as an arts journalist, it was at the starts of both their solo careers, and I was able to interview both at separate time. And I had a great hook. I mean, they were my babysitters! I first interviewed Matt, and he was thrilled to remember me, and my family, and we spent a long time discussing the old neighborhood.

Later I interviewed Dan. "Dan," I told him. "We actually know each other. You used to be my babysitter!"

"Oh, that's nice," he said. And then silence.

Finally, I said "So, I hear you're a fan of Prince."

"Oh my God, yes," he said. And then talked for 17 minutes about growing up in Minneapolis, and watching Prince rise to the top of the pop charts, and how, for a while, it really was Prince's town, as there were dozens, or hundreds, of bands that he had started, or people who had played with him, or were just inspired by him. How thoroughly Prince had mashed up genres, so that it was no longer a question of whether it was possible to play funk-inspired rock, or rock-inspired soul, or soul-inspired new wave. It was just a question of how much you wanted to mix the two. How, when he had formed Semisonic, he didn't really have a sense of himself as a songwriter, because Matt had been the primary songwriter for Trip Shakespeare. And so he listened to a lot of Prince, and, when he got ready to arrange his new songs, he wanted to make sure the organ was a dominant sound, because even though he was making pop, he wanted that soul influence.

And on he went. And that's how it is in the Twin Cities. You can find yourself at a bar with a fellow with a PUNK TILL I DIE tattoo and piercings through his cheeks and a 16-inch mohawk, and get him on the topic of Prince and he will talk for days.

I can do it. I took breakdance lessons from one of the dancers in Purple Rain. He was one of the guys in the balcony during The Bird doing wing-flapping moves. When I was a teenage breakdancer, the fact that I was a white kid from the suburbs was completely secondary. The fact that I took lessons from one of Prince's dancers from Purple Rain made me legit.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:39 AM on April 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

MetaFilter: all murk, scuzz, steam, and, oh yeah, sex.
posted by Splunge at 1:20 PM on April 21, 2012

My favorite Prince album, and my favorite Prince film (just barely edging out Under the Cherry Moon, which I also happen to adore.) Had a European VHS tape that I wore out. Shame that it's not available in the U.S.
posted by muckster at 1:52 PM on April 22, 2012

Shame that it's not available in the U.S.

Sign ☮ The Times on DVD from US Amazon. Available new, directly from Amazon, not resale, not out of print.

(Although apparently the one to get is this one from Amazon Canada, as it has a 5.1 soundtrack, which the other version doesn't. It's also roughly half the price.)
posted by hippybear at 3:13 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I stand corrected, although the Brazilian import sounds sketchy & awful. Good to know about the remastered Canadian release. Thanks, hippybear.
posted by muckster at 5:20 PM on April 22, 2012

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