Following the recent tragic demise of Prince, John Scott takes a look at what he considers The Artist Formerly Known As’ masterpiece, Sign O The Times.

When I started the Classics column almost two years ago my intention was to feature a range of albums from the 1960s and 70s; albums that deserved to be acknowledged as classics but at the same time avoiding the obvious choices. I had no particular list of albums that I wanted to write about – if one popped into my head and it felt right then I wrote about it. Recently though, the Grim Reaper has forced the Classics column to double as an obituary page. The last couple of months featured tributes to David Bowie and Lemmy. When Keith Emerson died I decided not to pander to the Pale Rider’s rock and roll cull but then he upped the ante by picking off Prince and that just could not go ignored.Prince-Sign-O-The-Times

I don’t know if The Reaper is putting together some sort of Dead Aid festival in the hereafter but if so, I think he has a good enough line up now. Do us a favour Death, leave our heroes alone.

For the first time, the Classics has moved into the Eighties to honour what may be Prince’s masterpiece Sign O The Times. By the time Prince released Sign O The Times in 1987 he was already an established superstar. Having recorded his debut in 1978, the critics and public really began to take notice with 1980’s Dirty Mind album. It was the 1982 album 1999, however, that really saw him conquer the pop world. Many acts go through a purple patch but Prince had a purple reign and from this point on he could do no wrong with his fans. Even though he was a proven multi instrumentalist, arranger and producer, since the 1999 album Prince had aligned himself with The Revolution, a core band of backup musicians.

Sign O The Times would see him present himself as a solo act again even though many of the tracks on the album featured contributions from members of The Revolution. “It’s not the notes the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play” said Miles Davis and Prince takes on this good advice in the opening, eponymous track of Sign O The Times. Sparse beats and basslines, skeletal guitar and understated keyboards underpin a tale of gangs, guns, drugs and AIDS; a protest song every bit as pertinent to its times as Blowing In The Wind Was to the early 1960’s. Prince was always a contradiction, mixing the carnal and the spiritual. On Play In The Sunshine he dismisses drugs while immersing the listener in a lysergic haze.Prince-Sign__O__The_Times-Trasera

Housequake channels James Brown with stripped back funk. Over the course of the album, Prince mines the rich history of pop. U Got The Look nods to Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love and gives Sheena Easton her finest moment, except for maybe 9 To 5. The Cross is the album’s centrepiece giving Prince the opportunity to stretch out a little on guitar. Perhaps this is the time to just reflect a little on how great a guitarist Prince actually is. If you need proof of his prowess check out the video of the all star version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps featuring Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood. The solo to the song, originally performed on The Beatles’ “White Album” by Eric Clapton is handled by a session guitarist. I don’t know who he is but let’s call him Bob.

To be picked out to play in such august company, Bob clearly has to know his stuff. I can imagine the telephone call from Jeff Lynne must have gone something like: “Hi, it’s Jeff. Jeff Lynne. The guy from ELO. Yeah, the band that did all the Beatles knock offs. Anyway Bob, listen, Dhani Harrison is putting together a tribute show to his dad and we need you to play the guitar solo in While My Guitar Gently Weeps. There’s me and Tom Petty and you know, we could do it but we are not really lead guitar guys. We’re going to have Steve Winwood too and he could do it standing on his head but he’s going to be playing Hammond so we really need you to nail it for us.” So Bob’s feeling pretty stoked; he’s going to show Eric a thing or two and when the night comes he gives it all he’s got and he makes a pretty great job of it. From his facial grimaces you can see that he is putting all he has into it. But then, just towards the end of Bob’s solo the camera pans to the right of the stage where a little guy in a scarlet fedora is playing along on his Telecaster. As Bob’s solo ends, Prince – for it is he – takes to the centre of the stage and rips out a solo of devastating virtuosity, innovation and emotional depth. And it is utterly effortless. Bob is toast. Within the first 20 seconds of Prince’s solo he has been completely forgotten. Jeff is kicking himself; why the hell hadn’t he put the call through to Paisley Park instead of to that cocknozzle Bob. And who the hell had got hold of Prince? It was probably that wanker Winwood. Everybody knows that whenever there is an all star band to be put together Jeff Lynne is the go-to guy. It’ll only be a matter of time now before Winwood is replacing him in the Wilburys.

Seriously though, if you see the video of that performance and don’t think that Prince is one of the greatest guitarists to have graced a stage then you need the phone number of Bob’s therapist. If I Was Your Girlfriend and I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Girl see Prince getting down and dirty while the live track It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night demonstrates why Prince was one of the hottest live acts of the last fifty years.

So, in summary, Sign O The Times is probably Prince’s masterpiece. Given his legendary productivity, it’s equally possible that there are unreleased tracks in the Paisley Park archives that tower over its achievements but we may never know. For now though, it is the finest encapsulation of one of the greatest talents we have ever seen.

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