Sign O’ The Times: how Prince’s masterpiece was the beginning of ...

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Sign O’ The Times: how Prince’s masterpiece was the beginning of his end

Things were never the same for the musician after the arrival of his greatest album

James Hall

On September 9 1986, as his guitar solo for Purple Rain was ringing out across Yokohama Stadium just outside Tokyo, an emotional Prince unstrapped his custom-made Cloud guitar and smashed it to the ground. A roadie ran on stage and handed the 28-year-old musician another one, the scrolled horn of the instrument’s elongated body visible to all 50,000 fans who’d packed into the venue. Prince played on for another 30 seconds before removing that guitar and smashing it down too. He walked off stage. Attendees thought he was simply letting off steam: it was the last song of the last show of his six-month Parade world tour. But Prince knew something they didn’t: it was the final concert he’d ever play with The Revolution, the band he formed in 1979 and the group who’d backed him as he’d become one of the biggest superstars on the planet.

In the months that followed, Prince embarked on a dizzying creative spree. Without The Revolution to ground him, he fired off in a bewildering variety of musical directions like an untethered Catherine wheel, filling his tape vaults with hour upon hour of songs covering myriad genres. Different batches of tracks, some of which he’d been sitting on for a while, were destined for different albums. Between the end of the Parade tour and the start of 1988, Prince had five different LP projects on the go. Yet only one of the five putative albums from this musical odyssey would see the light of day: Sign O’ The Times.

Released in March 1987, Sign O’ The Times emerged from this creative eruption as a sprawling 16-song masterpiece. It is widely regarded as one of the best albums of the 1980s and the closest Prince got to his own White Album. From the bleak and socially conscious state-of-the-nation title track – which referenced drug addiction, gang warfare and a nuclear apocalypse – to the raucous funk of Housequake and the all-out pop of U Got the Look, the album was kaleidoscopic and off-kilter in equal measure. Sign O’ The Times, which is about to be re-released as an even more sprawling box set, wowed the critics and remains adored by Prince fans. Last week, Rolling Stone named it as one of the top 50 albums of all time...

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