409: Starfish and Coffee

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
This popular song feels like the Yellow Submarine of Sign o’ the Times and is often described as Beatlesque. The Fab Four certainly weren’t shy of using backmasked tape loops and although the drum beat here seems reversed it must be layered as it sounds the same when you listen to it backwards. Incidentally it’s also not unlike the strange noise I kept hearing during a trip to Croatia a few years ago – a sound that turned out to be a spider that had crawled into my ear canal (I don’t have arachnophobia but knowing there’s one currently inside your head triggers a seventh-layer-of hell level of revulsion). The most obvious Beatles influence here though are the lyrics which are childlike and on-the-right-side-of-twee whimsical, yet that doesn’t stop people reading filth into them. It’s not like Mr Pocket Full Of Horses hasn’t got a reputation for innuendo and the word ‘starfish’ is as tainted as the word ‘taint’, but it takes some tenuous and unhealthy mental gymnastics to twist the song into a sex allegory. As a disclaimer I will admit I did used to think that the “mates” in her lunchbox were of the branded variety (a prophylactic reference for any non-Brits reading). The lyrics actually come from a sweet and innocent place and, according to ex-flame Susannah Melvoin who received a co-writing credit, were birthed from stories she used to tell Prince about a girl she went to school with. A lot of the song’s details are factual: the girl’s name was Cynthia Rose; her favourite number was twenty; she used to draw happy faces on the bus windows; the teacher was Miss Kathleen; Kevin and Lucy were real. One detail Prince did change was the title as, according to Susannah, Cynthia used to always say she had starfish and peepee for breakfast and I’d hate to hear the interpretations that combo would have generated. Starfish and Coffee is sweet and quirky and intriguing and may make other people think of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Or Dear Jessie. Or the Muppet Show. Or Autism. Or the freewheeling inventiveness of childhood imagination. Not me. I get flashbacks of spiders in the brain. I do recommend listening to it backwards though – it’s mesmerising.