16: Housequake

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
The Revolution is dead. Its demise was officially announced to the world yesterday. A mutual parting of ways was inferred but there was really only one finger on the trigger. To disband them at their peak is a bold move but as an artist Prince had to follow his gut and fearlessly stride into the messy unknown. Today is a brand new chapter. A new dawn. 

Prince enters the studio and Susan Rogers notices a weird energy about him. “He was off, he was different” she would later recall. With the tape rolling, he faces the world as a solo artist again and tells all the nagging critics, inner and outer, to “sh-shut up already!” He swiftly punctuates with a mild curse and unleashes the Housequake

It’s an apt name. Quakes are caused by sudden subterranean activity creating waves of acoustic energy. They normally follow a geological rupture. After experiencing his own personal rupture, Prince is doing what he does best – converting his subterranean turmoil into acoustic energy. 

He experienced his first earthquake a few months ago in the same building and it scared him in a profound way. He fears losing control and that was a loss on a biblical level. Sign o’ the Times and The Cross were created in the aftermath and show us Prince grappling with the meaning of mortality and death. He returned to Minneapolis shortly after but now he’s back in LA using the earthquake as a handy metaphor for the awesome power of on-the-one funk, similar to Bootsy Collin’s Mug Push.

The Housequake is a dance where people jump up and down to “make the house shake”. The lyrics are packed full of geological wordplay such as rocksteady or the kick drum being the fault. The bassline has the cadence of an earth tremor. The drum machine is a tectonic jack hammer, shaking an errant tom off-beat. A rift between two drum patterns heightening the sense of disruption.

Last month, he recorded the same drum beat on Shockadelica – the song that birthed Camille. Shockadelica didn’t exorcise this character from his psyche, it gave them energy. A hunger for a leading role. Today, Prince isn’t singing about Camille, he’s singing as Camille. Spitting out a volley of demands and questions, calling bullshit on unheartfelt responses or telling everyone to shut up and listen. A new future comes into focus. The next project. Three weeks later, the Camille album will be in the bag. 

On this unreleased lp, Prince will use Camille to explore feelings that are uncomfortable to examine directly – lonely lustfulness, sadistic jealousy, crippling neediness – pockets of vulnerability that the conscious mind tries to repress. And because repressed emotions resurface in unpredictable ways, Camille could be seen as a way for Prince to exorcise control over those dark desires. Understanding them is the first step to keeping them in check. But Housequake seems only concerned with the funk – something Prince can do in his sleep. Why the need for Camille? Are there any uncomfortable corners, ugly truths, being probed? 

It could be spite that is driving Housequake. A need to smite his critics and doubters. It wouldn’t be the last time Camille was used in this way. But the driving motive could also be fear. Fear about not maintaining control. Twelve months ago, Prince held his first ever TV interview and spoke of a formative experience he had aged 11. His stepdad put him on stage to dance at a James Brown And His Famous Flames concert and Prince tells the interviewer that what influenced him most about James Brown that night was his control. Control over his group. Control over his dancing girls. It was what inspired Prince to pursue stardom.

Now, with his world in turbulence, Prince is desperate to regain control. He moves back to LA, cuts his ties, gives his band their marching orders and uses his new fearless avatar Camille to embody the exemplar of control that inspired him at a young age. He’s James Brown and the world is the 11-year-old dancing at his feet. And how does he show he’s in control? He faces and wields dominion over the thing that scared him the most that year. The quake. When the recording studio shook the last time he was in LA he freaked out because events were beyond his control. Today the same studio will shake again but it will be at his command. This isn’t just funk he’s performing. It’s exposure therapy.

32: Sign o’ the Times

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Humans beings aren’t designed to cope with today’s barrage of breaking news. If we keep pace with every single plot twist of hyper-capitalism’s march, does that make us informed citizens engaging on a macro level with the fast-changing world, or are we doom-scrolling dupes destroying our mental health by giving advertisers clicks for another microdose of that sweet dopamine? Sometimes it feels like we’re being forced to read every word of the Earth’s end credits which are scrolling past our eyes too fast to fully take in. A song like Sign O’ the Times or Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire couldn’t be written nowadays. The news is far too relentless to be be pinned down. The turnover too quick. And after having it beamed into our eyeballs, our hearts and our lungs every hour of the day, we want our pop music to be escapist. Before 24-hour news came of age with the OJ Simpson murder case, glimpses of a burning world were doled out in managable bite-size chunks. One such chunk reached Prince when he was in a particularly anxious state and it gave birth to the song that titled the album, tour and movie of his creative peak. Under Sign O’ the Times in the Hits liner notes, Alan Leeds writes “I’d love to know the date so I could look up the newspapers to see what inspired it”. Thanks to Susannah Melvoin we now know it was 13 July 1986. She recently revealed that Prince was in Los Angeles that month, experiencing their worst earthquake in seven years which, in her words, “scared the shit out of him”. On the day of the aftershock, with his belief in a stable world once again literally shaken, he was handed that day’s LA Times with a front page headline about Reagan’s Star Wars program. Read that paper yourself online and trace the seeds of the song’s lyrics through articles on the surge in teen drug use, the AIDS epidemic (including one about a recent conference in France, and another that likens HIV to someone running around with a machine gun), bomb blasts, and a report on how women and children were the fastest growing poverty group in the country. Not all the Signs came from that Times. There’s no rockets exploding but it was only a few months after the Challenger space shuttle disaster. And Prince would have heard about The Disciples in Minneapolis where a murder trial of a leader from that gang was underway. There’s also no mention of Hurricane Annie. Could the destruction of a church be by the hand of his antichrist Annie Christian? It’s a line possibly inspired by an article that day on white supremacist violence being committed in the name of Christianity. Or could Prince be referencing the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the US coast, sometimes referred to as Hurricane Annie, which left a path of destruction in Florida in 1935. Interestingly, back when he recorded this, the only other category 5 to have hit the mainland was called Hurricane Camille. Coincidence? Could he have even got the name from a Rudy Ray Moore record. Or maybe all of the above. Sign O’ the Times wasn’t the first song he recorded after digesting that day’s current events. The healing redemption of The Cross came first. Only by cleansing his soul could he then turn his direct gaze towards the abyss. And after encapsulating the darkness, giving it form, and proposing love, marriage and the gift of God (the Hebrew meaning behind the name Nate) as the antidote, could he then move forward and play in the sunshine.

35: I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
On the 34th anniversary of the album recording of I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, the estate released a remastering of the original demo to promote its placement on the forthcoming Sign o’ the Times box set. A surprising element of this previously unheard recording is how the singer’s refusal to “take the place of your man” only lasts until the final chorus when he relents, adding “…but I’ll try, yeah, I’ll sure as hell try”. Probably a bigger surprise though is how this fully-fledged song from 1979 didn’t crop up on his second or third album. It could have slotted seamlessly into Dirty Mind but maybe Prince always had bigger plans and had to wait until his technical chops matched his vision. In 1986 he ditched the song’s new wave garb for a technicolour coat of country, rock, blues and 60s pop, woven with intricate strands of electric and acoustic guitar, and brocaded with handclaps. Everything is held together by the hi-hat that doesn’t let up, even throughout the extended blues coda which helps keep the listener tantrically charged and biting their bottom lip for a third of the song, on the edge of an explosion that finally comes at the six-minute mark when the main refrain returns with a bullet and a scream. Given the lyrics’ original ending, could this be the point in the story where he gives in to the woman’s advances? In later acoustic renditions, such as on the Musicology and Piano and a Microphone tours, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man remains a firm refusal of a rebound romance. But now I hear the quiet section on the album version as the singer steeling his nerve and shoring up his reserves of will power before his defences finally crumble in a scream of pent-up passion. I’m just glad that he changed the opening line from the intial draft. Keen eyes may have spotted in the handwritten lyrics (released by the estate on the same day as the demo) Prince originally opened with the line “She was only fifteen…” before crossing it out and replacing it with “It was only last June”. The music video with Cat, taken from the Sign o’ the Times movie, could have had a very different vibe indeed.

37: The Cross

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Prince’s art rock masterpiece The Cross starts simply: a gentle two-chord strumalong, an occasional sitar-sounding flourish and Prince’s voice naked (except for some reverb) just as God intended. A drum joins in at the end of the second verse, a militant beat on the one and three to sound the procession of a soul heading towards its saviour. And at the song’s halfway point they meet. At Prince’s signal he unleashes heaven. A guitar drone explodes into life, the drums rock out and three of the four verses are repeated again with blazing intensity. With no chorus to provide any release, the tension increases until the final two lines where his vocals no longer stand alone before God and now swell with the sound of a thousand souls in transcendental rapture. It’s the redemption promised in The Ladder and delivered in Purple Rain, only this time without the shroud of poetry. It’s not his first song with a straighforward and unapologetic Christian message. However, tracks like God and 4 the Tears in Your Eyes were kept away from his albums. Prince recited the Lords prayer in Controversy and told us Jesus is coming in Let’s Go Crazy and (albeit backwards) in Darling Nikki but those felt like messages slipped through the back door. I Would Die 4 U came close but hid behind a messiah complex and was muddied by being the words of his father both off-screen and on. The message of The Cross is inescapable – don’t die without knowing Christ – and its symbolism is plucked straight from the Gospels. The title uses the most instantly recognisable Christian symbol and the line “there’ll be bread for all of us” nods to Jesus’s second miracle, a reference within the grasp of most primary schoolers. A little more esoterically, “ghettos to the left of us and flowers to the right” uses a traditional biblical metaphor of dividing people into sinners on the left and the blessed on the right, as described by Matthew (25:33). This has been depicted in art since medieval times, with crucifiction scenes usually placing to Jesus’s right the penitent thief whom he saves (Luke 23:43), while the unrepentent thief is placed to his left. The problem of this by-the-book symbolism is that The Cross was less flexible to roll with changes in Prince’s faith. At an awards show in 1998 he introduced a renamed version called The Christ, while lecturing us about the Jehovahs Witness belief that a single stake of wood was used in the crucifiction instead of the mistranslated cross. As he would later find when he renamed Sexuality, fans didn’t appreciate this messing with the classics. It was easier when he used his own symbolism as that didn’t need updating to reflect the dogma du jour. Larry Graham was not going to pull Prince to one side and tell him his views on the de-elevator were off-doctrine. Personally, I don’t care if it’s The Cross or The Christ, as for me the power of the song doesn’t lie in its lyrics or message. The true power is hearing the mindblowing sonic effect of Prince finally accepting into his life the Velvet Underground.

40: Strange Relationship

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
When the author Vladimir Nabakov was asked about his novels’ beastly characters, he replied that they were outside his inner-life like the monsters on a cathedral facade, placed there merely to show the demons that have been booted out. Prince uses Camille in a similar way. His gender-fluid alter-ego is not just a pitchshifted voice, it is a vehicle for Prince to exorcise his dark thoughts, or at least launder them into art he can share with the world without the cognitive dissonance of endorsing the message with his birth name. Strange Relationship is one those song dredged up from the darker recesses of his pysche that has its lead vocals attributed to Camille, but it was written years before that character was born. First recorded in 1983, the song’s lyrics portray a relationship that’s more sadistic and unhealthy than strange. Jill Jones has said Prince wrote it about Vanity after he became jealous of her seeing other people – feelings he also channelled into the deceptively viscous Wonderful Ass (although Wendy believes Susannah was the muse for that one). To me, Strange Relationship sounds like the darker cousin to When You Were Mine, where this time the green-eyed monster isn’t fanning the flames of love but instead causing them to emit a toxic smoke that’s captivating to watch dance. The ghost of a sitar synth haunts the background – traces of the time it was in Wendy and Lisa’s care before their involvement was whitewashed out post-Revolution – while a monotonous beat gets a kick out of doing you cold. The effect is beautiful yet sinister, like a young Imelda Marcos. Unlike Wonderful Ass, this song refused to be banished to the vault. It made it onto three abandoned albums (Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball) and the same amount of released ones (Sign o’ the Times, One Night Alone… Live!, Piano and a Microphone 1983). It also appeared on a couple of concert home videos and performed live regularly up to and including his final tour. Out of all the intricate gargoyles adorning Prince’s palace, Strange Relationship is the one whose troubled gaze you couldn’t escape.

48: Hot Thing

Sign o’ the Times (1987)

Prince pursues his Hot Thing over forbidden waters, in a cold drum-machine patrol boat that leaves capsized ships in its wake. His vessel is stripped back and hydrodynamically honed for the hunt. Laser sights locked on. Cruise control engaged. It’s all too easy. Then a stowaway is discovered on board – Eric Leeds with a rogue saxophone that begins to jam the precision technology and threatens to lose the chase. The devil’s horn, wild and organic, turns the sea’s white caps into galloping horses. Fifty Nereids glide under the surface. Spume and spray soak the deck. Luckily Prince knows how to harness this untethered, unpredictable spirit and tames it with freestyle incantations of his own (a scat taught to him by the Coco Boys). By the end of the track the saxophone is at heel and responding to attack commands. It’ll be utilised again on their next voyage – the extended mix – but this time the underlying tension and conflict will be replaced by Sugar Walls sea shanties.

57: Rebirth of the Flesh

Unreleased (1986)
In one of the Greek legends, a god impregnated a woman and told her their child would be born a god if she kept quiet about the affair, otherwise the child would be born a mortal. Similarly, I like to think Prince wanted to retain Rebirth of the Flesh‘s divinity by keeping it under wraps. Okay, so it’s never been completely secret. Bootleggers gonna bootleg. But Prince thought highly enough of it to place it as the opening track on both the aborted Camille and Crystal Ball albums, and then decided to rehouse every single track apart from that one. Why else, other than to keep the song elevated above the mortal world? Remaining shtum about such funk finesse is hard though and Prince several times almost gave the game away. He recycled the opening couplet on Escape, and the la-la-las on Walk Don’t Walk. The “we are here, where are you?” line became a common refrain at concerts around the start of the millennium, teasing the hardcore fam who thought they would get to see this unicorn in the wild. They never did. The closest he came to buckling was in 2001 when he made a rehearsal version available via the NPG Music Club. What effect this live version has had on the track’s celestial status is unclear but in his pantheon of unreleased studio songs Rebirth of the Flesh reigns supreme at the top. Unless, of course, there’s better we don’t know about.

59: U Got the Look

Sign O’ the Times (1987)
Prince takes Addicted to Love and shows Robert Palmer how it should be done. The power chords and 4:4 rock beat remain but liquid funk seeps in via the bass and Sheena Easton replaces the objectified, blank-eyed mannequins. U Got the Look ended up as a duet but Sheena says her vocals are erratic because she was under the impression she was only providing backing. All the better to complement the Camille-infused weirdness. In his book Prince, Matt Thorne calls U Got the Look the album’s “least lyrically sophisticated track” but among the “sho nuff”s, “crucial”s and “slammin”s (which, to this day, I still mishear as “fireman!” at 2:17) there’s a verse that I rank among his finest – the one where he compliments Sheena’s character on her make-up, then corrects himself when he sees her natural beauty under the closing-time lights. That section unfolds with such effortless dexterity that you can forgive him for slapping a gauche “let’s get 2 rammin” in the chorus. This was an unashamed pop song after all. The Hits liner notes say it was conceived as a private test to see if a friend would like a commercial-sounding song before it hit the mainstream. Prince tinkered with it a lot in his quest for a guaranteed hit. One of the outtakes even featured a banjo solo – which, along with the blues progression and references to the World Series, all show that appealing to the American psyche was foremost on his mind during this process. In the end, he scored his hit and as Prince wrote in his own draft of the liner notes: “sure enough, the friend didn’t like the song until it was in the Top 10.”

63: Forever in my Life

Sign O’ the Times (1987)
Prince wants to settle down. He’s pledging his future to you and he’s careful not to ruin the moment with misjudged bells and whistles. Fancy frills would only cheapen the sincerity. The only extravagance he allows himself is the miscued backing vocals, an initial error by his sound engineer which Prince liked and kept. It gives the impression his mind is racing ahead and stumbling over his words while he delivers The Proposal. Then, when he’s finished unloading his heart, the song relaxes and we get a blast of acoustic guitar for the final seconds. A melody he’s been holding in the entire time like a clenched gut. His butterflies have escaped and are carrying us upwards towards Xanadu.

68: It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night

Sign O’ the Times (1987)
The Revolution’s final hurrah. Recorded in Paris on the Parade tour, a couple of weeks before they disbanded, It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night would be the last time the band features on a Prince album. However, Prince, not one for long goodbyes, subsequently buries the departees under studio overdubs of his new retinue. Revolution holdovers, Eric and Atlanta, get called back to provide extra horns to drown out the outgoing Wendy and Lisa. Bobby Z’s solo is left intact but Brown Mark gets a phone message of Sheila E reciting Edward Lear over the top of his. Yet underneath the song’s studio mask throbs a quasar of triumphant Revolution-brand live funk. You couldn’t ask for a more joyous swan song. It’s the soundtrack to gliding through life with the gleeful grace of champagne bubbles. But it takes hard, punishing work to sound this fleet-footed. This is echoed in its militant “o-ee-yah” chant, previously used on The Time’s Jungle Love. The chant can be traced back to the film The Wizard of Oz, but surely its roots lie further beyond in chain gangs and the “yo heave ho” of sailors pulling in unison. It’s this regimental training, the bloodied toe inside a ballerina’s slipper, that makes It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night a funk juggernaut. The lyrics may be Partyup hedonism but Prince has his army marching lockstep to bring the Saturday night vibes and even the greatest musician in the world will flounder if they’re not drilled in its funk regimen – just ask Miles Davis.

161: Play in the Sunshine

Sign O’ the Times (1987)
After the dystopian vision of Sign O’ the Times we’re hit with a solar blast of pure vitamin D. The warm all-enveloping fuzz of sunlight on closed eyelids blocking out a decaying city. With an Elvis lip snarl, Prince sings about dancing as if it’s the last time and having fun before his life is done. Is time running out? Is this a 1999 style party-ocalypse? Will the world stop when the music does? Or is it his last dance with Susannah during their final recording session together? Whatever the urgency, Play in the Sunshine works as a better memento mori than your usual oil painting of a skull. We’re all gonna die someday so forget your earthly worries and lose yourself in this surreal garem masala of sunny positivity. That POP you hear in the right channel at 1:47 is the departure of your last remaining negative thought.

297: Slow Love

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Slow Love was originally written by Carole Davis and if her version had dropped first then this song would be a cover and therefore ineligible for this list. However, debuting on Sign o’ the Times with new music and lyrics undoubtedly makes Slow Love a product of Prince at his peak. Sadly it’s a ballad that never gets the attention it deserves, being the Luigi to Adore‘s Mario, but when it steps out of its brother’s shadow you notice something that Adore, or even anything else on the album, lacks: a Clare Fischer-composed string section. They’re the subtle star of the show here and fill the sparse arrangement with the music of the spheres – vibrations from a universal choir which stops the cosmos from disintegrating into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. My love for Adore is immediate, fiery and passionate, yet my love for Slow Love is slow, eternal and written in the night sky.

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.