As of this Friday, the wait is finally over: Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe will at last be in our hot little hands (or at least our hot little streaming services; I ordered my physical copy from the official Prince store, so let’s just say I’m not getting my hopes up about getting it on release day). In the meantime, Warner Bros. has given us one last preview track to tide us over: Prince’s January 1987 recording of “I Need a Man.”
Last Thursday, after weeks of rumors and leaks, it finally became official: the next expanded reissue from Warner Bros. and the Prince Estate is Sign “O” the Times, and it’s a doozy: 8 CDs (13 LPs, for the wax-inclined) and a DVD covering the full breadth of Prince’s output from late 1985 to early 1987. I won’t be “officially” writing about this music until 2021 at the earliest (more on that later), but damned if I can’t share some preliminary thoughts about it now. Here they are, disc by disc (and, in the case of the Vault discs, track by track)…
The completed Vanity 6 album, like the previous year’s debut by the Time, was a slim thing: a mere eight tracks, just over 30 minutes of music. But its slimness was not, as Brenda Bennett observed, “for lack of material” (Nilsen 1999 106). Among the songs that were at one point considered for the album, but didn’t make the cut, were five tracks recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981 (“Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”); two from November 1981 (“Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” the latter of which may have inspired Vanity’s short-lived original stage name); and at least two more from the same March and April 1982 sessions that spawned the bulk of the album (“Too Much” and “Extraloveable”). Prince “spews songs so fast,” Bennett recalled, but “he didn’t want to over-expose the public to too much stuff… It was under-exposure for over-exposed girls!” (106).
In the end, while the majority of the album was written by Prince himself, a couple of tracks came from elsewhere in the camp: “He’s So Dull,” written and produced by guitarist Dez Dickerson, and “Bite the Beat,” co-written by the Time’s Jesse Johnson. Credited on the album to Johnson and Bennett, “Bite the Beat” would be the guitarist’s first published song–though it wasn’t his first attempt at one. During the early days of the Time, Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics, he would “play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris [Day] over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed” (Gonzales 38).
Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up,” “Wet Dream,” “Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”), as well as other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,” “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut funk track “Let’s Work.”
According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” The song, inspired by a dance Prince had seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,” had been kicking around as early as 1979; its title appears in one of Prince’s notebooks in what appears to be an early, handwritten tracklist for the Prince album, alongside “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Bambi,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” “With You,” “Still Waiting,” “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” “Sexy Dancer,” and “Darling Marie.” When it didn’t make it onto the album, Prince allegedly tried to release it as a non-LP single; but Warner didn’t bite, a minor setback that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.
The Time’s first album was completed quickly, even by Prince’s ever-increasing standards: recorded in April 1981, mixed (at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles) by the end of the month, and released another three months later. In the meantime, the man behind the curtain was already devising a second group of protégés: an all-female counterpart to his first group’s male pimp aesthetic, charmingly named the Hookers.
In order to recruit his stable of Hookers, Prince stayed even closer to home than he had for the Time. He drafted his personal assistant, Jamie Shoop, who then-engineer Don Batts described as “a good-looking blonde… kind of a ballsy woman in a man’s world” (Nilsen 1999 63). The other two spots were filled by his girlfriend at the time, Susan Moonsie, and her sister Loreen.