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.”
“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).
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)…
In addition to providing a creative outlet for his backing band, the Rebels project also offered Prince an opportunity to experiment with different styles outside the context of his official albums. For the most part, that meant hard rock and New Wave: as we discussed last week, “Hard to Get” was as straightforward a Rolling Stones rip as Prince ever recorded; songs like his “You” and Dez Dickerson’s “Disco Away,” meanwhile, bore the influence of Boston FM rock/New Wave act the Cars, whose sophomore album Candy-O was reportedly in heavy rotation at the group’s mid-1979 tour rehearsals (Thorne 2016). But in two of his compositions for keyboardist Gayle Chapman, Prince explored less familiar territory–with admittedly mixed results.
The more substantial of the pair was “If I Love You Tonight,” a soft rock ballad distinguished mainly by its oddly theatrical conceit: Chapman playing the role of a woman on the brink of suicide and desperate for connection, apparently inspired by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Thorne 2016). The track would be revised thoroughly in the years to come–so much that I’m waiting until one of the later versions to discuss it in depth. The other song, “The Loser”–long mislabeled by bootleggers as “Turn Me On”–seems to have been recorded only once, making it unique among Prince’s Rebels songs; and the version that does exist is little more than a stylistic pastiche of his late-1970s labelmate, roots rock singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt.