It was the mid-’80s. A sign of that was that Prince had a major hit on the radio, as he seemed to for most of the middle few years of that decade. On this day in 1987, his “Sign O’ the Times” peaked at #3 in the U.S. It was the title track of his ninth album… in just 8 years. And it was no quickly-assembled throwaway effort either. Rather it was a 79 minute, double album to boot. Even those who weren’t big fans had to hand it to Prince for energy and ambition that seemed to outpace all his contemporaries.
Sign o’ the Times was recorded in L.A., which was a bit of a departure for the proud Minnesotan, but was issued on his own Paisley Park label, as were his previous two albums. What was a bit different was a return to his debut album in one way – Prince himself did the whole album, more or less bottom to top. While he’d had great success with his backing band The Revolution on some earlier albums including Purple Rain, on this album for the most part it was written, played, sung and produced by Prince with no outside help. Such was the case with the title track.
“Sign o’ the Times” had Prince using a drum machine and a Fairlight synthesizer to make the music, and an “introspective” Sunday for him to pen the somewhat dark and blunt lyrics. The line “Sister killed her baby ‘cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it, yet we’re still sending people to the moon” points to the song’s beginnings.
It’s said that Prince was irritated, and confused after the Space Shuttle explosion in ’86 that the country planned to keep steaming ahead with NASA. He was “surprised that people would still be interested in space travel…especially when there were so many problems in the U.S.” As an aside, were Prince to be alive today, he’d get no argument at all here at A Sound Day about that. Among the problems he pointed to in the song were gang violence, urban poverty, and of course the big problem of the ’80s, AIDS, as in “skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.”
The bleakish single made #3 in the U.S., keeping his hot streak running. He’d had three #1 and two #2 hits in the previous three years, give or take. It topped the R&B charts and made it to #5 in Canada, #10 in the UK. The album itself got to #6 and went platinum in the States; it went 4X platinum in Canada making it one of only two of his records that did better elsewhere than his homeland. It was helped along by the next single, the more upbeat “U Got The Look,” a duet with Sheena Easton… a sign perhaps that no matter how dour the times, Prince was always up for a little bit of dancing and romancing!