Prince was an artist whose musical conceptualization helped me personally to view sexuality as an act of love,rather than as a profane taboo. Considering his classic soul music struggle between spiritual and carnal pleasures,that may be hard for some people to believe. But as far as that aspect of Prince’s talent,it really began to reach its peak in the mid/late 80’s. A period that I feel represents Prince’s creative peak as a musician. Prince was also on the cusp of becoming a 30 something during this period as well. This represented another stage in Prince’s emotional maturity.
Sign O The Times was the Prince album that illustrated this stage of his maturity most fully. Because of the time frame in which I heard it,the 1987 album reminds me of a long period during the 90’s that wasn’t paying attention to Prince’s new music. There is one memory from a rainy afternoon in 1994 when I was driving home with my parents from Strawberries Records. They had the radio on and this Prince song came on with a very deep and strange sound at the beginning. They shut it off before I knew what it was. When I finally heard Sign O The Times,I realized that song was “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.
That “strange sound” I mentioned begins the song over a three note LINN drum hit. Actually sounds like revving an amp’d up electric guitar at its very lowest notes. Then a thick slap bass pop breaks into the refrain of the song. Its a very slow beat accompanied by a trumpet like synth brass solo while foreboding layers of synth strings play along in the back round. On the refrains,Prince sings in a sped up falsetto along with mainly the drum and bass line of the song. Toward the end of the song,the bass line gets somewhat more intricate as Prince raps frantically with some operatic orchestration before the song stops.
Its taken me too long to realize that this is one of Prince true funk classics. The slap bass pretty much carries the entire song-one that TLC would also cover around the first time I first hear…well the intro anyway. Lyrically,this song finds Prince exploring a sexual double standard. His asking a lover if she’d undress in front of him if they were anything but lovers. Even saying by the end “we don’t have to make babies to make love/we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm”. Prince taking on romantic insecurity in this funky musical way was a major step in his evolution as a human being.
Filed under 'Sign 'O The Times', 1987, Funk, guitar, Linn Drum, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, sexual revolution, slap bass, synth brass, synthesizers
During the mid/late 80’s,Prince was refashioning the MPLS sound into something far beyond its stripped down drum machine/synth brass based new wave style groove it started out as being.His music was becoming far more orchestral and jazzier-showcasing a more live instrumental approach and more improvisational horn charts and solos. In 1986 however, Prince was still close enough to his signature sound to expand on it with some of his newer musical ideas. This came to fruition on the unreleased album Dream Factory,which evolved into Sign O The Times.
When I first started collecting Prince CD’s,Sign O The Times was on my bucket list of albums in terms of introductions to his music. It was actually the last on this list I ended up getting. It was a 2 CD set that I actually had to listen to several times in order to gauge what each song meant to me. Looking back on it now,the album has o conceptual unity as its cobbled together from several unreleased sessions. Yet all the songs sound like they belong together. One of a handful of album tracks that really stood out for me on this particular,the top of that list would be “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”.
A drum kick on the Linn LM-1 starts out the song. A steady Linn drum track,with a number of call and response Afro Latin percussion accents and claps,remains the main rhythm of the entire song-save for another drum kick before another refrain. The bass line is an intricate,snaky movement sewing the song together. Prince provides a number of unique synth leads here. One is a high,pitch bent one that sounds almost out of tune. The other is a similarly toned line if a bit lower-both improvising on the series of melodies throughout the song until it ends on the same theme on which it began.
Especially since this same man sang “its time for jazz to die” in 1982,this song shows how much Prince had integrated jazz improvisation and Latin drum patterns into his one man band approach by the mid 80’s. Some of the unusual,improvised modulations of the synthesizers on this sound have a similarity to Joni Mitchell’s music,of which Prince was a major fan growing up. He even name drops her as an element in the story told by the lyrics-a rye musing on Prince being played by a cocktail waitress. In terms of his multi instrumental jazz/funk approach,this is among my very favorite Prince songs.
Sometimes,there are songs discussed on this Anatomy of THE Groove feature that have a little extra excitement in terms of me writing about them. Many of these are songs often discussed between myself and blog co-founder Henrique Hopkins on Facebook. So many of his ideas come across in them. Today is such an occasion. Its taken a long time for me to actually locate this particular content. As with any song from Prince,it has its share of rich history all on its own. And as usual before getting into my rundown of the song,wanted to share some of that history with you.
Following the release of his second motion picture Under The Cherry Moon,Prince embarked on a year long recording session throughout 1986 and early 1987. These songs were originally intended for three separate album projects. Seems Warner Bros weren’t keen on Prince’s prolific nature forcing his albums to actually compete with each other on the charts. One of these projects was to be released under a pseudonym known as Camille-sung in a sped up voice.. It was a very funky album,a handful of whose tracks appeared on 1987’s Sign O The Times. The one I’m talking about today is called “Housequake”.
A loud,halting screech beings the song. Then the drum intro kicks in-a nine beat drum machine rhythm with the four notes after the third in a faster cluster. A live drum and a breezy synth horns come in over the call and response vocals. Then the refrain takes over for most of the rest of the song. Its the basic live drum beat with a mid range rhythm guitar playing the changes. There is also an electric and synth bass both playing the same six note line. The horns of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss come in to accent on the second part. Eric solos on the bridge before playing a jazzy unison with Bliss on the jam’s outro.
The key point that Henrique and I discussed so much is that if James Brown had continued innovating his 70’s era funk sound with 1980’s instrumental innovations,it would likely have sounded somewhat like “Housequake”. The horns are there,and the opening drum break was even used to open a song by Stevie Wonder in a concert during the same era. Still the production style still has Prince’s touches of instrumental subtlety. So even though the instrumentation and lyrical references to “green eggs and ham” are totally JB derived, Prince still managed to maintain his own touches on this driving funk groove.
Filed under 'Sign 'O The Times', 1987, Atlanta Bliss, call and response, drum machines, drums, Eric Leeds, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Prince, Saxophone, synth bass, synthesizers, trumpet, Warner Bros.