Video: ‘Sign o’ the Times’: How Prince Wrote and Recorded a Classic Song

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“There’s a lot of things I can say about ’87. Pro and con, mostly pro. But I’m not a speechmaker so I’ll do what I do best.” [playing “Sign o’ the Times”] “If y’all want to dance, it’s cool.” Singing: “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same.” “How you doing, man?” “Pretty good.” “Let me turn my light on.” “There you go.” “OK, there we go.” “Tell me how you met Prince.” “The phone rings, it’s his secretary. She’s like, ‘Hold on.’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on for who?’ Next thing I hear, ‘Uh, Levi, you want to be in my band?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK.’” “Hello.” “Hi, hang on a second. Let me turn you up. I think it was his 24th birthday. And I hear click, click, click, click, click. Jumps over the couch, sits right down next to me, and whispers in my ear, ‘Did you dream about me last night?’ I mean, he was incredibly charming, smelled beautiful. It was just everything, all about it was like, OK, I think you’re hooking me in.” “Who were you to Prince?” “Oh, well I know if he were answering that question, he’d say something funny.” “How are you feeling tonight?” “I feel with my hands, Martha.” “But I’m not as witty. So I was hired as his audio technician in 1983. Prince was looking for a tech, he was coming off the ‘1999’ tour.” [playing “1999”] “I was with him nearly every day for four years because if he was awake, he wanted to have a musical instrument in his hands. And if he had an instrument in his hands, he wanted to be recording.” “With this particular time, in writing ‘Sign o’ the Times,’ there was a lot of input coming at him. There was an earthquake in Los Angeles.” Announcer: “My goodness, a live earthquake, right here.” “He didn’t like that kind of stuff, you know. He liked to be in control. That was definitely being out of control.” “Also on the front cover of the L.A. Times, there was the AIDS epidemic. That talked about, you know, in France they were trying to come up with a vaccine, and it hit him so hard. Singing: “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same.” “There was gang violence in L.A.” “Another guy hit over there, too. Singing: “At home there are 17-year old boys and their idea of fun is being in a gang called the Disciples, high on crack and totin’ a machine gun.” “The Challenger had exploded.” “We will never forget you.” Singing: “It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly.” “This was all coming at him, and he felt it was apocalyptic.” “If you look at the pop charts from those years that didn’t sound like ‘Sign o’ the Times,’ right?” “It doesn’t sound like new wave. Singing: “You spin me right round, baby, right round.” “That doesn’t obviously sound like hip-hop. [record scratching] “It doesn’t sound like pop. Singing: “Tell it to my heart.” “Right? It’s not something you can dance to. Singing: “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody.” “To me, it’s kind of like this Prince that is pivoting away from having to prove himself any longer with the Rolling Stone rock radio set. Yes, I can do a Neal Schon Journey guitar solo, and turn it completely inside out and it becomes ‘Purple Rain.’ Singing: “Purple rain, purple rain.” “Take rock back for Black folks. And now I’m going to show you that I can also cross over to certain kinds of digital musics.” “So when Prince brings the song to the studio, how does he set it up? Does he say anything to you?” “His favorite way to work was to say nothing at all. I would have everything set up so that he could work silently. Prince didn’t talk much. He was not an especially social human being.” “How many years ago did you make these demos, and then have offers on them?” “The world came to him, and then he expressed what he had experienced to you through the music. He’s sitting there, I’m at the console and he’s next to me at the Fairlight.” “The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument. It’s $46,000 worth of electronic wizardry.” “It’s more than a synthesizer and sampler. It was a very expensive digital engine with sounds built into it. On the song ‘Sign o’ the Times,’ he played all of the instruments on it. You can hear that that bass line is played from his fingers. That’s a keyboard instrument. As he’s sitting at the Fairlight, he’s moving from instrument to instrument to instrument. He had a watchmaker’s knack for understanding how music worked, and how to get it to work with the fewest possible parts.” [music playing] “The other reason you have to remember with Prince is every time you listen to a song, it’s telling a story. Even if he wasn’t singing, you could just listen to the music and feel that that song would be about what he’s talking about.” “Prince’s sessions were notoriously long. Often, it would be 24 hours. He’d take a break, maybe shoot some basketball. But he also had a sweet tooth, so every now and then he’d ask us to send a runner down to get a big lemon cake. After we recorded the Fairlight onto analog tape, we’d make a cassette of it. He’d take it out to the car, and then he’d write melody and the lyrics. And then come back in and finish the song.” “Prince always did his vocals alone. We would set up his vocal mic then leave the room. He didn’t want an engineer between him and that audience. He wanted to just sing to his listeners. Singing: “It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes.” “You’d be on the other side of that door. Singing: “And everybody still wants to fly.” “And you’d hear those soul preacher screams, and you’d know, oh this is going to be one of those that just has me on my knees. Singing: “Oh why, times.” “When the vocal was done saying what it had to say, that’s when the guitar could take over for the vocal.” [guitar playing] “And say the same thing the vocal said, but with short melodic phrases.” [guitar playing] “Every single day we recorded, I had the feeling of, oh this is going to be great. Wait till people hear this. Singing: “Sign o’ the times.” “When he comes back with ‘Sign o’ the Times,’ how does he present it to you?” “In the car. ‘Guys, want to come in the car and hear what we did?’ So we all pile in the back of the car, and he turns it on.” “He just pops in a cassette?” “Pops in the cassette. We were like, ‘Whoo, yeah.’ You know, like that’s how we always were, like, it’s great. He was always very cool.” Singing: “It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly. “His fans, you know, they like to dance and stuff but they still want to be intelligent. Like, we can have some fun, but can we talk about something that actually means something? Instead of your eyeliner you got a big ass?“ The sign o’ times mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late.” “What’s really interesting to me is that, you know, he basically spends four minutes, or whatever it is, cataloging the ills of the world, and then his solution is … Singing: “Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby. We’ll call him Nate.” … “let’s go get married and have a baby.” “Right, well at the end of the day when you’ve got nothing else, you do have — the most important thing is love. He always came down to who is he loving, and who was loving him. That he could then be the guy he felt he needed to be.” “It’s very hard to hear the song ‘Sign o’ the Times’ and not think of health crises, political crises that we have going on now. Like, what do you think Prince would have made of 2020?” “I don’t think Prince was preoccupied with world events for their own sake. I don’t think he would have been the kind of man who would write a letter to the editor of his local newspaper. He didn’t want to see foolish people ruin it for everyone.” “There’s a melancholia to it that matches 2020. You know, that is the feeling for 2020. But it also challenges us to think about how long we’ve been on the battlefield, and the ways that the music itself can provide us with knowledge to position ourselves for thinking about the future. We are the song’s futurity. So it’s our responsibility now to keep building forward from what Prince gave us.” “Why are you giving interviews and refusing to speak? Why? And don’t tell me you lost your voice because I heard you singing five minutes ago —” “He has to sing tonight.” “But couldn’t you, like, sing your answers? I mean, I just don’t understand why you won’t speak. Because it’s like that? And that’s the way it is?” “Yes.”

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