148. Prince – ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1987)

“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
At home there are seventeen year-old boys
And their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called the Disciples
High on crack
And totin’ a machine gun”

Taken from the album Sign O’ The Times

Also released on The Hits 1, The Hits/The B-Sides, The Very Best Of Prince and Ultimate Prince

US #3, UK #10, AUS #29

Prince’s minimalist social consciousness record ‘Sign ‘O The Times’ would be one of his most influential songs, both in lyrical and production style. The simple, haunting drum machine riff works with the artist’s subdued, disappointed vocals to create a message song with a different. It doesn’t go overboard or fall victim to ‘Heal The World’ style theatrics, it just paints a vulgar, honest picture of the world as it is (or was in 1987, but nothing much has changed).

The lyrics read like a list of World Worries for the late-eighties, the verses deal with AIDS (the big disease with a little name), gang violence and widespread drug use. Prince’s cousin tries reefer in September and by June he’s on horse, while his sister kills a baby because there’s no money to feed it. The lines “It’s silly no, when a rocket ship explodes, everybody still wants to fly?” refer to the Challenger disaster of January 1986, while the powerful question of “if the night falls and a bomb falls, will anybody see the dawn?” is about nuclear war.

There is a mysterious, strange aura surrounding ‘Sign O’ The Times’, the lyrics make it clear that it is firmly rooted in reality but the weird backing track and odd lyrical phrasing make it feel a bit dream-like. “Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby… we’ll call him Nate, if it’s a boy” is one of Prince’s most disjointed moments, the lines feel as though they wandered in from a different Prince song. Despite barely any chorus and a purposely unexciting video, ‘Sign O’ The Times’ was a big hit, tapping into the feelings of the public and retaining an infectious feel all at once.

Audio:

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