prince’s sign o’ the times: the remastered super deluxe edition is here

September 24, 2020
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Hardcore fams* never imagined our intense appreciation for Prince would be divided into his ultra-prolific 1978-2015 era of albums and this still relatively new period of posthumous releases since his death in 2016. He once called vinyl records “the format with the best sound… the only way you can listen to the music and actually feel it.” In my mailbox this weekend arrives 13 LPs—plus a DVD and a 120-page hardcover book—of the remastered Sign o’ the Times, a Super Deluxe Edition of what’s come to be considered Prince’s masterpiece. No matter the size of your Prince collection or booty of unreleased tracks, we’ve never had the music boxed up for the eyes and ears quite like this before.

Judging by online appearances and early reviews, the Sign o’ the Times Super Deluxe is a gorgeous collectors’ item. There’s a disc of a 1987 New Year’s Eve concert at Paisley Park Studios where jazz legend Miles Davis hops onstage to solo on “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night.” There are 45 previously unissued songs from one of his most fruitful phases ever, which as noted Prince aficionado Anil Dash tweeted recently, “exceed the total number of songs [Jimi] Hendrix released during his lifetime.” There are handwritten lyrics, personal essays from Dave Chappelle and Lenny Kravitz, rare photos from Jeff Katz. In these days of plagues and political distress, it’s a bright spot: Christmas comes early.

In late August 2015, I had the great fortune of heading out to Paisley Park for conversation with Prince and thanked him for being my generation’s Beatles. Given his lifetime output of 39 albums, you’d have to throw in John, Paul and George’s solo sounds if you wanted them to equal out more mathematically. That, naturally, wasn’t what I meant. His music defined my Generation X life and times as much as any baby boomer’s Motown music or British Invasion. 

Across nearly four decades, Prince’s new wave, soul, pop, rock, funk and incomparable balladeering arguably went even beyond Beatlesque stages into the rarefied domain of jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. And that’s just his released stuff. There’s real cultural, musicological value in hearing all the unearthed material from Prince’s infamous studio vault of never-before-heard songs coming out on new releases like 4Ever, Piano and a Microphone 1983, Originals, the expanded Purple Rain remaster, and last year’s 1999 Super Deluxe Edition.

The thing is, diehard paisley disciples are having a heavy case of déjà vu. Sign o’ the Times lands at the doorsteps of his truest believers any day now. But those of us paying over $300 for this glorious curio have long since already known by heart officially unreleased tracks like Prince and the Revolution’s jazzy “In a Large Room With No Light” and their psychedelic “All My Dreams,” the funk-rock of “Witness 4 the Prosecution,” the delicate ballad “A Place in Heaven” and more. I know I have. Music fanatics from the ’60s counterculture revered rare finds like Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the so-called Esher demos of the Beatles. And ever since Prince aborted The Black Album, ’80s babies have traded bootlegs of unreleased purple music like aural badges of honor for years.

“The first unreleased song I remember hearing was ‘Rockhard in a Funky Place,’ followed by ‘Rebirth of the Flesh’ on the now defunct WBAI-FM in New York City,” recalls Tonya Giddens, creator of the popular Purple Paisley Brunch that unites fams with Prince associates like Jill Jones and Jerome Benton. “My first plug came in college from a fellow Prince fan. He had a lot of music I didn’t have, and I remember he used to charge for the cassettes he had. Even back then I thought: why would you pay for something that was being circulated underground? On spring break, I used to go to a store in Greenwich Village on Sullivan Street, and that’s where I bought my first bootleg Prince vinyl.”

Slightly further uptown in the Village, up a flight of stairs at 45 West Eighth Street, I thumbed through record racks at Revolver Records in search of my own purloined loot. I still remember discovering the Prince fanzine Uptown for the first time, and author Per Nilsen’s studio session book, Prince: A Documentary, stacked by their registers. Most of my 1990s CDs came from Tower Records and HMV. But Revolver sold spoils I couldn’t find at standard record stores. 

Any Prince fam worth their salt has heard Small Club, the classic 1988 aftershow in the Netherlands where he and the Lovesexy touring band performed a delicately beautiful version of “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” I bought my Small Club at Revolver Records, recorded it on cassette and sold the vinyl to a college classmate. I found Royal Jewels there, a triple-disc box set full of often mistitled gems. “Crystal Ball,” forthcoming on the Sign o’ the Times Super Deluxe Edition, was mislabeled “Export Lover.” Prince’s original version of The Time’s “Data Bank” got tagged “Pretty Face,” etc. Royal Jewels was the first I’d hear of “Joy in Repetition” (later available on 1990’s Graffiti Bridge), as well as a version of “We Can Fuck” that wouldn’t see the light of day until 2017’s Purple Rain Deluxe Expanded Edition.

Revolver Records sold me even more: The Purple Underground, with the Sign o’ the Times Super Deluxe’s original version of “Strange Relationship”; Crucial, featuring “In a Large Room With No Light” and “Power Fantastic”; a 1987 Paris aftershow at New Morning called He’s Got the Look, and more. Revolver eventually became Revolution Records at some point, and like many downtown record stores, closed for good in 2005. Still, collecting became addicting. Revolver had a lot. For everything else, I called Dave Davis.

“While a junior at Morehouse, I attended a Wendy & Lisa concert at the Cotton Club,” explains my former classmate, now a part-time producer with the California-based Cryami Vice. “After the show, I struck up a conversation with an ultimate Prince fanatic. I kept in touch with this dude, who became my main Prince bootleg source, supplying me with hundreds of songs, many with top sound quality. I began to suspect that Prince was giving it away himself to keep his diehard fans satiated between label releases.” Dave laced me with songs that still aren’t released, though easily searchable on YouTube since Prince’s death—like “Schoolyard,” a funky tour de force with nostalgic lyrics that name checks Tower of Power.

There’s always a bigger fish. As an encyclopedic musicologist drummer and DJ, Questlove has more Prince music saved on his hard drives than anyone else I’ve ever met. When alive, Prince charged his legal team with scrubbing the internet clean of anything unofficial. But even in the aughties, collections like the four-volume The Work occasionally made it to the likes of LimeWire, full of instrumentals (“Wet Dream’s Cousin”), protégé songs (The Family’s “Miss Understood”) and songs that appear on Sign o’ the Times Super Deluxe (“The Ball”). 

Post 2016, plenty of unreleased Prince music lives on YouTube, however illegally. The joy of being a Prince fam is, no one has heard everything. I look forward to cutting open my cardboard box this weekend, placing the black wax platter on my turntable and listening to “When the Dawn of Morning Comes,” “And That Says What?” and the handful of other tracks I’ve never heard in high quality. May we all live to see the dawn of 100 Prince albums to come.

* In 1997 Prince told Chris Rock in an MTV interview that he considers lovers of his music family, or “fams,” rather than fans, which is short for fanatics. His preferred term has lasted to the present day.