Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Sign o’ the Times, the album regarded by many critics and fans as Prince’s creative high-water mark. Due to the animus Prince feels toward Warner Bros. (the label that released the double-LP opus… only after insisting it be cut back from a triple), there was no deluxe reissue, no “classic album” reunion tour, no hourlong specials or magazine centerpieces. Sadly enough, there was nothing other than a few fan-board message postings to mark a significant anniversary for this most significant album.
And my guess is, Prince couldn’t have cared less.
Still riding high on the wave of adulation garnered after his barnstorming appearance at the Super Bowl, he probably figured that looking backward is of little use for any musician as progressive and prolific as he.
“Why revisit the ’80s,” Prince likely thought, “when in 20 minutes, I just changed the mind of every Joe Sixpack who thought I was a femme, symbol-named punch line in assless pants?”
It’s true that 1987 was a long time ago, but his current stage persona as he creeps toward 50 is almost as impressive as the under-30 Prince who created SOTT. When the little man got up there wearing his Dolphin colors and simply destroyed the stage with fiery guitar work, quite a few members of the Sixpack family were duly impressed. How could they not have been? Prince was probably knocking on their door a few weeks earlier as a Jehovah’s Witness trying to spread the gospel. Plus, those fans who had long ago grown disinterested in watching the onetime pioneer struggle for relevance were immediately reminded of why Prince has long been acknowledged as one of the best stage musicians… ever.
Almost at once, an entire nation of fairweather Prince fans was asking the same question in the weeks following the Super Bowl: “Does he have any other stuff where he, you know, plays guitar?” Other than replying with the accurate answer (“Everything with his name on it”) or pointing them toward the disappointingly dumb song “Guitar” he recently posted on his website, let’s give them what they were actually looking for, some rare cuts where Prince’s guitar skills are in full force:
“Computer Blue” (unreleased version, 1983) Referred to in collector’s circles as “#2,” this is one of several studio versions of the Purple Rain track that exist. This raw take is eight minutes longer than the album’s; in addition to the “hallway speech” that finds Prince in metaphorical overload, almost all eight of those minutes are drenched in squalls of Fender feedback, chugging riffs, and note-bending glory.
“God (instrumental)” (European b-side, 1984) While the American market got stuck with the discomfiting shrieks of the vocal version of “God” as the b-side to the “Purple Rain” single, European buyers were treated to this gentle, expansive piece. Jazzy drum fills and piano lines underlie the subdued melodies that eventually give way to some jaw-dropping solo runs and a free-form freak-out near the end.
“Paisley Park (remix)” (European single, 1985) Using feedback as a weapon, this noise-filled extended version of the Around the World in a Day track is among Prince’s most abrasive outings. The dolphin-squeal sound effects are jarring in their treble-pitched hostility, but it’s the solos lobbed from an amped-up “cloud” guitar that make the piece truly ear-cleaning.
The Gold Experience (unreleased configuration, 1994) Let it be said: Prince knows how to shit all over a great record. The sessions he undertook in the mid-’90s yielded some of his best material that, somehow, ended up comprising some of his worst albums (see: Chaos and Disorder and Come). The original versions of most of Gold’s songs were first laid down with the “New Power Trio” (Prince, bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland) and — with their organic warmth and ball-busting power — completely eclipse the overworked sound of the released cuts. Not only does “Endorphinmachine” come off like the killer rock song it actually is (no cowbell!) but guitar-heavy cuts like the bombastic “Empty Room,” the raw, bluesy “Zannalee,” and the shimmering, psychedelic “Dolphin” benefit greatly from the unprocessed approach.
The Undertaker (unreleased album, 1995) The Undertaker was originally recorded (in one live take) by the “New Power Trio” for inclusion as a giveaway with Guitar Player magazine before Warner Bros. demanded it be pulled. The grooving title cut and a blistering take on Prince’s 1979 lesbo-anthem “Bambi” are the high points, but a quick run-through of “Honky Tonk Women” doesn’t fare too badly either.
“The War” (promo track, 1998) Originally sent out to appease the complaints of those fans whose Crystal Ball pre-orders got screwed up and eventually made available as a download on Prince’s website, “The War” is a fantastic, 25-minute trip through militant funkadelic Afro-pop. It’s filled with paranoid harangues against the new world order, none-too-subtle nods to Gil Scott-Heron (“the evolution will be colorized” is the closest thing to a chorus “The War” has), and some trippy guitar work; the last third of the cut is given over to a heavily effected and angrily played solo. By far one of Prince’s strangest, most unexpected, and thoroughly rewarding moments.
“Habibi” (online-only track, 2001) Made available as a download to members of his online fan club, “Habibi” is some straight-up Band of Gypsys shit. Seriously. It should have just been called “Machine Gun, pt. 2.” Totally hot.
“Fury” (from Saturday Night Live, 2006) “Fury” fares well enough as part of the 3121 album, but the ax-slinging swagger with which Prince delivered it on late-night television revealed the song’s true energy. Even with three hot dancers on stage with him, it was hard to take your eyes off the man with the guitar.