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Interview

Prince archivist Michael Howe talks SDE through Sign O’ The Times bonus cuts

The official ‘vault’ archivist offers some insight into the unheard songs


Warner Records yesterday announced a reissue of Prince‘s 1987 album Sign O’ The Times. SDE has enjoyed an exclusive early listen to 10 of the 45 previously unreleased tracks and talked to Prince ‘vault’ archivist Michael Howe, who helped to put this set together (in conjunction with the Prince Estate and the record label). Read the interview, below:

SuperDeluxeEdition: The thing that really strikes me, is that even by Prince’s own high standards, 1986 seems to be phenomenal year for him in terms of creative energy. He had the film [Under A Cherry Moon], the Parade album to promote, the usual touring and this constant cycle of recording.

I think many Prince fans will be aware that that before we got Sign O’ The Times there were three aborted album projects: Dream Factory, Camille and Crystal Ball. How much did the archive offer you a clear trail to those individual projects in terms of both audio and documentation?

Michael Howe: There was a pretty clear map, overall. You know, there were finished versions of all three of those, as they were originally envisioned, so it was relatively easy from a forensic standpoint to determine what the bookends were, from beginning to end. But that’s not to say it was easy to wrap our arms around the sheer volume of material, which is enormous, obviously. But the table of contents, so to speak, made itself pretty apparent with out too much difficulty. If anything, we had to be judicious about it because there were a number of things that were unfinished ideas, or instrumentals that were intended for The Flesh [a loose band initiative that never came to fruition] or other projects that really weren’t necessarily envisioned for one of the three tentpole releases that you just mentioned.  In order, they were the abandoned Dream Factory album, then Camille and Camille then basically morphed into the original triple album Crystal Ball [not to be confused with the 1998 compilation with the same name] which then got redacted into the Sign O’ The Times album that people know and love. So it was quite a process of creativity and just a blizzard of activity, for him, in that year alone. I don’t know when the guy slept!

SDE: And Dream Factory had at least three different track listings I believe, so it was a moving target the whole time.

MH: That’s correct. The prevailing wisdom was to basically look at the final iteration of what Dream Factory would entail and that was around mid-July 1986. So we basically encompassed everything that would have been, or could have been, on that release and on Camille and the unredacted Sign O’ The Times –  basically, Crystal Ball. And the idea was to include everything so that the listener – and this is in the streaming world, obviously – could sequence any of those things in the way that he or she wants. You know, if you want to listen to the original Dream Factory you can do that, if you want to listen to Camille as it was originally envisioned, you can do that. Now most of Camille was released. Those very masters became publicly released, during Prince’s creative arc, so not all of those are necessarily in our collection, but….

SDE: Yes, I was going to ask you about that, because there are certain things like ‘Feel U Up’, which was originally part of Camille. That was later commercially released [as the B-side to the ‘Partyman’ single]. You didn’t consider it necessary to repeat that on this set?

MH: That’s correct. So the only bona fide rarity or vault track from Camille album is ‘Rebirth of the Flesh’, with the original outro, which I don’t believe has even circulated amongst bootleg collectors, but with the things that have been released and that track, you can listen to Camille from front to back, as it was envisioned – if you wish.

SDE: Was there any serious consideration given to trying to recreate those three unreleased albums on CD, on separate discs, as part of this set or was that dismissed due to repetition?

MH: [Yes], primarily due to repetition, but also because the beauty of the streaming world allows you to do that yourself. So from a standpoint of trying to be as comprehensive – but not repetitive – as possible, we decided to include all the tracks that are otherwise unavailable. You know, there’s not a dedicated Camille album in this larger body of work [i.e. the Sign O’ The Times super deluxe sets] – it seemed like it would be redundant to do that.

SDE: For the super deluxe editions you are including three CDs (or six vinyl records) of unreleased vault tracks. That’s 45 in total. Give us a feel for the process of pulling that material together and what perhaps you left in the vault. I’m assuming, for example that plenty of tracks may have existed with minor mix differences, and you had to decide whether that really justifies inclusion?

MH: That’s it, for the most part. There were multiple variants, or mixes, with very, very few differences, that aren’t necessarily represented here. In an effort to be as respectful and complete as possible we included everything that was theoretically a master; you know either a rough mix or something that was designated to be used as a master, so if there are variants of those mixes, or instrumentals or other things that are off-shoots if you like, they aren’t necessarily included. There are instances in this collected body of work where there is a little bit of repetition – for example there’s a version of ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ with horns that is an interesting counterpoint to the master that people know, and there’s a couple of 12-inch mixes that I don’t think people realise existed –  ‘Strange Relationship’ and ‘Wonderful Day’ – which I don’t think have ever circulated, even in the bootleg market. So there are things in the vault that aren’t included, but they are either redundant or they don’t necessarily represent the creative era that Sign O’ The Times encompasses.

SDE: Where did you decide the start and end points were for this Sign O’ The Times era? Because with Prince, he’d be recording the next album before the current one is even out, so it’s a tricky business…

MH: It’s tricky, but the ballpark was basically late March of 1986 – basically after Parade had been delivered and gone into production, meaning there were going to be no further changes on it – through to the middle of 1987, from a studio standpoint. There are exceptions, because there’s obviously a very, very early version of ‘I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man’ from 1979, that really doesn’t belong anywhere else. That’s so compelling and so essential, that it had to be included. And there were a couple of things that were not Parade items, and that were originally contemplated for Dream Factory or just had the spirit of Sign O’ The Times from a creative standpoint like ‘Power Fantastic’ and the 1985 version of ‘Teacher Teacher’ and ‘All My Dreams’ and a couple of things that pre-dated the end of March ’86, but for the most part, the vast majority of the material is late March 86… well April 86 to mid-87, basically.

SDE: Was there anything you had on your list that couldn’t be found for any particular reason?

MH: That’s a good question. There were things that are rumoured to exist, including the mythical first version of the song ‘Wally’, which Susan Rogers has said many times was wiped from the two-inch tape. We searched every corner to determine if there was even a rough mix of that, or a cassette version, and we could not find it. And there was a rumoured 12-inch version of ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’, which I don’t think exists either. Whatever is floating around out there was created by somebody else; a fan or engineer. There’s no record that I have found or that we have found that indicates that there was a dedicated 12-inch mix of that. And I looked!

SDE: We think of Prince’s vault primarily containing audio and video, but what was there in the way of correspondence between Prince/his management and the record label? One of the things that really interests me is Prince’s relationship with Warner Bros. It fell apart in the 1990s but Sign O’ The Times is a good example of the label working really well with Prince, curtailing some of his excesses, telling him ‘we don’t want a triple album’ or ‘we don’t want an album released under a pseudonym’ (Camille). The album that everyone knows and loves wouldn’t have existed if Prince could have done whatever he wanted, so was there much in the way of correspondence or insight? Was Prince putting out Sign O’ The Times through gritted teeth, or was he quite happy with how it turned out, in the end?

MH: That’s a good question. I mean, I don’t think there is written correspondence as such; there’s a lot of legend around those conversations. The guy who knows the most about it, Lenny Waronker, who originally signed Prince and was basically his main A&R guy at the time. He goes into a some detail in the book that accompanies the release. And Lenny is a fascinating guy on a number of levels; super articulate. I love him and became very close to him when I was at Warners and he has better insight on that than anybody else, because he was the guy who actually had to call Prince and talk him down from a triple record to a double record; which Lenny himself did through gritted teeth. Initially, as I understand it, Prince was not particularly receptive, but the following morning he delivered a redacted version of Crystal Ball and basically said “here’s your record, put it out.” But Lenny is much more articulate and would give you a much more elegant description of it than I’m giving you here.

SDE: When you reach the end of a project like this and you move on to the next thing, is it fair to say that anything left in the vault is unlikely to ever see the light of day?

MH: I don’t know how to answer that question, really. Those choices are not unilaterally mine to make. There are a number of different voices in those conversations.

SDE: The current Sign O’ The Times master is generally regarded as sounding a bit ‘thin’ on CD, in particular. Clearly with the new remastering there’s an opportunity to improve that. Tell me a little of that process?

MH: We took basically the production master, the flat half-inch production analogue reels and we did a flat 24 bit /192 kHz transfer of those. And those files were sent to Bernie Grundman, who was the mastering engineer who did the original album – and basically all Prince’s work – and Bernie remastered from the flat 24/192 files. He did an incredibly great job. For me, it’s a much more involving listen than the existing commercial master which, as you say, is a bit thin and a little undynamic. This is like hearing the record anew, in my estimation. It doesn’t remove any of the emotion or intended artistry, it just brings things out in a way that, presumably, Prince intended them to be heard.

SDE: As you know I have been given access to 10 of the vault tracks on the box sets, so let’s discuss each one…




I COULD NEVER TAKE THE PLACE OF YOUR MAN (’79 version)



SDE: You’ve already mentioned that this is going to be a real revelation to virtually everyone. This was recorded in 1979. How much of a surprise was it to come across this?

MH: It was an enormous surprise. It was found very early in our excavation and digitisation process, but the rough mix we had was not dated and we assumed it was a little bit later than it actually was. But finally we found it on a two-inch multi-track tape which was dated May 1979, which kind of blew our minds. So it was a wonderful surprise and such a treat to be able to hear one of Prince’s best known songs in a completely different way.

SDE: And it’s all there, more or less. The lyric is all there.

MH: Yes, the song itself, the bones of the song are the same. Obviously the production and the embellishments in the arrangement are different but the song itself is recognisable from the jump.

SDE: I’m assuming your process is the same as before. So if you have a multi-track two-inch tape, you’ll use that and mix to match whatever other version might be available, like a rough cassette etc.

MH: Well, mixing for me is sort of the last resort. We will use whatever mix exists if we can. The only time we don’t is if it’s so sonically inferior that  it doesn’t not justify a commercial release, because it would detract from the overall impact. In that case we’d go back to the two-inch and mix exactly to the spec that’s on the rough mix. But you know, there are no creative liberties taken.




WONDERFUL DAY



SDE: This is an unreleased song that was going to be on Dream Factory. What’s interesting about this is that there’s two versions on the reissue; the standard song and a seven-minute 12-inch remix. The latter is quite a bizarre find, isn’t it?

MH: It is. I was quite surprised with this and the ‘Strange Relationship’ remix, neither of which, before unearthing them, we had any idea existed.

SDE: There’s some lyrical similarities, and maybe some melody as well, to ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’, so that could be an indication as to why this ended up not making it through to the final Sign O’ The Times album.

MH: I think you are right. I think it sort of anticipates ‘Beautiful Night’. It’s kind of the Yin to the released track’s Yang. That’s a very astute observation.




THE BALLAD OF DOROTHY PARKER (with horns)



SDE: Prince is a master at recording something and then taking elements off the track to improve it. This is a very good example of that, because it has the Eric Leeds horns on it, while everything else sounds more or less the same. Prince obviously decided the horn arrangement was surplus to requirements and this is a fascinating insight into his process.

MH: Yes, ‘more is more’ was not his philosophy. It was whatever served the song. Perhaps the most well known example of that is what ‘When Doves Cry’ was, to what it became, in terms of minimalism. This is along that track, although certainly not as extreme. But the absence of elements on the master version make it stronger.

SDE: Prince clearly loved this song because it was on all three versions of Dream Factory, and Crystal Ball and of course made it through to ‘Sign O’ The Times’.

MH: Yes, it was a keeper!




WITNESS 4 THE PROSECUTION 



SDE: There are two versions on the reissue. One is great funky rocker, with the Revolution, and the other version you could easily have imagined on Sign O’ The Times because it’s classic ‘solo’ Prince, a bit more minimal production, drum machine etc –  he reworks its completely and it’s just as good.

MH: I agree. Version one is Sly & The Family Stone and version two is late ’80s Prince solo. It’s pretty remarkable that the song can stand up to both ’costumes’ effectively, and I’m very excited for people to hear version two, which I think is a lot less common, certainly in the collector’s and trader’s circles. I don’t know that for sure, but I hope it is, because it’s an interesting juxtaposition

SDE: The second version was recorded in October 86, so the Revolution was effectively over by that point, wasn’t it?

MH: That’s right. They had basically just imploded. That show at Yokohama was the last one and shortly after that Prince pulled the plug. So this was the counter-Revolution, you know. Which was an interesting place for him to be. You know, he went from Prince the solo artist, to band leader to Prince the solo artist, again.

SDE: Do you have any idea what his plan was for this song, because it didn’t appear on any of the track listings for those abandoned albums.

MH: No. There wasn’t a clear indication of that, but because it was part of the creative era and particularly with that second iteration available we thought that we should include it.




FOREVER IN MY LIFE (early vocal studio run-through)



SDE: This is a wonderful, early organic run-through with acoustic guitar, piano

MH: It’s awesome.

SDE: It’s another indication of Prince’s mastery in terms of the sound he wanted for Sign O’ The Times and how he transformed this for the finished record.

MH: Agreed. This is one of those cases, and I’ve probably said it during our discussions before, but when you hear Princes vocals, even his guide, his scratch vocal, it’s so good! It’s better than a lot of artists multi-take comp vocals.




WHEN THE DAWN OF MORNING COMES



SDE: This is an interesting one because we’ve mostly been discussing music from those three aborted albums, but by all accounts this seemed to be earmarked for another abandoned project which was a musical called ‘The Dawn’. It’s quite a fast-paced number.

MH: It is. It’s like a gospel rave-up, or something. It’s an interesting track and a bit like an outlier. We don’t know a tremendous amount about what Prince thought about ‘The Dawn’ in general, aside from him mentioning it a few times and sort of alluding to it in concerts and in liner notes…

SDE: One of his websites was called The Dawn I seem to remember…

MH: That’s exactly right. So this is an instance where we have a track that is resolutely within the creative period, or the creative arc, that might not be the most obvious inclusion, but because it falls within the parameters and serves the entire body of work, we decided to include it and I think because it’s never circulated and it presents yet another side of his artistry that is pretty remarkable.




REBIRTH OF THE FLESH



SDE: This is an interesting one, because it was the first track on both Camille and Crystal Ball yet somehow it never made it to Sign O The Times. What do we know about this song?

MH: I’m not sure why he abandoned it in such a dramatic way. It’s not rare in the sense of being unknown or uncirculated but this version with the original ending, which is only about 18 or 20 seconds different than the edited version which has circulated, is one that we felt strongly about including, particularly as it rounds out the view of Camille as an entire body of work.




JEALOUS GIRL



SDE: This is an old, quite poppy, song, notable because it was offered to The Bangles.

MH: The song dates back to 1981 and was originally envisioned for The Hookers, which was the precursor to Vanity 6. It was Vanity 6 before Vanity entered Prince’s orbit. And then Vanity 6 ended up not doing it, so Prince ended up offering it to The Bangles, who respectfully declined. And then when Prince and Bonnie Raitt were working together, he offered it to her. This version was recorded in January 1987, getting towards the tale end of the period we are examining here. It was a re-tracked version of the song and it is substantially different, sonically, than the earlier version.

SDE: It’s interesting because this is one of those songs were there was clearly never any intention for Prince to put this on one of his own records.

MH: Yes, it was expressly written for another artist and never really found a home.




STRANGE RELATIONSHIP (Shep Pettibone Club Mix)



SDE: This fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, just the very fact that Shep Pettibone remixed it, but also, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like a remix of an earlier version, because Prince’s voice isn’t treated in the same way, there’s different instrumentation and so it has lots of interesting facets to it.

MH: That’s correct, it’s an earlier version. This one was a complete surprise. And it exists only as a finished half-inch mix. There was no acetate, no test pressing… this was just the final mix that, I guess, Shep delivered to Prince. And there’s no documentation or notes, or other things that would indicate what the creative thought process was. It’s conceivable that Prince just let Shep Pettibone do what he wanted with it and then rejected it and just sort of kept it on the shelf, we’re not entirely sure about that, but as you said it’s a very interesting view into a song that has itself many different iterations and this is one the is substantially different enough that we decided to include it.

SDE: The reissue has an original version of ‘Strange Relationship’ as well, doesn’t it? A non-remixed original version?

MH: Correct.

SDE: It’s like ‘Wonderful Day’ with that 12-inch remix. That was part of Prince’s creative toolkit in a way. Remixing a track long before the album is finished and long before he’s delivered anything to the record company. With most artists, the record label goes out and sorts out remixes but here’s Prince thinking about and commissioning remixes mid-album.

MH: Exactly. Pretty remarkable.




SDE: Michael, one thing I must ask you about is the Sign O’ The Times film. It isn’t part of this box set. Why not?

MH: I can do my best to explain why not. The short-ish version is that Prince sold the rights to the film in 1987 and the film went through a number of different rights-holders basically, and the difficulty in untangling all of those rights worldwide, was so problematic that we couldn’t really figure out how best to do it and present the film as part of the overall body of work. It’s unfortunate – we intended to – but the rights issues became so problematic, primarily because Prince sold them in the early days, that we could not disentangle every single knot and get it agreed upon in time to include in this body of work. And unfortunately, the film rights extend to both of the concerts that were recorded as part of the film rights – meaning Rotterdam and Antwerp – so we couldn’t really use any of the music from those two shows [either]. So as a result, what we wanted to do was make this the most comprehensive look at the album and the music we possibly could, and then I hope at some point – this is just me thinking aloud – at some point in the future I hope we can represent the film in a more holistic and comprehensive way.

SDE: You’ll be well aware that Turbine Media in Germany put together a pretty impressive deluxe edition of the Sign O’ The Times film for the German marketplace.

MH: I know. We talked to Turbine, we tried to get all of the territories cooperating but it was just very, very difficult. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We certainly wanted to include it but unfortunately just could not.

SDE: What’s next on the agenda? Are you already underway on the next project? I imagine you are!

MH: Yes, I am and we are. I’m not allowed to say because of my non-disclosure agreement, but we’re already hard at work on what’s next.

SDE: Is it reasonable to expect something to come out next year. One project a year?

MH: That’s reasonable. I think that’s probably about right.


Thanks to Michael Howe who was talking to Paul Sinclair for SDE.
Sign O’ The Times will be reissued on 25 September. Pre-order your format of choice below.


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CD1 / LP1: Remastered Album (Disc 1)

1 Sign O’ The Times
2 Play In The Sunshine
3 Housequake
4 The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker
5 It
6 Starfish And Coffee
7 Slow Love
8 Hot Thing
9 Forever In My Life

CD2 / LP2: Remastered Album (Disc 2)

1 U Got The Look
2 If I Was Your Girlfriend
3 Strange Relationship
4 I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
5 The Cross
6 It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night
7 Adore

CD3 / LP3&4: Single Mixes & Edits

1 Sign O’ The Times (7” single edit)
2 La, La, La, He, He, Hee (7” single edit)
3 La, La, La, He, He, Hee (Highly Explosive) (12” version)
4 If I Was Your Girlfriend (7” single edit)
5 Shockadelica (“If I Was Your Girlfriend” B-side)
6 Shockadelica (12” long version)
7 U Got the Look (Long Look) (12” edit)
8 Housequake (7” edit)
9 Housequake (7 Minutes MoQuake) (12” edit)
10 I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man (Fade 7” edit)
11 Hot Thing (7” single edit)
12 Hot Thing (Extended Remix)
13 Hot Thing (Dub Version)

CD4 / LP5&6: Vault, Part 1

1 I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man (1979 version)
2 Teacher, Teacher (1985 version)
3 All My Dreams
4 Can I Play With U? (featuring Miles Davis)
5 Wonderful Day (original version)
6 Strange Relationship (original version)
7 Visions
8 The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (with horns)
9 Witness 4 The Prosecution (version 1)
10 Power Fantastic (live in studio)
11 And That Says What?
12 Love And Sex
13 A Place In Heaven (Prince vocal)
14 Colors
15 Crystal Ball (7” mix)
16 Big Tall Wall (version 1)
17 Nevaeh Ni Ecalp A
18 In A Large Room With No Light

All tracks previously unreleased

CD5 / LP7&8: Vault, Part 2

1 Train
2 It Ain’t Over ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings
3 Eggplant (Prince vocal)
4 Everybody Want What They Don’t Got
5 Blanche
6 Soul Psychodelicide
7 The Ball
8 Adonis And Bathsheba
9 Forever In My Life (early vocal studio run-through)
10 Crucial (alternate lyrics)
11 The Cocoa Boys
12 When The Dawn Of The Morning Comes
13 Witness 4 The Prosecution (version 2)
14 It Be’s Like That Sometimes

All tracks previously unreleased

CD6 / LP9&10: Vault, Part 3

1 Emotional Pump
2 Rebirth Of The Flesh (with original outro)
3 Cosmic Day
4 Walkin’ In Glory
5 Wally
6 I Need A Man
7 Promise To Be True
8 Jealous Girl (version 2)
9 There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool
10 Big Tall Wall (version 2)
11 A Place In Heaven (Lisa vocal)
12 Wonderful Day (12” mix)
13 Strange Relationship (1987 Shep Pettibone Club Mix)

All tracks previously unreleased

CD7&8 / LP11-13: Live In Utrecht – June 20, 1987

1 Intro/Sign O’ The Times
2 Play In The Sunshine
3 Little Red Corvette
4 Housequake
5 Girls & Boys
6 Slow Love
7 Take The “A” Train/Pacemaker/I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
8 Hot Thing
9 Four
10 If I Was Your Girlfriend
11 Let’s Go Crazy
12 When Doves Cry
13 Purple Rain
14 1999
15 Forever In My Life
16 Kiss
17 The Cross
18 It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night

All tracks previously unreleased

DVD: Live At Paisley Park – December 31, 1987

1 Sign O’ The Times
2 Play In The Sunshine
3 Little Red Corvette
4 Erotic City
5 Housequake
6 Slow Love
7 Do Me, Baby
8 Adore
9 I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
10 What’s Your Name Jam
11 Let’s Pretend We’re Married
12 Delirious
13 Jack U Off
14 Drum Solo
15 Twelve
16 Hot Thing
17 If I Was Your Girlfriend
18 Let’s Go Crazy
19 When Doves Cry
20 Purple Rain
21 1999
22 U Got The Look
23 It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night Medley (featuring Miles Davis)

 

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