The fourteenth song on the Sign O’ The Times album; that’s the fifth track on the second CD or the first track on side four if you have the vinyl. And if you have the cassette then may god have mercy on your soul (and yes, I’m aware that I didn’t capitalise the word ‘god’).
Initial tracking took place on 13 July 1986 at Sunset Sound, in Hollywood (you may have heard of it, it’s in Hollywood). Recorded initially to be included on a double album with The Revolution called Dream Factory (fourth track on side four of the vinyl) and then later when that album was scrapped (along with The Revolution) a new triple album was planned called Crystal Ball where this track was retained (first track on side six of the vinyl). Crystal ball eventually got whittled down to become Sign O’ The Times and this song became a part of “Purple History™”.
Sign O’ The Times was release by Warner Brothers in March 1987. So even with two album changes and a band change it was only about nine months from the first tracking of this song to its release. I’m no musician but that seems like a lot of stuff to happen in a relatively short time. You can check the Prince Vault website for the various configurations that the three albums went through plus additional tracks added from the Camille album that went into Sign O’ The Times. It took the demise of a band and three other albums to make Sign O’ The Times happen. At this point in his career and even since then this is arguably his “Great Work™”. A magnum opus if you will. His Frampton Comes Alive.
As mentioned, the song itself was written and recorded well before the album was even being considered in the form it was finally released. So its inclusion here is basically an editing/curating exercise. Not that this takes anything away from the song itself but I mention it in order to highlight that the song itself may not be reflective of the period in which it was released. Which is a common theme with many of Prince’s songs that get worked on for a while and then they’re put away to age and mature before they are enjoyed properly.
There is some controversy around this track in modern Prince fam-dom. Ever since he became a Jehovah’s Witness he began to change the lyrics in the song when performing it live to “the christ” and no longer sings it as it appears on the album. Apparently this is because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that JC died on one piece of timber and not two. What difference that makes to the price of fish is anyone’s guess but at the end of the day it’s his song so he can change whatever he likes.
Being a child of the compact disc age, I can only imagine what it must have been like to hear this record for the first time on vinyl. The song begins very quietly and you really have to crank up the sound to hear the opening notes. The way it’s positioned on the album I think helps with the impact of the song. This song opens up side four of the vinyl (the home stretch!). I’m going to ignore the CD version because I think that CDs would have been an afterthought in this era (and the less said about cassette tapes, the better). The last song on the previous side (side three) is “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” – an upbeat dancey song that is all about love and heartbreak. In fact all of side three is about love and relationships and all the songs have an upbeat party vibe (If I Was Your Girlfriend is kind of mid-tempo but definitely not a ballad or anything lame like that). So side three ends on a party track with a three and a half minute instrumental outro that has you jumping all over the room with your library card falling out of your pocket. Then the music stops, the needle on the record player returns home and you have to walk over in the silence, flip the disc and drop the needle again. And then for half a moment the silence makes you wonder if you’ve picked up a defective copy before you hear the music drift in and you turn up the volume so you can hear it better. Now you have soft guitar and sitar sounds wafting out of your speakers where moments before there was energy and movement and a wall of noise. It marks the beginning of the end. And that’s a big part of what this song is reminding us of – the end. Our end. Or rather, what Prince perceives our end to be; which is in fact, no end at all.
This was one of the first songs that I learned to play on guitar. It’s basically two very simple chords – E and Asus2. All you have to do is move two of your fingers up one string each and you’ve got it. The rhythm is pretty simple too. As one of the boys on the Peach & Black podcast mentioned, the beginning of this song sounds like it was written by someone in high school. The sitar sound even sounds like it might be made on a guitar of some kind with some sort of effect machine thingy. Then again, it could be the real thing (like I said – not a musician).
When Mrs Thrawn heard this song she said that it reminded her of The Doors, which may sound obvious, but that had never occurred to me until she said it. She even found the words to be “Doorsy” if you ignore the religious references (which she missed on first listening). Going back to the Peach & Black team, M.C. mentioned that some of this was almost grunge like (specifically, the second half of the song), which kind of makes sense since this song was written in 1987 and that’s right about the time that grunge was starting to emerge (Soundgarden was formed in 1984). Prince always has his ears open for the latest sounds and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had heard some grunge music by this stage.
The intro is such a quiet little guitar riff. I assume it is a guitar but it sounds very sitar-like. The guitar, vocals and sitar (or second guitar?) meander through to the 1:20 mark. Then the kick drum comes in on its own for about 20 seconds until we are joined by the little drummer boy (pa rum pum pum pum). Then just passed the halfway point in the song everything gets kicked into rock mode and whatever quiet meditation you were contemplating gets blown away. Again, thinking back to our vinyl listener who’s hearing this for the first time. They’ve flipped the disc, turned up the volume so they can hear whatever this Prince fellow is crooning about and then all of a sudden – whack! You get a face full of the rock. Nothing on the album up to this point has really prepared you properly for this song. It’s not about romance or love (in the romantic sense), it doesn’t sound remotely similar to anything else on the album and he’s tricked you into cranking up the volume on your gramophone to ensure that you get the full force effect of his faith.
So we’ve got a grunge-y/Doors-y/eastern/rock/gospel track opening up the last side of the album. It starts off quiet and simple and slow, the lyrics are sung softly and sweetly and then halfway through someone presses the ‘rock’ button on the amplifier and everything kicks up a few gears. The song really takes off musically and the lyrics (chorus and verse) repeat but are delivered with the power that is part anger, part desperation, part love and part hope. The backing vocals only come in right at the end (Prince’s Heavenly Choir™) to finish it off.
It’s such a basic song musically and lyrically that any variation or flourish is so deliberate that it carries some meaning beyond what is on the surface. Exhibit A – when the kick drum first comes into the song at that 1:20 right after Prince sings the word “bear” and just before “the cross”. The single kick drum pounding away on its own like that evokes a sense of a hammer pounding away. Hammering nails into a cross.
But I get ahead of myself.
Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry, He is coming
Don’t die, without knowing, the cross
The lyrics come in at the 0:32 mark. As mentioned above, there’s only one guitar (the “sitar” has dropped off by now) playing a simple chord progression as accompaniment. The vocal is soft, calm and reserved. It is, to say the least, a stark opening. Not off with his head Stark, but bleak nonetheless. The first two lines are pretty dark. No love, no hope, no light. At this point you probably wanna just skip to the next song but you know (if you’ve read the album sleeve) that the title of this song isn’t “Murder, Death, Suicide and Tears™”. It’s called “The Cross” – a phrase which comes with a freighter full of baggage. And if you know anything about popular music and christianity, you know that there is likely a little more to this song (so keep listening). The next line starts to reveal some of what we can expect. It’s not all “Murder, Death, Suicide and Tears™”, so don’t cry, “He” is on his way. What he plans to do when he gets here, that’s not quite clear. But he’s coming, so don’t die. Because there’s no way you could find out about him or his cross (or the latest summer trends from Paris) if you were dead. I find it interesting that in a lot of his songs Prince uses the words ‘come’ and ‘coming’ when talking about adult themes and the ol’ “in/out, in/out” but in this song there are no such connotations. Not that he has ever shied away from mixing the holy and the profane (“God is coming, like a dog in heat”) but in this song he’s really tried to strip away all that noise and write a modern hymn. He’s preaching the good news and he wants you to hear it. To know ‘the cross’. He wants that you should become well acquainted with an instrument of death and torture. “It’s a symbol” I hear you say, which is true. But it symbolises the idea that the torture and death of someone can somehow magically save you or me or anyone from “Murder, Death, Suicide and Tears™”. He uses the sitar sound again (which symbolises the cross or JC) and it comes back in after he sings the last word in this verse. It’s reassurance.
Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There’ll be bread for all of us
If we can just bear the cross
When I started listening to this song, I thought that these lines meant something like “bad things to the left and nice things to the right”. After repeated listens, I now think that the flowers here represent funerary arrangements and that these two lines are meant to mimic the negativity of the opening lines. Poverty and death to go with the hopelessness and rain. And once again, hope is salvaged by ‘the cross’. What kind of hope? Well there’ll be bread apparently. But I guess if you gotta cater for 7 billion-plus then you have to stick to simple fare. As mentioned above, this is where the kick-drum comes in and begins to hammer away at the cross. The sitar also comes back after this verse. As the song progresses the music and instrumentation start to tell the story of the crucifixion in the background while the lyrics tell the lead story of what that crucifixion means to Prince (and what it could and should mean to you).
Sweet song of salvation
A pregnant mother sings
She lives in starvation
Her children need all that she brings
She’s pregnant and she has children. That’s plural. That means a starving woman who already has at least one child is pregnant again. It sounds like she needs some family planning, not salvation. It would be easy for me to sit here and write about how the woman has no one to blame but herself and that she should learn to keep her legs closed (blah, blah, blah). But that would be Donald Trump level analysis and here we try to go deeper than the first nanometre. There are a lot of women, poor and other wise, but especially poor, who don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to pregnancy (in all parts of the world). That she’s now pregnant again is more of a structural/political issue that won’t be solved by singing. Maybe she should spend less time singing and more time bringing, but then again there’s no reason she can’t do both. This verse is also where the little drummer boy finally comes in (pa rum pum pum pum) and no surprise it lands just before he starts to sing of children. He’s witnessing the crucifixion and playing his drum.
We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross
This verse marks the end of the lyrics such as they are and they repeat from here. There is a small drum fill that comes in at the start of this quatrain. It’s calling you to pay attention – this is important. The culmination of what I’m trying to tell you is here. You see we all have problems of various sizes but soon it’ll all be alright, don’t you know. There’s a drum sound here that sounds like a drumstick hitting the rim of the drum and it hits and the end of each of the first three lines (father/son/ghost). If the kick drum is the hammer and nails then this new sound is the final construction of the cross. We’re almost done. We’re about to be taken away (like at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” – another song where “he’s coming”). He’s taken us from the first verse where he talks about the elemental level of weather and darkness to the next level down of the city and cemetery then down to the human level and the struggles of the poor and then finally in the final verse it comes down to the individual and everyone’s personal struggles. The point of which was to highlight to you that no matter the level of suffering or the problems that you face in your life, all you really need is god. Or more specifically, the god that Prince believes in (polytheists need not apply). The one with the cross to bear. So much so that he drops out all the music before singing “the cross”, symbolising the final breath of the saviour. The nails have been hammered, the crucifix has been erected and the rest is silence. Or is it…?
Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry for He is coming
Don’t die without knowing the cross, y’all
Just before this verse starts, the sitar has another little solo (“the cross” just letting us know that everything will be okay) and then the guitar gets shifted into overdrive. The only change in the lyrics here is the addition of “y’all” at the end of the verse. “You all”. The perspective has shifted slightly now. It’s not about us anymore, it’s about you all. The drums pick it up a little in this verse and there are now two guitars (at least). Sitar solo after the verse still indicating the cross/saviour is with us but now the reserved hymn that we started with has morphed into a powerhouse celebration gospel song. Vocally, Prince takes it to another level. His voice is almost raw. As though he has been crucified and his throat is dry and worn.
Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There’ll be bread for all, y’all`
If we can just, just bear the cross, yeah
Bread for all of you all. Not me, you. The music continues in a similar vein to the previous verse so nothing really to see here other than the party continuing. The word “just” does get repeated here though. Because you see, bearing the cross is really a simple thing. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Everyone should do it. All y’all.
We all have our problems
Some are big, some are small
Soon all of our problems, y’all
Will be taken by the cross, y’all (?)
There’s a percussion thing (xylophone maybe?) that comes in on this verse that kind of sounds like a pipe and the guitars and vocals seem to go up another notch. These additions add layers to choir depth to the celebration. The way he screams out “cross” on the last line tells you everything you need to know about how the singer feels about his subject matter. I’ve got a question mark next to the last “y’all” there because I’m not sure. It sounds like it to me but Metro Lyrics has “no” there.
This is where the backing vocals come in for the first time – Prince’s Heavenly Choir™. The saviour has been exalted up to heaven and the heavenly choir sings.
And then finally all the music fades out, it goes quiet, you think the song is over, but no. Prince’s Heavenly Choir™ comes back to remind you what salvation is all about. Him.
Running time 4:46.
The first half of the song was all about us finding out about the cross and salvation (whilst the cross itself is being constructed in the background). Then in the second half the song becomes about “y’all”. Prince is now our saviour and is telling us that we will be saved. Thematically, this makes sense because in the first half of the song the cross is still being constructed and the teacher is still a mortal man (or half mortal on his mother’s side). By the second half of the song (after death and resurrection) the teacher has become the saviour and we all better listen to what he’s telling us. Do what I tell you all and everything will be fine. You can join Prince in heaven and become a member of Prince’s Heavenly Choir™.
Sign O’ The Times (released 1987)
The Peach & Black Podcast
Sign ‘O’ The Times, Michaelangelo Matos, Continuum International Publishing, 2004.