Prince’s Archivist Explains ‘Sign O’ the Times’ Box Set Choices
The man behind the recently announced reissue of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times has revealed details on how the massive project came together.
Archivist Michael Howe was enlisted by the Prince Estate and Warner Bros. to help construct the impressive set, which assembles an array of material created by the Purple One between 1985-87. That period included not only the Sign O’ the Times double LP, but also Prince’s abandoned projects Dream Factory, Camille and the original version of Crystal Ball.
“The prevailing wisdom was to basically look at the final iteration of what Dream Factory would entail and that was around mid-July 1986,” Howe explained during a conversation with the website Super Deluxe Edition. “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.”
Though the new Sign O’ the Times box set will include 45 previously unreleased tracks, there are several omissions from the release. Notably, songs which have been released on previous Prince efforts - such as "Dream Factory," "Last Heart," "Movie Star" and "Sexual Suicide," all of which were included on 1998's Crystal Ball collection - were left out of the Sign O’ the Times set. Likewise, previously released tracks "Feel U Up,” "Good Love" and "Rockhard in a Funky Place" were also excluded.
“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,” Howe explained, noting the desire to avoid repetition. The archivist also admitted there were some songs he was unable to find, such as the long-rumored ballad “Wally.”
“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,” Howe confessed.
The oldest song in the new box set is “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Though the tune was included in the original release of Sign O’ the Times - peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987 - its earliest recording actually dated back to 1979.
“It was an enormous surprise,” Howe said, adding he had no idea the song was that old. “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.”
The new Super Deluxe Edition of Sign O’ the Times also includes a 120-page hardcover book. Among its contributors is Lenny Waronker, a former Warner Bros. A&R man who helped convince Prince to lend an editorial eye towards his massive collection of material.
“He was the guy who actually had to call Prince and talk him down from a triple record to a double record,” Howe noted of Waronker. “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.’”
One piece of history that’s excluded from the new set is the Sign ‘O the Times concert film. Howe noted that he and his collaborators “intended to” include the movie, only to get entangled in red tape.
“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,” he explained. “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].”
Howe later confessed he hoped to release the film “in a more holistic and comprehensive way” sometime in the future.
The new Sign O’ the Times reissue will be available on CD, vinyl, digital download and streaming Sept. 25.