How Prince Used His Legendary Vault of Songs to Make Sign O’ the Times

Michaelangelo Matos
·21 mins read

For Prince fans, the Vault—the underground bank vault with foot-thick walls and a heavy door beneath Paisley Park, the suburban Minneapolis studio complex where he kept masters, outtakes and unfinished songs from a lifetime of constant recording—has been a place of myth ever since he began mentioning it publicly in the mid-eighties.

In December 1989, a staffer told Spin that the Vault contained “at least five hundred finished or near-finished Prince tracks.” In a 1996 interview, Prince estimated the number up to a thousand. The official releases were evidence enough of Prince’s creativity, but numbers like those made fans salivate for the artist demos, jam sessions with his various bands—including showcases credited to the Rebels (late seventies) and the Flesh (mid-eighties)—and entire unreleased albums that lay within, including the notorious Black Album, which was intended a surprise release at the end of 1987, only to be pulled off the schedule last-minute. The Black Album, frequently cited as the most bootlegged album of all time, would push Prince’s outtakes to become as popular with underground traders as Bob Dylan’s and Bruce Springsteen’s.

Prince himself held a dim view of such activity. “There was one engineer who said that their sole purpose in life was to get the stuff out of the Vault, and get it copied so it wasn’t lost to the world,” Prince told Miles Marshall Lewis in one of his last interviews. “I’m trying to figure out if that’s illegal. Should I fear for my safety that you might need some medical attention? You want to come up in my vault and you feel like that belongs to you and that’s your purpose? You better find something to do. That’s scary.”

Much like Prince himself, the Vault was surprisingly small. “The Vault has long since overfilled,” says Susan Rogers, Prince’s main engineer from 1983 to 1987. “There was a point, I believe in the nineties, where you couldn’t even get the door shut.”

Having been housed “for the majority of its life” at Paisley Park, in 2017 the Vault was “physically moved, basically whole cloth, to a secure facility in Los Angeles,” says Michael Howe, the archivist for the Prince estate. “The Vault is basically an impenetrable compound that has been retrofitted with natural disaster support and fireproofing and climate control.”

Those precautions are more necessary than ever. Last June, the New York Times reported on the full extent of the losses from a 2008 fire on the Universal Studio lot that destroyed the contents of a 22,000-square-foot storage locker containing the master recordings of everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to R.E.M. and 2Pac. (The Times’ follow-up listed hundreds more.) For a recording artist whose longevity and quality of output are comparable to only a few others—most notably, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, both of whom are the subject of decades-long reissue programs—Prince’s Vault is a cornucopia that’s likely to yield music of a high caliber for years to come.

Prince’s archivists got to the Vault just in time. “Analog tape is going to decay over time, because the oil in the formula that holds the magnetic oxide particles onto the backing material is going to ossify,” says Rogers. “Prince’s tapes, a good many of them from his peak era of the late seventies or early eighties, were just approaching their expiration. Michael Howe was able to take those tapes over to Warner Bros. in Burbank. The chief audio scientist there, George Lydecker, was able to safely transfer these tapes, and many of them are in really good shape.”

The tapes and the music both: Howe is executive producer of a slew of Prince catalog reissues and new Vault discoveries, the latest of which is the eight-CD (or thirteen-LP), plus-DVD, Sign O’ the Times: Special Deluxe Edition, a vast expansion of his landmark 1987 double album. It’s not quite complete—the Prince-directed Sign O’ the Times concert movie is missing (the rights are in other hands). But there are three full CDs of unreleased material, as well as the album itself and a third disc of single mixes and B-sides. The package is rounded out with two shows—the complete soundboard recording of a show from Utrecht, the Netherlands, from that spring’s tour behind Sign, and on the DVD, complete footage of the December 31, 1987 show at Paisley Park—which Prince had opened that September—featuring Miles Davis sitting in with the band, available for the first time in its entirety.

“There’s material in there that I never saw [before],” says Matt Fink, Prince’s keyboardist from 1978 to 1990, who well knows his old boss’s dogged insistence on control over every aspect of his work. “Actually, the thing that surprised me was that the estate and the curators of the music there have made this decision to put such an extensive collection out.”

“There’s dozens of songs that weren’t even in circulation amongst, as far as I know, the most diehard fans,” says Anil Dash, an encyclopedically knowledgeable Prince head. “You can’t conceive of somebody doing more in 1986-1987 than creating Sign O’ the Times. The myth undersold reality. This is like if [Stevie Wonder’s] Songs in the Key of Life had been six records. Just the songs we haven’t heard, just the ones that are studio [made], just the ones that are new, is more than Hendrix’s entire catalog.”

For Howe, these Special Deluxe Editions of the Prince catalog constitute the most important work of his and his colleagues’ life: “It’s something we take extremely seriously. It literally keeps me up at night. You can ask my long-suffering wife about how much I think about this stuff and how consuming it is. But it’s an awesome responsibility and we take it very seriously. The guy was the most creatively magnificent artist I can think of.”

In 1984, Prince was on top of the world. His sixth album in seven years, the soundtrack to his hit film Purple Rain, sold nine million copies within seven months of its release; according to Warner Bros., it’s sold more than 22 million to date. But the eccentric follow-up, 1985’s Around the World in a Day—finished right as the Purple Rain tour began—sold only two million, and 1986’s Parade only sold one million. After that, Prince was no longer negotiating from strength—so when the Warner brass turned down his idea for a triple album called Crystal Ball, he was forced to scale down.

Prince wasn’t satisfied for his albums to be a mere strong collection of songs—each was a complete environment, complete with its own color palette: purple and red for 1999, powder-blue and paisley for Around the World in a Day. In Sign’s case, it was peach and black, as mentioned in the lyric of “U Got the Look,” the second single from the album. “It seems quite obvious to me now to say it, but I think it was the black being Prince, and the peach being Susannah Melvoin, his fiancée’s favorite color at that time,” says Rogers. “Peach and black—those two colors don’t really go together. And Prince and Susannah weren’t quite jelling together, either.”

This was a problem: Susannah was the co-lead singer of Prince’s protégé group, the Family, and her twin sister, Wendy Melvoin, was the guitarist in Prince’s band, the Revolution. Wendy and keyboardist Lisa Coleman had become deeply involved with the writing and arranging of the band’s music—a first for a performer who’d gotten his Warner Bros. deal by demonstrating that he could do everything in the studio himself. “Parade and Around the World in a Day, both those records have a lot of Lisa and Wendy, and some of the rest of us too, but more so them,” says Fink.

But near the end of 1986, Prince’s engagement to Susannah was off, and so was his band—all the members except Fink were let go. When the Revolution had performed behind Parade that year, it routinely jammed with several members of opener Sheila E.’s band—including guitarist and bassist Levi Seacer Jr. and keyboardist-singer Boni Boyer. With the Revolution out, Sheila, Seacer, and Boyer, along with Fink, became the new group’s nucleus.

Prince, of course, didn’t stop recording at all while all this was going on. “When we were on tour,” says Susan Rogers, “we would have a mobile truck and we would record his new material at sound check. He leaves the stage after doing a three-hour set in front of an arena-sized crowd, he would go to the hotel, shower, change clothes, and go to a recording studio and work all night. You couldn’t tell where one record started and the next one ended—they would fold into each other.”

“He’s one of the people that their instruments are like an extension of him,” says Duane Tudahl, the author of the definitive sessionography Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, 1983 and 1984. “Solely on piano or guitar, just trying to noodle and shuffle notes in a different order to make a different song—he’s going to have a lot of stuff that’s undiscovered, and sometimes just legendary just because we know the title.”

Tudahl would know. He spent twenty years researching his first book, speaking to as many people who’d been in the studio with Prince as he could, only to “wrap up the first draft of it one month before he passed away,” he says. “The saddest thing for me was having to go back and change all the tenses.” Shortly after he published the book, another surprise was in store—the thirty-five-minute tape of a seemingly spontaneous Prince performance alone at his upright, recorded sometime in 1983 and issued as Piano & a Microphone 1983 in September 2018. Though it had been previously bootlegged under the title “Intimate Moments with Prince,” the exact recording date remains unknown, and its official release prompted a new entry in the expanded paperback edition of Tudahl’s book.

Tudahl’s next book will cover the 1985-86 sessions that yielded Parade and Sign O’ the Times, and he estimates that over that two-year period, Prince entered the studio some two hundred and fifty times. “That’s on top of the fact that he did a movie [1986’s Under the Cherry Moon], did a tour, and broke up the Revolution.” Plus, a number of sessions yielded multiple titles—in the case of the Flesh, an ad hoc band featuring members of the Revolution and the Sign-Lovesexy group, there were upward of “six or seven songs a day,” says Tudahl.

In 2014, two years before he died, Prince and Warner Bros. Records announced they’d made a new deal that would include a deluxe edition of Purple Rain, date TBA. “I don’t know that there was a timeline on it or that it had been fully fleshed out,” says Michael Howe, who was working for Warner Bros. at the time, in A&R. “But Prince himself remastered the album at Paisley Park. I flew from Burbank to Minneapolis, went to Paisley, picked it up and turned around, flew back to Burbank. We hadn’t gotten to the point of examining the sort of universe of possibilities before he passed away.”

Those conversations took place after his death, when, Howe says, “The estate was looking at the vast array of assets that it had and trying to move forward with the most completeness and respect and integrity that it could—certainly that Prince would demand and that the body of work deserves.”

Howe soon went to work finding and cataloguing the Vault’s contents. “There are delightful surprises that we encounter at least on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis, that are totally serendipitous,” says Howe. “It’s pretty incredible to get to pull out a tape that we think contains one thing, and it might contain that, but also three other things that are not labeled, or that we previously had no knowledge of having existed.”

About 20 percent of Sign O’ the Times: Super Deluxe Edition was found this way, he estimates. Though a handful of tracks on earlier Vault releases—several on 1999: Super Deluxe Edition and a couple on the songs-for-other-people collection Originals—came from suboptimal sources and required digital cleaning up, the Sign material was in generally excellent shape.

That’s doubly impressive given that some of the material had been around nearly as long as Prince was in the public eye. Once Warner Bros. turned down the three-LP Crystal Ball, Prince didn’t simply shave the tracklist down, but reimagined it. “The albums to him were a statement, and they had to have a flow,” says Tudahl. “Some songs keep being tried, like ‘Moonbeam Levels’”—a pop-rock gem Prince recorded in 1982, now part of 1999: Super Deluxe Edition—which “he kept trying to put into almost every album for years, and it just did not fit.”

Crystal Ball was not the only unfinished album project whose parts made their way into Prince’s eventual double LP. An earlier incarnation had been mooted under the title Dream Factory, while another album, Camille, was planned as a pseudonymous release—Camille was a gender-blurred alter ego, one of the most forthright of Prince’s many binary tweaks throughout his career, which he devised by speeding up his voice slightly. For the Super Deluxe Edition of Sign, Howe decided to include everything from those configurations that wasn’t already available commercially. Some unused Sign numbers made it onto later albums, such as “Joy in Repetition” on 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, while a number of outtakes were issued on a 1998 box also titled Crystal Ball.

Making the downbeat catalog of social ills “Sign O’ the Times” his new title track, Prince pieced together an opening sequence by following it with two of the sessions’ loosest and grabbiest numbers, a muddy beauty called “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and the nutty, horny (in all senses) Camille outtake “Housequake,”, and then adding a brand new readymade to complete the first side of vinyl. “He would record a song like ‘Play in the Sunshine’—it’s a filler song, but it’s not filler,” says Tudahl. “He was able to just go, ‘You know what, I need a song here,’ and take an afternoon and go, ‘Okay, here it is.’ Who can do that? When he would do stuff like this, this is the conversation he’s wanting to have.”

When he began pulling together the final track list for Sign O’ the Times, Prince called up some old material: “He needed a slow love ballad, so he pulled up ‘Slow Love’ from the Vault,” says Rogers. “That was something that was really old. And he also wanted something upbeat. He had me pull up ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,’ put up the multitrack tape, push up the faders—bass and drums are fine, cool, but let’s add a whole new top line and let’s add a new guitar tone. Let’s take it out of that late-seventies new-wave vibe and modernize it.”

The original demo of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was one of the first things Howe found while digitizing the Vault, and it took another a year to pin down the recording date: “We were able to locate the multitracks and the half-inch was dated from May of ‘79, which was mind-blowing for all of us,” he says.

But you still can’t hear everything. Take the original version of “Wally,” a song Prince initially cut in the studio alone with Susan Rogers. “It knocked me off my feet,” she recalls. “I thought it was just one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever heard him do. What he originally expressed [was] really deep pain and sorrow. And then he had me do the unthinkable—when we finished it, he made a cassette, and then erased the entire multitrack. We never mixed it. It was just sacrilege, but he insisted.”

That original “Wally” became the project’s white whale. “We turned over every conceivable rock to try to find it,” says Howe. When the archivist contacted Rogers after finding a tape of the song, she was surprised: “I hadn’t remembered that we had redone ‘Wally’ a few days after the original version until Michael sent me a photograph of the track sheet. That clearly was my writing. When the song was redone, it took on an attitude of being slightly more flippant and slightly more lighthearted.”

Rogers is now a cognitive researcher, so memory is something she thinks about a lot. Sometimes hers plays tricks on her because, like her old boss, she frequently did without sleep: “A forty-eight-hour session: not uncommon. When I compare notes with Peggy McCreary [Prince’s main engineer prior to Rogers, during the early eighties] she has some specific memories that I don’t, and vice versa. But occasionally, she and I will have completely different memories of the same song. And that really scares me.”

But Prince’s prolificacy still stymies everyone. When Andrea Swensson, author of Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound and host of the Official Prince Podcast, spoke with Eric Leeds for the new box’s 120-page book liner notes, she says, “He kept a log of how many sessions he did with Prince—he estimates that was between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and sixty recording sessions, and that 80 percent of it hasn’t ever been released.” And yet, she says, “He was shocked that ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ version with the horns [on the box] was even in existence.”

For others, the box has proven a valuable memory aid. “We have so many different versions of everything,” says Levi Seacer Jr. “A lot of songs got changed. I can see the progression of the arrangements, because everything is documented in the box set—dates and times.”

The track that everyone talks about, without prompting, is a longer version of “Power Fantastic,” a song that had previously appeared at the end of The Hits/The B-Sides box set in 1993. It’s the Revolution, joined by saxophonist Eric Leeds and trumpeter Matt “Atlanta Bliss” Blistan, also core to the band that toured Sign O’ the Times in Europe, as well as 1988’s Lovesexy. This run-through, though, features a new introduction with Prince on the microphone, instructing the band. It’s a genuine rarity—unlike other widely bootlegged artists, such as the Beach Boys or the Beatles, whose studio outtakes are filled with the banter of several people in the room at the same time, Prince typically worked alone.

Here he’s so genuinely encouraging it’s spellbinding. “Ready, and just trip—there are no mistakes this time,” Prince says. “This is the fun trip—track this one. It might not be the one we keep, but we’ll just have fun. Play anything you want.”

“I think a lot of people envision Prince as a taskmaster and a perfectionist, a very stern presence,” says Howe. “But here you hear the empathy and his willingness to experiment right on the tape with the band. There is encouragement of letting the creative process unfold in an organic way. It was pretty eye opening.”

“It’s just so intimate and so sweet,” says Swensson. “Anything that shows like the Wendy and Lisa and Prince musical dynamic, I really appreciate that. He’s saying, ‘No mistakes,’ like, ‘You can play anything, and it won’t be a mistake. You’re free.’”

A similar sort of freedom wafts through the Vault discs of SOTT: SDE. There are many highlights: impish power pop like “Teacher Teacher” and “Cosmic Day,” and revelatory alternate versions of two LP highlights, the aforementioned “Dorothy Parker” (the horns re-situate it from waking dream to barroom reminiscence) and “Strange Relationship,” not so much for the early demo as the unreleased Shep Pettibone 12-inch mix. Had it come out as planned, it would have tied the album to the era’s larger dance music currents with a big peach-and-black scrunchie.

Speaking of alternate universes, one pleasure of the SOTT: SDE bonuses comes in hearing the seeds from unused songs that took bloom on the final album. Take Sign’s penultimate track, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” recorded with the Revolution in Paris in August 1986: Its “beau-ti-ful night” tag came from “It’s a Wonderful Day,” which appears in two versions here, while the stop-start horn fanfare that announces Sheila E.’s rap on the live cut is part of the splashy big band jam “Soul Psychedelicide.” Even aside from the material earmarked for the Sign prototypes, there’s a lot of what-if glimpses here—it’s easy to imagine “Soul Psychedelicide,” which is nearly thirteen minutes long, and the swaggering blues-funk “Blanche” (though its line “Don’t drive by me/Like some kind of fag” rankles) as the center of an all-funk album, for example. Or a gospel-tinged one keyed to bonuses like “A Place in Heaven” and “Walkin’ in Glory” as well as the official LP’s “The Cross.”

Ultimately, though, Prince made the right call. Like the Beatles’ White Album, Sign O’ the Times is the most expansive showcase of Prince’s range—even 1996’s three-hour Emancipation feels a little thin in comparison—because it’s a patchwork quilt rather than through-line thematic. Simply put, he built the album around the best available material. The bonuses are lovely and illuminating, but it’s hard to imagine Sign having such lasting impact in any other form.

Sign didn’t really improve Prince’s sales numbers (a million copies in the U.S.), but it was a critical smash—it won the Village Voice’s annual critics’ poll by a huge margin—consolidating him as the decade’s premier pop auteur. It was also the last album he made before opening the Paisley Park studio complex in September, closing the book on his first decade as a recording artist. Instead of hijacking the stage of Minneapolis’s First Avenue for impromptu shows, as he’d routinely done since 1981, local fans now dialed the Paisley receptionist to ask if there was a show that night. Often there was, on the complex’s soundstage—where Prince also re-shot much of the footage in the Sign O’ the Times movie.

Paisley was also a studio for hire for many years—R.E.M. mixed Out of Time there, for one—and it became, instantly, a destination spot for traveling musicians. “Every musician in the world wanted to meet Prince,” recalls Seacer. “They were like, ‘Who is this cat that gets to do whatever he wants—and he can do everything well?’” It’s apt then that SOTT: SDE finishes with the DVD of Prince’s New Year’s Eve performance at Paisley. Along with a March drop-in at First Avenue ahead of the European shows, it was the only time he ever played the Sign O’ the Times show in America, and it had a celebrity guest—which is probably understating things.

“It wasn’t a big deal to have somebody famous in the building all the time, but Miles Davis is an icon of icons,” says Seacer, who was floored when the Prince of Darkness sat down next to him at the piano backstage. “He started talking to me as if he knew me for thirty years,” says Seacer. He continued to be nervous when Davis joined them onstage. “We tried to be cool, man. But how do you do that?” Decades later, people still wonder the same about Seacer’s old boss. As Miles Davis himself once said, there's always a little more to be heard from Prince.

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, out Dec. 8 from Hachette Books.

Originally Appeared on GQ