Prince's ex-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin recalled how a pair of high-magnitude earthquakes in Los Angeles left him terrified, and went on to inspire the song “Sign O' the Times.”

He was working out of Sunset Sound Studios in 1986, when the seismic shifts took place, one reaching 6.0 on July 8 and another reaching 5.9 on July 13.

“We were staying at the Bellagio Hotel, and we experienced this earthquake,” Melvoin said in a recent episode of Prince: The Story of Sign O' the Times. “And he did not — he did not like this earthquake. It scared the [expletive] out of him. For somebody who's so in control, that was just, you know, witnessing the power of the planet and the universe and all of it happening at once. It was just too much, and he's like, ‘We gotta get outta here.’”

That wasn’t the only issue to confront him, as he discovered when he saw that morning’s newspaper. “It said ‘AIDS epidemic out of control.’ It was the front cover of the L.A. Times. It was such a dramatic moment because he took it and he looked at the front page, and he was like, ‘Something's happening to the world.’ You know, there was some moment where he just — all of it just clicked.”

Prince had completed writing “Sign O’ the Times” within a few days. Melvoin recalled: “And when I heard it, I was like, ‘Boy, did he tap in; boy, does he know how to use fear and uncertainty and loss of control and knows how to channel that. Listen to that song!’ I was awestruck by that. … I just shook in my knees — it was so scary!”

Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker remembered hearing the completed track for the first time. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. He's gone to another — just another zone.” … And I looked at him, and in those days, you could say things like, ‘That's gonna be a No. 1 record,’ which I usually never said because nobody knows. But I just felt it, and I'm not good at holding back if I believe something, so I just said, ‘That's a No. 1 record.’ And it was.”

Prince - ’Sign O’ the Times’


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