1988 Countdown #71: Terence Trent D’Arby, “Sign Your Name”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

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We return from the commercial break with an interview clip of Terence Trent D’Arby, looking impossibly young. He appears to be sitting in the hallway of an awards show (the background includes both a folding chair and a guy in a tuxedo). “Nowadays you can make three albums,” D’Arby says, “and you only find out on your third album that you’re crap, you know.”

The clip is so brief, it’s hard to guess what larger point D’Arby was making, but he was uncannily prophetic when it came to his own career. His debut (Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby) was excellent and suggested he might be a Prince-level talent; the followup (Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh) was an eclectic hodge-podge but still had flashes of brilliance; by the time of the third record (Symphony or Damn), however, it had become clear that D’Arby’s destination was actually dull middlebrow R&B. Despite changing his name to Sananda Maitreye, that’s where he’s lived since.

(Two side notes on Neither Fish Nor Flesh: (1) It always astonished me that having made a deliberately experimental and uncommercial album, D’Arby was upset that it didn’t sell. (2) I can’t think of another album title with “Nor” in it.)

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MTV cuts to Kevin Seal, who seems genuinely amused by the D’Arby soundbite. Seal informs us, “Mr. D’Arby has said that he writes most of his songs when he’s like, half-asleep and only about ten minutes, whips them right off. So he should have those next two albums done in no time at all.”

He then introduces “Sign Your Name,” the followup single to the #1 hit “Wishing Well” (which I’m sure we’ll be seeing later in this countdown). I would hazard that “Sign Your Name” is now D’Arby’s best-remembered song; I saw George Michael cover it live in the early ’90s and realized it had already become a standard. Despite its dated synth & drum machine arrangement, the track still sounds like a certified classic: D’Arby delivers a delicate yet soulful vocal, and the songwriting is worthy of Smokey Robinson.

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The video opens with a woman’s green eye, framed by a keyhole. “Au revoir, Terence,” she says, and we cut to her POV, looking at a sleeping Terence Trent D’Arby, and then pulling away. “Au revoir, Terence” echoes as we cut to the woman: a beautiful if severe brunette. She blows a kiss, and the music starts. The camera pulls back from the French woman to reveal that her image is being projected on D’Arby’s bed.

We see Frenchie walking down a staircase, holding the hand of a small girl, who drops her teddy bear. They get into what appears to be a beautiful vintage car: perhaps a Maybach. D’Arby still sleeps, his cornrows perfectly framing his face. He wakes up and discovers that he is now sharing his bed with a goodbye note, rolled up with a black ribbon. He sits up, unrolls it, and reads. Frenchie is now projected on the wall behind him. The camera pulls back to reveal D’Arby’s bedroom, which appears to be decorated with only a motorcyle. “Damn,” D’Arby thinks. “I’m having that dream again–the one where I’m in a music video.”

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Frenchie and the child have their faces pressed up against the rear window of the Maybach, looking up (presumably at D’Arby’s window, rather than an impressive piece of skywriting) as the car pulls away. In bed, D’Arby flips his hair back and holds his head, looking anguished. Frenchie, projected behind him, is also running her hand through her hair–now we know what brought them together. (If only Cher was around to act as couples counselor.)

We hit the chorus; D’Arby lip-synchs it, sitting in a reversed chair, his chin resting on his arms. He hasn’t put on a shirt yet. A different memory comes up on the projection screen: Frenchie, dancing with the child in an austerely art-directed kitchen.

When hard times come to a man, there’s only thing to do: he’s got to ride his motorcycle. We don’t see the scene where D’Arby laboriously lugs it down the staircase–maybe he has one motorcycle for outside and another for inside? With a delicate beat tick-tocking, D’Arby saddles up, kick-starts the engine, and rolls out under a gray British sky. We get a shot of him riding down the street, proving that yes, underneath that leather jacket and that helmet, it is the actual pop star riding that vintage Indian motorcyle.

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D’Arby pulls up to a pub, “The Incredible E.G. O’Reilley’s.” I think the video crew is having a little fun at D’Arby’s expense here; it’s hard to believe that the location scout didn’t realize they would be shooting a sign that, when read quickly, begins “The Incredible EGO.”

The pub is smoky and seems to be populated mostly by male models. Either they’re all out drinking exceptionally early, or D’Arby slept away half the day, which is why his woman finally left him. D’Arby sits down at the bar. Cut to a beautiful redheaded girl kissing a light-skinned black man: no, not D’Arby. We pan over to him lip-synching the chorus again, leading into “birds never look into the sun before the day is done,” one of many lyrics in this song that are evocative yet meaningless.

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The doe-eyed D’Arby nurses his drink while the male models chat and a vision of Frenchie appears behind him. A white guy with some of the worst facial hair of 1988 looks at D’Arby, puffs his cheeks, and shakes his head knowingly. D’Arby looks like he might cry. A closeup shows us the skull earring dangling from his left earlobe.

D’Arby looks like he thought it would be fun to dress up as a biker for Halloween, and so rented a puffy leather cap and an overdecorated leather jacket. It’s a good thing he didn’t go into a real biker bar, or else he’d get his ass kicked. But as he stands up, he bumps shoulders with one of the male models, who glares at him threateningly. Two other guys stand up, ready to join in the brawl. In a completely ludicrous turn of events, the shoulder-bumper then holds up his palms and backs away. I suppose this is meant to convince us of the street cred and general hardness of D’Arby, but it just invites speculation as to what could actually be happening. Is D’Arby the nephew of the bouncer? Maybe D’Arby has really bad body odor? Did he just get his pocket picked?

A brief shot of a guy with dreadlocks chalking up a cue. This seems like a good time to mention that although this video is excessively art-directed, the money was generally well-spent: it looks expensive and moody throughout, which is presumably what everyone was aiming for. And the music does the heavy lifting.

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D’Arby on his motorcyle again, riding through London, remembering better times (which we see in quick flashbacks). He parks the bike and sits on it, hoisting up his right leg, posing for the camera. We pan up to another window, where Frenchie and child are sitting, silhouetted. D’Arby purses his lips and pulls off his leather gloves, having recently been informed that “taking the gloves off” is a common idiom.

We see the child: she’s a beautiful girl, maybe six years old, and judging by her skin tone and kinky hair, she is convincingly cast as the daughter of D’Arby and Frenchie. We see that the girl’s teddy bear is strapped onto the back of D’Arby’s motorcyle. As the song climaxes with D’Arby singing, “Hey-yay-eeeyuh-yay,” we see her clutching that teddy bear. To me, the little girl’s presence is the most interesting aspect of the video. It’d have been easy enough to make this clip without the daughter, but she’s both a nice plot twist and a reminder of the consequences of all this sexual longing. But D’Arby seriously needs to childproof his loft: you don’t let a six-year-old play with a motorcycle.

The chorus repeats; D’Arby walks up behind the woman and puts his hands over her eyes (it comes off creepy rather than mysterious or sexy). As the camera circles around them, she turns to D’Arby, pushes off his motorcyle jacket, and they passionately embrace. We spin slowly around their kiss as the song fades.

“Sign Your Name” hit #4 on the Billboard pop charts. You can watch the video here.

posted 23 April 2009 in 1988 and tagged . 6 comments

6 Comments on 1988 Countdown #71: Terence Trent D’Arby, “Sign Your Name”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Damn, this song owns. And you’re right that it’s become the standard despite peaking lower than “Wishing Well.” (Saying that shows I have clearly grown up; when I was 16 I definitely preferred “WW” over “SYN,” but now it’s plain to me how the latter is a more fully-written song.)

    As I mentioned in this Idolator post, I’ve been thinking of doing a writeup someplace of “songs belatedly perceived as an act’s essential hit,” even when chart data or statistics don’t seem to bear it out.

    The two big ones that leap to mind are Elton John and Fleetwood Mac, now most beloved on the radio for songs that weren’t actually singles in the ’70s (”Tiny Dancer” and “Landslide,” respectively); or Tears for Fears, which thanks to Donnie Darko and other flicks now get more airplay for “Head Over Heels” or “Mad World” than they do for the chart-topping “Shout” or even “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

  2. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    It made me laugh every time you used the word “D’Arby’s” in this post. Terence should have used that slogan back in the day: “Wondering what record to put on? I’m thinking D’Arby’s.”

    For my money, the near-hit “If You Let Me Stay” is better than “Wishing Well” or “Sign Your Name,” both of which are quite good indeed.

  3. misty lou hoo Says:

    love practically everything on this album, still, to this day. v. v. few pop songs sexier than “sign your name,” and no need for braggadocio.

  4. Gavin Says:

    I can’t abide the a cappella “As Yet Untitled,” but I love plenty of the other album tracks, especially “Rain” and “Let’s Go Forward.”

  5. Rob Says:

    I think we can all agree that of all the several thousand cover versions of “Wonderful World,” the d’Arb did the absolute bestest, and he did the best “Who’s Lovin’ You” ever too.

    or maybe we can’t agree.

    but those first 2 albums are great. one of the many things I loved about Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was that it was a blatant d’Arby homage, right down to the “Wishing Well”-esque well-rehearsed chuckle in the middle of the second verse.

  6. viewsonic88 Says:

    The severe brunette looks like the love child of Kelly McGillis and one of the Robert Palmer girls.

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