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From ‘Dream Factory’ To ‘Sign O’ The Times’: How Prince Made A Masterpiece
©The Prince Estate. Photo by Jeff Katz
In Depth

From ‘Dream Factory’ To ‘Sign O’ The Times’: How Prince Made A Masterpiece

Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’ emerged from three discarded albums and the loss of The Revolution. Here’s how he created his greatest work.

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In the year that led up to his 1987 album, Sign O’ The Times, Prince released a flop movie (Under The Cherry Moon) and a critically acclaimed album whose sales somehow fell short of expectations (Parade). He also suffered the heartbreak of a failed engagement with Susannah Melvoin, twin sister of one of his closest collaborators, Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin. Compounding that loss, Prince sacked The Revolution themselves, forever saying goodbye to the group that had starred alongside him in Purple Rain and helped him reach some of his greatest artistic heights. A string of unreleased albums – Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball – along with an ever-growing pile of discarded songs, found themselves locked in The Vault. Endlessly creative in the face of turmoil, however, Prince was searching for something that could take him to the next level. After a tumultuous year, he finally found it.

“He wanted to wow people”

“1986 was a crazy year for Prince,” Duane Tudahl, Senior Researcher for the Prince Estate Archives, tells Dig! “He had just come off a project that didn’t do as well as he hoped, and he wanted to wow people.”

Any of those unreleased albums would have achieved that goal – and then some: Dream Factory, his most collaborative project with The Revolution, sounded like a mind-bending carnival captured on record. Camille, credited to an androgynous alter ego, revelled in a unique squelchy funk that sought to distract from his losses. Crystal Ball, an ambitious triple-album that his record label, Warner Bros, felt was too costly to release, contained some of the most complex material Prince ever committed to tape.

“Prince didn’t do many interviews – he spoke through his music,” Tudahl says. “The progression between all these things tells you where he was at the time.” As the Super Deluxe Edition of Sign O’ The Times reveals, the period ended not just with the Sign O’ The Times album itself, but an unreleased song called Wally. Exposing just how deeply he had grieved throughout this astoundingly fertile period, Prince erased his first recording of the song, feeling it was too emotionally raw for anyone else to hear. “He was basically saying, to himself and the world, ‘I’m erasing the past,’” Tudahl says. “He’s saying, ‘I’m erasing the contributions of The Revolution, and I’m going to move on.’”

Now he had to show everyone he could do it without the band that had become such a part of his life – and work. “Not only did he show them,” Tudahl says, “he gave them what is possibly his best album ever.”

From Dream Factory through Camille and Crystal Ball, to the unimpeachable magnificence of Sign O’ The Times, here is how Prince created his masterpiece.

Prince Sign O’ The Times press shot 2

©The Prince Estate. Photo by Jeff Katz

Dream Factory

Configured with several different tracklists through the spring and summer of 1986, Dream Factory found Prince having so much fun in the studio that it expanded from an 11-track record to an 18-track double-album. “It’s sort of: ‘This is where I am with a band. This is where we’re going to go. And this is the fun we’re having,’” Tudahl says. Somewhat consolidating Parade’s abstract funk and the psychedelic pop-rock of that album’s predecessor, Around The World In A Day, Dream Factory careens from the ethereal whimsy of All My Dreams to the avant-garde soundscapes of Crystal Ball and delicate instrumental passages, Visions and Colors – solo pieces recorded by Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, respectively.

Dream Factory really was a Prince And The Revolution album,” Tudahl says. Wendy and Lisa’s input is all over the project, with songs like Strange Relationship and Witness 4 The Prosecution boasting sitar effects (courtesy of the Fairlight sampler) and vocal arrangements that the pair came up with after Prince handed them ideas to flesh out. “For somebody like Prince, who was such a controlling guy about his music, to say to Wendy or Lisa, ‘Look, hand me some lightning in a bottle’ – and they do it – it’s a testament to his respect and how much he relied on them.”

Feeling they deserved more credit for their input, tensions grew between Prince and the band. “I think he realised that they could leave him, so he wanted to leave them before they left him,” Tudahl says of The Revolution’s dissolution. “It was pre-emptive.” Prince’s struggling relationship with Susannah also put pressure on his creative partnership with Wendy and Lisa: “They were fighting with him, but they were fighting to stay with him,” Tudahl says. “But, looking back, Prince would want to hurt somebody before they hurt him: ‘We’ll break up, but we’re gonna break up on my terms.’”

Though Prince would later remove their additions and re-record overdubs of his own, the fact that songs like Strange Relationship, The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, Starfish And Coffee and Sign O’ The Times itself made it all the way through to the Sign O’ The Times album speaks to how strong the Dream Factory material was. But when Prince broke up the band, the album was shelved, and with it any opportunity for The Revolution to receive the goodbye they deserved.

Must hear: Visions/Colors

Tudahl: “These songs reveal how much he trusted Wendy and Lisa. He’s allowing them to not only do something on their own, but he starts Dream Factory with Visions. He said, ‘You know what? Lisa, you’re setting the tone on this.’ He wasn’t even in the studio when she did it. It was her and engineer Susan Rogers. That speaks volumes about the trust and the project. To hear Visions and Colors, which is Wendy just sitting there playing guitar – and she’s amazing at it – gives a lot of insight into what he was thinking.”

Camille

Mere weeks after announcing The Revolution’s break-up, Prince compiled Camille, eight tracks of largely upbeat, salacious funk that masked any uncertainties or emotional turbulence he felt after losing his band and his fiancée. “He wanted this out as quickly as possible,” Tudahl says. Envisioning it credited to a new alter ego, Camille, rather than Prince himself, it was “almost as it he wanted to establish himself as a different artist” as he entered a new creative period.

“The song at the start of the album is called Rebirth Of The Flesh, which is him saying, ‘I’m reborn,’” Tudahl says. With what appears to be gentle lyrical digs at his old band – “We are here, where are U?”, “It ain’t about the money, we just wanna play” – Prince was sending a message: “All that I was doing before, that’s old stuff. This is all me and all new.”

Though Camille was given a catalogue number and scheduled for a January 1987 release, Prince kept on recording, and the album effectively expanded into the 22-track triple-album, Crystal Ball. “In many of the things that we found in the archives, he was considering calling the Crystal Ball album Camille,” Tudahl says, adding, “There was some sort of Camille play or movie. There’s the Camille character. There’s the Camille voice. There’s the Camille album. And then there’s the Camille performer. November 1986, when he’s compiling all this stuff, it’s a grey area because projects bled into other projects.”

Must hear: Rebirth Of The Flesh

Tudahl: “It really is him saying, ‘I’m reborn and renewed; this is what I am.’ But it could also be seen as a little catty. I think that he was throwing it back in The Revolution’s face a little bit. What it sounds like he’s saying is: you’re not here anymore, but I am. The cool thing about this Super Deluxe Edition is, you’re gonna have a longer version of it with additional lyrics that were edited out. There’s a whole different ending that Prince had originally recorded. So this is something that has never been out there.”

Crystal Ball

Adding more material to Camille, and returning to the Dream Factory songs, Prince compiled his most ambitious work to date while reclaiming his music for himself. “He had more of his own stuff on Crystal Ball,” Tudahl says. “He started replacing a lot of the really strong Wendy and Lisa stuff,” including the congas and sitar effects that characterised the Dream Factory version of Strange Relationship. “He was saying, ‘I don’t want anybody’s influence. I will remove you guys. This is gonna be my album.’”

Adding Dream Factory highlights such as Sign O’ The Times, Crystal Ball and Strange Relationship to Crystal Ball, while using a blend of more recent songs, among them Play In The Sunshine, The Ball and Adore (Until The End Of Time), Crystal Ball overwhelmed Warner Bros, who requested that Prince reduce it to a more affordable double-album. “He’s probably thinking, I want to show them and I’m gonna blow everybody’s mind,” Tudahl says. “But Warner Bros was like, ‘Yeah, it’s great stuff, but boil it down.’”

After fighting with the label, Prince reluctantly trimmed the three-disc Crystal Ball to the two-disc Sign O’ The Times, but not before adding yet another new song: U Got The Look. “It’s a statement about Prince’s enthusiasm about his own music, and his trust in himself,” Tudahl says. “He’d say, ‘OK, you like what I gave you? But wait, there’s more. Here’s U Got The Look.’ And they’re like, “That’s a great song, too. Let’s make that a single.”

Must hear: The Ball

Tudahl: “He was still doing the ‘crystal ball’ motif through this. It’s a great companion piece for the Crystal Ball song, but I think he realised that, once he went to Sign O’ The Times, a lot of that stuff would drop off. What I love about this is he eventually turned the song into Eye No, which ended up on Lovesexy. But along the way parts were repurposed for It Be’s Like That Sometimes, which is fun because he’s somebody who’s saying, ‘Yeah, I got a great song here. It doesn’t fit this project, but I’m going to put it on the next album.’”

Sign O’ The Times

“To go within two years from being the Purple Rain guy – you know, top of the world – to having a movie bomb, the band break up and your record label saying, ‘Well, that is an album we’re not going to release,’ that’s got to hit the self-esteem,” Tudahl says. After a year of trying to figure out how he was going to follow Parade, Prince finally created his magnum opus: Sign O’ The Times.

Drawing on the shelved Dream Factory, Camille and Crystal Ball albums, Sign O’ The Times emerged as arguably his most varied, experimental and emotionally rounded work. “By taking the Sign O’ The Times song from where it was on the other albums – it’s a strong album track – and to make that the lead song, you’re introduced to a guy dying on the very first line of the album. It’s like, ‘Wait, where’s your party stuff?’” Tudahl says. “It sets the tone: ‘I’m rethinking here.’ But Sign O’ The Times remains, in many ways, a Prince And The Revolution album.”

sign of the times super deluxe

“The Revolution haunt this album”

“Wendy, Lisa and Susannah – and The Revolution in general – are the ghosts on Sign O’ The Times,” Tudahl says. “They’re haunting this album because their presence is so much there.” Though Prince removed their input from the Dream Factory songs that made the cut, The Revolution were given a final bow on Sign O’ The Times’ penultimate track, It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night, a nine-minute song captured live in Paris during The Revolution’s final tour with Prince.

“He didn’t come out with a last album for The Revolution, but he said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do a curtain call,’” Tudahl says. Written earlier that same day (“Again, it’s testament to the confidence he had in himself. To write a song that afternoon and play it for 6,000 audience members a couple hours later is a very ballsy thing to do”), Prince still took the song back into the studio, adding Jill Jones’ backing vocals and a rap from Sheila E., who had become the drummer in Prince’s new band. “He’s still like, ‘Yeah, that’s their curtain call, but I have to put my scent on this.’

“His music tells the story he wants to tell,” Tudahl continues. “And that’s one of the coolest things about Sign O’ The Times: the story that’s told is about a guy who’s in love. It’s about a guy who’s dealing with confusion and break-up. It’s a guy who’s horny. It’s a guy who’s looking at the world and seeing certain things.” By featuring songs like Sign O’ The Times and The Cross – a power ballad that spoke to his increased religious and social leanings – Prince was beginning to take a wider look at the world around him, even as he found himself on his own again for the first time in years.

At a time of protracted political and social upheaval on a global scale, Sign O’ The Times remains an essential work of art that turns a series of personal crises into a universal catharsis. “An album like this is so vital,” Tudahl says. “This is the time we want his voice.

“The saddest thing to me is that Prince left us in the middle of the conversation – we don’t have him finishing his thoughts,” Tudahl continues. “Sign O’ The Times is written by a younger guy. Imagine the Sign O’ The Times he would do now.”

Must hear: Forever In My Life

Tudahl: “It’s a love song he wrote to Susannah, his fiancée. It’s very raw and very heartfelt, explaining where his heart was at this point. Which makes the break-up that much more poignant because this guy wanted this person in his life forever. And then to know that, a few months after this, they broke up forever – that’s a tough one. That makes him more human to a lot of us: this man is pouring his heart out to this woman. You see the depth of pain he must have suffered after that.

“The alternate version on the Super Deluxe Edition features Prince’s early vocals. Some of it works, some of it is really weird – and it’s longer, but he couldn’t fit it on the album. He took some of those pieces and started using them live. He still has it in his head, so he says, ‘Oh, I can’t do it on the album. I’m gonna do it live, and you’re gonna hear it.’ And I think that’s kind of cool.”

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