It's a question that would shock Prince fans and compilers of greatest-albums-ever lists alike: what if there was no Sign O' the Times?

Of course, the purple faithful know that could well have been the case. This landmark 1987 double album was the final draft of a year and a half worth of recording, assembling and editing that encompassed no less than three ultimately unrealized albums. The first in that lineup, Dream Factory, was intended to quickly follow Prince and the Revolution's Parade (the soundtrack to the much-maligned Under the Cherry Moon) and showcase the growing input of Revolution band members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman.

Dream Factory was tinkered on by Prince between April and July of 1986, with three album assemblies floated for mastering (the latter two of which were double-length, indicating the breadth of Prince's creative output at this time). Ultimately, the set's fate was sealed not long after Melvoin and Coleman nearly quit the lineup ahead of a rocky European tour in the summer of 1986; Prince dissolved the band shortly thereafter and combined some of the unused tracks with new material to create the ambitious triple album Crystal Ball. He gave in to Warner Bros. Records' request to edit the track list down, and similarly abandoned plans to release eight of those songs under a feminine, pitch-shifted alter ego named Camille.

The release of the super deluxe edition of Sign O' the Times in September 2020 not only showcases how much was left in Prince's storied vault from the mid-to-late '80s, but also allows Dream Factory to be officially re-opened, with the help of a few other previously released outtakes on other releases. We've saved a place in heaven for you with our reassembly below.

1. "Visions"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

Dream Factory truly started off as a Prince and the Revolution album thanks to this instrumental opener, written and composed on piano by Lisa Coleman for every iteration of the album. Devoted fans who purchased the limited edition of Wendy & Lisa's third album Eroica in 1990 actually heard the musical idea of "Visions" on "Minneapolis #1," one of a quartet of piano improvisations included on a bonus disc.

 

2. "Nevaeh Ni Ecalp A"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

On the album's final configuration, assembled July 18, 1986, "Visions" leads to an unlisted segue: a portion of later album track "A Place in Heaven," also sung by Coleman. (As its title indicates, the track is played backwards.) Earlier configurations of the record had this cut as the penultimate track of the second side, where it preceded the song "Sexual Suicide."

 

3. "Dream Factory"
Found on: Crystal Ball (1998)

"Written 4 a turn coat who, after a quick brush with success, lost themselves in a haze of wine, women and pills," sniped the liner notes to Crystal Ball, the 1998 outtakes collection that debuted this stinging track. (It's widely believed the song was a rebuke of St. Paul Peterson, lead singer for Paisley Park spin-off group The Family.) Perhaps the song's theme warning against fake friends was what led Prince to abandon it when assembling the original Crystal Ball project.

 

4. "Train"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

One of five formally unreleased Dream Factory songs debuting on the Sign O' the Times super deluxe set, "Train" lives up to its name thanks to a driving rhythm embellished by the dual-powered horn section of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss, along with a dense set of multi-tracked Prince vocals. Dedicated scholars of the Prince universe may recognize a reworked version of this track from Mavis Staples' Time Waits for No One (1989); it's one of six tracks Prince wrote and produced for that album.

 

5. "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

Much of the rest of Dream Factory's intended first disc is made up of songs that went on to feature on both Crystal Ball and Sign O' the Times. The first of these tracks, "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," was the first song cut in Prince's Galpin Blvd. home studio - an ethereal tale of a rendezvous between a wayward lover and a mysterious woman with a penchant for Joni Mitchell and bubble baths. Adding to its surreal quality: the studio's newly-installed console operating on low power after a shortage, which engineer Susan Rogers only noticed in the middle of the session. The Sign O' the Times box set also debuts an alternate mix of the track, featuring an elaborate, unused horn section.

Read More: Happy Accidents Abound in 'Dorothy Parker'

 

6. "It"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

Most of Prince's career was punctuated by thinking about "It," and this song, later used unchanged for Sign O' the Times, made that metaphor as plain as possible without arousing the ire of Tipper Gore and the Parents' Music Resource Center.

Read More: Prince Admits He Thinks About 'It' All the Time

 

7. "Strange Relationship"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

Nearly the whole second side of Dream Factory ended up on Sign O' the TImes, but "Strange Relationship" had the most complicated journey. When it finally made the cut, Prince had heavily remixed and re-recorded the track to minimize the Eastern influences that Wendy & Lisa added to the original version. The duo later confessed that they were "brokenhearted" by their former bandleader's decision, but the super deluxe Sign offers their original Dream Factory take, synthesized sitar and all.

Read More: The Long, Strange Trip of Prince's 'Strange Relationship'

 

8. "Slow Love"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

A rare Prince co-write, "Slow Love" was created with the help of a future Warner Bros. labelmate, British singer/songwriter/actor Carole Davis. “I was happy that he was in this world, happy to be alive in the same world that he was in,” she later told Diffuser in 2018 - and that unforgettable horn playing by Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss makes it easy to understand why it made the cut for Sign O' the Times.

Read More: Prince Makes ‘Slow Love’ With Carole R. Davis

 

9. "Starfish and Coffee"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

Based on a true childhood story by Prince's then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin (Wendy's twin sister), "Starfish and Coffee" weaves a colorful tale about a schoolgirl who sees things a bit differently around an effortlessly catchy, singsong melody. (Thankfully, Susannah later revealed, Prince opted not to use the real Cynthia Rose's claimed lunchbox contents: "Starfish and Pee Pee.") Apparently, it wasn't until placing the song on Crystal Ball and Sign O' the Times that Prince thought to up the dreamlike quotient by adding a ringing alarm clock to open the track.

Read More: Prince Turns a Young Girl's Images Into 'Starfish and Coffee'

 

10. "Colors"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

Another "Revolution" track, "Colors" is a jazzy guitar interlude entirely performed by Wendy Melvoin. Though it was widely bootlegged before the release of the super deluxe Sign O' the Times, it was that release that finally put a name to the oft-untitled instrumental.

 

11. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

Prince quite literally saved the best for last when assembling Dream Factory for the third and final time, re-recording and updating a power-pop track he first put to tape during sessions for his self-titled sophomore album in 1979. (That original version opens the first of three "From The Vault" discs in the Sign O' the Times super deluxe box set.) While the version from Dream Factory officially remains in the vault - the song's ending guitar coda initially made a first, brief appearance before that epic guitar solo - it likely would have been a Top 10 hit for Dream Factory, just as it ultimately was for Sign.

Read More: Prince Power Pops On 'I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man'

 

12. "Sign O' the Times"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

The second LP of Dream Factory kicks off with what would become the powerful title track to Sign O' the Times, a taut solo venture addressing AIDS, drug use, nuclear proliferation and the Challenger disaster, daring to find hope within the chaos of Reagan's America. As the eventual lead single to its namesake album in 1987, "Sign O' the Times" was a smash, becoming Prince's tenth Top 10 single on the Billboard Hot 100.

Read More: Prince Pushes Back Against Societal Ills on 'Sign O' the Times'

 

13. "Crystal Ball"
Found on: Crystal Ball (1998)

Prince knew he was on to something with this nearly 11-minute kitchen sink of a track, including it on both double-album configurations of Dream Factory as well as making it the title track to both 1986 and 1998 versions of Crystal Ball. The latter album's liner notes offer that it "was written in a deepbluefunk depression, as Prince pondered his future in a music business that had become more business than music." The track was mixed a number of ways, including with and without Clare Fischer's lush orchestrations (later sampled on "The Future," the opener to the Batman soundtrack). A previously unknown single mix makes its debut on the super deluxe Sign O' the Times.

Read More: How Prince's 'Crystal Ball' Finally Saw the Light of Day

 

14. "A Place in Heaven"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

After hearing a back-masked snippet as "Nevaeh ni Ecalp A" toward the start of the album, Dream Factory closes its third side with the full version of this soft, piano-driven ballad featuring what would have been a first for a Prince and the Revolution album: a lead vocal by someone other than The Artist. Lisa Coleman does the honors here while playing the keys, although Prince laid down a guide vocal for her to hear; both versions will be available on the Sign O' the Times super deluxe set.

 

15. "Last Heart"
Found on: Crystal Ball (1998)

This funky track was earmarked for both double album configurations of Dream Factory, but when it was released on Crystal Ball in 1998, it was claimed as a demo. "Usually unheard of in Prince's mind," the liner notes read. "He had always intended on re-recording this track, but never got around 2 it." Still, lo-fi tracks on a Prince album are hardly uncommon.

 

16. "Witness 4 The Prosecution"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

One of Dream Factory's most elusive standout tracks, "Witness 4 The Prosecution" was a down and dirty jam that featured heavy involvement from Wendy & Lisa, who provided backing vocals along with Wendy's sister Susannah. Intended for the fourth side of Dream Factory, Prince entirely re-recorded the track shortly after the Revolution dissolved at one of his many sessions at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles; both make their official debuts as part of the bonus discs in the Sign O' the Times box set.

 

17. "Movie Star"
Found on: Crystal Ball (1998)

An odd diversion midway through Dream Factory's fourth side, the liner notes to 1998's Crystal Ball indicate it was written with The Time in mind, although Morris Day was already making moves as a solo artist by then. Even Prince seems over the caricature he offers here, with the titular star being turned down by bartenders for not having any cash and finding his date asleep when he throws on an "environmental record" to set the mood.

 

18. "The Cross"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (1987)

Another late addition to Dream Factory - the original double album configuration from June 1986 featured "A Place in Heaven" in its place, as this song had yet to be recorded - "The Cross" survived Crystal Ball's paring down to Sign O' the Times. And with good reason: it's a simple, powerful track from an artist who was never afraid to let his spiritual side show.

Read More: Why Did Prince's 'The Cross' Become 'The Christ?'

 

19. "All My Dreams"
Found on: Sign O' the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

Hardly the all-out album closer you'd expect from most Prince albums at the time ("Purple Rain," "International Lover," "Adore"), "All My Dreams" is extended and light-footed, featuring a lead vocal that recalls a vintage radio broadcast. Though its origins date back to the Parade album, which it was once intended to close early on in its assembly in 1985, the track will finally make its official debut as part of the material on the Sign O' the Times box - officially completing another assembly of a lost Prince classic.