Following the sudden passing of Sinéad O’Connor attention is geared to the song Nothing Compares 2 U and the relationship Prince and Sinéad O’Connor had to the song and each other.
In The Netherlands the Sinéad O’Connor single Nothing Compares 2 U reached the first position in the charts. An outburst of pure emotion, both musically and vocally, with a video to back it up, the song was the go-to song of 1990. And it wasn’t just The Netherlands, millions and millions of copies were sold worldwide.
The general public regarded it as a Sinéad O’Connor song, but, given the son’s title, it soon became clear it was in fact a Prince song (not that the public cared too much). The “2” instead of “to” and the “U” instead of “you” were trademark Prince.
But, where was the Prince version, and where was it to be found in 1990? Nowhere, because it was released on the fantastic 1985 debut album by Prince protégés The Family. By 1990 the album wasn’t readily available anymore.
Mid 1984 Prince and his organization were working in overdrive. The single When Doves Cry was released on May 16 as a precursor to the soundtrack, movie and tour Purple Rain. Op June 25 the soundtrack was released, on July 26 followed by the movie premiere. Rehearsals for the tour had started and the albums by The Time (Ice Cream Castle) and the debut by Sheila E. (The Glamourous Life) had also been released, with final touches being done on the upcoming Apollonia 6 album.
But, that wasn’t all. The next Prince album, Around The World In A Day, was well under way, B-sides were recorded, remixes were done for upcoming singles and Prince had started recordings for a new, yet to be constructed, group called The Family. In the meantime Prince visited the Born In The U.S.A. Tour by Bruce Springsteen and the Victory tour by The Jacksons. The day after seeing the latter was July 15, the day Nothing Compares 2 U was written and recorded.
Engineer Susan Rogers: “I was amazed how beautiful it was. He took his notebook and he went off to the bedroom, wrote the lyrics very quickly, came back out and sang it”. As was his modus operandi, Prince recorded the song by himself, aided by Rogers who operated the recording devices. Two days later Eric Leeds was asked to add saxophone to the recordings.
It’s not entirely clear what (or whom) the song is about. In a 2018 broadcast of the BBC6 Music program Susan Rogers said that she assumed the lyrics were about Prince’s housekeeper Sandy Scipioni, who had recently resigned after her father’s passing. Rogers: “Sandy was the person who made sure he had his favourite beverage, which was Five Alive, and she made sure the house was clean, and that there were fresh flowers on the piano, and that the socks and underwear were washed. She had been gone and Prince’s mood was getting darker and darker. He would just ask, ‘When is Sandy coming back?’ That might have been the inspiration for the song”. Asked if the song was about her, Susannah Melvoin, Prince’s love interest at the time, replied that it was a possibility, but not a given. She didn’t want to confirm. Around the time of the release of The Family‘s album Jerome Benton stated that Prince had written the song for him, following the dissolvement of Benton’s engagement.
The Family version
The song became part of the The Family project. The original recordings were altered (the drums were discarded, as were Prince’s vocals). The lead vocals were done by Susannah Melvoin and St. Paul Peterson, the future leaders of the great project The Family. On the album the song weas credited to St. Paul Peterson, even though the song is a Prince composition.
The project The Family and its album soon faded into oblivion, and Nothing Compares 2 U with it.
Sinéad O’Connor version
Late 1987 Sinéad O’Connor’s impressive debut album The Lion And The Cobra was released, which immediately led to great success, especially in Europe, where the singles Troy and Mandinka fared pretty well. In the US O’Connor received her first Grammy nomination. In 1988 she toured the European festivals and left an indelible mark.
For her next album, her manager suggested she cover an unknown Prince song. O’Connor was up for the idea, as she admired both the artist and the composer. Upon hearing Nothing Compares 2 U she was immediately sold to the idea. It touched a nerve on a deeper level. To her, it signified the (extremely complicated and violent) relationship to her mother.
With Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper, O’Connor re-arranged the song, filled it with synthesizers, brought back the drums and got rid of the more baroque motifs. Two months before the release of her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got the single Nothing Compares 2 U was released in January of 1990. It shot up the charts all over Europe and the UK. In February the song was at the top of most of the charts (in The Netherlands it held the first spot for 8 consecutive weeks). In April the song also reached the first position in the American Billboard charts, where it would stay for 4 weeks.
It was abundantly clear: Sinéad O’Connor touched a global audience, where Prince had failed to do so with The Family. O’Connor put her heart and soul into her vocals, and it hit a nerve worldwide.
An important element in the song’s success was the accompanying video. In the video Sinéad O’Connor walks through an autumn like Parc de Saint-Cloud in Paris. Those images are intertwined with an intimate close-up of Sinéad O’Connor’s face, oftentimes directly staring into the camera, while singing the song. Near the end she breaks when singing “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard / All died when you went away/ I know that living with you, baby, was sometimes hard / But I’m willing to give it another try”. O’Connor: “I didn’t know I was going to cry when I sang in the video because I didn’t cry in the studio recording it. Every time I sing that song I think of my mother. I never stop crying for my mother. I couldn’t face being in Ireland for 13 years because of it”.
Next to the overwhelming commercial success, O’Connor won award after award, including a Grammy and multiple MTV Video Music Awards.
Future Prince versions
Obviously, Prince noticed the success also. That very same year he started playing Nothing Compare 2 U live on the Nude Tour, that premiered on June 2, 1990, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The song was played on nearly every major tour ever since. On September 10, 1993, the first version (a Prince And The New Power Generation live recording) bearing the Prince moniker was released on the first Prince compilation The Hits(/The B-Sides). On November 24, 2002, it was part of the first Prince live album One Nite Alone… Live!. Ever since, it has found its way to many compilation albums.
On April 19, 2018, (2 years after Prince’s untimely passing) the original 1984 Prince recording (with some minor changes) was released as a digital single, later followed by the release on a physical format. It was also part of the posthumously released Originals album.
Prince and Sinéad O’Connor (1)
But what was Prince’s opinion on the matter? It’s widely known that Prince didn’t like others doing his songs. In January 2013 he said: “I do pay performance royalties on others’ songs I perform live, but I’m not recording these songs and putting them up for sale. Why do we need to hear another cover of a song someone else did? Art is about building a new foundation, not just laying something on top of what’s already there”. The statement in itself is fine and a great one to live by, but Prince bypasses the fact that he had actually released covers (let alone record them) under his own name, including Honky Tonk Woman (The Rolling Stones), House Of Brick (Brick House) (The Commodores), Betcha By Golly Wow! (The Stylistics), Can’t Make U Love Me (Bonnie Raitt), La, La, La Means Love U (The Delfonics), One Of Us (Joan Osborne), A Case Of U (Joni Mitchell) and Crimson And Clover (Tommy James And The Shondells). He also released several live cover versions on various NPHG Ahdio shows and streaming channels.
But, in this case, he apparently stated he was excited about it. The remark that the royalties had helped him secure several houses, seems an indication that Prince did acknowledge the upside of it all. However, the fact that the cover was recorded and released without his involvement, and the fact that that was even possible in the first place, must have stung him. He obviously tried to cash in on the song’s sudden success by incorporating the song in his setlist for the 1990 Nude Tour.
Prince and Sinéad O’Connor (2)
On July 26, 1988, Sinéad O’Connor was at one of the Prince aftershows he played while on the road for Lovesexy, at the Camden Palace in London. She met Prince’s then manager Steve Fargnoli. O’Connor had just cut ties with her manager. Soon after, Fargnoli would take over as O’Connor’s manager, a role he would fulfill until his early death in 2001. In 1989 Fargnoli was fired as Prince’s manager, ultimately leading to lawsuits between Fargnoli and his former client. Some claim that it was Fargnoli who suggested recording Nothing Compares 2 U to O’Connor.
Prince and Sinéad O’Connor (3)
On January 24, 1991, the first reports (following an interview with the Irish Hot Press in December 1990) appear in the American Rolling Stone about O’Connor and Prince meeting each other. It was a total disaster. According to O’Connor Prince felt that she cursed (too much) and claimed that Prince physically threatened her, locked her in his house, hit her with weighed down pillows, followed her when she managed to escape and that Duane Nelson, Prince’s brother, who was constantly belittled by Prince, was the one who seemed genuinely concerned for her. Later that same year, she confirmed the story and stated: “It spoiled the song completely for me. I feel a connection with the song, but the experience was a very disturbing one”. In her 2021 biography she closes the tale with “I never want to see that devil again”.
According to the Januari 24, 1991 Rolling Stone article, Prince denied the story.
Prince and Sinéad O’Connor (4)
In 2022 the documentary Nothing Compares was produced and broadcast. The documentary follows Sinéad O’Connor’s life. Of course, Nothing Compares 2 U is a big part of that. The producers asked for permission to use the song and were denied. Prince’s sister Sharon Nelson to Billboard in September 2022: “Nothing compares to Prince’s live version with Rosie Gaines that is featured on the Hits 1 album. I didn’t feel Sinéad deserved to use the song my brother wrote in her documentary so we declined. His version is the best”.
Prince and Sinéad O’Connor (opinion)
Whether it’s true or not what Sinéad O’Connor states happened in her meeting with Prince, we’ll never know for sure. All three attendees have now passed on. From 1990 onwards, O’Connor stuck to her story end repeated it when asked. In general, the story isn’t considered to be very credible, but a major contributing factor to that are the mental health issues O’Connor struggled with for her entire life.
I don’t know what is true and what is not. What I do know is the unrelenting hatred by some so-called Prince fans claiming they know she lied, she would have never become what she was without Prince and they are (therefore) happy she’s dead. It is utterly sad that people actually think that way, and feel that it’s okay to actually say and type these absurd thoughts. All it shows is a complete lack of empathy and civilization.
Also, the argument that Prince isn’t able to defend himself now that he’s dead, is moronic. O’Connor went public almost immediately after it’s supposedly took place. They must have met somewhere between wrapping up the Nude Tour and December 1990 (when O’Connor first went public with the story). O’Connor has always told the same story, increasing its credibility. Prince has officially denied the story to be true.
The story seems to be off balance in regards to the experiences of many, many other women Prince held long term (professional) relationships with. The main difference of course is that O’Connor wasn’t a Prince discovered artist or would accept guidance from him. More sternly, she made it very clear this wasn’t the case (“I don’t work for you. If you don’t like it, you can fuck yourself”). Who knows what that might have triggered.
The decision of the Prince Estate to withhold the rights for using Nothing Compares 2 U in the documentary is nothing more than childish. They also don’t know what really went down between both artists. Besides, the remark “His version is the best” is simply wrong.
At times songs are better executed by others than the original artists, like Otis Redding’s Respect performed by Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower performed by Jimi Hendrix (Experience), The Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends performed by Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary performed by Ike And Tina Turner, Ed Cobb’s Tainted Love performed by Soft Cell, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah performed by Jeff Buckley or The Zutons’ Valerie performed by Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse.
Just like Chaka Kahn’s version of Prince’s I Feel For You, Sinéad O’Connor’s performance of Nothing Compares 2 U belongs in that list. Both the versions of The Family and the 3 released under the Prince moniker, can’t live up to O’Connor’s version. Prince wrote it, but it’s O’Connor that breathes life into it and turns it into an emotional experience that touched many on a global scale. In May 2021 O’Connor stated in an interview with The New York Times: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s my song”. She’s not far removed from the truth.
What do you think about Nothing Compares 2 U? What version do you prefer? Maybe it’s the Chris Cornell version or Aretha Franklin’s? Let me know, I would love to hear it!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Nothing Compares 2 U: Prince and Sinéad O’Connor. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.