Thirty years ago, Sinéad O’Connor’s cover of an obscure track written by Prince hit number one, becoming one of the greatest singles of the decade and one of the best-known music video scenes ever. Three decades on, it’s still a magnificent masterpiece of emotion that’s lost none of its power.
“It’s been seven hours and fifteen days… since you took your love away.”
What an opener. What a singer. What a song. Beneath the gloriously double-tracked vocals, there’s just the sound of a single synthesized string note, before the drum track kicks in on the seventh line, just as Sinéad O’Connor’s voice becomes an unmistakably Gaelic wail: “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant/ But nothing/ I said nothing can take away these blues.”
With minor hits like the wailing indie-rock splendour of Mandinka (above, produced by former Adam and The Ants bassist Kevin Mooney), Sinéad had been a recording artist for some four years by the time this most emotive of songs gave the singer a bit of a surprise first top ten hit at the start of a new decade in 1990.
Zooming to number one on the UK chart just as January mutated into February, the 45 held the top spot for four weeks, a feat it would repeat on the American Billboard Hot 100, reaching No.1 on 21 April 1990 — 26 years to the day before Prince died — and claimed the No. 3 spot for the year. It would also top the singles charts in a further 13 countries including Australia, The Netherlands and O’Connor’s native Ireland.
Since then, for all its lush restraint and haunting pathos Nothing Compares 2 U has taken on a life of its own, and is now as closely associated with its composer Prince as almost anything he released under his own name. As if anyone needed proof, Rolling Stone placed the song at #165 on the magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, sandwiched between Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Ray Charles’ I Can’t Stop Loving You; on Billboard’s list of a similar name, it came in at #87.
By the mid-‘80s, Prince, between his albums, movies and side projects assembled as outlets for his prolific songwriting abilities, had usurped James Brown’s closely fought title as the hardest-working man in showbusiness. With purple emblazoned irons in so many fires, some of his work naturally fell through the cracks. However, with the help of O’Connor, one of those forgotten tunes eventually became one of his most beloved works.
In 1985, The Family, one of such side projects, put out their first and only album. On it was Nothing Compares 2 U, which, intriguingly, is the only writing credit he claimed on the album under his own name, although, according to PrinceVault, with customary gusto, he penned seven of the LP’s eight songs and played nearly all the instruments.
The song appears as a futuristic soul ballad, with Close Encounters-inspired synth jams and an inspired saxophone solo. It’s an intriguing recording to listen to, but by no means does it sound like a future VH1 staple. Singer Paul “St. Paul” Peterson channels the exaggerated regret of the lyrics—“Tell me baby, where did I go wrong?”—but his delivery is a little too polished, and too deliberate.
As far as feeling bummed out goes, he gives the impression that his weekend has possibly been ruined, but not so much his entire life. “I was told to learn Prince’s inflections, his emotions and the melody line,” Peterson says now, describing how capturing the song’s themes of loss and abandonment meant he had to go “deep”. “So I thought about a girl called Julie, who broke my heart in high school.”
Prince drew his inspiration for the song from Sandy Scipioni, who’d been his personal assistant in 1980, until she left suddenly following her father’s death. Despite the general tenor of the lyrics, the two were said to have not been romantically involved.
Both the Family recording and Prince original it was based on were tracked in mid July 1984 (the same week Let’s Go Crazy was released as a single) at the Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse, a huge converted rehearsal space on the outskirts of Minneapolis that served as a makeshift studio with his sound engineer, Susan Rogers witnessing the Purple One on “a creative roll, cranking out a song a day,” until he built Paisley Park 15 minutes away. Susannah Melvoin and Peterson later overdubbed vocals, while Clare Fischer added orchestral overdubs.
The track, like the band’s LP, received little attention, and Prince’s own take was added to his already considerable vault of unreleased recordings—until 2018 at least—as he quickly became occupied by the making of his next film, Under The Cherry Moon and attendant album Parade. Though he couldn’t have imagined the drama that would later ensue, all with Nothing Compares 2 U at its root.
The promotional clip, 30 years later, is almost as recognisable as the song itself: unrivalled in music video history when it comes to raw emotion, even though it conjures up images of soft-focus karaoke backing tracks and a million drunken vocal renditions of heartbreak.
The camera scans over a road flanked on either side by tall trees, while a figure clad in black walks across the screen. Then there’s a misty shot of a bridge, a couple of pigeons flap their wings, and Sinéad O’Connor’s face comes into focus: shorn, oval-eyed, seemingly disembodied, but completely and utterly transfixing as she sings about her various states of grief.
She’s angry, guttural; she practically snarls at the camera and seethes as she recalls a doctor’s foolhardy advice to go out and try to have fun, but a few seconds later she’s desolate again, almond-eyed and hollow. She casts her eyes down at the ground then looks up again, half confrontational, half lost. Wearing a black turtleneck, and against a black backdrop, her head appears to be floating. When she sings, “Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling,” the passivity of the statement aches. Then, the “nothing” of the chorus is emphasised and bisected as she jumps an octave, underscoring its emptiness.
Then, around the 3:20 mark, after a few shots of O’Connor skulking around Paris in an overcoat, something extraordinary happens. As she sings, “All the flowers that you planted, Mama, in the back yard, they all died and withered away,” two tears well in her eyelids and fall slowly down her face. “I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard,” she yelps, “but I’m willing to give it another try.” In her own words:
“The closeup of me singing Nothing Compares 2 U was supposed to be only one part of the video. But the song reminded me of my mother, who had died three years previously… I made an emotional connection, which I was not expecting — it didn’t hit me when I was recording the song. It only kicked in when I was being filmed. So I was sitting there, thinking about me mother, and trying hard not to bawl my eyes out.”
At the time, there were rumours that O’Connor was dating Prince. That was, when another possible suitor wasn’t paying her daily visits during the recording of the attendant album. Co-producer Chris Birkett, who took over the Sinéad sessions from Nellee Hooper, picks up the story.
“Every day, this guy in sunglasses used to come into the studio and sit at the back of the control room. He never introduced himself and I wondered who the hell he was, until I finally asked his name and he responded, ‘Peter Gabriel’. He and Sinéad appeared to be spending a lot of time together, so who knows?”
“I still think she was crying about (her ex-boyfriend/manager) Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, but maybe she was crying about Peter Gabriel or she could even have been crying about Prince. Whoever it was, she was upset about someone and that’s why she put everything into the song as well as into the video. It was the video that really broke the song, because the BBC dropped it and it was on its way out of the charts when the video came out and everything went ballistic.”
The worldwide success of Nothing Compares 2 U seemed to throw O’Connor for a loop. “I loved his music, but I had absolutely no idea or expectation that that single would be such a big hit, not at all,” she told one interviewer.
As quickly as the song rose to popularity, she became uncomfortable with the attention. Though her recording earned the singer a Grammy in 1991, Sinéad boycotted the ceremony and refused the award, saying it was protest against the extreme commercialism the Grammys represented.
Prince, meanwhile, had no such qualms and immediately began adding the track to his live sets, where it remained in regular rotation. In 1992, he captured a duet performance of it with Rosie Gaines (recorded in front of an invited Paisley Park audience of 200 that included future US president and orange ogre Donald Trump), later released on The Hits album that reached No. 62 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Then in 2002, he released another live version on his first live album One Nite Alone… Live! The Minneapolis marvel had played it live as recently as the week prior to his death.
Furthermore, it turns out that the Dublin dame and the Minneapolis marvel didn’t get on well at all. According to her, they “detested” each other, partially because of his distaste for her swearing in public. She told a bemused Norwegian radio station…
“He summoned me to his house after Nothing Compares 2 U. I made it without him. I’d never met him. He summoned me to his house — and it’s foolish to do this to an Irish woman — he said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. So I told him to fuck off,” “He got quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at five in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine.”
Though it’s certainly true that he was incredibly possessive of his compositions, and didn’t approve any re-recordings and reinterpretations he wasn’t personally involved with, you don’t have to read very deeply into the lyrics of his 1994 track Days Of Wild to see that Prince disputed Sinéad’s account of their encounter. In it, he sang, “A woman every day should be thanked / Not disrespected, not raped or spanked / And if a woman ever said I did / She’s a motherfucking liar and I’m a set-up kid.”
Nothing Compares 2 U and its predecessor Jump In The River, co-written with former Adam & The Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni were included on O’Connor’s sophomore album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.
Buoyed by the success of the single the LP shot straight in at No.1 in March 1990, beating off competition from David Bowie’s greatest hits set ChangesBowie* by the closest of margins, though he only had to wait seven days and zero hours to climb the summit and knock her off her perch.
Nothing Compares 2 U made an understated ballad out of a funk-pop song, and a star out of its singer, who enhanced her notoriety two years later when she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, causing an incandescent Frank Sinatra to declare that he was going to “kick her ass.”
Sinéad has never quite managed to emulate its success, even though she’s recorded eight albums since. In 2015, she stated on Facebook that she wouldn’t be performing the song anymore, saying “I finally ran out of anything I could use in order to bring some emotion to it.”
And that’s her prerogative, because even if O’Connor may or may not not sing it anymore, the recording is ultimately timeless—a confession of pain that defies its saccharine lyrics to offer instead an example of the power of interpretation, which enshrined the song as one of the great emotionally honest pop performances of the 20th century.
BONUS: *Here’s the British telly advert for the ChangesBowie album, conceived in the US by Jeff Rougvie at Rykodisc, released in the UK by EMI and voiced by Radio 1 DJ Johnnie Walker. Ironically, Nothing Compares 2 U was issued by Ensign Records on Bowie’s birthday, 8 January 1990, but would be bought by EMI later the same year.