Some of the most iconic pop and rock songs of the past half century have been covers. These two weeks, I will take a look at these classics and their overshadowed originals.
Among iconic covers that are more popular than their originals, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is pretty well-known. I’ve seen it cited dozens of times that she was covering a Prince song. Aside from O’Connor’s tearful music video, the fact that “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a Prince cover is probably what is best-known about the song.
But it’s not true! Well, not entirely. It’s complicated.
I was startled to read recently that “Nothing Compares 2 U” was actually first performed by The Family, a funk band managed and produced by Prince. He wrote all of their music, including “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But he didn’t record the initial version of the song. He released a duet version with Rosie Gaines in 1993 and a live solo version in 2000, both after O’Connor’s 1990 smash.
The original by The Family came off of their 1985 self-titled album, a deep cut that would have been little more than a piece of errata for Prince fanatics had O’Connor never reinvented it.
Here’s where things get sticky, though: Just a couple weeks ago, the Prince estate released a recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that they claim Prince recorded and produced in 1984, a year before The Family released it. This reframes the narrative: Did Prince, in fact, record the first fully-formed version of the song?
Color me suspicious: I believe that he recorded and produced bits of this in 1984. But ithe newly-released track sounds so clean and polished and modern, I’m skeptical that what we’re hearing is a full-Prince original. Plus, it sounds so different from The Family’s version he produced just a year later.
Did the Prince estate truly release it, as-is, from the vaults? Or did it get touched up by someone else to make it sound fresher?
Regardless of whether this new find is an “authentic” Prince cut, can we assign his version full credit? Sure, he recorded it first. But he never released it; it wiled away in the vaults for 35 years.
And so we’re left with three versions of the song with some claim to being the “true,” canonical version: Prince’s, the first recorded and produced (supposedly). The Family’s, the first released. And O’Connor’s, the first version that anyone other than a few thousand hardcore Prince fans heard.
Among the three, O’Connor’s is by far my favorite. I’ll go even further: This is one of my favorite songs of all time, and perhaps my favorite vocal performance from any pop or rock song. O’Connor is in total control, imbuing pain and longing into every second. She’s a virtuoso here, elevating the song without ever calling undue attention to her performance. Extraneous flourishes are excised; every note — every warble and sigh — is essential and wrenching.
In second place, I’ll take’s Prince’s just-released 1984* version of the song. It’s gripping. Less than anguished loneliness, Prince conveys a punch-drunk sense of shock at his loss. This honestly fits the lyrics better. Muscular stabs of guitar pierce the surface, adding to the sense of disorientation. The sax sounds a bit out of place, but just about everything else works.
The Family’s 1985 original, though, sounds mushy and limp to me. The background synths are all over the place: one moment astringent, the next melodramatic, the next melancholic. There’s a seed of a good song, perhaps a production experiment — but it doesn’t translate in any emotional way.
Despite the somewhat convoluted history of the song, the basic story is clear: Prince or his side band originated the song. O’Connor owns it.
A few more thoughts on the song, Prince, and O’Connor:
- I’ve never been a Prince nut, but he’s been growing on me the past few years. Prolific, weird, fascinating, experimental. More than anything, though, he’s cool. I’ve never seen a picture or video of prince and NOT thought “that’s a cool-ass dude.”
- My favorite Prince video comes from a 2004 tribute to George Harrison. An all star cast of white dudes perform a decent but rote rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Prince lingers in the shadows of the stage, nearly invisible. A few minutes in, we get a glimpse of him. “Who’s that dude in the red hat?” Then he steps into the limelight and plays the band out with an incredible, searing solo that instantly raises the performance two notches. Fantastic.
- O’Connor’s music video for “Nothing Compares” is one of the great videos of the ’90s. The majority of the video is nothing more than her staring down the camera with intensity. Menace, almost. It matches the direct emotional line of the song perfectly.
- O’Connor has been a controversial figure through the years. Her most famous moment came in 1992 when she performed a haunting a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” on SNL. In the closing seconds of the song she emphasizes the word “evil” and pulls out a picture of Pope John Paul II. “Fight the real enemy,” she proclaims, tearing the picture to shreds. All of this before John Paul II’s insufficient response to child abuse came to light as a major scandal. The backlash against O’Connor was huge. But the performance is breathtaking: The quiet you hear in the video’s closing seconds is not from an empty room, but a speechless audience.
- I highly recommend you read O’Connor’s Wikipedia page. She’s had a fascinating, often troubled life. She’s always fought for her beliefs and individuality, even when it was inconvenient.