Story of the song: Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor

Face to face: O’Connor in the unforgettable video for her No 1 hit  (Chrysalis)
Face to face: O’Connor in the unforgettable video for her No 1 hit (Chrysalis)

Not many careers have been launched with a tear. Sinead O’Connor shot to No 1 when her video for “Nothing Compares 2 U” first aired on MTV at the dawn of the Nineties. As O’Connor sang, face to camera, her eyes welled, especially around the lines: “All the flowers that you planted, Mama, in the backyard / All died when you went away.” The words had particular resonance for O’Connor, who as a child had suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of her mother. “It was an emotional thing for me,” said O’Connor. “My mother was an extremely violent person. Someone who wasn’t well.” O’Connor’s mother was killed in a car accident in the mid-Eighties. By 1990, the abuse was still difficult for O’Connor to come to terms with. The video for “Nothing Compares 2 U” was something of a cathartic experience for the Irish singer.

In tears of defiance, O’Connor converted one of Prince’s half-forgotten cast-offs into the decade’s first memorable chart topper. The song first appeared in 1985, as a track on The Family, the eponymous debut by a Paisley Park collective formed from the remnants of an earlier Prince band called The Time. Central to The Family was Prince’s girlfriend of the moment, Susannah Melvoin. With her in mind, the Purple One penned a love song, “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Complete with a cathedral-like synthesiser and a piercing, Eighties-standard saxophone break, the track was recorded in the summer of 1984. The Family lacked Prince’s full commitment, however – the singer viewing the side project largely as a way of keeping Melvoin by his side. When the album finally appeared the following year, Prince had moved on to other things and no one took much notice of its sleeping giant.

Five years on, O’Connor gained a Grammy for her classic cover – recorded, with the help of the producer Nellee Hooper for her album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. It was an opportunity to meet the song’s composer. She was duly invited to Prince’s house in Los Angeles where, according to O’Connor, he berated her for using four-letter words in interviews. She claimed that she swore at him and that he reacted badly to this. “I ended up having to escape... All I could do was spit. I spat on him quite a bit.”

Prince remained silent about the incident but, spurred by O’Connor’s global hit with his song, included it in his live act, even releasing a live duet with Rosie Gaines, recorded on the Diamonds and Pearls tour in the early Nineties. This version surpasses the original 1984 recording and, arguably, even O’Connor’s cover. Prince had warmed to the song after letting it languish in his back catalogue for several years, but O’Connor found it a difficult song to revisit: “I love it and I love singing it, but I’m afraid to sing it,” she admitted.