67: Nothing Compares 2 U

The Family (1985) / The Hits 1 (1993) / Originals (2019)
The nagging question: which is the definitive version of Nothing Compares 2 U? Is it The Family’s 1985 release or Sinead’s chart-topping cover? Is it the 1993 NPG rendition or Prince’s recently unearthed ‘original’? One Nite Alone as a wildcard? My view’s changed over the years. I used to think The Hits’ live duet with Rosie Gaines was the version because for years it was the only one released by Prince. Then I discovered The Family and what theirs lacked in Princely vocals, gained in being the closest to the original we were likely to get. That is until the posthumous single release in 2018. Finally, the original studio version. That settles the question. Or does it? When you hear gentle stirrings of Fischer’s stings and recognise Leeds’ sax solo you realise this isn’t a pre-Family demo. It’s a recent interpretation of what a final mix would have sounded like. I have no problem with this but can a mix that Prince never heard really be the definitive version? The later bonus Cinematic Mix threw more mud in the water. Too many options. It’s clear to me now that the definitive version is and always has been Sinead O’Connor’s. At the Hop Farm festival in 2011 I heard Prince call it her song, albeit with a wry smile and a knowing look. It may not have been with the same deference as Bob Dylan recognising All Along the Watchtower was now Jimi Hendrix’s and yes, there’s accusations of bad blood, spitting and blows between them but game recognises game. Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2 U when his housekeeper left suddenly for a family emergency. All those flowers she planted in the backyard really did die when she went away. That literally happened. When Sinead sings those lines she isn’t thinking about gardening failure, she’s thinking about her recently deceased mother. It seems unfair to compare Sinead’s tears as she struggles to parse the loss of an allegedly abusive parent with Prince’s guide vocal about temporarily losing the help. It doesn’t compare. Nothing compares. But they’re the only studio vocals we have of his so here we are. It may be controversial, especially as the song’s begun to take on a memorial role since Prince’s death, battling 17 Days and Sometimes it Snows in April for that mantle. But the guy’s got hits to spare. Let the singer who actually made it a hit take this one. And with that question settled I can now at last enjoy his myriad versions without worrying which reps hardest.

118: The Screams of Passion

The Family (1985) / Girl 6 (1996)
The 1996 soundtrack album Girl 6 doesn’t receive much love and it’s not hard to see why. You already own over half if Parade, Sign o’ the Times and The Hits/The B-sides are in your collection, and out of its trio of previously-unreleased songs there’s only one stand-out: She Spoke 2 Me, a track soon eclipsed by an unedited release on The Vault three years later. To me though this album was a gateway portal into a new dimension of the Prince universe. At the time I thought Sheila E and Sheena Easton were the same person and that Vanity 6 and The Family was probably something to do with the film. Little did I know Nasty Girl and The Screams of Passion would become my white rabbit ride into the realm of the Prince protégé. Along with A Love Bizarre, they remain my favourite tracks from that world (I either imprinted on them or Spike Lee cherry-picked the best) and the albums they’re from are still regularly on my turntable. The Family’s debut (and only lp under that band name) may be better known for housing the first released version of Nothing Compares 2 U but Sinéad, Prince and Rosie all do it better. The Screams of Passion is their high water mark. A demo exists with Prince on vocals, but for once the released version is superior. A dizzying, headboard-rocking strings-and-screams-fest that was too raunchy for the album’s printed lyrics which primly replace the word vulva with velvet. It’s one of those songs best heard horizontal. And alone. Nowadays, the Girl 6 album has outlived its purpose – I don’t think I’ve listened to it in almost twenty years – but bringing The Screams of Passion into my life is a kindness I’ll never forget.

133: Desire

Unreleased (1984) / The Family (1985)
Prince often used his satellite projects to experiment with new ideas and directions before incorporating them into his own work. Saxophonist Eric Leeds and composer Clare Fischer made sizeable contributions to the purple catalogue over the years but both debuted on The Family album where they (Fischer especially) are played with like a new toy. A year later with Parade Prince would practise more restraint, leaving the majority of the orchestral overdubs on the cutting room floor – a ruthless fate that should have befallen The Family’s Desire. Their album closer is a beautiful, jazzy, late-night seduction of a soldier’s wife. Dreamlike and highly polished but lacks the fire and rough-cut robustness of the unreleased demo. Prince’s early take is less a song and more a container for Leeds’ saxophone that squeals and claws at the walls like caged desire. There’s a fight in there which gets refined away into coloured sand when later subdued by strings and good taste. It’s raw and messy but so’s life. The fact Prince provides the vocals only helps to enshrine it in my eyes as the definitive version.

362: Mutiny

The Family (1985)
Ostensibly written about the singer taking back control of his own life after a no-good relationship, Prince’s low-in-the-mix shouts out to Morris (and also Jesse in the Prince-sung original) reveal the true thrust behind the lyrics. It’s Prince’s diss-song to those who leave his retinue, particularly Morris Day as the final lines are a direct quote of his from a year previously, when a collection plate was passed around the audience during rehearsal while Morris shouted “Prince are you out there, did you give? You TOOK! Did you give!?” This comment obviously riled Prince as it’s also referenced in the preceding track High Fashion. Things between them only got worse from that point on and when Morris and Jesse jumped ship from the Time, Prince formed The Family from the wreckage. Rescued band members Jellybean, Jerome and Paul were commandeered into new roles with the latter taking charge of the ship’s helm under his new name of St Paul. So it was more Prince reshuffling his remaining deckhands than a genuine mutiny but like Old Friends 4 Sale it was a way to communicate his feeling of betrayal and became a good stick to beat deserters with. As St Paul found out himself when he later left The Family and had an irate Prince dedicating a performance of this song to “Paul, punk of the month”. Mutiny has Morris stamped all over the vocals, making it a particularly poignant missile to throw his way. But without the real deal at times it can sound like a Time pastiche. In an alternate universe a bona fide Time version of this song is rocking the high double digits of this list.