21: How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore

1999 single (1982) / The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
During one of the moon landings, an astronaut dropped a feather and a hammer to show they would hit the ground at the same time. They still lie on the lunar surface in the same place they landed 50 years ago.

In How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore Prince shares the same level of remote abandonment as that single falcon feather, 240,000 miles away from the nearest falcon. He too has been dropped into a cold deserted landscape, and lies discarded next to the only object connecting him to the world he once knew – in his case, the stubbornly silent phone. Nothing exists for him except heartbreak and the increasingly unlikely remedy.

Prince pours overwhelming loss into every corner of this classic B-side. He takes the chord progression from Heart and Soul and tears holes in it, twisting it up in knots. His voice, thrown through the wringer and broken in several places, runs the gamut from wistful remembrance to the tortured scream of a soul in purgatory. The only thing grounding the swelling vortex of pain and stopping it from swallowing everything in sight, is the sound of his foot stomping a rudimentary beat, and a finger-click during the first mention of the title that briefly snaps him out of his wallow.

In early performances, Prince ramped up the feeling of loss by opening up new chasms of silence. 1999 Super Deluxe included a DVD of an 1982 performance where he breaks off from the song and mutely lies down on his piano, pounding the top in impotent frustration. During both live recordings on this release, lyrics get abandoned mid-line and the piano drops out completely for half the song’s duration, leaving us with a sole tambourine metronome and an acapella chant of “how come u don’t call me”, while Prince whips up the crowd into a raw screaming mess. We’re beyond the orbit of entertainment at this point and entering the realm of scream therapy.

Later performances, although similarly structured, lose this searing build up and catharsis. The full band treatment on One Nite Alone… Live puts on a show but the spaces are filled with saxophone and panache, leaving no room for the churning ache of heartbreak. Some of the tricks remain – like when he screams into the mic and leaves the echo reverberating around the hall for an eternity, but when the band comes back in they add a capital G to the loss felt in the original. I’m sure it sounded incredible in the moment, but home alone, on headphones, it can’t touch the very first transmissions from Prince’s pit of despair. 

In 2019, the gods bestowed us with a second studio take. This unexpected gift actually has a proper ending instead of a fade out, offering a resolution its predecessor refuses to provide. It’s neither better nor worse, but its appearance was like discovering Da Vinci made another painting of Mona Lisa from a different angle. On rainy nights I keep a fire lit that a third take may one day walk through the door. That may seem greedy but my yearning has to be directed somewhere and the phone stopped calling with newly-recorded material many years ago.

44: Pink Cashmere

The Hits 1 (1993)

Anna Fantastic isn’t the only person claiming to be the inspiration for Pink Cashmere, but she is the muse for whom it will always be associated. She first heard it in 1988 on her 18th birthday, playing in the background of Prince’s house when he gave her a personalised coat of pink cashmere and black mink, along with a cassette of a different song he had written for her called Anna Waiting. She recalls she never recieved a copy of Pink Cashmere, recorded six months previously, and a little over a year later she left his orbit, not hearing the song again until it appeared on her radio out of the blue in 1993 – a single to promote his forthcoming Hits compilation. This greatest hits package included Pink Cashmere as one of four ‘new’ songs, all four beginning with the same letter. Unintended coincidence? Or a flex to show how much unreleased music he has in the vault that he only need open the P drawer? Whether there were other girls and other coats (Carmen Elektra claims to have one) is a matter for the gossip hounds but there is one important person to whom we know Prince gave the song after Anna left Minneapolis – the composer Clare Fischer, who annointed it with orchestral strings, gracing it with a class that the actual coat could never attain. His involvement starts subtly – dipping in and out of crystal blue rock-pools of acoustic guitar and drum machine. A playful ballet. As the track builds, the choreography intesifies and towards the end the orchestra find a new dance partner in the arrival of Prince’s axe. When the electric guitar and strings begin diving in and out of each other, they become the warp and weft of a loom weaving the greatest ballad this side of Adore. A tapestry to make Athena herself jealous. Maybe it’s out of goddess spite that Pink Cashmere was never given a proper home. It was considered for both the abandoned Rave Unto the Joy Fantasic album and Grafitti Bridge, but instead had to live in the shop window of The Hits and the Spike Lee playlist of Girl 6. Even the single bombed, with the newly-nameless Prince refusing to get behind his old material. For further ignominy, a reggae remix was made – a true abomination of a track, which I refuse to believe he’s behind but if so it was surely an act of sabotage. Luckily this monstrosity was never released commercially. Maybe Pink Cashmere’s greatest insult was to see a pastiche, Beck’s (admittedly great) Debra, become more well known and loved, despite not even being released as a single. Because I never play the compilations, Pink Cashmere sits in storage, rarely touched, but on days like today when I remember, I pull it out and marvel at the handiwork. Here I go again, falling in love all over. I wonder if Anna does the same to the coat. Although, having seen the photos, probably not. I’m sure it’s a treasured memento and all, but let’s just say the garment doesn’t share the song’s timeless appeal.

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.

152: Peach

The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
It may over-ripen by the umpteenth listen but for the first dozen bites, Peach is the juiciest fruit in the 12-bar blues tree. Like Zannalee, recorded a year later, it follows a tried and tested format so Prince holds your (and his) attention with a cavalcade of comic sound effects and Kim Basinger’s moan every four beats (sampled from the Scandalous Sex Suite). Peach is shallow and dumb – the polar opposite to his follow-up single, the rich and respectful The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (the Jessica Rabbit to Peach’s Roger). But I know which I’d rather be blindsided by on a dance floor.

222: Power Fantastic

Unreleased (1986) / The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
Originally a Wendy & Lisa composition called Carousel, Prince changed the lyrics and recorded Power Fantastic in one take, intending it to be used on the ill-fated Dream Factory album. Eric Leeds said the session gave him goosebumps and revealed the band all felt they had taken part in something special. You can see why. Even in recorded form, hidden on the end of a three-disc compilation, the song has a mystical quality. Sublime and fragile as the fire of life itself, its qualities are difficult to pin down. I’m sure many would feature this in their top 20 Prince songs. It certainly has the potential to get there for me, but at the moment I can only enjoy it on a cerebral level. I sense it has restorative properties beyond my ken, and – like a court reprieve or the handhold of a bystander while the paramedics arrive – it needs to be lived to be fully appreciated. But until the time comes to pull this particular bottle of tonic down from the shelf, it’s good to know it’s there waiting – its essence in reserve like a tree in winter.

257: Pope

The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
It’s hard for me to believe now but there was a time when Pope was one of my favourite tracks off his Hits compilation. It had everything my teenage self craved: catchy chorus; hip-hop beat; sweary samples; rapping that didn’t suck; dick jokes; plus the added allure of being new and unreleased. The song, originally created for Glam Slam Ulysses, may not have weathered the years as well as most of the others on the 1993 compilation, but when the nineties sound becomes en vogue again Pope’s going to king it like a papal boss. Time is a loop is a loop is a loop is a loop is a loop huh!