NOW 18: Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U

There are nine catalogue songs on NOW 18, which soundtracked spring and summer 1990. The huge hits of that period included a first number one for an original Paul Heaton composition. A Little Time is a tender track which Paul doesn’t sing on. Co-writer Dave Rotheray says how he needs ‘a little time to think it over’ while Briana Corrigan snaps back about sour milk and big heads and ‘the freedom that you wanted back is yours for good’. As a small child, I loved this song and as a small adult I still do, with its gentle piano and soft horns. It seems timeless, and it is.

Other songs sound like 1990, with all the synthetic beats and keyboard lines that dominated the era. Elton John’s Sacrifice has dated terribly, as has the Belinda Carlisle power-pop banger (We Want) The Same Thing.

I will always remember Dave Grohl’s South By South West Festival keynote address, where he spoke about the mixing board used at Van Nuys Studio aka Sound City. In 1990, he said witheringly, the number one group in America was made up of the kids of the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys: ‘Wilson Flipping Phillips’ (he didn’t say flipping). Thus came grunge, of which more later. In any case, I was on holiday in the US when Bridesmaids came to cinemas. Hold On is used in the final scene, exactly 20 years after the song came out. It’s the 20-Year Cycle in full effect…

In other power ballad news, Swedes Roxette stepped into the ABBA void with the key-change-tastic It Must Have Been Love. It was used in the film Pretty Woman, about a happy hooker, which was my English teacher Chris Roseblade’s favourite film (‘You seen Pretty Woman, yeah?’). I always loved The La’s, even though their track There She Goes was about taking drugs and their singer Lee Mavers (who wrote the songs) has spent 30 years not following up There She Goes, probably because he was too cynical for pop music and because Alex Turner hadn’t been invented yet.

Before I dwell on all the catalogue, here are some other evergreen songs which were big in the second half of 1990. Something Happened On the Way to Heaven by Phil Collins has great drums and is really catchy, and it has a key change. It’s My Life by Talk Talk was the poppiest moment from the band whose album Spirit of Eden was a key influence on the sound of Guy Garvey and his band Elbow. Englishman in New York, featuring the fantastic Branford Marsalis on saxophone, was Sting’s  description of Quentin Crisp, the gay Englishman. The best bit is the drum break.

Thanks to a great video of the band in a wardrobe, The Cure had a brass-assisted hit with Close To Me. As for Step Back in Time by Kylie Minogue, try not to dance to it or feel better listening to the chorus (‘Ball of confusion where nothing is new!’). It’s one of the great SAW tracks. INXS were still channelling Chic on Suicide Blonde, a song which included both the colour of singer Michael Hutchence’s wife’s hair and his method of death in 1997.

And so to the catalogue. One does reach beyond the original: Suzanne Vega’s track Tom’s Diner was remixed by DNA, who looped something fun on top of the folk song that Suzanne performed in the clubs of New York in the 1980s. With this song, Luka and Marlene on the Wall she became a global star, and in the 2010s reclaimed her copyrights and put out new versions of hits. The original of Tom’s Diner was a capella, but is her signature song even without DNA’s loop. Neneh Cherry, meanwhile, gave us her interpretation of I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

Was the world crying out for a cod-reggae version of Bob Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight featuring soulful white guy Robert Palmer and ragamuffin Brummies UB40? Was the same world desperate to hear a medley, or ‘Megamix’, of Technotronic’s four hits to date? Was anyone prepared for Bombalurina using wacky TV presenter Timmy Mallett on a cover of the novelty song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini? If you answered any of those questions ‘yes’, then NOW 18 is the compilation for you! If you also like the old Steve Miller Band song The Joker, the even older standard Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers (used in the movie Ghost) and the old Bee Gees song To Love Somebody covered by Jimmy Somerville, keep listening.

Then comes MC Hammer. U Can’t Touch This was rap’s big moment in 1990, birthing the phrase ‘STOP…Hammer Time!’ MC Hammer was bankrupt within six years, proving that the right sort of people should only become famous; he is still alive, but is he performing his cover of the Chi-Lites song Have You Seen Her? (Fun fact 1: His real name is Stanley Burrell. No, I never thought to look up his real name either! Fun fact 2: Because of the rise of downloading in the 2000s, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em will always remain the biggest selling hiphop album of all time, selling 22m copies. Did you buy one?!)

In Sylvia Patterson’s epochal I’m Not With The Band, her memoir about thirty years writing from the frontline of music journalism, she quotes Sinead O’Connor in 2014 despising the way female musicians are more about the look than the sound: ‘If you get your tits out you’re a maverick.’ Sinead, who has had horrific struggles with mental illness, was a pivotal singer and activist in an era where Morrissey, Damon Albarn and Paul Heaton (to name three men) were constantly giving journalists good quotes to drive people to their music. Ditto John ‘Johnny Rotten’ Lydon, whose second band Public Image Ltd are on NOW 18 with Don’t Ask Me.

Sinead, Sylvia applauded in the digital era, was ‘a well-known public figure having a strident opinion about anything, the infinite freedom of our digital age having become, ironically, a simultaneous opportunity for infinite suffocation…so often running on fear: of public humilation’ and scandal. This is less the age of Smash Hits (the magazine Sylvia for which used to write), more an age of celebrities being smashed to bits. Sylvia’s recollections will be scattered throughout this series, since She Was There.

In 1990, Sinead O’Connor took on a Prince song, written for The Family in 1983. The Purple One gave away Manic Monday to The Bangles and wrote prolifically for several female singers including future Pussycat Doll Carmen Electra. Yet Sinead had found the song herself and released her version, which topped the UK, Canadian, Australian, German, Swedish and US charts among others.

The song remains brilliant, thirty years on from its release. The video is what everyone remembers, Sinead crying real tears with a shaven head, but every time Magic or Heart play the song, it takes the listener back to the first time they heard it. Flowers dying in the back yard, ‘seven hours and fifteen days’ since Sinead lost her lover, her desire to ‘give it another try’. Celtic soul from a great artist who made a Prince song her own, like Tom Jones did with Kiss.

Again, I must add that when Pop History is written, Prince will be number one by a mile. He redefined pop music with a singular, purple vision, and there will be nobody like him (though Janelle Monae is giving it a good try!). Indeed, when Prince put out his own live version of the track, I wonder how many listeners thought he was covering Sinead. The production of her version was by Sinead and Nellee Hooper, who went on to produce Blue Lines for Massive Attack, of whom more in the next essay.

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