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A Question About Cover Versions

October 17, 2007

Mostly because it's the only CD in my car right now and I keep forgetting to take my iPod with me on the few occasions during the week when I am forced to drive somewhere rather than take public transport, I've been listening to Prince a lot lately.

Over the weekend, a friend and I had a conversation about Prince's 1989 song "Nothing Compares 2 U." My friend, who is a music buff and reads many music magazines, said that this song appeared on a recent list of the "Top Cover Songs of All Time" in a magazine he read (I forget the name of the publication.) I agree with the track's appearance on the list, I told him. Sinead O'Connor's lovely version of this from-the-gut melody still haunts me today. It's no surprise that it went to #1 in 17 countries, including Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States when it was released in January 1990.

Though he also likes O'Connor's version, my friend disagreed with the song's appearance on a list of best cover songs. To him, O'Connor's version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" isn't a cover. It's the original. "How can it be the original?" I asked him as we listened to Prince's somewhat inferior performance of the song in the car over the weekend. "Prince wrote the song. His version may not be as good as Sinead's but it's surely the original."

My friend disagreed. He said that O'Connor's version is the original, not Prince's, because although Prince wrote the song, he wrote it for O'Connnor. O'Connor performed it first, recorded it first and achieved fame with it. Prince, on the other hand, never officially released his version of the song, according to my friend. The take I have on my CD is a recording from a live concert.

I guess I hadn't thought much about this issue before. And I haven't yet had a chance to verify whether Prince recorded the song in advance of O'Connor. Assuming O'Connor's version was, technically, the first to have been produced, is my friend right? Can a song be termed a cover if it's written by another artist but represents the first official performance of a song? I think my friend might have a point. And if he does, then there are probably thousands of other examples of "covers" that need to be reassessed. Pop music history may need to be re-written as a result.


  • Hi Chloe
    Happy Birthday!
    Love from Tory xxx

    By Blogger Tory, At October 17, 2007 at 12:07 PM  

  • That song saved my life when it came out. I don't even remember whose version it was. Seriously. Somehow they have blended together. Hers and his.

    A beautiful braid.

    But forget all that, for now, because I hear it is your birthday. What you need to do is listen to some brand spanking new music. Radiohead has a new album.

    In Rainbows

    And it is dreamy. You can download it for whatever you want to pay. It's true.

    Here's the site:

    Do it.

    My gift to you Queenie,


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 17, 2007 at 2:00 PM  

  • aw. shucks, mr stick. i've been hearing all sorts of things (mostly positive) about radiohead's latest. i will check it out. thank you for the sweet thought. queenie.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 17, 2007 at 2:06 PM  

  • Your friend is simply wrong. The song was written by Prince for a band called "The Family" on Prince's own Paisley Park label, back in 1985 (vocals: St. Paul Peterson and Susannah Melvoin, sax: Eric Leeds, drums: Jellybean Johnson, etc.). Prince was heavily involved in the recording of the whole LP, including this song, but effectively the song is a "The Family" song, and Sinéad O'Connor chose to cover it after hearing the version by The Family.

    So it was NOT a song written by Prince for Sinéad, and it was most definitely a cover. Of course, the original by The Family did not chart and was not even released as a single back in 1985, so Sinéad's cover was the first chart breakthrough for the song, but it was still a cover.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 18, 2007 at 4:39 AM  

  • thanks for pointing out the errors. i didn't have time to scrutinize my friend's thinking more closely, but thought what he was saying was interesting. i'm going to email him your corrections. know of any genuine instances where a cover might not be the original in disguise?

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 18, 2007 at 8:07 AM  

  • Ok - as the friend who sparked this and is 'simply wrong', I feel I now have to come up with another 'cover' by the writer.

    Anyway, thanks to anonymous for clearing that up, as I have always wondered, and as I wasn't really into Prince or Sinead O'Connor at the time (in fact I remember desperately wishing for it to stop being number one - although I do now think it's a great record), I lacked that contemporary knowledge.

    So, the quickest example I could come up with is: "My Girl" by the temptations - written by Smokey Robinson, and produced by him too, in 1964. Apparently he was persuaded by David Ruffin to let them record it, rather than releasing it as a miracles record as he had planned. The Miracles didn't record it until 1969 as an album track.

    Motown is probably a goldmine of such examples given their tendency to have all of their artists record the same songs and then release the best version, and to employ singer-songwriters like smokey, marvin gaye and stevie wonder.

    I was looking into Curtis Mayfield as another example, but I'd need my iPod.

    By Blogger Matthew Berry, At October 18, 2007 at 8:52 AM  

  • Also, Prince did release his version of the song, just not a studio recording. The live version was released on his greatest-hits compilation The Hits 1 -- which is amusing because it was a hit, just not for him.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 22, 2007 at 2:28 PM  

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