Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 24, 1990: Sinéad O'Connor Delivers a Masterpiece

'I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got' reached No. 1 on this day, but it would be the album's second single that sealed Sinéad's legacy.

sinead oconnor nothing compares  u
Source: YouTube

Sinéad O’Connor's version of 'Nothing Compares 2 U' remains one of the most astonishing performances ever recorded.

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When Sinéad O’Connor burst onto the music scene in 1987 with the single “Mandinka”, a raw and explosive rush of melody and emotion, nobody had seen anything quite like her. Her elfin looks, shaved head and confrontational stance were married to a soaring, defiantly Irish voice, scoring her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and helping propel debut album The Lion and the Cobra to No. 36 in the Billboard 200 and No. 27 in the British charts.

If Sinéad O’Connor the performer was unlike anyone who had come before, Sinéad the person had a similarly unique background. Born in Dublin in 1966, her parents split when she was nine and in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings she described how she was regularly beaten by her mother.

“Jesus… appeared in my head one night when my mother had me on the kitchen floor,” she wrote. “I was naked and had cereal and powdered coffee all over me. My mother was saying all this scary stuff, and I was curled up so she could kick me on my bottom. Suddenly, there Jesus was in my mind, on a little stony hill, on His cross.

“He said He would give me back any blood my mother took and that His blood would make my heart strong. So I just focused on Him. When my mother was finished with me, I lay on the floor until I knew she had closed her bedroom door. Then I tidied up all the stuff she’d thrown about and set the table for breakfast.”

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Her difficult upbringing reached a nadir aged 15, when she was placed in a “Magdalene asylum” for repeated truancy and shoplifting offences. Under the brutal regime there – the asylum was ostensibly a religious institution run by nuns and dedicated to “rescuing” fallen women – she suffered further abuse, later telling Spin magazine: “If you were bad, they sent you upstairs to sleep in the old folks’ home. You’re in there in the pitch black, you can smell the s--t and the puke and everything, and these old women are moaning in their sleep... I have never – and probably will never – experience such panic and terror and agony over anything.”

All the anger, emotion, pain and energy born out of her childhood was poured into her music; and after the success of The Lion and the Cobra, on March 12, 1990, O’Connor released her second LP, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. On March 24, it reached No. 1 in the British charts – a week later it would repeat the trick in the U.S., as well as 15 other countries worldwide. The album would go on to sell over seven million copies.

But if I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was O’Connor’s biggest commercial success, it would be the album’s second single that would make her a global star.

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Source: PhotoXpress/Newscom/The Mega Agency

'I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got' topped the charts in 17 countries around the world.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” was a cover, originally written and recorded by Prince in 1984 – either about his girlfriend at the time, Susannah Melvoin, or else, bizarrely, his former housekeeper, Sandy Scipioni.

Ever restless, Prince soon grew tired of the song, and gave it to his side project, The Family, who recorded their own version the following year. And that might have been that, were it not for O’Connor’s manager Fachtna O’Ceallaigh. The pair had teamed up at the start of her career, and their working relationship had blossomed into a romantic entanglement.

“I was 17 when I met Fachtna,” O’Connor said, as reported by the Irish Independent. “He was nearly 40 but we were both very driven people and you can see that from what we achieved together.”

At the time of recording tracks for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, the relationship had soured – but despite the break-up, when O’Ceallaigh heard “Nothing Compares 2 U”, he knew it would be perfect for his protégée. During the recording, it’s said that he broke down in tears at the intensity of her delivery.

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Source: Brent Perniac/AdMedia/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Sinéad's impassioned vocal on 'Nothing Compares 2 U' was thought to be about the end of a romantic relationship.

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But while many attributed the emotional punch of O’Connor’s vocal to the split with O’Ceallaigh, there is another, far sadder story behind her extraordinary interpretation of Prince’s song.

On February 10, 1985, when O’Connor was 18, her mother died, aged 45, after losing control of her car on an icy road and crashing into a bus. Despite the abuse inflicted upon her as a child, O’Connor never really recovered from the trauma. Even the title of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was wrapped up in memories of her complicated mother-daughter relationship.

“I went to see a medium and my mother came through,” she wrote in Rememberings. “My mother asked my sister to forgive her for what she had done to all of us. But my sister would not forgive her. And while I understood this, it made me very, very sad for my mother’s soul. I was so young and didn’t know any better. That night I had a dream in which my mother came to me for the first time since she had died a year and a half earlier. In the dream, I told my mother I was sorry that Eimear couldn’t forgive her. My mother said, ‘I do not want what I haven’t got.’ What my mother meant was that she didn’t deserve my sister’s forgiveness and that she knew she didn’t deserve it so that I shouldn’t feel sorry for her.”

sinead oconnor portrait
Source: mega

Sinéad O’Connor's relationship with her mother remained complicated even after her mother passed away.

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“Nothing Compares 2 U” was released ahead of the album and topped the charts in every territory in which it was released (except France and Spain, strangely) including America and the U.K.

The single was a sensation, with the NME declaring: “Pining for a recently departed love, Sinéad hits the lyrics with an immense range of vocal ability and passion. From a gossamer thin whisper to a searing plea she shows just how much catching up Kate Bush has to do.” In the U.S. The Network Forty’s reviewer wrote that “when Sinéad sang ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, seas calmed, angels wept and Top 40 radio stood still to listen to this powerful expression of unrequited love.”

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The song’s success was buoyed still further by its video – a deeply intense, unsparing experience, made up in bulk of just Sinéad’s face in close-up, head shaved, staring down the camera lens. Its most affecting moment is in the final verse, when a genuine tear rolls down her cheek… and it comes immediately after delivering the lyric: “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard, all died when you went away.”

Sinéad O’Connor died on July 26, 2023, aged just 56. For someone who brought so much beauty and controversy in her career, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got remains her most successful album, and her version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” – whether about her split with O’Ceallaigh, or about the pain and confusion of her relationship with her mother – one of the saddest and most beautiful songs ever recorded.


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