Before becoming an international pariah, before her glorious reign as the face and voice of MTV, and even before Miley Cyrus was born, Sinéad O’Connor was a strikingly bald-headed, Dublin-based singer with a voice that could strip paint off a ship’s hull.
At a time when Pop music was at its most gauche, when the women of Pop looked like trussed-up Vogue models and sang with the soulful sincerity as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Sinéad O’Connor was a guitar-wielding banshee catapulted out from the Emerald Isle to reclaim women’s place in rock. (You think Lita Ford was badass? Check out Sinéad O’Connor’s video for Troy below).
1987 was not a dominant year for women in music: Whitney Houston was the only female artist to have a US number one album. But the pop and soul charts were clogged with the likes of Debbie Gibson, Kylie Minogue and Madonna, who was still cresting on the tidal wave of success from her 1986 mega-seller, True Blue. At the college level, 10,000 Maniacs (lead by Natalie Merchant), Throwing Muses (with Kirsten Hersh and Tanya Donnelly) and The Pixies (Kim Deal’s role cannot be overstated) were enjoying modest success, laying down the foundations for the alt-rock scene explosion in the years to come.
Still, the charts, radio playlists, and magazine racks were stuffed with the well-coifed likes of Rick Astley, spandex-sheathed rockers Bon Jovi, and the three-headed chart-fucking dragon of U2, The Beastie Boys and Bruce Springsteen. The record biz was heavy on the dudes. But through this manly din, ‘Mandinka’ emerged like a RPG from some mountainous Afghanistan canyon.
‘Mandinka,’ the skull-shucking single from Ireland’s latest export, was named for an African tribe that was elemental to Alex Haley’s Roots, a profound influence on O’Connor. “I don’t know no shame, I feel no pain/I can’t see the flame,” she sings, a mission statement that rivals Patti Smith’s opening line on Horses. But the song reveals more about O’Connor’s convictions, something we would grow to know ore about it prevailing years. “I have refused to take part,” a statement that can be seen as a refusal to bow down to the music industry’s legendary misogyny and sexist practices. From the outset, Sinéad was her own woman. The song ends with her own harmony vocal, the soft voice, declaring, “Soon I can give you my heart.” The implication being, that this will only happen on her terms.
Just 20 years old, the sight of slender, vulnerable-looking O’Connor caused more than a few double takes. Her look was as distinct in its brazen dismissal of conformity as Smith’s androgyny. One look into her face and it was evident that O’Connor was no vapid pop music Muppet; she had a trapped-animal ferocity that her male counterparts could not muster. She was a songwriter who drew as much from the Irish tradition as she did Leonard Cohen, punk rock and nascent rap scene.
And, my God, that voice. There was nothing about it that was artificial, manufactured, phoned-in, Estee Lauder-ed, or faked. She sang from a deeper well of soulfulness than the coquettish Ms. Jackson and with an intensity of range that has never been equalled. Sinéad didn’t sing “pretty” but she sang with a weariness, rage, and pain that belied her age.
Her vocals on ‘Troy’ alone put her on a pedestal with the likes of Bessie Smith, Maria Callas and Smith as a fierce interpreter of emotion. O’Connor stands alone, peerless, with her vocal gifts: able to roar like a crumbling mountain in one breathe, but able to coo sotto voce in the next. She would go on to interpret material from Cole Porter, Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain, often emphasising her softer range. But on The Lion and The Cobra, even her soft moments are so sharp she could gut a fish.
This massive instrument is all the more stunning coming from someone so petite —guitar and microphone stands threaten to swallow her whole. She made her American network television debut in 1988 on The Late Show with David Letterman, backed not by her own band but Dave’s able-if-lame house band. Still, her vocals soar over the meat and potatoes backing, pole-axing the audience and viewer alike. She can barely look at the cameras or crowd, but if there’s shyness in her body, the voice is nonplussed. On the 1989 Grammy awards, where she stomped out onto the stage in Doc Martens and sang to a backing track, Sinéad didn’t just kill with her performance, she was molten lava made flesh. The audience, no surprise, didn’t know how to react to her. They had just seen a future star flare up in their face like a Supernova.
the Lion and The Cobra was produced by O’Connor and Kevin Moloney. Released in November 1987 by the now-defunct label Chrysalis (former home of Blondie, Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler), it drew critical raves. Antithetical to the gluttonous and fabricated aesthetic of the majority of albums in the 80s, The Lion and The Cobra bears a slight resemblance to Kate Bush’s early albums— if they’d been hijacked by a funkier version of the Patti Smith Group.
Watch The Video For ‘I Want Your (Hands On Me)’
Unafraid to adapt black rhythms and urban beats into the mix, Sinéad didn’t water down the aural influence of black culture as Sting and Paul Simon were doing. The album’s most overt single was the funky come-on of ‘I Want Your (Hands On Me),’ which would later appear as a remix with MC Lyte on MTV. As O’Connor’s career would unfold, these rhythms would become more and more commonplace. (See the Universal Mother album and her collaborations with Massive Attack). ‘Jerusalem’ owe more than a fleeting debt to 70s funk than is often acknowledged. These rhythmic foundations give The Lion and The Cobra the weight to withstand weathering and aging.
Buoyed by the visually striking video for ‘Troy’ and the ‘Mandinka’ single, The Lion and The Cobra became a college and MTV hit, resulting in the unlikely appearance of Sinéad in the homes of suburban teenagers. Three years later she would have the biggest single, an obscure Prince-penned ballad, played on radios across the globe and would endure a string of increasingly terse PR gaffes and celebrity intrigue. Who had the foresight to see her lose it all by becoming the biggest pariah pop culture had seen since Hanoi Jane? But that’s all Wikipedia. Of relevance here is the album, arguably the greatest debut by a female artist since Horses, and maybe even better.
Again, O’Connor was only 20 at the time of these songs. Not even California brat Jackson Browne can say he wrote with such steely nerve at that age. There was nothing frothy or fluffy or pop or cliché about O’Connor. (This is true even today, but I digress.) She explores nostalgia on ‘Troy,’ that is superficially a paean of angst-ridden love. Beneath the orchestration, is a pained, angry reminiscence of a heart (a country? A race?) betrayed that is as unsettling as Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Why’d Ya Do What You Did?’ but on a grander scale. You can imagine Renée Fleming belting this out.(Hal Wilner, can you arrange that?).
“The Phoenix from the flame /I have learned /I will rise /And you’ll see me return /Being what I am /There is no other Troy For me to burn,” she emotes with winged-fury and unfurls her tongue like a disquieting storm strafing the land.
Few records released in 1987 dealt so seriously with life. On the caustic ‘Drink Before The War’ she seems to be addressing her Irish upbringing: “Somebody cut out your eyes, You refuse to see /Somebody cut out your heart, You refuse to feel /And you live in a shell, You create your own hell /You live in the past, And talk about war /And you dig your own grave yeah /But it’s a life you can save.”
The Lion and The Cobra marked a short reign as the most promising young female artist for Sinéad. The story of how it all went bust is for another day. For now, I encourage you to play the first steps of one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the twentieth-century, and ask yourself, not what could have been, but who could take her place today?