‘When You Were Mine’ Was a Hit – For Other People
In the liner notes of The Hits / The B-Sides, the song “When You Were Mine” is described as “a cult favorite among knowledgeable Prince fans,” which may well have been the case at the time those words were written, but you can probably forget the cult at this point: it’s just a straight-up classic.
Written during his tour with Rick James in 1980, Prince penned the song in a Florida hotel room, his burst of creativity reportedly taking place after he’d taken a pass on his band members’ invite to go to Disney World with them.
“In Orlando, we decided to have some fun being tourists,” said keyboardist Matt Fink, in an interview with BBC journalist Mobeen Azhar. “We asked Prince to come along, too, but he said, ‘Go ahead. Have fun.’ I remember leaving him sitting outside the hotel room on the balcony, with his guitar. By the time we came back, he’d written ‘When You Were Mine.’”
That having been said, there’s reason to believe that Prince had been toying with the idea of the song before then: in a 1997 online chat with American Online users, he indicated that he’d been inspired while listening to John Lennon, and there’s a recurring report that the listening session in question took place in Birmingham, Alabama.
Although it’s credited as having been recorded “Somewhere in Uptown,” “When You Were Mine” was actually committed to tape at Prince’s North Arm Drive Home Studio in Orono, Minnesota. The specific recording date has been lost to history, but the sessions took place at some point in the May-June 1980 window.
It’s easy to be fooled into believing that you’re hearing a Farfisa organ on the song, but Prince was actually playing an Oberheim OB-X synthesizer…and, boy, is he playing the hell out of it! If ever there was a point when Prince can be said to have gone new wave, then “When You Were Mine” is probably it: it’s arguably the bounciest, catchiest pop song in his early catalog. Strangely, however, it was never released as a single.
Well, not by Prince, anyway.
While no statistics were actually checked to formulate this theory, “When You Were Mine” may well be the most-covered Prince album track in his discography. ("Purple Rain" and "Kiss" were singles, remember.) The first person to take a shot at the song was Iain Matthews, who teamed with David Surkamp to record it with their band Hi-Fi for their 1981 album Moods for Mallards.
Later that year, Bette Bright and The Illuminations issued their version on a 7” single. From there, Mitch Ryder – yes, he of the Detroit Wheels – scored a Hot 100 hit with his cover version, which climbed to No. 87 in 1983.
But the most high-profile take on the track that year came from a girl who just wanted to have fun.
“I heard ‘When You Were Mine,’ and I thought it was really interesting,” Cyndi Lauper said in the commentary she recorded for She’s So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration. “I didn’t know Prince then – he was just this skinny guy in a G-string with a jacket who opened for the Rolling Stones and stirred things up – so I thought, ‘He’s an interesting character.’ And I also loved the way the story in the song read, and the sound was… That synthesizer sound with the stiff drum on 1 and 3, it was a different herky-jerky sound, a little bit. But it was a big dance club song. The rhythm of it was wonderful. So I brought that in. I guess I just had ideas of how we were going to salt and pepper this thing to make it ours.”
Lauper succeeded, to say the least. In the wake of Prince’s passing, her May 2016 performance of the song at the Beacon Theater went viral.
Several years later, Prince issued a version of the song on his album One Nite Alone…Live! which tweaked the title to what it probably should’ve been all along – “When U Were Mine” – and based on his energetic performance, it sounded like he was having just as much fun playing it as the fans were enjoying the opportunity to hear him sing it.