- 18 Jul 17
Niall Stokes draws on his best-selling book Into The Heart: The Stories Behind The Songs Of U2 to offer a unique insight into the way in which some of the greatest songs in the history of popular music came into being.
It’s like the newsreel sequence in Citizen Kane. You don’t see your own life flashing before your eyes; you see theirs. 18 tunes – in fact 19 in the UK and Ireland – released over some 26 years, from Boy to men, reveal the story of an albums band that somehow managed to mature into a pretty nifty singles act, almost by default.
It all comes down to the integrity of the songs: the vision quests of ‘I Will Follow’ and ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’; the personal and political jeremiads of ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’; backhanded ballads like ‘One’, ‘Stuck In A Moment’ and ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’; the joyous noise of ‘Desire’ and ‘Vertigo’; plus new Rick Rubin-produced material such as ‘Window In The Skies’ and ‘The Saints Are Coming’ (a Skids cover and Green Day collaboration). But how were those songs created? And which ones might never have happened, but for the enthusiasm – or in one case vigilance – of someone outside the band? U2’s modus operandi is extraordinary. Just as well, then, that the music they produce is equally so...
1. BEAUTIFUL DAY
When Jimmy Iovine landed in Dublin amidst U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind sessions at the turn of the millennium, he was given a preview of what was going down in the studio. One of the great rock producers (John Lennon, Patti Smith) turned Interscope mogul, Iovine had worked with the band on Rattle And Hum. The lyrics were only half-crafted but he still got that sensation of being overwhelmed by the power of the music when he listened to ‘Beautiful Day’ in its formative stages. “You’ve landed a big bass,” he told them, applying an angling metaphor. Now all they had to do was to reel it in...
‘Beautiful Day’ started as another song entirely. Brian Eno had got the show on the road, coming up with the beat, a kind of contemporary twist on a Bo Diddley classic. Edge found a guitar sequence that went with it, and Eno did about ten different renditions of that. In a moment of spontaneous invention, Bono yelled out the declamatory chorus that would take the song into another dimension.
“The track at that point was really pumping,” Daniel Lanois remembers, “and the mix that we did had the power of shattered metal. You don’t know where it comes from – I think it was a lot of processing. And I had this image of Bono, singing about beauty in the midst of flying pieces of metal and mayhem. It was only a glimmer at the end of the jam version.
“It’s like a hymn,” Lanois adds. “I believe that song has that in its backbone. So I kept fighting for the track and I did an even more transcending mix of it. The verse had never really been established lyrically but we just knew we had something special in the chorus. It wasn’t an easy one to pull into the boat, but it was worth fighting for.”
When Steve Lillywhite arrived in and polished it up even more with a sparkling final mix, they had the opening track, the lead single – and a monumental U2 anthem that would run and run, delivering them back to the No 1 spot in singles charts all over the world and garnering U2 a Grammy for Song Of The Year.
2. I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR
Some things stick in the memory. The Edge held a party in his newly reconstructed house in Monkstown on the south coast of Dublin, on New Year’s Eve, 1986. By this stage the bulk of the work on The Joshua Tree was done and the band were relaxing. But Bono couldn’t quite let go…
Some things stick in the memory. The Edge held a party in his newly reconstructed house in Monkstown on the south coast of Dublin, on New Year’s Eve, 1986. By this stage the bulk of the work on The Joshua Tree was done and the band were relaxing. But Bono couldn’t quite let go…
One of the U2 singer’s most attractive qualities is the naked enthusiasm he shows for his own band’s music. And so he explained to me that this was an album of songs, that U2 had finally learned what the word meant, and that he was convinced that they had just made by far their best album to date as a result. “There’s one in particular,” he explained, “that’s amazing.” And then he started to sing it. “It goes like this: ‘I have climbed/ highest mountain/ I have run/ through the fields/ only to be with you/ only to be with you.’ And it’s got this refrain,” he expanded and sang on until he came to the moment. “‘But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.’” The bass drum of some thumping dance track was whacking away next door, and the hubbub of party voices reigned all around – and yet the song was that catchy I could hum it the next day.
It had entered the world under another title, ‘Under the Weather’. It also had a different melody. But once The Edge had come up with the title and the theme of spiritual doubt had crystallized in Bono’s imagination, the momentum became inescapable. Dermot Stokes had given him a tape of blues and gospel music, including tracks by The Swan Silvertones, The Staples Singers and Blind Willie Johnson. Eno, something of an authority on gospel himself, further stimulated his enthusiasm. Now Bono knew that ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ had to have its roots in gospel. But he also sensed that the theme was big enough to allow him to write an anthem.
“I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned,” Bono confessed. “So I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt that the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my own experience.”
3. PRIDE (IN THE NAME OF LOVE)
On the road, U2 are constantly working informally on new ideas. As a matter of course, rehearsals and sound-checks are recorded. Frequently the germ of something new will emerge as the band improvise their way through a series of rhythm patterns and chord changes. From a musical point of view, over the years this is how a substantial number of U2 songs began. ‘Pride’ was among them.
U2 played Hawaii during the War tour, in November 1983. Their live engineer, Joe O’Herlihy, was recording the sound-check. He remembers The Edge leading the way into a series of chord changes. As they rode the rhythm there was a mistake, and the band picked up on it: someone’s slip had given a new twist to the piece and they ran it a few more times. Joe recorded the incident in his own personal memory bank: by now he’d learned to recognize these special moments. When the time came to record The Unforgettable Fire, he remembered precisely where the roots of ‘Pride’ were to be found.
At the time, Bono was working on a lyrical idea about Ronald Reagan. He had the title ‘Pride’ in mind for it, thinking about the kind that comes before a fall, thinking of the hubris that was the dominant characteristic of America’s foreign policy during the Reagan era. But it wasn’t working, and he began to get the feeling he was going to have to switch tack. The band had been to the Chicago Peace Museum and were impressed by the exhibit there dedicated to the murdered black civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Shifting emphasis to the kind of pride that King had inspired in black people, Bono sensed that there was an entirely different song to be written.
Recording ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ proved to be extraordinarily difficult. U2 had done a backing track in relaxed circumstances in Slane Castle, but when they moved across to Windmill Lane to finish the record it didn’t feel right. They speeded it up, slowed it down and heaped overdub on top of overdub. It was lousy and they knew it. With time ticking away and everyone becoming increasingly agitated, they decided to ditch what they’d done in Slane and came in the next day to re-record the track from scratch. It broke the impasse. Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders was in town and she dropped into the studio to assist with the backing vocals, though the sleeve credits refer to Mrs Christine Kerr. Not surprisingly, it became the first single from The Unforgettable Fire, released in advance of the album.
4. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU
Before recording The Joshua Tree, U2 decided to rehearse in Danesmote, a period house in Rathfarnham on the outskirts of Dublin. The room they occupied was beautiful, with high windows and natural light flooding in. The rehearsals went so well that they decided to do the album there…
“We had experimented a lot in the making of The Unforgettable Fire,” The Edge recalls. “We had done quite revolutionary things like ‘Elvis Presley and America’ and ‘4th of July’. So we felt, going into The Joshua Tree that maybe options were not a good thing, that limitations might be positive. And so we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting point. We thought: let’s actually write songs. We wanted the record to be less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. To make it more straightforward, focused and concise.”
Concise it may be, but ‘With or Without You’ is anything but straightforward.
“Paul McGuinness didn’t want to release it as a single,” Gavin Friday reveals. “But I told Bono that it was a certain No. 1. It was one of the biggest arguments I ever had with Paul, and in the end Bono sided with me. In fairness to Paul he did come up to me afterwards and apologize. He said, ‘You were right.’ And of course I was!”
In ‘Helter Skelter’ terminology, when you get to the bottom you go back to the top of the slide… That’s what happened when U2 returned to the sounds and themes of their first album, 25 years after the fact, on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
It began with a riff concocted at Edge’s house in Malibu. It felt like a classic, one that might have been purloined from the Stones, the Pistols or even Led Zeppelin. U2, ever aware of the zeitgeist, wanted to see any new garage rock pretenders off by coming up with an even bigger riff, a harder one. Edge thought of the working title ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
Bono got enthused, thinking MC5 and The Stooges. He came up with an agit-prop set of lyrics about the plight of the Native American Leonard Peltier, wrongly jailed for aiding and abetting in the killing of two FBI agents. He called it ‘Native Son’ and the song took shape in that guise. Thinking that a blazing punky record was on the cards, they’d hired veteran Sex Pistols/Roxy Music maestro Chris Thomas to produce. With Thomas in the chair, they recorded ‘Native Son’, and the band loved it so much they sent it to their American label Interscope to get them equally fired up. It worked and everyone was buzzing about it, thinking they had a winner on their hands.
But the sessions subsequently went into a slump and the band brought in Steve Lillywhite, who immediately decided to take them out of the comfort zone. He turned the studio inside out, pushing them into the bigger of the Hanover Quay rooms to play. He found a more ambient space for Larry, to get closer to the early U2 sound and in the process to bring something fresh to the rhythm department. The track was still called ‘Native Son’ when they whacked down some great new parts in the re-organised set-up. Lilywhite asked Bono for a guide vocal and the frontman started to sing it – and something odd happened. “After 30 seconds he stopped,” Steve Lilywhite recalls. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘He’s imagining this as a stage and he’s up there in front of 20,000 people singing this – and he doesn’t want to’.”
Going back to the drawing board was hard. The band struggled to choose between different potential choruses. They weren’t sure which was the one, until a few outsiders had heard it and support for the “Hello, hello...” variation gathered momentum. “It’s a club and you’re supposed to be having the time of your life,” Bono said in an interview on the U2achtung.com website, “but you want to kill yourself. Vertigo is a dizzy feeling, when you get to the top of something and there’s only one way to go.”
6. NEW YEAR'S DAY
With the emergence of the Solidarity movement, from 1980 onwards the communist regime in Poland was being challenged effectively for the first time since the Iron Curtain had been erected. Following a series of strikes, martial law had been imposed, in December 1981 by the head of the Polish Communist Party, General Jaruzelski. Solidarity became a proscribed organization and its leaders were arrested, among them Lech Walesa. “Subconsciously I must have been thinking about Lech Walesa being interned and his wife not being allowed to see him,” Bono commented. “Then, when we’d recorded the song, they announced that martial law would be lifted in Poland on New Year’s Day. Incredible.”
Adam had come up with the bass figure at a soundcheck. The Edge developed the piece on the piano. Now, the band were five, maybe six tracks into recording War and Bono still hadn’t got down the lyrics. “It was an unsettled time,” Adam recalled later. “You looked around and there were conflicts everywhere. We saw a lot of unrest on TV and in the media. We focused on these.”
Turning those themes into a song was another story.
“It would be stupid to start drawing up battle lines but the fact that ‘New Year’s Day’ made the Top 20 indicated a disillusionment among record buyers with the pop culture in the charts,” Bono said. “I don’t think ‘New Year’s Day’ was a pop single, certainly not in the way that Mickie Most might define a pop single, as something that might last three minutes and three weeks in the charts. I don’t think we could have written that kind of song.”
What they did write conformed to the basic chart model in one respect at least. It is a love song, doubtless written by Bono with his new wife, Ali, in mind. But the impressionistic political backdrop infused the track with a sense of separation and longing that captured the mood of the time in an unexpected and hauntingly enduring way.
7. MYSTERIOUS WAYS
There is a feeling throughout Achtung Baby that man is but an awe-struck observer at the banquet of love. That woman is the superior being. That all she has to do is click her fingers – or crack her whip – and he will obey.
“It’s a song about a man living on little or no romance,” Bono says. “It’s a song about women – or about woman – but it’s addressed to him.” Bono talks a bit about theology and about El Shadi – the third and least used name for God in the Bible, which translates as “the breasted one”. “I’ve always believed that the spirit is a feminine thing,” he says. “Ali often says, ‘For God’s sake will you let me down off this pedestal?’ At times I do tend to idealize women. It’s easy to fall into the trap of separating them into angels and devils for the sake of the drama. But there’s no way that there’s ever anything anti-women involved. Our songs are not politically correct. They are written from a man’s point of view. He’s wrestling with different things, there’s a flash of anger and hurt here and there. But I don’t think women come out badly.”
‘Mysterious Ways’ is one of the album’s most upful, optimistic tracks. It had begun with a bass riff, Adam kick-starting the musical framework and Larry laying down a suitably dance-oriented groove. Then they hit a wall. “A load of different ideas were tried,” says Flood, who was handling engineering duties. Daniel Lanois went into the studio in Berlin early one morning to try out a few ideas before the band arrived. He didn’t like what he was hearing and was becoming increasingly frustrated; then when Bono came in and started to sing, he seemed to be pushing the song in the opposite direction entirely. In a dark, tense period for the band, this was the nadir. Lanois and Bono argued solidly for over two hours – a bitter, intense argument during which no holds were barred.
“That’s why I love Danny so much,” Bono laughs now. “He cares about the record he’s making as much and more than any band or artist he’s working with.”
8. STUCK IN A MOMENT YOU CAN'T GET OUT OF
Bono first bumped into Paula Yates when she was just 17. Bono was chalk to her cheese. “I ducked her for years,” he says, “’cos I just thought ‘Whoa, where’s she coming from?’ And then years later, I really discovered this thing that people who’ve had a lot of pain in their lives are not in pubs talking about it. It’s people who haven’t – but are in the queue for some! (laughs) – that you meet in pubs talking about it.”
Smart and feisty, Paula Yates spent her whole life trying to come across as a dizzy blonde. But there was substance there, and as Paula’s life moved on through her own brand of celebrity, presenting The Tube and The Big Breakfast on British television, in the course of which she fell in love with Michael Hutchence of INXS, her path crossed with Bono’s with increasing frequency. The breakdown of her marriage to Bob Geldof, and the ensuing battle for custody of their children, were played out in the full glare of the tabloid spotlight. So was her romance with the frontman of INXS. Drink and drugs were indulged, often at the expense of stability and reliability. What traumas and insecurities may have haunted Hutchence and his partner, we can only speculate. It still came as a shock, even to those closest to him, when Hutchence was found dead in his bedroom in a hotel in Australia, where INXS were touring at the time. Paula clung desperately to the belief – which she found comforting – that he had died accidentally, strangled and asphyxiated in the course of an autoerotic experience of some kind. But Bono read it differently. He had spoken to Hutchence along the way about suicide, and they had agreed how pathetic it was. Now Bono felt angry at the probability that Hutchence had chosen what some consider the easy way out. In the heat of his anger, not long after he heard the news, he wrote ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’, a song he describes as being a row between mates. “The greatest respect I could pay him,” Bono reflects, “was not to write some stupid, sentimental, soppy fucking song.” And so he wrote instead what he describes as a tough, nasty, little number which, in Bono’s account, slaps his old, lost friend around the head for having had the gall – or the weakness – to do himself in. “It’s like somebody’s in a stupor and you’re trying to wake them up,” he says, “cause the cops are coming and they’re sitting at the wheel and you’re trying to get them out of the car ’cause they’re gonna crash it. The original opening line was, ‘I’m not afraid of anything in this world/ But when I see what it’s done to you, then I’m scared.’ Imagine making pop music out of all this (laughs). There’s a thing.” Sadly, Paula Yeats would also end her life, defined by the coroner as death by misadventure.
9. WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME
Picture The Edge in his house in Monkstown fooling around on a four-track Tascam home recording studio. Sticking down the keyboard. Listening back to it. Then the guitar. The rhythm holds good. Try some variations on the chord. Little flicks off the major. Imagine a bass. The drums coming in. The beginning of a song…
“The way we write, we sometimes feel that the song is written,” The Edge told John Waters, “the song is already there, if you could just put it into words, put it into notes. We have it, but it’s not realized yet. If you saw us working in the studio sometimes, you’d be scratching your head trying to figure out what we were doing. Mostly, if we get the feeling that we’re onto something good, we eventually do get there. And ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ is a great example, because that took weeks of work to arrive at.”
It nearly drove Brian Eno mad in the process. At one stage he became so frustrated at the amount of time being devoted to ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ that he wanted to erase the multi-track. “That’s right,” The Edge recalls. “We weren’t in the studio at the time and he asked the assistant engineer to leave the room. He’d actually decided to do it. But the assistant engineer wouldn’t go. He stood in front of the tape machine, saying, ‘Brian, you can’t do this’. And so he didn’t. But it was close.”
The title undoubtedly draws on the time Bono and his wife Ali spent in Ethiopia during 1985, working with aid agencies on the ground, distributing food and assisting with health and educational initiatives. Bono came home to Ireland, to the Western world, with a profound sense of the vacuum at the heart of contemporary living. “The spirit of the people I met in Ethiopia was very strong,” Bono says. “There’s no doubt that, even in poverty, they had something that we didn’t have. When I got back, I realized the extent to which people in the West were like spoiled children.
“I can look at it now,” Bono adds, “and recognize that ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ has one of the most banal couplets in the history of pop music. But it also contains some of the biggest ideas. In a curious way, that seems to work. If you get any way heavy about these things, you don’t communicate. But if you’re flip or throwaway about it, then you do. That’s one of the paradoxes I’ve had to come to terms with.”
10. THE SWEETEST THING
Sometimes you take a left turn. You seem to be heading off into the unknown before the road swings back towards the main artery.
Bono didn’t feel confident about ‘The Sweetest Thing’. It would have made a powerful, radio-friendly single for sure – but might it have tilted the perception of the band in a way that would ultimately have been a hindrance? U2 chose to omit ‘Sweetest Thing’ from The Joshua Tree and it turned up on the flip of the ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ 7-inch. Later, it had its moment in the spotlight when it was released as a single to promote the band’s best of 1980-1990 collection.
“Bono came up with that on the piano,” The Edge recalls. Adam supplies a massive, rumbling, bass attack to give musical root to what is another intense, besotted ode to Ali that combines sweet surrender with hints of the desperation that would take hold by Achtung Baby. “It’s a soul-pop song,” The Edge adds with characteristic economy. “It’s actually a good tune.”
11. SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY
“I can’t believe the news today.” It was an introductory line that crystallized the prevailing response, especially among younger Irish people who had not been suckled on the politics of sectarianism, to the series of outrages that devastated the Northern landscape, and the people of Northern Ireland, throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. To a large extent, those who lived in Dublin had been immune. But, in an increasingly politicized band, Bono had come around to the view that neither he nor they could ever simply wash their hands of the violence in the North, or of the injustices that had spawned it.
“It was only when I realised that the troubles hadn’t affected me that they began to affect me,” Bono reflected at the time. “The bombs may not go off in Dublin but they’re made here.”
It was Edge’s idea to explore the theme, and to link what was happening in Northern Ireland back to the original Christian blood sacrifice and subsequent resurrection on Easter Sunday. “Bono was away on his honeymoon,” The Edge recalls. “I wrote the music and hit on an idea for the lyrics and presented it to the band when they got back.”
The song would articulate U2’s own sense of bewilderment at the forces which had been unleashed by the Northern conflict, but it was an incident at a gig in the USA which provided the immediate context for Bono. “I walked out of the backstage door in San Francisco,” he explained, “and there were 30 or 40 people waiting for a chat and for autographs, and I was scrawling my name on bits of paper as they were handed to me. I got this one piece of paper and was about to write on it when something in me said ‘hold on a second’. The paper was folded and when I opened it, there was this big dogma thing looking for signatures – I was about to sign my name on a petition to support some guy I’d never hear of, an Irish guy with Republican connections. And I got worried at that stage.
“As much as I’m a Republican, I’m not a very territorial person. The whole idea of U2 using a white flag on stage was to get away from the green, white and orange. To get away from the Stars and Stripes. To get away from the Union Jack... I’m frightened of borders and I get scared when people start saying that they’re prepared to kill, to back up their belief in where a border should be. I mean I’d love to see a united Ireland, but I don’t believe you can put a gun to someone’s head to make them see your way.”
Sometimes it can seem as if you’re digging a hole. Another day, another recording session. Nothing seems to be coming right. You flounder around for six hours, and at the end of it you know that inspiration has gone on an extended holiday. But now that you’re into the process there’s no option but to keep going. And so you flounder around some more. And then… ‘One’.
U2 were in Berlin for three months and they delivered two songs. It was as bad as that. And one of them happened entirely by accident, while they were in the throes of working on ‘Mysterious Ways’.
“The Edge put the other middle eight on at the end of it and that just became the song. The melody, the structure – the whole thing was done in 15 minutes,” Bono recalls. “Brian arrived and he said that he liked all the material we had. We were surprised because everyone was freaked out about it. Then he said ‘There’s just one song I really despise, and that’s ‘One’.’ He felt it needed some serious deconstruction. So we went about that, and that’s why it works. Because you can play it on acoustic guitar now and it works, but if you had heard it on acoustic guitar first, it wouldn’t have had the same feeling.”
Flood remembers the ‘One’ session well. “It was very, very quick,” he says. “Bono sang 90 per cent of the melody and a lot of the lyrical ideas off the top of his head. It just came together. There was a moment and we caught it.”
The song emerges as one of U2’s finest creations. A fan’s favourite, it’s a ballad of great depth and beauty that’s open to a multiplicity of interpretations. But, right till the end, Flood remained unconvinced. “I was the nagging doubter,” he recalls. “I always felt it was a bit straight, until we did the final mix. It was all hands on deck. Bono didn’t like a line in the vocal and we basically spent the whole day re-doing it. From that, we went into mix mode and it was me, Eno, Lanois and Bono sitting at the back, all doing different moves, getting the mix to be quite emotional.” That they did so brilliantly is beyond argument.
The first single off Rattle And Hum, ‘Desire’ confounded expectations. If anything on The Joshua Tree half-pointed in this direction it was ‘Trip Through Your Wires’ – but that was sprawling and indulgent, a drunken slice of bar-room raunch.
“We talked about getting some songs with interesting drum lines,” Larry explained to Steve Turner, for the Rattle and Hum book, “so instead of spending time jamming as we used to, we each went away and did research and came back. This is what we came up with.”
The Edge claimed that the guitar part was composed under the influence of the Stooges’ coruscating ‘1969’, but the rhythm was sired by one Mr Bo Diddley. On its release, ‘Desire’ went straight to No. 1 in the UK, and U2 were understandably pleased. They’d originally recorded it in STS Studios in Dublin as a demo. They re-recorded it in A&M Studios in Los Angeles, and it was much tighter and more accurate. “But it lacked feel,” The Edge says. So they went back to the original, 2 minutes and 58 seconds of it, in all its dirty magnificence.
“We were going back to rhythm and blues as part of our wanting to understand America,” Bono explains. “We’d been reading the Beats and various travel writers. Then we started to get into the music. Travelling through America, you’re listening to different radio stations, rhythm and blues, country, soul, jazz, and you realize that rhythm is the sex of the music. So I think we got into dealing with those subjects, including desire, when we were making that jump musically.”
For Bono, however, it was also a reflection on the condition of being a rock star. “I wanted to admit to the religiosity of rock ’n’ roll concerts and the fact that you get paid for them. On one level, I’m starting to criticize these lunatic fringe preachers, “stealing hearts at a traveling show” – but I’m also starting to realize that there’s a real parallel there between what I’m doing and what they are.”
14. WALK ON
In March 2000, U2 were given the freedom of Dublin city. But there was another recipient of this somewhat arcane honour on the same day. A Burmese academic based in Oxford in England, and working in the university there, Aung San Suu Kyi took her courage in her hands and returned to Burma, a country controlled by a brutal and oppressive regime. Inspired by the belief that only by fighting – and defeating – fear can you be truly free, she became leader of the National League for Democracy and spearheaded the campaign against the corrupt controlling military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest until 1995, and her movements have subsequently been severely restricted.
It was the human dimension of the story that captured Bono’s imagination. “It was just one of the great acts of courage of the 20th Century,” he reflects, “and it continues into the 21st.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s journey becomes a point of departure in itself, a springboard towards the realisation that in the end we’re all going to have to leave the baggage that we create or accumulate behind as we undertake the final journey to whatever home awaits us in the beyond.
But for all the layers of the song, and the uplifting spiritual reverie with which it ends, it’s a cut with which Daniel Lanois was unhappy. The band played a familiar card, bringing in Steve Lillywhite to listen to it with fresh ears and to spruce it up. “He’s got such an amazing personality, and such optimism in his genetic make-up that you just can’t help but respond to it,” Lanois says. But he remains sceptical about the end result. “When it gets to that stage of making a record, people are looking for songs that the record company can proudly go to radio with,” he ruminates. “And the ultimate version comes along with a bang, you know. The Edge sounds amazing and it holds so much promise in its first 30 seconds that it’s hard to say no to. But the version that I preferred did not have such a slam-bam beginning. So that one got welded and bolted together.”
Bob Dylan once said that he never heard a good song that had a middle-eight. Which just goes to show that even Bob Dylan can be wrong…
‘Elevation’ started out with a sound from The Edge, fashioned on an effects pedal that Lanois describes as his secret weapon. “It’s like a distortion pedal that has a warp, or a tone control, built on,” he explains. “As you push the pedal down, you get the high frequency. It’s a great little pedal. It has a lovely, specific personality to it.”
A distant cousin of Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘(I Want To Take You) Higher’ and a closer relative of The Pixies’ ‘Levitate Me’, ‘Elevation’ is scarcely U2’s most original moment. But from Adam Clayton’s engorged opening bass figure onwards, the song captures well the murky terrain inhabited by a writer struggling with the attempt to make art of his or her experience, and the natural proclivity of creativity, spirituality and sex. Larry and Adam mix up the medicine in the basement and Edge slams menacingly onto the low E (and on the superior single remix supplies a Jesus & Mary Chain white noise solo). The inescapable conclusion, as the temperature continues to rise and the voodoo magic takes over, is that the best way to get high is to get low down and very, very dirty.
16. SOMETIMES YOU CAN'T MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN
As far back as the recording of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono had known that his father was dying of cancer. And so he wrote a song for Bob called ‘Tough’ because that was what his father had always seemed to him. “A tough old boot of a guy,” in Bono’s own words, “Irish, Dub, north side Dubliner, very cynical about the world and the people in it, but very charming and funny with it.” Bob died the week of the band’s first Slane Castle appearance in 2001. Bono took the song out and dusted it down and sang it at the funeral, a portrait of the artist as an old man – a working class guy who loved opera, and who had bequeathed something of his beautiful tenor voice to his son… “My voice is the best it’s ever been on this record,” Bono said around the time of the Atomic Bomb album. “And I believe that it’s my father’s gift to me. He was a great tenor and when he died he passed that on to me.”
“He never talked about any of the music,” Bono recalled of his father, talking to Stuart Clark of Hot Press. “Oh, I do remember he liked ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Not the album but the song. He thought we were getting quite good around the time of Rattle And Hum – ‘When Love Comes To Town’ was a bit of a favourite. But he didn’t know where we were going in the ‘90s!”
They came back to the song for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and it felt good – but when Steve Lilywhite came in, he gave it a critical appraisal that was to prove, well, critical.
“My contribution to that song is that I was listening to it with Edge – and Bono was there as well – and I said ‘Edge, this song doesn’t have a chorus’. And they said ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, well, it just finishes the verse and then goes ‘Sometimes you can’t make it on your own’. And Bono immediately went ‘Give me a guitar’. So he picked up a guitar and went ‘And it’s you when I look na na na na’ – he didn’t have the lyrics yet – ‘And it’s you du du du du du du du/ Sometimes you can’t make it on your own’. And all of a sudden the song was finished. That song had been around for the best part of five years and no one had ever said to them that it didn’t have a chorus.”
17. I WILL FOLLOW*
Iris Hewson died on September 10, 1974, following a brain haemorrhage. It was a terrible twist of fate, coming as it did just after her own father’s funeral at the Military Cemetery in Blackhorse Avenue, Dublin. Bono was 14 at the time, and the experience devastated him. Even now – over 20 years on – he admits that he finds it difficult to remember what his mother looked like. It is impossible to imagine what he might have become if she had lived.
His friends on Cedarwood Road remember Bono as a kind of stray after his mother died. He’d turn up at Gavin Friday’s house one night, and Derek Rowen’s the next, just in time for tea. “He was calling around as much to be with my mother as he was to be with me, I have no doubt about that,” Gavin recalls now.
“I think it’s coming from a very dark place,” Bono says of the band’s first major single. “Pop music at its best seems to have a duality. Whenever it’s one thing or the other it’s flat, but if it has two opposing ideas, pulling in different directions, it achieves a different kind of power. ‘I Will Follow’ has both anger, real anger, and an enormous sense of yearning.”
The band’s performance was suitably urgent. In particular, The Edge careens in on the kind of treble high that became his trademark. It is, as a result, concentrated and hugely powerful. “Most of the early rehearsals were just rows,” Bono recalls. “It was just one long argument. I remember picking up Edge’s guitar and playing the two-stringed chord for ‘I Will Follow’ to show the others the aggression I wanted. It was his riff but I wanted it to have an edge to it.”
The journey had begun. U2 were going in two different directions at once. Not much has changed.
[*Included on U218 in Ireland & UK only.]
18. THE SAINTS ARE COMING
It all began when the members of U2 and Green Day sat down together for what was later described as a boozy dinner, at Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont, the night before the Grammies in February 2006.
“We just felt that these were some great people – the way their values were wired was so similar to ours,” U2 guitarist the Edge told Rolling Stone. “We resolved to keep an open mind about things that we might do together that have some kind of significance.”
Edge already had something of that kind on his radar. In September 2005, the U2 guitarist had launched Music Rising, with top producer Bob Ezrin – a charity aimed at raising money to support the musicians of New Orleans, many of whom had lost everything when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy at the tail end of August, that same year.
“My recent visit to New Orleans gave me a first-hand look at the devastation which tragically destroyed the lives of thousands,” Edge said at the time. “The area’s rich and spirited culture must be restored and can be, by assisting those musicians affected by the disaster. Providing replacement instruments through Music Rising will not only help the professional musicians to regain a foothold on their future, but will also ensure that one of the Gulf Coast’s greatest assets, its music, will rise again.”
It was to support that objective that U2 and Green Day crammed into Abbey Road Studios in London in September. They approached the session like a punk rock recording. “There was a lot of talking about who was going to play what, and then we just pretty much banged it out,” Billy Joe Armstrong recounted. It was the right approach for what they had in mind. With two drummers pounding out the beat, and Adam Clayton and Michael Dirnt laying down a monumental foundation on twin bass guitars, they thrashed a few Buzzcocks songs and a Stiff Little Fingers cover before getting down to the big one. What they had in mind was a football anthem, to honour the New Orleans Saints and to mark the re-opening of the New Orleans Superdome. They knew the perfect song, one that had already been sung on the terraces of Dunfermline Athletic FC, a team in the Scottish premiership.
The Hungarian writer Michka Assayas recounts that he encouraged Bono to work with producer Rick Rubin on U2’s next album. Whatever the inspiration, Rubin came to London too, and handled production duties. Looking for a song that would capture the spirit of the occasion, The band recalled the uncanny resonance of ‘The Saints Are Coming’, a relatively obscure one-time single by The Skids that also featured on Scared To Dance, the the Scottish neo-punk rockers’ debut album, released back in 1979. Written by Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson, it told how “A drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief/ How long now? / Until the weather change condemns belief/ How long now?”. All that on the meteorological front – and a title that namechecked The Saints too? It was the one. The unusual sevensome whacked it down, with Billy Joe and Bono trading vocals, and Edge and the Green Day main-man swapping licks. Having customised the opening with a snatch of the old New Orleans classic, ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, they inserted a new bridge, written for the occasion, to complete the picture: “New birth, to the re-birth / New Orleans / Living like birds in the magnolia trees/ Child on a rooftop, mother on her knees/ Her sign reads ‘Please, I am an American...” The collaboration was unveiled live at the pre-game show of the New Orleans Saints .v. Atlanta Falcons game, on September 25 – as it happens, the 30th anniversary of the formation of U2. The single debuted at No.1 in Ireland.
19. WINDOWS IN THE SKIES
Songs come at you in the strangest places. You’re looking through a book of old black and white pictures and for reasons that you don’t get at the time there’s one that haunts you. But it lingers and so you go back for another look and you realize that it’s the billboard that has you hooked. Look what it’s advertising: Burma Shave. And before you know it, there’s a metaphor playing around with a story and a melody starts to take shape in the subconscious to bring it all together.
Or your kids are taking piano lessons. You decide to go through the process with them. You always had a sneaking disappointment with yourself that you didn’t get it together to learn properly. And besides you like revisiting the feeling of being a kid.
“I’ve been taking piano lessons with my kids,” Bono recounted recently, “and every time I took a lesson, I wrote a song. I had eight lessons and I had eight songs.” One of them was ‘Windows In The Skies’. With the piano as its platform, and strings adding an epic dimension, the tune is remarkably different to the stadium rock sound of U2's last album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. The obvious reference points are The Beatles and Coldplay, with the lyrics drawing heavily on the events of Easter Sunday, and the Christian concept of the Redemption: “The rule has been disproved/ The stone has been moved/ The grave is now a groove/ All debts are removed, oooh....” There’s a reference to the Drop The Debt campaign in there, but ultimately it is a love song with a powerful, anthemic chorus.
“I think that’s going to be our biggest song in a long time,” Bono speculates. “It’s a psychedelic pop song with 6/8 timing, you never hear that. It’s very, very rare.”