- 09 Mar 19
Expanded Anniversary Re-issue Of The Album The '2 Will Always be Known For
This definitive box, a fitting anniversary celebration of the album at the heart of the U2 story, confirms the facts. They made great records before and after - I would argue that The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby are its equal for a start - but they’ve never bettered this one.
Where were you, back in 1987 when what would go on to be the best selling Irish album of all time was released? The past is a foreign country, as Mr Hartley would have it, but Ireland in the eighties was another universe that Irish men and women coming of age now would scarcely recognise. Love or hate U2, they did at least offer hope to Irish people at a time when there wasn’t much else of a positive nature going on, planting a suggestion in the national psyche that we might just be as good as anyone else. It was also very hard not to be impressed by the fact that the biggest band in the world came from up the road.
Building on the experimentation of the previous record, but reining-in the freeform meandering of something like ‘Elvis Presley and America’ – did you know that’s the drum track from ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ slowed down? - the original Tree tracks still leap from the speakers. The opening rush of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ - forever associated with that glorious moment in the Rattle & Hum movie where they turn the colour back on, and that introductory build-up before the vocal comes in which has always reminded me, structurally at least, of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Reilly’ - the VU chill of ‘Running To Stand Still’, the infectious joy in ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, and the glorious ‘One Tree Hill’, perhaps cowboy hat Bono’s finest vocal achievement. The coda, after a thousand listens, still gets the hairs on the hairs standing up. And what about ‘With Or Without You’? It’s hard to credit now – it was canonised as one of their cast-iron classics decades ago - but this sounded distinctly odd the first time you heard it. I can still remember scratching my teenaged head as Dave Fanning premiered it. Apparently, Paul McGuinness voted against it as the lead single and it’s not hard to see why, it doesn’t really have a chorus for a start and when Bono claims to have been influenced by that great toe-tapper, Scott Walker’s Climate Of Hunter, you can kind of see where he’s coming from. The point being, it might seem a sure-fire commercial blockbuster in retrospect, but it wasn’t by any means a cert at the time.
The 1987 Madison Square Garden gig on disc two is a triumph, Bono in particular sounding like he’s having a ball, whooping and hollering throughout. The standout – although the gospel choir version of ‘Still Haven’t Found’ that would turn up in the movie is pretty handy too - is a pulsing, malevolent ‘Exit/Gloria’ – the sound of a furnace door opening and closing as the band coalesce into one furious animal behind Bono’s channelling of Gary Gilmore via Norman Mailer. If you require proof of the incredible musician that Larry Mullen Jr. has always been, this show offers it. Like The Who after Moon, they’d be lost without him.
These first two discs remind you of the wide-open U2 before the Rattle & Hum backlash engendered a retreat behind the curtains of irony and camp. It’s hard to believe that these same men would be arsing around Berlin in Trabants only a few short years later. The panoramic ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ versus the claustrophobic ‘The Fly’, one man in a Stetson, hands raised in the air, preaching, yearning, the other in wrap around shades, more than willing to go through you to get to either the bar or the door.
Remixes are usually the sound of the ground beneath the barrel being scraped, but here songs you know better than your relatives are taken to new places. The Jacknife Lee mix of ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ turns the original in upon itself. Where there was once wide-screen horror, now the walls are closing in, the military police are just outside, there’s nowhere to run. Steve Lillywhite’s rejig of ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ restores The Silver Arklow Band from a mere mention in the sleeve notes to a vital, uplifting presence, emphasising the Miner’s strike theme that bit further. Bono’s re-recorded vocal has an appropriate weariness to it, hanging on through troubled times as the sound of the colliery brass buoys him up.
The best thing in the outtakes section - although everything here is at the very least interesting even if some of it is all over the shop - is the original version of ‘Silver and Gold’, recorded in a hurry for the Sun City project. It is like nothing else in their catalogue, a howling diatribe flecked with spittle over the clang of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood’s guitars. The full band version is here too, but it loses some of the visceral kick of this strike-while-the-iron-is-white-hot moment. The well-worn story, Bono wrote it red-faced after being unable to play anything at a booze-up with the Stones, and then set himself and The Edge the task of writing actual songs, places this as a Joshua Tree big bang moment. One of the seeds, if you will.
There was talk at the time of it being a double album; the B-sides included here show that notion had merit. Bono remarked that ‘Walk To The Water’ and ‘Luminous Times’ – two songs that deserve to be far better known – allowed ‘With Or Without You’ to make sense. Together they form a trilogy charting a nightmare of love – hope, doubt, and pain. ‘Spanish Eyes’ and their pinnacle pop moment ‘Sweetest Thing’ – dragged out into the light later on for their first greatest hits collection, and to say sorry to Mrs. Bono – only reiterate how on fire the band were. The only complaint one might have is that they didn’t include the two absolute belters they recorded with Band man Robbie Robertson for his debut solo album that came out the same year, ‘Sweet Fire Of Love’ and ‘Testimony’, which would have slid in here without any visible join.
I’m well aware your mind was made up on the merits of this album years ago so little I say is going to sway you either way, but this box does fill out the picture in a valuable way, from initial sketches to lap of honour celebrations. When the plane goes down, these are the songs they’ll be playing on the news.