- 21 Nov 22
39 years ago today, U2 released their Jimmy Iovine-produced live album, Under a Blood Red Sky – featuring tracks recorded during the band's 1983 War Tour. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting the late Bill Graham's original album review – published in Hot Press in November 1983.
U2 have always been candid about refurbishing standard rock values.
Populist but not pop, U2 have never accepted the creeping elitism of many of their contemporaries that downgraded live performance as a chore, the unavoidable sales-pitch before the return to the studio refuge. Shouting "Showtime" with relish on their route to adulation, for U2 the release of a live album is no afterthought. "Under a Blood Red Sky" is an inevitable obligation and an essential document.
Recorded this year at American and German dates, "Under A Blood Red Sky" profiles U2 at the precise point in time when the festival stage has just become their natural environment, when they're no longer the second-best band still seeking favours from the headliners' sound-crew. It finds them in command, invulnerable with one exception.
An album of confident excitement, the work of a band completely secure about their powers, "Under A Blood Red Sky" registers U2's pride on arrival but its task is not to map out the route behind. This is necessarily a record of culmination but it shouldn't be mistaken as the complete chronicle.
This live album's timing means that it doesn't record the early reckless confusion (intentionally so!) that characterised "U2's and particularly Bono's initial international campaigns-in-jubilation, when they were careering around the clubs. It taps a more masterful emotion - yet I get my satisfaction searching for the special moments.
Like the new seeds of "Party Girl" and "40". "How long must we sing this song?, " U2 inquire on the latter and "Party Girl" is their answer to themselves, never quite shaking off its Police and Darnell antecedents but tantalisingly informal nonetheless, like a grubby leather jacket at an overdressed reception.
This album's also the Edge Orchestra's main feature so far. His execution has been so effortless and his function so accepted that his massive responsibilities are often overlooked. But on "Under A Blood Red Sky", the Edge's ability to ride all the horses - rhythm, lead and melody- in the U2 circus, becomes evident and often breathtakingly so.
U2 have been able to avoid the tiresome profanities of guitar rock exactly because the Edge's style isn't vulgarised from a blues base. "The Electric Co." is the furthest he ventures into that type of shattering riffing but the Edge's real moments of glory are on "New Year's Day" and "11 O'Clock Tick Tock", the latter a genuine live development of the Hannett-produced original, pulsating through its final section with the guitarist's jagged, spine-tingling variations.
My only material complaint is the exclusion of "An Cat Dubh". Otherwise, the only track that loses life is "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Without the studio shroudings, it becomes unbalanced, too martial, not enough art - the perennial fate of so many anti-war songs set to a military beat.
"Under A Blood Red Sky", the camera pans on a victor's lap of honour. This album closes accounts, clears unfinished business. For their next, will U2 change the colour of their skies?
– Bill Graham
Vol 7 No. 23 November 25th, 1983.