- 07 Jul 17
Bill Graham and Niall Stokes take us through the fans' vision of the fab four's dream album. We asked the fans to vote for U2's Greatest Hits and they did - in their thousands. The result is a selection of 20 tracks which would combine to produce a record to rank among the weightiest and most powerful anthologies in the history of rock.
September 22, 1993
1. BAD (LIVE)
The Live Aid song when U2 seized the moment and became far more than just another successful rock foursome. Ever since the recording of The Unforgettable Fire, on which it was originally released, it had developed into a shuddering live tour de force, an indictment of Dublin's heroin problems that used the obvious - Bono's declamation of a list of '-ation' rhymes - but which became a vehicle for all the force and fervour they could muster live. The definitive recorded version, then, is on Wide Awake In America, originally a U.S. only EP release which was a vital document in their rise to pre-eminence there. Still an integral part of their live set, for the fans it is U2's 'Stairway To Heaven', epic in its scope and unsurpassed in its emotional depth.
2. PRIDE (IN THE NAME OF LOVE)
The first single from The Unforgettable Fire and their first real international hit on 45, 'Pride' was both a glance back to the guitar-crunching of War and a step forward to the more focused songwriting on The Joshua Tree. This ringing tribute to Martin Luther King also includes backing vocals from Chrissie Hynde. Playing with The Pretenders in the SFX, she dropped by Windmill to meet the band and Bono, then VBF of her husband, Jim Kerr, and got cajoled into joining the back-up cast. The end result is undoubtedly an essential U2 song, powerfully poetic, idealistic and convincing.
3. I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR
Probably the first obvious product of U2's fascination with America and its musical traditions, 'I Still Haven't Found . . .' revealed a new mastery of the politics of pop, a rock-gospel crossover that hit with radio programmers and unbelievers and yet also managed to win the blessings of Harlem's New Voices Of Freedom choir who collaborated in the definitive and titanic version, contained on the generally under-rated Rattle and Hum.
4. MYSTERIOUS WAYS
U2 pick up on the baggy sound of Madchester and Primal Scream, but where they were loose, the sound emanating from Hansa Studio in Berlin during the Achtung Baby sessions was far more taut and harsh. Unlike the originators, Adam Clayton hadn't just discovered reggae the day before yesterday, while The Edge's timing nestles perfectly in the pocket and his tone is dark as diesel. As so often with U2, surrender tops the agenda but this is sexual not spiritual worship, lust and loss being this song's two aspects of passion. As the band developed an increasing sense of assurance in dance terms, this came in different versions but the album original probably stands as the best choice for any Greatest Hits selection.
5. SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY
The opening track on War, and one of that album's most enduring statements. Eamon Dunphy ignited a controversy when, in his authorised U2 biography Unforgettable Fire, he claimed the song was as much about The Edge's aversion to dead Sabbath ceremonies as the Troubles. It can bear both readings but any dispute on that score shouldn't distract from his strangled guitar bridge, seemingly a beat and semitone out from what others would play. It's a telling example of Edge's burgeoning riff-mastery in a fan's favourite, from which the band may currently want to distance themselves somewhat.
6. BULLET THE BLUE SKY
Where The Edge got scalding. Originally recorded for The Joshua Tree, this was darker and angrier than anything U2 had done before, with shades of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix in its incendiary guitar work. 'Bullet' may have been inspired by Bono's experience of an air-raid in El Salvador yet it also owned up to the two-faced nature of American cultural imperialism, including not only the fighter planes and the Yankee corruption of dollar bills but also the man "who breathes deep into a saxophone" as "through the walls, we hear the city groan." Outside was America and U2 were learning that the blues had discovered them. Coupled with a snatch of Jimi Hendrix' version of 'The Star Spangled Banner', the Rattle and Hum version is the choice here.
From Zooropa, in some ways this is the poll's surprise entrant achieving such eminence presumably because it's been played so much on Irish radio. An elegant U2 dance cut that's a kissing cousin to the B. Eno's previous partners, Talking Heads, 'Lemon' also finds U2 playing odd vocal games - the strangest being Bono's 'fat lady' falsetto, which works especially in that it sets up the (Bowie-esque) return to his normal range so effectively.
8. WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME
The first track on The Joshua Tree and a successful single, it acted as the bridge between their earlier work and the new Americanisms of the album. But where are those nameless streets? Anytown, America or Ethiopia from which Bono had just returned? Yet again, U2 weren't enclosing their listeners' imaginations, rather offering a kind of creative collaboration. "And when I go there/I go there with you", Bono sang, drawing the listener in on first person terms. It remains a live favourite.
The first single from Rattle and Hum, it shot straight to No.1 in the charts in Britain. There's a Hollywood remix but the definitive version is the STS original, a stripped down rocker produced by Paul Barrett in which the band play Bo Diddley and Larry Mullen finally gets to dominate a U2 track! On one level, infectious and disposable, a combination of riff and fragmented bar-talk - but if Bono's relishing the hamburger, he's still going to have his ache and eat it too and throw in a few choice observations on sex and politics while he's at it. Or with the right backbeat, anything goes!
10. NEW YEAR'S DAY
Their first single to really chart in the U.K., where it reached number 10, 'New Year's Day' still features in the band's live set as one of Edge's party-pieces. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix, guitar roles had become standardised until U2 and Edge seized on the inspiration of Tom Verlaine's Television. No longer were solo and lead parts strictly segregated as The Edge pioneered a style that incorporated both melody and rhythm, a surging rock velocity and a tone to echo around the arenas. 'New Year's Day' opens with an uncharacteristic piano figure before the guitar enters, a model of restraint. From War, the song finds Bono expanding his vocal range, suggesting the great power he would ultimately deliver. But for now, it was a fine mature song and sound that still stands up very well a decade on.
11. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU
Internally there was abundant evidence here of just how Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton were maturing, its restrained intro creeping in like a cat. Not utterly removed from The Police, 'With Or Without You' also reflects Bono's new-found control. Once U2 would have breathlessly sprinted through but by The Joshua Tree they understood pacing and tension and relate a song about love, its needs and pains, without hammering down the walls of heartache. "And you give yourself away," Bono sang and he meant it in more ways than one.
12. GOD (PART II)
Funny how the fans have nominated four songs from the controversial Rattle and Hum! If Lanois and Eno's productions tended to open out U2's songs, on this album Jimmy Iovine opted for Spectorian compression which makes this diatribe all the more vehement. Necrophile biographer, Albert Goldman, gets justifiably slammed but 'God (Part II)' also involves Bono rattling the bars at the imprisoning demands of celebrity, first experienced on The Joshua Tree tour. Then he shouts "You glorify the past when the future dries up." Yes indeed, Rattle and Hum was always more ambiguous than its detractors allowed, and this is one of its most scorching, angry cuts.
13. WHEN LOVE COMES TO TOWN
Originally written in the immediate aftermath of The Joshua Tree as a song for B.B. King, 'When Love Comes To Town' developed from a fairly orthodox prototype to a far more complex meditation on salvation and the devil's music. U2 were to be charged with jumping the blues bandwagon, lack of dues-paying and showing scant respect for the tradition but, somehow, none of their accusers ever paused to attend to one of Bono's most impressive lyrics. Don't be surprised if people are still recording cover versions of this in 30 years time.
14. EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING
Truly it's in the mix, for it's Paul Oakenfold's startling transformation of a song that originally appeared in Achtung Baby that counts here. Even more paradoxically, most remixes accentuate the bass and drums whereas Oakenfold and U2 daringly reversed the process. If Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen bulge out of the original, here their presence is subliminal and all the attention is caught by the higher guitar and keyboard frequencies. U2 as pop tarts nodding to Mark Bolan and The Beatles - and of course, the joke was in the title!
The song with which Achtung Baby came together and also proof that while U2 might radicalise their sound, they weren't entirely rejecting their anthemic past. And yet, despite the uplifting chorus and its plea for unconditional love, the verses are drowning in the poison stream of AIDS. Meanwhile The Edge's playing refuses all the demagogic options other guitarists would fall for. An object lesson is how to put new wine into old bottles - and wonderful new wine at that.
16. THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE
The band at their most opaque as - on the album of the same name - they collaborated with Brian Eno to introduce a new U2 that forswore the 'primary colours' of the first incarnation. Lush instead of lurid, autumnal instead of sunsplashed, elusive and allusive instead of explicit, U2 begin to study mood and nuance while passing on the clarities of belief. Another song about religion or a horror story about the nuclear holocaust? Most listeners got so lost in the music, they didn't bother to ask.
17. I WILL FOLLOW
Not many tracks from the first five years still compete but this is U2 in early quicksilver style with Bono caught between adolescence and manhood, the loss of his mother and the promise of Christianity in the Shalom group. Also early themes of surrender and discovery are unfolded, while the rhythm pair breathlessly sprint after The Edge's darting, sparkling guitar. Rock as sheer, natural teenage speed, no substitutes available or necessary, it's an honourable choice from the time.
18. STAY (FARAWAY SO CLOSE)
Written for the soundtrack of the Wim Wender's film Faraway, So Close and included on Zooropa, 'Stay' provides confirmation of how skilfully the mature U2 have fused their influences and experiences. The song's structure and especially its chorus could amount to a fairly comfortable soul-ballad that even Tony Bennet might pretend to essay yet U2 and Eno rid it of all such super-club associations. Masking tape and model tactics, perhaps? No matter, this is a stayer, destined to become a U2 anthem.
19. ANGEL OF HARLEM
In some ways, the song closest to Bono in full conversational spate, ardent and hyper-aware yet also trying to celebrate and unravel the secrets of Billie Holiday. From the Sun sessions with Cowboy Jack Clement which formed a crucial element in Rattle and Hum, in other hands it might have been damaged by the band's studio perfectionism but this lucky accident wins by its spontaneity.
20. 11 O'CLOCK TICK TOCK
Both their Island debut and their only recording with Martin Hannett, for years this single came first in Dave Fanning's annual Rock Show poll of listeners' favourites, till it was eclipsed by - predictably - 'Bad'. Both temperamentally and philosophically, the partnership was at odds and led to the recruitment of Steve Lillywhite but Hannett both made their sound more mysterious and pointed the way to the best synergy between The Edge's guitar and Larry Mullen's drums. From the perspective of '93, it can be seen as the earliest precursor of Achtung, Baby.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
There were some key tracks which didn't make the fans' top 20. Niall Stokes identifies the big five.
MOST OF the tracks which the fans have come down in favour of in nominating U2's greatest hits speak for themselves. However there are some important omissions, some tracks which wold simply have to appear on any definitive U2 collection.
In particular there's 'Running To Stand Still', U2's most personal and powerful song about Dublin streetlife. Since it was recorded for The Joshua Tree, it has become a dramatic live set-piece, featuring as a core statement on the poisoned reservoir of despair into which so many of us are daily plunged. It's obvious debt to Lou Reed is no drawback - on the contrary, there's a thematic link in the sad tale of heroin addiction and urban decay that 'Running To Stand Still' unfolds, which effectively underlines the alternative vision the song presents to the exotic rush of Reed's own anthem 'Heroin'. "I see seven towers but I see only one way out," Bono sings, yielding an indelible image of the blight of Dublin, which is softened by the aching, tender delivery.
From The Joshua Tree also, 'One Tree Hill' is one of U2's most transcendent creations. Dedicated to Greg Carroll, the Maori technician who worked with the band and died in a motorbike accident in Dublin, it's finely etched poetry is matched by one of Bono's most soulful performances - perhaps his most soulful studio performance - ever. It was the moment when, finally, he launched himself into the vocal stratosphere, drawing the utmost from lyrics which successfully conveyed both a titanic sense of loss and grief - and an underlying feeling of spiritual continuity that imbues a magic song with truly organic healing powers.
There are four tracks from Rattle and Hum in the fans' first twenty and I would add another. It isn't daubed with the usual U2 signatures, and it hasn't often been used by the band live but the first time I heard 'Hawkmoon 269' it produced a pleasure rush of sheer palpable force - it's a measure of the track's greatness that it is capable of doing the same five years on. A love song of brooding stormy power, it builds in dramatic and poetic intensity, drawing from Bono one of his most vaulting vocal performances, while also achieving a percussive ocean swell that borders on the orgasmic (and is meant to, for this indeed is the flipside of the fast-talking surface shining 'Desire' coin).
One of the great songs on Achtung Baby - and it was an album loaded with great songs - was 'Love is Blindness'. Again it isn't mainstream U2, dipping instead into the idiom of cabaret and unashamedly exposing Bono's debt to Scott Walker. While it mightn't have been predicted when the album was released, however, it's a song which has slotted perfectly into the new live canon, producing a pivotal movement in the Zooropa shows. What was once clear, ringing and unequivocal has become shrouded and uncertain. Amid an intensifying sense of personal and political chaos it represents a most honest and honourable admission, captured in a metaphor of great if single beauty. "Blow out the candle," Bono sings, "Love is blindness". They could have sung it in Berlin between the wars, and they will in Sarajevo after this one.
There are, or course, other very strong contenders for inclusion in U2's greatest hits - notably 'October', the autumnal title track of the second album, 'All I Want Is You', 'The Fly', and 'Zoo Station', which introduced the Zoo metaphor which has been so central to the band's activities over the past two years - but asked to nominate one more cut I'd go for 'Out Of Control', in its original U23 incarnation. It's where it all started . . .