- 22 May 20
They Write The Songs That Make The Whole World Sing. Or Do They? How Do U2 Songs Fare When Sung By Others? A Pat Carty Investigation.
Here’s a story that might even be true. No names have been changed, in order to protect the guilty. The Joshua Tree tour – the first one – has reached California. Bono had already asked J. Geils Band man Peter Wolf to make him a cassette of the country music classics he thought he aught to know about, and, on the same tour, a DJ gave Bono the recently compiled Atlantic Blues box set and let him get his head around that. At the California show, Bob Dylan joins the band on stage for a blast at ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. Did Bono actually stick to the lyrics this time around? We just don’t know. We do know that he gushed to Dylan backstage about how his songs would live forever. Dylan replies, “Your songs are gonna last forever too – the only thing is, no one’s gonna be able to play them.”
Yet again, Bob Dylan was talking out of his arse. It turned out that quite a few people were able to play them, but did they do it well? As U2’s song writing progressed and adopted more traditional structure, this became an easier task. Any fool on Grafton Street can bash out a bit of ‘Desire’ but something like ‘Out Of Control’ is a bit trickier, although Mr Stuart Clark and I once saw Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul present a Stax version of this in Vicar St, high on enthusiasm, low on melodic accuracy. Good sport though.
Anyway, here’s a selection of notable covers of U2 songs. It’s not in any way complete, so save the phone calls for Joe. We’re also going to leave out live versions – I‘ve watched everyone from The Arse Giraffes to Bruce Springsteen essay U2 covers in the heat of battle – with varying degrees of success – and if we tried to rate them all, we’d never get the pubs back open. It’s another musical journey…
Round I: Like A Song You Have To Sing...
Beloved of house-party three-chord-chancers the world over, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is an obvious target, and Scots/Jamaican dance trio The Chimes scored a substantial world-wide hit with their version back in 1990. Imagine Soul II Soul having a go at The ‘2 and you’d be nearly there. Bono had something to say about it too (“No! Really?” – Ed), admitting “at last someone’s come along to sing it properly”
Bono Bonus Ball: Booker T and The MG’s
Glen Campbell probably could have taken the ridiculous horse shit love poetry you wrote when you were fourteen, set it to music, and made the world cry. He was that good. Why his 2008 album needed to be called Meet Glen Campbell is beyond me, but he did make some fine song selections in a bid to remind people what was so special about him in the first place. I saw Campbell play at two different festivals and both times he went into ‘Wichita Lineman’, a couple of thousand people suddenly had something in their eye. He does it again here with that massive chorus, despite the bit of banjo buried in the background. Want some more of this kind of thing? Check out his version of Foo Fighters ‘Times Like These’ – redone as ‘Galveston’ Part 2 – and, yep, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Jesus’ from the same record. He was a mighty man, altogether.
Bono Bonus Ball: I could have given you a version from Starsailor, but what have you ever done to me to deserve that? Instead, here’s U2 themselves, with a great version for the BBC.
Cassandra Wilson is known as a jazz singer, but this is far too narrow a classification to assign to her. She’s reinterpreted songs by everyone from Robert Johnson to The Monkees, Hank Williams to – Jaysus – Sting. There’s a gorgeous run at Van Morrison’s ‘Tupelo Honey’ and an album length tribute to Miles Davis (Traveling Miles) that are worth your time too, but her version of ‘Love Is Blindness’ is a beauty to behold. As close as we’re ever going to get to Nina Simone covering the Irish fab four.
Bono Bonus Ball: Here’s Jack White doing the same song, from the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby. He gets really upset too. Calm down, boss. There’s plenty more fish in the sea, as long as you’re sporting an adequate rod.
There’s no avoiding this next… one. The series of albums that Johnny Cash recorded with Rick Rubin towards the end of his life were a bit like the Pope finding another few books of the Old Testament hidden in the attic. The voice of God explaining why he was so cruel and vengeful, and apologising for the whole thing. There’s fragility in this voice of granite on the song that Axl Rose once called "the greatest ever written" and The Edge once described as having "put a roof on my summerhouse".
Bono Bonus Ball: There are many, many versions of this song – everyone from Anastacia (!) to Vanessa Paradis (!!) – but here’s Mica Paris, channelling a bit of Massive Attack.
Are Elbow prog rock? And should they, accordingly, be shunned and/or jeered at? Is theirs very nearly the worst name for a band ever (I’m looking at you, Ham Sandwich)? Questions for another time, preferably a time when we get the pubs back. This was recorded for the War Child Presents Heroes charity record in 2009; the idea being that music “legends” like U2 would pick one of their own songs and then pick the band to cover it, so this is officially U2 approved. Bloody good job it is too.
Bono Bonus Ball: A couple of selections from a CD commissioned by a rival magazine, which I’m forbidden to name. Here’s Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and Gavin Friday.
If you’re doing a History Channel documentary about Martin Luther King then you know what song to go for, and, if Marvin Gaye proves unavailable, you get John Legend on the blower. This is quite moving, and Legend sings his arse off.
Bono Bonus Ball 1: If you want a man with a voice like a swimming pool full of silk then let’s allow George Michael a turn. 'Miss Sarajevo' is one of U2’s finest songs, and that’s just a fact. Needs more Pavarotti, mind.
Bono Bonus Ball 2: Before we move on to the second round, let’s briefly side-step into the esoteric, and by ‘esoteric’ I mean ‘fucking bizarre’. The story goes that the late and very great Joey Ramone liked to listen to ‘In A Little While’ towards the end of his life. One thing is for sure; he wasn’t calling out for William Shatner’s version. You wouldn’t, as the saying goes, get this much ham in a butcher’s window come Christmas week. When he gets to the line “Oh my, how you’ve grown” things start to go seriously off the rails. “Turn it on,” he intones in that plummy voice of his a moment later. No, Bill, turn it off. And fucking leave it off.
Round II: And You Give Yourself Away…
What about the songs that U2 wrote for other people, the ones they passed on to the great and the good? Do they qualify for this survey? Well, yes, they do, for I am making the rules up as I go along.
Willie Nelson has forgotten more about song writing – probably as a result of his rather vigorous “medicinal” regime – than most people will ever learn, so frankly, he could have written this one himself, sitting on his porch with Trigger in one hand, and a pipe of the best in the other. And that’s meant as a compliment, as this beautiful waltz suits the Red Headed Stranger down to the ground. Which is probably a long way, as he’s always so high, etc. Apparently, when Bono played the song to Brian Eno, the thinking man’s thinking man replied that he liked it “but I’m afraid it will be a big hit. We must tamper with it somehow to prevent that.” What a gas man he truly is.
I don’t have any smart comments to make about this next record, because I think it’s perfect and, depending on what day of the week it is, I’d argue that this might be the finest song that U2 – well, Bono and The Edge – have ever written. Bono produced this as well, so hats off. If the multi-verse theory is true - I could explain it all to you but there's simply not enough time - then somewhere out there is a whole album of Roy Orbison singing U2 ballads. What a thing of wonder that must be.
When I think of Bond themes, as I often do given my calling as a fabulous showbiz journalist, I think of bombast, explosions, gunfire, Plenty O'Toole ("Named after your father, perhaps?"), large orchestras, and proper from-the-boots-up singing. Not for me some namby-pamby half-arsed effort that sounds like an unfinished demo, or some young one whispering in my ear. ASMR? Let me defer to the right honourable Sam Snort on this one. “Ask me bollix!” he offered down the phone line from South America when asked for an opinion. With all that in mind, who better than Tina Turner – we must presume Shirley Bassey was on holiday – to belt out Bono and Edge’s clever contribution to Goldeneye? Did you know Goldeneye was the name of Ian Fleming’s gaff in Jamaica, which was bought by none other than Chris Blackwell, the man behind Island Records, the label that signed U2 when other’s weren’t willing to? The circle of life.
Sinéad O’Connor has a bit of a history with U2. The first time most of us heard tell of her was when she added vocals to ‘Heroine’, the rather great title track to The Edge’s solo soundtrack work with Michael Brook. She’s also on ‘I’m Not Your Baby’, a track that’s shown up on at least one U2 B-Side. This is from the ‘In The Name Of The Father’ soundtrack that Gavin Friday put together with his mate Maurice Seezer. Bono,Gavin and Maurice wrote this, which is, for my money, one of O’Connor’s finest moments. And the nice thing is, there was never any rancour or ill-will between the two camps. Lovely.
As I’m sure you’ll be quick to point out on social media, there are others that could have made the cut – The Neville Brothers and The Corrs for a start - but let’s finish with this Bono/Simon Carmody co-write from Ronnie Drew’s 1995 album Dirty Rotten Shame – and I know you read that title in Ronnie’s accent. Why is this included, over those others? Because I miss the pub, that’s the why. Good man, Ronnie, and cheers to you all.