- 28 Apr 20
Yeah, yeah, 'One' and 'With Or Without You' are all very well, but can U2 cut it with the material of others? A Pat Carty investigation.
News has reached Hot Press that the long-mooted U2 version of T. Rex’s ‘Get It On’ – recorded in New Orleans in 2017 – will finally see the light of day at the end of July. Will it come even close to matching The Power Station’s definitive version* from 1985? What’s that? Elton John is on it?! How can it miss?!!
This seismic forthcoming event got us thinking about U2 cover versions we have known and, for the most part, loved. There’s an old story that the band used to trot out in interviews to explain why the started song writing in the first place. It was because they were so utterly shite at playing other people’s songs. This might be a bit harsh, although we’ll never get to hear what musical crimes were committed back in Larry Mullen’s kitchen in the late Seventies. Perhaps that’s for the best, but it hasn’t stopped The ‘2 from indulging in the odd – and sometimes very odd – cover down through the years.
Let’s stick to the ones that have made it to ‘record’ rather than any live readings. When I saw them first, they were walking on and taking over Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’ and rocking out with Eddie Cochran’s ‘Come On Everybody’, and the last U2 show I was at found them dropping bits of Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ into 'Vertigo' so if I tried to mention all the live covered points in between, we’d be here until the next album has come and gone.
There’s not much sign of any hot covers action from the fab four until we get to the Rattle & Hum period. We might point immediately to that album’s versions of Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ but you would surely have to search for a year and a day to find the Bono-ite who'd even attempt to claim those as much cop. Let us instead flip over some of the singles.
Patti Smith – on the B-Side of ‘When Love Comes To Town’ (1989) - was always going to be a good fit. There are certainly more than a few interviews where The Edge – who gives it a proper bit of welly here - in particular points towards Smith’s 1975 call to arms Horses as one of the pivotal records for the young band. ‘Dancing Barefoot’ originally appeared on 1979’s Wave and has been covered by everyone from The Feelies to Simple Minds. How did Patti Smith feel about U2? Let’s go forward to an awards ceremony in 1997. Bono refers to Smith as a “sister, lover, mother” in his usually subdued manner as she is being introduced for a lifetime achievement award. “I’m not your mother, Bono,” Smith graciously replied. “Do your own dirty work. Fuck you.” Time – and the odd royalty cheque – heals all wounds, and Smith joined U2 on stage in London and Paris during the Innocence + Experience tour to preform her own ‘People Have The Power’. She also sang a beautiful version of ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ at last year’s All Together Now festival, so all's well that ends well.
Odd ‘2 Fact: Their version of ‘Dancing Barefoot’ went to number one in Iceland in 1995. I know! This is pretty awesome too.
One accusation that was regularly lobbed in U2’s direction back in the Eighties was that they lacked a sense of humour. What, the world cried, was the Jaysus point in being the biggest band in the universe, if you were too miserable to enjoy it? Nonsense, of course, as I’m sure a myriad of publicans and wine bar owners the world over could attest, but over-earnest covers like their go at that hoariest of old chestnuts ‘Unchained Melody’ – on the B-Side of ‘All I Want Is You’ (1989) – didn’t help. Much more fun was the also-included stab at ‘Everlasting Love’, best known in its 1968 number one form from Love Affair. It sound like the U2 are having a good laugh, especially when you hear The Edge go “ooh-E-ooh” in the background, and he’s gives his acoustic guitar a good belt and all.
Odd ‘2 Fact: ‘All I Want Is You’ turns up in the 2011 movie Contagion, but We DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THAT RIGHT NOW.
A connecting bridge, if you will between, Rattle and Achtung, ‘Night And Day’ was originally recorded for the Red Hot + Blue AIDS benefit album in 1990. Written by Cole Porter for the 1932 musical Gay Divorce - not, apparently, a documentary about what I got up to in 2016 - U2 probably first heard it from one of the many Sinatra recordings of the song. As well as being a great tune, it’s worth hearing to witness Bono’s full throated roar start to become subsumed into the growing industrial noise, a signpost to what came next.
Odd ‘2 Fact: Talking of Sinatra reminds one of perhaps the darkest episode in '2 history. The band first met Sinatra when they went to see Ol’ Blue Eyes perform during the heights of the American leg of their Joshua Tree tour. Sinatra has a spotlight shone on them, to welcome the biggest band in the world, remarking, as he spied their “old prospector” “chic”, that they didn’t spend all the money on clothes anyway. Go forward a few years and Bono is having a drinking session with Sinatra and a few of his gang at Frank’s home. In the midst of proceedings, our man passes out. When he regains consciousness, his pants are wet, although it turns out he only spilt his water, so at least he didn’t relieve himself, on himself, in front of Sinatra. As if this excuses him. Would you wake up, you shameful bollocks, and not be disgracing the WHOLE COUNTRY in front of the Italians. THE ITALIANS! Anyway, Frank and Bono’s duet is worth a go too.
As well as a remix of ‘Night And Day’, a version of Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite Of Love’ filled out the ‘One’ single package in 1992. Old mate/co-conspirator/artistic nudger Gavin Friday joins Bono as the Bowie to his Reed, which must have had the two Lypton Villagers inside them giggling - or even Guggi-ing - and elbowing each other with delight.
Odd ‘2 Fact: Laughing Lou included Bono as a possible baby name in ‘Beginning Of A Great Adventure’ on his great 1989 album New York. That must have had Bono – a man hardly lacking in self-belief - nodding at the missus and strutting around the gaff for the entire afternoon.
Three covers - The Stones' ‘Paint It, Black’, ‘Fortunate Son’, and Elvis' ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ - filled out the various formats of the ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ single, also released in 1992. Are they any use? Well, they’re very enthusiastic, certainly. Maria McKee shows up to give the lads a dig out with the Creedence cover.
Odd ‘2 Fact: There’s a solo Bono version of 'Can’t Help Falling In Love’ that’s a more interesting thing altogether. It was recorded for the “movie” Honeymoon In Vegas. The sketchy story goes that Bono did it himself as the rest of the band couldn’t be arsed, and none other King Boogaloo Merchant, the right honourable B.P. Fallon, is somewhere in the background, generating the good vibes. While we’re dealing with solo Bono, we could not exclude his lovely version of Jimmie Rodgers ‘Dreaming With Tears In My Eyes’, recorded for a tribute album in 1997, at Dylan’s prompting.
I suppose, given the themes of the time, they had to have a go at synth pop of M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ and it did sit well when it went into ‘Mofo’ for the Popmart live shows, but much more worthy of your attention is their detonation of The Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gone’ – hey, it certainly knocks the shite out of ‘Helter Skelter’.
Odd ‘2 Fact: Did you know that Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell** sang this song when she did her first audition while still in single figures? Nothing to do with U2? My show biz pal Dave Fanning told me that story, and he has had some dealings with Bono and his chums, so quod erat demonstrandum and apud vultum tuum.
I quite like this one, that’s why it’s here, although I'd sure apostles of der Werk*** will be up in arms. Bono once said something about Kraftwerk being real soul music. I can’t argue with that. Included as the B-Side of ‘Vertigo’ in 2004. Adam’s good tonight, inne?
(Dis) Honourable Mentions
There’s a ‘gung-ho’ live version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ recorded with Paul McCartney, and a recording of ‘The Saints Are Coming’ with Green Day that you can seek out for yourselves, although I will end with three reasonably good ones. A rub-a-Dublin tribute to Johnny Cash, Lennon's 'Instant Karma' - recorded for an Amnesty album - and a boisterous romp through The Ramones ‘Beat On The Brat’ where it sounds like the '2 are enjoying themselves immensely, and what's the Jaysus point in being the biggest band in the world if you can't do that?
(*Not true, of course, but I do like it.)
(**Tell us this and tell us no more. If you were blessed enough to have the word 'Pirate' in your ACTUAL NAME, why the hell would you then go and leave it out of your nom de guerre? Still, she seems to be doing alright.)
(***Did you know that 'Kraftwerk' translates to English as 'Power Station'? I refer you to the opening paragraph above. And people think I just make this stuff up as I'm going along...)
Addendum: My learned colleagues in the Rockin' Fourth Estate, Mr Neil McCormick, and Mr Mark Kavanagh, have kindly pointed out two glaring omissions. Here, then, are U2 and Leonard Cohen having a go at 'Tower Of Song', and their tribute to another band from the Northside of Dublin, the mighty Aslan. They were written in my notes, I swear.
Christmas songs don't count. This time.
Bonus Ball: Woody Guthrie's 'Jesus Christ', from the Folkways: A Vision Shared album, released in 1988. Thanks for the reminder, Springer.