Tag Archives: Bono

21st Favorite: War, by U2


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War. U2.
1983, Island Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite.
Bootleg Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: War, by U2, is when the band put it all together, melding their signature sound with terrific songs up to the task of delivering their message. The guitar work by The Edge is like no other – furious, dive-bombing, alarming sounds; and the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., give it support with enough space for it to shine. Bono sings distinctive melodies and leads the charge on an album that keeps me coming back again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I am a repeat customer when it comes to entertainment. If there’s a book/movie/TV show/album that I like, I have no problem reading/watching/listening again. And again. And again.

As with most everything in my life, this characteristic ties to my love of, and immersion into, television in the 1970s and 1980s. It goes without saying that media was far different back then. Obviously, there was no internet, but there were also no DVDs or VHS tapes. Actually, by the late 70s some schools and some very wealthy people had VCRs to play videotapes, and by the early 80s some households had them, but they weren’t common. If you wanted to reread a book, it was easy. If you wanted to re-hear a record, you’d play it again. But if you wanted to see a TV show or movie, you were at the mercy of the TV schedulers and movie distributors.

Reruns and televised movies were my saving grace as a 70s TV fan.

(That dancing guy is Fred Berry.) “Rerun” is a quaint term in today’s age of watch-whenever-you-want Netflix and Hulu and On-Demand, all of them appearing on TVs and computers and tablets and phones, on buses, at campsites, and even – sometimes – in livingrooms. It’s hard to tell if TV shows even “run” anymore, let alone whether they are “re-run.” The idea of a TV schedule is as antiquated as a butter churn. But in the 70s, dammit, there was a TV schedule, see, and what was scheduled was what you could watch, and you couldn’t watch anything that wasn’t scheduled, see, so there was a weekly magazine called TV Guide, and schedules were published by newspapers each week, and these told you when you could watch a show and dammit, that’s the way we liked it[ref]Not really. It sucked.[/ref]!

There were three basic types of TV reruns: daytime reruns, summer reruns, and random reruns. Daytime reruns were old shows from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, like Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy and The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart! and The Brady Bunch and Dennis the Menace and Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. They played all afternoon and into the early evening on UHF stations, which were non-network stations[ref]In my little PA town, many of these stations broadcast from Philadelphia, which was 100 miles away, and so I got to see all the classic Philly commercials, like Krass Brothers Men’s Store and Ideal. Channel 17 also broadcast Phillies games.[/ref] that didn’t play Soap Operas all day. You’d only get to watch during summer, or if you were home from school sick. If you were like my family, and didn’t have a TV remote control, on a day you were home from school sick you’d scan the TV Guide in the morning to determine which station had the best lineup of shows, turn to that channel and leave it. You may have to suffer through a dumb Petticoat Junction episode, but the rest of the day’s fare made up for it.

Summer reruns were a different sort of rerun. These were all the shows you loved to watch at night from September to May, but repeated during the summer months, while new episode production took a break. Did you miss that Mork & Mindy episode back in November, where Mork becomes a cheerleader for the Denver Broncos? Well, keep checking the TV Guide, because some August Thursday night, you’ll get to see it!

There were also random reruns, which were simply repeat episodes shown during the regular TV year. You’d generally have no idea a rerun was coming until your family sat down together (which was how people did it back then, believe it or not!) to see what Mary, Ted, Mr. Grant and the rest of gang at WJM-TV were up to this week, and after a line or two of dialogue, someone would blurt out, “This is a rerun!” It was so disappointing, like your grandma getting the same gift for you on Christmas that she got you on your birthday.

As for movies, before VHS there was – essentially – no way to see a movie you wanted to see, unless it was in the theaters or being shown on TV. (One exception was that high schools and middle schools would sometimes rent movies – I mean actual movies on 6 or 7 reels – and show them on a Friday night in the auditorium for students as an alternative to a dance.) Those UHF stations that showed old TV shows during the day often showed old movies at night. This is how I saw Tora! Tora! Tora! and Kelly’s Heroes and Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Seven Year Itch and The Odd Couple, and so many others. Those stations also showed old horror movies on Saturday afternoons, which is how I saw Scream and Scream Again and I, Monster and Psycho. To see more recent movies, you’d wait for Network TV to show one on their regularly-scheduled movie time slot.

This all changed when subscription cable TV services, like HBO, came around, and when cable blossomed and suddenly 70 channels required “content,” and when VCRs came down in price and video rental stores became ubiquitous. This became the Golden Age of Reruns, when a chubby teen in a little PA town could watch Stripes 15 times a month, or watch 10 episodes of All In the Family in a week. Just as I could with books and music, I could now dive deeply into my favorite movies and TV shows. And dive again, and again. And I did.

So, anyway[ref]After watching all those shows and movies, you’d think I’d be able to come up with a better segue …[/ref], here is a brief list of books, movies, TV shows and album that I am pretty sure are the most-consumed all-time by me.

Books:The Yogi Berra Story. I read this four times in three years (6th through 8th grade) for book reports for four different English teachers, then I read it several more times for fun.

Loop’s Progress, by Chuck Rosenthal. In the 90s I used to read this at least once a year. It’s funny and weird and somehow reminded me of my family, even though we’re completely different from Loop’s wacky family.

TV Shows: MAS*H. It’s not that this was my favorite show, although I did like it a lot. It’s that reruns played for two hours every night in high school – one hour’s worth from a Philly station, one hour from a Harrisburg station – and so now I can quote lots of dialog from the show, even the lame later episodes where Hawkeye is Christ, Buddha and Groucho Marx all at the same time.

Columbo. I had VHS recordings I made, I have the DVDs, I watch them on COZI … my all-time favorite TV show.

Movies: Caddyshack. I think we finally got “Prism,” a Philadelphia-area pay-cable channel, like HBO’s little brother, in 1982, and it seemed like Caddyshack was on four times a week. And I watched it four times a week. It’s still hard to say this isn’t my favorite movie.

The Shawshank Redemption. I think this movie still plays four times a week on channels across America, and I almost always watch it when I see it.

Album: Hands down, no doubt, absolutely, positively the album I’ve listened to more than any other album, even more than all those Beatles albums I love so much; even more than albums by Rush, the band with whom I most identified; even more than albums by Yes, the band that most impressed me; even more than albums by R.E.M. and The Replacements, bands I got way into later on … The album I’ve heard most often in my life is War, by U2.

My introduction to the record coincided with a Christmas gift I received in 1983, a small stereo with a turntable and two cassette players, for easy music pirating. I know it was 1983 because I had chemistry in 1983, as a junior in high school, and I distinctly remember my friend Rick (who helped spark my love of The Beatles, and who also warned me that the new Honeydrippers record would suck) sitting next to me in chemistry and asking if I’d ever heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He was so incredulous when I said I hadn’t that he took a poll of the hip, young chemistry students around us[ref]Chemistry class is always where the hip, young teens tend to be. So you can imagine how hip Rick and I were when you find out we were on the Chemistry Team together![/ref] to find out who’d heard the song, just so he could be sure that I was the one failing at being hip. I was. Everyone else knew the song. “I’m bringing you a tape,” Rick said, and the next day he brought in a home-recorded cassette of War for me.

That evening I took it home to my family’s basement stereo, placed there so my dad could listen to big band and Canadian Brass records while he made fishing lures and built muzzleloader rifles, and I listened. I was hooked immediately. When I got my own stereo for Christmas, I listened to that cassette every night, at least twice, sometimes more. I was obsessed by its sounds and words, the guitar the melodies. It rocked, but it was unusual, it sounded like helicopters landing in my ears – but in a good way. At this time, U2 was not well-known, just an MTV band from overseas, like XTC or The Boomtown Rats. They’d had an MTV hit in “Gloria,” but the names Bono and The Edge were were mostly unknown. After several months, I probably backed off to a point where I listened to the album only 4 or 5 times a week.

The songs on War have an intensity that has defined U2’s career, but the album sounds quaint to me today. The sounds I hear in the album gives me a feeling similar to when I listen to early Beatles hits, like “Please Please Me” or “She Loves You,” like I’m hearing the beginning of a movement, the beginning of greatness.

And it all starts with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

The song opens with Larry Mullen Jr.’s unmistakable martial drum beat and backing violin. As is typical in a U2 song, Edge’s guitar riff, beginning at 10 seconds, is simple yet contagious. And by 40 seconds, he’s just scraping his strings along with the drums as Bono carries the melody. Like Edge, bassist Adam Clayton is very adept at playing a simple line and making it sound great – I particularly like his descending run during the “how long must we sing this song” line. Throughout the song, Irish violinist Steve Wickham offers counter-melody and aural highlights that give the song a poignant, haunting feel. The Edge offers great background harmony vocals and plays a solo at 2:42 that is, again, simple but effective. What really gives the song its power are the lyrics, using The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with which the Irish band was very familiar, as a call for an end to violence. They’re timeless lyrics, and the line “When fact is fiction/And TV reality” is particularly resonant in 2018 America. The drum beat, the insistent guitars, the violin, the vocals … it’s a terrific song, and I knew immediately why Rick had insisted I hear it, and why the live version of the song became an MTV smash.

I listened to this album so often that the song sequence is burned into my brain. When one song ends, the next song is immediately cued up in my brain. After “Sunday Bloody Sunday” comes another marching anthem, this one addressing nuclear war, “Seconds.”

The martial drums, the scraping guitar (this time acoustic), the simple-yet-effective bassline, the electric guitar noises, the human rights-oriented lyricsin many ways this is “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Junior.” Mullen’s drums are particularly cool-sounding from about 1:05 to 1:15, as he pounds that high-hat. The moaning background vocals always sounded a bit spooky to me, and when I heard Bono and Edge sing “Say goodbye,” at about 2:00, and the TV snippet that sounded like kids training to be soldiers (actually it was women soldiers from the documentary Soldier Girls), well, I always got a bit creeped-out over adults’ fears forced onto willing kids. This album was probably the first “serious” record I’d ever enjoyed.

The one song I definitely had heard before I got the record is the classic hit “New Year’s Day.” A video of the song, featuring U2 on horses in the snow (?), was played regularly on MTV.

This song is The Edge at his best, slashing, squealing, chopping, just wringing unusual sounds out of his guitar. After this album, Edge’s sound would sometimes feel redundant, less revolutionary than it did on “New Year’s Day.” He crashes into the song at 1:10, then his guitar continues a conversation with the rest of the instruments throughout. The section from 2:40 until the end of the song contains some of my favorite guitar-work ever. At the time I was hearing this, it sounded so different to me – and that guitar, together with the song’s pounding urgency and Bono’s powerful vocals (and Edge’s backing vocals), made the song particularly inspiring. The lyrics are about (as I found out through research) the Polish Solidarity movement of the early 80s. Let’s also not forget bassist Clayton, who once again plays a minimalist bass line that propels everything else.

And let’s say a word, too, about drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. Like Ringo in the Beatles, he’s often thought of as the weak link in U2. But even though he’s not flashy, he definitely has his on style, and it always fits the song. He gets to open “Like a Song …,” and his toms and snares in the opening and continues through the song in a tribal manner. It’s another soaring guitar, ripping song – fast and driving. Bono’s lyrics are a cry for peace. This song shows hints of their punk-rock beginnings. Which isn’t the case for “Drowning Man,” a love song that is a nice break from all the ruckus, but doesn’t do a lot for me. Although I do like The Edge playing an acoustic guitar.

The band mixes things up a bit here, going from a slow number to a vaguely Caribbean-sounding song, and one of my favorites, “Refugee.”

It’s another song that is buoyed by Mullen’s distinctive drumming. The Edge once again dive-bombs into the song, around 0:25, landing on top of Clayton’s bouncing bass. Bono’s lyrics harken to a time when American administrations welcomed refugees, a time that will return.

Up next is a song with a bass line that is almost funky, “Two Hearts Beat As One.” I’ve always loved Bono’s vocals on the verses of this song, how the melody he sings is not really a sing-along tune, but he makes it catchy nonetheless. The lyrics are a bit oblique, mixing angst and love. It’s sort of a dance song (“Can’t stop the dance/Maybe this is our last chance”), thanks to the rhythm section.

Red Light” starts out sounding like a Bananarama song, thanks in part to backing vocals by The Coconuts (!), backing singers from 80s zoot-suited pop oddity, and Island Records label-mates, Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Edge’s guitar is angular and weird, and at 1:48 he plays a one-note solo behind a trumpet, played by Kid Creole’s trumpet player, Kenny Fradley. Then at 2:18, there’s a cool little breakdown part. The lyrics might be about prostitution? Hard to say.

The Coconuts also appear on another favorite track of mine, “Surrender.”

This song is tied with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” for my album favorite. I love the opening harmonics from The Edge. It’s a very simple track with a terrific vocal melody and great Edge-work throughout. It’s a rather ethereal track, with odd guitar noises swooping in throughout, including a recurring bass guitar “boing,” as at 1:52. After 2:40, Edge plays a very creative guitar solo, definitely indicating that his future was going to include more pedals, more effects, more computers. Bono’s lyrics are about the desperation of everyday life, and The Coconuts provide great backing vocals, particularly after 4:40.

The album ends with one of the great album closers, “40.”

It opens with a cool distorted tape sound and Bono counting off the opening. The cool bass line is actually played by The Edge, as Adam Clayton had left the studio for the day. (It’s a bass line that Jane’s Addiction creatively nicked for their song “Summertime Rolls.”) The lyrics are taken directly from The Book of Psalms, Chapter 40. Where “Sunday Bloody Sunday” angrily asked “how long must we sing this song?” at the beginning of War, as the album closes the question is asked again in earnest. The band vows to “sing a new song,” further repeating Psalm 40, with a hopefulness that as human misery is relieved those old songs will be unnecessary.

When this album ends, I have the natural inclination to listen again from the start. It’s how I did it for years. The power and sounds of the guitar, the band, the lyrics and vocals … it all takes me back. And even though I’ve listened a million times, I still have some more listens in me for War.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“New Years Day”
“Like a Song …”
“Drowning Man”
“The Refugee”
“Two Hearts Beat As One”
“Red Light”


82nd Favorite: The Joshua Tree, by U2


The Joshua Tree. U2.
1987 Island Records. Producer: Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno
Purchased ca. 1989


squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – All of the sonic characteristics you’ve come to expect from U2 – weird ringing guitars, thumping drums, Bono in full-on Bono-mode. It’s a collection of so many great songs and cool sounds that it’s hard to believe they’re all on one record.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – There was a bit more diversity of sound – and if the last two songs were placed differently on the record.
mad jawsWhen I was a kid in the 70s, my sisters and I loved to read Mad Magazine. Mad in the 70s was The Simpsons or South Park of its day – irreverent satire that was equal parts childish and intelligent. It introduced Real World concerns to my 9 year old mind – like war, sex, racism, abortion – and did so with humor and wit and real intelligence. Mad Magazine made me want to learn more about the world even while I was laughing at the funny drawings of naked people and politicians.

Mad artists, like Don Martin, Dave Berg and Al Jaffee are still well-remembered by my sisters and me, and even today many conversations among us include the words, “It’s like that Mad Magazine bit, where …” The magazine is a touchstone.

alfredOne of the best-remembered pieces from our childhood is a two-page spread written by Tom Koch entitled “Rewriting Your Way to a PhD.” The piece brilliantly shows the progression of a boy’s story about visiting his uncle’s pig farm, beginning as a “What I Did Last Summer” essay by an eight year old, through secondary school refinements, and on into college and grad school, where that same story becomes a PhD thesis on pig farming.

porkyIt cleverly reincorporates a second-grader’s perceptions – the pigs’ tiny eyes, his uncle’s aroma – into increasingly complex essays. I have a memory of my sister reading it aloud to the rest of my family, and us laughing and laughing, ultimately reaching the highest goal possible for Family Laughter – the point at which my dad’s entire head turned bright pink and tears flowed from his eyes, forcing the removal of his glasses. When we reached that point, we knew that whatever the topic, it was destined to become a part of family lore.

We’d all been in the familiar circumstance of “improving upon” past school projects and handing them in to unwitting new teachers. The piece is particularly close to my heart because in three years of middle school I wrote a total of 8 book reports on the same two books – The Yogi Berra Story and The Don Drysdale Story. (I had two different English classes in 8th grade, providing me an extra go-around with both!) books

My sisters and I still use the expression “Pigging it” when referencing a project at work in which we blatantly pull ideas from previous projects. As in “I didn’t have this year’s report ready, so I just took last year’s and Pigged it!”

sister work

As funny as I find the Pig piece, it also demonstrates an obvious (it would seem) truth: people improve as they age and gain experience. When you’re a second grader writing about your uncle’s pig farm, you have neither the skills nor brainpower to put together a decent essay. But with just a few years of growth and learning and experience, you can write a college level essay!

Think of all the things you like to do: woodworking, cooking, banjo playing, crosswords. Whether you are an expert, a novice, or somewhere in between, you can look back on the progress you’ve made from a year ago and most likely see marked improvement. And the more experience you have, the better-developed you expect your talents to be. As you tie off that last suture on your latest kidney transplant, you aren’t thinking to yourself, “Man, I was so much better at this when I did it the first time.” (If you are, keep it to yourself.)

And your patient is likewise happy to know this isn’t your first. In people’s minds, Age + experience = improvement.

Except when it comes to rock bands.


To many people, the worst thing any rock act can do is make a second record. The only thing worse than a second record is a third record.

I remember going into a record store in 1994 in San Francisco, a store on 16th St. in The Mission District called “16th Note.” A cool song was playing, and I asked the (hipster, naturally) clerk what it was.bee thousand

“It’s the new record by Guided by Voices,” he said, almost making eye contact, but straining to remain aloof in the empty store.

“I never heard of them,” I said. “Are they local?”

The clerk suddenly looked at me, like a drill sergeant eyeing a new recruit. “They’re from Ohio,” he said with a dollop of disdain.

“I like this song.” I smiled.

He scoffed, audibly. “It’s okay. But their old stuff was so much better.”

Twenty-one years later, it’s hard to take that guy at his word. By 1994, it’s true, the band had recorded about half a dozen records. But only one of them was released on an actual record label, and all the others had pressings of a few hundred. Okay, maybe this guy had been their neighbor and was acquainted with their catalog.

Or maybe he was just some record store douche who enjoyed lording his (supposedly) exceptional musical tastes over everyone else.[ref]He also, at one point in our conversation, apologized with false modesty for his “jazz breath” when he complained that Thelonious Monk was never properly recorded live. So really, all signs point to him just being a douche.[/ref]

cool musicA statement along the lines of “Their early stuff was much better” can say so much more about the person speaking than it does about the band itself. In the case of the record store guy, it said, “I think I’m better than you at listening to music.”[ref]An odd “skill set” to boast about, reminiscent of the time an asthma doctor told me, “You’re a really good breather.”[/ref]

“The early stuff was much better” can mean that a listener wants you to know they’ve been at it for the long haul. They may state it as a way of welcoming you into the club (“Let me play the good stuff for you!!”) or they may mean it as a way of stating you’ll never truly be part of the club (“Even if I play the good stuff, you’ll never really understand.”) Either way – welcoming or hostile – it’s evidence of a listener’s “Artist Clubhouse” mentality.

Many listeners form a deep emotional attachment to particular musical artists. This attachment can be particularly strong when the artist is new and not widely known. Fans of new acts have to work hard to listen to their music. This was particularly true before the dawn of digital music, long before services such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp allowed anyone with a mobile device to hear all the music from any band anywhere.

woolworthsIt used to be that if the radio didn’t play it, you had to find it in a record store big enough to carry obscure artists, because you sure wouldn’t find it in the record bin at Woolworth’s or JC Penney’s. And it was especially, triply difficult before MTV started playing weird, foreign bands in the early 80s, giving access to acts that just a year earlier would’ve faded quickly into obscurity.[ref]And who instead faded a little less quickly.[/ref] Before MTV (and for MTV era bands who didn’t look cool) non-radio bands were only accessible through word-of-mouth and extensive touring.

As a listener, having to work to find a band (whether by going to a concert or clicking on a “Suggestions For You” button on your music app) makes them a little more special to you. You’ve paid your dues, so to speak. Just like when you join a club. But the Artist Clubhouse feelings are tricky to manage. Because whether the year is 1973 or 2014, when you catch an artist that few people know about (yet?), when you experience a new band who excites you and moves you, you feel tingly and giggly and want to share the band with everyone you know. (Well … most everyone …)

You have power. A power borne of knowledge. Knowledge that few recessothers hold, but that everyone will eventually HAVE TO know. You are like the first kid on the playground who knows – for real – how babies are made, and you get to decide which of the other kids can be trusted with the knowledge.

And which ones will just ruin it by telling everyone.

Because you don’t want EVERYONE to know since once EVERYONE knows, two things will happen: 1) It will no longer seem all that cool[ref]Okay, true, sex will always be cool, but it won’t SEEM as cool. Until you actually do it, then it will be very cool.[/ref] and 2) You will no longer be held in esteem for bringing the knowledge – you’ll just be one more kid who knows how it’s done.

That’s the inherent conundrum in liking an Unknown Band: you want everyone to know how great your New Favorite Band is, as their continued success likely depends on more and more people knowing about them. BUT – you don’t want EVERYONE knowing about them because then they won’t seem as cool. And neither will you, as you won’t be one of a couple hundred, you’ll be one of millions.

clubhouseThe old clubhouse can’t hold that many people. And in such a big club you’ll certainly have trouble continuing your duties as Club doorman AND password-creator AND Keeper of the Member List.

Once the club is that big, you’ll find yourself wistfully thinking back to a time when You Alone Held the Key. This may influence your opinion of the band’s new songs, and make you wish for the old days. “Their old stuff was better,” you’ll say.


However, it isn’t ALWAYS the Artist Clubhouse mentality that causes folks to lament a band’s newest work. Sometimes a band does change significantly in ways that you, the listener, just can’t appreciate.

I think most music fans are willing to give their favorite artists a break when they try new things. We humans are always changing, so it’s natural that a musician would reflect it in their art. neil youngSome musicians are constantly changing, and this change itself excites the fan base. A good example of this is Neil Young. His releases have included many genres: rock, country, new wave, 50’s rock and roll, blues, folk, whatever it was that Trans was … and his fans either love them or hate them, but either way can’t wait to see what Crazy Ol’ Neil will put out next.

But what about a band like, say, Genesis? If you only know Genesis as the purveyor of a string of Big 80s pop hits, with seemingly good-natured elf Phil Collins goofing his way through the videos, you may be surprised to learn that just ten years earlier they weren’t a Three-Suburban-Dads-Looking synth rock band, but were a full on Five-Hippies-Multiplexing-Drugs-Looking prog rock band!


If you’re a huge fan of “Throwing it All Away” or “Follow You, Follow Me,” it may trouble you to click this link.

And if you were a huge Genesis fan in 1974, going out to watch their crazy stage show, with front man Peter Gabriel dressed up as a flower or a transvestite fox or a lymph node thing or just a plain old weirdo, altering your mind on whatever psychotropic substance you liked in preparation for their 16-minute songs featuring intricate guitar/keyboard/drum/bass interplay, then certainly when you heard “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” in 1986, it would be understandable to hear you say, “Well … their old stuff was better.”[ref]Just as it would be understandable that fans of the new stuff would say “Their new stuff is better.” A popular novel was written about just such a fan.[/ref]

I myself don’t like to think of art in terms of “Better” or “Worse.” I try to think of it as “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like.” And the fact is – better, worse, whatever – some bands just leave some listeners behind as they grow. For me, the band Radiohead comes to mind. They went from Rock to Not Rock over the course of 15 years[ref]Much more quickly than that, actually.[/ref], and more power to them. But I couldn’t stay on that carnival ride. Their old stuff was better. I liked their old stuff.

u2 band 1

Thoughts of music fans, and their interest in a band’s “old stuff” will – for me – forever be attached to U2’s The Joshua Tree. This record came out in 1987, my second year in college. I had gotten into U2 in high school, and they were one of three contemporary bands (R.E.M. and Van Halen being the other two) whose new records I looked forward to. Most of my other favorite bands‘ best days were behind them.[ref]Of course, Van Halen’s were as well, but in 1987 I was still trying to pretend it wasn’t true, and that Diamond Dave would be back soon.[/ref]I had loved U2’s album War, and most of The Unforgettable Fire, and I was hoping – as was rumored – that the next record would be a return to the helicopter guitars and anthemic vocals that I loved so much about the band.

I can still recall the Spring of ’87, leaving the PCPS gym and crossing Woodland Ave. with my girlfriend, red rockshaving heard “With or Without You” for the first time on the gym’s PA system, and asking “What was that song?” And her replying, “U2’s new one. It’s really bad.” And me saying, “I’ll say. Man. Their old stuff was so much better!” That’s the opinion I held about The Joshua Tree for a long time. “Their old stuff was better.”

As I said, I was waiting for “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Part II,” and – let’s be honest: “With or Without You” is not that!

Of course, the song became a huge hit, their first Number 1. But to a guy waiting for something different, the song sounded like some crappy ballad. Maybe it still does. But to my ear, the song has improved greatly with age. (Maybe because I turned it off the first million times I heard it in the 80s and 90s!) The song has a lot of what most U2 songs offer – cool sounds and an impressive build-up to a sonic release point. I find a lot of U2 music sounds very similar, and usually that’s a bad thing for me. But with U2 I find it easier to take.

u2 concert

Many of their songs – fast or slow – have a march beat to them, as if John Phillip Sousa were whispering in drummer Larry Mullen’s ears; and chiming guitars from Edge that often don’t sound all that much like guitars; and a simple Adam Clayton bass line that finds the right notes underneath it all to support what’s happening up top.

singersAnd then there’s Bono. He sings with an earnestness, with a commitment to the lyrics (whatever they may be) that is, obviously, ripe for mocking. But there are far worse things to be than earnest in this world. Bono’s a conduit between Bruce Springsteen in the 70s and Eddie Vedder in the 90s – the wailing white guys who are gonna belt it out, and believe the shit out of it, regardless of what you or I might think.

“With or Without You” has all of these characteristic time coverU2 features, and also that classic U2 build, this time finding the apex at about 3:01, with Bono’s wailing “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” I’ve gotten over the fact that it doesn’t sound like an outtake from War. And after I heard four or five more songs from the record – The Joshua Tree was a HUGE HIT on rock radio – I decided that maybe it was as good as the old stuff after all!

The track that really caught my ear was the opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There’s a scene in the movie (and book) High Fidelity in which the record store geeks select their Top Five “Track 1, Side 1” songs. “Where the Streets Have No Name” would definitely make my Top Five.

It seems a little silly now, but I remember my friends and I LOVING that video, feeling inspired by it, somehow empowered by it. We didn’t know what the lyrics were about – and it seems theories still abound – but something about the band on a roof, with throngs of Los Angelinos tying up traffic, and police not sure what to make of the whole thing, Bono singing “burning down love, burning down love” … just trust me, it meant something to us in 1987. roofThe coolest thing about the song, to me, is The Edge’s intro and outro guitar riff. It’s just six notes played over and over, but with delay and effects it ends up sounding like he’s playing four guitars at once. edge guitarOnce the lyrics begin, Edge switches to his typical “Chukka-chukka-chukka” guitar strum[ref]A sound that once caused a friend to comment, “he’s gotta figure out something else to do with that damn guitar of his.”[/ref] that is unmistakably the U2 Sound. This song also has a familiar build and release, to about the 4:54 mark.

The Chukka-chukka-chukka of The Edge is also prominent on the excellent “In God’s Country.”

I love Adam Clayton’s bass line in this song. adam claytonAs all his lines are, this one is simple (I count four distinct notes), but it provides a nice counter-melody to the vocals – it’s usually the melody going through my head when I think about this song. There is also a noise at the end of the line, a percussive clunking – like someone with a sinus problem making glottal noises. I don’t know if it’s a bass noise – I don’t know what it is, but it’s always interested me. The song is propelled forever onward by the guitar, bass and drums, a particular kind of energy that I associate with U2 songs.

I’ve always found Bono’s lyrics somewhat perplexing, sometimes amusing.[ref]For example, from “The Unforgettable Fire:” “Face to face/In a dry and waterless place.” Ok, so then it’s dry AND waterless? Got it.[/ref] They’re often political, and frequently deeper than I guess I can go. sleep drugI figure the depth has to do with him being Irish, as Ireland has a long history of symbolic verse and allusive poets. In the case of “In God’s Country,” the lyrics are really pretty, with lots of desert imagery. Although for years I thought he was singing “Sleep comes/Like a Drum” and I wondered how drumming and sleep could ever be related – or if the point was that they WEREN’T related, and therein lay the point! I was quite relieved to learn the actual lyric is “Sleep comes/Like a drug.” It makes much more sense.

A different type of song on the record, and probably my favorite, is the bluesy (for U2) style of “Trip Through Your Wires.”

A word should be said here about The Edge’s singing. He’s sung lead on a few U2 songs over the years (most memorably “Numb,” from 1993’s Zooropa) but I really like his work as a harmony vocalist. For me, he’s up there with The Stones’ Keith Richards and Van Halen’s Michael Anthony as all-time great rock harmony singers.[ref]As always, The Beatles are ineligible for this category.[/ref] These skills are on display throughout “Trip Through Your Wires.” It’s a simple song, a love song (I think) and also features Bono playing harmonica. There’s not a lot to the song, yet I find it larry mullenirresistible. It’s a slow song, with lots of space, and features a cool break filled by Mullen’s bass drum triplets. In addition to sounding different from typical U2, the song also does NOT have the typical “U2 buildup.” It’s one of their least flamboyant songs.

concert 1

Another great, simple slow song, which includes my favorite vocal performance on the record, is “Red Hill Mining Town.”

It’s a song about the plight of miners during the UK coal mining strikes in the 80s. It’s got Bono’s earnest vocals and Edge’s chiming guitars and Clayton’s understated bass and Mullen’s Sousa drums and that patented build and release (4:00). It’s got the whole U2 package.

There are so many great songs on The Joshua Tree. One that I often forget about, but then hear and think, “I love this song!!” is Bono’s ode to a dead friend and his New Zealand home, “One Tree Hill.”

This song features The Edge’s guitar trickery, but it’s more subtle this time, and holds up really well on repeated listens. In fact, I find I hear something different in his guitar each time I listen.

Of course, the album’s biggest song was the worldwide super-smash hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

I worked in a Hershey’s Chocolate warehouse (it wasn’t a warehouse made of chocolate, but it was where chocolate was warehoused) in the summer of 1987, third shift – 11 pm to 7:00 am – for three months. u2 1987A diverse group of people worked there, with diverse musical tastes – including Contemporary Christian, Country, R&B, Heavy Metal and College Rock – and there was only one radio. So – of course – the radio station that was least offensive to the most number of people was selected to accompany the drudgery of chocolate factory work: Top Forty. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was making its climb that summer, all the way to the Number One spot in August, which means Top Forty radio played the song about twice every hour, every day. That means I heard it about 16 times a night. It was like being inside a bunker under siege by US forces.

still haventTo this day, when I hear the song’s quiet opening notes and that gentle tambourine I flash back to the smell of cardboard boxes, old chocolate and hot forklift engines; to the uneasy feeling of sleep deprivation and forced chit-chat with people whose names and faces I knew I’d forget when the summer ended. I can’t really hear the song objectively anymore, but I feel like I should at least mention that it’s on this record.

So, The Joshua Tree was not exactly like what had come before from U2. And time has shown that the band had a lot more changes up its collective sleeve in the 25-plus years since its release. One song that hinted at where the band would go next, sonically, was the intense and noisy (and INCREDIBLE-to-see-them-play-live) “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

I’ve seen U2 play this live several times, and it’s always intense and excellent. In some ways, this song is the one I was looking for in 1987 when I was hoping for a return to War. It has a million guitars, sounding like jets and devastation. The lyrics, about the US’s role in El Salvador’s civil war, echo the sounds. The song is driving and powerful, and Mullen and Clayton’s rhythm section nails down a musical feeling of unsettling dread. But the song’s sound has a fuller quality to it than was heard on previous records. It has a depth of sound – whether from more overdubs or more synthesizer use, or just better production methods – that had been missing from previous albums. In the band’s next album, 1991’s Achtung, Baby, this fuller sound was built upon, with more synths and overdubs coming into play. I see “Bullet the Blue Sky” as the transition song – a bridge between the 80s U2 and the 90s U2.


It’s clear that in The Joshua Tree, U2 was not simply “Pigging It.” True, they built on what came before, but it was different and new. But maybe – come to think of it – they were, because maybe all development is “Pigging It.” We tweak and change, we hope we’re improving, but it’s the perspective of the reader/listener that decides what’s good. I’m sure that second grader’s mom MUCH preferred the essay about his uncle’s farm to his windy blabberfest about swine. In 1987 I thought “new” U2 meant “bad” U2. But at some point it became “the old (good) stuff.” And nowadays, I don’t think it’s Bad or Good. It’s just what I like!

Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared