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!
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 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, 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: M*A*S*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.
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 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 lyrics … in 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 …”
“Two Hearts Beat As One”