A selection of U2 songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.
An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart ‘An Cat Dubh’, Gaelic for ‘black cat’, is a song about a woman Bono had a relationship with during a period when he was separated from the woman who would later become his wife, Ali, who he married in 1982. It was never played live without a segue to ‘Into the Heart,’ making them one song (in case you’re wondering about the number of tracks). What’s interesting about these songs is that they have few lyrics and the band is responsible for laying down the mood of the track and conveying a lot. Edge’s guitar work is a bit menacing and full of shadows on “An Cat Dubh’, making a switch to a more open, less edgy (no pun intended) sound on ‘Into the Heart.’ Bono’s lyrics are spare and lean, conveying a lot of possible meaning in a compact lyric in a manner reminiscent of Japanese poetry.
A Day Without Me This was actually Boy‘s first single, which seems odd when they had “I Will Follow” in the can, but that’s not because it isn’t a great song. It’s got a lot of energy, some nice depth to the drums, and a streamlined guitar line that truly sounds modern. Meanwhile, Adm Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. quietly set about establishing themselves as one of the truly great rhythm sections in rock like a brash young Entwistle/Moon. I remember the band shocking interviewers by stating that their goal was to be as big as the Rolling Stones within the next five years and it wasn’t that they just thought they’d be great but that they already saw themselves as one of the all-time great bands. And they had the goods to back it up, but there was no way we could know that for sure then. The story around the song was that it was written about the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, but it seems that the group performed the song live before Curtis’ death. It doesn’t matter. The lyrics are a meditation on our presence/absence in life and what it means to those around us.
Gloria The post-punk years gave us some great new guitar work that proved influential in the decades to come. Andy Gill (Gang of Four), Keith Levene (PiL), and Edge were among a group of young guitarists who played in somewhat similar styles. Their guitar playing is characterized by an absence of chord strumming, instead substituting contrapuntal lines or slashing, abrasive tone clusters that accent an aggressive stance. Each guitarist plays in a very individualistic style but they all stand out from the mainstream immediately. That guitar work is on display on this track, the leadoff to October, the band’s 2nd album and my favorite. I saw the band on this tour in a small club in St. Louis and this song was phenomenal live, as were the selections they played from Boy. At the end, when Edge rips into a couple of straight-up power chords to set up Bono’s final chorus, it’s like seeing a cathedral erected in front of your eyes.
11 O’ Clock Tick Tock–Live This song was originally released as a single in 1980 and it remained a popular live number through the Unforgettable Fire tour, making a reappearance during the Elevation tour. The single version was produced by Martin Hannett, one of Factory Records principals and producer of Joy Division, New Order, Magazine, Orchestral Maneuvers In the Dark, and others. The band was interested in working with Hannett because of the influence of Joy Division, but apparently they weren’t happy with the results.
Two Hearts Beat As One This song stands out on a great album by virtue of its energy. Propelled by Adam Clayton’s bass line, Edge is all over on this, playing the scratchy rhythm that would become a defining characteristic of U2’s sound for the next three albums. Bono provides a wailing vocal and matches the band’s energy during the chant “Can’t stop the dance/maybe this is my last chance.” The band’s Christian faith seemed to be one of its most driving forces on the War album, so named because war seemed to be a state of mind in 1982. That was true internally as well, as bassist Adam Clayton held back from the band’s proselytizing, questioning the way they were using their faith as well as living a more rock star lifestyle than the rest of the band. Clearly this track is one of Bono’s entreaties to God as much as to any earthly love or passion.
New Year’s Day The most haunting thing about this haunting track inspired by the early ’80s Polish Solidarity Movement is Edge’s electric grand piano single-note line. Not only does it provide the perfect atmospheric, but it is also reminiscent of the work of British musician/producer Brian Eno, who the band would begin working with on their very next album, The Unforgettable Fire. Otherwise, the song is a perfect combination of the band’s talents, with Edge also playing a gorgeous guitar solo and Adam Clayton offering a solid bass line that was inspired by the Visage song ‘Fade to Gray.’ The official video was haunting enough, showing the group playing outdoors in Salen, Sweden in mid-December and WWII footage of Soviet tanks advancing. Coupled with actual news reports in about the standoffs between the Solidarity movement and the Soviet Union, it was unbelievably surreal.
A Sort of Homecoming The title comes from Paul Celan, a Romanian-born writer and translator who became one of the major German poetic voices of the post-WWII era. “Poetry is a sort of homecoming” is a line that resonated deeply with Bono, and he came to see his work as that of a poet rather than a rock star. While the subject matter of The Unforgettable Fire album is still firmly in U2 territory with songs about Hiroshima, and Martin Luther King next to personal songs like this one and “Bad.” During the Joshua Tree tour, the band’s set lists alternated this song with “Bad,” which is another strong poetic lyric that grows in power over the course of the song and was a strong contender for this list. “A Sort of Homecoming” is structured much more like poetry than a pop song, more like something you’d expect from Patti Smith. In a November 2001 performance in Oakland Bono claimed that the lyrics and structure of the song were inspired by Van Morrison. The track also encapsulates the way that working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois changed the band’s sound. Lanois’ filmy overlay on many tracks is reminiscent of his later work with other artists and he was integral to the sound of the Eno-produced U2 albums.
Where The Streets Have No Name Opening with an organ fade-in the song erupts into Edge’s trademark arpeggio with delay that forms the song’s hook, looping throughout the track’s intro and outro as though the song itself is something out of a dream state. It’s a great song, but the studio track never measured up to hearing the song live. Edge had set out to write a song for the album that would be great on stage for the tour, even playing more chord-based guitar throughout the song itself. The studio version gets a boost, though, from the amazing video the band put together for it. U2 set up on the roof of a liquor store in downtown LA with the intention of doing the video shoot for “When the Streets Have No Name”. They did draw a large crowd, but nothing like what the police in the video are heard talking about. The video does depict events that actually occurred, but U2 performed an eight-song set, including four renditions of “Where the Streets Have No Name” before the shoot was finally shut down by police, an event which was fully expected and even welcomed by the band. It was exaggerated, of course, but in the end, everyone got what they wanted. U2 got a great video that paid homage to The Beatles’ rooftop performance in ‘Let It Be’, fans got a great and exciting video that made the song seem like the more exciting live concert performance, and Bono got to do his rebel thing.
Lady With the Spinning Head (UV1) Recorded early on in the Achtung Baby sessions, the song is a winner that the band couldn’t quite get to work the way they wanted that was later scrapped and had parts used in several other songs–“The Fly,” “Ultra Violet,” and “Zoo Station.” After the group had written and recorded “One” and saw how U2 was going to reinvent itself for the new album, this demo version sounds basic compared to most of Achtung Baby‘s post-recording production, with electronic effects and other elements thrown into the mix. It’s kind of the dividing line between the old and the new U2.
Zoo Station As the opening track on Achtung Baby this track received outsized attention for the way it sets the album’s intention. Bono had been inspired by Germany’s reunification and that was one reason the group did some of the album’s recording there. Ultimately the record does bristle with the energy of Berlin after the fall of the East wall. You can’t help but think of the rich pop music history there–the rise of Krautrock bands, Bowie’s Low and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. There’s the lore of Berlin’s notorious ‘Zoo’ subway station, home to prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts (like the famous Christiana F, whose memoir of her time as a junkie there became a film), and transients, particularly during the period, before reunification, when it was run by East German Railway. “Zoo Station” represents starting anew, and so does Achtung Baby.