U2 are potentially the most divisive band, ever. A raft of great records, huge singles, massive shows, free albums, philanthropy, activism, fights, addiction, innocence, experience and surrender…the four men from the north side of Dublin sure have packed a lot into their career. Whilst extra curricular activities of the band’s singer could alienate the layman with shouts of hypocrisy and narcissism, at the core of the band is the music. And what glorious and iconic music it is.
Hits reel off; Beautiful Day, One, Where The Streets Have No Name, With Or Without You, Vertigo, Elevation, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Discotheque, Angel Of Harlem, Desire…the list is long. In this article, Mike and Dom take a look at some of the lesser-known U2 songs and collate a list of U2’s deeper cuts; not too deep…just off the main path.
If you have never got past the compilations or stopped listening to the band at a certain point, try dipping in again. Similarly, U2 almanacs, share your choices with us. Opinions are fun.
SILVER & GOLD (B SIDE TO WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME / RATTLE & HUM)
With the irresistible opening line, “In the shithouse a shotgun“, Silver & Gold sounds all very Hollis Brown and full of the potent of impending doom. Dylan’s visions are taken and ground into the primal dirt by Bono as he yelps his way with the rope around his neck, fingers on triggers as Edge scrubs away at the strings, repeating the riff, temperature rising. Musical desperation, even as Bono induces Edge to “play the blues” on the R&H film.
SPANISH EYES (B SIDE TO I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR)
A rival to Silver & Gold, similar mood and a monster riff. Bono gets increasingly excited, making even the simple “whay hey hey, baby hang on” lines the telling focus. Another yelper as he runs amok while the boys hold down the rhythm. Nice version on the From The Ground Up bonuses…)
SO CRUEL (ACHTUNG BABY)
It’s perhaps unsurprising that So Cruel sits below the radar on their best album overflowing with a shedload of mighty cuts. The opening piano chords and biscuit tin sharp drums echo the late Seventies Bowie in Hansa vibe. There’s little Edge aside from a chugging guitar line, and that repeated piano figure beneath the backdrop of a swelling swathe of strings. Amongst some particularly telling and biting lines where it feels like Bono is actually talking directly to me, you can forgive the simplistic “The night is bleeding like a cut” line when it’s followed with “Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot.” The restrained intensity and reference again to the mire is why So Cruel is a personal favourite U2 track. Performed live no more than half a dozen times, nothing could match the studio intensity.
DADDY’S GONNA PAY FOR YOUR CRASHED CAR (ZOOROPA)
At the end of the 1980’s, U2 were perhaps seen as the least fun band on the planet. They went to ‘dream it all up again,’ and in amongst the rebuilding of the band, Bono took to creating and impersonating characters. Perhaps to hide behind, perhaps to show that the band wasn’t all stoic and sincere all the time. Whichever way, Mr. MacPhisto was one of Bono’s most fun creations and coupled with Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car on the ZOO TV tour, this was an iconic piece of rock theatre set to one of the U2’s funkiest numbers. In the live arena it flourished; The Edge got the disco licks in and Adam rolled the bass around deliciously. A crescendo of fluttering ECU dollar bills, a loose three-part harmony and Bono swishing around in his gold suit with preposterous platform boots is glorious. This song was one of the finest cuts on Zooropa; a criminally underrated record.
Check out a live video here.
ACROBAT (ACHTUNG BABY)
MacPhisto reared his head again on U2’s most recent tour. Prior to Acrobat, the use of modern tech to paint the face helped Bono slip back into role. The big thing here though was the airing of Acrobat. Until this tour I believe that this was the only song from Achtung Baby not performed live. As part of the closing trio of songs on Achtung Baby, Acrobat is a part of a cutting trilogy of songs that exude emotion. “You can dream, so dream out loud,” sings Bono as the lyrics contort in the mind. There are various reference points in the song that touch on religion, faith, sex and rebirth. Acrobat is a go-to point to really see just how dark Achtung Baby is and in talking of ‘every book being read,’ you have an acknowledgement of just how stale things had got in the U2 camp during the late eighties.
A bit of U2 funk – Adam slapping the bass – from the War album that belies the gravity of the subject matter. Edge is at the pedal steel on the chorus and an anthemic audience participation moment with the closing chant. The album version seems paired down in comparison to the definitive version on the Red Rocks film that includes all the reasons and evidence for why U2 was on the path to greatness. Watching U2 play this at Manchester Apollo in 1984, the balcony structure was literally bouncing.
THE THREE SUNRISES (B SIDE TO UNFORGETTABLE FIRE)
A gentle, most pleasant run-of-the-mill love and light song that sparkles along until Edge lets go with one of his industrial ‘how does he make that noise?’ sound from the guitar. Another one where Adam’s bassline stands out. Sounds razor-sharp in comparison to some of the generally muddy Eno production of the era. Maybe not enough depth to make the album but proof that the grass is sometimes greener on the other (b) side.
ONE STEP CLOSER (HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB)
In the early noughties. U2 reapplied for the job of the biggest rock band in the world. Their words…not mine. They got the job but once again there would be grief in the camp as Bono lost his father. One Step Closer is dedicated to Noel Gallagher in the liner notes as the title reportedly came from a conversation with the former Oasis man backstage at a show in London. Faith and religion is front and centre again as this hushed and hypnotic song sees the singer in a dark place and talking of his father’s potential crisis of faith. The song has a similar feel to that of Grace from All That You Can’t Leave Behind and White As Snow from No Line On The Horizon.
LANDLADY (SONGS OF EXPERIENCE)
One of U2’s latest songs from their last record of new material. Bono also sounds great in singing the song – it encapsulates the modern day sound of Bono’s voice. This is also one of Bono’s finest lyrics in my opinion. Giving thanks for all the people that help them do what they do, and ensure that they get home to where they need to be. Musically, this is gentle and pensive; certainly a highlight (of many highlights) off of Songs Of Experience.
Every wave that broke me
Every song that wrote me
Every dawn that woke me
Was to get me home to you, see
Every soul that left me
Every heart that kept me
The strangers that protected me
To bring me back to you
U2’s most diverse song on U2’s most diverse album. It opened every show on the Popmart tour in 1997/1998, in glorious fashion. Bono comes out fighting to look to the past with the death of his mother in the dark lyrics. The Edge takes it to another level with his shrill guitar. Larry might have had his beef with drum machines in this era of the band, drives this song so hard with Adam Clayton. It makes for a really exciting mix that was the perfect show opener for U2’s trip to the psychedelic supermarket onboard the mothership!
One of U2’s most Talking Heads moments. A little funky bassline with acoustic guitars smattered atop. The drums are raw and Bono’s lyrics are an early showcase of his global way of looking at things. It was one of many early songs that made the cut at the band’s Red Rocks show with its catchy chorus line.
ELVIS PRESLEY AND AMERICA (THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE)
One of the more bizarre cuts on an album where the Eno/Lanois influence weighs heavy. In his recent Surrender book, Bono admits to the exquisite Bad from the same album to being not quite finished, bowing down to the opinions of his producers. Elvis… certainly fits the ‘unfinished’/work-in-progress bill. After years (and years) of listening, I feel I finally get it. The initial hypnotic vibe reveals a rambling set of lyrics that seem to be almost stream of consciousness set against a muddy droning acoustic guitar accompaniment plus some restrained but trademark Edge chiming guitar lines that immediately define the track as U2. Almost speaking in tongues, Bono sings “See say you’re sad and reach by, So say you’re sad above beside” – it’s like he’s become Jon Anderson of Yes and choosing words that just ‘sound’ right. Can’t get the reasoning behind the title though…and I like the ambiguity that it should remain that way.
STORIES FOR BOYS (BOY)
Stories For Boys might not be so deep for the U2 fans of the early 80’s, however it hasn’t had the same profile of I Will Follow or Electric Co. for example. Adam’s bassline glides around the song and The Edge chimes his way through various motifs on the guitar. For a band that was just starting out in terms of recorded output, this is an incredibly adept song. It is getting the reworked treatment on the upcoming Songs Of Surrender album, and made its way into Bono’s book tour show of the same name. During the Vertigo tour in 2005/06, Bono frequently sang parts of the song during Vertigo. The “Hello, Hello” vocal line marries up very well and shows a ‘going back there’ with the band. In the 25 years between Vertigo and Stories For Boys, U2 had still retained that punkier edge.
YOUR BLUE ROOM (ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKS VOL.1)
Technically listed as Passengers song, Your Blue Room was one of the more readily accessible numbers on the 1995 release that spawned Miss Sarajevo. In full collaboration with Brian Eno, Your Blue Room is a haunting piece of music that is low-key and loungy from the film Beyond The Clouds. The deep guitar lines give a sense of Twin Peaks and Adam Clayton offers his only solo vocal contribution to a U2 song; albeit spoken! Your Blue Room got a run out in the live arena on the 360° Tour in 2009. It featured Sinead O’Connor on recorded vocals for the live shows as well as Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne performing Adam Clayton’s lines.
KITE (ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND)
Kite is a song that still sends shivers down the spine. It is a beautiful song that Bono wrote for his children and how he has to let them go as they grow up. The analogy of a kite not knowing where it is going to fly is moving. It is a mid paced song that truly soars.
The song took on a dual meaning during the evolving tour of 2001. I (Dom) was at the first Manchester show on the UK tour in August 2001, and Bono made public his father’s deteriorating health. Apparently, Bono was flying home after every show to stay with his Dad; a person, by his own admission, he had a tricky relationship with. On the day Bono’s father died, the band played a show at London Earl’s Court; the very definition of the show going on. A couple of weeks after the Manchester show, I saw U2 at Slane Castle, the day after Bono had buried his dad.
The emotion was palpable. In an era before mobile phones lighting up an auditorium, it was fire that lit the Irish sky with people setting paper cups on fire and holding them up during One as images of Bono’s father adorned the stage scs. However, during Kite, a song Bono wrote for his kids, he claimed that he felt his father wrote it for him. Visibly choked, Bono gives it both barrels as he ploughs through the song. Kite is a heart-wrenching song on many levels and one that is a real sleeper in the band’s catalogue.
There is also a great extended B-side live version from 2006 available too (listen here).
I’M NOT YOUR BABY (END OF VIOLENCE SOUNDTRACK)
U2 and Wim Wenders have a long working history together. This song was written by U2 and performed along with Sinead O’Connor. It is a song that was used on the soundtrack to the 1997 Wim Wenders film, The End Of Violence. The song takes a little to kick into the groove but when it does, it is superb. The bassline is scuzzy and dirty, and O’Connor’s vocals snarl and sneer in imperious fashion. You can tell that it is a song from the Pop era of U2, and one that didn’t quite make the cut, but it still cuts through in my opinion. A remixed version appeared on the B-side to Please, and U2 featured it on their Duals fan club release.
THE TROUBLES (SONGS OF INNOCENCE)
Whilst U2 have collaborated with plenty of artists, there aren’t too many instances of the band having guest musicians explicitly on their albums. The Troubles rounds out 2014’s Songs Of Innocence and features Swedish singer Lykke Li. The Troubles speaks of exactly that; the historical troubles in the band’s homeland. It enchants and musically weaves around your mind with dashing strings and Li’s hypnotic vocal refrain. Bono wears his heart on his sleeve and takes centre stage vocally.
The song never got a single release, but it was featured in a short film entitled ‘Every Breaking Wave,’ about The Troubles by Aoife McArdle. Every Breaking Wave is featured on the same album.
NEW YORK (ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND)
Like Kite from ATYCLB, New York gestated on tour into something different in its meaning. New York is not a Sinatra cover, but a blistering rock song that shows U2 at their hardest. Like Exit or Bullet The Blue Sky on Joshua Tree or The Fly, this is U2 at their heaviest.
Post 9/11, U2 moved the song to the encore of their shows and coupled it with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. It’s message was one of strength, defiance, hope and solidarity with the people of the city that had been recently attacked. During U2’s Superbowl XXXVI performance in 2002, they paid tribute to all the people that lost their lives on the grand scale, but at their own shows, it was a more intimate affair. At various shows they welcomed the first responders onstage at the end of their shows, giving them the stage. There are shows available to watch online like this one here, from Madison Square Garden, NYC, 2001. It is visceral and emotional. Watch out for the brilliant version of Please in the middle as well.
HAWKMOON 269 (FROM RATTLE & HUM)
What happens when Bob Dylan joins your band as organ player…The 269 allegedly referring to the number of takes, not that his Bobness would hang around for all of them such is his attitude to recording. However, he adds and inspires U2 to a brooding monster of a track. In fact, it’s Bob’s contribution we hear first before a drum announces the guitar riff that carries the song. Brooding and intense, the ante is constantly upped, the excitement in Bono’s vocals becoming increasingly frantic, akin to an impassioned and manic preacher. One of their most successful forays into American music and culture showcased on R&H.
CEDARS OF LEBANON (NO LINE ON THE HORIZON)
A wonderfully hypnotic piece of music that sounds like it could have sat on Zooropa with its electronic flourishes in the background to embellish certain parts of the lyrics. Lyrically, Bono more speaks than sings the barrage of words that the song contains. There are plenty of poetic lyrical couplets that seek to tell the story of a war correspondent. Musically, Cedars Of Lebanon is a prime example of the U2/Eno/Lanois collective coming together to create some magic. Larry Mullen’s martial drumming helps create an unease and The Edge lays down a signature twinkling guitar line. On the face, it is simple and understated, however, there is a lot to unpack here. It is a U2 song that will probably always be condemned to back catalogue; don’t let this song pass you by as it closes out the bands 2009 album.
U2 will release Songs Of Surrender on 17th March 2023. You can pre-order the album by clicking here. In anticipation of the release, listen to the reworked version of With Or Without You below.