The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part One)

Making a Top 10 list is usually a colossal pain in the ass.  Why?  Well, for one, it’s rarely easy.  With an abundance of choices, it’s frequently difficult to narrow them down to just two, essential handfuls.  Then, there’s the matter of getting the order right.  It’s not unusual to second guess yourself or constantly re-arrange the placement of your selections.
 
The following list, however, is a delightful exception.
 
Since 1979, U2 have recorded and released over 60 singles.  I’ve heard all but 4 of them.  (Another Day, the studio recording of 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, A Celebration and the original version of Out Of Control are awfully hard to find and have never been issued on CD.)  Very rarely does this band produce a stinker or a commercial flop or a combination of the two.  Indeed, there are many individual treasures in their catalogue.
 
But what are their absolute best singles?  Which songs, spawned off of studio albums, soundtracks & various compilations and issued for the purpose of mass radio and TV consumption, represent their finest hours in the recording studio?
 
Let the debating begin:
 
10. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
 
They called it “militant pacifism”,  fighting for peace without ever throwing a punch or brandishing a weapon.  It was a typically contradictory idea from a band with a long history of them.
 
This was U2’s first attempt at an image and it served two purposes.  It was cheap (acquiring white flags was not a lavish expense) and it was a simple, visual representation of the music they recorded for their third album.  Despite its shaky logic, it brought them to the next level of their development.
 
While on tour for War in 1983, the band made a stop in Hawaii of all places.  On November 16, they had a gig scheduled at the NBC Arena in Oahu.  Before the show, they had an opportunity to do a soundcheck.  An imprompu jam session provided the starting point for their first great single, a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on War.  The skeleton had been unwittingly created, thankfully preserved on tape.  But it would be months later before layers were added to transform it into a fully developed body of substance.
 
Also during this period, Bono had a fateful meeting with a Rolling Stone writer named Jim Henke, an early champion of U2.  He gave the former Paul Hewson two books.  One was about Malcolm X, the other, Martin Luther King Jr.  Bono immersed himself in the lives of these fallen civil rights leaders but found himself more drawn to King because he was the complete opposite of himself.  The Irish soul singer wouldn’t hesitate to use violence when necessary at various moments in his life whereas the American icon strongly resisted such temptations.  Bono admired this difficult stance he took and it would prove a turning point in his own life leading to all kinds of political and charitable crusades later on as the band’s fame and credibility grew hand in hand.
 
In 1984, that original jam session would be unearthed and the band would tinker constantly with the arrangement while working on other material for The Unforgettable Fire.  Contrary to what has been previously noted by at least one historian, it was not an easy song to finish.  It most certainly did not take 15 minutes to complete.
 
The sessions began in early May at Slane Castle in Ireland.  The basic foundation was laid down but changes were constantly being made.  During a 28-minute documentary about the making of the album, Bono claims that King’s best speeches were the ones where he “threw away the script”.  And in the spirit of that claim, Bono proceeded to experiment with improvised lyrics.  (He also notes later on, “If you come to the microphone with finished words and a finished melody and that’s all you’ll have when it’s recorded.”  Clearly, he was hoping to spontaneously improve his lyrics during any one of his vocal sessions.)  When they moved to Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin the following month, he was still trying to come up with better lines right in the middle of a take. 
 
Why was it so difficult to settle on a particular version?  One word:  perfectionism.
 
For one thing, it was too long.  Producer Brian Eno notes during the documentary that it originally clocked in at about 5 and a half minutes.  At Windmill Lane, they were initially able to cut a minute off the running time.  But Bono was unhappy with his lyrics and the tempo, among other things.  He thought the words could be better and that the pacing was too fast.  Years later in the U2 By U2 coffee table book, he complained about being discouraged from further developing his original thoughts.  He notes that everybody else was more interested in the feel of the song rather than what he was trying to say.  He rather insanely dismisses the final result as being a “simple sketch”.
 
In the end, the finished version runs for 3 minutes and 49 seconds.  Both the single release and the album cut are the same.  No more trims were necessary.  Issued a month before the public unveiling of their fourth album, Pride (In The Name Of Love) would be the band’s first Top 40 hit in America.  While it didn’t get any higher than 33 (it was, however, a Top 5 smash in Britain), it was a major breakthrough in more ways than one.
 
 
 
U2 are notorious for underrating certain songs in their catalogue.  Pride is a prime example.  Despite what certain members of the band, and even some critics will tell you, it has all the key elements of a great U2 song.  There’s a reason it’s been played over 700 times in concert.
 
Think about it.  Besides the first-rate lyrics, there’s Bono’s alternately restrained and impassioned vocals; Larry Mullen Jr.’s pounding drum rhythms (easily, his most recognizable); Adam Clayton’s quietly steady bass playing, and the confident strumming of The Edge’s memorably echoey riff.  From the moment you hear that guitar and those drums collectively kicking off the song, you immediately pay attention.  It’s hard not to.  That introduction, one of their finest, dares you to ignore it.  You can’t.  It marks the arrival of the complete U2, the U2 that would go on to make great albums, not just great singles like this one.
 
Then Bono starts singing about Martin Luther King Jr.  Although, sometimes, you wonder if he’s really thinking about Jesus.  The second verse mentions Judas Iscariot’s kiss of death.  (“One man betrayed with a kiss.”)
 
Essentially, this is a eulogy not just for two great civil rights leaders, but also for the movements of “militant pacifism” they both so ably led in different millenniums, movements that always seemed more brave than smart, but undoubtedly influenced positive societal changes in the years that followed.
 
In a matter of 12 lines, Bono evokes rich images of stubbornness and conviction, of an idea leading to a belief further leading to a movement of irresistible force.  There’s a sense of carelessness in certain lines, a sense of numbness his heroes share because feeling pain or any kind of discomfort would be an admission of failure.  (“One man caught on a barbed wire fence.  One man he resist.”)
 
In the chorus, Bono asks the rhetorical question, “What more in the name of love?”.  Indeed.  What else could one do to “overthrow” the old order beyond giving motivational speeches to the faithful, organizing peaceful demonstrations and sacrificing your own life?
 
There’s the famous factual inaccuracy in verse three – “Early morning, April four” – which directly references King’s 1968 assassination.  (He was really killed at night.)  If Bono had simply added a “u” to the spelling of “morning”, he wouldn’t have to concede anything.
 
Pride is an impossible song to sing.  The notes that Bono reaches speak well of his talent for hitting high, emotional peaks few others can reach themselves, especially the most well-intentioned karaoke singers.  The way he restrains himself in the early verses before erupting in passion during the choruses reveals both a sensitivity and sensibility about his vocal approach.  By reserving his passion for specific lines, the song has a chance to breathe and not feel overwrought.  Although his humming near the end has a duck-tape-over-the-mouth quality about it, it doesn’t detract from the overall result.
 
If Bono is serious in his criticism of his own lyric writing, what else could he possibly have said here that would’ve improved what he already recorded?  The Bono of 1984 did all he could to pay tribute to two men he never actually names in the song.  In just under 4 minutes and with simple, evocative imagery, not to mention that emotionally charged arrangement, he reminds us of their historical significance and, most especially, their stubborn determination to see their ideas and beliefs come to life.  Without question, he admires their pride and their refusal to let anything stand in their way.
 
In a way, he resurrects their humanitarian spirits in Pride, hoping their reawakened ideas will inspire him to follow their lead out of the recording studio and off the concert stage.  He admires the struggles they went through and, in the years since this song’s initial release, he understands the value of incremental victories, something neither of these men ever aimed for.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 15, 2007
1:36 a.m.
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Published in: on July 15, 2007 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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