The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Five)

6. Where The Streets Have No Name
Brian Eno was frustrated.  Something was amiss and he was about to take matters into his own hands.
U2 had spent many months developing new material for their fifth record.  From the beginning, it was a struggle.  Nearly 30 songs were in contention for this crucial album but progress was slow.  As the end of the recording sessions were in sight, the band realized something very important.  They were missing a certain kind of song, a big, spectacular anthem that would not only find a home on radio but would sound fantastic during live concerts.
It was The Edge who composed the music.  Finding himself alone without any distractions he started working on the tune in his new house, as he explained in U2 By U2:
“I took a room upstairs and set up a few keyboards, a bass, a guitar, and a drum machine.  At first nothing came.  I was recording onto a four-track tape machine, working alone, sequencing keyboards to the drum machine.  I was starting to get desperate and thinking about the next tour.  I imagined being at a U2 show and tried to dream-up what I would want to hear.  It was my attempt to conjure up the ultimate U2 live song.”
When he finished mixing the demo he was most pleased.  “…I thought I had just come up with the most amazing guitar part and song of my life…”
Meanwhile, Bono and his wife, Alison, were in Ethiopia.  A representative of World Vision had contacted the singer personally to invite him to check things out for himself.  Initially, he was worried about it becoming “a PR thing”.  But when he was reassured that the trip would be private, he readily agreed.  It was the smartest decision he ever made.  Little did he know, he was about to become an important advocate for change in Africa.
The young couple were assigned an orphanage and a feeding station to look after.  It was here that he would write the lyrics to The Edge’s new song “on a scrap of paper, an Air India sick bag, I think” without even realizing it.
When he returned from his trip, the band spent many hours trying to improve The Edge’s initial take.  They had a hell of a time trying to recreate all the different elements.  No matter how many rehearsals and takes were done, they simply weren’t getting anywhere.
At one point, Brian Eno had an idea.  He would erase what they had down on tape and have everyone start from the beginning.  In his mind, this would expedite the recording process.  The band would finish the song faster if they scrapped everything they had saved, which was giving them great fits of frustation anyway, and try again with a clean slate.  Fed up with the lack of progress and all their wasted efforts he made his move.  At the exact same time, Pat McCarthy, the tape operator, came in and literally blocked Eno’s path.  He absolutely refused to budge and Eno backed off.  U2 continued working with what they had.
When manager Paul McGuinness suggested bringing in former producer Steve Lillywhite to help out, the acceptance of that decision was a major turning point, even though he believes Eno and Daniel Lanois were not happy about it.  Lillywhite mixed the song and even picked it as a possible single.  It would become a Top 20 hit in America and a Top 5 smash in the UK. 
In the end, the band could never get one full take of the song.  Bassist Adam Clayton noted in U2 By U2 that “the version we’ve got was cobbled together from a few different takes.”  As a result, it took them a while to work it all out in a live setting where you only get one chance to make it work.
In the many years since its release, it’s become what The Edge had hoped it would when he was writing the music for it.  It is a reliable concert staple.  During The Elevation Tour, the band performed it during a particularly memorable, sold out, 2001 show in New York’s Madison Square Garden.  The lights were on for the duration of the number and when it was over, according to Bono, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  He was so moved by the collective outpouring of emotion, he said to the crowd, “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight.”  The line would end up in the chorus of City Of Blinding Lights, one of the great singles from their 2004 album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.  Greatness inspiring more greatness.
In U2 By U2, Bono called it “the perfect introduction” to The Joshua Tree.  “It is one of the most extraordinary ideas, only matched by The Doors’ ‘Break On Through To The Other Side’ as a throw-down to an audience.  Do you want to go there?  Because if you do, I’m ready to go there with you, to that other place.  Call it what you like, a place of soul, a place of imagination, where there are no limitations.”
He’s almost right.  Where The Streets Have No Name is actually the superior of the two hits.  And it’s not just the main lyrical thrust of the song that’s extraordinary.  The musical execution is first-rate, as well.  It’s the search for some kind of utopia with typical Irish bitterness.
Forget the butchered version of this song, which carelessly scraps most of that marvellous intro.  For me, it’s the full 5 and a half minute song or nothing at all.  It begins with atmosphere as a deeply moving amalgam of long keyboard notes quietly and patiently fade in.  And then The Edge takes over, demonstrating once again his genius for simple, hypnotic guitar lines.
Every member of the band plays a pivotal role here.  Adam Clayton’s bass playing is the anchor, giving the song the fat bottom it requires to take off.  At times, it’s quite distinguishable, stealing just the right amount of attention before letting the others take the lead again.  Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming is unusual and appropriately energetic.  No hi-hat, just the pounding of the bass drum, the snare and those tom-toms, which gives the song a gritty, tribal feel.   Add his perfect timing on the cymbal crashes and he sounds even more confident than he does on Pride.
Bono’s vocal performance is typically strong, a mix of passion and emotional anguish.  The more you examine the lyrics the more you believe the song is about sex, about finding a way to let go of all inhibitions and give yourself completely to your lover resulting in mutual satisfaction.  But all is not well here.  (“The city’s a flood and our love turns to rust”)  There are a lot of distinctive images like that.  The use of sunlight as a redeeming source of energy.  (“I wanna feel sunlight on my face”)  Unforeseen circumstances starting to sever a once solid relationship.  (“We’re beaten and blown by the wind/Trampled in dust”)  The constant repetition of destructive patterns.  (“We’re still buliding and burning down love”)  Through it all, though, there is hope.  Not only is the song very sexual, it’s also a rescue mission, a last-ditch effort to rekindle a dying love by putting it through some kind of spiritual cleansing.
It’s a perfect companion song to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  The characters in both songs are essentially searching for the same thing, that elusive inner peace not found in the deserts of their despair.  Where The Streets Have No Name, however, is more hopeful and moving.  Bono has a plan here, where in the other song he’s running out of options.  He still might not find the key to his happiness in “a place/High on a desert plane” but at least he’s found a new location to thoroughly examine.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, July 21, 2007
2:41 p.m.
Published in: on July 21, 2007 at 2:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

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