The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Ten)

1. With Or Without You
“I remember I’d seen this girl when she first came to [my high] school, very early on, and thought she looked Spanish, a rose for sure, dark with blood-red lips…There was something so still about her, and to a person who is not still, it was the most attractive thing in the world.  And that was Ali, who within a few weeks would become my girlfriend, and within a few years my wife.”  Bono from U2 By U2
Inspiration.  Every songwriter desires it.  Without it, great music can’t be birthed.  Elusive and spontaneous in nature, it appears in many forms:  your own internal thoughts and feelings evoking some kind of creative excitement, inanimate objects motivating an unlikely lyric, the family pet and, most especially, the love of a beautiful woman.  Indeed, where would U2 be today without Alison Stewart, Bono’s longtime muse?
An Cat Dubh, The Sweetest Thing, Electrical Storm, Spanish Eyes.  That’s just a sampling of the songs she directly inspired.  But there’s one such number, the greatest single U2 has ever made, that stands out above all the others.
It began life as a simple chord pattern, unearthed at some point during The Unforgettable Fire tour.  There were no lyrics, no dazzling guitar riffs and no melody line for the vocal.  Not yet, anyway.  Expanding on Bono’s original musical idea would prove exhausting and difficult, like a number of the songs that would end up on The Joshua Tree album, as The Edge explained to author Neil McCormick:
“We tried all kinds of permutations but it never seemed to get any closer to sounding like a record.”
Then, the band took a break to participate in the 1986 Conspiracy Of Hope tour in support of the human rights organization, Amnesty International.  Once back in the recording studio, they returned to the song.
Adam Clayton noted in U2 By U2 that “in earlier versions, it sounded very traditional because the chords just went round and round and round.  It was hard to find a different take on it or a new way into it, it was just a promise of a song.  We started playing with a drum machine and having it build up with a big fat bass.”
The real turning point was the arrival of a dangerous new product:
“I was sent a prototype of the Infinite guitar by Michael Brook[e],” The Edge remembered in U2 By U2.  “It arrived during the sessions with elaborate instructions on how to hook it up:  one wrongly placed wire and you could get a nasty [bolt] of electricity.  This piece of gear would have failed even the most basic of safety regulations…It was homemade technology, but very effective.  It gave me infinite sustain, like a violin.  I had just taken it out of the box and was playing around with it in one room while Gavin Friday and Bono were in the control room listening to the backing track of ‘With Or Without You’.  We were really at an impasse in the search for the right arrangement, and were just at the point of leaving the song to one side.  Then, through an open door, they heard the sound of the Infinite guitar combining with the bass and drums and just went:  ‘That’s it!  But what the fuck is it?'”
Bono wanted The Edge to record with that mysterious guitar right away without any hesitation.  It was a major breakthrough for a difficult song neither Daniel Lanois nor Brian Eno, who contributed a crucial keyboard part, had much faith in.  But according to Bono, Gavin Friday, his old pal, felt differently and became a major champion for the track.
“He personally rescued ‘With [O]r Without You’.  He pulled it out of the wastepaper bin, organized it, structured it and was the one who believed it could be a big hit when Brian and Danny had passed on it,” the U2 singer told Neil McCormick.  (Friday was thanked in the liner notes of The Joshua Tree for his efforts.)
In the Classic Albums episode devoted to the 1987 blockbuster, The Edge noted how proud he was to have gotten away with a very simple solo, rather than something more grandiose and overwrought, during the song’s final minute.  It’s an amusing moment when he talks about that while playing those exact notes.
Then came the words.
“The lyric is pure torment,” Bono remarked in U2 By U2.  “One of the things that was happening at that time was the collision in my own mind between being faithful to your art or being faithful to your lover.  What if the two are at odds?  Your gift versus domestic responsibility?…I have this person in my life whom I love more than my life but I’m wondering if the reason I’m not writing is because I’m now a domesticated beast.  I’m wondering if I’m house-trained?  If I meet somebody and I want to go off with them, to find out what their world is like, I can’t because I’m a married man.  It’s not even about sexual infidelity.  I just remember thinking: ‘Is this the life of an artist?  Am I going to have kids and settle down and betray my gift or am I going to betray my marriage?’  It was a very difficult time in my head.”
The song was the first single issued from The Joshua Tree and became the band’s first number one single in The United States.  (The liner notes of 18 Singles erroneously states that it only reached number two.)  It was also the first single to be issued on CD.  According to, there’s even a rare Video CD version that was put together for the now-defunct CDV player produced by Philips.  Only 50 copies exist.
At various U2 concerts throughout the last 20 years, the song has been performed with an added verse nicknamed the Shine Like Stars section.  (“Yeah, we’ll shine like stars in the summer night/We’ll shine like stars in the winter night/One heart, one hope, one love/With or without you”)  According to this website, this extended version of the track has been played 183 times since 1987, mostly during tours in support of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.  There have been occasions when Bono slightly alters the lines of that bonus section just to mix things up a bit.
Curiously, the song has only been licensed four times and never for a commercial.  At the movies, it was heard in the 1994 thriller Blown Away (which also features I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For), and in the little-seen 1999 movie, With Or Without You.  On TV, it was featured in two episodes of Friends.  In The Season 2 Episode, The One With The List, it’s the song Ross dedicates to Rachel over the radio.  (Listen for the tail end of the intro leading into the first verse at the 20:51 mark.)  And in The One Where Ross & Rachel Take A Break from Season 3, it’s the song playing while a depressed Ross, who’s just been dumped by Rachel, reluctantly dances with an overeager woman who works at a copy place.  (The “sleight of hand” line kicks off at the 21:05 mark.)
One last bit of trivia.  Who is that mysterious woman you occasionally see in the video for With Or Without You?  That would be Morleigh Steinberg, who years later was hired for the Zoo TV tour to replace a departing belly dancer.  The choreographer, who worked on Wild Orchid and Earth Girls Are Easy, ended up becoming The Edge’s second wife in 2002 after a long courtship.
What makes this 5-minute single the greatest one in U2’s growing repertoire?  Why is it better than the mournful but appreciative tributes Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own and Mofo?  Why is it more emotionally profound than the deeply moving anthems Miss Sarajevo, Beautiful Day, Pride and Where The Streets Have No Name?  Why do the lyrics connect more strongly than the lines in the strangely hypnotic Numb?  And why is it more captivating than the groundbreaking I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and The Fly?
Those who have loved and lost instinctively know the answers to all of those questions.  No intellectual articulation is necessary.  When you listen intently to the words, Bono’s confident vocals and that stirring arrangement, your emotions tell you everything you need to know.  There is no greater subject for a songwriter to tackle than love and no other U2 song captures the crux of romance like With Or Without You.
There’s that strong sense of recognition you feel as Bono quietly bemoans the state of his relationship while simultaneously refusing to let it go.  There’s something there, a deep and powerful love that flourishes during the great moments and drowns during the worst, hence his dilemma.
He paints a cold portrait of his lover.  (“See the stone set in your eyes/See the thorn twist in your side”)   What did he do this time?, you think to yourself.  There’s the image of a storm representing ongoing interpersonal turmoil.  It’s a lyrical idea he would also use on The Sweetest Thing (“Ours is a stormy kind of love”) and the aptly named Electrical Storm.  Yet, the relationship survives.  (“Through the storm we reach the shore”)  But Bono is a demanding bugger and is unsatisfied with the current state of affairs despite his lover’s best efforts.  (“You give it all but I want more”)
Adam Clayton’s bass playing is so important here.  One wrong note, one mistimed pluck and the whole thing falls apart.  He quickly settles into a nice groove at the 8-second mark which sets the tone for the entire song.  Add Larry Mullen Jr.’s deliberately simple but potent drumming, two very different guitar parts by The Edge and Brian Eno’s subtle keyboard work to the mix and it’s quite an arrangement.
The alternate uses of The Infinite and The Explorer work remarkably well.  The high, drawn-out notes, which sound like they were created with a theremin, constrasted with The Edge’s signature guitar sound is instantly memorable.  It’s impossible to think of this song not including those crucial elements.
Like all the best U2 songs, With Or Without You keeps building and building to its emotional apex and then, it ends without a lyrical resolution.  It’s an authentic ending.  Life is messy.  People change.  Relationships aren’t perfect or safe.  The temperature goes up and it goes down.  But love and sex will always be irresistibly addictive to any two people who find themselves drawn together for the purpose of unified passion.  The trick is making it last.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 19, 2007
2:26 a.m.
Published in: on August 19, 2007 at 2:28 am  Leave a Comment  

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