Sunday, 4 March 2012

U2: 1979-1990


Long before the whole Blur V Oasis spat, the question used to be “REM or U2 - which is better?”. The consensus was that REM were the winners here - they spent the whole of the 1980’s selling not many records, but followers believed their brand of Byrds-inspired indierock had an authenticity to it that U2 didn’t have - they may have started as a spiky, post-punk bunch of upstarts from (mostly) Ireland, but ended the decade as globe straddling rockstars, peddling a sort of ‘widescreen’ rock that to some, epitomised the blandness of the decade.

It was a slightly different story thereafter - U2 reinvented themselves with 1991’s “Achtung Baby”, and although there were some hiccups thereafter, a chunk of the critics have always had a soft spot for them. REM meanwhile split up recently, with dissenters asking why they hadn’t thrown in the towel ten years ago. But to be fair, both bands had their good and bad points throughout their entire career. Ignore some of the filler on some of those albums, and you realise just how good some of the U2 stuff is - “One”, in particular, remains the second greatest single released by anybody, after Springsteen's “Born To Run”.

At the end of the 90’s, and start of the Noughties, inbetween their “Pop” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” albums, U2 released a pair of decade spanning best-of releases - the first one covering 1980-1990, the second 1990-2000. There was no new U2 material in 1990, hence the ‘appearance’ of the same year in both sets. Inspired by this, this is the first of three U2 articles that will appear, probably randomly, over the next few months (or years), with each article devoted to a specific time frame. This month, it’s 1979-1990 - the band’s first single was released in Ireland in 79, so the first best-of seemed to start after this date on the basis that not many people bought U2 records before 1980. Future articles will cover 1990-2000, and 2001 onwards.

The First 11 Years

Like so many other bands, U2’s earliest releases were relatively obscure - and thus, now highly valuable - releases. Their first single was the three-track EP “Three”, released on 12” in Ireland only on CBS Records. Done in very limited numbers, it has been reissued on various occasions over the years in the UK, with later releases on both 7” and in picture sleeves. Of the three songs on the EP, two were re-recorded for the band’s 1980 debut LP “Boy” - the third track, “Boy Girl” was not given such treatment, presumably so that anybody who had the EP would not feel cheated when they bought the album.

After another Irish-only 7”, the band’s international debut 45 was “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”, issued in the UK on Island Records. An exclusive non-album single, the track is actually quite well known in U2 circles, as the band took to playing it live on a regular basis over the years, and a number of live versions of the track later appeared as a B-side and on the 1983 live LP, “Under A Blood Red Sky”. The follow up single, the not so well known “A Day Without Me”, was released as the first single from “Boy”.

“Boy” showcased the post-punk influences that fed into the band at this stage, and although it might at times sound rudimentary when compared to the grandiose rock of “The Joshua Tree”, there are some who feel U2 were never better than when they were this fiery and noisy - indeed, the band have regularly returned to this record when it has come to throwing a few curveballs into their live set.

Following the slightly so-so “October”, an album that sounds to me very much that it is suffering from “second album syndrome”, the band issued a stand alone 45, “A Celebration”, in 1982. This is very much an oddity, as the band later admitted to not liking it that much, and haven’t played it live since 1983. It was not a big seller either, so is actually harder to find than any of the singles from “October”, as it’s non-album status, combined with it’s relative scarcity, help to add to it’s rarity value. It is perhaps telling that the b-side, “Trash Trampoline And The Party Girl”, is far more well known, the band opting to perform it live regularly throughout the 80’s as an encore.

It was with 1983’s “War” that U2 finally started to make records that would eventually seal their reputation as creators of “epic” rock. The band began to fuse the fury of the early records with a more “mainstream” sound, and when this worked, it worked brilliantly - the minor key sadness of “New Years Day”, the politicised cry of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, the simple but effective bass-driven beauty of “40”, the latter probably the most famous U2 album track ever, as it has long been the set closer in concert.

1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” built on the critical and commercial success of “War”, and offered up a similar vibe, although one that was starting to edge a bit more towards the mainstream. Although “Pride” is only a stones throw away from being just too overblown and bombastic, the title track is an elegant piece of beauty, possibly the finest U2 moment from this part of their career. It was followed in 1985 by the “is it an EP or is it a mini-album” US release, “Wide Awake In America”, featuring a couple of live tracks and a couple of B-sides. It has been reissued on several occasions over the years, including on CD, and the copy I have from the late 80’s on the Island Masters label features a catalogue number suggesting it is indeed an “album”.

The same summer, and U2 went stellar following their performance at Live Aid. One of several acts who all claim to have stolen the show at Wembley that afternoon, Bono famously jumped down from the stage during the performance of “Bad” to go and meet and greet the front row. The band simply kept playing until he made it back onto the stage, by which time they had over-run and had to leave before playing what should have been their third and final song. Fact fans - neither of the two songs U2 did that day were ever released as singles in the UK, as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” - the opening number - was only released as a single in certain overseas territories (“Two Hearts Beat As One” was released as a single in the UK instead, using the same cover and similar B-sides).

And so, with 1987’s “The Joshua Tree”, U2 became megastars. The sort of album that the NME probably hate nowadays, it’s a perfect showcase of why some people both despise U2 and why others love ‘em - the punky roar of “Boy” now eroded and more or less gone, replaced by a polished and sleek brand of “grown up” music. It also has that “classic album” cover feel, a great photo of the band, in black and white, in a desert. And whilst Bono & Co have become an easy target in recent years, their singer a public hate figure, there’s no denying that there is some very, very good stuff on this album. The propulsive throb of “Where the Streets Have No Name” is utterly thrilling, the likes of “With Or Without You” simply stunning in their slow burning build up. U2 were now so big, that import copies of the “In God’s Country” 45 were sold in such large numbers, that it actually got a UK Top 50 chart position - the first time anybody since (I think) The Jam had managed such an unusual feat.

And yet, bizarrely, “The Joshua Tree” was the beginning of the problems. The band were now playing mega-arenas in the UK, US, and the rest of the world, but Bono admitted he struggled with this, he wasn’t sure how a 4-piece rock band could fill such large stages. The band would later get around such issues during the 1990’s by having a huge TV on stage (the Zoo TV tour), or emerging from a giant glitter ball during the encore (the Pop tour) - effectively, taking the mickey out of the “stadium rock“ show. But this was nothing compared to the controversy of “Rattle And Hum”. The band had been invited to make a movie - not by starring in the next “Police Academy” film, but to make their own ‘Rockumentary’. The group agreed, and the “theme” of the film was “U2 In America”, as the band wandered around the States, educating themselves about traditional American music. So, in one scene, they’d be hanging out with BB King, in another, there’d be a gospel choir doing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

Released in 1988, the film was panned. Critics claimed that U2 were attempting to tell the audience what they already knew about music, or that they were trying to align themselves with the good and the great of American music, and the criticism hit the band hard. U2 were now seen as being pompous, egotistical and self-righteous - and that was just for starters. The accompanying album was a bit of a mess as well - an oddball mix of live recordings, covers and new songs. But for every pointless cover of something like “All Along The Watchtower”, there was a piece of epic genius like the shimmering beauty of “All I Want Is You”. It was patchy, but occasionally, inspired. Indeed, “Rattle And Hum” spawned more singles in the UK than any previous LP they’d released. The band headed out on another tour to promote the record, the “Lovetown” tour, where the opportunity to shoe-horn material from “Rattle And Hum” into the set was afforded, and worked rather well.

U2 ended 1989 with a series of now famous homecoming shows at The Point in Dublin over the Christmas period. In the recent “From The Sky Down” documentary, Bono explained how he felt their return to Ireland was viewed with an element of confusion from the audience. They had “returned” from the USA looking like a different band to the one that had left - footage from the Dublin gigs show Bono wearing a Stetson, The Edge with his hair in a pony tail clad in stone washed denim. Bono believed that U2 had lost their way and that they now looked, and sounded, like a completely different group. To be honest, listening to some bootlegs I have of the Dublin shows, the band at least sound on top form - the pointlessness of “All Along The Watchtower” aside, the shows were a simple blast through the hits, and the better album tracks, including oldies from “Boy”, and the setlists were inspired. But the band felt they had run their course, and Bono famously announced during one show that they were having to “go away, and dream it all up again”. In 1990, the band reconvened for a series of problematic recording sessions, but eventually, during one jam, The Edge played the chords for what would eventually become “One” - and U2 were reborn.

U2 on 45

Although their first single was first released on 12”, U2 tended to shy away from the format during the start of their career. It wasn’t until the “War” album that they began to release singles on this format on a regular basis in the UK, and even then, some releases were academic - the “New Year’s Day” 12” featured the same songs as the doublepack 7”, but was of less interest as it included the album version of the a-side instead of the unique 7” edit.

With the follow up release, U2 showed their dance credentials, as “Two Hearts Beat As One” turned up on 12” laden with remixes, and from then on, the band would use the format either as an opportunity to resurrect the spirit of the EP, or to indulge in their dance tendencies. On occasions, the number of b-sides the band had hanging around was such that some singles would feature different bonus tracks on different formats, but these were few and far between.

With “The Joshua Tree”, the band dabbled in the world of the maxi-single, with both “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” featuring the same track listing on the 7” editions as the other formats, but thereafter, the 7” and Cassette editions were usually for the collectors only, as the band made a concerted effort to include bonus tracks on the 12” (or, by now, the CD format as well) that could not be found on the ‘short play’ formats.

When it was first issued, the “Best Of 1980-1990” release came with a bonus CD, entitled “The B-Sides 1980-1990”, which was a selective trawl through the lesser known items in the band’s back catalogue. Fifteen such songs were picked, space prevented any more than this being included, and the running order was not chronological, but this worked in it’s favour, as it allowed the 1982 b-side “Party Girl” to appear at the very end - fitting, given that, as mentioned earlier, it was a regular encore when the band played it live in the 80’s. The choice of songs seemed to be based around band favourites, and the CD made for an entertaining listen in it’s own right, as the quality of some of these songs was fairly impressive.

By choosing “random” songs, it meant that the bonus CD was not quite a completists dream - indeed, in many instances, the b-sides from latter period singles were available on the 7” and 12” formats, few of the “12” only” bonus tracks made the set. The only exception was the extra tracks from “All I Want Is You”, with the two covers from the 12”/CD editions both making the set. If, like me, you still needed a copy of this single at the time, buying the double-disc “Best Of” allowed you to get the 7” version of “All I Want Is You” instead, and not miss out on any rarities. This would also have been the case with the 12” edition of “The Unforgettable Fire”, but even though the exclusive b-side from that release, “Bass Trap”, made the set, it was edited for inclusion on “The B-Sides“ - and to date, this edit still remains unavailable on any other U2 release.

Given that the double-CD version of “Best Of” is thus an essential buy, the singles discography listed below is based around recommended formats you should buy on the basis you already have the 2-CD edition. Where a single was issued on 7” or double-7”, and this is the ’format of choice’, this is what I have listed. Where other formats exist with the same songs, or have extra songs on “Best Of”, these are shown. In addition to this, where a single was issued on 12”, either as an essential second format, or included additional material over the 7”, this is listed instead or as well as. It sounds complex, but it isn’t really.

Discography

As well as the singles list, I have also listed the albums U2 released between 1980 and 1989. I have decided to list the original vinyl pressings, as this is the format I have most of them on. It also allows me to demonstrate the “personalised” catalogue numbering system the band had in the UK.

If you’re new to the band, well, you may prefer to get the expanded reissues that exist of all five of the studio albums. “Boy”, “October” and “War” were all given 2-CD expanded reissues in 2008, whilst super-duper deluxe editions of “Unforgettable Fire” and “Joshua Tree” exist. The other albums have all been reissued on CD at least once, and although there is a “fancy” edition of “Under The Blood Red Sky”, the bonus DVD with this release is just the “already available” concert video “Live At Red Rocks”, so the original vinyl LP will do the same audio-wise if you prefer your records in big sleeves.

ALBUMS

Boy (1980, LP, Island ILPS 9646)
October (1981, LP, Island ILPS 9680)
War (1983, LP, Island ILPS 9733)
Under A Blood Red Sky (1983, LP, Island IMA 3)
The Unforgettable Fire (1984, LP, Island U2-5)
The Joshua Tree (1987, LP, Island U2-6)
Rattle And Hum (1988, 2xLP, Island U2-7)

“Wide Awake In America” was issued in 85 as a US Mini Album, but made it’s debut in the UK in the late 80’s, and was made available on CD [IMCD 75]. The live version of “Bad” which kicks off the record, for some years, remained unavailable on any other U2 release, but all four songs are on the expanded “Unforgettable Fire“ release.

SINGLES

Three EP: Out Of Control/Stories For Boys/Boy Girl (Numbered Irish Only 12”, CBS 12-7951)
Another Day/Twilight (Demo) (Irish Only 7”, CBS 8306)
11 O’Clock Tick Tock/Touch (7”, Island WIP 6601)
A Day Without Me/Things To Make And Do (7”, Island WIP 6630)
I Will Follow/Boy Girl (Live) (7”, Island WIP 6656)
Fire/J Swallo/11 O’ Clock Tick Tock (Live)/The Ocean (Live)/Cry (Live)/The Electric Co (Live) (2x7”, Island UWIP 6679)
Gloria/I Will Follow (Live) (7”, Island WIP 6733)
A Celebration/Trash Trampoline And The Party Girl (7”, Island WIP 6770)
New Year’s Day (Edit)/Treasure/Fire (Live)/I Threw A Brick Through A Window (Live)/A Day Without Me (Live) (2x7”, Island UWIP 6848)
Two Hearts Beat As One (Edit)/Endless Deep (7”, Island IS 109)
Two Hearts Beat As One (Club Version)/New Year’s Day (US Remix)/Two Hearts Beat As One (US Remix) (12”, Island 12IS 109)
Pride/4th Of July/Boomerang I/Boomerang II (2x7”, Island ISD 202, also on 12”)
The Unforgettable Fire/A Sort Of Homecoming (Live)/Love Comes Tumbling/Sixty Seconds In Kingdom Come/The Three Sunrises (2x7”, Island ISD 220)
The Three Sunrises/The Unforgettable Fire/A Sort Of Homecoming (Live)/Love Comes Tumbling/Bass Trap (12”, Island 12IS 220, different sleeve to 2x7“ format)
With Or Without You/Luminous Times/Walk To The Water (7”, Island IS 319, also on Cassette/12”/CD)
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For/Spanish Eyes/Deep In The Heart (7”, Island IS 328, also on Cassette/12”)
Where The Streets Have No Name/Race Against Time/Silver And Gold/Sweetest Thing (12” with lyric insert & poster, Island 12IS 340, also on Cassette/CD)
Desire/Hallelujah Here She Comes/Desire (Hollywood Remix) (12”, Island 12IS 400, also on CD)
Angel Of Harlem/A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel/Love Rescue Me (Live) (12”, Island 12IS 402, also on CD)
When Love Comes To Town/Dancing Barefoot/When Love Comes To Town (Live from The Kingdom Mix)/God Part 2 (The Hard Metal Dance Mix) (12”, Island 12IS 411, also on CD)
All I Want Is You (Edit)/Unchained Melody (7”, Island IS 422, initial copies in numbered tin with unique p/s. Also on cassette. 12” editions add “Everlasing Love”, CD also adds LP version of a-side)


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