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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


U2 are a band it is difficult to be indifferent towards. They take themselves and what they do very very seriously and correspondingly, so do their fans; often on issues beyond the regular themes of rock and pop. George W. Bush may have found Bono something of an irritant but there is no doubting that the singer is entirely committed and genuine in the subjects he chooses to bring to the world's attention.

This makes U2 an easy target for critics, politicians and general haters. They may not be the cuddliest of bands but you can never doubt their desire at the height of their career to try to keep themselves moving intellectually and musically. This drive never to stand still is what has probably kept them together so tightly as a unit but also to generate such unwavering loyalty from their devotees.

A U2 concert is not unlike a church service - you are unlikely to have dropped in casually but with intention and purpose. And, correspondingly, the band deliver whole-heartedly and have done at every stage of their career.

It is easy therefore to see their career as one of seamless progress with few wrong-turns and certainly ones that could easily be addressed but, of course, it is never as simple as it seems.

Which brings me to our latest subject - U2's 1984 album "The Unforgettable Fire". This is a record that is seldom referred to in their back-catalogue, sandwiched as it is between the acclaimed "War" and the legendary "The Joshua Tree". With one exception (of which more later), it is largely left at the wayside, even by their fans and yet it is a far more significant piece of work, at least in their own development than it seems to be given credit.

I know many of you will say you have a copy (or certainly had one) but when was the last time you actually gave it an airing... but then that's why we're here isn't it?

For once, I'm going to start at the end - 13th July 1985. A day I still feel privileged to have been part of - Live Aid at Wembley Stadium.

The bafflingly popular film "Bohemian Rhapsody" allegedly (I say allegedly because of course, I haven't seen it) tells the story of Queen's dilemma in the build-up to a concert in front of billions as to how they should present themselves - I can assure you of one member of the audience who really could not have cared less and wondered why they had only given Elvis Costello space for one song instead.

However, in fairness, their agonising restored their appeal to their audience that (equally bafflingly!) still endures today. David Bowie, another star out of the public eye also made a difficult decision and dropped "Five Years" in order to play the harrowing famine video backed by The Cars' "Drive". Bob Geldof claims that it was the moment that changed the course fo the day and donations really ramped up.

Both were taking very conscious decisions about how they would be perceived by - let's be honest - the whole world, knowing that it was a day to create lasting legacies.

U2, or at least Bono, understood this better than most. However, their decision was much more spontaneous and potentially risky. Particularly true, when you consider that U2 were still - and certainly in the company they were in that day - not especially established artists and the decision very nearly fractured the band for good.

All of which brings us to the epic lead single from "The Unforgettable Fire" and setlist staple "Pride (In The Name Of Love)".

This song was originally intended to be about Ronald Reagan's pride in US military power but was changed later after Bono had read a book on the Civil Rights movement and the different approaches to it - peace or violence. It feels almost an identikit U2 song - bold, expressive and 'important' but with a guitar hook that opens up space for the song to soar.

It became quickly their biggest hit in the UK and the US to date and seemed to build on the success that their previous album had ignited. It seems like the perfect staging post between the unflinchingly militaristic crispness of "War".

You probably remember its triumphant rendition at "Live Aid".

You don't?

That'll be because, with every artist limited to the length of their set, they couldn't get round to playing it - their biggest and most current global hit.

Instead, having kicked off with the suitably anthemic "Sunday Bloody Sunday" from "War" - this issue of course being the Northern Irish troubles - they launched into an extended 12 minute version of "Bad" from their latest album - a song about heroin use.

Famously, Bono jumped into the audience and pulled out a girl from the crowd (who had come to see Wham incidentally) where she was being crushed and danced with her, while the band were forced to jam on as their singer riffed lyrical snippets from Lou Reed and The Stones over their looping riff.

This was how they finished their set and The Edge was furious, convinced the band had blown it by not playing "Pride". How, after all, could they ignore their most memorable piece of work?

What probably made this worse is that, although U2 enjoyed playing "Bad" live and so did their audience, it was a song that had been described as "unfocused" and "unfinished" by the critics. Indeed, this had been levelled at the album as a whole.

Did they really want this to be the largest ever global audience's abiding memory of them.

As a band U2 were (at least for that moment) very much in crisis. It should be remembered they were not the all-conquering tour-de-force they are even now but had some very genuine competitors - not least their Celtic soul brothers, Simple Minds - in the race for "important" band supremacy, taking on the mantle of the imploding Police - a couple of years later at that band's final concert appearance they would symbolically hand their instruments to U2 who followed them on stage.

Fierce and successful competition and a seemingly confusing album meant that this was not a time for taking chances but sticking with the more obvious formulas, it would seem.

This was not however, the first occasion that the band had stretched its internal tension to almost breaking point as around the time of their early global breakthroughs culminating with "War". Three quarters of the band were feeling severely compromised by the temptations of life on the road as it pertained to their strict Christian beliefs. Adam Clayton (the "non-believer") seemed at odds with his bandmates as he enjoyed the fruits of his rock and roll labours. The band thought seriously of splitting but made a conscious decision to stick together.

Then after the success of "War", U2 felt the need to change everything up and after three albums with Steve Lilywhite as producer (he normally only did two with any artist), they decided to change direction to find something different with their sound. They had originally considered Jimmy Iovine who had produced their incredibly powerful live mini-album "Under A Blood Red Sky" but his musical direction seemed too American for them and they wanted a more European feel.

Conny Plank, who had produced Ultravox was considered but ultimately they decided on the maverick Brian Eno who had of course collaborated with Bowie on his ultra-european Berlin trilogy.

It seemed inspired... but

Eno did not really want to produce anymore, being far more enthusiastic about making videos and wanting little to do with what he saw as a fairly straight-forward rock band. He took on the job on the basis that he could bring his then-engineer, Daniel Lanois. Eno proved largely uninterested in the rock-style tracks such as "Pride" and "Sort of Homecoming" and left them to Lanois to supervise.

This proved serendipitous as he would spend time with each of the band members, particularly Larry Mullen, perfecting their parts and developing their skills. To this day, they all talk glowingly of his influence.

Eno's contribution was to create a soundscape for the band that would come across very differently. More complex, more textured and more characterful. He had become interested in the project through the band's desire to explore different recording techniques and the move from Windmill Studios (at least initially) to recording in the more cathedral setting of Slane Castle allowed him to create greater layers and more intimacy to their sound.

A track such as "4th Of July" is a perfect example of the fact that this is actually an album that would sound pretty marvellous as an ambient instrumental piece. The afore-mentioned track was part of a bass jam with which The Edge then joined. It was a one-off recording that Eno was certain he wanted to capture - its resonance you can hear throughout their next album on tracks like "Bullet The Blue Sky" with a deeper bass and more swinging drum rhythm. It might be a slight instrumental track but it has held up very well and could happily sit on a classic Balearic playlist, after probably something by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

But the truth is that the lack of focus for the album was heightened by the dichotomy between the powerful sonic textures and the vagueness of the lyrics. U2 had always been an earnest and non-ironic and the desire to improvise the lyrics and make them more obscure simply led to a less accessible piece.

Only "Pride" and "Bad" seem to follow any kind of narrative. The opener ' A Sort Of Homecoming" has everything that would make the first side of "The Joshua Tree" so powerful except for any really memorable hook. Much of the album struggles with this.

The title track "The Unforgettable Fire" has a suitably lofty theme being named after an exhibition on the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - something they would return to in 2004 with "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb". However, whilst I always like the track when I hear it, I suspect that it is because it sounds more like a Simple Minds concoction than one of their own. It sounds iconic and epic but ultimately I can never ever recall its melody.

So here's my theory on 80s U2...

They were a band who defied the theory that most artists are only capable of a golden period of three consecutive albums which some critics have propagated. I believe that U2 are a band that always needed a long run-up (an album's worth to be honest) in order to get their sighting absolutely right.

"October" with a classic like "Gloria" hints at the stridency that oozes through "War" - but, as an album, it is earnest rather than exciting.

"The Unforgettable Fire" moves U2 into a different territory entirely with its innovative sonic palette but lacks a focus and its most significant hit "Pride" seems to look back not forwards. Its successor "The Joshua Tree", however, has all the panorama but is allied to some masterful songwriting.

"Rattle & Hum" seemed to want to find an authenticity perhaps in response to their achievement of mega-success. The output always comes across as a bit stodgy. This was a very divisive album and required another reset with the significant antidote of inventiveness that comes with "Achtung Baby".

Hit - Miss - Hit - Miss - Hit -Miss - Hit...

That's a good 11 year career. The 90s and beyond follow no real pattern but then their career trajectory has been achieved.

So back to Bono and The Edge and their Wembley stand-off.

Within a week, every U2 album had re-entered the charts and the chiselling of their legacy had begun. Of course, what we know now is that Bono's performance on the day, which I still believe was absolutely genuine, showed him to be one of the artists that really connected with the sense of occasion that Live Aid presented.

Not only was it electric in the stadium it made great television.

From that day forwards, U2 would always be taken seriously and though it is still a surprisingly obscure album, "The Unforgettable Fire" fitted that purpose perfectly. It may not have been immediate but it felt like it was chock-a-block full of significance and that suited a growing fanbase just waking up to what they were on the cusp of becoming. The band themselves seemed to acknowledge the duality of their current musical status as well.

A track like "Wire" did not sound like any of its peers with its piercing guitar effects and loose feel. Lyrically, it had a greyness in its improvisation that allowed endless interpretation. Whilst "MLK" had a gospel-feel that no other "rock" band would dare to tackle and certainly would not pull off.

There is a huge amount of invention in "The Unforgettable Fire" and as such it is an enjoyable listen particularly for its sonic invention. Thanks to the influence of Eno, unlike other U2 albums, this one can be played more as background than certainly the two that surround it chronologically, which do everything in their power to absolutely demand your completely full attention.

In truth it is the two televised live performances at Red Rocks in 1983 and then at Live Aid two years later that cement the U2 myth. Bono's live decision in retrospect looks like a genius one - his current album of the time may have been a transition to far greater rewards but, though rarely examined now, "The Unforgettable Fire" provided enough intrigue and bravery to tie them over and support their rapidly growing status.

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Mar 07, 2021

A very thoughtful piece, Tony, that has made me go re-examine (yes- I have one of those long unplayed copies!). Daniel Lanois interests me greatly. Having started out producing Martha & the Muffins, he bumps into Eno, gets the U2 gig - that then went on forever - and which tipped him in the direction of Peter Gabriel (on So, a world class album) and a grateful Bob Dylan, with whom he's worked countless times. Quite a pedigree, and his solo work is engaging, too.

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