Category: Archive

(Some of) what U2fans are looking for

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Eileen Murphy

It’s been 20 years since Larry Mullen Jr. tacked up the now-legendary note on a bulletin board in Mount Temple secondary school in Dublin. The aspiring drummer was looking for people interested in forming a band. A number of would-be rock and rollers answered the ad, among them guitarists Dave "The Edge" Evans and Adam Clayton, and a would-be singer named Paul "Bono" Hewson. Two decades, millions of dollars and dozens of hit records later, U2 is acknowledged as one of the top bands in the world. And just in case anyone’s forgotten how they made the climb to the top, Island Records has released a greatest hits album, "U2 The Best of 1980-1990."

The compilation hits record stores on Tuesday, Nov. 3, in a limited edition 2-CD set. Available for one week only, the "Best of" set contains one CD of hits, and one CD of "B" sides — rare tracks that were previously released to accompany popular singles. Though a few, like "Silver and Gold" and "The Three Sunrises," were included on albums, most were not.

According to press releases from the band’s record label, the special edition CDs will be pulled from store shelves after the first week. Replacing them will be the official "Best of" CD, which will not include the B-sides. The company gives no reason for the limited vs. regular edition swap, but it’s clear that Island’s parent company, Polygram, wants to ensure big sales — and lots of publicity — during the initial rollout. And, of course, having the album become a hot item on the collectors’ market can’t hurt.

So, is it worth the money? Should you go out and stand on line at midnight (or whenever) just to get your hot little hands on a copy? Is this the absolute must-have for any serious U2 fan? Well, yes . . . and not really.

Though this greatest hits compilation is a good start, it’s not particularly satisfying. U2 is at their best during live performances, which accounts for the success of "Under a Blood Red Sky," "Wide Awake in America" and the better parts of "Rattle and Hum." The band should have included at least a few live tracks. After all, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could choose the studio versions of "Bad" or "I Will Follow" over the live recordings.

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If U2 had wanted to give something back to the fans, they’d have scrapped the B-sides and included a collection of live tracks — perhaps even an old concert recording from the "Joshua Tree" era. But with two more best-of collections due out, we’re sure one will feature live stuff — which might be almost as good as the concert bootlegs available on the black market.

Of course, what’s there is good. All the big hits are here: "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "With or Without You," "New Year’s Day," "Pride [In the Name of Love]," and "Angel of Harlem," as well as some lesser-known singles: "The Unforgettable Fire," "When Love Comes to Town," and "All I Want is You." It’s interesting to note that "All I Want" didn’t get much radio play until a few years after its release, when it was used on the soundtrack of the Gen-X movie, "Reality Bites." This really makes it more of a ’90s single, but this is just splitting hairs: technically, it dates from 1988, when it was the last song on the brilliant but underrated "Rattle & Hum" album.

It’s appropriate that the first of U2’s planned three greatest hits collections focuses on the period between 1980-1990. During these years, U2 carved a unique identity in the music world: at once achingly earnest, oddly naive, passionately political, unflinchingly spiritual.

As the band members matured during the decade, going from their late teens to their late 20s, their music matured as well: The writing became more sophisticated, the arrangements more complex. The band has often said that they weren’t very good in the beginning. Bono is on record as saying that U2 learned to write their own music because he couldn’t manage to sing anyone else’s.

The earliest cut on the album, "I Will Follow," from 1980’s "Boy" album, has all the energy one would expect of a bunch of teenagers let loose in a recording studio. The sound echoes a bit, Bono’s voice is surprisingly unpolished (and, at times, a little flat) and the backup vocals don’t quite blend. But Edge’s guitar work is electrifying, and Larry’s steady behind the drum kit. The song is a teenager’s search for guidance: "When a boy tries hard to be a man/His mother takes him by his hand/He starts to think, he starts to cry/Oh, why?"

Contrast this with the title track from 1981’s "October" album. It is here that U2 starts to experiment. There are no drums, just Edge on keyboard and Bono’s trademark breathy wail. Though short, the song takes a giant leap in perspective: The "Boy" is no longer looking for guidance; he is not quite as self-centered. "October/And kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall/But you go on and on . . ."

"New Year’s Day" from 1983’s "War" album was a breakthrough hit. This was the first indication of the band’s growing political awareness; the enduring images of "a world in riot" under a "blood red sky."

But the track from "War" that everyone remembers is U2’s most personal, and controversial song, the anthemic "Sunday Bloody Sunday." From the military-style drumbeat to the distinctive guitar riffs, the instrumental track underscores the singer’s struggle against heeding the "battle call" of sectarian violence. Given the band’s strong Christian leanings — Bono and Edge both derived their nicknames from the Lypton Village prayer group — they worried that the song would be misread as a call to arms.

After the success of "War," U2 entered a period of introspection, reflected in the moody, ambient sound of the Brian Eno-inspired "Unforgettable Fire." Though the title track was never a big hit, the album contained the wrenchingly beautiful "Bad," and the group’s biggest-selling single to date, the defiant "Pride [In the Name of Love]." This is the album where Bono’s vocal style is fully developed — he’s finally able to hit the high notes without straining or lapsing into falsetto. The trademark breathiness is never more evident than on these two tracks, but here he uses it as a dramatic device, rather than as a crutch. There is a lot of religious imagery in the songs: in "Pride" there is a "man betrayed with a kiss," while in "Bad," there is a desperate desire for "revelation."

1987’s "The Joshua Tree" marked a change of mood (and location) for the band. This was the group’s breakthrough album in the United States; it stayed near the top of the pop charts for months and yielded top-selling singles, including "Where the Streets Have No Name," "With or Without You," and "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For." It was quickly followed by a documentary film titled "Rattle and Hum," which spawned a soundtrack album of the same name. These are the band’s "American" albums — influenced by rhythm and blues, gospel music and Bob Dylan. The best tracks are the Billie Holiday-inspired "Angel of Harlem" and the duet with B.B. King, "When Love Comes to Town."

The only new thing on this best of collection is a retread of "The Sweetest Thing," a lightweight, throwaway song that was originally slated for "The Joshua Tree." The song is nothing extraordinary — a lot of overblown Bono-isms: "My love throws me like a rubber ball/The sweetest thing," and uninspired instrumental accompaniment. It’s hard to imagine the song fitting into the near-perfect "Tree."

The B-sides are a collection of curiosities; after all, there is a reason these were B-sides. Among the few exceptions are a couple of terrific covers, "Everlasting Love" and "Unchained Melody," both of which were backing tracks on the "All I Want is You" single. U2 shows a real flair for the ’60s girl group sound on "Everlasting Love" — they would later take this talent full circle with their performance of the Ronettes’ "It’s Christmas [Baby Please Come Home]" on the charity album "A Very Special Christmas."

Larry’s deceptively lazy percussion track and Bono’s throat-straining shouts during the chorus are strangely compelling on "Unchained Melody," especially for someone who’s not a fan of the Righteous Brothers’ version. Bono occasionally sounds off-key, but somehow, it adds to the sense of urgency.

All things considered, "U2 The best of 1980-1990" may be regarded as a leisurely stroll down memory lane. It’s a good deal for someone who’s a new fan or for someone who enjoys collecting rarities. For everyone else, it’ll look nice on your CD rack — or it would if the cover were more evocative. At worst, you’ll be able to give your CD disc changer a rest.

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