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The Songwriters | U2

'Where craft ends and spirit begins'

In a singular process of collaboration, U2 puts mood and emotion first. The words follow.

August 08, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Because he didn't like the sound of the low strings on his Gibson Explorer guitar, Edge concentrated on the upper strings, giving the music engaging trebly overtones. It was the bright, clarion cry of his guitar that injected a rich, irresistible quality in "I Will Follow," the centerpiece of the group's debut album, 1980's "Boy."

The lyrics of the song, with their "I was lost, but I am found" imagery, are commonplace on the printed page, but they soar in the energy and youthful optimism of the track.

The band members didn't even think of themselves as songwriters until the third album, 1983's "War."

Before starting that project, Edge, the group's most accomplished musician, spent three weeks trying to put together some musical ideas so they wouldn't be starting strictly from scratch in the rehearsal hall. Two of the ideas led to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," songs that lifted the band to new creative heights.

"My job is to find an image that sort of evokes the music," Bono says, "and it was easy with 'New Year's Day.' The piano notes on the song were icy, and Adam's bass line told you it's outdoors, not indoors."

As he stood in the studio on the day in 1982 that U2 was finalizing "New Year's Day," Bono had a mental picture of Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader, standing in the snow on New Year's Day, leading a workers strike. It resonated with him.

The band members had gone through some problems, and they weren't sure they wanted to continue together. Their spiritual values seemed at odds with the rock lifestyle, but they finally realized they could use the music to share their beliefs. So it felt like the band too was beginning again.

Against a gentle musical backdrop, Bono pieced together a message about starting over and solidarity, a message of innocence and hope.

With "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the other key song on the "War" album, the idea for the song as well as the title and basic chords came from the Edge. The melody and a sort of militaristic, Clash-like frame were added in the studio.

"The idea was to contrast Bloody Sunday, where 13 peaceful Irish protesters were killed by British paratroopers, with an Easter Sunday," Bono says. "I had started to discover the principle of nonviolence at the time, and there's also a piece of that in there."

The song's opening lines:

I can't believe the news today

I can't close my eyes and make it go away

How long, how long must we sing this song?

By the time "War" was released, U2 was being widely hailed as the best young rock band in years. Yet their songwriting was still in question. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" were good starts. But where was their "Let It Be"?

They found it the next year.

Blues and prayers

A salute to the nonviolence doctrine of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "Pride (In the Name of Love)" was the group's first Top 40 U.S. single. In it, the craft and spirit came together.

U2 was working by then with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who encouraged the band to adopt even grander, more atmospheric musical textures.

In "Pride," the music felt as majestic as cathedral bells as Bono sang these lines:

Early morning, April 4

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They could not take your pride

The band's masterpiece -- and the first pure rock album to win a best album Grammy since the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" -- was just months away.

U2 had become fascinated with America on the tours that preceded "The Joshua Tree" album.

Where early musical influences included Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and a lot of punk and post-punk outfits, from the Clash and Sex Pistols to Television and Patti Smith, the time in the U.S. led them to explore the rootsy blues and country sounds that had contributed so much to the birth of rock.

Bono read his way through tours, devouring the works of such American novelists, playwrights and poets as Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, Charles Bukowski, Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg, among hundreds. It all helped him become more intimate and immediate as a writer. And the Scriptures were, as they'd been from the beginning, a constant source of inspiration.

The fruits of the band's exploration came together in "The Joshua Tree," whose "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" picked up a Grammy nomination for record of the year.

Like "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Looking For" was epic rock, built around Edge's exhilarating guitar and the march-like feel of Mullen's drumming and the seductive push of Clayton's bass notes. In movie terms, it was in every way a widescreen, Technicolor affair.

Bono's lyrics outlined the tale of search for satisfaction and salvation:

I have run I have crawled

I have scaled these city walls

Only to be with you

But I still haven't found

What I'm looking for.

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