U2 Lists: Top 10 Political U2 Songs
November 20, 2008
[Ed. note: This is the fifth in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
THEY say there are only two things you should not discuss in polite company: religion and politics.
Clearly, U2 didn't get the memo.
Over the last three decades, these so-called taboo topics have inspired many of the band's most powerful -- and commercially successful -- songs. From the Troubles in Ireland, to poverty in Africa, from Argentina's Dirty War, to Ronald Reagan's America, U2's songs have run the gamut of political issues.
In 2000, Larry Mullen told Time magazine's Lisa McLaughlin that the band never had a hope of keeping politics out of their music.
"In Ireland, the only two things we talk about are...religion and politics," he said.
But whether you love Bono's politics or just wish he'd zip-it and get back to singing, it's clear U2's music wouldn't be the same if it had nothing to say.
In putting together this list, I looked for songs that have made me stop and think more deeply about an issue, that expressed a controversial viewpoint or challenged the norm and captured the political flavour of the era in which they were written.
Here's my Top 10 Political U2 songs:
10) "Miss Sarajevo" It may not sound like it, but I think "Miss Sarajevo" is actually a rebel song. Featured on Original Soundtracks 1, the 1995 collaboration between U2 and their production buddies Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Bono has described "Miss Sarajevo" as the band's response to "the surreal acts of defiance that had taken place during the siege of Sarajevo." The Bosnian and Herzegovinan capital was the scene of the longest siege in modern history, running from April 1992 until February 1996. The song praises the rebellious spirit of the Sarajevans who refused to surrender their way of life during the conflict.
One woman refused to go the shelter and used to play the piano when they were being bombarded. Another woman organized a beauty contest. "We will fight them with our lipstick and heels," she said. All the most beautiful girls in Sarajevo walked out on stage with sashes saying [sic] "Do they really want to kill us?" - Bono, U2 by U2.
Musically, the song challenges the complacency many people were feeling about the conflict. Bono's whisper-like vocals, combined with the repetitive, almost hypnotic melody, gently rock you into a place of false calm. But we are quickly snapped out of this peaceful, dream-like state by Pavarotti's passionate, rousing solo, urging us to see more, feel more, do more.
9) "Seconds" Written at the height of the arms race, when nuclear war was an ever-present danger, "Seconds" is both a protest song and a wake-up call to those who had become complacent about Cold War politics. Appearing on 1983's War album, the song reflected the commonly held fear that nuclear armageddon was literally only seconds away. It conjures up images of the USSR's Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. president Ronald Reagan with their fingers ready to flick the switch, just one step away from blowing each other up and taking the entire world with them:
It takes a second to say goodbye/say goodbye/oh oh oh Push the button and pull the plug/say goodbye/oh oh oh
In U2 by U2, Bono said "Seconds" was still relevant today because "it's about the idea that at some point someone, somewhere would get their hands on nuclear material and build a suitcase bomb in an apartment in a western capital. It was 20 years early but I wouldn't call it prophetic. I'd just call it obvious."
8) "Walk On" "Walk On" is U2's tribute to Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's military junta arrested Suu Kyi after her National League for Democracy party won the country's 1990 elections in a landslide, earning her the right to become prime minister. When Suu Kyi was arrested, she was forced to leave so much behind: her husband, children, friends and colleagues. This theme of loss and sacrifice runs throughout the song, but listeners are reminded there are some things you cannot lose:
And love is not the easy thing/the only baggage that you can bring Love is not the easy thing/the only baggage you can bring Is all that you can't leave behind
Walk on/walk on What you've got they can't deny it Can't sell it or buy it
The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been given the opportunity to leave Burma to live with family in the United Kingdom, but has chosen to sacrifice her own freedom rather than abandon her oppressed people. The song describes her as a "singing bird in an open cage who will only fly...for freedom."
7) "The Saints Are Coming" While not written by U2, "The Saints Are Coming" is a song the band recorded with Green Day and used to deliver a political message about the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Rich in its imagery about rain and floods (clouds unrolling, drowning sorrows flooding the deepest grief, a weather change condemning belief), the song penned by The Skids in 1978 took on new meaning in 2005 after New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and thousands of people were left homeless.
The song and video accurately portrayed the feelings of utter disbelief and dismay at the way the U.S. government had responded to the Katrina tragedy.
Profits from the song went to support Music Rising, a charity that aims to rebuild the culture in New Orleans by replacing musical instruments lost during Hurricane Katrina.
6) "Silver and Gold" "Silver and Gold" first made people stand up and take notice as a live performance on Rattle and Hum. There are no prizes for guessing what this song is about; Bono makes it abundantly clear during an impassioned political monologue in the middle of the song, which made it to the final cut of the film and record.
From the outset the lyrics crackle with anger -- "In the shithouse, a shotgun/ Praying hands hold me down/ Only the hunter was hunted/ in this tin can town." Bono appears to spit the words out of his mouth, the staccato alliteration emphasizing his simmering rage. As the song reaches fever pitch -- "The temperature is rising/ the fever white hot." -- it returns to a familiar political theme for U2, the idea that you can lose everything, but still have more, in a spiritual sense, than those who may try to persecute or oppress you:
Mister, I ain't got nothing But it's more than you got Chains no longer bind me Not the shackles at my feet Outside are the prisoners Inside the free Set them free Set them free
Edge's soaring solo, aka "the blues," full of anger and sorrow in equal helpings, is a fitting ending to one of the band's true political anthems.
5) "Mothers of the Disappeared" "Mothers of the Disappeared" is a heartfelt expression of the suffering experienced by the mothers and grandmothers of the thousands of children abducted during the conflict in Central America during the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s, particularly during Argentina's "Dirty War" (1976-1983). But it is also a plea for governments and their citizens to uphold human rights.
This haunting track closes 1987's The Joshua Tree album and drew people's attention to the atrocities being committed in Central America during the so-called "repression," a civil-style war that the U.S. government covertly sanctioned in a bid to stop the communist threat creeping towards their front door.
Bono's interest in this issue was piqued when he traveled to El Salvador with Ali in 1986 at the end of Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour. They spent a week in the region with U.S.-based humanitarian group Sanctuary, and saw firsthand the impact of the conflict. During their stay, they met women whose children had been abducted, never to be seen again. They left a lasting impression. On February 11, 1998, the mothers of the disappeared joined U2 on stage in Santiago, Chile, reading out the names of their missing children during the performance of their song.
4) "Please" "Please" is U2's musical sequel to 1983's "Sunday Bloody Sunday." While the subject matter is the same -- the Troubles in Ireland -- the way the band approaches the issue has evolved. The youthful rebellion, anger and impatience of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" has been replaced with a more mature, yet cynical viewpoint. Bono almost sounds tired, like a parent who has been pushed to their wits' end, past the shouting and anger, to the point where they look you in the eye and say "I'm really disappointed in you, you've let me down." You can hear the frustration and that hint of resignation, of "here we go again" in the lines "October, talk getting nowhere/November...December...remember/ are we just starting again." You get the sense Bono has stopped screaming for peace; now he's begging for it.
3) "Bullet the Blue Sky" Another song inspired by Bono and Ali's experiences on their 1986 trip to El Salvador, "Bullet the Blue Sky" describes the bloody consequences of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy decisions on South America. Like "Silver and Gold," it is a song that exudes righteous rage and is one of U2's heaviest, angriest rock songs. Bono said he wanted the song to sound like "Hell on earth" to convey the sheer horror of what he had seen during his visit to Central America:
"I described what I had been through, what I had seen, some of the stories of people I had met, and I said to Edge: 'Could you put that through your amplifier?' I even got pictures and stuck them on the wall. I brought in film of the horrors and put it on a video and said: 'Now, do it!'"
And Edge succeeds, producing a song that sounds like fighter planes, bombs dropping and exploding, and buildings being torn apart. With its punch and counter punch drum beat, and industrial sounding guitar, it doesn't take much to imagine a little of the horror Bono and Ali must have witnessed in El Salvador. The song criticizes the U.S.'s "stop communism at all costs" policy, which lead the Reagan government to provide financial and political support to the Salvadoran regime, ignoring their horrific human rights abuses.
2) "Pride (In the Name of Love)" Covering both political and spiritual ground, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" has become an international anthem for peace, freedom and human rights. Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and '60s, the song is an uplifting celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s non-violent struggle for equal rights and his dream for his nation to become "a symphony of brotherhood."
The song is focused around the concept of love described in John 15:13: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," a love shown by Jesus on the cross and by Dr. King when he paid the ultimate price in his fight for freedom.
Early morning, April 4 Shot rings out in the Memphis sky Free at last, they took your life They could not take your pride
This verse references Dr King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech and touches on a theme that will reappear in many future U2 songs: the idea that spiritual values are worth more than material possessions, or in this case, even your life. The chorus asks us "What more in the name of love?"; the answer, of course, is nothing; there is no greater sacrifice.
1) "Sunday Bloody Sunday" Well, here we are, No 1. And what other song could be in the top position than the band's most "overtly political" offering.
Described by Edge as a "full-on anti-terrorism song," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was risky for U2 to write and record. In fact, Edge's original opening lyrics, "Don't talk to me about the rights of the IRA, UDA," were changed because of a fear they would jeopardize the safety of the band and their families. Some people thought the song was actually glorifying the Troubles and calling them deeper into the country's sectarian battle. On many occasions since its release on 1983's War, Bono has made it clear that this is not a "rebel song" or a song of the "revolution," but a song that defiantly waves the white flag for peace.
Like "Pride," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" uses U2's famous left-right, political-spiritual combination to pack the most powerful punch. On the one hand, the song talks about events that took place in Dublin on November 21, 1920, and in Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 30, 1972 -- both known as Bloody Sunday -- where a total of 56 people were killed in horrific acts of sectarian violence, while on the other it delves into the spiritual; Jesus' crucifixion on the cross and resurrection on another well-known Sunday.
Unlike "Please," which tackled the same subject matter 14 years later, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is a loud, angry and defiant song that draws on the band's punk music roots. The drum track, which Hot Press's Liam Mackey aptly described as "machine gun drumming," gives the song its militaristic, battle ready feel, setting the scene for the battle of ideologies raised by the lyrics.
One of "Sunday Bloody Sunday"'s most memorable live performances -- and there have been many, including the COEXIST interlude during the Vertigo Tour -- was without doubt at the McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado, on November 8, 1987, after the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Halfway through the song, Bono's anger at the latest violence bubbled over and he delivered an unforgettable message that was captured on film for Rattle and Hum:
"And let me tell you somethin'. I've had enough of Irish Americans who haven't been back to their country in 20 or 30 years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home, and the glory of the revolution, and the glory of dying for the revolution. F--- the revolution! They don't talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What's the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and his children? Where's the glory in that? Where's the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where's the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of a revolution, that the majority of the people in my country don't want. No more!"
Music doesn't get more political than that.
© @U2/Greer, 2008.
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