"Our music in the early '80s, it might have been ecstatic, but it wasn't really sexy, was it? Now we're sexy and ecstatic."
-- Bono, 2001
U2 Lists: Top 5 Bono Howls
January 18, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 34th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
The Beatles had their yeah, yeah, yeahs; Nirvana, Kurt Cobain's guttural screams. But U2? They've got something none of the others can replicate: the Bono Howl.
The signature Bono Howl is composed of pain, agony, distress, arousal and unabashed joy. What's so magical about it is that it can start with any one of the emotions just listed, and then morph into the others by the end. Or not.
There are no rules about the length or placement of the Bono Howl, and not every U2 song is blessed with one of these explosions of emotion. In fact, they're somewhat rare, and like most elements of U2's music, are better experienced live.
My list below is the Top 5 occasions of the Howl that I feel significantly change the landscape of the song and showcase Bono's brilliant voice. Sing it with me!
5. Fast Cars (0:00)
Right out of the gate this one is great – Bono's howl here is a mix of fear and warning that melds seamlessly right into pleasure. You know from the get-go that you're in for an emotionally charged thrill ride, and the howl is what sets the tone for the entire song. I was lucky enough to see this tune live in Madison Square Garden back in 2005 and it felt like the entire arena full of people erupted into a communal tango at the start. The howl at the end (though not as dramatic) gives it a nice, full-circle feel.
4. All I Want Is You (3:27)
This is the only song on the list that features an integrated howl, woven into the words of the song. But it's so powerful I'd be remiss to omit it from the bunch. The slow burn of this one, when let's face it, Bono's voice was in his absolute prime, only causes the tension to build. The passion behind the story he's telling -- of a complicated love that can't be realized -- commences with a powerful crescendo of a howl, perfectly placed within the word "you." It's repeated until The Edge's guitar seamlessly carries the note to the climax of the song and brings it back down for a peaceful end, as the violins take over. Absolute sonic genius.
3. Electrical Storm (William Orbit Mix) (3:16)
Again, part of the build to the howl is the quiet way in which this song begins. Our hero talks of his love being in his mind "all of the time" and by the time he talks of the rain "washing away" their bad luck, he's had all that he can take. He erupts into the howl with fierce abandon and then pleads his case for their love to return. It's easily the greatest point of the song and almost allows us to forget the cheesy lyrics that happen right before it appears.
2. Fez Being Born (1:36)
Before the 360 tour began, I had fantasies of the band opening each show with this song. I thought it was perfect -- they could extend the dreamy introduction to give all four men time to reach the stage, then Bono could let out an epic wail as he rose from underground. Four, short, perfect wails, to be exact. I got goose bumps just thinking about it. Too bad it never came true, but I still have hope for future tours (especially since one of the songs they did open with was a couple decades old). Plus, it makes a fantastic alarm clock song.
1. With Or Without You (3:03)
This song is such a staple of pop culture your memories of it may be triggered by various appearances in the past: a penultimate episode of the sitcom Friends; a hilarious bit in the sitcom The Office (American version); a key portion of the plot in the French thriller Tell No One ... the list goes on. However you remember the song, my guess is that the Bono Howl is undoubtedly the highlight. Broken into three parts, the glory of this soul-bearing sound illustrates every word that he's spoken throughout the song. His hands are tied. He's waited on a bed of nails. His body is bruised. Bono himself described the howl in U2 By U2, though he called it an "Aah-aah," saying it was the release of the tension and "That is what giving yourself away is, musically." Indeed.
© @U2/Kokkoris, 2012.