"U2's records take a long time to make not because the band members are stuck for ideas but because they never stop talking about them."
-- Brian Eno
U2's Top Ten Classic Live Songs
August 15, 2002
[Ed. note: This is the first in a series of "Top Ten" articles appearing on @U2.]
U2's songs -- almost without exception -- become something more when the band plays live, something bigger and better than they are on CD, cassette or vinyl. U2 reveals the real identity of its songs when it plays them live, and it's in that setting, not in a recording studio and not on a CD, that a U2 song is made a classic.
So while U2 is busy deciding what it feels are its "classic" album tracks from the '90s (for release on the band's second Best Of compilation this fall), I've been deciding what I feel are U2's classic live songs. The goal: Whittle down 20+ years of concerts into a list of U2's Top Ten Classic Live Songs. And on top of that, an extra challenge: For each classic live song, identify the best single classic performance of that song, the one live version that you have to hear to believe.
It should go without saying this was easier said than done. I gave myself one rule: to be considered a classic live song, the song has to have been played on more than one tour. Thus the immediate disqualification of songs like "Kite," "Walk On," and "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me." So sorry.
Even so, there were plenty of songs still in the running and a lot of old concerts to re-listen to and relive. As I compiled this list, it became obvious that the Top Ten couldn't help but be influenced by factors such as recording quality or the availability of a quality video of the performance. Let's face it, the best version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" from a muddy audience recording on cassette doesn't stand a chance against the power of the performance that you can SEE on Rattle and Hum.
So with all of that in mind, here is my list of U2's Top Ten Classic Live Songs.
1. "Where the Streets Have No Name"
Classic performance: June 6, 2001, Boston
The easiest choice was the first one. "Streets" is widely recognized as the all-time U2 live song, an idea first written about by @U2's Angela Pancella in October, 2001. This is the song that even tour designer Willie Williams admits has become "the most indispensable song" in U2's live set. I dare say there's not a bad performance of this song. Ever. But the classic performance has to be June 6, 2001, at the Fleet Center in Boston. Yes, this is the show captured on the Elevation home video release, but that version is edited. The classic version I'm referring to is the one shown live on NBC-TV at halftime of the NBA Finals, unedited (with Bono's less-than-athletic basketball toss into the heart). They nailed it in every way: the timing was perfect, the video directing was perfect, and the band's performance was never better. Honorable mention performances of "Streets": September 23, 1997, Sarajevo; February 3, 2002, New Orleans (Super Bowl); December 30, 1989, Dublin.
Classic performance: August 12, 1993, London
If there's one song that proves the point about songs becoming something more live than on record, "Bad" is it. A good song on The Unforgettable Fire, "Bad" quickly became the high point of U2's concerts supporting the album in 1984 and 1985, with the band often stretching the song out to 8-10 minutes and longer. The classic version came on August 12, 1993, at Wembley Stadium in London. You should hear the live linkup to Sarajevo which immediately precedes "Bad" to really appreciate this, because the emotion of the moment goes a long way to setting this performance apart. But even on its own this version of "Bad" is light years above the rest thanks to the on-stage performance of violinist Jo Shankar. This once-in-a-lifetime addition of strings makes this performance more entrancing and mesmerizing than even "Bad" at Live Aid. This one is a guaranteed goosebump maker and spine tingler. Honorable mentions: July 13, 1985, London (Live Aid); April 24, 1985, Philadelphia; April 25, 1987, San Francisco.
3. "Bullet the Blue Sky"
Classic performance: August 12, 1993, London
Somewhere along the way I remember being told that "Bullet" is Paul McGuinness' favorite live U2 song, and that he's argued to have it included on every tour since the song was written (which it has been). Like many of U2's live songs, it seems to take on a new life with every tour. The classic performance on August 12, 1993, is immediately after the previously discussed "Bad," and as Jo Shankar's violin fades away, Larry's drums kick in with such venom and such force that you can't help but wonder if Shankar was literally blown off the stage. After the gutwrenching linkup to Sarajevo, Bono is in rare form during this performance of "Bullet." He's never been angrier, ending the song with a series of four-letter indictments of the world's most powerful nations. "America, where the f--k are you?! F--k You, United Kingdom! F--k You, Germany! F--k You, France!" Between this and "Bad," it's about 15 minutes of live U2 that shouldn't be missed.
Classic performance: (tie) September 23, 1997, Sarajevo, and April 15, 2001, Portland
"One" has become U2's signature song, the song that fits almost any occasion and says almost exactly what you want to hear in good times or bad. Bono's addition of the "Do you hear me coming, Lord" verse during the Zoo TV Tour was a brilliant touch, to the point that you almost feel disappointed on the rare occasions when the verse isn't added now. There are two classic performances: In Sarajevo on September 23, 1997, Bono apologized for (and then ignored) the limits of his vocal chords that night to sing as emotional a version as you'll hear of this song, including the wonderful spoken line, "To be united is a great thing; but to respect differences maybe even a greater thing." Emotion was the key factor in also making the April 15, 2001, version of "One" a classic. This is the day Joey Ramone died, and in standing six feet from Bono at the front rail, I saw an unusual intensity in Bono as he sang about "Joey Ramone, my big brother" and capped the song with a solemn "Amazing Grace." Honorable mentions: August 31, 1997, Dublin; October 30, 1992, Los Angeles.
Classic performance: December 12, 1997, Seattle
This song deserved better than the mass crowd sit-downs that it got at many of the PopMart shows I saw. It was the single best song of the entire PopMart set, including the four songs mentioned already on this list. It appeared in an acoustic form on the third leg of the Elevation Tour, an appropriate song for the post-September 11th period. The band delivered the classic performance of "Please" at the final PopMart concert of 1997, the final show in North America, on December 12 in Seattle. The intensity in Bono's performance, especially the chanting during Edge's guitar solo, makes this version stand out. Bono also extended the "Please, please, get up off your knees" outro until this version of the song reached almost 8 minutes long. Honorable mentions: July 18, 1997, and July 19, 1997, both in Rotterdam; September 23, 1997, Sarajevo.
Classic performance: January 10, 1990, Rotterdam
"40" is the song that carried U2 crowds out of every arena, stadium, amphitheatre, etc., from 1983 through the end of the decade. It's the only song in the U2 catalog where Edge and Adam trade instruments, and it became a classic when U2 turned it into a bit of theater -- one band member leaving the stage at a time, Larry last, as the crowd continues to chant, "How long must we sing this song..." The classic performance of "40" came on the final concert of the Lovetown Tour, January 10, 1990, in Rotterdam. This one was made unique by Bono improvising and repeating a verse, "Hallelujah, can you feel it? Love is coming!" Larry's drum solo at the song's conclusion runs a full 35 seconds, about twice as long as usual, and wraps this version of "40" up at just over 7 minutes long. Honorable mentions: June 5, 1983, Red Rocks.
7. "All I Want Is You"
Classic performance: January 10, 1990, Rotterdam
Probably the most underplayed of the ten songs on this list. Many fans, especially in North America, had probably never seen U2 perform a full-band version until the Elevation Tour. The crowd response alone -- shouting "All I want is YOUUUUUUUUU!" as long as we used to sing "40" -- qualifies this as a Top 10 classic live song. The classic performance, like "40," is from the Rotterdam show on January 10, 1990. And there's one simple reason: This version is flawless. Every note is played perfectly and sung perfectly. The crowd sings its part THIS LOUD. And the snippet of "Sexual Healing" in the middle doesn't hurt. Honorable mentions: August 31, 1997, Dublin; April 20, 2001, San Jose.
8. "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
Classic performance: November 8, 1987, Denver
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" would not make a personal list of my favorite U2 songs, but there's no denying its status as one of U2's classic live songs. The loudest yells at many of the Elevation Tour shows I saw came with the first beats of Larry's military drum line. Thanks to the Rattle and Hum film, the one classic performance of this song not to be missed is the obvious one: November 8, 1987, with Bono's now infamous "F--k the revolution!" speech.
9. "Mysterious Ways"
Classic performance: October 14, 1992, Houston
"Mysterious Ways" is an event song. A staple of every tour since Achtung Baby, this is one song which is always a visual treat, and seems to be one of the songs that U2 goes out of its way to present more visually than the rest. The best visual presentation was the first: Christina and Morleigh bellydancing the night away on Zoo TV. And this is one song where I'm not going to claim there's really a single "classic" performance; in truth, the classic version of "Mysterious Ways" was the one U2 played on the Outside Broadcast tour in the fall of 1992. These are the most muscular versions of the song, and the October 14, 1992, performance in Houston is as typically strong as any on this leg of the tour.
10. "With or Without You"
Classic performance: December 19, 1987, Tempe
"With or Without You" would probably be higher on this list were it not for the much too quiet and almost boring version played on the PopMart Tour. But the original version from the Joshua Tree tour and the brilliantly theatrical twist on the song as sung by MacPhisto during the Zooropa era save this as one of U2's classic live songs. Still, the classic performance is the one we're all most familiar with: December 19, 1987, in Tempe, as seen on the Rattle and Hum film. The choice is biased by the gorgeous video, but the fact remains this is the "With or Without You" against which all others should be judged. Honorable mention: November 18, 1987, Los Angeles; April 25, 1987, San Francisco.
Honorable mention songs: "One Tree Hill," "The Fly," "New Year's Day," "Pride," "Until the End of the World."
So that's my list. Maybe it gets you thinking and talking about your list of U2's classic live songs. Look for more "Top Ten" articles coming soon from the @U2 staff and invited guests.
© @U2, 2002.