"If you look at music as emotion, then I think you'll connect us to the ballad tradition, to the wailing and keening of the old music."
U2 Lists: 8 Songs Inspired by Africa
July 15, 2015
[Ed. note: This is the 62nd in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
Thirty years ago this week U2 gave a career-defining performance at Live Aid, the trans-Atlantic benefit concert designed to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Live Aid catapulted U2 onto the world stage, and the band’s appearance there remains the most enduring image of its relationship with Africa. But by no means is this the group’s only Africa-inspired performance. U2 have returned to the continent — figuratively as well as literally — any number of times before and since. On this anniversary of Live Aid, let’s look back at the band’s many memorable Africa-related recordings.
"FEZ – Being Born" (2009) – U2
Early sessions for No Line On The Horizon took place in Fez, Morocco, and the group continued to look to this coastal country in northwestern Africa as both a metaphor and muse. Much like America and The Joshua Tree or Berlin and Achtung Baby, the location somehow defined what the album would be — Bono viewed Fez as “a crossroads for a new spiritual music,” co-producer Daniel Lanois wrote in his book Soul Mining — while offering a backdrop against which its themes might play out.
“FEZ – Being Born” is the only song on No Line, and one of the very few in the entire U2 canon, that makes specific reference to Africa. Even here, though, Bono turns the reference into a metaphor. The song is about a character — the French-African traffic cop from the song “No Line On The Horizon” and the Linear film that accompanied the release of the album — who embarks on a road trip to a small town on the southernmost tip of Spain from where you can see the hills of Africa across the water — on a journey “to rediscover who he is,” Bono said in the booklet that came with the deluxe edition of the album.
“The important thing to know about this song is the sense of speed and this kind of primeval drive to get back to your essence,” he continued. “As you know from our DNA’s point of view, Africa is where we all come from, so I suppose I relate in some strange way to this feeling of Africa as home.”
"Do They Know It’s Christmas?" (1984) – Band Aid
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was a watershed, an unprecedented gathering of pop and rock stars that raised millions for famine relief in Ethiopia while spurring the Live Aid concerts the following summer and a rediscovered social consciousness in the pop and rock worlds. It was also, of course, a galvanizing moment with respect to Bono’s lifelong commitment to humanitarian efforts in Africa.
Who could have guessed when the 25-year-old singer sang his now-iconic line — “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” — that he would later powwow with world leaders and tour with egghead economists seeking to address a range of intractable problems across the continent? Who could have imagined that this would become one of his primary missions in life?
"Boomerang II" (1984) – U2
African music was in the air in 1984. The Talking Heads’ heavily African-influenced, Brian Eno-produced Remain In Light (and, on a smaller scale, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Eno’s collaboration with the Heads’ David Byrne) had introduced many in the West to the wide-ranging sounds of the African continent. This opened the door for artists like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, who would find considerable success in Europe and the U.S. So it’s no surprise that the Unforgettable Fire sessions in the spring and summer of 1984 produced the occasional nod to African music, especially with Brian Eno at the helm. Not least of these: the two different versions of “Boomerang” released as B-sides to the single “Pride.”
"Wave Of Sorrow" (Birdland) (2007) – U2
In the wake of Live Aid, Bono and his wife, Ali, traveled to Ethiopia to help with ongoing famine relief efforts. Many years later, in the haunting “Wave Of Sorrow” — a song set to a backing track recording during the Joshua Tree sessions and released on the 20th anniversary edition of that album — he described the devastation they witnessed there.
As only he can, Bono underscored the tragedy of the famine by sprinkling the song with references to times of antiquity. “I was struck by the fact that Ethiopia was such a mythic country,” he said in an interview around the time of the re-release. “It wasn’t colonized the way the rest of Africa was, it was the land of the Queen of Sheba and the Emperor Menelik … and I was kind of contrasting it in my head with just this parched land.”
“Sun City” (1985) – Artists United Against Apartheid
This anti-apartheid recording organized by Little Steven and featuring Bono peaked at only No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This was in part because many radio stations declined to play it — either because the lyrics condemning Ronald Reagan’s policies were deemed too controversial or for other, more sinister reasons. According to the official Sun City book, one South Carolina station reportedly stopped airing the song because the Ku Klux Klan had threatened its staff. Still, it would go on to top many critics’ lists of the best and most important songs of the year. Whereas “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are The World” (America’s answer to the Band Aid song) were recognized mostly for their good intentions, “Sun City” won acclaim because it was actually a really good track.
“Silver And Gold” (1985/1988) – Bono/U2
Bono evokes the blues in a stinging indictment of apartheid South Africa — a clamor of hellhounds and geopolitical demons. U2 released the song twice, as a B-side to “Where The Streets Have No Name” and later in a live version that served as a centerpiece of Rattle And Hum. But the most compelling iteration might still be the original, with Bono and Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Ron Wood and others in a bare-bones performance recorded late one night in a studio in New York.
Included on the Sun City album, “Silver And Gold” marked the beginning of Bono’s embrace of American music, which would find its fullest expression on Rattle And Hum a few years later. As the story goes, he came up with the song after dropping by a Stones recording session with the J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf following the “Sun City” video shoot in Washington Square Park. He had flown to New York that afternoon, only a day or so after returning from doing relief work in Ethiopia. He badly needed sleep but went off into the night with Wolf anyway. “He had the intensity of a man who has known greatness and is called upon one last time to contribute to life before leaving the earth,” said the always colorful Little Steven in the Sun City book.
Hanging out with the Stones, conversation inevitably turned to the blues. Someone produced tapes of Son House and Robert Johnson. The U2 singer was transfixed; he had never heard these original masters of the form. In true Bono fashion, he went back to his hotel room and wrote a blues song of his own.
“Breathe (Mandela Version)” (2013) – U2
U2 were supporters of Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned anti-apartheid activist turned South African president, since they were fresh-faced teenagers — they played their first anti-apartheid show in 1979. “We really related to what was going on in South Africa,” Bono told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “Irish people are very aware of how the currents of politics — indeed, global politics — can affect their own life. For example, it’s well known that our interest in developing economies around the world is because not long ago we were one. And we’re interested in the fight against extreme poverty because we were on the other side of that. And we also understand famine — it cost our country half its population.” The band developed a friendship with Mandela after he was released from prison in 1990, and later wrote a “Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela” version of the song “Breathe,” which found release in 2013 as the flip side of “Ordinary Love.”
“Ordinary Love” (2013) – U2
Written and recorded for the film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, “Ordinary Love” takes its cue from letters the activist wrote to his wife, Winnie, while still in prison. Here, Bono beautifully interweaves the personal with the social and the political, encapsulating the song’s message of mutual respect in a line from the chorus: “We can’t reach any higher if we can’t deal with ordinary love.”
“It's a plea for common decency among the people who’ve been oppressed,” he later said, “and it’s a plea for common decency in a marriage as it starts to fall apart.”
(c) @U2/Boas, 2015.