09 April 2014
'Poetry is a sort of homecoming...''I've seen a hand-written version of the lyrics that boasted the immortal lines "Niall Stokes is working hard/ for some degree at university."'
Niall Stokes has known the members of U2 since the 1970s and as Editor of Hot Press has followed their music as closely as anyone. In North Side Story
, he recalls the earliest years of the band in Dublin through the pages of Hot Press - and the people who were there.
But what about the music? We asked Niall to come up with his own U2 Playlist, the songs he'd want in his collection more than any others. From 'Cartoon World' to 'A Sort of Homecoming' and 'Hawkmoon 269' to 'A Man And A Woman', it's one of the quirkiest and most interesting playlists to date. Read Niall's comments while listening to the songs on our audio player.
1. Cartoon World
This is the U2 of the Dandelion Green, which John Fisher, who promoted the gigs there, evoked so well, when we spoke to him for North Side Story. The riff sounds like The Kinks 'All Day and All of the Night' and there's hints of Squeeze and The Jam in the lyrics, which comment satirically on suburban life in Dublin. "Mrs. Brown is off to town," Bono sings, "she carries shopping in her shopping
bag" – before letting us know, in case we'd missed the point: "It's a
cartoon world." Indeed it is! I've seen a hand-written version of the
lyrics that boasted the immortal lines "Niall Stokes is working hard/
for some degree at university," but I suspect that was a later,
humorous reworking of the original, which ascribed that activity to Mrs.
Brown's husband! Thankfully the later version was never recorded. Or
not that I know of...
2. I Fall Down
October is a widely underrated record. As readers of Hot Press, and now of North Side Story, will recall, Neil McCormick saw it differently, hailing it as
“the most uplifting rock LP of the year.” A sinner’s song, 'I Fall
Down' was among the stand-out tracks, and remains indisputably one of
the most finely crafted songs on U2’s first two records. The introduction of the Julie and John characters freed Bono from the tyranny of the direct declarations of emotional intensity that marked so much of the band's early output – but really it is the combination of the arrangement, Steve Lillywhite’s production and the strength of the hook that gives this the power to retain its place in the subconscious. It's a song that I find myself singing on occasion for no reason at all.
3. Drowning Man
"Take my hand," Bono instructs, "You know I'll be there if you can/ I'll cross the sky for your love." It sounds like it might be a simple love song, but there is a lot more going on here, as the title suggests. 'Drowning Man' was one of the first occasions, that Bono introduced us to the 'fat lady' in his vocal armoury, going falsetto to impressive effect. There is huge drama in the plea here to "Hold on/ Hold on tightly" – with the acoustic guitar answering and the strings pouring in to add further bitter-sweet colour. 'Drowning Man' is a fine example of tight, urgent, pop songwriting, at a stage where U2 were only beginning to learn that aspect of the trade.
4. New Year's Day
The first time I heard 'New Year's Day', I knew that, with any kind of fair wind, it had to be a hit record. Adam had got the song going with a bass figure. Edge developed the melody on the piano, and it had a lovely, haunting quality. Bono caught the mood lyrically – and one of the most enduring of U2's early records was on the way. The opening line is wonderfully arresting: "All is quiet on new year's day…". The timing of its release at the start of 1983 gave it an added charge. It was the band's breakthrough single, going straight into the UK Top 10. Even 30 years on, the haunting quality of the music remains as potent as ever.
5. A Sort of Homecoming
The opening track on Unforgattable Fire, 'A Sort of Homecoming' marked a new maturity in Bono's songwriting. One of the stars of North Side Story is Bill Graham, the late, great Hot Press writer who introduced U2 to their manager Paul McGuinness – who, in turn, of course, subsequently guided the band's fortunes from their first EP, U23, until very recently. Bill had loaned Bono a book of the German-Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan's poetry and the singer was hugely impressed with its mystical quality. "Poetry is a sort of homecoming," Celan wrote, and it was a line that resonated for Bono. The lyrics here are beautifully impressionistic and cinematic. "Tonight we'll build a bridge/ Across the sea and land," Bono promises, "See the sky, the burning rain/ She will die and live again/ Tonight." It is all realised with a quietly controlled, painterly restraint. 'A Sort of Homecoming' is a thoroughly beautiful piece of music....
6. Running To Stand Still
The image of Dublin in the late 1970s that emerges in North Side Story is fascinating even for someone who lived through it. “I seem to remember everything from the 1970s in black and white," Guggi says, looking back at the early days of U2 and The Virgin Prunes. It was a hard time in
Dublin, when horizons were narrow and hope was desperately hard to find. Which is the world that Bono evoked so well in 'Bad' and then, for The
Joshua Tree, in 'Running To Stand Still'. It remains one of U2's greatest songwriting achievements. "I see seven towers," Bono sang, "but I see only one way out." What was different – and most impressive – about the song was the empathy it showed for the dealer: the guy who tentatively, reluctantly crosses the rubicon into crime, in the hope that it might just be his ticket to a better future. "You know I took the poison/ From the poison stream/ And I floated out of here…" The towers may be gone now, or most of them at least, but the junk remains...
7. One Tree Hill
There is only one good thing we can do in the face of death: try to create something that mitigates, even in some small way, the terrible sadness felt by the friends and family of the person we have lost. 'One Tree Hill' does that. It was inspired by the death of Greg Carroll, the New Zealander of Maori extraction, who died in an accident, riding Bono's motorbike home on a rainy night in Dublin. The song, given a lovely rhythmic pulse by Adam and Larry is a requiem for a young life lost tragically.
"I'll see you again/ When
the stars fall from the sky/ And the moon has turned red/ Over one tree hill,” Bono sings. The song inspires him to what – I felt when I heard it first – was his greatest vocal yet. Indeed, it’s possible that he hasn’t ever surpassed this extraordinary performance. ‘One Tree Hill’ is a great, beautiful and truly moving song...
8. Angel of Harlem
I remember Bono, at a relatively early stage, confessing to the fact that it was U2’s ambition to finally write songs that would make sense heard, in
passing, in a cab anywhere in the world. Well, 'Angel of Harlem', one of the new songs on Rattle and Hum, immediately radiated that quality. Who said that U2 couldn't do soul? Here they pour it on like veterans. Edge originally strummed this song into being on the acoustic guitar, but it became a big production, with the Memphis Horns completing the picture brilliantly. Bono described it as a "jukebox song" and I can see what he meant: I play it on the jukebox in my head a lot.
9. Hawkmoon 269
You look at the title and – for a U2 song – it doesn't tell you a lot. Then you hear that Hawkmoon is a place in Rapid City, Dakota and you get the picture. A sign post. A name that resonates. Guys on the road with their notebooks out. That has a ring to it: Hawkmoon 269. The song has a smouldering intensity that picks you up and sucks you into its sweltering heat. And then there's Larry's performance, the crashing cymbals aided and abetted by Larry Bunker's thunderous timpani
explosions. The track shrieks of a powerful lust, sexual energy crying out for release, out front Bono yowling at the moon. “Like powder needs a spark/ Like lies need the dark/ I need your love…" This one doesn't age. Not at all...
10. Miss Sarajevo
There was a lot to love on the Passengers album that U2 pieced together as a side project with Brian Eno. 'Your Blue Room' was a thing of beauty. 'A Different Kind of Blue' explored that familiar U2 trope of twilight – neither day nor night; not one thing or the other – with fascinating results. But there was never any doubt about the big song on the record. U2 gradually made 'Miss Sarajevo' their own for a reason: it was an outstanding track, one of the band's greatest ever collaborations. The subject – exploring the different ways in which people strive to do normal things even in the middle of a war zone – was superbly addressed by the simple device of asking a series of questions. "Is there a time for kohl and lipstick," Bono asks, "A time for cutting hair/ Is there a time for high street shopping / To find the right dress to wear?” The song was inspired by Bill Carter's film about the underground resistance movement in Sarajevo, as the war in former Yugoslavia raged all around, and there is a beautiful empathy with the banal aspirations of a would-be beauty
queen, expressed in a tender, carefully restrained vocal tone. But of course it's Luciano Pavarotti's emotional, operatic counterpoint which turns a fine track into a classic, as he proclaims his disillusionment with the idea of love against the backdrop of a world gone hopelessly awry. 11. One
If you were to name one U2 song that could still be sung in 3014, 'With Or Without You' and 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' would both be contenders. But they are, I think, eclipsed by 'One', which I suspect will stand the test of time as one of the great love songs of the late 20th Century. It is the beating heart of Achtung Baby, the ultimate, thrumming expression of what a great band can achieve if they stick at it and work hard enough to fully realise their potential for greatness. Bono is in superb lyrical form, exploring the territory where friendship or love or marriage are in the process of coming undone... but where there is also the potential to rescue everyone involved from the ravages wrought by a world of final uncertainty. "Have you come here for forgiveness," he asks, "Have you come to raise the dead/ Have you come here to play Jesus/ To the lepers in your head?" But it is the insight into love,
which is at the core of the song, that carries the greatest charge. "We are one but we're not the same/ We hurt each other/ Then we do it again." Brilliantly constructed and weighted, building to a moment of real illumination, 'One' is a tour-de-force. It contains some of Bono's finest poetry, laying bare before us the paradoxes of love...
12. Beautiful Day
Along the way, U2 have written some brilliant pop tunes: 'Even Better Than The Real Thing', 'Mysterious Ways', 'Staring At The Sun' and 'Sweetest Thing' spring to mind. But 'Beautiful Day' is probably the stand-out in that line; or at least that’s what I’m thinking today! It has an exhilaration, a sense of rapture, that makes it special. At a vital stage in the recording, Edge reached for the Gibson Explorer to rediscover those ringing guitar sounds that had originally distinguished the band's noise. The middle eight hits a rich vein of imagery:
"See the world in green and blue/
See China right in front of you/
See the canyons broken by cloud/
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out/
See the Bedouin fires at night/
See the oil fields at first light/
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth/
After the flood all the colors came out…"
But in the end it’s the urgent appeal to seize the day, and appreciate what you have, which gives the song its universal appeal: "It's a beautiful day/ Don't let it get away/ It's a beautiful day…" There are times when the world really does seem like a good place to be...
U2 have written some great, big, hard, unashamedly priapic songs. Men songs. 'Get On Your Boots’, from No Line On The Horizon, is up there among the best of their lust-fuelled moments. But if I had to choose one, it would be 'Elevation'. This is the band at their dirty, lowdown, rockingest best, starting with a big, bad Edge riff and propelled by a suitably engorged bass figure from Adam. 'Elevation' sounds like a not-so-distant cousin of Sly and The Family Stone's 'Higher and Higher' and The Pixies 'Levitate Me'. But while Larry, Adam and Edge mix up the medicine in the engine room, Bono howls like a horny dervish who has just successfully stormed the palace and stolen the sultan's harem. Lucky boy...
14. A Man and A Woman
There are songs that make you feel: why has no one ever written that before? The idea is so right that it seems impossible that this is the first time it’s been given precisely this shape. ‘A Man and A Woman' is one of them. It has a lovely languorous Latin feel that reminds me of the work of the great
pop tunesmith, Burt Bacharach. But as Bono illustrated to Hot Press, it owes a debt too to the Irish arch-romantic, Philip Lynott of Thin Lizzy. There is a beautiful section half way through where the musicians take a step backwards and Adam’s bass steals into the foreground, carrying the late summer’s evening load lightly before the rest of the instruments waft back in to conjure black and white images of cars driving along the corniche in the south of France. But it is the sentiment that makes the song. So much of pop music is about lust, and the claims that the possibility of instant gratification make on people. But this is a song for those who have been a long time in love. “I could never take a chance,” Bono declares, "Of losing love to find romance/ In the mysterious distance/ Between a man and a woman.” I can’t remember the value of commitment being more surely expressed...
15. Moment of Surrender
When U2 started out, there was a fierce energy afoot. That has always remained part of their arsenal, the ability to burn brightly and to soar in the right places, but gradually they discovered another groove, with an almost Zen-like character, which embodies the concept of restraint. Nowhere is that better captured than on 'Moment of Surrender', the outstanding track on No Line On The Horizon. As a lyricist, Bono has an uncanny ability to tap effectively into everyday things in a way that illuminates them, and makes them glow like the details of a Hopper painting. The lyrics here are among Bono's finest: "I was punching in the numbers/ At the ATM machine/ I could see in the reflection/ A face staring back at me…" We've all been there. The voices sing in unison and the whole achieves a magnificent, deeply touching serenity of feeling.