Track By Track: Edge on the 'Best of'

12 Nov 2002
'The sound of a rock giant accomplishing the most improbable of feats,' reports Billboard, as Edge takes us through the new release, song by song.

'Reflecting on his band's history shortly before Island's release of the new U2 collection The Best of 1990-2000, Edge notes that he's hardly immune to the power of the music he creates with Bono, Adam and Larry, writes Wes Orshoski. That power, he says, was especially hard to deny upon the group's return to New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year.

Probably the most important rock band of the 1980s, U2 was shouldering a new, deeper level of importance as the genre's unapologetic champion of hope, faith, and perseverance when it returned to Madison Square Garden for a second time on the Elevation tour. And after he and his bandmates brought a few New York City firemen onstage with them during "Walk On," that unmistakable U2 emotion just came pouring out. It was one of the handful of times on the tour when the Edge found himself in tears while onstage.

"Sometimes the music just completely floors me," he says. "The first few shows [in the U.S. after Sept. 11] were like, just for me, such an emotional thing to be onstage, and to sort of be in the middle of what was going on in the room. It was just so affecting. Sometimes it's just so, so moving, and so powerful."

That U2's career -- some 20 years after the group began life as what Edge describes as "kind of a street gang" playing Ramones covers in garages -- continues to be marked by moments like these is as good an example as any of just how remarkable the band's story is. The four members of U2 have done the impossible: they've retained their group's political, cultural, and musical relevance for 20 years while remaining as devoted as ever to each other and the art they make.

And that's part of the intrigue of The Best of 1990-2000. The collection -- which spans four studio sets, a track from its 1995 Passengers project, and the Batman Returns contribution "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" -- is the sound of a rock giant accomplishing the most improbable of feats. Indeed, in its second decade, U2 got better and -- amazingly -- bigger after not only the massive successes of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum albums but after completely reinventing its sound on Achtung Baby, its first set of the '90s.

Achtung Baby flung open the floodgates of creative possibilities for the band. "We were reinvigorated as a band and as songwriters, and it really gave us a completely different view of what we were about and where we could take being a band," the Edge says. "From sort of a sonic, guitar-playing point of view, during that point, I was really abstracting the guitar sounds, and really kind of exploring where guitar playing could go. I was using a lot of effects to an extent where a lot of the guitars sounded like keyboards; they certainly didn't sound like any guitar anyone had ever heard before. That, in itself, was also kind of liberating."

U2 continued to explore its new freedom with 1993's double-platinum Zooropa and 1997's dance-leaning Pop. And when the band subtly melded old and new on 2000's triple-platinum All That You Can't Leave Behind, it enjoyed its biggest hit since Achtung Baby. Manager Paul McGuinness notes that according to the worldwide sales thus far of All That You Can't Leave Behind, the set looks likely over the next decade to eclipse The Joshua Tree as the band's best-selling album.

The Best of 1990-2000 is being delivered in two different versions: a single-disc best-of, and a limited-edition two-disc set with 14 B-sides and a DVD. The Edge admits it was a tough process selecting the 16 tracks for the retrospective. "When we got down to, like, the last three or four that we could fit on the CD, that's when you gotta start making a judgement between songs that are really of a similar standard," he says. "It's kind of hard deciding between 'Gone' or '[Who's Gonna Ride Your] Wild Horses,' or whether we were gonna put more songs from All That You Can't Leave Behind on. We ended up putting two songs from the newest record on, really because we felt this collection should represent the whole period and not be weighted too much toward the newest record."

The guitarist says he's filled with pride when "stepping back from this collection and realizing that it's as good -- if not better than [The Best of 1980-1990]. Not only are we still together as a band and still making records and still inspired to make records, but we're still making records at the same level we did at 26 years old, when most people would have said, 'This is your peak.' And I think that's a testimony to being a real band and really being motivated by the same ideas that put us in the band in the first place, which is a belief that we have something very special when we play together, and that we want to make music that connects, and music that is still relevant."

What follows are the Edge's track-by-track comments on each of the 16 cuts on The Best of 1990-2000.

"Even Better Than the Real Thing" (from 1991's Achtung Baby): "I just remember at the time just being blown away by that groove. It was kind of U2 in groove shop, ya know [laughs]? That was the vibe. We're never [been] renowned for being the most rhythmic band. But I think that tune has got so much life force. And I just remember as it was going down, thinkin', 'Whoa! This is rockin'. It's amazing,' and feeling great about it. What's fun is it's still as fresh, that energy is still there, and it's still got it."

"Mysterious Ways" (from Achtung Baby): "One of our sexiest tunes. It's got an incredible groove, and Adam's contribution to the low end is just amazing. The girls like the bass -- they like it a lot [laughs]. What's also nice about that song is that it grew into this incredible piece live, and it's another song that on one level is just a great pop song, but it's got legs. It's still as potent as it ever was. And a great mix from Flood."

"Beautiful Day" (from 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind): [When the Edge played the song's key riff to Bono for the first time, the singer objected immediately because the guitar part sounded too much like "classic, early days U2." His objection was met with a glare by the Edge. It's a moment that has become legendary among U2 fans.]

"It was a case of having really avoided ever repeating ourselves for so many years, and it became almost like the rule had to be broken, because -- at that moment -- it just seemed like the freshest, most radical thing to do was like, 'Hey, let's sound like U2 for a second. How about that as the concept!' But I think it probably took Bono aback for about a half an hour, but then he realized that it was genius, and he just rolled over. But it did take everyone aback at first. And I have to say, it was a great moment, when I was being accused of sounding like the Edge [laughs]!"

"Electrical Storm" (new song): "We had a few tunes that came out of the early sort of demo session, and that was a song that just spoke to us. That piece of music really had a power, a certain kind of authority that really interested us. And so we took that piece of music and started working on it back in Dublin.

I think what we connected with was a certain kind of an energy, and a certain sense of foreboding jeopardy the music had, which sort of spoke to us about what's going on right now. It's essentially a love song, but it's like a love song set against this time we're living in, this strange time where no one really knows what's gonna happen. [There's] something ominous in the air. And that was kind of the jumping-off point. And it's very much, I think, a song of the moment; it's also, I think, a connecting point to our next record. I really think that, in terms of arrangement, it's really back to guitar, bass, and drums, the primary colors of rock'n'roll, I think that's where we're gonna take the next album."

"One" (from Achtung Baby): "When you're making a record, sometimes you get gifts. You just get these songs that drop out of the heavens and whenever that happens, you just try and get out of the way and keep your hands off it, and try and keep it as simple and as to-the-point as you can.

In the case of 'One,' we were working on another tune and came up with a couple of chord progressions which were not working out for this other tune. [Producer] Danny [Lanois] had just said to me, 'Hey, Edge, why don't you just put those two together and see what happens.' So I just started to cycle these acoustic chords and suddenly Bono's like, 'Oh, I got a melody idea,' and we just ran out to the recording room, and within about 10 minutes, basically had the song, melodically; we didn't have the full arrangement, we had all the chords and all the structures and the whole thing. Adam and Larry came out and we cut a take in literally about two hours. It just came almost like a completely formed piece.

And it came at a particularly difficult moment during the making of Achtung Baby, because we were in Berlin with a lot of ideas, but none of them were kind of coming through easily. They were all presenting problems, and we couldn't agree on arrangement style. It was all kind of still a bit tense. We hadn't really had the win that we needed to for morale. So this was so important. It really came just at the right moment. At that moment, you could feel all of the tension leaving the studio."

"Miss Sarajevo" (from Original Soundtracks 1, a 1995 collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti, Brian Eno, and others, dubbed Passengers): "That was a tune that really spoke so strongly to us when we started listening back to the old material. I always liked it at the time, but it has really stood the test of time. It's one of our best ever songs."

"Stay (Faraway, So Close)" (from 1993's Zooropa): "That sort of came when I was jumping off on kind of a Frank Sinatra tip. And then we had kind of a verse idea from the Achtung Baby sessions which didn't have a home. It was kind of just this verse melody. And I always liked it, so I remembered it. So when we were making Zooropa, I took out a copy of that half-finished song and I think we even called it at that point something like 'Sinatra Piece,' or whatever. So I just kind of had a go at writing a song for Frank. And then I came up with this version. I did a demo on like a four-track cassette and played it for the rest [of the band] and we kicked it around for a while, and between us all we kind of got the final structure and arrangement and that was it.

But it took a long time to record, because, originally, we had so many guitars and keyboards on the tune, it was really kind of overloaded with ideas. And when it came time to do the final mix, one of the guitars that I had least interest in -- or put hardly any time into -- became the main guitar part in the tune. Ya know, we really kind of stripped it back. Flood just turned out this great mix. And in fact we tried to remix the song for the new collection because we thought, ya know, 'That mix was done so quickly, there has to be an even better mix there if we just put some time into it.' But we couldn't beat it -- it's got such a vibe that's so subtle. Ya know, it's sort of a masterful piece of work. So I was kind of happy in a way that we didn't [remix]. We sort of restored my faith in capturing a moment and how music is really something that has to happen spontaneously. It's not something you can really work on over a long period of time."

"Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" (from All That You Can't Leave Behind): "It was a case of some music that I had been working on and some lyrics that Bono had been working on coming together. I had this tune for a while, played it for Bono, and we worked up some of the melodies, but it had no lyrics. And Bono had this lyric that was looking for a home, which was 'Stuck in a Moment.' We were in the studio one night late and were just about to go home and when we just figured out that these two pieces could sort of work together. So we got on the microphone and sort of jammed a few of Bono's lyrics and started to really get a feel for how they could work together. It really worked so well, and it didn't take long. Most of Bono's lines fit perfectly. He had to change one or two and that was it. So, ya know, when you're in the studio, it's really a case of looking for opportunities and piecing together clues until you sort of figure out what the songs are trying to tell you. And this is a case of just arriving at that tune from two different directions, and suddenly you get it. You can't force it, you never can. In some ways you can say the tunes write themselves, and you just have to be patient enough to wait for the right time. Sometimes it feels like you're working very hard. But the truth is, most of the time you're just kind of off on a tangent. All of our songs, in the end, it's a kind of a momentary breakthrough. It's not about craft -- it's always about inspiration.

You might write a song three different ways, four different ways, try different verses, different bridges. But it's when it actually crystallizes, it's generally a kind of moment of realization of suddenly you see it and you hear it and it falls into place. It's not about crafting. It's not like building it up piece by piece. It comes in bunches and flashes."

"Gone" (from 1997's Pop): "That's a tune we did remix and rework for this collection. I think we really finished that song -- the arrangement -- after we recorded and released it and went on the road. When we began playing it live, it took on this whole other dimension. So when we came to picking songs for this collection, it struck me that this is an opportunity to really do that song full justice -- record a version that took advantage of what we learned about the arrangement live. So I re-recorded some of the guitars, but we used an original drum performance of Larry's from when the song was first recorded and it was like the second take. He just turned out this amazing drum performance. And Mike Hedges found it on tape, and we worked on that and that became the backing track. So in some ways it's a mixture of kind of new innovations and back to like the second time we played it. So, it's quite a nice combination of inspiration and the first energy of playing and also taking advantage of some insight into the song and the arrangement and what we learned over the course of playing it for such a long time."

"Until the End of the World" (from Achtung Baby): "I think of maybe a record like The Unforgettable Fire as having a singular movement and feeling. With Achtung Baby, everything was kind of an individual piece. 'Until the End of the World' was one of the first things we recorded. In fact Bono, I don't think, was even at the sessions at that point, when we did the backing track. When he came back, I think he was really inspired by the backing track and he came up with his melodies over this recording, and his lyrics flowed pretty quickly from that. This song is a case of everything inspiring everyone else. And that's really the best way for us to make a record -- to keep the energy flowing, keep the ideas flowing. It's one of my favorite ever recordings of the band, because everyone shines; Adam and Larry are playing up a storm, I really love the guitar, the solo sound, and Bono turned out a great lyric and great melody."

"The Hands That Built America" (new song): "This song was written after we were approached by Martin Scorsese to think about maybe writing a song for [his new historical film] The Gangs of New York. We went and met him in New York, and went up and saw a rough assembly of the film. A few weeks later we went into the studio to work up some ideas, and one of the ideas that we came out with was 'The Hands That Built America,' the music anyway. We got back to it a little later on, later on last year, and finished it in the spring of this year. So, it's kind of a very recent piece, somewhat inspired by September 11th -- the final verse makes reference to New York during that period. But it's really inspired by the movie. It's a song about that period of time in the 19th century when so many immigrants came to America from Europe, and what it was like to arrive in this crazy town called New York. It was an incredible thing to sort of realize what New York was at that time. I can only imagine it was kind of like Nairobi -- incredibly dangerous. Actually, probably much worse than Nairobi, but, like, full of people trying to find a way to get away from the city. It's full of all kinds of diseases associated with overcrowding and bad sanitation, ruled by gangs and corrupt politicians. It was like, just, chaos."

"Discotheque" (from Pop): "'Discotheque' is a song again, like 'Gone,' that started to really come through live and so we made a new recording of our new arrangement using an earlier drum track. I redid some of the guitars. I think we used all the original vocals. But it's really pared back. The album version borrowed a lot from dance music and the aesthetics of dance music and what was going on at that time. But this version is back to the band, the essence of what U2 is about. It's more reminiscent of the way that song was performed live. I think it's more to the point."

"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" (from 1995's Batman Returns soundtrack): "Though it was written purposely for the 'Batman' movie, I now really rate this song. I think it's really strong."

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