U2: What almost became the forgettable ‘Fire’ Part 1

by  Dave Thompson

It was one of the most widely anticipated albums of the 1980s, and one of the most nervously awaited, as well.

The greatest modern-rock band in the world could have chosen anybody in the world to work with, and almost any one of them would have delivered exactly what the band and its audience expected — another 40-minute burst of anthemic rock, another series of MTV-clogging, stadium-packing, pretzel-waving, lighter-igniting monsters to remind us that trends may come and haircuts might fade, but great rock ’n’ roll will live forever.

Instead, U2 teamed up with Brian Eno, and all bets were off. The Unforgettable Fire was greeted with fear, was listened to with shock and, although it’s true that chart positions don’t lie, they can deceive. U2’s fourth studio album (and fifth overall) might have wound up as one of the biggest-selling records of the year. But so did David Bowie’s Tonight, and who ever listened to that more than once?

In the weeks before its release, The Unforgettable Fire was seen as a misstep at best, a mistake at worst and the only reason U2 would be forgiven for it was because (a) they remained one of the best live bands around, and (b) they would surely come to their senses next time out.

Nobody could have predicted that The Unforgettable Fire would become the template for every record the band would make in the future; nor that, by the time of their next LP, The Joshua Tree, they would be even bigger than ever.

Nobody, that is, apart from U2 themselves. And 25 years on from the album’s release, with the plaudits for their latest disc, the similarly Eno-produced No Line on the Horizon, still fresh on the newspaper racks, it’s intriguing to return to the dawn of that partnership and remember just how bizarre it seemed at the time. Nobody ever said (publicly, at least) that The Unforgettable Fire was going to end U2’s career. But too many more stunts like this, and they’d certainly be sinking fast.

On the move

By 1983, U2 were not quite on top of the world but certainly heading there fast. Their most recent LP, their third, War, had made the American Top Ten and, as in the U.K. (where they soared to #1), it was a performance that more than belied past chart placings.

October, their last album, peaked at #94, its predecessor, Boy, at #95. Now, however, nobody could deny that the band was on the move, and as they toured around the United States in early spring 1983, audience reactions were finally beginning to touch the hysterical edges that the music so loudly demanded.

“We love being in America as far as playing is concerned,” Bono declared. “The audience reaction is instinctive.” Unlike in the U.K., where a band’s fortunes were very much tied to the music papers’ response to it, “ … there isn’t much reading on music. The only way people hear about things is by radio, which is very localized. You could be huge in Boston and people won’t have heard of you in Texas.”

Past tours had placed U2 on the club circuit, and they were only gently graduating to larger, theater-sized venues. This time around, their schedule comprised almost exclusively major festival sites and sports arenas, the logical conclusion to the band’s slowly inexorable rise up the American concert ladder.

The stars flocked to see them — Bruce Springsteen attended one show in Philadelphia; Bono dedicated the evening’s encore to Steel Mill, one of Springsteen’s early bands. But it was the sheer magnitude and grandeur of the music that were on everybody’s lips, and when those qualities were finally placed into a venue that could equal them, the stunning Red Rocks arena in Colorado, the ensuing television broadcast and concert movie “Under A Blood Red Sky” probably did more for the band’s future reputation than any other single show they played.

But how were U2 themselves going to face that future? Coming off the road, they were well aware that the first order of business would be to record a new album, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to simply continue down the path they had already forged — another album of stirring guitar anthems, flag-waving lyrics, breathy emotion over electric angst.

Three albums old and U2 were already well on the way to writing their own cliché, a rabble-rousing, rebel-yelling guitar band par excellence. And there was barely a soul in their universe who would have argued against that continuing on forever.

Maybe the group was already tiring of that cliché, however. They had already made arrangements to donate their current tour backdrop and stage set to the Chicago Peace Museum; there, they were thrilled to discover, it would be exhibited alongside a series of paintings by survivors of the two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The collection was titled The Unforgettable Fire.

At the end of November 1983, Island released the live album Under A Blood Red Sky, tying it in with the Red Rocks gig but, in fact, drawing only two songs from that concert (“Gloria” and “Trash Trampoline and Party Girl”). The remainder of the set came from gigs in Boston and the German television show “Rockpalast.” Six months later, the video hit the streets, and this time the Red Rocks show was presented in its almost complete glory (the recent DVD reissue rounds up the handful of songs omitted from the original tape).

As a documentary of the band in concert, “Live at Red Rocks” could scarcely be faulted; as a piece of cinéma vérité, it was one of the most convincing rock ’n’ roll live films ever released. Every camera technique imaginable, from stage front close-ups to some magnificent panoramas of the entire arena (shot from a hovering helicopter), was employed, and journalist Jack Barron, reviewing the video for the U.K. magazine Sounds, rightly described it as “ … capturing the atmosphere of a live gig as well as any I can think of.”

The band themselves were less enthusiastic, with the Edge memorably claiming that the weather let them down. “If the sun had been shining, I’m sure the video would have been okay.”

In fact, it was the weather that gave the video such an impressive sheen. The air was wringing wet, creating a misty, ethereal quality around the lights which a clear night could never have managed. The fires reflecting off the water were equally spectacular; in fact, as Barron’s review continued, one of the best things about watching the video was that “ … you didn’t have to get sopping wet. Unlike the people who attended.”

Stay tuned for Part 2!
by  Dave Thompson

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