U2: What almost became the forgettable ‘Fire’ Part 3

The gospel truth

After three albums all carved in a similar rocking vein, the band members knew that they were in danger of falling into a simple parody routine, becoming fatally stereotyped as a band that could do nothing more than churn out an endless stream of strident guitar rockers.

Just as Eno had swerved away from the preconceptions of his “rock” audience by unleashing a stream of ambient soundscapes upon their ears, records with titles like Music For Airports and The Plateaux of Mirror, so U2 believed themselves capable of making music that would display them in a completely new light.

Eno obviously agreed with them. As Adam Clayton told the New Musical Express, “Over the last five years, every band in the country has been on the phone to Eno, but we were the only offer he accepted. And the question shouldn’t be why we wanted to work with him, but why he wanted to work with us, this pathetic little rock ’n’ roll band from Dublin who hadn’t made a good record since Boy (a dig at that particular paper’s long-standing dislike of the band). He must have seen something there.”

That something, Bono claimed, was a parallel between the intensity of U2 and the gospel music that had apparently been Eno’s preferred choice of listening material for the past three years. “That was all he had listened to. It was the spirit in which it was made that attracted him to the group’s music, the sense of abandonment … [and] I could relate to it. People talk about the spirituality of U2, and I realized that was part of everyday life in black music. I realized that, though we weren’t rooted in black music, there was something in the music that was similar.

“With Eno, we rediscovered the spirit in our music and a confidence in ourselves.”

From the outset, then, U2 were aware that this new album, as the Edge put it, was going to be “a departure. There’s an emphasis away from the guitar, without losing the aggression. I think we were determined to make an album of contrasts, not just the one-dimensional feel, something that had something for everyone.”

The band’s success, of course, played a part in their decision-making, even as they knew that they could just as easily lose all of that popularity if they went too far out on a limb.

“Our audience now is a huge cross section,” the Edge ventured hopefully. “It’s not just fans of War — there are people who hated War and loved Boy, people who hated Boy and [will] probably love [the new stuff]. It’s really beginning to widen, and I don’t feel War really showed off the full breadth of our abilities as songwriters or musicians. So that was one of the things that were at the forefront of my mind when we were writing the songs and putting the production together.”

Adam Clayton agreed. “With this … record we knew we had a very strong base, and we could afford taking a few risks, hence Eno coming in. It defined the spirit in which we were going to make the record.  It was very much ‘okay, we’ll rehearse the numbers as much as possible, but we’re open to basically seeing what happens.’”

It was, Bono said, also a reversion to the band’s earliest days, “ … a group innovating in the three-piece format. I don’t want to sound pompous, but that’s how we started. We wrestled with that.” And now they were returning to it.

It was only as the sessions wore on that they realized the difficulties that were bound up in such an approach.

“We ended up with roughly 25 pieces of music, and only half the prepared music got on the record. The rest was the stuff we’d created under the influence of Eno.” (One outtake from the sessions, “Three Sunrises,” later materialized on the Wide Awake In America EP.)

One key example of this was the track “Elvis Presley and America,” a piece of music that was recorded in just five minutes. Eno handed Bono a microphone “ … and told me to sing over this piece of music that had been slowed down, played backwards, whatever. I said, ‘What? Just like that? Now?’ He said, ‘Yes, this is what you’re all about.’ So I did it, and when it was finished, there were all these beautiful lines and melodies coming out of it.”

Listening back to the tape, Bono told Eno how much he was looking forward to finishing it. Eno just looked at him. “What do you mean? It is finished.”

But Eno was fast to discount accusations that he and his assistant, Daniel Lanois, had simply walked into the studio and bent U2 to their will. “They were ready,” he said. “They had it planned. I was simply the guide.”

“Brian and Danny were very quick to catch the fact that something was in the air and [to] make the appropriate move,” the Edge explained. “‘4th of July’ is [an] example of that. I and Adam were just messing around; Brian had some treatments set up for a vocal effect, and he patched the guitar into them. Got a rough mix going, it sounded really good, so he put it on the quarter-inch tape machine. So ‘4th of July’ never went onto a twenty-four track, it just went straight onto stereo tape. So we’ve taken a section of improvised live work, almost, and it just captured a lovely mood.”

Of course, the album was not all improvisation and experimentation; indeed, the first most people heard of the sessions’ fruits was when the band’s new single was released at the beginning of September 1984, their first 45 in almost 18 months and so unmistakably U2 that many critics simply laughed off the reports that U2’s dalliance with Eno was leading them in totally new directions. So far as “Pride (In The Name of Love)” was concerned, it was banner-flaunting, boulder-leaping, mountain-goating business as usual.

“I originally wrote ‘Pride’ about Ronald Reagan,” Bono explained. “Reagan and the ambivalent attitude in America. It was originally meant as the sort of pride that won’t back down, that wants to build nuclear arsenals. But that wasn’t working. I remember a wise old man said to me, ‘Don’t try and fight darkness with light, just make the light shine brighter.’ I was giving Reagan too much importance. Then I thought of Martin Luther King; there’s a man. We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger.” (King would make another appearance at the end of the album, with the closing stateliness of “MLK.”)

In musical terms, the Edge was to describe “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” as “ … the most successful pop song we’ve ever written. You can see there is a certain craft to the songwriting. I use the word ‘pop’ in the best possible sense; pop for me is an easily understood thing; you listen to it and you comprehend it almost immediately. You relate to it instinctively.

“A lot of the LP isn’t like that at all.”

Stay tuned for Part 4

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