POP MUSIC : U2’s Pride (In the Name of Songs) : Achtung, babies: Bono and Edge evaluate one critic’s choices for the group’s 10 best recordings, from ‘I Will Follow’ to ‘One’

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

Before reacting with the Edge to my list of the 10 best U2 moments on record, Bono had a question of his own.

“Is it true that ‘One’ was played over the radio a lot during the Los Angeles riots?” the singer asked, referring to the most acclaimed song from the “Achtung Baby” album, and one of the songs on the list.

“That’s what I heard from some friends,” he added, “which is surprising because I never saw the song as something hopeful or comforting. To me, it was a very bitter song.”


If Bono is continually surprised at how a song takes on its own life after being released, it also pleases him, because he likes music that is slightly out of focus and open to broad interpretation.

“I didn’t grow up in the tradition of pop songwriters who feel it is essential to make everything clear to the listener,” he said. “All of us in the band were always interested in abstraction . . . letting things be out of focus.

In the following exercise, Bono and guitarist Edge were asked to react to my 10 favorite U2 moments from the band’s albums through “Achtung Baby”--including how high they would rate the selections on their personal lists of U2 material. The moments are listed chronologically:


From the debut album, “Boy” (1981)

Edge: I think I was happier with that song than anything else we recorded on “Boy.” Musically, its strength is that it’s so simple. Of our early works, it would be pretty high on my list.

Bono: I didn’t really begin spending a lot of time on lyrics until halfway into the ‘80s, so this and a lot of the early songs were written very quickly--in just minutes in many cases. The idea here was really just a very personal feeling, a song about unconditional love: “If you walk away, I will follow.” It would be high up on my list.



From the album “War” (1983)

Edge: I’m quite fond of “New Year’s Day” because it was probably the first time that I started feeling confidence in the band as songwriters.

Bono: The piano gave the track a sort of icy feeling, very European, and the image I came up with was one of striking workers standing outside in the snow in Poland during the time of Solidarity, when Lech Walesa was imprisoned and cut off from his family.


A Top 40 hit from the album “The Unforgettable Fire” (1984)

Edge: Here’s a case where I think the song itself is better than the record. It never fully sat right for me as a recording. I thought we touched on a rhythmic approach that we could never follow all the way down. It may have been our limitation as musicians. On my list, it would be somewhere in the middle rather than near the top.

Bono: I read a book on the life of Martin Luther King and it told about him as this aggressive pacifist, and it just seemed to fit the music.



From “The Unforgettable Fire”

Edge: I think the version we released was the first take--one of those real magical moments in the studio. It was a very minimalist piece; the idea that a pattern that is repeated over and over for a period of time builds its own momentum and character. This would be quite high for me.

Bono: The idea was about a friend of mine who was strung out very badly on smack. The song was made up on the spot. Unfortunately, we never went over it, because it was felt the recording was a moment and should be left that way. I don’t think I’ve ever sung the exact lyric that is on the record. I play with it every night, which is something I like.


From the album “The Joshua Tree” (1987)

Edge: We never captured “Streets” in the way of “Bad,” through improvisation. We started working from the rhythm backup--the guitar, then the drums, then Adam (bassist Clayton) last. It got to where it was hard to justify spending so much time on it. In fact, Brian wanted us to erase the multitrack at one point because he felt it was taking too much time out of the record. He didn’t, thankfully. I would put it well up there.

Bono: I love the idea of the song--about taking someone on a journey, because that’s what a concert is. It’s saying to the audience, “Yes, we may be in a car park or a stadium or some other absurd place to listen to music but the music can take us somewhere else. It can transcend time and place.” As a piece of music, it is near the very top of our stuff for me.



From “The Joshua Tree”

Edge: We knew we had something special, but it was not easy making it our own--giving it an individual stamp. When you really strip it down, it is really pretty much a gospel melody and almost a gospel lyric.

Bono: The approach was influenced by the poetry of the Psalms, which I always love. To me, it’s a lot like the blues--where man was giving out to God. It’s like David giving out to God, “Where are you when I need you?” That whole thing.


From “The Joshua Tree

Edge: It came out of an improvisation in the studio. I was playing some piano, Danny picked up rhythm guitar, Larry (drummer Mullen) and Adam joined in. The actual improvisation lasted about 15 minutes. Bono threw in melodic ideas. I like it a lot.

Bono: It was about a heroin problem in Dublin. The seven towers in the song is the place just behind where I grew up, what you call a housing project, with seven high towers. That would be in my personal Top 5.


From “Rattle and Hum” (1988)


Edge: I really like the song, but I regret that we didn’t make it more our own sonically. At the time, we were exploring folk and blues and these different musical traditions, and we didn’t want to tamper with them.

Bono: I disagree. I think the fact that the track is so musically spare suits it. I was in Los Angeles and I woke up with a very bad hangover, and the words and the melody were just going around in my head. I asked Edge later if he had ever heard it, if it was some old song. In fact, I thought it might be a Bob Dylan song.

I was going out to see him that day and I asked him if it was his, and he said no. But we sat down and finished it together.


From “Achtung Baby” (1991)

Edge: There was this idea going around during the session that distracting musicians during the course of playing can sometimes, especially on solos, knock the musician out of a predictable path, so they were trying to knock me about and I was not enjoying this concept at all. So I stopped and more or less told them to leave me alone. Then I put down the solo that we ended up using, and it’s one of my favorites.

Bono: It was written for Nina Simone and we just started playing it one night and the band liked it, so we decided to put it on the album. But the best thing about the record is Edge’s guitar playing. To me, it’s like a prayer.



From “Achtung Baby”

Edge: It was a very pivotal song in the recording of the album--the first sort of breakthrough in what was an extremely difficult set of sessions in Berlin. I like the lyric a lot because it treads a very fine line between becoming too clear, too jingoistic, but in the end it never does. . . . It stays personal.

Bono: We spoke about this before. It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of “Let’s all live together.” It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, “We are one, but we’re not the same.” It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.