Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Unforgettable Fire

For their fourth studio album, everyone, especially U2's label Island Records, expected U2 to make War Part II. But the band wasn't into it. They did not want to make another heavy, riff-laden rock album. They wanted to be a bit more experimental and, as bassist Adam Clayton famously stated, "arty." They did not re-hire Steve Lillywhite, who had produced their first three albums, but instead asked Brian Eno to produce the album. The Edge was especially keen on Eno's work with the Talking Heads and David Bowie. Eno insisted on bringing along his engineer, Canadian Daniel Lanois, much to the chagrin of the Island Records brass.

According to The Ongoing History of New Music transcripts, Eno and Lanois got the band to loosen up a bit, and got the rhythm section to play in a more "funky" style. Eno even helped Bono in his lyric writing using free-association word techniques, including flash cards. This lead to lyrics that were much more open to interpretation, and were less preachy than the lyrics from War. Eno and Lanois subsequently became partners with the band, producing The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991), parts of Zooropa (1993), All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000), some of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), and No Line on the Horizon (2009). Eno and Lanois also share songwriting credits with U2 on many tracks.

The Unforgettable Fire was release in October, 1984. The album's name came from an exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum on the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The band saw this exhibit while on tour in 1983, and thought it would make a cool album title. The first single, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" became U2's first song to crack the US Top 40 charts, peaking at number two. Interestingly, Chrissy Hynde of Pretenders fame sings backup on this track, but she is credited as Christine Herr as she was married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds at the time. "Pride" remains a staple at U2's live shows.

I first heard the song "Bad" when I borrowed The Unforgettable Fire CD from the public library in 1985 or so. The song made my 13-year-old head swoon. It wasn't until years later that I learned the song is about about heroin addiction. Bono's vocal performance is unreal. I remember being at a house party in college, where everyone was drunk as hell, and I looked into a bedroom where some dude was sitting by himself singing along to "Bad" at the top of his lungs. I should have walked in and kissed that guy. 25 years later, this song is still my favorite U2 track.

The track "4th of July" is an ambient instrumental and is classic Brian Eno. Eno heard Clayton strumming his bass, so he started recording. Soon The Edge spontaneously joined in. Neither new they were being recorded. Eno added some background features, and the song was done. It has never been played live.

4th of July.mp3
Buy: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

Bonus: in 1998 U2 released The Best 1980-1990, along with a limited edition bonus disc of B-sides. I wanted to post a few of the B-sides from The Unforgettable Fire here, but I never ripped the CD. I am moving to a new apartment next week, and the CD is packed away, so stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

You're right about "Bad" being U2's best ever. The story (myth?) I heard years ago was that the song is about someone purposely overdosing on heroin, with the singer as attendant and commenting on the final moments. (Assisted suicide?) Even if the story is a myth, the song is incredibly powerful - Bono's vocals, the band's driving rhythms, and Eno's faultless production. Great post.

Curt Shannon

In NYC said...

25? 26? years later, "Bad" still make the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear it. The "Bad" clip (and I guess the Queen appearance) is the only thing I still watch from the Live Aid concert. Thanks for the words.