Interview with The Edge
CMJ by Colin Helms (1998-10-30)
“The college stations were crucial to U2 becoming known in the American radio world. We were really delighted to discover that there was this network of underground stations that had been playing a lot of music from the U.K. and from Ireland and that people knew about our records through college stations. I think that was a turning point for us. You have some of the most progressive, most interesting radio in the world in the form of college and public stations. To see it as a commercial world is only to see one side of it.” — The Edge
In November, 1998, Island Records released U2: The Best Of 1980-1990, the first hits collection from one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world. But before U2 became an international pop sensation, the Irish quartet was considered one of the seminal post-punk bands of the ’80s, establishing a place for itself in the history of college radio with such classic recordings as Boy, October, War, Under A Blood Red Sky and The Unforgettable Fire. Fueled by the group’s politically charged ideology and equally incendiary rock sound, the band created anthems such as “I Will Follow,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” that inarguably helped shape the face of modern music. In an exclusive interview, U2’s guitarist The Edge speaks with CMJ about the new double-disc collection, his thoughts on non-commercial radio and his favorite U2 era so far.
How involved were you in selecting tracks for the best-of record?
When we first started talking about doing a best-of, really the question in our mind was “Should we do one at all?,” and that took up quite a lot of time. In the end, we realized that a lot of people out there probably don’t have the early records; we thought that it would be a good thing to have a definitive collection of the first 10 years. In fact, I think within a half hour we pretty much decided what we wanted to put on the record. There were one or two tracks that we considered early on that we eventually didn’t put on — a live version of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” our first single, and “Bullet The Blue Sky.” But we just thought [the collection] was starting to get a little too long. We wanted to keep it fairly condensed.
Were you involved in the sequencing of the tracks?
I ended up doing quite a lot of work on that. We decided early on that we weren’t going to do it in any chronological order because we wanted just a great record, we didn’t really want it to be any sort of history book. We wanted it to be a record that people would just enjoy playing at home. So that was our first consideration, and that’s why also we ended up choosing, in some cases, the original 7” edit of some of the songs. We felt that they made more sense in a collection like this.
How did you choose the B-side tracks for the collection?
We had quite a few to choose from, but we thought we chose the best B-sides from the ’80s. There were at least another 10 that we could have put on that we felt were not quite up to it. That was more difficult than the A-sides really, because the B-sides are quite diverse and the variation in the sound quality is vast. Some of them are very lo-fi, and some of them could have made the album they were recorded during. I was actually quite blown away by some of them. Just the freshness of them was something that I really found appealing. In most cases, these tunes were produced and recorded very quickly, [so] there’s no sense of them being belabored, there’s no double-thinking.
Why was “Sweetest Thing” never chosen as a single?
It was a combination of not having time to finish it and also because when that was first written, it was a tune that Bono wrote as a gift for [his wife] Ali. I think it was her birthday, since he couldn’t think of something or hadn’t had time to buy her something. [He decided] he would just give her 24 hours of his inspiration and he wrote this song. When we decided that we’d try it as a B-side, even at that stage, it was like, “Well, can we do that? Is Ali into that?” It’s her song in a way. When we had finished it and had a chance to think about it we realized that we had actually turned in a really good version of it. What’s nice is that it’s now getting the recognition that it could have had at that time. Ali still owns that song, and I wouldn’t be surprised if [the money generated by it] doesn’t go towards some very good causes.
Why did you decide to re-do “Sweetest Thing” for a 1998 single?
We’d always wanted to have another go at it, and this opportunity presented itself. When we were thinking about what we were going to put on the collection, this seemed liked the obvious time to try and finish it off [and] give Bono a chance to re-sing it, because he was always upset about his vocal. The day he originally sang it he had lost his voice and it was quite an unusual vocal. Listening back to parts and sounds that you used in the mid-‘80s there was a bit of nostalgia in hearing what we were doing then. I think having a bit of distance and some objectivity gave us a fresh insight as to where to go with the song that we may not have had at the time.
Did you consider doing a kind of “greatest hits” tour to support the album?
No, that never actually came up. I don’t think we would want to put so much time right now into the best-of record, when we’re, at the moment, starting to write some songs and consider going into the studio for our next studio album.
What can you tell us about the new songs? Any new direction or sound you’re trying out?
Well, I don’t know yet, because a lot of our records take shape during the recording process. It’s kind of impossible to crystal ball gaze at this point as to how it’s going to sound. But I do know that going into the last record we unfortunately didn’t have Larry [Mullen, Jr.] there at the beginning, because he was out of action with a bit of a back problem. Thankfully, at the beginning of this record, everyone is fighting fit. We’re not going to be writing songs and then trying to do band arrangements, we’re going to be writing all together and working in a kind of rehearsal room approach. So hopefully the songs will come out of band performances as opposed to the other way around. I think we’re going to be using Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as producers. It’s fun for us to work with them again. It’ll be our fourth record with them as a team and the other three records have been really successful creatively for us, we’ve really enjoyed the process.
Is there any U2 era or record that stands out as your favorite?
I’m very proud of the whole collection, but if I were to single out any one era, I’d have to say [that] The Unforgettable Fire through The Joshua Tree was the most creatively satisfying for us. We really had set our sights on achieving certain goals as a band, creatively in terms of songwriting, in terms of production and sonic experimentation, and took quite a few risks. People at the time of The Unforgettable Fire really thought that we had made a major commercial mistake. Everybody was telling us that we were poised, ready to conquer the world with the U2 sound of the War album. What on earth are we doing running off with Brian Eno, this sort of art-terrorist who was going to ruin our sound? We put up with a lot of flak at the time, and I remember when the album came out it was not reviewed very well. Looking back on it now, we really managed to create a sort of special record with Brian and Danny. That same sort of spirit carried through to The Joshua Tree, by which time I think people were starting to give us a little more respect for knowing what might be right for us as a band, so I think The Joshua Tree was given a bit more initial credit and the reviews were more favorable. Rattle And Hum, weirdly enough, I think there are more songs from that album than any other on this collection. As odd a record as it is, being a mix of studio and live and hi-fi and lo-fi recordings. The new songs that we wrote and recorded for that album have really stood up very well. Even in some ways, as they’re U2 experimenting with roots music forms, I still feel like we’ve kind of made them our own. I don’t think we’ve lost our identity completely [by] experimenting with forms like the blues and more folk styles.
Looking back over that period, was there anything embarrassing?
I think allowing Paramount Pictures to airbrush my stubble out of the promotional pictures for Rattle And Hum. That was actually the moment when I realized things might be going a little too far [laughs].
Talk about the early days, experiencing American college radio for the first time in 1980. What were your impressions during that first tour?
Coming from Dublin there was no commercial radio [in Ireland], so there was really only one station that was playing rock ‘n’ roll. It was a national station, so everybody could get it. But that meant that if you got your song on the prime time show, you got the entire nation tuning into you. Cut to us taking a look across the water to America and how daunting that was, realizing what a vast country it was. And radio in America at that point seemed completely impenetrable to a young band [that] had never toured in America and were really just starting out. So when we did manage to get over and start to do our first-ever shows, they were in these tiny clubs and bars around the East Coast — some of them, in fact, were support gigs for other groups. So, when we got there, we were astonished to find that in some towns, people knew about us. We were really delighted to discover that there was this network of underground and college stations that had been playing a lot of music from the U.K. and from Ireland, and that people knew about our records through college stations. I think that was a turning point for us. That gave us the foothold and the will to really put our shoulders to the door and persevere. The college stations were crucial to U2 becoming known in the American radio world and in general. We could actually look up the cities that had a college radio station that was playing our album and be able to predict what it would be like in that town. We could really make a distinction between those venues in those towns and the other ones where, for whatever reason, there was no college station or we weren’t getting played.
When you were touring across the States, did you have any opportunity to listen to college radio?
We did whenever we could, which was a fair amount of the time. I was blown away by college radio, having heard that American radio was very commercially-driven and that to get on American radio you had to sound like REO Speedwagon, at that time. To discover that this whole other subculture existed was very exciting and gratifying, and was probably the insight that we got that a lot of other English groups never got. I remember at the time talking to bands like Echo & The Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes, and their attitude about the States was really negative and I think they had missed this whole thing, the fact that America does operate on different levels. You might get the ultra commercial level, but that you also have, albeit on an underground level, some of the most progressive, most interesting radio in the world in the form of college stations and the public stations. To see it as a commercial world is only to see one side of it.
Were you aware at that time how popular you were on college stations and how much that helped build your audience during the early day
We certainly weren’t aware of it until we went to America, but when we did go there for the first time we loved the college stations and were really delighted that they were so into our record. I think we developed a close alliance with a lot of the stations and particular DJs that we got to know. I remember that we used to call ourselves “the biggest cult group in the world,” and that’s because we’ve never really been in step with the mainstream, we’ve never really — except for maybe that one moment when The Joshua Tree had two number one singles in America — apart from that time, we’ve never really been in the commercial mainstream either. We’ve never sounded like any other band at the top of the charts, and we’ve always done our own thing. The success of the group and the size of our following is because we’ve had that kind of grassroots support, which is what college radio was all about. It wasn’t about playing the commercial records, it was about playing things that were of interest, but not necessarily the obvious things. We fit very well into that frame and our audience grew from a very grassroots level out of that kind of support.
You thanked college radio when you won the Grammy for The Joshua Tree. Why?
It was really to acknowledge the importance of college radio, on our own success and on the success of many bands. We came to realize that the engine of change, and the new music coming through America is college radio, and to that extent a very vital part of the regeneration of music. In that sense college radio is 10 steps ahead of commercial radio in introducing really important new things to the country and we benefitted greatly from it, and long may it continue. I think, without college radio stations doing what they’re doing, American radio would be in deep shit, because I don’t think commercial stations are interested in searching out new acts and new music. So there would be a big problem in terms of where those new bands would come from and how they would make any impression.