The Book of Your Heart: Aaron J. Sams Talks U2 Song by Song

Original Story by Don Morgan (2024-03-10)

March 2024 sees the release of U2 Song by Song, a comprehensive overview of every U2 track to date, written and compiled by U2Songs founder Aaron J. Sams. I had the opportunity to look at an early draft of the book and thought it would be fun to get some insights from the man himself as U2 Song by Song starts rolling off the presses. Without further ado, here’s our discussion!

U2 Song by Song Cover

1. Most of the folks reading this are probably U2Songs regulars or have seen you profiled in U2 publications over the years, but for anyone new, give us a brief history of yourself and the website.

No need to reinvent the wheel! For those interested, you can read some historical background here and here.

2. How did the book come about? Did you write it and then pitch it to a publisher, or did someone approach you and ask you to write it?

Myself and Harry, who works with me at U2Songs, both received an invite to talk about writing the book. Fonthill Media has a series of books featuring the songs of various acts, from Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen to Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams. They were looking for someone to write a U2 book, and had discovered U2Songs and liked what they saw. They reached out to see if we wanted to take on the project. Harry urged me to do it and agreed to pick up some of the slack around U2Songs if I did. And before I knew it, I was writing a book!

3. You write in the Introduction that this book is not intended to explain what the songs are “about.” Can you elaborate on that?

I think over the years we all come up with our own meanings behind the songs. We all get different things out of them, and the lyrics are open to interpretation. I didn’t want to come along and say someone’s idea of what a song is about was right or wrong. So I left most of the explanations up to the band members themselves. There are over 300 quotes in the book from interviews from 1979 onwards, quoting the band talking about their own songs. I’ll let Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam lead you to a potential meaning, or maybe more than one.

4. What do you hope to accomplish with this book? Is it just for die-hard fans or will it appeal to the casual fan, or even just music fans in general?

The book is part of a Fonthill series, so I did have to fit into some guidelines on what was expected. The basic request was an exploration of each of the songs on U2’s albums. Other books in the series vary, from lyrical analysis to more encyclopedic facts and figures. Anyone who is familiar with the discography at U2Songs knows we lean a bit towards the facts and figures. We have information on chart placements, Grammy Awards, alternate versions, and so much more. But I really wanted to look at where the songs have ended up in pop culture, too. So I wrote about great covers of U2 songs by other acts, artists who have named certain U2 songs as their favorites, and where some of the songs have appeared after their debut appearance on a U2 album.

5. How long did it take to write U2 Song by Song? How much did you rely on notes and the vast library of knowledge at U2Songs, and how much was “off the top of your head”?

The first draft took eight months to write. I am working full time, so it was all about evenings, weekends, and holidays. I spent a lot of time glued to a keyboard, but it was also during the worst of COVID, so there were not a lot of other activities happening at that time anyway. Oddly enough, I had planned on doing something like this for U2Songs and I had already started writing some of it up prior to being contacted by Fonthill. So those notes helped speed things along!

The research existing at U2Songs definitely helped, and provided some of the facts and figures along the way. I have notebooks filled with information from when we relaunched U2Songs in 2015, and some of that material made it into the book as well. I also relied heavily on, put together by my friend Dan Eliot, interviews compiled by another friend, Karl Blain, as well as Alan Ivory, who was very helpful in finding specific articles when I needed to reference a quote.

6. What songs were the easiest to write about? And were there any songs where you said, “Eh, I just don’t have much to say about this one”?

I started writing the book with Pop and quickly realized I had a problem. I was going to blow right past the requested word count if I included everything I wanted to say. (In the end I did go well past what was requested, but the publisher agreed to publish it as-is.) Those Pop songs came easy to me. I love the album and I’ve spent a lot of time with it.

Achtung Baby was more of a struggle. I do love some of the songs on it, but the album as a whole never was one of my favourites. The reissue of the album in November 2021 was a good kick in the arse to dive in and get those songs finished.

7. After you finished the first draft of this book U2 released “Atomic City” and now there is a new album in the works. Any plans to add “addendums” as needed, even if it’s just digitally?

I’m happy to say “Atomic City” made the final edit. In August of last year, the publisher agreed to let me make some changes, as long as I kept the overall word count the same. “Your Song Saved My Life” got a little shorter, and I managed to get brief mentions of “Atomic City” and Songs of Surrender in place.

There are no plans at this time to do a new edition, but if sales are good, anything is possible. I’d love to do more.

8. Not even taking the book into account, you churn out a massive amount of text every week with news updates, concert reports, and much more. Do you ever experience “U2 burnout“?

I’ve long told the team at U2Songs that this shouldn’t feel like a job. Jump in and do something if you feel like it, all ideas are welcome, but don’t feel like you haveto do something. When it starts feeling like work, some of the enjoyment goes. I do try to listen to that myself. I’ve taken stretches away from it all. Thankfully, U2 has a lot of downtime. If I do find myself getting burned out on one aspect of it all, I do try to find other things to switch to. Tired of writing up show reports? I hop over and clean up some of the discography stuff, or work on one of the new features on the site.

9. If given the opportunity to write another book, would you do it? Is there anything else you’d want to write about when it comes to U2 that didn’t fit with this book?

I have a book underway! While this Song by Song book had to fit a template for the series, this new one is something I’ve always been interested in, and will be a wider look at one specific period for the band. The publisher hasn’t agreed to take it yet, but we have spoken.

10. Obvious question here, but since this book is focused on songs, can you name some favorites? Do you have a personal Top 10?

Rather than name my favourite songs, I’m going to pick a few of my favourite entries from the book. “Running to Stand Still” is my favourite U2 song and has been since 1987. I intentionally saved it as the last entry to be written. And that night, Christmas Eve 2021, a performance of Bono busking “Running to Stand Still” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin aired. I put the final touches on the entry as the song streamed. It was the perfect end.

Another favourite entry is “Get On Your Boots.” I’ve never been a huge fan of the song, but one quote from Bono led me to another, and I ended up realizing I’d missed out on some of the lyrics. Bono had shared a story about he and Ali taking their daughter to a fair in the South of France on the same evening that the UK entered the conflict in Iraq in 2003. While Bono was at the fun fair on a date night with his young family, fighter jets could be seen passing overhead going to war. Somehow I missed those stories when the single first came out. It’s been a learning process for me.

Another favourite is “Tomorrow,” which again was a learning experience. I’ve always associated the song with Bono and the loss of his mother. But there are other layers in there as well, and in many early interviews Bono would speak of a mother receiving the body of her deceased son, returning from war. I dug deep to try to come up with interviews that are not quoted to death at this point, and a few of the things I uncovered really gave me a new appreciation for the songs and changed how I listen to them.

The last one is “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There’s one fan who takes confetti with her to every U2 show she attends. If you happen to be there, you’ll see a cloud of glittering confetti erupt from the area she’s in when the lights come up for “Streets.” I got to share a few stories from fans and explain where we’ve taken the songs ourselves. The confetti story is one of my favourites.

For those interested in more information about U2 Song by Song, we’ve set up a mini site here.

U2 Song by Song Back Cover

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