The History Mix: 80s Extended Play Madness
Original Story by Don Morgan (2016-06-27)
Like many bands that launched their careers in the late 1970s and 1980s, U2 released several titles in the EP format. Although not full-length albums, several EPs from this era have become important and even iconic touchpoints in their respective bands’ discographies—think R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, Big Country’s Wonderland, The B-52s’ Party Mix, or New Order’s 1981-1982. The EP continued to be an important vehicle for new music through the 90s and beyond, and interestingly, even though we’re now firmly in the digital age, the EP has enjoyed renewed popularity, no doubt partly due to the vinyl renaissance. In 2014, Billboard magazine called the EP “a rare music business success story.” Recent EP releases include Mumford and Sons’ Johannesburg, The Strokes’ Future Present Past and Tears for Fears’ RSD release Ready Boy and Girls?
Tomato, To-mah-to: Defining the EP
Before we can even answer the question of how many EPs U2 released in the 1980s, we have to address a more fundamental issue: “What is an EP?” The definition is almost impossible to nail down. This is a conundrum that has vexed the minds of many of us here at U2Songs when trying to classify several of U2’s releases. Suffice to say that at its most basic level, an EP (“extended play”) is shorter than a full-length album (an LP—“long play”) but longer than a traditional single (which typically consists of either one or two songs, an a-side and a b-side). In many, but not all cases, an EP has a unique title that differs from the lead or featured track on the release.
There is also the question of chart eligibility, something that is obviously important to both bands and record labels. Depending on the country and the specifics of the release in question, an EP may be eligible for either the singles charts or the album charts. In the UK, for example, an EP must be 25 minutes or less or have four unique tracks, not counting alternative versions. Meanwhile, iTunes classifies a single as having 1-3 tracks, where each track has a duration of less than 10 minutes. An iTunes EP, on the other hand, has either 1) 1-3 tracks, if one track is 10 minutes or longer and the total running time is 30 minutes or less; or 2) 4-6 tracks, with a total running time of 30 minutes or less.
Are you confused yet? Further muddying the waters are additional marketing terms that have been used over the years, including “maxi-singles,” “album samplers,” and so on. One of the more interesting examples of this is the “mini LP,” of which U2’s own Under a Blood Red Sky is one of the most famous examples. Supposedly, a mini-LP contains 20-30 minutes of music. But consider this: Under a Blood Red Sky contains eight songs and nearly 35 minutes of music as a mini LP, whereas Rush’s Permanent Waves contains only six songs and runs for a similar 35 minutes, and yet is considered an LP. There is simply no definitive answer!
U2 and the EP
When we start to look at U2’s EP history, the “Is it an EP or not?” question rears its ugly head immediately, starting with the band’s very first release. In my mind, 1979’s Three is very clearly an EP. It has three distinct tracks and a unique title. The content is the same on the 7-inch and 12-inch formats. The a-side was famously chosen by listeners to Dave Fanning’s radio show, hardly a conventional single release. When Bono refers to “Out of Control” as U2’s first single during live shows, even to this day, the overlap between EP and single becomes even more clear.
Not counting Under a Blood Red Sky, which we’ll assume belongs in the separate category of “Mini LP,” U2 released five additional EPs prior to The Joshua Tree era, which will get special consideration in the next section. The first is 1981’s R.O.K. Although commonly associated with the “Fire” single, including right here in our own discography entry, R.O.K. classifies as an EP due to its unique title and cover art, which distinguish it from the standard “Fire” single. The next is For You, a quirky 7-track cassette released in Japan only, combining the live tracks and remixes from both the “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat as One” singles. It’s more of a “compilation EP” of previously released tracks, similar to the Target stores-exclusive “7-Rare and Remixed” from 2002.
The Unforgettable Fire era was a great one for U2 EPs, producing two related extended-plays that remain among the band’s very best releases in the format. The first was the April 1985 release of The Unforgettable Fire in Europe and other territories outside North America. Confusingly, this was neither The Unforgettable Fire album nor technically the single for the title track. While the song “The Unforgettable Fire” was released as a single with either “MLK” or “A Sort of Homecoming (Live)” as the b-side depending on the territory, the 12-inch format was a different beast entirely. Most significantly, the lead track is not “The Unforgettable Fire,” but rather album outtake “The Three Sunrises!” In some territories, such as Australia, this release was marketed as a “Mini Album.” Technically, yes, this was “The Unforgettable Fire” 12-inch single. But with an intriguing selection of session outtakes, a live track, and the title song itself moved to track 2, it was clearly designed as more of an EP. A month later, North America got an EP of its own in the form of Wide Awake in America. With a unique title and no distinct “single” associated with it, Wide Awake in America sits more comfortably and definitively in EP territory. It combined three tracks from The Unforgettable Fire mini album (outtakes “The Three Sunrises” and “Love Comes Tumbling” along with “A Sort of Homecoming [Live])” and added a brand new live recording of “Bad.” As The Edge notes in the liner notes for The Unforgettable Fire deluxe edition, this version of “Bad” remains one of the band’s most famous live recordings.
About Those Joshua Tree Singles…
With the advent of The Joshua Tree, U2 showered fans with an abundance of riches in the form of numerous b-sides and outtakes. I’m not going to argue that The Joshua Tree singles were actually EPs, but they certainly had EP-like characteristics. It was rare but not unheard-of for a band to release a single with two b-sides, and that’s exactly what happened with the first two Joshua Tree singles, which contained three songs on almost every format—7-inch, 12-inch, cassette and CD (in a few smaller territories, the 7-inch single contained only one b-side). Other bands had certainly released three-song 7-inch singles and labeled them as EPs, most notably Genesis with its Spot the Pigeon and 3×3 releases. At the time, Bono almost seemed to suggest that first single “With or Without You” was designed as an EP when he linked all three songs thematically in a press interview, saying “’With or Without You’ doesn’t really make sense without ‘Walk to the Water’ or ‘Luminous Times’.” Second single “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” also seemed to get special attention when one of its two b-sides, “Spanish Eyes,” was turned into a music video and performed live on several dates on The Joshua Tree Tour in 1987-88.
With third Joshua Tree single “Where the Streets Have No Name,” we venture much closer to EP territory. While the 7-inch format included three songs like its predecessors, the 12-inch, cassette and CD formats added a fourth track, making it a virtual shoe-in for EP status. With four unique songs and a running time of less than 25 minutes, it certainly meets the UK chart specifications for an EP. And in at least one territory, Greece, the 12-inch vinyl was marketed with a hype sticker labeling it as a “Mini Album.”
Beyond the 80s
With Rattle and Hum, U2 scaled back its 7-inch single releases to include only one b-side, reserving the additional tracks for the 12-inch and CD formats. In that sense, the 12-inch and CD releases from this era are more like standard singles with bonus tracks, and are better classified as “maxi singles” or traditional 12-inch singles rather than EPs. But even during this era, a few promotional releases were produced that might be considered EPs of a sort, including Excerpts from Rattle and Hum and 3D Dance Mixes.
In the years since then, fans have been treated to a few additional EP releases, including 1997’s Please/PopHeart Live EP and 2010’s elusive Wide Awake in Europe, as well as numerous “might be an EP” promos and other oddities including WFM 96.9, 3 Live Tracks from Boston, and the Sunday Times EP. U2 have released a handful of digital-only EPs, as well, including Early Demos from the iTunes box set, and Live from Under the Brooklyn Bridge.
When it comes to the 1980s, when so many iconic EPs were released from post-punk, new wave, and modern rock bands, U2 sits in excellent company on the strength of Wide Awake in America alone. Whether you classify them as EPs, mini albums, maxi singles, or something else entirely, many of these releases hold a special place in the hearts of many U2 fans. Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the forum or comment on our Facebook page!