These Winds and Tides: The Search for a Producer for War
Original Story by Aaron J. Sams (2018-02-28)
Soon after October was released, work started on new songs to be featured on the next album. For War U2 wanted to use a novel approach. They were interested in using different producers for each song, and to have a varied sound throughout the album. They felt that a mix of producers would help them get the best sound out of the band as they put together their third collection of songs. It is an idea that the band ended up shelving in the end, going back to Boy and October producer Steve Lillywhite instead. But if you look at recent albums like Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, or even How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it looks like the multiple-producer idea hadn’t firmly been put to bed. U2 merely saved it for later in their career.
Bono explained the concept to Geoff Parkyn, saying “The idea of War was to possibly use different producers for each song or group of songs so the approach would vary throughout, but in the end it didn’t happen and we sorted it out with Steve. We understand each other and it works well for us. He has helped us grow and mature, to understand recording techniques, and translate our sound and ideas into reality.” The Edge in conversation with Dave Fanning also discussed the idea of multiple producers, telling Fanning “we’ve decided on a few producers, but we’re not sure which one of the many we will pick. I think Steve’s still interested. We’d love to do an album with Steve, but maybe not this one. We’re just looking around.” Bono’s quote came from early in the album development, whereas Edge’s came almost a year later when they were moving closer to a full session to record the album.
Steve Lillywhite, who had worked on the first two albums with U2, had told them of his preference that after two albums with a single band he preferred to move on to keep the work fresh. This had necessitated the search for a new producer or producers to handle the band’s third album. Not everything that the band was working on in 1982 was specifically for a new album. Bono told Dave Fanning in June 1982 “we are working at the moment, on a few projects, we are working on some sountracks to music, music for films, films that we’ve been offered in the next six months. We’re also working on songs, pieces of music for our next LP, and we’re also working on songs for other people.”
How different an album might War have been had the band followed up on the idea of a different producer for each song? It certainly explains a long list of people they worked with and had contact with in 1982. But in the end the album would be produced by Lillywhite, with the exception of one song, “The Refugee.” Below we’ll take a look at some of the others considered for the producer role along the way.
Sandy Pearlman and engineer Corky Stasiuk worked with U2 in the studio, and were likely the first production team that the band worked with under this new idea of cutting various songs with various producers. But before U2, they had worked with The Clash on their 1978 breakthrough album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. At the time U2 were big fans of The Clash and had approached the producer to work on a single track with them for their new, yet-untitled album. Steve Lillywhite even tells stories of Bono urging The Edge to sound more like Mick Jones of The Clash during the recording of War, so Pearlman was an obvious choice when trying to get that sound. Pearlman, beyond his work with The Clash, was a founder of the band Blue Öyster Cult, handpicking the members of the band and producing their music. He also worked as a full-time manager, managing Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Aldo Nova, Romeo Void, and other acts.
Pearlman and his regular engineer, Corky Stasiuk, worked with U2 in November 1981. U2 were in New York to perform and they booked some studio time in late November. The song that they were working on was described by Bono as a “psychotic rockabilly song, with a drum figure that runs from beginning to end.” The idea was to go into the studio, work on one three-minute song, and then to move on to another producer for the next song. The studio, Kingdom Sound, was located on Long Island. The magazine Trouser Press interviewed Bono while the band was working in the studio and asked about Pearlman:
“He saw us lots of times on the last tour. He loves what we’re doing. And he’s crazed; I love a person who yells ‘Wow! Yeah!’ in the studio. He’s got that excitement, that passion, and he’s a musicologist, if you will, besides that.”
The sessions started on November 22, 1981, before U2 performed that night at The Ritz in New York. They spent that day, as well as the next two days working on the song and mixing the track. Over the years some have suggested that the song they worked on was “Be There,” as a near-complete version of that song exists. However, that song was completed with another producer in the sessions for War.
Although reluctant to work on a third album with the band, Steve Lillywhite was up for working on a song for the album, and agreed to work with the band in December 1981 to get them started. The band were just coming off of the the second leg of the October Tour on December 13, and were due to play London on December 20. With a short break in the schedule, U2 joined Lillywhite at the Basing Street Sudios in London, a facility established by Chris Blackwell of Island Records. The Edge would later remark that the song may have suffered a bit as a result of the band’s post-tour intensity and the fact that they had not yet “come down” enough to properly record in a studio again. The band worked on two songs, “A Celebration” and “Trash, Trampoline, and the Party Girl,” the latter being written and recorded in just 40 minutes.
VIDEO: U2’s “A Celebration” Video
The band was happy enough with the results of “A Celebration” that it was released as a single instead of being held for the War album. The single was released on March 22, 1982, which was when the band took the next steps towards working on music with new producers. However, on release, the song received some feedback that Bono related in an interview in 1983:
And of course a lot of people they heard I believe in a third world war, I believe in the atomic bomb, and they thought it was some sort of, y’know, Hitler Part II. And Europeans especially were (puts on outraged French accent) Ah non! Vive le France! and it was all like, all sorts of chaos broke out, and they said, What do you mean, you believe in the atomic bomb? And I was trying to say in the song, I believe in the third world war, because people talk about the third world war but it’s already happened, I mean it’s happened in the third world, that’s obvious. But I was saying these are facts of life, I believe in them, I believe in the powers that be BUT, they won’t overpower me. And that’s the point, but a lot of people didn’t reach the fourth line.
The next producer that U2 worked with in the development of War was Jimmy Destri. Again, the idea was to work on a song or two with Destri, and then move on to other producers for the rest of the album. The sessions with Jimmy Destri took place in March 1982 while the band were once again in the New York area performing.
Destri is probably best known for his time in Blondie. He was one of the principle songwriters of the band, and also played keyboards with them. He is also credited with producing the band, as well as new wave singer Joey Wilson, in the early 1980s.
The session with Destri was productive, resulting in a number of tracks that fans will recognize. In an interview with Noise11 Destri spoke about his production work and how he got involved with U2:
Right after Blondie broke up, I produced the first album for Danny Goldberg’s label, an album by Joey Wilson called “Going Up.” It was a big hit in Billboard and Joey went immediately into AA. Danny went on to become this big media mogul. Because of Joey Wilson I was invited to produce War, the U2 record with Steve Lillywhite.
AUDIO: U2’s “Be There” (Never Released)
U2 worked with Destri on three tracks during the sessions. The song that got the closest to completion was called “Be There.” It has never been released except on bootleg compilations. The other two tracks were works in progress, neither of which made it onto War but did eventually get finished off with other producers. “Endless Deep” was finished for the b-side of “Two Hearts Beat as One.” The third song was a piano piece that would go on to be used to form the intro for “The Unforgettable Fire“ on U2’s next album. On his website, Destri lists under Producer Credits, “U2 – ‘Being There’ single and various demos (Island).”
On the single “Two Hearts Beat as One“ the producer credit for “Endless Deep” is listed as St. Francis Xavier. Edge discussed the later origin of the track in the liner notes for the deluxe version of War, released in 2008:
Written in a hurry at St. Francis Xavier Hall, Dublin, where we were rehearsing for the next tour, hence the St. Francis Xavier production credit. Larry and I demoed the first version on a 4-track cassette recorder because Adam and Bono were out of town. When they got back we went into the studio and recorded the final version.
AUDIO: U2’s “Endless Deep” (Released as a B-Side)
So the song “Endless Deep” started with Destri in early 1982, and was revisited as the band were getting ready to go out on tour in December 1982. Although the sessions produced some content that U2 would later use, the band decided to not use the material on the forthcoming album, and the song most-finished with Destri, “Be There,” has never been released officially.
Rhett Davies was on U2’s list to produce a song for War, if not considered as a producer for the full album. Davies is an English record producer who had worked as a studio engineer for Island Records in the 1970s. In the early 1980s he produced albums with The B-52s and Roxy Music, and U2 had an interest in working with him.
Discussions with Davies were held, but in the end the band never worked with him on the album or any songs. In U2: The Complete Guide to Their Music, Bill Graham reveals that Davies “was rejected for being too much of a neutral engineer.” The band was still looking for a producer who would help shape their sound, not just someone to record the album.
Bono discussed Davies as one of the people they were looking at in a discussion with Dave Fanning in June 1982. “There’s a lot of people who have been on the phone who would like the job. We were interested in a guy called Rhett Davies, who was doing Roxy Music’s last few albums, he worked with old Chris Thomas, another producer we are interested in.”
Chris Thomas was mentioned in that same interview with Fanning. It is not known if U2 actually entered into any discussions with him at that time. Thomas is an English record producer who had worked with the Beatles, Roxy Music, and recently in 1982 with The Pretenders.
Thomas would end up working with U2 later in their career, contributing to a number of tracks on 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Thomas worked with the band in 2003, but they were ultimately unhappy with the results of those sessions and turned to Steve Lillywhite to help get them to the finish line on that album.
Another producer that came out of the discussions with Rhett Davies was Brian Eno. Eno was a member of Roxy Music, a band that Davies had extensively produced. Davies recommended Eno after learning of the band’s desire to find a producer that would be more involved in shaping their music. U2 contacted Eno, but at the time he just didn’t see himself working with a rock band and declined. The band would move on to other choices, but they went back to Eno when it came time to produce 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire and were able to coax him into finally meeting with them.
Eno didn’t come easy even for the next album, and he first suggested the band make use of Conny Plank for The Unforgettable Fire. When he finally did agree to meet with U2, he brought Daniel Lanois with him expecting to sell the band on using Lanois.
In 1982 Iovine was working on records by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stevie Nicks, and Bob Seger. But he wanted to work with U2. According to the book Into the Heart: The Stories Behind Every U2 Song by Niall Stokes, while working on War Jimmy Iovine “had phoned repeatedly, insisting that he wanted to produce the band.” Iovine didn’t produce anything for War but he would work on the live album that followed, Under A Blood Red Sky.
Bill Whelan is an Irish composer and musician, and one of the producers U2 considered for a track on War. In fact, his song with the band, “The Refugee,” made it to the final album, and is the only non-Lillywhite produced track, although Lillywhite did have a hand in mixing it. Whelan was perhaps best known at the time for his work with Planxty in the early 1980s. But he had ties with a young businessman named Paul McGuinness, and in 1983 went into the music publishing business launching McGuinness Whelan Publishing, which was formally incorporated in 1986. The relationship with McGuinness, lead to the release of Whelan’s “Riverdance” on U2’s record label Son in 1994. That song hit number 1 in Ireland and held the top spot for 18 weeks, and was later developed into a very successful musical.
In the early 80s, however, looking for producers, McGuinness lead Whelan to the band he was managing—U2.
Whelan was the last of the rotating producers that U2 worked with before taking to the studio for the full War recording sessions. When it came to “The Refugee,” Bono remembered the sessions as being difficult in an interview with Radio City in March 1983, saying “he fought hard to get the vocal” on the track.
AUDIO: U2’s “The Refugee”, produced by Bill Whelan
With the band running out of time and the session with Whelan being a tough one, they called up old friend Steve Lillywhite and asked if he’d come in to do their third album. But they also brought “The Refugee” with them, generally pleased with the results, and Steve agreed it was pretty good and agreed to do a final mix on the track for inclusion on the album he was now producing.
With all the investigations into different producers, U2 ended up back with the man they had worked with on both Boy and October, Steve Lillywhite. In a Japanese Radio interview in November 1983, Bono spoke about that decision. He said “Boy, October and War complete a cycle, and Under A Blood Red Sky was a full stop at the end of a sentence. Steve Lillywhite was a fifth member of the band during that cycle.”
In an interview with Trouser Press in 1983, Bono said that the band felt changing producers would help them strip down their sound, but eventually realized that Lillywhite was the best choice to get them there. “I rang up Steve, and in a flash he said, ‘I’ll be over.’ He said we’re his favorite group.”
Even today, when in a pinch, U2 call in Steve. As recently as 2017, when they wanted a new mix of “You’re the Best Thing About Me“ at the last minute, they sent him the recordings and gave him a day to produce the new version. He’s helped out on more albums than he hasn’t throughout their career.
Steve was joined in the studio for the album by engineer Paul Thomas, and they were assisted by Kevin Killen. The album was recorded in Windmill Lane.
The search for producers would continue as U2 started work on The Unforgettable Fire. While the band continued to court Brian Eno as a producer, they would also look at options including Conny Plank (suggested by Eno) and Colin Newman of the band Wire. We can only look back and guess at what an album made with some of these other producers would have sounded like. The experiment of approaching other producers may have ended unsuccessfully for War, but that concept of working with multiple voices in the studio is something U2 has embraced on more recent albums.
(Many thanks to Harry Kantas and Don Morgan for their assistance with this article.)