Woody Harrelson Talks Pop
Original Story by Aaron J. Sams (2020-10-20)
On October 12, SiriusXM aired a real treat for fans of the album Pop. They had an hour long special, the first of two, which looks at the album song by song. The program is a conversation between The Edge and Woody Harrelson, an American actor who has been nominated for numerous Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards, and who also featured in U2’s video for “Song for Someone” in 2015. The second half of the program aired a week later on October 19, 2020.
The Edge has been organizing guests to program an hour of songs each Friday as a Guest DJ. He approached Harrelson to contribute his own favourite songs and while he liked the Guest DJ idea, Harrelson suggested all his songs would come from Pop so why not have a conversation about his favourite U2 album. The Edge explains that he feels that Pop didn’t get the recognition that it deserves, and jumped at the change to discuss it. He claims that Woody listing it as a favourite shows that Woody is intelligent and wise.
Approached Woody Harrelson to appear on the radio station as a Guest DJ. He liked the Guest DJ idea, but he suggested he and The Edge do a conversation about his favourite U2 album. One of the albums that didn’t get the recognition it deserved. Shows that Woody is intelligent and wise.
This is a two part special and the broadcast features Woody talking about the songs, and asking Edge questions about the songs. They then play each song. The first episode covers the songs “Discotheque” through to “Last Night on Earth”. The second part of the special covered the remainder of the songs.
Woody explains that he went crazy for Pop when it was released. And that he liked that it was a big departure for U2.
The Edge said as a band, U2 survive by finding a new idea, a discovery, which will then shape an album. Pop was inspired by music coming out of the UK, and the band wanted to explore using sampling as a creative tool. He talked about how some of the greatest music such as Big Band and R&B had all been created to allow people to dance, and U2 felt they hadn’t yet made people dance, and Pop was an attempt to get the band out of their own comfort zone.
Harrelson reveals that when he was performing on stage in plays, he had a ritual involving the album. He would always play Pop to get amped up before hitting the stage, and that he dances through the first three songs on the album to get himself ready.
The Edge said that the band realized partway through making Pop that they would need to abandon what U2 had sounded like before, and the most organic part of the band, Adam, Larry and The Edge playing together was being challenged. All had to step up and move into a new form of making music. The band took ideas, ran with them, challenged themselves, but pulled it back an made it their own.
Do You Feel Loved
The Edge talks about how this song came about. He talks about how producers Howie B and Steve Osbourne inspired the band to branch into new areas they hadn’t tried before. They met Howie B in London and the band fell in love with him, saying that he’s a person that music loves. Howie was in the booth spinning records while U2 were playing including a song by Naked Funk. He encouraged the band to keep working, riffing over the tune that he was playing. The song became “Do You Feel Loved”.
Woody Harrelson reveals that “Mofo” is his favourite song on the album, and that it’s one of the most danceable songs he’s ever heard, and is one of his favourite songs overall. But he wants to know if the band got pressure to not call the song “Mofo.”
The Edge relates that in the early demos of the song it was “mother fucking” in the lyrics and that the band felt that maybe it was too obvious and made the change to “mother sucking.” They felt it delivered the sentiment, without all the headaches, but questions a bit whether or not it should have been kept in the raw form. He said they did get a few calls from ‘head office’ about it. He also tells a story about starting out and a radio promoter telling them that they should change “bloody” in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to something else. The band stuck by their first choice in that case.
The Edge says the band got closer to pure club music on “Mofo” than they had before, and they were happy with that as long as the personality of U2 came through. Edge describes the guitar, calling it a 747 sound. He turned everything to full, where everything was about to explode because of so much gain, just before it dissolves into feedback. He said it sounded like a jet engine at full rev.
Edge and Woody also talk about Bono’s lyrics and how his instincts are to reach for contrasts, with vulnerable ideas expressed in a tough kick ass song. That it breaks the braggadocio of the tune with vulnerability.
If God Will Send His Angels
There isn’t much discussion about this song. Woody does speak about the themes of God and Jesus throughout the album, and The Edge explains the band has the freedom to go in a lot of places that other artists cannot. Although he had started out going to Presbyterian church, none of the band had stuck with the organized religious upbringing that they had, and that they were now a product of a personal search, which brought the band to a unique angle on spirituality, God and Jesus and everything else.
Staring at the Sun
The Edge explains to Harrelson that the song started out acoustic, but he had found some unique guitar sounds that he was excited to bring to the band. The Edge feels that his job is to inspire the others with new things. “Staring at the Sun” started as a more traditional song, with The Edge thinking of the Kinks, but by the time it was finished it sounds like U2. The lyric was put together, and the song came together quickly and early on in the recording process for Pop.
Last Night on Earth
The final song played on this episode, is “Last Night on Earth.” The Edge explains that it is the most straight up rock and roll song on the album, and the core of the song is Larry, Adam and The Edge in one room together, which makes it a contrast to “Mofo” which saw them challenging that structure. The Edge felt this song gave the album “real depth.”
The second part kicked off with The Edge and Woody Harrelson picking up the album with the seventh track “Gone.” Woody loves the song, and sings the ‘up with the sun’ lines, and tells The Edge he had done some genius guitar on the song. The Edge says the song started on an acoustic guitar, and the challenge was to take the song away from a typical rock song, and he again used the 747 guitar sound he explored in “Mofo.” He speaks about seeing Oasis in Earl’s Court, and loved how they could take the Manchester club sounds, and mix it with the attitude of punk rock, and the melody of the Beatles. “Gone” was The Edge trying to channel some of that Oasis energy into a U2 song.
Harrelson calls the next song one of his favourites. He loves the tension in the guitar feedback. But he admits he’s not a fan of Miami (the city!) The Edge said “Miami” started pretty straight up, but they were working with various producers who pushed this song in a different direction. Howie B was a big inspiration on the song. The Edge says “let me at it, i just want to play for hours over that vibe, whatever the fuck that is.” The Edge speaks about how the album was almost called Miami and how the band was trying to look for the artistic value in things that people might overlook. He mentions this was how they came to the Pop Art form for the album. The explorations of those ideas brought the band to Miami, to explore the culture, and they explored the dark and beautiful sides of the city. The majority of the work on the song was done in Miami.
The Playboy Mansion
Howie B was playing a sample on his decks. It was a sample from The Turtles in the 1960s. They had refused the sample use on the track. The band got a groove going with the sample in the background, and that was the starting point for the song. The Edge found another way to play the guitar to make a similar sound and they didn’t end up using the sample, but they did have an agreement that they made with the owners of the original song. (The Turtles song was “You Showed Me” you can hear it at the start of the song below.)
The Edge calls the song a study in discipline in understatement. And the band spent a lot of time stripping things out to get to that level of simplicity in the song. He also says it’s the least sounding U2 song on the album. He also says they tried to incorporate it in the last U2 tour, but just couldn’t get it to work and that it belongs on CD.
If You Wear That Velvet Dress
Woody calls it a sexy song. And asks about the songs pre-vocal. The Edge can’t remember the source of the sound, but loves the atmosphere. He talks about how the song became a huge song for them live, and that the song has some “potency” as a piece of music live. The Edge agrees that it is very sexy, and that the beauty in the song is how its so minimal and so sparse, and how the song still holds up because of that.
Woody asks if The Edge has ever thought about the prophetic lyrics in the song (“September, streets capsizing…”). And The Edge says no, he’d never thought about it. That the references are to Northern Ireland in the song, and the idea that human life was less important than a political agenda. The band knew they were at a crucial time in that history, and it was a “hard cry” to the extremists to just think again.
Wake Up Dead Man
“We’re back to Jesus, one of Bono’s favourite subjects” Woody says. The Edge says that no, it was “the first lyric I wrote” and speaks about the difficult time he was having in his personal life, feeling abandoned. Bono came back with the lyrics for the second verse. The Edge says he really loves the song. “Your darkest moment can become something really powerful.” (The song was worked on during the sessions for Achtung Baby and Zooropa before finally being released on Pop.
Woody ends the program asking The Edge if the band knew they had something great when they finished the album.
The Edge replies, “We knew that we had stayed true to our idea of swinging from the stands, and trying something totally bold and new and different. And really working from the point of view of being fans and explorers, fans of the culture and explorers of our own abilities and where music might go for us. So that part we were really proud of. In terms of commercial impact or commercial success, I think we weathered the differences of opinions pretty well. We went on the road with this album on our biggest tour ever. It was even bigger than Zoo TV. The PopMart tour was an absolutely huge undertaking, and by the end of that tour particularly I think it was the greatest U2 show that we ever staged. And the video / the DVD of that, I’m still…it’s the top for me.” He says it’s an album he’s supremely proud of, and feels it gets better with time, and has stood the test of time, and is still really unique sounding.