It’s 1960 in Dublin, Ireland. A young boy is born; with blue eyes, and bearing the name Paul David Hewson. He attends a grammar school, and spends his time as part of a surrealist street gang. There, he is branded with a nickname, one which will follow him for the rest of his life.
Twenty-seven years later, and he is one of the world’s biggest rockstars, performing to tens of thousands each night. He has been thrust from the grey backstreets of Ireland to the global stage. His name is Bono, and his band has just released one of the biggest albums of all time.
1987 was an incredible year for music; with the likes of Bryan Adams, Fleetwood Mac, Bowie, Crue, Guns n’ Roses and Def Leppard dominating the charts. But it also signalled the release of U2’s The Joshua Tree, a record which topped the charts in over twenty countries, went multi-platinum in six of them, and became the fastest-selling album in British history. There is no understating how massive it was, bolstered with timeless singles, ‘With or Without You’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’.
Fast forward a year later, and the band needed something new. Something different. After all, how do you follow something quite so colossal? The answer? A movie. Well, sort of.
In 1987, at the height of U2 fame, the boys from Ireland were in the midst of an international tour; one that saw over 100 performances in over ten countries. During the tour, U2 met film director, Phil Joanou, who had the idea of turning it into a full-length documentary film. Three years earlier, the band’s concert film, Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky, became a best-seller, and such a formula sounded too tested to fail. Thus, a live motion picture following the tour was produced; it’s soundtrack the band’s next album.
The Joshua Tree Tour saw the band become fully entrenched within American roots music, sharing the road with the likes of B.B. King, and covering Dylan and Neil Young nightly. The sound only grew as U2 toured across America, visiting Graceland and the deep south – soon Bono was writing gospel, blues, and folk songs. Rattle and Hum, the name for both the band’s sixth ‘studio’ album and rockumentary, would prove a hearty fusion of live recordings from that tour, as well as brand new studio tracks; at seventeen songs long, a double album.
Across Rattle and Hum‘s track listing are live covers of ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘stolen back’ from the clutches of serial killer Charles Manson, Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and the American national anthem. There are choirs, explosive choruses, godhood complexes and homages a-plenty on this hybrid album. Simply put, U2’s Rattle and Hum has it all.
The album opens with a live performance of ‘Helter Skelter’, a choice supposedly to reflect the chaos of The Joshua Tree‘s subsequent tour and the band’s newfound status. In an age where U2 have slid into somewhat ‘dad music’ standards and prove easy to mock, one may forget that Bono really can scream. In his heyday, with the long hair, cowboy vest and pinstripe trousers, he was the image of a rock and roll rebel, screeching down the mic about injustice and corruption in long monologues. ‘Helter Skelter’ is a worthy opener to make that point apparent.
‘Van Diemen’s Land’, another live recording, is an interesting one. Sung by the band’s guitarist, The Edge, it focuses on Tasmania – originally known as the song’s title – and Irish poet John Boyle O’Reilly’s struggle with being sent there in the 1860s. It’s a particularly poignant song, and a haunting number.
The first studio track from U2’s Rattle and Hum comes in the form of ‘Desire’, the album’s lead single and the band’s first number-one in the UK. Sporting an energetic, Bo Diddley beat, it’s a bombastic taste of late ’80s U2, with Bono delivering some pounding wails and The Edge firing on all cylinders. ‘Hawkmoon 269’ doesn’t pack quite the same punch but, admittedly, remains a personal favourite. Over six minutes in length, it builds from a simple riff to orchestral arrangements and full-blown choir. ‘Like a rhythm unbroken, like drums in the night, like sweet soul music, like sunlight…’ – the whole song basically consists of various, heartfelt similes, and each line is just a little more unhinged than the last. One of the band’s most ambitious works, and one of its best. They spent three weeks mixing this one track, resulting in 269 takes.
‘All Along the Watchtower’ has spawned countless covers, and yet each and every one fails in comparison to its progenitor. Except this one. Dare I say it, Bono’s live performance is nothing short of enthralling, and the guitar is even more distressed in tone; more chaotic. This protest song has been deliberately underpolished, and when at last the unearthly beast is let loose onto the stage, it proves relentless.
‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is just a timeless track. Spanning the length of Bono’s questioned faith, it deals with a man at the end of his moral tether. Something built for only his voice. Backed by Harlem’s ‘The New Voices for Freedom’ choir, though, it’s turned into a piece of gospel gold here. The song crosses genre boundaries with ease, and proves another highlight of Rattle and Hum. Live performances of ‘Silver and Gold’ (originally released on 1985’s Artists United Against Apartheid compilation album with help from Keith Richards and Ron Wood) and ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ – from The Unforgettable Fire – pass by easily enough, before we’re offered ‘Angel of Harlem’, a musical homage to Billie Holiday.
The second single off Rattle and Hum, ‘Angel of Harlem’ is a flawless slice of heartland rock. From those opening bars, it holds that real feel of nostalgia throughout, and captures a sense of melancholic hope which had by now followed the band for over a year – away from home and into the annals of musical history. It’s one of the record’s best songs. ‘Love Rescue Me’, co-written with Bob Dylan, is significantly darker; with characteristic harmonica and Bono at his most vulnerable. It’s an example of U2 at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, but just as powerful.
By this point in U2’s career, few could render Bono starstruck. But when the Dubliner met blues legend, B.B. King during the Joshua Tree Tour, he was the quietest man in all of America. The two collaborated on a track during that tour which would later be released on Rattle and Hum: ‘When Love Comes To Town’. A frantic rocker riddled with blues, it was the album’s third single, and one of its best moments. It remained an encore to every live show on 1989’s ‘Lovetown Tour’, in support of the record. ‘When love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train, when love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame!’ The lyrics to this track are so mature, and so from the heart, that B.B. King himself was surprised they came from the mouth of one so young.
‘Heartland’s conception came around in 1984, during sessions for the band’s fourth release, The Unforgettable Fire. Ultimately, it would see the light of day three years later, and I confess, it’s about the only song from the album I dislike. It’s powerful, and creeps along like any great ballad, but its stripped-back skeleton and Bono’s mumbled half-moans for much of its duration feel like a bitter comedown from the highs of ‘When Love Comes to Town’, or ‘Angel…’.
‘God Part II’, however, more than makes up for perhaps Rattle and Hum‘s only low point. In response to John Lennon’s 1970 track, ‘God’ (from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), it sees Bono at his wildest, making observations on society at the time; politics and bygone music. The Edge’s guitar revs up a minute in, and Larry Mullen, Jr. punctuates every soulful shriek; in a sound darker and more alternative than the rest of the LP; echoing shades of Achtung Baby. It’s one of the album’s best tracks; and one of its deepest cuts. Live, too, ‘God Part II’ remains a sonic spectacle.
Following Jimi Hendrix’s peformance of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, Rattle and Hum‘s penultimate instalment is a live working of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’, from The Joshua Tree. Renowned for its solo and Shakespearean-levelled response to U.S. military intervention, it’s about as political as the band ever get. And, naturally, the live treatment is even more outrageous. With The Edge’s ‘El Salvador through an amplifier’ solo, and lyrics like, ‘Across the field you see the sky ripped open, see the rain through a gaping wound. Pounding on the women and children, who run into the arms of America,’ it’s a memorable piece.
Rattle and Hum closes with possibly the band’s most beautiful arrangement, ‘All I Want Is You’. With strings from Van Dyke Parks, and Bono’s most powerful vocals yet, it refuses to let up in every punch, every beat, every chord-driven plea. ‘You say you’ll give me a highway with no one on it, a treasure just to look upon it…’ – Bono is really speaking from the heart here. By the time we’re three minutes in, the man has poured out his very soul, and delivered us the most climactic album closer he could. I actually discovered Rattle and Hum through this song; played in one of the final scenes of 2011’s Contagion – Yes, I watched it during lockdown – and I could not be happier to have watched that film. Because, though I’m not a huge fan of U2, I think Rattle and Hum is possibly the best stuff they ever made, and one of rock’s standout records.
Tragically, of course, the critics had to disagree. Though in part intended to pay tribute to some of America’s greats, it was misconstrued by some to be a sort of boast from the band, in all their newfound glory. Reception at the time of release was mixed, and for every person who praised it, there was someone else to deem it ‘misguided’ or ‘egotistical’. Thankfully, though, sales of the album skyrocketed, hitting top place on the Billboard 200.
The Edge, perhaps predictably, sums Rattle and Hum up best, saying, ‘[The album] was conceived as a scrapbook, a memento of that time spent in America on the Joshua Tree Tour. It changed when the movie, which was initially conceived of as a low-budget film, suddenly became a big Hollywood affair. That put a different emphasis on the album, which suffered from the huge promotion and publicity, and people reacted against it.’
The band exhausted themselves creatively by the turn of the decade, going away and reinventing themselves under the lights of the electric and industrial. And though the 90s had their fair share of golden moments for the band, I will always view 1988 as the year U2 got it absolutely right.