September 7 – The Turntable Talk, Round 6 : If It Sounds Good To You…

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! As by now, regular readers know, that’s when I have several interesting guest writers sound off on one topic related to the music that we look at here daily. This is our sixth round of it, and if you’re new here, I recommend taking a look back at some of the earlier topics we’ve covered like why the Beatles are still relevant, or “did video kill the radio star?”

This time around, we’re calling it “Shock Rock.” But wait, there’s a twist – it’s not about Marilyn Manson and his contemporaries…unless our writers want it to be. Rather, its more about what some would call “guilty pleasures.” Songs or records that you like that would “shock” most people. Ones that go against the grain of most of what you listen to. I once asked a well-known radio DJ who loved new music, alternative and artsy rock if he had a musical guilty pleasure and he responded that he’d always liked “Moonlight feels Right” by Starbuck… a ’70s piece of laid back yacht rock with a xylophone solo! (Hey, we like it too!) Not his usual fare, but a song that he loves regardless. Maybe the heavy metal types have a soft spot for a bit of late night opera. Or an “all-60s rock” person loves Bruno Mars too. You get the idea.

Today we wrap up this topic, with a few thoughts from yours truly about, “shock rock.” As always, I thank the others who’ve taken the time to contribute and let us see their darkest musical secrets, LOL.

Our guest contributors in the past week have shared some of the music they love that would surprise many who know them… a “country” artist hard-rock officinado Deke likes, a song by a rapper that appeals to “power pop” Max, for instance. I think it all highlights how music is a personal thing and it’s unfortunate that we’re so quick to label music to make it fit one easy-to-define genre or box. I’ve been guilty of that at times, but it’s something driven by the music industry itself. Look at Billboard magazine and you’ll find their Hot 100 that lists albums of all sorts based on sales and times streamed and so on…but also an array of weekly charts like “country”, “alternative rock”, “mainstream rock”, “urban contemporary” and on and on. Radio follows that largely and it all ends up making it rather easy for music we might love to slip through the cracks unnoticed. And there’s also the personal memories – many people have a song they love merely because it brings back memories of a great date when they heard it in the car, or a song that was playing in the hospital lobby as they went in to give birth to a baby. Songs that otherwise might have elicited yawns would then bring back a flood of good memories…and make that song important to them.

I don’t know that there are many examples of music that I like that would be surprising to many who know me. I have a definite love of Beatles, ’70s “AM pop” that I listened to as a kid, ’80s alternative/new wave that I listened to as a young adult and intelligent singer/songwriter types with a smattering of country, old standards and new music thrown in for good measure. One type of music I really tend to dislike though is opera. The booming, over-dramatic voices tend to grate on me, even if they are technically great. It doesn’t help that they’re generally in a foreign language so I can’t tell what’s being sung, but even English attempts tend to make my ears displeased. So one song that I like a lot might “shock” some people is “Miss Sarejevo”. People know U2 is one of my favorite bands, but also that they’re known for jangly guitar rock with political statements. Not arias worthy of tuxes and tails. So mixing them with Luciano Pavarotti was a risky proposition. Even Island Records thought so. So much that they originally put the song and its album out under the pseudonym “The Passengers”…they felt if they labeled this left-field album by Ireland’s most popular act as “U2”, it might kill of their career! To top it off, Bono and the Edge performed the song for the very first time as guests of Luciano Pavarotti in one of his operatic concerts, with a full orchestra replacing their usual guitars and drums. Only in later years did Bono get to tack the song on with various compilation albums clearly labeled “U2”. Yet surprisingly, it worked.

At least it did with me. The booming Italian voice kicks the song into gear and provides a great counter-balance to the understated delivery of Bono and the band; perhaps a fine metaphor for the emotions in war-torn Bosnia at the time, which the song was about. I’d be hard-pressed to sit and listen to a whole Pavarotti show, fine as his voice might be, but somehow I find this track very listenable. Many U2 fans didn’t, even if Bono himself has called it his favorite song in their catalog .But  that’s the beauty of music.

My friend, radio DJ David Marsden often says “there are only two kinds of music. Good and bad.” And if something sounds good to you, makes you feel more deeply or improves your day, whether ifs rock ( mainstream, alternative, classic…), pop, country, jazz, folk, opera, ambient country-rap… you name it. If it makes you feel better…that’s Good Music.

April 2 – The Tree Began To Rattle Across America 35 Years Ago

U2 kicked off the Joshua Tree Tour on this day in 1987. The tour helped propel The Joshua Tree to become one of the decade’s biggest albums and them into superstar territory.

Fittingly (for an album named after a place in the American desert) the tour began in Tempe, AZ at the Arizona State University Activity Center (now known as the Wells Fargo Arena) ,on a Thursday night. Bono was struggling to ward off laryngitis, and invited people to sing along which they apparently were happy to do. The announced crowd was 25 000, even though the arena is only designed for 14 000 or so, and the band played through 21 songs (most of the Joshua Tree plus some old favorites like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” as well as a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”, a song they’d played frequently for the past year or so) . The first leg of the tour wrapped up in New Jersey in May, by which time they’d done 29 concerts for 465 000 fans. Eventually it finished up in December of that year after 110 shows, and not only did it help them make a major impression on America, it helped America make a major impression on them. Their follow-up album, Rattle and Hum was inspired by their time in the U.S. and even included a few live tracks recorded on the tour, including “Bullet the Blue Sky” from the Tempe.

The ’87 tour set them on the road to superstardom and the album did so well, they decided it was a tour so nice, they’d do it twice! In 2017, they went on tour again for the album’s 30th anniversary, playing every song on the album – remarkably they’d not done ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ before in concert – headlining the Bonnaroo Festival during it, and playing some 66 shows for over 3.25 million fans. That tour brought in close to $400M, all the better to pay for the expenses of things like the 200′ wide hi-res screen they used behind the stage! typically they supplemented The Joshua Tree with eight or nine other tracks including “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to open, “Bad”, “Pride” and “Beautiful Day” and the once-panned “Miss Sarajevo” as an encore.

It looks quiet in the U2 camp in terms of touring for 2022, but they are keeping busy nonetheless. They are putting out a special edition EP for Record Store Day later this month with their oft-forgotten ’82 single “A Celebration” and a new song; as well they are apparently in negotiations with Netflix about having a TV series about them.

March 17 – Have A Pint & See What The Hype Was About

An Irish tale for the most Irish of days. If you were in Ireland on this day in 1978, you might have been downing a pint and finding out what all “the hype” was about . What more appropriate day for U2 to begin their ascent to world-domination than St. Patrick’s Day. And that was basically what happened that day when they won a talent contest which earned them a chance to record.

By that time, the group was whittled down to the four members we know, and were using the name everyone knows. They’d begun two years earlier, when Larry Mullen, the drummer (only 14 at the time) had decided having a band would be fun and put a note up on the bulletin board in school suggesting that. Six others came out – Paul Hewson, Adam Clayton, Dave Evans and his brother Dik, as well as Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin. Martin had a guitar and amp, but couldn’t play at all, so he was out. McCormick dropped out after a rehearsal or two (wonder what he thinks of that decision these days?), leaving a quintet that decided to call themselves The Hype.

The Hype began playing a few shows around Dublin, largely in schools, in ’77, being inspired by and playing largely punk. Lots of Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks covers, largely because they didn’t require gigantic amounts of skill on the instruments from the young musicians who were more or less learning on the fly. Soon, Hewson was beginning to take charge of the group, and had the nickname Bono Vox. Dave Evans became The Edge, depending on who you ask, either because of his angular facial features or the jagged way he played the six-string. Eventually, by the summer of ’77, the band was building a following, but Dik Evans quit to go to college. He’d form a new band there, Virgin Prunes, who actually put out two albums and at times opened for his brother’s band in the early days.

Fast forward to St. Paddy’s Day, ’78. Harp Lager, one of the great Irish brews, and a newspaper were holding a talent show at a pub in Limerick, the city which would give us The Cranberries a decade later. The prize was a decent 500 pounds (likely akin to about $4000 today) and, more importantly, some studio time to make a demo that Columbia Records would listen to. The Hype, which had just changed their name to U2 (liking the ambiguity- is it a jet plane? a reference to two other people? an invitation- “you, too”?) won.

They went into the studio a few weeks later and recorded some material, but by all accounts, it wasn’t very good. They were nervous, ill-prepared and likely felt rushed with limited hours to use the facility. Nothing came out of that, directly. However, they did get a boost and kept playing and their improving stage show got the attention of Paul McGuinness – what a perfect Irish name – who had connections in the music business. He became their manager, and soon got them more studio time that summer. In August, they recorded three original tracks- “Lose Control”, “Stories for Boys” and “Boy/Girl.” With McGuiness’ help this time, they signed with CBS (Columbia) and they put out the three songs as a 12” single, entitled U2-Three. The initial pressing of 1000 sold quickly and evidently some more copies were made, and it rose to #19 on their home Irish charts. CBS didn’t release it anywhere else though, and it would seem didn’t have a lot of faith in the band. That was the end of their association with U2. If you’re looking online for a vinyl copy of that single, there are some around for as little as $20. The decision not to carry on cost CBS…. well, more than $20!

Of course, U2 soon signed with Island Records who quickly got them back into the studio, where they re-recorded “Stories for Boys” and “Out of Control”, and had them as a part of their debut album, Boy. The other track, “Boy/Girl” more or less disappeared into the ether and was seldom even performed by the band live.

So, if you’re a fan of Ireland’s biggest band, top o’ the mornin’ to ya and take a moment to give a thanks to the brewery called Harp and a man called McGuinness from the land of Guinness.

March 16 – And U2 Make 12?

Everyone’s likely seen some half-decent bar bands in their day, but how many people get to see decent bar bands that go onto become the biggest act in the world? Well, on this day in 1981, about a dozen did, if you believe the entertainment urban legend, because that’s supposedly how many people were in attendance for a show by U2 in Anaheim, California.

The Irish lads had put out their debut album, Boy, a few months earlier and were touring far and wide to promote it. After playing some shows on their own side of the Atlantic in the fall of 1980, they did a quick tour of the northeastern states (and Toronto, Canada, a city they’d play three times on that tour alone) hitting cities like New York, Buffalo and Philadelphia in December but came back in early 1981 for a bigger North American tour. They started that set at the Bayou in Washington DC on March 3, and before wrapping it up on May 31 in Bruce Springsteen’s old stomping grounds of Asbury Park, NJ, had criss-crossed the continent playing an array of cities like Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, San Jose, Vancouver and more. The shows in Canada seemed to pay off – the album had risen to #4 on the charts there. Stateside however, while the album got a bit of notice, it was a slower process. Boy peaked at #63 on Billboard, and Rolling Stone only reviewed it in April, about six months after its release and after the bulk of this tour. (The magazine gave it a 3.5 out of 5 star rating, by the way, calling “I Will Follow” a “beguiling, challenging, perfect single” but noting that some of the other songs of “bass-heavy trance pop ramble without resolution.”)

On March 15, they played L.A., where radio station KROQ had been playing the lead single, “I WIll Follow” to death, in the words of one fan. The following night, Monday, March 16, they played a few miles away in the suburb of Anaheim at the Woodstock Concert Theater, which was really from all accounts a somewhat grubby bar, with a large pool table in the middle of the dance floor. Mike Muckenthaler worked the door of the club back then and told that it was largely used for heavy metal shows, especially after fans at a Social Distortion show got rowdy and turned management there against “punk.” U2 got booked, along with local opening acts Radio Music and Second Wind (“rock ballady in a Foreigner way” recalls Michael Marsh), largely because the owners of the club thought they would be kind of like A Flock Of Seagulls – new wave light.

So, we have a little known Irish band with one song on one radio station playing a major city Sunday, followed by a bar in a suburb on Monday. The Monday before St. Patrick’s Day no less. Not exactly the formula for drawing a big crowd! And so, the legend goes, the bar which could fit 400 held exactly 12 people to see U2 that night.

The legend may be partly myth, but it’s not too far off reality. Muckenthaler, who was working there and still has a flyer from it (admission: $3) recalls that there were indeed only a dozen “paid tickets.” However, the local acts and their roadies got to bring in friends, so there were more people there who didn’t pay, ones who were “comped” or on “guest lists”. LeRoy Lucian estimates there were 100 people there in total, Muckenthaler says the number was considerably fewer than that. What all seem to agree upon was that it was a dynamite, short set, with the boys playing “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” a second time in the show for an encore. A U2 fansite counted a total of only 20 different songs played during the entire tour – they were promoting their first record, remember. But what it lacked in quantity was made up for in quality. “It was like seeing the Doors at the Whiskey in the ’60s, before they took off,” Muckenthaler enthuses.

So it must have been, and so a dozen, maybe three or four dozen people got to experience something millions of fans would give their eye teeth to see only a few years later – U2 playing a small stage, in a bar small enough to buy a round for them – and everyone else! Two years later, they hit the singles chart in a big way with “New Year’s Day” and the rest as they say, is history. While the Woodstock, at the corner of Knott and Ball, ended up being replaced with a storage unit facility, U2’s career did not crumble. Fast forward three decades and you get to U2’s “360 Tour”, the most profitable tour in music history, grossing about $736 million dollars over 110 shows. The average attendance of those concerts: 66 110…give or take a couple on the “guest list.”! 

*** We’re going to be doing something a little different tomorrow… we’ll be having a post about a great, under-rated band from our friend Max at Power Pop Blog and meanwhile, we have a post about why music matters on his site. We hope you’ll check them both out and enjoy. ***

February 28 – Third Time Was The Charm For U2

With a title that seems eerily relevant still today, U2 found “third time’s the charm” on this day with the release of their third album, War this day in 1983. It quickly became their most-successful to date and helped them announce their presence in a big way on this side of the Atlantic.  It may not be too much of a stretch to say it not only turned around their career, it may have saved it.

After a promising start with 1980’s Boy, they followed up with a flat-out disappointing and problem-ridden (things like Bono losing the whole lyric script around when they were going into the studio) sophomore effort, October, that few seemed to like that much. October. That album had charted lower in their homeland than the debut, failed to even crack the charts in Canada after getting to #4 with Boy and outside of Ireland had failed to generate what could be considered a “hit” single. So forgettable was it that the NME , while panning this record, failed to even consider October when comparing it to their past efforts while Rolling Stone just called it “glib” in their upbeat review of this third album.

War was recorded in their hometown of Dublin in late-’82, the year of, among other things the Falkland Islands War. Bono describes the mindset of putting the album together : “everywhere you looked, from the Falklands to the Middle East to South Africa, there was war.” Not to mention the ongoing civil war (no matter what it might have been officially dubbed as) between the Protestant north and Catholic south in their Ireland.

The central theme and focus helped make War powerful, so too did the improving musicianship of the quartet. And a wee bit of expanding their reach. For instance, The Edge (who said he was channeling anger and self-loathing because of a rocky period with his girlfriend into the rockers) pulled out a slide guitar in places, played bass on their soon-to-be concert staple “40” and sang the opening to “Red Light”. That one, inspired by Bono’s unhappiness with prostitution, brought to the forefront when they visited Amsterdam, was unusual and catchy with some horns added in and background voices of Kid Creole’s “Coconuts”. Those ladies just happened to be in Ireland at the same time and producer Steve Lillywhite knew them so figured “why not?”

The standouts on the record however, were appropriately enough the trio of singles: “New Year’s Day”, “Two Hearts Beat As One” and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (which technically wasn’t released as a single in many countries but was played as one on radio.) The cumulative effect was to give them their biggest commercial and critical success to that point. The album was their first to hit #1 in the UK, knocking Michael Jackson’s Thriller out of the way in doing so, and getting to #4 in Canada and #12 in the U.S., where it’s currently 4X platinum. Overall, sales were better than triple what October had done. Of course, it was only a hint of the heights they’d soar to later in the decade.

While not every British critic was blown away by it, most American ones were and now, almost all see it as one of the high-water marks of new wave/post-punk. Rolling Stone, for example at the time rated it 4-stars, saying “their songs hustle along with the sort of brusque purposefulness more frequently associated with punk” (all the more resonant when considering the rather upbeat, lightweight pop on much of The Clash’s Combat Rock out around the same time). Later on, the magazine would rank it among the 500 greatest albums of all-time and as the fourth best U2 album, noting “impressive listening but more impressive, it deals with a difficult subject matter in a sensible way.” Words that would come to be a hallmark of the band over the following three decades, as it turns out.

February 6 – Simple Minds Sparkled In The Large Crowds

Call it envy or admiration or simply coincidental change, but once U2 began to sell out stadiums and seemed quickly on their way to becoming the biggest band from Europe, some other acts began to sound just a little more like Bono and Co. than they had before. Case in point, Simple Minds, who on this day in 1984 put out their boldest and most anthemic-sounding record to that point – Sparkle in the Rain.

They had been the opening act for U2 in a number of shows back ’83, including some massive ones in Ireland. That’s where Jim Kerr, the singer of Simple Minds, had the realization that he wanted to sound a bit different than they had previously in their new wave-y, often almost ethereal previous records. “In places like that, 50 000 people, there’s no room for subtlety and there’s no need for it, no want for it.” That was the concert where they premiered the first single off Sparkle in the Rain, “Waterfront,” a song he’d written for his hometown of Glasgow and its dwindling ship-building industry (a theme that resonated with Sting too as we know.) “You always see your home town differently when you come back,” Kerr explained.

So they decided to write music that had “a bit more dirt in it”. They called in super-producer Steve Lillywhite to help them, who had also worked with two of the other “Celtic new rock” bands, U2 and Big Country. As was often the case, Lillywhite brought his wife, Kirsty MacColl along and she added some backing vocals on a couple of the ten tracks. The band wrote nine of them themselves, with the other one being a cover of Lou Reed’s 1978 epic “Street Hassle.” Although they cut down Reed’s song by half, at 5:14” it was still the longest song on the record. While A&M released a pretty conventional version in the U.S., Virgin Records went all out on the first pressing of LP, making them on white vinyl for the British Isles and on clear wax for the Canadian market!

At the time, most liked the new, louder approach. Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, Smash Hits, 8 out of 10. The former said “Scotland’s Simple minds continue to dazzle and impress” with their “complex web of sound…churchy keyboards, lace-like appregiated guitar lines and soaring wisps of feedback…” . Their only complaint was the Reed song “which doesn’t bear covering by anyone.” CMJ thought it sounded “more cohesive” than past records and “the words and music (are) forming a complete whole rather than two antagonistic elements.” Britain’s The Guardian however, dissented, declaring “pursuit of U2 and world domination” led them to “shed all that was good about their sound.”

Waterfront” did sound big and bold and got to #13 at home for them, tying their best showing to then. It was a #1 hit in New Zealand and a top 5 in Ireland, where perhaps they remembered their opening spots for U2. “Speed Your Love To Me” was another UK top 20 while “Up on the Catwalk” didn’t do quite as well, resulting in it later being called their “most under-rated single” by Melody Maker. The album opened a few doors for them in the U.S., crawling to #64, their first significant chart entry there. To the north, it made #14 in Canada and went gold, largely on the strength of play in Toronto, where CFNY ranked it as the #3 record of the year (amazingly, that was less successful than earlier albums of theirs from the ’80s). Of course in Britain they were already established and the album became their first #1 hit, and spent over a year on the charts, eventually going double-platinum. Which perhaps had Jim Kerr urging us “don’t you forget about me”… which after their Breakfast Club movie work the next year, nobody will!

January 1 – The Song For The Day

In 1983, appropriately enough U2 released the song named for the day on New Year’s Day!

The first single off their War album came out on Jan.1 and ushered in the era of major worldwide success for Bono and Co. As Rolling Stone put it, when listing it among their 500 greatest songs of all-time, it “lifted them out of the rock underground for good.” It also became their first top 10 hit in the UK and the first to chart at all in the U.S. (although it only got to #53 there, which seems rather remarkable now). It, along with “Sunday Bloody Sundayhelped War sell triple what either of its predecessors did.

The anthemic song is a live favorite of the band and fans to this day, and has The Edge taking an unusual place at the piano. Strangely enough, although the song began as a love song by Bono for his wife, it diverged into a strong political statement about the Polish Solidarity movement and jailed union-organizer Lech Walesa. Incredibly, as Bono told Rolling Stone later, “when we’d recorded the song, they (Polish government) announced that martial law would be lifted on New Year’s Day! Incredible!” It is, as is the single. 

We wish all of you a very happy, healthy and musical new year! Thanks for being here and reading.

November 18 – Achtung! The Irish Lads Had A #1 Hit

A new decade meant a new sound for U2. They left the ’80s bored, “starting to lose trust in the conventional sound of rock & roll,” according to The Edge and feeling stung by criticisms of their Rattle and Hum album and film. Thinking “domesticity was the enemy of rock’n’roll” and inspired by David Bowie’s mid-’70s rejuvenation with his so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, they looked to the European continent for inspiration on Achtung Baby, released on this day in 1991.

Although once again produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois (as had been their mammoth Joshua Tree album), the record had a decidedly less rock, more dance sound perhaps reflective of Germany, where most of it was recorded. Fans were surprised, to say the least by the album, but took to it anyway. It hit #1 in the U.S., Canada , Australia and several other countries , unleashing five hit singles (six in Canada where “Until the End of the World” also was released and hit the charts) including “One,” “Mysterious Ways” and this unusual one. The electronic and experimental sound also signaled the path U2 would follow for much of the decade, with the next couple of albums being Zooropa and Pop.

Apparently “One” was the key to not only the album but perhaps U2 itself. They were feeling so dispirited they thought of breaking up with songs not coming to them until Daniel Lanois suggested merging bits and pieces of two uncmopleted tracks – which led to the song whose lyrics were inspired by the Dali Lama. Bassist Adam Clayton said “we weren’t getting anywhere until ‘One’ fell into our lap…suddenly we hit a groove” and the rest of the album followed fairly quickly. Larry Mullen said upon the album’s release that the band had felt like “we were the biggest but we weren’t the best” following the mid-to-late ’80s canon.

Reviews were generally positive, then and now. For instance, The Guardian gave it a thumbs-up, saying they “evolved a raw, semi-industrial noise through which to filter strong melodies and thrusting funk-rock grooves.” Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A”, finding it “thankfully downsized” and “refreshingly personal” compared to the last couple of albums. Later, allmusic approved, giving the album a perfect 5-star rating and applauding the sound which “traded their American pretensions for post-modern contemporary ” sounds.

The public agreed, with the record debuting at #1 on Billboard, being 8X platinum in the U.S., a good chunk of the 18 million copies it sold worldwide. In Canada, it earned them their second diamond award, a first among “alternative rock” acts.

To mark the 30th anniversary, the band has issued various new versions of the album, including a 50-song set for the hardcore enthusiast! That one includes the original album, a number of remixes plus b-sides and outtakes that include their versions of “Paint it Black” and “Fortunate Son.”

November 4 – U2 Thundered Back To 21st Century Charts

U2 fans – and music retailers – had something to cheer on this day in 2002. Especially those in Ireland and Canada. That was the day they put out their second greatest hits album, The Best Of 1990-2000. It was the natural follow-up to ’98’s The Best Of 1980-1990 and certainly was destined to find its way into many a Christmas stocking.

This compilation covered four U2 albums, of which two (Achtung Baby, All That You Can’t Leave Behind) were very well-received bookending two of their somewhat less popular ones (the experimental Zooropa and Pop). It contained a sampling of the hit singles off those, including “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways”, but was of significance to the diehard fans for three songs – two new and one existing but obscure.

The obscure was “Miss Sarajevo”, a 1995 song that certainly ranks with the more unusual in their catalog. It was a duet with operatic superstar Pavarotti, taken from an album entitled Original Soundtracks, Vol. 1. Produced by Eno, it was so experimental and odd that Island Records refused to release it under the “U2” name, so it came out under the pseudonym “The Passengers.” The album flopped, but the song was quite catchy despite its unusual vocals and was one they sometimes played live. They reclaimed it as a real U2 song for the greatest hits.

The new ones were the real draw for the longtime fans who probably already had most of the hits on the original albums. There was “The Hands That Built America” and the new single, “Electrical Storm.” The former was a song about the Irish immigrants who went to the U.S. and worked hard, by and large…a subject close to the band’s hearts. It came to notice soon after in the movie The Gangs of New York, even being nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. “Electrical Storm” was put out as a single, and with good reason. The song, comparing a lover’s quarrel to a thunderstorm was as Rolling Stone put it “a dizzying collaboration with William Orbit.” Orbit was an up-and-coming British producer who had recently done albums with Blur (13) and Madonna (Ray of Light). It’s hard to think of U2 as being old or conservative, particularly in the early-’00s but they had been on the scene for over two decades and apparently felt like a bit of new blood from a producer of a younger generation would help keep them relevant. It seemed to work, the song was well-received and sounded fresh without losing the U2 hallmarks. A slower, more acoustic version (the non-William Orbit mix, sometimes referred to as the Radio One Mix) was also made and available on some of the editions of the single.

All in all, the album and new songs were hits. Although, for all the attention U2 lavished on the U.S. in the ’80s with the Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum, it would seem the answer to the question “who loves U2 more than Americans?” would probably be “the Irish, British, Canadians and many Europeans.” “Electrical Storm” hit #2 in their Ireland, #5 in the UK and in Canada was their sixth-straight #1 hit. Oddly, the popularity didn’t extend across the border, where it only got to #77 in the U.S., making it one of their least successful singles to date. That was somewhat reflected in the album sales as well. Although it did OK in the States – #3 – it was a #1 hit in Canada, Ireland, Australia, and several other countries. It was certified platinum in the U.S., double that in Britain and 3X in Canada. Worth noting though is that those sales were less than half of what the Best of 1980-1990 had racked up, probably reflecting accurately fans opinion of their ’90s material vs. earlier works.

October 28 – Tree Turned Into Diamonds For U2

Many have said that Nirvana turned the music world on its ear and made “alternative rock” mainstream with their Nevermind. There’s some truth to that as it certainly signified a sea change in what hit radio and FM rock stations were choosing to play in the early-’90s. But perhaps the change came earlier than that…in Canada at least. Because on this day in 1987, U2 were awarded with a Diamond record for The Joshua Tree, making it the first alt rock album to achieve that level of success in North America. Maybe anywhere for that matter.

A diamond award represents sales of 10X platinum, or 20X gold if you like. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was the first one to do so there, in 1978. The Joshua Tree was only the 17th album to go diamond in Canada, sandwiched between Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and the Eagles Hotel California. Not only that, but being just seven months after its release date, it was also the fastest album to hit that mark in the Great White North, a few days faster than Supertramp’s Breakfast in America had in 1979.

It was only mildly surprising. By this point, it had already spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Canadian charts, longest of any album, produced a massive #1 song (“With or Without You”) and another top 10 (“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) which together managed to dominate the country’s rock and pop stations most all of the summer and fall, and it came on the tail of back-to-back triple platinum successes for the Irish lads, in War and The Unforgettable Fire. U2 was hot and omnipresent enough to not be in any way “alternative”, popularity wise at least.

Of course, it was far from an exclusively Canuck phenomenon. The Joshua Tree had spent nine weeks on top in the U.S., and eventually went diamond there too, although not until 1995. By now it’s topped 14 million copies in the States, or 14X platinum. Nor was it a mere fad. U2 obviously have carried on as big as ever, and in 2000 a second album of theirs, Achtung Baby hit the diamond mark in Canada, making them only the sixth artist to have a pair of albums that popular.

By the way, if you’re a big fan of The Joshua Tree, and like traveling, there’s good news and bad. The good news is there is a national park in California named Joshua Tree, and true to its name, there are many of the odd, gnarly desert trees growing there. The bad, according to travel journalist Conor Knighton, is that the cover photo for the record wasn’t taken there, but about 200 miles away, and the actual tree in the back cover photo is no longer there.