U2 has successfully transcended time and has polarized music fans by making every single one of their albums releases of the last twenty five years “an event.” Just look at the frenzy surrounding their last studio album, 2014’s Songs of Innocence. In partnership with long time corporate cohorts Apple, the band strategically placed the album on every single iTunes/Apple music account, without any sort of opt in. On September 9th, 2014, if you used iTunes or an iPhone, you saw that Songs of Innocence was now in your music library (for free, you’re welcome?) It was a bold all-or-nothing move that saw U2 grappling with the concept of consent and privacy issues in marketing instead of music. Unsurprisingly, the move flopped spectacularly – in part because of the negative vibes associated with the strategy – but also because of the fact that the album that had been placed on people’s accounts wasn’t good, not striking even up to par with much of U2’s previous material. Bono would soon apologize for the stunt, saying that it was “a drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity.”
For better or for worse, it’s “events” like these that have kept U2 as a household name over the last two decades. For their 2009 album No Line on the Horizon, they embarked on the sold out two year, 110 stop U2 360 tour – which featured the band performing under a spider-like giant claw as the main stage, making over $736 million in box office revenues in the process. Their first partnership with Apple led to the “Vertigo” iPod commercial in 2004, as well as a custom U2 iPod in 2006. Their strive to reclaim the title of the biggest rock band in the world led to a triumphant Super Bowl performance only a few months after September 11th. Even in the 90s, U2 were etching their names into musical history with big sweeping ideas like the “in your face” Zoo TV tour which saw the band graduating from humble live performances to being full-fledged arena rockers, complete with outrageous set designs, Bono adopting multiple personas, flashing text phrases, and belly dancers. Even in their earliest days, their now famous 1983 performance at Red Rocks captured in their film Under a Blood Red Sky, was made in the pouring rain – these inclement conditions led to the videos from the film getting constant rotation on MTV in the 80s, propelling them to capture a worldwide audience.
Needless to say, all of these events, tours, promotions, and films have meant that U2 has been practically everywhere for nearly four complete decades, which may be why they attract so much criticism and talk of being nothing more than sell outs. Coincidentally, they also have an extremely devoted and passionate fan base who continues to support the band throughout all of their marketing ploys. Even the most casual fans can point to a handful of songs from the band that they respect, and chances are they’d include the first three songs from U2’s most famous and critically successful album, 1987’s The Joshua Tree. “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You” all remain as faint (now 30 year old) memories of a band who were still striving to innovate, experiment, and were still looking for their bust-out moment at true international successes. Out of all their famous tracks, “With or Without You” is not only one of the most representative of the band’s classic sound, but also remains one of their most recognizable individual songs.
“With or Without You” is most famous for being that U2 song, the one with the guitar ringing effect courtesy of guitarist The Edge playing the “Infinite Guitar,” which allows guitar notes to be sustained for as long or as little as is required. This effect gives the song a feeling of sweeping expansiveness, despite the Edge only playing a few notes throughout the song. This technique of letting an effect guide his track is something he would use on every U2 album since then.
I’ll be perfectly honest – I like The Edge’s guitar playing and use of the Infinite Guitar on “With or Without You,” but I’m not blown away by it. The effect screams 80’s nostalgia when you could get away with “less being more” and being both mainstream and artsy. For the first time that the Edge used this effect to great extent, it works really well. The Infinite Guitar helps to convey the wide open spaces and desert roads of Americana that U2 became interested in during the recording of The Joshua Tree. I can listen to “With or Without You” a few times in a row, but not because it’s absurdly catchy or overwhelming, or spectacular (I give that honor to “Where the Streets Have No Name”) but because it’s an anthemic, ringing song with some lyrical generalities about a troubled relationship (or closer connection to religion and/or god). Maybe my overall “good song, not one of the best of all time” mentality comes from the fact that I feel like this is one of those cases where the song was more groundbreaking at the time, prior to U2 being around for 30 more years. When “With or Without You” hit #1 for three weeks starting on May 16th, 1987, it must have been a breath of fresh air, between all the cheesy pop synthesizers and emergence of hair metal. Now, U2’s songs are so commonly played that the breath of fresh air has turned into a groan of “yeah, U2 is U2, what else is new?”
In the words of Rolling Stone magazine, The Joshua Tree took U2 “from [being] heroes to superstars.” When I listen to the big three singles from that album, including “With or Without You” and think about how this was only the beginning for the band. They have since bounced through a plethora of gimmicks and genres, and yet can still (still!) lay claim to being one of the biggest, or at least one of the most famous bands of the previous few generations. That’s something – whether you think U2 are marketing geniuses, or just full of shit – to be impressed with.