12. U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday

"There's been talk about this next song.  Maybe... maybe too much talk.  This song is not a rebel song.  This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday"*

Bono, you sir are a big fat liar.  Not a rebel song?  I hate to break it to you, but "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is all rebel song.  It's a sheep in wolf's clothing.  It takes the structure of your militaristic call-to-arms and turns it on its head.  It's a musical swords to plowshares.  While protest songs of the 60's and early 70's (i.e.  The Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn" and even John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance") called for the world to change its warring ways, they all did so with a reasoned calm, trying to get more flies with honey.  A few bands, like CSN&Y with "Ohio" and CCR with "Fortunate Son" definitely had anger in their songs, but it still came across as hippies preaching to the choir.  U2 took that motivation and took it to eleven - hell - fifteen.

"Imagine" is trying to change the world by inspiring you with a quiet restraint.  "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is trying to change the world by convincing you with a sledgehammer and a bullhorn.  U2 didn't have the patience or the inclination to tone down their message so they didn't piss people off.  U2 didn't care.  They did know, however, that they were putting themselves in a precarious position with the Irish nationalists back home.  Edge had written lyrics that were even more pointed (but not in support of his country's Catholic brethren, as you might think), but the band didn't want to take it that far.  But they were taking it farther than anyone else had ever done before.

Right off the bat, the song starts with Larry Mullen Jr.'s machine gun drum intro.  On the album version, the  drums were recorded in a staircase of their Dublin recording studio. Producer Steve Lillywhite was trying to get a full sound with a natural echo.  The Edge, the guitarist, plays a simple repeated guitar riff until Bono opens with the lyrics that spill out of his frustration.  He just can't contain it any more.  The lyrics go back to hearing about that afternoon's Bloody Sunday massacre.

I can't believe the news today
Oh, I can't close my eyes and make it go away
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long? How long?
'Cause tonight we can be as one, tonight

The sad part is that Bono's fully away that although we can be as one tonight, we're not going to be - at least not any time soon.  You hear the frustration in his voice.  But it's more than that.  It angers him.  And it should.  There were no winners in the conflict between the Irish who wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the homeland and the British who had come to call Northern Ireland home.

Sadly, Adam Clayton's bass line doesn't even enter the song until the first chorus.  And even though I'll sound like a broken record, to lay one's ego aside for the good of the song is something at which bassists are especially talented.  Adam just gives some low tones to hold the rhythm together and not to take away from Larry's stand out drumming.  There's a great fiddle part, played by a local violinist, Steve Wickham, who'd actually asked Edge at a bus stop if U2 needed any violin on their next record.  Turns out they did.  At times, it comes across almost as another rhythm instrument, while at other times it plays a plaintive wail, echoing the scream of sirens that must've filled the early-evening air.
As great as the album version is of this song, the definitive versions are ones that were recorded live.  Of those, the two most famous are ones recorded for concert films.  The first is the one that helped bring U2 to national prominence, the performance that was recorded at Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1983.  That's the one quoted at the beginning of this entry.  The second one was recorded (ironically, also in Denver) on November 8th, 1987, the same day as the Remembrance Day Bombing in Enniskillen, a northern Irish town, where 13 people were killed by a bomb detonated by the IRA.  It was at this performance that Bono's frustration and anger finally exploded.  He realized that they'd gotten no closer to a resolution.  He could contain it no more.

When they play the song live, the band often breaks the arrangement down, simplifying the music.  Edge lightly strums his guitar with muted strings, matched by Larry's martial drum beat and augmented with Adam's bass line.  It's at this point that if Bono has something to say, this is where he says it.  They can keep it up as long as he needs.  On that November night, Bono had much to say:

Now lemme tell you somethin'. I've had enough of Irish Americans who haven't been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home. And the glory of the revolution, and the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution! They don't talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What's the glory in takin' a man from his bed and gunnin' him down in front of his wife and his children? Where's the glory in that? Where's the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-aged pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where's the glory in that? To leave them dyin', or crippled for life, or dead, under the rubble of a revolution.... that the majority of the people of my country... don't want. Sing no more!
Even though his anger is palpable, he won't let it get to the point where violence seems to be the only answer.  He's seen where that's gotten his country, and he addresses it in the lyrics:

But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall

So Bono, and the rest of U2 as well, does the only thing they really know how to do.  They sing - and play.  They try to get people to realize the futility of violence begetting violence - the unending vicious circle that terrorism and its retribution reaps.

And while Bono knows that we may not be as one tonight, we will be.  It's inevitable.  We have to be.  And it's that optimism, cloaked in a song filled with anger and frustration, that is the lasting message of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."  So in taking a musical structure that has more in common with a rousing call-to-arms, U2 shouts a message for peace, shouting it so loudly that you can't ignore it.  "Sing no more!" Bono implores.  Tens of thousands of voices ring in agreement at every concert.  This is how the other side, the violent side, does it.  Get everyone shouting in unison about something in anger.  But in this case, it's a call-to-drop-arms.  And although sporadic violence still erupts, with the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which ended the hostilities between the British government and the Irish militants, U2 has proven their case.  We can be as one tonight. 

Go ahead Bono, you can say it.  To a certain degree, you've won.  I'll even give you the line:  "This song was absolutely a rebel song.  This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

* There are two Bloody Sundays in Irish history. The first was in 1920 when British troops fired into the crowd at a football match in Dublin in retaliation for the killing of British undercover agents. The second was on January 30, 1972, when British paratroopers killed 13 Irish citizens at a civil rights protest in Derry, Northern Ireland. The song is more about the second Bloody Sunday.

Three videos for this one.  The first is the iconic live recording from Red Rocks, the second is the album version, and the third is the one from Rattle and Hum with Bono's speech about the bombing at Enniskillen.

Larry Mullen had a great quote that I thought was just a bit too long for the main body of my post, since I already had that long one by Bono.  It's kinda like a deleted scene in a movie.  I didn't want to cut it, but it just slowed things down a bit too much for my tastes.  But it's really insightful:

We're into the politics of people, we're not into politics. Like you talk about Northern Ireland, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' people sort of think, 'Oh, that time when 13 Catholics were shot by British soldiers'; that's not what the song is about. That's an incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it's the strongest way of saying, 'How long? How long do we have to put up with this?' I don't care who's who - Catholics, Protestants, whatever. You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we're saying why? What's the point? And you can move that into places like El Salvador and other similar situations - people dying. Let's forget the politics, let's stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it... There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc. Well, so what! The real battle is people dying, that's the real battle."
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