1. U2 - Where the Streets Have No Name

(Author's Note:  For those who know me well and know my tastes in music, it wasn't a question of whether a U2 song was going to be #1 on my list, it was which U2 song was going to be #1 on my list.  I was tempted to put "Hotel California" #1 just to be difficult, but who am I kidding?  U2 is the greatest rock band of all time and they deserve the top spot.  Just being contrarian for no good reason is a waste of energy.  I've been waiting a long time to get this one on the books, so I won't dally any longer.)

As much as you can label and differentiate different kinds of music, it all really boils down to one choice - quiet or loud.  Pretty much any song can be dropped into one of those buckets.  When all else fails, loud trumps quiet.  Upon looking at the breadth of this list, it's clear that if given the choice, I'm going to pick loud over quiet.  Of the 100 songs on this list, only fifteen are quiet songs.  Everything else gets to various levels of loud, some louder than others.  But it's not just a me thing or a rock & roll thing.  Being a moderate fan of classical music, I'm still prone to like the loud ones.  I'll take Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" over his "Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27/2."  While both are great, I'm going for the loud.  Sure, Albioni's "Adagio in G Minor" is a wonderfully contemplative song, but when you put on Orff's "Carmina Burana-O Fortuna,"* that's when my ears really prick up.  (And I'm not just name-dropping for effect.  All these songs are on my Ipod.)

But for me, the ones that really seem to flip my switch are the songs that start quiet and get loud, like "O Fortuna."  I love the build-up of a song that makes you feel like it might be a ballad, but before you know it, you're singing along at the top of your lungs or banging your head.  Going back on my list, you'll see quite a few songs that fit this musical blueprint. The thing about songs like this is that they're building to something, and when they get there, the payoff works.  Much in the same way a preacher will start his sermons low and slow, building up to a raised voice and vigorous gestures, a good band can bring things to a fever pitch and inspire thousands.

Most rock songs are built with the music as the foundation, followed by the lyrics.  This song was no different.  The main musical force behind "Where the Streets Have No Name" is U2's guitarist, The Edge.  Edge is considered by many to be the most creative guitarist in rock today.  He's like the professor on Gilligan's Island, always tinkering to find out a better way to do things.  He gets sounds out of a guitar that are unique, and does so often.  Bono once said of Edge's guitar playing, "I put my fingers where he puts his and do the same thing, but I've never made it sound the same."

In the case of "Streets," Edge was in his home studio, working on demos and basic tracks for what would end up becoming U2's The Joshua Tree album.  I could paraphrase, but Edge says it best:

At first nothing came.  I was recording onto a four-track tape machine, working alone, sequencing keyboards to the drum machine.  I was starting to get desperate and thinking about the next tour.  I imagined being at a U2 show and tried to dream up what I would want to hear [as a fan].  It was my attempt to conjure up the ultimate U2 live song.  It was a strange feeling when I finished the rough mix, because I thought I had just come up with the most amazing guitar part and song of my life, but I was totally alone in a big house with no one to share it with.  I remember listening to the complete silence of the house for a few seconds after the music had stopped and then doing a dance around the room punching the air.
The funny thing is that although "Streets" ended up being arguably their most powerful live song, the process for recording it was anything but easy.  Co-producer Brian Eno estimated that of all the time spent recording The Joshua Tree, almost 40% of that was spent tinkering with "Where the Streets Have No Name."   Co-producer Daniel Lanois, at times, had to stand at a chalkboard with a pointer, conducting the band through the song like a schoolteacher.  At one point, Eno was so frustrated with the recording process that he wanted to erase all the tapes in an "accident" and start all over again.  Luckily, he was convinced otherwise (it's said that physical restraint was needed).

I know you're probably saying, "This is fun stuff on how the song was done, Kent, but why is this song #1?"  And in cribbing a great line from Bill Cosby, "I told you that story to tell you this one."  I think you need to understand how something great was created to really discover why it's indeed great.

Starting with Brian Eno's simple organ introduction, the song starts with a hymnal quality to it.  Then Edge plays his moving guitar arpeggio as the song continues to build.  Bassist Adam Clayton drops in (and down the neck of his bass) to kick the song into gear, where The Edge and Larry start to let go.  After almost two minutes, Bono finally breaks in, belting out, "I wanna run...  I wanna hide..."  From this point on, the song keeps a relentless pace until the end, when The Edge's arpeggio leads the fade out.  At the end, you're invigorated - you want to listen again.  As you may have noticed, my musical breakdowns are usually more descriptive.  That's because what I described was just the album version.

Don't get me wrong, "Where the Streets Have No Name" is a great song on The Joshua Tree.  But that's not how you're really meant to listen to it.  Since Edge was dreaming of the perfect U2 live song, it's a song that you need to listen to live.  That's where the song has come into its own.  Larry was asked about the process of making "Streets." 

It took so long to get that song right.  It was difficult for us to make any sense of it.  It only became a truly great song through playing live.  On the record, musically, it's not half the song it is live.
He's right.  The song that took them so long to craft finally took wing when they had to figure out how to replicate the studio version in front of an audience.  The answer was - don't!  U2 decided to keep many elements of the album version, but also let the song develop into what Edge had envisioned in his mind in his empty house - the ultimate U2 live song.

There are two definitive live versions of "Streets."  The first is an early live recording from their movie, Rattle and Hum, recorded at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona back in 1987.  It starts with the organ of the album version, but then Larry comes in with his sticks and high hat cymbal, clicking his way through the introduction while rhythmically hitting the high hat until Edge comes in with his arpeggio.  When Adam comes in with his bass, the pace of the song picks up to a feverish pace, with Larry's tom toms pounding until Bono's vocals come in.  Bono's voice lends itself to live performances, because he can convey emotion with an immediacy that you just can't replicate in the studio.  U2 also adds some nice harmony vocals by the Edge during the choruses.

In the album version, the second verse is just a carbon copy of the first, but live, Larry kicks it into a more powerful groove, pounding on his snare drum with a martial beat.  Edge then gives his guitar some extra musical muscle to keep up.  Adam's bass is higher in the mix (and on the neck), adding a musical pulse that keeps your heart rate up.  Edge really shows what he can do with a guitar as the song hits its apex, alternately muting the strings as he plays, then letting them loose with that great delay/echo effect he created in the studio.  When you hear this version, you realize that this is what Edge had planned all along, it just took them a while to find it.

The second live version that's become an iconic performance of "Streets" is the one that U2 performed at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, in New Orleans, just a few months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  It's in this performance that the lyrics really became more of the central focus of the live performance.  Although there have been various interpretations of what the lyrics to "Streets" mean, Bono's always been pretty straightforward as to their origin:
"An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making - literally by which [part] of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. You can almost tell what the people are earning by the name of the street they live on. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name...."
It was a vision of a world where equality and humanity were more important than the acquisition of wealth and power.  It was a vision where religion was a unifying force, not a wedge that drives us apart.  U2 has always been advocates for peace, patience, and tolerance, and the lyrics to "Where the Streets Have No Name" reflect that.  Bono's lyrics have often told of places of peace, hope and love that are just out of reach, but still he strives to find them.

The city's a flood and our love turns to rust
We're beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled in dust
I'll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name

 He urges us to never give up the fight - the fight to recover our humanity, even in the face of tragedy and strife.  And at no other time in my lifetime were those words more necessary than on that Super Bowl Sunday.  The United States was still trying to recover from the tragedy of the attacks, and instead of trying to get people to forget their troubles, U2 had us face them head on.  Instead of the organ intro of "Streets," U2 played "MLK" as an introduction to the song.

As the song starts, the names of those killed in the attacks started to scroll up a screen that soared into the rafters of the Superdome, remembering all who perished, both on the doomed flights and in the towers themselves.  At first hundreds, then thousands of names scrolled into their deserved place in the heavens as Bono yelled to his adopted home, "America!"  He then let out a scream in anguish, one conveyed the anger, frustration that was inside of us all.  Yet at the same time there's a glimmer of hope in his voice that comes through, echoing the optimism that we tried to cling to.  As Bono sings the song, he sings of a place he longs for, a place where love can be rebuilt after a fall.

And that's why "Where the Streets Have No Name" is the greatest song of my lifetime.  It's a song that was born in a moment of sublime inspiration, went through a troubled adolescence in the studio, and then finally found its place on the stage.  It's a song that is a testament to musicians everywhere that a great song can come from anywhere - sometimes you just have to carve through the marble to get to the statue that was inside the block the whole time.  U2 has written hundreds of songs, but if I only had one to keep from this point on, "Where the Streets Have No Name" would be my choice.  It's a song that speaks to my soul - fluently, because I think we're all searching for that place in the world where everything might not be perfect, but the odds aren't stacked against so many to really make something of their lives. 

It's a dream that's been around for as long as people have been around.  Really, it's what people call "the American dream."  The dream that no matter where you come from, or who you are, if you're willing to work hard enough and treat people with respect along the way, anything is possible.  It's a dream I want my sons to believe in, and I want to be there when they realize their dreams.  That's why this song is so powerful.  It's hope.  It can't be taken from you.  You can only give it away.  So cling to your hope, folks, because that's the only thing that's really going to change the world in the long run.

* Yes, most of us know these pieces from the movies they've been in, rather than being actual classical music fans.  I'm a bit of both.  But in case you were wondering, "Ode to Joy" is probably best known for the vault opening scene in Die Hard, and in about a dozen other movies.  "Piano Sonata No. 14," also known as "Moonlight," was in Immortal Beloved, Misery, Crimson Tide and The Pianist.  "Adagio in G Minor" was in The Doors and Flashdance, while "O Fortuna" has been in countless movie trailers, but also opened the first Jackass movie (I know- Orff rolling over in his grave and all that, but it was damn funny!).

Three videos for this #1.  The first is the music video for the album version.  The second is the Rattle and Hum performance, while the third is U2's performance from Super Bowl XXXVI.

(Fun Fact #40:  I was in my senior year of high school on March 7th, 1987.  As I drove into school, I was listening to a tape, not the radio, so I missed the announcement that my favorite band, U2, was going to film their latest video not twenty miles from my high school.  After class that day, I finally heard from a friend about it, and we jumped in his car and headed down.  We got a little lost in downtown L.A. so we missed most of their set.  We did, however, get to hear the the second half of their last performance of "Streets", plus "Pride" on top of that liquor store.  Adam Clayton said of the shoot:  "The object was to close down the streets. If there's one thing people in LA hate, it's streets closing down, and we've always felt bands should shake things up. We achieved it because the police stopped us filming. Were we worried about being arrested? Not at the time..."  Thank goodness they weren't, because I think the police may have had a mini-riot on their hands if they'd tried.)

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