Interview by Mark Beech
Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) -- "The Unforgettable Fire," which has been reissued, is the album that helped U2 conquer America.
Its anthemic template, crafted in 1984 with the assistance of co-producer Brian Eno, came three years before "The Joshua Tree," which took the Irish band "from heroes to superstars," according to Rolling Stone magazine, and sold 25 million copies.
Eno recalls in an interview that U2 broke every rule as it revised the trademark stadium rock of its first three LPs. Singer Bono's group reveled in experiments, took risks and improvised prayers and poetry. A new edition of the recording, released last week, showcases its strengths with 25 years of perspective by adding remasters, new tracks and a DVD.
"We started thinking of making sonic landscapes," Eno says. "We weren't trying to reproduce a band playing live, which is what recording was supposed to be about. 'A Sort of Homecoming' was a cinematic piece."
Eno was surprised when U2 approached him. He had started playing with Roxy Music and had already worked with David Bowie and Talking Heads, gaining a reputation for what he calls obscure solo works ("Obscure is the name of my label.")
Chris Blackwell, Island Records boss, was fretful that the quartet's commercial side might be wrecked by ambient ambition. Eno also expressed concern that U2 would change direction, to which Bono replied: "That's exactly what we want to do."
Eno brought in his friend Daniel Lanois as coproducer, and says it's a myth that rockers throw tantrums during the creative process: "Nobody ever walks out ... we ended up as one big happy family."
'Breaking the Mold'
"As part of the aim of "breaking the mold, the band said, 'let's not go into a commercial studio,'" Eno says. Instead, they recorded in Ireland's historic Slane Castle.
Many of the songs were drafted before the sessions, though the track Eno chose to highlight didn't exist before Slane. "Bad," about heroin addiction, is best known for the 12-minute version at Live Aid in 1985. Eno says he and Lanois were jamming with the others at the castle when "Bono came up with an amazing approach to singing that was magic."
U2's members have an infectious Irish humor yet take their mission seriously, says Eno. The quartet appreciates his "grumbling Englishness, part of the joke."
Their affection is obvious: When Eno contracted a superbug and was briefly hospitalized during a tour this year, Bono dedicated songs to Eno as "a national treasure." (Eno, 61, has fully recovered.)
For all his production work, Eno modestly describes himself as a "non-musician," "sonic landscaper" or simply an artist (he has an exhibition in Long Beach, California, at present).
"People ask me my job on planes: I say 'import-export' to deflect it," he says. "The only thing I have done as a producer is make music I want to hear."
U2's fourth album wasn't the one the group expected to make, says Eno, and the surprises continued: It turned out not to be a one-off -- he and Lanois have worked on many U2 records since, including this year's "No Line on the Horizon."
A few reviewers were unimpressed by the band's 1984 attempts to appeal in the U.S., with transparent titles such as "4th of July," "Elvis Presley and America" and "MLK." The feelings turned warmer as the LP spawned two hit singles, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "The Unforgettable Fire."
Eno recalls that he was exhausted by the end of "The Unforgettable Fire."
"I didn't have an appetite to hear it again for a few months, and when I did, it was by accident," says Eno. "I was walking through Chelsea and heard something amazing issuing up from a basement flat. I thought "What is that?", and it took me a few seconds to realize that it was 'Unforgettable Fire.' That's when I knew we'd made something special."
He's right: Time has been kind to the album and it is special. Rating: ****.
"The Unforgettable Fire" is on Mercury. The new edition is available as a 1-CD album ($12), remastered with direction from the Edge; a 2-CD set of album and bonus tracks, including the previously unreleased "Yoshino Blossom" and "Disappearing Act" ($24); a box set adding a DVD including music videos, a documentary and unreleased live footage ($55); and a vinyl record ($24). Download fees vary across services.
For more information, see http://www.U2.com.
What the Stars Mean:
(No stars) Worthless
(Mark Beech writes for Bloomberg News and is the author of "The Dictionary of Rock and Pop Names." The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Mark Beech in London at [email protected]
Last Updated: November 3, 2009 19:00 EST
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