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Music

Songs That Broke My Heart: U2’s Running to Stand Still

Moreso than most of their peers, U2 is so strongly associated with its hometown that “U2” and “Dublin” are rarely not mentioned in the same breath, often Bono’s own. He and Larry Mullen Jr. were born and raised in Dublin, Adam Clayton and The Edge grew up there, and most importantly, it’s where the four undertook the hard work of establishing the band.

Decades of fame, wealth, philanthropy, activism, and regularly circumnavigating the globe have long since transformed U2 from local success into world citizens, but they never ceased tying their self-identity to their Dublin roots. Perhaps in the rarified world of the world’s top celebrities, it’s psychologically necessary to cling to a point on the map to call home.

Their hometown pride never precluded them from addressing Dublin’s seedier side. Its persistent heroin epidemic in particular directly inspired the songs “Wire”, “Bad”, and “Running to Stand Still”. The latter originally appeared on the 1987 album The Joshua Tree, a period during which the band’s unusual combination of heart-on-sleeve earnestness, political consciousness, and overt Christian faith landed them on the cover of Time Magazine. It includes some of Bono’s most impressionistic lyrics, evoking spikes piercing bloodstreams under surging storm clouds. The lines “I see seven towers / but I only see one way out” allude directly to the desolate Ballymun residential tower blocks in Dublin, close to where Bono grew up.

Nevertheless, like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (particularly in its heart-rending rendition by Johnny Cash), Bono’s lyrics are oblique enough to be interpreted in less literal terms than a mere drugs-will-ruin-you message. Remember, this was the “just say no” 1980s, before pop culture began to increasingly treat addiction with sympathy, complexity, and even ambivalence — a more complex picture than moralistic outright condemnation. This was years before the scandalous impact of the novel and film Trainspotting (set in neighboring Scotland), which, while unsparing in its portrayal of the cataclysmically ill effects of drug addiction, also dared to bluntly state a reason many addicts start doing drugs in the first place: because it feels good.

For a musician with such Christian, leftist, and activist leanings to have achieved mass popularity, Bono had long ago figured out how to speak to audiences on multiple levels. “Running to Stand Still” evidences his signature hat trick: come for the rock anthems, stay for the message of compassion. The lyrics are subtle enough that many relate to it for its universal expression of an individual feeling trapped, and needn’t necessarily be conscious of the poverty and societal decay Bono saw in his childhood neighborhood.

The fairly subdued studio version was arranged in live performances to punch up the scat-sung “ha la la la de day” coda into a rousing audience singalong. Here’s U2 performing the song in the 1988 concert film Rattle and Hum:

The coda further evolved on later tours into a “hallelujah” mantra, adding an element of hope to the grim scenario. This 1993 performance from the ZooTV/Zooropa tour includes especially dramatic staging and lighting:

U2 hand-picked the English band Elbow to cover it for the War Child charity compilation album Heroes in 2009. Here’s lead singer Guy Garvey on the honor:

When the band first met each other aged 17, Mark and Craig’s father Gareth would lend us his Volvo to get our gear around. It seemed that for a year and a half all that we listened to in that car was Rattle and Hum. I remember the excitement every time a U2 album was released, we just loved them. The first song we ever covered together before we had enough of our own songs to do a performance was “Running To Stand Still”. For Heroes we’ve changed the order of things but kept every musical theme in the song. We wrote it with the members of U2 in mind.
Guy Garvey, ExploreMusic

While no one would ever accuse Bono of pulling an emotional punch, Elbow’s rendition cranks the intensity knob up to 11. Anchored by a muted pulse, it suddenly explodes with an audaciously loud guitar line, as if the guitar slider on the mixing board was pushed all the way to the top. As idiosyncratic as their arrangement is, it does eschew U2’s later “hallelujah” code for the original “ha la la la de day”, and echoes the original’s guitar/harmonica interplay. Elbow pulls these various threads together into a dramatic climax, in a way that cuts right to my core.

For me, it’s one of the rare cases where a cover version has an edge over its original.


You’re reading an entry in our ongoing blog mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right into the whole pool of sorrow. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

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Music

Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.

As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.

The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.

The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:

“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”

With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.

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3 Stars Movies

Julie Taymor does The Beatles songbook in Across the Universe

I believe I’m in the minority opinion here, but I really liked Across the Universe. Already loving the songs of the Beatles and the films of Julie Taymor, perhaps I’m predisposed. Taymor rounds up all the usual suspects from the Lennon & McCartney oeuvre: Lucy, Jude, Maxwell (as in “Silver Hammer”), Jo Jo (from “Get Back”), Sadie, Prudence… even the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine kick up their heels as Mr. Kite’s Rockettes. But unless I missed them in the crush, Rocky and Rita didn’t make the cut.

At two plus hours, Across the Universe may in fact be too much of a good thing. The Beatles wrote a great many wonderful love songs, but even these canonical classics can seem a little redundant when strung together in a series, illustrated by Jena Malone & Jim Sturgess swooning over each other over and over.

Jena Malone in Across the Universe
Chris Cunningham & Portishead called & asked for their fish tank back

The best sequences are the weirdest, especially the “She’s So Heavy” number which resembles something out of Alan Parker’s cracked Pink Floyd The Wall. But sometimes the interpretations are ruined by being a little too literal; the “Revolution” sequence starts out great with Jude trying to sway a radical revolutionary group away from violent protest (“But when you talk about destruction / Brother you know that you can count me out”), but he predictably points at a portrait of Chairman Mao right on cue.

Across the Universe
She’s so heavy, indeed

Topped off with cameos by Salma Hayak (times five) and Bono in a rare dramatic role as a sort of Timothy Leary figure (sporting an entertainingly loony American accent modeled, at least to my ears, after Dennis Hoppper), this rumored-to-be-troubled production can be a little overwhelming and redundant, but it’s really something to see.

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4 Stars Movies Music

U2 in a state called vertigo: U23D

U23D is actually a fairly traditional concert movie, a mostly straight-up filmed record of a representative show of a single tour. U2 had already produced one theatrical feature film about themselves (1988’s Rattle and Hum), and released countless productions on video and DVD before and since. So what could have been just another video of the world’s most overexposed band needed to differentiate itself somehow. Turns out the latest 3D technology filling a 40-foot screen consuming your peripheral vision is more than enough to justify its existence.

3D has come a long way from what I remember as a kid, watching Creature of the Black Lagoon on TV with red-and-blue cardboard glasses. At first, the degree of depth is disorienting and headache-inducing, but before too long the brain and eyes adjust. Your perspective is not that of the audience but as if you were standing right on stage with the lads. Sometimes I felt as if I should have been holding a tambourine!

U23D
In a state called vertigo

The old songs I’ve memorized from thousands of plays on LP, tape, CD and now iPod are still great. The martial drumbeat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still sends chills down my spine, and I have to admit I even choked up a little during “Pride (In the Name of Love).” I was disappointed by the relative lack of songs from the band’s 90s “postmodern irony” trilogy Achtung Baby / Zooropa / Pop, but I now have a new appreciation for “Love and Peace or Else,” a new song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that hadn’t quite made an impression on me yet.

U23D
One blind Bono sez: Coexist or else

I’m a longtime fan that has never seen U2 live. There was a frustration at every opportunity; if they weren’t sold out, I was too broke, sans car, or all of the above. So U23D made a kind of stopgap pilgrimage for me. U2 must be one of the only rock bands to ever preserve the original personnel for so long; here’s hoping they stick together long enough for another tour so I can see them for real.

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4 Stars Movies Music

Everything You Know is Wrong: U2: Zoo TV Live From Syndey

If I could build a time machine to take me to see any band in history, it would be a trip to the early 90s to catch U2 at any point along their legendary Zoo TV tour. New to DVD, Zoo TV: Live From Sydney documents the lads’ performance in Sydney during the aptly named Zoomerang leg. Rewatching the event in the 21st century is interesting; on one hand, it’s almost shocking how far ahead of the curve U2 was in 1993, preaching a pretty weighty post-modern, ironic kill-your-television thesis in front of thousands of rock ‘n’ roll fans each night. But on the other hand, the fixation on cable and satellite TV now looks rather quaint. True cultural desensitization and alienation via media oversaturation came, in the end, from the internet. “Everything you know is wrong”, indeed.

Zoo TV was less a rock concert than a carefully choreographed theatrical event. Bono donned multiple costumes and personas throughout each show: a drunken rock star clad in leather and flay shades, a paramilitary in fatigues, a gold lamé cowboy hat-wearing megachurch televangelist blasting millions of U2 bucks into the audience, and finally emerging as MacPhisto, a kind of washed-up wasted devil tired of life but still up for a good time.

U2 Zoo TV Sydney
I’d hate to see the band’s utility bill at the end of this tour…

Regardless, what’s amazing is that despite all the high-mindedness and avant-garde video art contributed by Brian Eno and Emergency Broadcast Network, U2 still managed to put on a truly ass-kicking rock concert and get millions of people around the globe to come and love every second of it. And for me to buy the DVD.