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.