U2 had a whole mini-catalog of songs prior to recording their debut LP Boy, and after that they always wrote far more tunes than could fit on any one album. Some of these songs were relegated to B-sides, while others were merely played live a handful of times. For every forgettable song like “Womanfish,” there’s a brilliant one like “North and South of the River” or “Salome.” Here’s a guide to 20 of the best obscure songs from the Irish quartet.
If you couldn't tell by the fact they have members named Bono and the Edge, the four members of U2 came from a place where it was very common for people to have weird nicknames. One of them was Pete Chop, a friend of their former management associate Andrew Whiteway. When U2 met Pete the Chop he suggested they write a song about him, and they took him up on the challenge. The result was a very catchy pop number and U2's manager Paul McGuinness heard it as a potential big hit. The band disagreed and refused to put it out, though they did play it live a bunch of times. McGuinness didn't give up and he kept asking the band, "Whatever happened to 'Pete the Chop'?" They got so tired of the question that they eventually wrote "Treasure (Whatever Happened to Pete the Chop?)." It's sort of a backwards, inverted version of "Pete The Chop" and it came out as the b-side to "New Year's Day," but the original "Pete the Chop" remains in the vault.
"11 O'Clock Tick Tock" never appeared on a U2 studio album, but it's one of the most important songs from their early history. Joy Division producer Martin Hannett recorded the song and they released it as their second single in May of 1980. It was the highlight of their live set, and some nights they'd even play it twice. Before they settled on the final lyrics, it was called "Silver Lining." They played it a handful of times in late 1979 and early 1980 before Bono scrapped almost all the lyrics and renamed it "11 O'Clock Tick Tock." Thankfully, some early U2 fans had their tape recorders running so we can hear this historical anomaly today.
U2 wrote many great songs about the conflict in Northern Ireland, and one of their best came out shortly before the Belfast Good Friday Agreement brought peace to the region in 1998. The mournful and pleading "North and South of the River" was cut during the Pop sessions and released as a B-side to "Staring at the Sun." The only time they ever played it live was on a 1998 TV benefit for the victims of the Omagh bombing. They stripped the song completely down, and the result was absolutely beautiful.
Robert Plant once said that his favorite U2 song was "Salome." Who knew the guy had such deep knowledge of U2 B-sides? This funky song was cut during the Achtung Baby sessions and remixed a bunch of times before it wound up as the B-side of "Even Better Than the Real Thing." It's also the name of a three-disc set of early Achtung Baby songs that somehow leaked out to fans during the making of the album, seriously pissing off the band.
When U2 announced their ill-fated PopMart tour at the lingerie department of a Kmart in downtown New York, they could have serenaded the press with any song from their vast catalog, but for some reason they opted for "Holy Joe," the B-side of "Discothèque." Pop is nowhere near as bad as the legend suggests, and it would have been even better had they included "Holy Joe" instead of "Miami" or "The Playboy Mansion." They haven't played even a note of "Holy Joe" in concert since that press conference.
U2 hit such a deep songwriting vein during the Joshua Tree sessions that even a song as brilliant and emotional as "Luminous Times (Hold On to Love)" wound up on the cutting room floor. It did come out as a B-side to "With or Without You" and that cassingle flew off shelves in the spring of 1987, but who knows how many people bothered to flip the tape over. Those that did heard a hell of a song.
U2 were never a band with much of a reputation for bagging groupies. Any backstage shenanigans that may have gone on were kept on the supreme downlow. That's why it's so odd they wrote "Trash, Trampoline & the Party Girl" back in 1982, though it was created in a mad rush when they needed a B-side for "A Celebration." The song is about a lady named Party Girl who "wants more than a party." She meets a boy named Trash Can that "does all that he can, wham bam." It was clearly meant as a throwaway tune, but it's had an odd afterlife. They began playing it a lot in concert, even releasing it on their 1983 live album Under a Blood Red Sky. Fans loved it and they kept it in the set all through the 1980s, and it even popped up a bunch of times in the 2000s. It's hard a much longer afterlife than "A Celebration," which is one of the weaker U2 songs to ever come out as a single.
Bono and his wife Ali Hewson had two little boys right around the time of U2's big comeback album All That You Can't Leave Behind. Pregnancy and childbirth were clearly on Bono's mind when he wrote the lyrics to "Big Girls Are Best," which came out as a B-side to "Walk On." "She's got the baby at her breast," Bono sings. "She knows big girls are best."
Like "Big Girls Are Best," U2 recorded "Summer Rain" during the All That You Can't Leave Behind sessions and ultimately discarded it, though it did appear on some deluxe editions of the LP. The euphoric, acoustic tune has the vibe of a classic U2 song and would certainly have worked great onstage, but they've never gone near it. It's a shame. It really deserves a revival.
U2 have written an absurd amount of songs over the past five years that virtually nobody has heard. They briefly decided to let the public in on some new tracks when the 360 Tour hit Europe and South America in 2010. Many nights opened with "Return of the Singray Guitar," a monster riff of a song that kicks ass even though it never really sounded finished. It was a sign to the fans that the band was moving forward, even though it's likely nobody will hear hear this one again. Too bad.
Remember that 2000 Wim Wenders movie Million Dollar Hotel? It starred Mel Gibson back when he was actually a big movie star and not a national joke. It's about a bunch of disjointed people coming together at a Los Angeles hotel and even Mel Gibson said it was "as boring as a dog's ass." The public agreed and it made a whopping $59,989. Latter-day Ernest movies made about five thousand times more than that. But it's noteworthy here because Bono wrote the screenplay and U2 contributed some songs to the soundtrack, which is infinitely more enjoyable than the movie. The best of the bunch is the haunting "Stateless," though like all things associated with Million Dollar Hotel, it's been completely lost to time.
Another victim of the Million Dollar Hotel fiasco was "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," a gorgeous ballad that Bono wrote after reading Salman Rushdie's 1999 novel, also titled The Ground Beneath Her Feet. The lyrics come almost verbatim from a portion of the book, so Rushdie got the songwriting credit, and it appeared as the first song on the film's soundtrack. U2 thought it was a very strong song and wanted it out as a single, even shooting a video for it. But their label knew that All That You Can't Leave Behind was coming and they didn't want to confuse fans on the verge of the group's big comeback. They did play the song a bunch of times on their 2001 world tour.
This Joshua Tree outtake was so inspired by Patti Smith that they added "Birdland" — the title of a track from her 1975 masterpiece Horses — to the name of the song. Bono wrote the song when he travelled to Ethiopia after Live Aid and realized the money raised by the massive event would barely dent the overwhelming problem. The title comes from a Langston Hughes poem. They never quite felt the song was done, and in 2007 when they released a 20th anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree they fleshed it out.
Bono got close to Frank Sinatra during the final years of the Chairman of the Board's life. They recorded a duet of the Sinatra classic "I've Got You Under My Skin" in 1993 and the following year Bono presented him with a Legend Award, though the Grammys, in a shameful move, cut Frank off mid-speech to go to commercial. Bono was determined to see Frank Sinatra record one final masterpiece before he died, and he wrote "Two Shots of Happy One Shot of Sad" for him. He read him the lyrics in a limo one night, but Sinatra wasn't in great shape by this point and he never recorded it. Bono recorded it himself in 1995 with an orchestra and sent it to Frank for his 80th birthday. Two years later, it came out as a B-side to "If God Will Send His Angels." In 2004, Frank's daughter Nancy recorded it.
U2 were pretty much off the grid in 1990, though Bono and the Edge did emerge to write the score for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of A Clockwork Orange. The Edge was listening to a lot of industrial music at the time, and their song "Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk" was the first glimpse U2 fans got of the new direction U2 were headed in the 1990s. It's also the complete opposite of the American roots sound of Rattle and Hum. The instrumental came out in 1991 as a B-side to "The Fly."
"This is a new song we're trying out," Bono said in Frankfurt, Germany, in August 2010. "It's kind of a rocking 1970s thing. It's called 'Glastonbury.'" U2 were supposed to play England's massive Glastonbury festival that summer, but Bono's back problems delayed the show until the following year. When he got better, they debuted this rocking tune when they played mainland Europe in the late summer. Oddly enough, they didn't bust it out when they were actually at Glastonbury.
The line "how to dismantle an atomic bomb" appears nowhere on U2's 2004 LP How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but you can hear it on "Xanax and Wine," a song they wrote during the final days of recording the album. The track eventually evolved into "Fast Car," but it lost its raw, frenetic energy in the process. Thankfully, they released "Xanax and Wine" on a rarities collection a few years later.
U2 have proved that it's possible to over-think a song and screw it up. Their 2004 song "Vertigo" was a big hit, but many fans prefers the tune in its original incarnation as "Native Son." It's not glossy, still has some rough corners and probably wouldn't have worked in an iPod commercial. The good news is they put it out so fans can compare the two.
"Mercy" was originally slated for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but for some reason it was yanked at the last minute. One fan wound up with a bootlegged copy and it was uploaded to the Internet in late 2004. U2 fans fell in love with the anthemic song, many of them arguing it was one of the most U2-ish songs every written. The band finally got on board in 2010 when they began playing a revised version of the song in concert. One of those versions came out on the band's 2010 EP Wide Awake in Europe.
Achtung Baby is undoubtably one of U2's greatest albums, but it had a very difficult birth. When they began cutting the album in Berlin, Germany, they were simply unable to finish any songs they were happy with. One of their early attempts is "Lady With the Spinning Head." They eventually gave it up and scrapped it for parts, using elements of it on "Zoo Station," "The Fly" and "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)." It's trippy to listen to it today since it sounds like all those songs combined.