Few rock bands have more hit songs than U2. The Irish quartet first landed on the charts with 1981's "I Will Follow" and continued all the way into the 21st century. But there are so many amazing tunes hiding slightly below the surface. Some are album cuts, B-sides or studio outtakes, while others were only played live a few times. With U2's new Songs of Innocence hitting iTunes for free last week, we asked our readers to vote on for their favorite lesser-known tracks. Here are the results.
There's so many amazing songs on Achtung Baby that it's easy for a song like "So Cruel" to get lost in the mix, especially since the band only played it a few times on the Zoo TV tour and haven't touched it a single time in the past 22 years. The ballad, which addresses a painful breakup, was largely inspired by the Edge's painful divorce from his wife Aislinn. "That was one of the saddest things," said Bono. "But that was only part of it. There were lots of other things going on internally within the band and outside it, and I was working through all of that."
This song came early in the Achtung Baby sessions, when the group was still struggling to find their new sound and unsure whether or not they should even continue. Things changed dramatically when they created "One," and later they scrapped "Lady With the Spinning Heads" for parts. "Zoo Station," "The Fly" and "Ultraviolet" all took pieces from it, though later they realized the original was actually a pretty stellar track and made it "One"'s B-side. They've never played it live, but it remains a fan favorite.
The first glimpse anyone got of the new material on The Joshua Tree came in January of 1986 on the Irish television show TV Gaga. U2 had barely begun writing new songs, but they agreed to the appearance in what the Edge later described as a "moment of dementia." They played a horrible new song called "Womanfish" that they never touched again, Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and an early version of "Trip Through Your Wires." The bluesy track changed dramatically when Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois gets their hands on it, but it got buried under all the huge hits on The Joshua Tree.
Heroin abuse was rampant in Ireland in the 1980s. The four members of U2 lost many good friends, including Thin Lizzy's Philip Lynott. "Running to Stand Still" was created out of the band's frustration and anguish with the situation. The "seven towers" they refer to are Ballymun flats, a rundown Dublin housing community where many addicts lived. The music was born out of impromptu bits the group made up during the "Bad" coda on the 1985 tour. The track became a key part of their set list for many years.
An outtake from The Joshua Tree, the haunting "Heartland" found a place on the soundtrack to U2's ill-fated 1988 movie Rattle and Hum. It fit in nicely with the Americana theme of the movie, and the Eno/Lanois production makes the track stand out from the rest of the disc. But the song hit during the height of the first U2 backlash, and it never got much of a following. The fact they've never played it live means it has remained pretty obscure.
U2 first met Greg Carroll when the Unforgettable Fire tour came to New Zealand in 1984. They had an instant connection and the band brought him on as a roadie, growing extremely close with him during the next two years. You can even see him manning Bono's ever-growing microphone cable during the group's legendary Live Aid appearance in 1985. He died the following summer in a motorcycle accident, and Bono wrote the lyrics to this tribute song in a moment of sorrow. The title refers to a hill with a single tree that Bono visited in Auckland. Bono's wounds were so raw on the Joshua Tree tour that he didn't feel comfortable playing the song until the third leg. It's a rarity these days, but it often comes out when the group plays New Zealand.
"Acrobat" is one of the most aggressive and venomous songs on Achtung Baby. Nearly every lyric brims with rage, which is possibly a reflection of Bono's mental state at the time. It was a new decade and it was quite possible they were about to be dismissed as a relic of the past. "I'd join the movement," Bono sneers. "If there was one I could believe in/Yeah, I'd break bread and wine/If there was a church I could receive in." The group soundchecked it once before a 1993 gig in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but they've never played it live.
"The last of the rock stars," Bono sings on this 2001 track. "When hip-hop drove the big cars. In a time when new media was the big idea." Hearing those words now sends any U2 fan directly back to that little window of time after the turn of the millennium but before 9/11. It was a time of optimism and "Beautiful Day" was all over the radio. Nearly every track on All That You Can't Leave Behind is a winner, but "Kite" has always seemed special. Bono got the idea while flying an actual kite with his young daughters, even though one of them said they'd rather be inside playing video games.
U2 could have kicked off the encore section of their 360 world tour with pretty much any song in their catalog, but most nights they went with the 1991 deep cut "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)." It was a surprise pick they hadn't played since the Zoo TV tour, but it was a brilliant move. There's a lot of power in the track, and it only seems to improve with age. Even people that could barely remember the tune would find themselves singing "baby, baby, baby light my way" as Bono was suspended above the stage while clutching a bright red microphone.
U2 had every intention of playing "Pride (In the Name of Love)" during their Live Aid set, but when Bono started to sing "Bad" he found himself completely unable to stop. It went on for twelve minutes and ate up all their time. The Unforgettable Fire tune had been a key part of their set list all year, growing each night as Bono tacked on bits of other songs like "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Satellite of Love" to the end of it. It's another song about heroin abuse, sort of a precursor to "Running to Stand Still," but in concert it became a moment of triumph. It was never a single and it's never gotten much radio play, but when they brought it back for a few dates on the 360 tour, the response was ecstatic.