Flashback: U2 Cover Neil Young's 'Southern Man' In 1987 - Rolling Stone
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Flashback: U2 Cover Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’ In 1987

This wasn’t one of the group’s finest moments

When the four members of U2 first began gigging around Dublin as Feedback in 1976 they barely knew how to play their instruments, let alone write original songs. That meant their show was devoted entirely to the hits of the day, which meant covering Peter Frampton, the Bay City Rollers, Thin Lizzy and the Eagles. “We were,” Bono has often said, “the world’s worst cover band.” 

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It took about four years of steady work and plenty of disastrous early attempts (check out “Cartoon World” for proof), but U2 eventually became incredible songwriters. By 1980 their shows were almost 100% original songs, but every once in a while they’d sneak in a cover. Neil Young’s “Southern Man” slipped onto the setlist in 1982, and for reasons that remain baffling it kept popping up again and again through the 1980s. They even played it the week The Joshua Tree hit shelves in March of 1987 when they appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, opting to skip new originals like “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” (Bono also changed the name of a character in the song from Lilly Belle to Billy Joe.)

Judge for yourself how successfully they handle the song, but there’s probably a reason the group hasn’t resurrected it once in the past twenty-seven years. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even their craziest TV song selection of the era. A few months earlier, midway through recording The Joshua Tree, they went on Irish TV and played their in-progress (and ultimately discarded) song “Womanfish.” “We agreed to do that in a moment of dementia,” the Edge said years later. “We hadn’t shot ourselves in the foot for a while, so with two songs half written we decided it was the perfect time to go to the nation to showcase our ‘new direction.’ It was dreadful, the worst in a long line of ropey TV appearances.”

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