Junior High is terrible time in your life. For me, it marked the point when I was expelled from the ranks of the popular kids for acting “gay.” This designation had nothing to do with my sexual preference which hadn’t, of course, changed at all. But rather, people had noticed that I had begun dressing differently and listening to music outside the accepted norms of classic rock. It was still mainstream radio music, but it was the stuff that only girls were supposed to like: Wham, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears. Indeed, I was a femme.
Before my excommunication there was a period where I was still hanging out with my old friends, riding our bikes to the movies, the mall, and Burger King. They’d give me crap about my clothes and hair, but we were still pals. When we’d play basketball outside, we’d blare cassettes on someone’s ghetto blaster. One tape we could all agree was a live album by this new band called U2. And it was awesome.
Until I received an advance copy of Live “Under a Blood Red Sky” in the mail, I hadn’t listened to the album since high school. I moved on from U2 after some time after Rattle and Hum.
The recent trend in reissuing live concert albums has been to include the complete show, all the tracks that had been left to rot on the cutting room floor. Sometimes those songs didn’t originally make the cut because of a bad performance, or sometimes they just had to whittle it down to the 45-minute playing time of a single LP.
Who knows how U2 settled on the eight songs for Under a Blood Red Sky? But clocking in under 36 minutes with songs pulled from three different shows across the summer of 1983, it perfectly encapsulates everything that made U2 so exciting at the time. These are the definitive versions of all eight of these classic songs, and the band and label were wise not to fuck with that. That’s right: no bonus tracks.
Normally, the completist in me would be all “Whaddya mean, no bonus tracks! Rip off!” But not here. Although their sets on the War tour often included 20 songs, these eight are free of filler and the performances are undeniably powerful. You don’t want to dilute that. Besides, if you want a whole show, you can pick up the deluxe edition which includes the DVD debut of Live at Red Rocks including five songs not on the original video, a director’s commentary, “digitally re-graded pictures,” and a 5.1 mix.
Warning: after listening to Under a Blood Red Sky, it’s hard to go back and listen to War, October, and Boy. They’re just not as intense as they ought to be.
“There’s been a lot of talk about this next song. Maybe too much talk.” That’s Bono‘s introduction to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” At the time I hadn’t heard any talk about that song. I hadn’t heard any talk about the band at all. The tape just showed up somehow. Probably passed down from somebody’s older brother. Who knows? “This song is not a rebel song.” I had no idea what he was talking about, no knowledge of the Troubles, no clue how many people were getting blown up every year in Northern Ireland. No context whatsoever. But I knew that no matter what that dude said, this song was rebelling against something. And it rocked. It still does.
I realize it’s easy to scoff at Bono these days, both for his earnestness in the 80s and for his ironic detachment in the 90s, and lately for those purple sunglasses that he hasn’t removed in over a decade. But it’s impossible to listen to this live album and not be moved. The Edge conjures up so much sound, so much texture, such cool tones. And Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen make you want to start dancing and fighting. Primal and tough, but still funky. This was a band catching the early wave of fame that would eventually carry them to ridiculous heights of self-parody. But that was later. On this tour, to use a rock and roll cliche, they were still hungry.
Under a Blood Red Sky is a great album, one of the best live albums of all time. You know why? Because it’s short. Most live albums suck because they go for the double-live bullshit two-and-a-half-hour marathon. Who wants to listen to all that? Peter Frampton fans, that’s who. No thanks.