The Number Ones

May 16, 1987

The Number Ones: U2’s “With Or Without You”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Think about Tom Cruise for a minute. Cruise, eternal avatar of steely confidence and absolute refusal to age, is a weird motherfucker, and the weirdest thing about him might be his determination to be normal — or, at least, to be loved and accepted by as many normal people as possible. When Cruise was rising to the top of the pop-culture world in the mid-to-late ’80s, he managed his ascent carefully. Cruise, young and good-looking and charismatic, was part of a cohort of other young and good-looking and charismatic actors, but he separated himself from his castmates in The Outsiders as quickly as he possibly could.

In movies like Legend and Top Gun, Cruise had a taste for spectacle. He also had an appetite for history, for importance. Cruise pushed himself to forge alliances and collaborations with big-deal cinematic figures of older generations: Martin Scorsese, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Stone. Cruise aimed for that sort of prestige, and he got a lot of it — enough, in any case, to avoid the fate of most of his Brat Pack peers. But as Cruise maintained his stardom into the 21st century, he also came to seem creepy and vaguely alien — never more so than when he tried to come off as a regular guy. He’s never more cringey than when he attempts self-deprecation. Cruise was never a regular guy. He never could be a regular guy. It’s not how he was wired. Instead, he clearly sees himself as a messianic figure — an example for the universe to follow.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Tom Cruise ond Bono have followed the exact same arc, over the exact same timeline. With U2, Bono emerged from the mass of post-punk brooders of the early ’80s. He was working with the same basic toolbox as the Psychedelic Furs or Echo And The Bunnymen, but he had bigger things in mind. U2 certainly had a taste for spectacle. Bono would clearly be in heaven anytime anyone put him in front of a vast crowd of people. He also looked to his elders — the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison — for approval, in ways that would’ve made other punk-adjacent arena wailers blanch.

Less than a year after Top Gun made Cruise the biggest star in Hollywood, Bono pulled off something similar with The Joshua Tree and its lead single “With Or Without You.” U2 and their management had meticulously planted the seeds over the first four U2 albums. With The Joshua Tree, the flowers bloomed. U2’s gradual upward climb became a vertiginous spike. They took over.

Early on, U2 were not a pop-chart act. Paul Hewson, the young man who would become Bono, met his U2 bandmates at the progressive Dublin high school Mount Temple in 1976, when all of them were teenagers. (When Bono was born, the #1 song in America was Elvis Presley’s “Stuck On You.”) U2 started out under the name Feedback, playing punk covers at high-school functions. They changed their name to the Hype and then to U2. They got a boost in confidence after winning a talent contest in Limerick, and they recorded their first demo in 1978. Early attempts at landing record deals went nowhere, but U2 were always a live draw. In Dublin, U2 were playing to thousands by the end of the ’70s. Finally, they signed with Island and linked up with Steve Lillywhite, a young producer who’d worked with Siouxsie And The Banshees, the Psychedelic Furs, and Peter Gabriel.

U2 cranked out their first three albums, all produced by Lillywhite, in quick succession. All three were hits in the UK, and all three made a dent in America, thanks in part to U2’s willingness to tour relentlessly. U2 weren’t British, though they probably rode some of the waves from the Second British Invasion. They brought none of the arch distance of their new wave peers. The Police were probably the first UK new wave band to ascend to stadium status in America, and U2 had some of their textured grandeur but none of their bite. U2 would never write a song as nasty as “Every Breath You Take.” Instead, they specialized in chesty, majestic hug-the-world sincerity. At first, that style did not translate to chart-pop success. Of all the songs on those first three U2, albums, only one made the Hot 100: 1983’s “New Year’s Day,” which peaked at #53.

As word of U2’s live-show spectacle spread, the band did better on the charts and got better opportunities. U2’s 1983 show at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, recorded for the Live At Red Rocks videotape and the Under A Blood Red Sky live album, became an MTV staple, and its live version of U2’s 1980 single “I Will Follow” reached #81 on the Hot 100 in 1984. That same year, U2 went to work with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno for the first time. The latter was a former Roxy Music member and an avant-garde hero, and he made a curious fit for a band as nakedly populist as U2. But Eno did great things with the Edge’s chiming, layered guitar tones. The Unforgettable Fire peaked outside the top 10 in the US; its highest position, #12, was exactly the same as U2 had reached with 1983’s War, their previous LP. But The Unforgettable Fire gave U2 their biggest hit yet. Lead single “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” went top-five in the UK and Australia, and it peaked at #33 on the Hot 100.

After The Unforgettable Fire, U2 were big enough that Bono got the most memorable moment on the 1984 Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The next summer, U2 played Live Aid in London. In front of a global TV audience, U2 proved that they were built for stadiums. During a long, stretched-out rendition of “Bad,” Bono leapt from the stage to slow-dance with a girl in the photo pit and then reemerged onstage to sing a bit of “Ruby Tuesday” and “Walk On The Wild Side” — a sweaty in-the-moment feeling during a meticulously choreographed event. Live Aid made U2 look like a big deal. In pop music, that’s sometimes all it takes.

By the time U2 came out with 1987’s The Joshua Tree, everything was perfectly set up for the band to become conquering heroes. U2 took that task seriously. They worked to dial down the misty haze of previous records, coming up with clear and definable songs instead. Bono had been hanging out with various rock legends, and under their tutelage, he started listening to folk and country and blues, genres that had been basically alien to him. (You can’t hear a ton of that rootsy influence in The Joshua Tree, but Bono says it’s there.) The band organized the album around the vague concept of America, this mythic foreign land that so fascinated the band. They also recorded some bigass monster power ballads — the type of songs that America loved. It worked. America embraced them.

U2 put together a demo version of “With Or Without You,” the first single from The Joshua Tree, at bassist Adam Clayton’s house in the fall of 1985. The next year, with the help of Bono’s friend Gavin Friday, they nailed down the song’s arrangement while recording at a mansion in the mountains of Ireland. Some of the track’s sound came from a brand-new piece of experimental technology. In 1986, the Edge had scored Captive, a mostly-forgotten movie about a Patty Hearst type. He’d worked on the soundtrack with Sinéad O’Connor, a young Dublin singer who will eventually appear in this column, and with Michael Brook, a Canadian tinkerer with a similar feel for guitar textures.

Brook had invented a device called the Infinite Guitar — a sort of distortion effect created by replacing a guitar’s pickup with a magnet. Brook gave the Edge a prototype of the doohickey, which was probably unsafe and which could’ve easily given the guitarist a nasty electric shock. (Edge had to put the thing together himself, with instructions.) But the gadget lent Edge’s guitar a ringing, tingly sustain that he loved, and he used it on the intro of “With Or Without You.” On that intro, which takes up about half the song, edge plays softly drawn-out chords that sound a bit like synth notes and a bit like musical saws. It’s the sort of sound that feels emotional, even though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why.

Brian Eno combined that guitar sound with a programmed drum-machine beat — a steady thump that makes the actual appearance of drummer Larry Mullen that much more dramatic. U2 brought their old producer Steve Lillywhite back in to help mix the track, and Lillywhite turned the drums way up. Eno hated the loud drum sound; he thought it went against the track’s atmosphere. But that big drum sound probably helped U2’s devotional mysticism connect with the circa-1987 mainstream; it’s really the only thing that the song has in common with the other tracks that were hitting #1 around the same time.

Lyrically, “With Or Without You” is the sort of nebulous nothing that rock fans love. The song could be about romance, or God, or the relationship between musicians and fans. The specifics don’t matter; what matters is that Bono sounds like he means it. He does. Bono starts the song out declaiming his gobbledygook in a half-spoken baritone that makes everything come off vaguely poetic: “See the stone set in your eyes/ See the thorn twist in your side.” As the song builds, Bono lets his voice drift toward the upper register, catching emotionally: “With or weeeth-out you aah-aah.” He repeats again and again that you give and you give and you give yourself away. By the time the song hits its climax, Bono is going for nearly-wordless catharsis: “Oooaaah-ohhh-ahh-ahh.” It works. It all works.

In a weird way, listening to “With Or Without You” feels like having a conversation with the type of person who won’t break eye contact. In the song’s video, Bono reinforces that impression, wearing a leather vest over nothing, and smoldering hard while gazing deep into the eye of the camera. Director Meiert Avis, who would later make the 1989 Drew Barrymore thriller Far From Home, shoots him as dramatically as possible. Bono looks sexy in the video, but he also looks like he’s trying very hard to convince you to come to a church meeting with him.

I tend to fight hard against this sort of thing, this mostly-meaningless pantomime of sincerity. But I can’t deny “With Or Without You.” Edge’s guitar twinkles and phases on some evolutionary Roger McGuinn shit, essentially sharing the lead spotlight with Bono’s voice. Adam Clayton’s bass broods with muscle. Larry Mullen’s drums crash, but they crash with discipline, holding the song’s heartbeat steady. (I love that little shaker that comes in late.) Amidst all this, Bono is just a pig in shit, reveling at the chance to let his voice echo up around the cheap seats.

The sheer build of “With Or Without You” is beautiful. It hits all the marks that power ballads are supposed to hit — the soft beginning, the slow ramp-up, the eventual catharsis — but it makes those beats feel instinctive, not cynical. Nothing about “With Or Without You” feels cynical. It feels like a great unburdening, a pent-up howl at the heavens. It’s operatic nonsense, and it’s great spectacle. I couldn’t possibly deny it.

That sort of grand-gesture music resonated hard. U2 will appear in this column again, and it’ll happen soon.

RATING: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: On their 1991 split single with Jawbox, the gruff Bay Area pop-punk greats Jawbreaker covered “With Or Without You,” retitling it “With Or Without U2” and working in bits of the Misfits’ “Skulls” and the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese.” Here’s the Jawbreaker version:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: A band I really like, the Northern Irish noise-rock power trio Therapy?, covered “With Or Without You” on a 1992 7″ EP called Have A Merry Fucking Christmas, which they handed out to fans who went to their Christmas shows in Ireland that year. Therapy? intentionally made a godawful ugly mess of the song. Here’s their version:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Annapolis pop-punk kings the Pee Tanks, a band I love deeply, included their ska-punk cover of “With Or Without You” on their sole album, 1994’s Picnic With Your Mom. The night before I turned 17, I saw the Pee Tanks at a Baltimore venue called the Shufflehouse, which I think was just someone’s garage. AFI, still a hardcore band at the time, opened. The show ended when too many people got up onstage and fucked up all the equipment. I can’t remember for sure, but I think this happened during the “With Or Without You” cover. I definitely do remember that the “With Or Without You” cover went the fuck off that night. Here’s the Pee Tanks version:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “With Or Without You” playing a key role during an important Ross-and-Rachel moment on a 1994 episode of Friends:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “With Or Without You” soundtracking a sad moment on the 2018 finale episode of the great FX drama The Americans:

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