The Number Ones

August 8, 1987

The Number Ones: U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

Stayed at #1:

2 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.

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U2 almost quit. Shortly after the release of their second album, 1981’s October, Bono and the Edge talked openly about wanting to leave the band and to devote themselves to less earthly concerns. Three of the four members of U2 were, and are, openly Christian. (Adam Clayton is the only holdout.) At the time, all three were heavily involved in a Dublin group called the Shalom Fellowship, and they thought that maybe they should leave music behind and pursue something meaningful instead. Their manager Paul McGuinness talked them out of it: “God doesn’t believe in breaking contracts.”

If Bono and the Edge were thinking about becoming ministers, then they almost certainly did a whole lot more for their cause by staying with U2 than they would’ve done by leaving. Six years after that crisis of faith, U2 took “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” a song that’s unambiguously about spiritual yearning, to #1 in America. In the process, U2 established a musical blueprint that a whole lot of massively successful Christian rock bands would attempt to duplicate over the next 30 years. I’m not exactly well-versed in the genre, but I don’t think any of U2’s worship-music acolytes have ever come close to the haunted majesty of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“I Still Have’t Found What I’m Looking For” was U2’s second consecutive #1 single. Before “With Or Without You,” the band had never been anywhere near the top 10 in America. But after a whole lot of touring and a series of PR breakthroughs, U2 became quite possibly the biggest rock band on the planet when The Joshua Tree landed. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” came out two months after “With Or Without You,” and it found the band in the same sort of contemplative, grandiose mode. America loved that.

The Joshua Tree isn’t a concept album, exactly, but it’s built around the idea of America as a vast, mysterious foreign land. Before getting to work on the LP, Bono had immersed himself in ancestral American music, which wasn’t a zone he’d ever explored previously. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is U2’s version of gospel. Co-producer Daniel Lanois later said that he pushed Bono to see what he could do with gospel, and the band spent time listening to extremely old music from people like the Swan Silvertones and Blind Willie Johnson. Gospel had grown and evolved in the years since the ’40s and ’50s, but U2 were drawn to the root.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” arrived at #1 a mere few months after Aretha Franklin and George Michael’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which is more or less a straight-up ’80s-style gospel song. U2 weren’t interested in that, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” couldn’t be any further removed from that sound. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” is a song of jubilation, of certainty. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” from the title on down, is more about the search for enlightenment, the emptiness that wants to be full. U2 were into the moment of solo contemplation, not the group celebration.

It’s probably also worth noting that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” made it to #1 about a year after Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie,” another vaguely sweeping religious song from another Christian rock band that doesn’t identify as a Christian rock band. But “Kyrie” sounded very much like a circa-1986 pop-rock song. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” just sounds like a U2 song.

By 1987, white rock bands had been using Black gospel as a vague indicator of authenticity for decades. Two years before “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” for instance, Foreigner brought in a gospel choir to sing on their ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is,” and they took that song to #1. That’s the hacky and obvious way to use gospel in the context of a rock song — though, to be fair, it’s often pretty effective, too. To their great credit, U2 weren’t interested in that kind of gospel-rock hybrid, though they did later dip their toes in it. While touring behind The Joshua Tree, for instance, U2 played a version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at Madison Square Garden with Harlem’s New Voices Of Freedom choir. U2 included the footage of that rehearsal in their 1988 film Rattle & Hum, and like so much about that movie, it’s equal parts cringey and awesome.

But the version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from The Joshua Tree, the one that went to #1, is a lot more thoughtful and internal than that. It’s a U2 song through and through, and the Edge’s soft ripples of guitar leave as much impression as Bono’s full-throated bleat. U2 are rightly famous for their stadium-status bombast, but “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a tender, delicate, almost human-sized song. The build is slow and deliberate, all texture and glow. There’s a moment, about halfway through, where we hear a bunch of different guitar sounds: Rhythmic clicks, soft keening wails, straightforward acoustic strums. In their totality, those guitars make a deeply comforting auditory landscape — a sound you could crawl inside and fall asleep.

Bono loves to do the prophet-intonation sing-speak thing, but he never does it on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Instead, he sings the whole song in an upper-register scrawl, sounding wracked and wounded. When Bono hits the big notes, he really belts them out, but he mostly avoids the look-at-me showboating that he does (extremely well) on so many other U2 songs. The backing vocals on the song — from the Edge, Lanois, and co-producer Brian Eno — might be trying to evoke the sound of a choir, but that’s not really how they work. Instead, those voices just add a sort of echoing expansiveness to the song, underlining Bono’s notes but never overshadowing them.

Just like “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” the lyrics for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” evoke high mountaintops and perilous terrain — standard gospel tropes. U2 also evoke temptations, like the burning desire to kiss honey lips or to hold the hand of the devil. Guilt plays heavily on U2’s song, too: “You broke the bonds, and you loosed the chains/ Carried the cross of my shame/ Of my shame/ You know I believe it.” As with so many religious artifacts, those lyrics are open to interpretation, but they convey a feeling. That feeling is need.

Bono once described “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as “an anthem of doubt more than faith.” It’s not a song about achieving spiritual fulfillment. It’s about wanting that fulfillment and not having it. There is faith in the song; Bono seems to know that the thing he’s looking for is out there, that it’s a goal worth seeking. But he really leans into the word “still” on the chorus, and maybe there’s some frustration there. Maybe that frustration — that doubt — is just a part of faith. I wouldn’t know.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a song that’s moved a whole lot of people deeply. I’m not really one of them. That has more to do with me than the song itself. I don’t have any particular faith, and I don’t feel a whole lot of longing for one, either. But the song does scratch some kind of subliminal itch. The lads in U2 are Protestant, not Catholic, but “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” still resonates somewhere on whatever leftover Catholic-guilt frequency I know I’ll never shake. It’s a beautiful song. I like it a lot. But I’ve never heard it as anything more than a beautiful song.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” wasn’t conceived as a vehicle for some kind of great spiritual unburdening for Bono. Instead, the drums came first. U2 came up with the groove for the song at a jam session. The Edge himself wan’t too into the song’s original beat; he once said it sounded like “‘Eye Of The Tiger‘ played by a reggae band.” But the band liked Larry Mullen’s drum work — the metronomic, muscular, intuitive thump thing that was and is distinctly his. Everything else came out of that. The band and the producers kept working on the song, overdubbing bits and pieces and finally turning it into the grandly swoony thing that we know today.

At first, back-to-back ballads weren’t part of the plan. U2 intended to release “Red Hill Mining Town” as the single after “With Or Without You,” but they didn’t like the sweaty, pretentious video that Irish director Neil Jordan, who’d already made Mona Lisa and who would later go on to make The Crying Game, had done for the song. (Jordan’s “Red Hill Mining Town” video was buried for years, but it’s out in the world now.)

Instead, U2 shot a video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in downtown Las Vegas while touring behind The Joshua Tree. For a quickie-replacement job, that video sure is nice. The Vegas of the late ’80s was a grimier, seedier place than it is today, and there’s an implicit contrast in setting all that spiritual yearning against a backdrop of all those blinky neon lights. Still, there’s no irony to that video. (U2 would learn irony later.) U2 seem happy to be walking around a living piece of American iconography, and the people who happened to be in Las Vegas that day all seem very psyched to see U2 walking around and filming a video. Bono hi-fives a little kid, hugs some girls, and carries himself with the same down-home charm of the politicians that he would soon befriend. He seems like he belongs.

U2 did belong. The Joshua Tree was a towering, massive achievement, both creatively and commercially. At the end of 1987, Billboard declared The Joshua Tree the #6 album of the year, and it didn’t stop selling once the year was over. Eventually, The Joshua Tree went diamond. (To date, it’s U2’s only diamond album. Achtung Baby is closest, at eight million sold.) The band started playing stadiums, and they never stopped.

In the years since “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” both reached #1, U2 have never returned to the top spot on the Hot 100. The next Joshua Tree single, “Where The Streets Have No Name,” topped out at #13. Soon afterward, U2 steered hard into authenticity fetishism on 1988’s widely mocked Rattle & Hum. That album was definitely a bit much, but it had some bangers. One of those bangers was lead single “Desire,” which peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.) “Desire” was U2’s last top-five single.

U2 stayed playful and popular through the ’90s, but they weren’t exactly a chart-pop act. The 1991 reinvention triumph Achtung Baby yielded a couple of top-10 singles, “Mysterious Ways” and “One.” (“Mysterious Ways” peaked at #9. It’s a 10. “One” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) After that, U2’s only top-10 single was 1997’s “Discothèque,” which debuted at #10 and then promptly fell off the charts. (It’s a 6.)

U2 have continued to move insane numbers of concert tickets, but they stopped making hits a long time ago. None of the songs from the band’s last two albums made the Hot 100 at all. For 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, the band can blame the misbegotten stunt where Apple put the album on everyone’s phones without permission, incurring instant and widespread backlash. 2017’s Songs Of Experience doesn’t even have that excuse.

In a way, it’s remarkable that U2 ever made any #1 singles at all. The band’s strengths — slow builds, careful textures, big vibes, messy displays of emotion — aren’t necessarily the kinds of things that lend themselves to pop-radio success. Plenty of legit stadium-rock stars never made #1 hits — or, if they did, they had to consciously crank up their most pop-friendly aspects to do it. U2 were so undeniable that they landed two #1 singles when they were at their absolute peak, and they did it by drawing the world into what they were doing, not by meeting the sound of the moment.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a U2 fan. My pop-music awakening came during the Achtung Baby era, and I bought and loved that album, just as everyone did. When I got my first CD player, Zooropa was the first compact disc I bought. But even in those early ’90s days, when the band was still at or near its creative peak, I still got a vague sense that Bono was a gladhanding gasbag. I never thought he was cool. I still don’t think he’s cool. But writing this column has given me occasion to reexamine what U2 were able to pull off with those two chart-topping singles, and it’s a pretty astonishing thing. Those singles continue to reverberate while, say, something like Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” has utterly disappeared from the universe. Few massive pop singles have endured like those U2 joints.

I’d never seen U2 live before 2011, when their giant 360 tour rolled through Chicago for the second time. Some people — friends of friends, people I didn’t even really know — had an extra ticket and asked if I wanted to go. They wouldn’t take any money, either — a good thing, especially once I learned how much those tickets cost. (Hundreds! For a seat way up on the bowl of the stadium! As someone who mostly either gets comped or goes to shows in basements that smell like socks, I was just staggered.) I never would’ve taken the necessary steps to see U2 if someone didn’t almost force that ticket into my hand. But that night, touring behind an album that I didn’t even like, U2 were incredible. They made Soldier Field feel as electric as the most jammed-in club. The show felt more like a divine visitation than I wanted to admit. I walked out of there buzzing. U2 had utterly disintegrated all my skepticism. They made a believer out of me.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Dance-pop duo the Chimes had a top-10 UK hit with their 1990 version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Here’s their video for the track:

(In the US, the Chimes’ only charting single, 1989’s “1-2-3,” peaked at #86.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1991, the San Francisco sound-collage pranksters Negativland released their U2 EP, which combined a knowingly terrible cover of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with leaked audio of Casey Kasem going on a freaked-out rant while taping an episode of American Top 40. Island Records immediately sued and forced Negativland to pull the EP, which gave the whole thing more notoriety. Here’s the Negativland take on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The singer Sharli McQueen interpolated “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on the former Fugees rapper Pras Michel’s 2005 single “Haven’t Found.” Here’s the video:

(Pras Michel’s highest-charting single, the 1998 Ol’ Dirty Bastard/Mya collab “Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are),” peaked at #15.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s U2 performing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with their fellow big-feelings stadium-rocker Bruce Springsteen at their 2005 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction:

(Bruce Springsteen’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Dancing In The Dark,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Miranda Lambert singing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with all the women on one of the shows from one of her 2019 Wildcard tour — Maren Morris, Lauren Alaina, Cassadee Pope, Lindsay Ell, and Lambert’s Pistol Annies bandmates Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — and of all of them practicing the song backstage:

(Miranda Lambert’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, the 2014 Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad,” peaked at #19. Maren Morris’ highest-charting single, the 2018 Zedd/Grey collab “The Middle,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7. Cassadee Pope’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Wasting All These Tears,” peaked at #37. Lindsay Ell’s highest-charting single, the 2019 Brantley Gilbert duet “What Happens In A Small Town,” peaked at #53. Pistol Annies’ highest-charting single, the gold-plated 2011 classic “Hell On Hells,” peaked at #55. The group also appeared on Blake Shelton’s 2013 single “Boys ‘Round Here,” which peaked at #12. That last Miranda Lambert tour was so great.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: George Michael’s sly, slippery eyebrow-waggle “I Want Your Sex” peaked at #2 behind “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” C-c-c-c-come on, it’s a 9.

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