A REVIEW OF 'WITH OR WITHOUT YOU' BY U2
‘With or without you’ can be in many ways called the song that cemented U2 on the global stage, to where they are now regarded as among the bands that shaped the shift in rock music starting in the 80s. Ironically, it was also an idea that was almost abandoned after the lead guitarist The Edge and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno couldn’t see anything worthwhile materializing from it. The song’s inception occurred when Bono, the lead singer came up with a four chord sequence that he wanted the band to work on. Since, Bono (as he has admitted himself) isn’t a natural guitar player, it is conceivable why the band couldn’t see the potential, if it was indeed Bono who presented it. It was mainly the structure of the song they struggled with. They worked on it for 2 years, starting from the Unforgettable Fire album to 1987 where they found themselves in a rut.
As all this unfolded, Edge’s friend and fellow artist Michael Brook happened to send The Edge a prototype of the infinite guitar. It is a type of guitar that sustains the notes played, very similar to the violin. However, unlike the violin, the notes don’t fade even as they transition into the next note. As Edge was experimenting with the guitar, Bono and Gavin
Friday (a friend of Bono) were playing back the backing track of “With or Without You” in the adjacent room. A moment of magic hit the studio when Bono and Friday heard the two blend and realized they had stumbled across a brand new possibility. Playing the parts together, they discovered that this was the breakthrough they were looking for.
The song was treated with further unconventional studio recording approaches. For instance, producer Brian Eno sent the sequenced electronic drums into a Mesa Boogie guitar amplifier instead of following the conventional DI unit method for giving it a more dynamic presence in the mix. The song turned out be the turning point of the album making process, to where subsequent ideas shaped the rest of the songs. Joshua Tree went on to be ranked in the top 500 greatest albums of all time on multiple polls. As for ‘With or Without You’, it became the band’s first number hit in the US and Canada
To paraphrase Bono, this track is an unusual song. It’s just how often it has been played on the radio, that has made us accustomed to the song. The band was at the peak of their experimentation at the time with this and the previous album The Unforgettable Fire. Like the Edge admitted, the band didn’t mind risking embarrassment in hope that the bold attempts might lead them to making history. And, history is what this song made. It remains one of the most covered songs of all time, and also one of their most recognized across borders.
It’s been a huge learning experience to follow this band and their journey. ‘With or Without You’ will remain a true timeless beauty.
By Vishnu Ravindran Nair