Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Three). “I Can’t Believe the News Today …”

Derry is a small town in Northern Ireland, the home to approximately 100,000 people.  Derry has a dark past.  In 1970, the British Army had entered Northern Ireland to keep the peace at the height of The Troubles.  On the 9th August, 1971, Internment had been introduced by The British Government and the Unionist Government in Northern Ireland.  In the small hours of the morning, those suspected of being IRA members were subjected to their houses being raided and being put in prison with no trial, completely bypassing the judicial system.  On the 30th January 1972, British soldiers shot twenty six unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and The Northern Resistance Movement.   Fourteen people were killed.  Thirteen were killed outright whilst another man died four and a half months later due to the injuries he sustained.  Many of the victims were shot whilst fleeing from the soldiers, whilst others were shot trying to help the wounded.  Two protestors were also injured when they were run down by army vehicles.  This bleak event in the history of Northern Ireland became known as Bloody Sunday.

Move forward eleven years and Northern Ireland was still in the grips of The Troubles.  A young band from Dublin begins to play a song.  Starting with a militaristic drum beat which evokes image of soldiers and guns and almost makes the listener feel as though they were there on Bloody Sunday even before the vocals begin, this song is Sunday Bloody Sunday and the band is U2.

Sunday Bloody Sunday, from U2’s third album War (1983), grew from a guitar riff written by guitarist the Edge in 1982.  Whilst singer Bono and new wife Ali Hewson were on their honeymoon in Jamaica, the Edge was in Ireland working on the music for what would become the War album.  Following an argument with his girlfriend and a period of self doubt over his abilities as a songwriter, the Edge channelled his frustration into what would become Sunday Bloody Sunday, writing the first draft of the song’s lyrics.  Bono rewrote the Edge’s lyrics, which started with the line “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA, UDA”, fearing that the original lyrics would be misinterpreted to be sectarian thus placing them in danger.  Instead of the original potentially volatile opening line, Sunday Bloody Sunday starts with the line, “I can’t believe the news today”, evocative of the prevailing response to the violence in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.  Thus, with this still powerful opening line, Sunday Bloody Sunday became U2’s equivalent of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967), which starts with the line, “I read the news today, oh boy”.

Despite the way in which Sunday Bloody Sunday is often perceived as a protest song, something heavily disputed by the band, the song actually takes the viewpoint of somebody outside of the violence who is horrified at the cycle of violence in the province and the effect it has on people.  Sunday Bloody Sunday links together the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 1920, where British troops fired into the crowd at a football match in retaliation for the killing of British undercover agents.  The band has said that the song is not specifically about either event.  Sunday Bloody Sunday is more a condemnation of the glorification of violence, common with those involved in it and those supporting it in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.  In an interview with Lucy White in 1983, Larry Mullen Jr said of the song:

“We’re into the politics of people, we’re not into politics.  Like you talk about Northern Ireland, Sunday Bloody Sunday, people sort of think, ‘Oh, that time when thirteen Catholics were shot by British soldiers’; that’s not what the song is about.  That’s the incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it’s the strongest way of saying, ‘How long?  How long do we have to put up with this?’  I don’t care who’s who – Catholics, Protestants, whatever.  You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying why?  What’s the point?  And you can move that into place like El Salvador and other similar situations – people dying.  Let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it … There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc.  Well, so what!  The real battle is people dying, that’s the real battle”.

At a concert filmed the night of the IRA Enniskillen bombing on the 8th November, Bono backed up this viewpoint, saying:

“I’ve had enough of Irish-Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years coming up to talk to me about the resistance, the resistance back home.  And the glory days of the revolution.  FUCK THE REVOLUTION!  They don’t talk about the glory of killing for the revolution.  What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and children?  Where’s the glory in that?  Where’s the glory in bombing a remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day?  Where’s the glory in that?  To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead.  Under the rubble of a revolution.  That, the majority of people in my country don’t want.  No  more!”

The song also links the events of both Bloody Sundays to Easter Sunday, paraphrasing religious text from Matthew 10:35 in the line “Mothers children; brothers, sisters torn apart” and twisting 1 Corinthians 15:32 to fit around the theme of Bloody Sunday in the line “We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”.  The chorus of Sunday Bloody Sunday, the opening track on War, is echoed in the album’s closing track 40, which is a heavily based on Psalm 40.

The chorus of “How long, how long must we sing this song …” rhetorically pleads with those involved in the killing of innocent people and the glorification of such atrocities over the course of The Troubles.  What became known as The Troubles lasted between 1960 and the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 but in reality, Ireland has seen bloody clashes since the 1600s and continues to see sporadic violence, such as the Massereene Barracks Shooting in 2009.

Throughout Sunday Bloody Sunday, disturbing images of violence abound.  In verse two of the song, “Broken bottles under children’s feet” refers to the combatants’ use of Molotov Cocktails during The Troubles and “Bodies strewn across the dead end street”.  These lines are followed by Bono’s insistence that he affiliates with no side in the conflict and that he and the band are simply against violence:  “But I won’t heed the battle call, It puts my back up, Puts my back up against the wall”.  Later in the song, we see the lines “And the battle’s just begun, There’s many lost but tell me who has won”.   Between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed as a result of The Troubles.  “The trench is dug within our hearts, And mothers, children, brothers, sisters Torn apart” Bono continues, telling of the devastating effects of death, political and religious difference and imprisonment.  The lines, “Cause tonight, we can be as one, Tonight, Tonight” end this section of the song with a powerful cry for unity and an end to the bloodshed and misery.

In the final verse of the song, Bono tells of the effect of media manipulation on conflicts with the lines “And it’s true we are immune, When fact is fiction and TV reality”.  The band itself grew up in Dublin, Republic of Ireland where the violence of Northern Ireland didn’t impact them in terms of seeing it firsthand but more through media coverage, relating back to the song’s opening lyric, “I can’t believe the news today”.  Therefore, much like most other people listening to the song, he is taking the viewpoint of simply seeing second hand accounts of the violence.  Bono has said of the day of Bloody Sunday in an article for The New York Times in 2010:

“It was a day when my father stopped taking our family across the border to Ulster because, as he said, the “Nordies have lost their marbles”.  And we were a Catholic-Protestant household”.

The band end the last verse of song on a religious note, neatly linking the events in Northern Ireland to Easter Sunday and calling for an end to the violence with the lines, “The real battle just begun, To claim the victory Jesus won on …” before returning to the chorus for the full effect of the “How long …” refrain.  This refrain has been used to great effect in concert during The Troubles and other conflicts around the world, often being played as the final song of the set, with the audience continuing to sing it long after the band have left the stage.  Also greatly effective in live performances was Bono waving a white flag whilst performing the song, both as a call for peace and to ward off unwanted politically-motivated attention for the song.

U2 have returned to the subject of The Troubles several times throughout their career, most notably on the song Please, from 1997’s Pop album. The song is about the ongoing Northern Ireland Peace Process and in particular, the lack of resolution from the talks.  When Please was released as the fourth single from the album, the sleeve featured pictures of four Northern Irish politicians – Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Ian Paisley and John Hume.  In the song’s fourth verse, we find the lines “Your holy war” referring to The Troubles and “Your northern star” referring to Northern Ireland.  These lines are followed by an allusion to car bombs in the lines “Your sermon on the mount, From the boot of your car”.

In the final verse of Please, Bono sings: “September … streets capsizing … Spilling over, down the drain … Shards of glass splinters like rain, But you can only feel your own pain … October … talking getting nowhere … November … December … remember, Are we just starting again?”  These lines juxtapose the difficulties in coming to a peace agreement with images of violence in The Troubles, which were still continuing.

Please could be seen as the sequel to Sunday Bloody Sunday, perhaps approached with more maturity but also more cynicism.  Bono has now gone past the point of screaming for peace and sounds positively exhausted, at his wit’s end pleading with those involved in The Troubles to find a resolution.

Around the same time as Bono penned the lyrics for Please, he and the Edge collaborated with Christy Moore on the equally mournful and pleading North and South of the River, also influenced by The Troubles.  The song was recorded during the Pop sessions and released on the B-side of the album’s second single, Staring at the Sun in 1997.  The band played the song live for the 1998 television benefit for the victims of the Omagh bombing.  To date, this is the only time the song has been played live.

For their All That You Can’t Leave Behind album, released in 2000, the band were inspired by The Troubles once again.  Peace on Earth was directly influenced by the Omagh bombing on the 15th August 1998.  The car bombing was carried out by the Real IRA, an IRA splinter group who opposed the IRA’s ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement.  The bomb killed 29 people and injured about 220 others, making it the highest death toll from a single incident during The Troubles.  Telephoned warnings had been received approximately 40 minutes before the incident but the details conveyed by those responsible were inaccurate and as a result, the police had inadvertently moved people towards the bomb.

During the song, Bono pays tribute to the victims of the bombing, reading out several of the names of people killed in the highly moving verse:  “They’re reading names out over the radio, All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know, Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Breda, Their lives are bigger, than any big idea”.  Similarly, the song makes reference to the funeral of victim James Barker in the lines “She never got to say goodbye, To see the colour in his eye, Now he’s in the dirt”.  The Irish Times had quoted James Barker’s mother as saying, “I never realised how green his eyes were”.  Peace on Earth gained further meaning in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks when the band performed the song as an encore, usually coupled with Walk On from the same album, during their Elevation Tour.

After the anger and frustration of Sunday Bloody Sunday and the emotional appeal of Please, Peace on Earth, although also political, finds Bono at crisis point.  In Peace on Earth, Bono expresses that ‘Peace on Earth’ is simply a saying that is thrown around with no actual meaning.  As much as the singer despises war, he finds the concept of people saying that there will be peace on Earth difficult.  Peace on Earth is Bono attempting to come to terms with the seemingly impossible nature of peace.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Two).

From the very inception of the band, U2 have had a longstanding fascination with Biblical imagery.  Take for example, Gloria from October (1981) with its chorus of “Gloria in te Domine, Gloria exultate …” which translates as “Glory in you, Lord, Glory exalt (him)”, with “exalt” in the imperative, a reference to Psalm 30:2.  Gloria also contains references to Colossians 2:9 – 10 in the line “Only in You I’m complete” and James 5:7 – 9 in the lines “The door is open, You’re standing there” amongst other references.  40, the final song from War (1983) is also overtly Biblical, being based on Psalm 40.  Until the End of the World from Achtung Baby (1991) takes a different stance to other religious songs in the U2 canon.  Whereas previously, U2 had simply made Biblical reference, Until the End of the World, inspired by Luke 22:47, is a fictitious account of events based around a Bible story.

The lyrics of Until the End of the World describe a conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot.  The first verse of the song tells of The Last Supper:  “We were as close together as a bride and groom, We ate the food, we drank the wine, Everybody having a good time”.  The use of the term “bride and groom” is a reference to Christ and the Church and in turn, a reference to Ephesians, where Paul speaks of the Church being a bride for Christ, the groom:

“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the Church” – Ephesians 28 – 29.

The second verse finds Judas identifying Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Where Bono sings “I took the money, I spiked your drink, You miss too much these days if you stop to think”, he refers to the way in which, according to the Scriptures, Judas was the keeper of the purse.  Those who are good with money are often good with numbers and ‘thinkers’.  Judas’s intelligence is what is keeping him from seeing the Kingdom of Heaven:

“And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”. – Matthew 18: 2 – 4.

In Until the End of the World, Judas says, “In the garden I was playing the tart”.  If we take “tart” to mean ‘prostitute’, one meaning of which is to put oneself to an unworthy or corrupt use for personal or financial gain, then he is referring to the way in which by betraying Jesus for thirty silver coins, he has prostituted himself thus relinquishing his right to a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.  When Bono sings, “I spiked your drink”, the drink he is referring to could be interpreted as being Jesus’ blood and the spike could be taken to mean ‘a nail’.  Therefore, this could be a reference to the way in which Judas, by betraying Jesus (“I kissed your lips and broke your heart”) has condemned him to death.

The third verse of the song is about Judas’s suicide after being overwhelmed by guilt and sadness.  The final line, “You said you’d wait ‘til the end of the world” refers to The Final Judgement.  By placing the listener in the position of Judas Iscariot, Bono cleverly creates a song about the cleansing of the soul through pity and fear.

U2 continue to pay homage to the stories of the Bible to this day, with almost every song having some sort of Biblical connotation.  Examples of later Biblical references in U2 songs include the lines “The heart is in bloom, Shoots up through the stony ground” in Beautiful Day from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) which is based on Isaiah 52:3:  “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground”.  In the same song we find the lines “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth” which was inspired by Genesis 8: 10-11:  “[Noah] waited seven days more and again sent the dove out from the ark. In the evening the dove came back to him, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! So Noah knew that the waters had lessened on the earth”.  Amongst the wealth of Biblically inspired songs in U2’s repertoire, Until the End of the World stands out as it takes the Bible story and tells it from a different perspective, that of Judas, in order to put a new spin on the events.

As a footnote, one of Bono’s alter-egos on the Zoo TV Tour, which accompanied Achtung Baby, was MacPhisto.  MacPhisto was Bono’s interpretation of the Devil.  The Zoo TV Tour satirised television oversaturation in order to draw attention to the desensitising effect of mass media.  Explaining MacPhisto during a 2004 speech, Bono said:

“To serve the age, one must betray it … or something like that … To me, betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes.  It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths.  Every age has its massive moral blind spots”.

By taking on the guise of Judas in Until the End of the World and MacPhisto (the Devil) on the Zoo TV Tour, Bono not only uses the Bible as a device to talk about his Christian faith, he is also linking it to the ideas addressed on the Achtung Baby album and Zoo TV Tour in order to make a statement about an age of moral corruption.  Just as Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, Bono is betraying the age in which Achtung Baby and Zoo TV was born into by fully embracing it, exposing its weaknesses.  Judas was obsessed and driven by money, as is the modern world.  Therefore, by adopting the character of Judas on Until the End of the World, Bono is making a statement about the greed of the modern world.

It is also important to note the influence of recording in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the country’s reunification.  Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet East Germany was seen as the poor side of Germany and West Germany was seen as the more prosperous.  This obviously influenced the band and can be seen in the cover art of the album.  For example, the sleeve prominently features the utilitarian Trabant motor car built in East Germany juxtaposed with the much more luxurious Mercedes motor car built in the richer West Germany.  On one of the album’s sleeve photos, a Trabant owner looks jealously at an obviously better dressed and richer Mercedes driver.

“Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” – Galatians 5:26.

See also the song So Cruel with it’s allusion to the death of Jezebel.  In the song, Bono sings, “Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot”, referring to 2 Kings 9:33: “Throw her down!” Jehu said.  So they threw her down, and some of her blood splattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot”.

Is what we are seeing here a comment on sin in the modern world?   In the Bible, sin is described as “transgression of the law of God” (1 John 3:4) and “rebellion against God” (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18).  Sin had it’s beginning with Lucifer: Enter MacPhisto.

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” – Isaiah 14:12.

So with Achtung Baby, do we find a lyricist who, in the modern age of consumerism, is struggling with his faith?  Until the End of the World and other songs on the album with their tales of sin and corruption and the Zoo TV Tour’s comment on the way in which television had blurred the lines between news and entertainment, truth and fiction and right and wrong over the previous decade would suggest that Bono was questioning whether his beliefs were viable in the ever-evolving modern world filled as it is with moral and spiritual disintegration.  On the title track of U2’s follow up album Zooropa (1993), amidst a barrage of advertising slogans such as “Vorsprung durch technik” (Audi); “Be a winner” (The UK Lottery) and “Be all that you can be” (the US Army), Bono would sing, “And I have no religion, And I don’t know what’s what, And I don’t know the limit, The limit of what we’ve got”.  Further on into the Zooropa album, on Stay (Faraway, So Close), there is the equally telling lyric, “Just the bang And the clatter As an angel Hits the ground”.