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Classic Rock Landmarks: Where The Streets Have No Name

A Deep Dive into the Iconic Songs that Changed our Lives

Where the Streets Have No Name

Have I told you about the time I was in a Grammy-winning U2 video?

No? Well, pull up a chair and I’ll share it with you. It goes along with the story of one of rock music’s all-time most enduring songs: U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the opening track from their 1987 album The Joshua Tree.

It was March 27, 1987 — 36 years ago this month, as these words are being written — and I was a young associate editor for a music industry newspaper called Radio & Records. It was a Friday, and as I drove to work I thought about how much I needed to accomplish that day, hoping I could get it done in time to enjoy my Friday night. I walked in at about 8am and almost immediately one of my workmates asked if I’d heard the news?

What news?

“You’re a U2 fan, right?” she said.

“Huge U2 fan. Why?”

“They just announced that they’re filming a video on the roof of a liquor store downtown this afternoon,” she said.

Wait. What?

The Joshua Tree had been released a couple of weeks earlier, and I was already well-versed on the album’s 11 tracks, most notably its dark and brooding first single, “With or Without You,” and its slow-building guitar explosion of an opener, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I knew nothing of repeating guitar arpeggios or delay effects, but I knew damn well that when The Edge’s percussive, insistent guitar faded in after about 45 seconds of synthesizer tease, and Adam Clayton’s bass and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums burst out of the speakers at the 1:10 mark, this song was something to behold. When Bono’s voice finally appeared nearly two full minutes into the song, his first words — “I wanna run” — felt more like a summons than a lyric. With all that epic music driving those words, like many of my fellow U2 fans I suspect, I too wanted to run. Run like the wind, run with reckless abandon, run the way children run for the sheer joy of running. “I wanna run/I want to hide/I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.” Bono has since disparaged those words (“‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is not a great lyric,” he’s said. “I just wouldn’t have rhymed ‘hide’ with ‘inside.’”), but to this writer’s way of hearing them, those words were expansive, cathartic, liberating.

And now you tell me they’re filming a video for the song in downtown LA? Today? On the roof of a liquor store? And we’re all invited?

Uh, oh. I had a very full day in front of me. To get from my office in Century City to downtown LA was only a half-hour drive with no traffic, but this was downtown LA on a Friday. There would not be no traffic. Filming was scheduled to start at 3pm, so I figured I should leave by noon. A tall order, but this was U2, and this was “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This was going to be a chance-in-a-lifetime, and there was zero chance that I was going to miss it.

With my boss’s blessing, I hurried through the things that couldn’t wait until Monday, and somehow as the clock struck noon I was on my way. This was before Google and downtown was a place to be avoided back then, so I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going, but an hour later I was pulling into a public parking lot a block or so away from the intersection where nirvana awaited.

“Where the Streets Have No Name” was known only at this point to ardent U2 fans, those who had already bought the CD or maybe heard it here and there on the radio. No one knew the background yet, about how it took them weeks to record it, how co-producer Brian Eno, nearly erased the tapes so that the band would be forced to start over and approach it fresh; he thought this might be easier than plodding on with what they’d done so far.

But let’s back up, let’s go to where and when it started. “Where the Streets Have No Name” started as a demo in an upstairs room at The Edge’s new Melbeach House. Working with a four-track tape machine, he laid down keyboards, bass, guitar, and a drum machine. U2 was nearly finished with the recording of what would become The Joshua Tree, and they were set to return to the studio the next day. As The Edge thought about what the album still needed, he imagined “the ultimate U2 live-song”; he put himself in the perspective of being a U2 fan in the crowd at a concert and let his mind’s-ear capture a sound that he would want to hear.

So enthralled was The Edge by what he came up with — “the most amazing guitar part and song of [my] life” — that he reportedly danced around, thrusting his hand into the air in exultation. The same as U2 fans the world over do at U2 shows. The band loved the demo when The Edge played it for them. But what to do with it? “At the time it sounded like a foreign language,” said Clayton. With multiple time signature shifts and a bevy of chord changes, they struggled mightily to get a performance they liked. Co-producer Daniel Lanois has called it “the science project song. I remember having this massive schoolhouse blackboard, as we call them. I was holding a pointer, like a college professor, walking the band through the chord changes like a f#@king nerd. It was ridiculous.”

“It took so long to get that song right, it was difficult for us to make any sense of it,” Mullen Jr. later said. “It only became a truly great song through playing live. On the record, musically, it’s not half the song it is live.”

And then there are Bono’s words, an open-ended idea that he scribbled on an airsickness bag in an Ethiopian village while he was on a humanitarian visit after his life-altering experience performing at Live Aid. Oddly, what inspired the words to “Where the Streets Have No Name” weren’t what he witnessed or felt in that Ethiopian village, but rather how he’d heard that in Belfast, Northern Ireland, you could tell a person’s religion and income by which street he or she lived on. With that idea as a backdrop, Bono thought about how different that was from this village in Ethiopia. “The guy in the song recognizes this contrast and thinks about a world where there aren’t such divisions, a place where the streets have no name.” It’s a song about “transcendence, elevation,” he’s said. “‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it’s a sketch — I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling.”

Thirty years later Bono still felt that his lyrics were incomplete. “I was going to go back and write it out,” he said in a 2017 interview. The Edge will have none that; Bono is just “very hard on himself,” The Edge has said of his bandmate of nearly 50 years.

But I didn’t know any of that as I made my way to 7th Street and Main Street in one of downtown LA’s rougher neighborhoods. What I knew was that “Where the Streets Have No Name” was a masterpiece with the makings of an ageless classic.

By the time the band hit that roof (shades of The Beatles in 1969) there were 1,000 or so of us on the sidewalks below. As the four members, all between 25 and 27, gazed down at us, the energy and mutual love was palpable. The video shows U2 performing “Where the Streets Have No Name” as a host of local radio DJs describe the day’s events surrounding the shoot. Eventually, predictably, LA’s finest ultimately pulled the plug on the filming. By then we had all encroached upon the intersection, stopping traffic in four directions on two of LA’s busy streets.

But so much more happened that day. U2 performed “Where the Streets Have No Name” four times on that roof, but they also performed “People Get Ready,” “In God’s Country,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” In all, we saw roughly an hour of U2 live on that roof. And when it ended without warning, U2 was singing the chorus of “Pride (In the Name of Love).” And so were we in the streets below. The police may have silenced the band, but they didn’t silence the crowd. I’ll never forget the looks of joy and what must have been feelings of connectedness on the faces of Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry that day as 1,000 people continued to sing, repeatedly, “In the name of love/One more in the name of love” back up at them.

That video went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Performance Music Video.

Many years later, I happened to see the video again and for the first time I saw something that I had somehow missed in all the times I’d seen it before. At the 2:16 mark, as the band has just exploded into the intro’s full instrumentation, the camera pans the crowd and captures this writer onscreen for a second.

And that’s the story about the time I was in a Grammy-winning U2 video.

Bono may have reservations about the quality of his words in “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but in 2005 he perfectly summed up why there is so much more to those words than his disdain for rhyming “hide” with “inside.” “It’s a sort of odd, unfinished lyric,” he told Rolling Stone, “and outside of the context of Africa, it doesn’t make any sense. But it contains a very powerful idea. In the desert, we meet God. In parched times, in fire and flood, we discover who we are.”

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U2 – “Where the Streets Have No Name” (Official Music Video)

U2 – “Where the Streets Have No Name” (Live from Slane Castle, Ireland 2001)

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When Jim Nelson began his radio career in Los Angeles — on the air and producing and writing national shows PowerCuts and In the Studio — much of what we think of today as Classic Rock was still new. Then, just as the grunge era was beginning, he started his second career as a music writer. Since 1978, he’s interviewed...

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