“Pride” was a key part of elevated U2 into superstardom in the 1980s, but what truly broke the band was, of course, “Bad”; specifically, the song as performed during Live Aid in 1985. Even so, it admittedly dominates side two of The Unforgettable Fire, a six-minute epic that works so much better than “Elvis Presley And America”. As a result, it’s become much more popular and recognised than the album’s title track, which was in fact the second single. Like “Pride”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and other early-period classics, though, “Bad” doesn’t especially dispel any myths or metanarratives about U2; it starts in very low-key circumstances, a solitary guitar ringing out into an ambient darkness, before it’s joined by vocals and then the rhythm section. There’s something military about it, too – the pure four-on-the-floor thump of the initial drum beat, and the way it builds into a rolling of snares and toms later on, and the lyrical mentions of burning flags and surrendering. It’s hard to imagine that this isn’t too different from War, but on a certain level it is – the elements are all there, just rearranged, and suddenly makes for something vastly different. The key element that’s come to the fore, in fact, is Adam’s bass work, which slides up and down and roundabout all over the place, giving a free element to the otherwise steady march.  Slow down the tempo, and you have something altogether more spacey, almost trippy as the blurry cymbal work arrives a little over halfway through.

And trippy is accurate, because once again the band is turning its eye towards Ireland’s heroin problem, here filtered through an individual the band knew, or at least knew of. Certainly the band are all too aware of the suffering of the comedown, the repeated refrain of I’m wide awake sounding like Bono’s actually being slowly dragged down by something life-threatening with sharp teeth. Ultimately, “Bad” is one of the few songs from The Unforgettable Fire to be about something concrete and to semi-obviously show it, which means that whilst it does contain some great imagery and lyrical devices (like the rolling list of abstract nouns – isolation, desolation…, which would also come to turn up in other forms in other U2 songs, most particularly “Walk On”), the concrete meaning makes the song dramatic and ambiguous instead of vague and platitudinous. U2 aren’t viewing the heroin wave as something to condemn, more a tragedy to mourn, which makes their message easier to take on, and thus for a better song anyway. The best song on its parent album? Quite possibly.

For the record, “Bad” is currently U2’s 11th most performed song live.


~ by 4trak on September 19, 2008.

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