Music

Not Fade Away: U2 Set Their Sights On America With ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on U2‘s 1983 live EP, Under A Blood Red Sky.

In 1983, to most of America, U2 was a Modern Rock band, capital “M,” capital “R.” With their heavy post-punk influences, they fit right in on that radio format with Tears For Fears, Talking Heads, David Bowie and Human League. They were known for a few MTV videos, mainly “New Year’s Day” from their War album, but also “Two Hearts Beat As One” from their prior album, October.  U2 may have had visions of world domination, but that ambition didn’t really translate to the American audience; they needed that audience to become a band on the level of their idols, the Who.

Most punk and post-punk groups of the ’80s had an anti-arena rock vibe to them, and were more comfortable in clubs; they all had to figure out how to translate their shows to larger venues. U2 had a unique problem: they were a stadium band waiting to actually get popular enough to play stadiums. Their message requires a big stage, they just needed to get there.

Their June 5, 1983, concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado would prove an important step in taking them from their underground roots and their Springsteen-ian ambitions. They filmed the show for a live “home video” (as they were called in those pre-DVD days), Live At Red Rocks; two of the songs from that would also be used for the Under A Blood Red Sky EP (which also included performances recorded in Boston and Germany). The two releases are often associated with each other, and the live video is included as a bonus disc in the 2008 Under A Blood Red Sky reissue. So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll discuss them together, as they were both a big part into exposing U2 to America as band more in the vein of Springsteen or the Who than the Cure or Joy Division.

The song from Live At Red Rocks that brought this point home was “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which got a lot of play on MTV. It conveyed Bono’s power as a frontman in a way that music videos hadn’t. The clip was aided by the opening shot, which showed Bono’s very serious looking profile surrounded by flames, while you heard his on-stage announcement (something U2 fans would get used to over the decades). “This song is not a rebel song. This song is ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.'” It sounded important. The band’s performance was Clash-like: in-your-face, but also thought provoking.

Red Rocks was the band’s biggest headlining show to date at that point: the amphitheater had a capacity of 7,000. As drummer Larry Mullen recalls in the  U2 By U2, [an oral history of the band, published in 2006], “There was a lot of money riding on this, all the money we’d made from the tour, everything that was in the bank, basically.”

They weren’t leaving anything to chance. The band’s manager, Paul McGuinness had a background in film (having worked on a 1973 Sean Connery film called Zardoz), and knew that capturing a rock band’s performance entailed more than just pointing cameras in their direction. “It was crucial to have a real rock and roll director and cameraman because the species did not exist in America. If you wanted a live video, you got a guy who shot football, and it looked like it.”

This was no small point. These performances did not look like a football game (American nor European). They looked like a tribal gathering. Credit Red Rocks’ natural beauty and the gigantic torches atop the theater. And the white flag bandied by Bono. But some credit is also due to the director, Gavin Taylor, who shot Bono and Edge from below, making them seem like Rock Gods.

Then there was the weather. On a nice day, Red Rocks is one of the most beautiful venues in America. But on June 5, 1983, it was not a nice day: in fact, it rained so much that the concert’s promoter wanted to cancel. McGuinness and the band refused to do that; they had too much riding on the show. Financially, they had everything riding on the show: there would be no “rain date.”  Happily, the weather cleared up somewhat, and the show took place after the rain passed, but a cloud of mist enveloped the venue, which worked to the band’s advantage: it gave the appearance that there was steam coming off of them during their furious performance. As The Edge said in U2 On U2, “It was like God’s dry ice.” However, the weather did deter many fans from attending the show and in fact Red Rocks was less than half-full. Again, credit the production team for shooting the audience in a way that made the place seem jam-packed (but if you watch the above videos today, you’ll notice empty seats if you look for them). 

Of course, if the band weren’t so powerful that night, none of the other factors would matter. As Anthony DeCurtis wrote in the liner notes to the Under A Blood Red Sky reissue, “What audiences learned from engaging with U2 in concert is that it is essential to care. One of the band’s great strengths is its willingness to provoke, and no one could leave one of the band’s shows without feeling energized, exercised and ready to tangle with the world to whatever end.” That’s what fans took away from both the live album and the home video. This wasn’t just a stop-gap release between albums (as, perhaps, Wide Awake In America was a few years later): it was showing potential fans something they may have missed. 

Related: Not Fade Away: 20 Years Later, How ‘Zooropa’ Changed U2

After that tour ended, U2 made the first of many stylistic left turns, hooking up with Brian Eno for their next album, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Over the years, there would be many other forks in the road, and, whatever else one might want to say about U2, you have to give them credit for often taking the road less traveled – or the road never traveled. That’s where they seem to be today: what other band still retains any relevance 30+ years after their debut? There’s no longer a roadmap for the course they’re on. 

Under A Blood Red Sky is, for sure, a great live recording. From the opening notes of “Gloria” to the end of the EP, where the crowd sings the “How long to sing this song?” refrain from “40” long after the band has left the stage, it’s an eight-song adrenaline shot; a portrait of a band still looking to prove themselves.  But it was really the home video Live At Red Rocks that truly helped U2 to get their message across. Shooting it as a piece of art (instead of as “football”) was a canny decision on the part of McGuinness, and the decision to not cancel the show was also an important one, and required some stones on the part of both band and manager. This is all worth mentioning, since Under A Blood Red Sky‘s 30th anniversary comes days after the announcement that McGuinness is stepping down from handling the day-to-day management of U2 (Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary is taking for him). He’s managed them almost since their inception and has guided them through great decisions (“chopping down the Joshua Tree” for Achtung Baby) and less great ones (the Popmart tour). Through the decades, they’ve never backed down from risky decisions, up to and including constructing a 167 foot “claw” used as the stage for their 2009 – 2011 U2 360 tour.

So, one hopes that as the band move to the next phase of their career (Related: U2 Set to Release New Album in Early 2014) that they’re still willing to take the big risks – and that they still have a team ready and able to back them up when they do. And of course, one also hopes that their new album will have songs as memorable as the ones they performed on that rainy summer night in 1983. 

Brian Ives, Radio.com 

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