U2’s The Edge: The "Unforgettable Fire" Interview
While on Tour, The Edge Hears a Voice in the Desert
One of the most memorable concerts I’ve seen was U2 at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on March 7, 1985. The Irish band opened with “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” “I Will Follow,” and “Seconds,” and then plunged into songs from their just-released The Unforgettable Fire. They played magnificent versions of the title track, “MLK,” “Wire,” “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” They interspersed earlier songs, bringing the audience to its feet time and again with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “The Electric Co.,” “October,” and “New Year’s Day.” Deafening cheers echoed long after they’d left the stage, but the best was yet to come.
When U2 retook the stage, Bono grabbed the microphone and told the audience that people don’t need fancy equipment to touch people with their music. All you need is one guitar and a song. He asked if anyone in the audience played guitar. Countless hands shot up into the air. Bono reached down and pulled a teenager out of the crowd and up onto the stage. A roadie strapped a guitar onto him as Bono called out the easy chords to Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The youth, who was unknown to the band, stood alongside Bono as U2 began the song. One by one, Larry Mullen’s drums, Adam Clayton’s bass, Edge’s guitar, and Bono’s voice dropped out, until all that was left was the young man strumming the guitar with ten thousand people singing along. It was the single most transcendent moment I’ve seen at a concert. U2 concluded the show with “Gloria” and “40.”
An Irish journalist had recently sent Guitar Player magazine an interview with Edge, which we were planning to run as the June ’85 cover story. After seeing the show, though, I felt there was more to cover. I called U2’s management in Dublin and put in a request to speak to Edge. I didn’t hear anything back and a week later left San Francisco to spend several days hiking in the desert. On March 21, 1985, I was visiting friends in Las Cruces, New Mexico, when their phone rang. “Hey, Jas,” someone said, “a guy with an Irish accent wants to talk to you.”
This is Edge here, from U2.
Hey, thanks for the call.
Yeah. I had the wrong number, unfortunately. I got through to the paper, but they put me right.
I have the story the fellow in Ireland wrote, and it’s very good, but there are some things I’d like to add to it.
Is it an exaggeration to imply, as some accounts have done, that the four of you got together one day, picked up your instruments, and sounded like a U2 album?
That’s an exaggeration, but we did get together and decide to be a group and none of us could play – that was the important thing. In developing music ability, it developed into a sound. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that it all happened on the first day.
Did you have to go through a period of editing your playing? Were you ever one to play long solos?
Well, no. From the very beginning, our music was very trim. The solos that I took were very short. And unlike the sort of solos that more guitar players were doing at that stage, they were quite melodic. And I used to use quite a lot of harmonized strings, even in my solos, like droning, say, the E string against something I was doing on the B string. It had quite an interesting sound. It was sort of almost 12-stringish in sound sometimes. I didn’t use a very distorted sound; it was a very clean sound. It really needed more than just one-string solos of, you know, the blues variety. That sort of thing didn’t work, and also it didn’t really interest me very much because it was being done so well by other people.
When you met the rest of the band, had you been playing for a while?
No, not at all. I owned a small acoustic guitar, but I didn’t own an electric guitar. In fact, the reason that the band happened was because Larry had some drums and decided he wanted to get together with some other guys to form a sort of garage group. Another one of my friends was already in a garage group, playing drums, so it just seemed like it was a really great idea to get a group together. So we decided to get the group together, and it was at that stage that I went out and bought an electric guitar. I didn’t own one until then. I mean, this is our first group and our only group. None of us have been in other bands.
Do you play in any styles that haven’t shown up with U2, music that you do by yourself?
That I do by myself? Well, I work very hard in the studio at my lines. Nothing with this band comes without a lot of work. So I suppose I could play in any style, but not to a very high standard. But the most important thing with this group is that everything we do, we try and maintain a certain originality, a certain challenge. Therefore, there’s a high level of rejection for lines and for songs as well.
Do you ever come up with ideas before you find them on the instrument, like somebody will sing a line?
Not actual melodies. They tend to be definitely a product of playing. But what does happen is ideas for new sounds, new approaches to the guitar, do come before I start. On this album [The Unforgettable Fire] I was using quite a lot of damped strings, using gaffer tape or stuff, a lot of bottleneck, different pickups. I have an acoustic guitar that has already got an in-built C-ducer-style pickup, but I put a normal regular acoustic guitar pickup on it, and that’s had some interesting sounds.
Are you exploring any new techniques?
Well, there’s one thing I’m thinking about, which isn’t actually my idea, so I don’t know whether I should explain it fully, but it’s a guitar that plays itself. [Laughs.] It’s one that you just depress the string and you get infinite sustain having plucked the string once. I haven’t actually perfected it or finalized the physics involved, but the principle should work [laughs], so I can’t wait to try that. What else? Well, I suppose that’s about it just at the moment.