U2 are going all out to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree this year, complete with a new super-deluxe box set and a stadium tour where they'll play the 1987 LP straight through. Lost in all the hubbub is another major U2 milestone. The 20th anniversary of 1997's Pop came and went this month without a peep from the U2 camp, but that's not really surprising. The electronica-influenced disc polarized fans and critics when it came out. With the exception of the soundtrack to their 1988 film Rattle and Hum, it was their first album that was seen as a disappointment, and it forced them to retreat back to a more traditional U2 sound for 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Looking back years later, U2 said the album was marred by their foolish decision to book a stadium tour long before it was ready. "Deadlines were looming ominously," Bono said. "Pop never had the chance to be properly finished. It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music." But during the course of the PopMart Tour they made heroic efforts to fix the thing, releasing new mixes of the songs as singles and fiddling with the live arrangements as the tour progressed. The work continued in 2002 when they released The Best of 1990–2000, which featured new mixes of some Pop songs. If you piece it all together, they practically made an entirely new version of the album. The band never did piece it all together, though, so – as promised on a recent Rolling Stone Music Now podcast – we did it for them. Here's a new version of Pop in the original sequence. It's not better – it's just different.
To be clear, we're not saying here that Pop is a bad album. We love it. (The poster has proudly hung in this writer's childhood bedroom for the past 20 years.) This is just a way to hear what it may have sounded like had U2 had a little more time to work on it.
The first taste that the world got of Pop was "Discothèque," which they promoted with a video where the group dressed up like the Village People. This was a far cry from "With or Without You" and many fans that happily stuck around for Achtung Baby and even Zooropa were a little stunned. But the song was one of the few Pop tracks to get a live airing after PopMart, and in 2002 the band remixed it for The Best of 1990-2000. It's not a radically different take on the track, but it is a bit more polished and shows how the song developed on the road.
The second tune on Pop was cut just after just six shows on the PopMart Tour, never to be heard again:"Do You Feel Loved" . It has the same flavor of "Discothèque," but it didn't have nearly the same impact. "We wanted to make it a sexy, groovy song," said Bono. "And we nearly did. The whispered voice in the verse doesn't quite take off." Here's one of the few live versions. It's got more of a forceful vocal, but it's clear why it didn't last long.
The trio of electronica songs that kicks off Pop culminates with "Mofo," and it's inarguably the best of the bunch. "It was as if my whole life was in that song," said Bono. "Electronic blues death rattle. It takes the cliché insult 'motherfucker' and turns it into something raw and confessional." It opened up every single night of the PopMart Tour, and by the time the band hit Mexico the song was something extraordinary. Certain songs just need to be experienced in concert.
Much like Neil Young's 1982 LP Trans, Pop didn't quite have the courage to stick to its bold concept straight through. After three songs it went right back to a more classic U2 sound with "If God Will Send His Angels." The track could have possibly been a radio hit, but it was the fifth single from the album. By that time nobody cared. The song survived through the first U.S. leg of PopMart before getting the boot in favor of older hits. It found a new audience the following year when it appeared on the City of Angels soundtrack. Millions of people bought that thing to hear "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls, and a shortened "If God Will Send His Angels" with a slightly altered arrangement was the first song.
U2 released "The Fly" as the first single form Achtung Baby, knowing they had an ace in the hole with "One." They thought they had another "One" on deck with "Staring at the Sun," but when it came out as the second single it crapped out at Number 26 on the U.S. Hot 100. The song totally fell apart on the opening night of the tour, and before long the band stripped it down to just Bono and the Edge on twin acoustic guitars. This take soars in a way the album version didn't. Had they had a little more time they might have presented it this way on the album. It's a good lesson to never book a tour before an album is done.
As if they didn't have enough problems, Bono dealt with major vocal issues during the recording of Pop. His condition made the recording of "Last Night on Earth" very difficult. "My voice was completely shot [when we recorded 'Last Night on Earth],'" said Bono, "which is why we put so much echo on it and Edge sang along with me to cover it up." They played the song every night during PopMart, when Bono was in much better vocal shape.
"'Gone' is another one I had high hopes for," the Edge said. "But it always sounded better on acoustic guitar." We've yet to hear the acoustic "Gone," but the band did remix it for The Best of 1990–2000. That's a fine version, but it can't touch what they did with it on the 2001 Elevation Tour. The group were in the middle of a major comeback thanks to "Beautiful Day," but they occasionally dragged out "Gone" as if to show Pop wasn't as bad as everyone thought. The Edge got pissed at the end of a fierce one during the taping of the Boston show. It was one of the best moments of the night even if most people in the arena probably didn't know the song.
U2 headed to Miami during the middle of the Pop sessions to unwind for a few days and find new inspiration. Unfortunately, the main thing they got from the vacation was this crappy song about the city. Why they felt it deserved 62 live performances on PopMart is beyond us, but they finally put it out of its misery after a show in Miami.
There are just two bad songs on Pop, and they happen to come back-to-back. This is the worst of the two with cringe-inducing lyrics that reference Michael Jackson's History album and O.J. Simpson. "It was supposed to be a Pop Art anthem but its contemporary references work against it," Bono said. "Jokes about Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson just aren't funny anymore." They weren't funny then. The band never did the song live, but an early take from the 1996 Pop sessions (minus the lame pop-culture jokes) did surface on the Internet. As you can hear, they had a seed of a good song in there.
"If You Wear That Velvet Dress" (Bono and Jools Holland, 2002)
"It wanted to be a lounge classic," Bono said. "It ended up in an airport lounge as background noise." He's being a little hard on the song here and it did work when they played it live right before "With or Without You." Five years later, Bono totally re-recorded it with Jools Holland and finally turned it into the lounge classic he originally hoped it would be.
With a little more time "Please" could have been the best song on Pop. The anthemic tune was written after Bono got into a conversation with someone that sympathized with the IRA's bombing campaign in Ireland. It's a plea for sanity in the middle of war. "It is a great song," said Larry Mullen Jr. "I don't feel like it was finished." Knowing they'd botched something special, U2 remixed it for the single release, but it wasn't enough to get any radio play or MTV love. The song got a new life on the Elevation Tour after 9/11. We'd include a version from that tour here had the band not played "Please" on the 1997 VMAs. U2 were deep in the PopMart shit by this point and Bono buried himself in a hoodie, but he'd never sung the song better. He simply couldn't compete with Puff Daddy bringing out Sting, the Wallflowers duetting with Bruce Springsteen on "One Headlight" or Marilyn Manson ending the night with "The Beautiful People," though. This wasn't the band's moment in the pop-cultural sun.
Pop begins with the party of "Discothèque" and wraps up with the funeral of "Wake Up Dead Man." There's something quite surreal and cool about the Pop version, but on the 2001 Elevation Tour it found new life when the band played a stripped-down take on it right before "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."