Thursday, October 24, 2013

Song #398 of 9999 - Where the Streets Have No Name by U2

Song #398 of 9999

Title: Where the Streets Have No Name
Artist: U2
Year: 1987
Album: The Joshua Tree

By 1987, U2 had become popular enough to play stadium tours (in Europe, at least) and they were acutely aware of this impending engagement as they entered the studio to record The Joshua Tree. According to the exhaustive Wikipedia article on the song (wow!), The Edge (aka Dave Evans or is it the other way around?) wanted to "conjure up the ultimate U2 live-song" and set about creating what he thought the typical U2 fan craved in a life performance. And, by George, he did it. My job tonight is to shed some light on what I think makes this song big enough to fill a stadium.

To do that, I'm going to talk about the way rhythm and harmonic rhythm relate to one another in "Where the Streets Have No Name." We all know what rhythm is: those short and long notes that occur on the surface of a song. There's rhythm in the vocal line, the guitar part, the bass and (obviously) the drums. The harmonic rhythm is the speed at which the chords change as measured in rhythmic note values. So, if you were listening to a waltz and the chord changed every measure, the harmonic rhythm would be a dotted half note (3 beats). Get it?

So, here's what I think is going on with "Where the Streets Have No Name" that makes it so powerful. U2 had been playing with pulsating eighth- sixteenth-note beat patterns since their beginnings. "I Will Follow has eighth notes coursing through the song, which has a tempo somewhere around 152bpm. "Two Hearts Beat As One" exploits the sixteenth note with just a slightly slower tempo (approx. 144bpm). "Sunday Bloody Sunday," from the same record, also relies on sixteenth notes as the motor (in Mullen's hi-hat), with a much slower tempo (about 100bpm). As The Edge begins to experiment more and more with digital delay and these sixteenth notes get built into his guitar playing, they become a staple of U2's sound and tempos appear to level around that 100bpm mark (see "Pride" from Unforgettable Fire). 

I haven't really mentioned harmonic rhythm yet. Where does the rate of chord change fit in with this analysis? Well, "I Will Follow" has the whole note as its harmonic rhythm (chord changes every four beats). "Two Hearts Beat As One" changes less frequently, every eight beats, which makes sense according to my theory—the rhythmic activity on the surface has gotten busier so the underlying activity has slowed. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" has a quicker harmonic rhythm—it's variable, but about every two beats during the chorus. But remember, the tempo has slowed considerably and I believe this allows for the more frequent chord changes. And finally, "Pride" has a fairly consistent change of chord every measure (4 beats) while maintaining the reduced tempo.

What about "Where the Streets Have No Name"? Are you ever going to get to it? Right now, in fact! Once the song emerges from the church organ section (in 3/4—I never noticed!) and The Edge has established his pulsating sixteenth-note guitar riff, we get our first sense of the harmonic rhythm. Eight beats per chord during the intro, but wait! First chord of the verse: 24 beats. Eight beats each for the next several chords. On the bVII (C Major) when Bono first sings "where the streets have no name": 16 beats. During the chorus, 16-16-8-8-16.

What's my point? This a lumbering chord progression. Glacial. But the surface activity—all those sixteenth notes in the guitar, bass and drums—is like a motor fueled by explosions of energy. The song is like a rocket taking flight. It takes a lot of energy to get it moving and keep it moving because its massive. And that seems just perfect for stadium rock.

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