On this date in 1987, just 18 days after the release of U2’s fifth studio album, THE JOSHUA TREE, the Dublin, Ireland band found itself on the rooftop of a one-story building on a very warm day in downtown Los Angeles, shooting a music video for a song from the new album.
The music video was for the album’s third single, “Where The Streets Have No Name,” and was inspired by The Beatles’ 1969 rooftop concert, better known as the final public performance for the band, which was later featured in the 1970 documentary film, LET IT BE.
The band was on the roof of a liquor store to shoot “Where The Streets Have No Name,” and through local DJs like the legendary Rick Dees, word got out fast that U2 was performing a concert downtown. Over a thousand people showed up for the shoot, and the whole thing caused traffic and security issues for the city.
According to a 2007 comment from U2’s longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, the confrontation with the Los Angeles Police Dept. was exaggerated, and that the band was hoping to get shut down to create more drama for the video. U2 ended up playing an eight-song set, including four performances of “Where The Streets Have No Name” (although the studio version was actually used for the video instead of a live version). The video won the band a Grammy Award for Best Performance in a Music Video in 1989, and it was nominated for four videos at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards. It’s one of my all-time favorite videos.
As for the song itself, according to U2.com, Bono’s lyrics were inspired by a story he had heard about the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, where a person’s religion and income are evident by the street they live on.
In a 1987 HOT PRESS interview with THE JOSHUA TREE’s co-producer, Daniel Lanois, the song was “was the science project song. I remember having this massive schoolhouse blackboard, as we call them. I was holding a pointer, like a college professor, walking the band through the chord changes like a fucking nerd. It was ridiculous.”
In 2006, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. said, “It took so long to get that song right, it was difficult for us to make any sense of it. It only became a truly great song through playing live. On the record, musically, it’s not half the song it is live.”
“Where The Streets Have No Name” didn’t repeat the U.S. No. 1 success of THE JOSHUA TREE’s first two singles, “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” but it did spend a couple of weeks at No. 13 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 in November 1987.
Around the globe, “Where The Streets Have No Name” spent 3 weeks at No. 1 in Ireland and 2 weeks at No. 1 in New Zealand. It also reached No. 4 in the U.K., No. 10 in Holland, and No. 14 in Canada.
The song has been covered many times over the years, most notably when London’s Pet Shop Boys did a 1991 medley of “Where The Streets Have No Name” with Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit, “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” The medley paid off – it was a Top 10 hit in at least 9 countries.
“Where The Streets Have No Name” may not have been U2’s biggest hit, but, for the better part of 30 years, it’s been one of my favorites. And, despite the difficulty the band and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno had putting the song together, I think it was worth it…