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Inside the Song: The Sustained Brilliance of U2's 'With or Without You'

How a modified Stratocaster gave the Dublin band a sound that led to their first No. 1 hit.

Now celebrating the 30th anniversary of it’s release, The Joshua Tree was U2’s breakthrough, the album that took the band from cult heroes to household names. But it took the album’s first single, “With or Without You”, for the band to attain the velocity necessary to achieve U2’s ambitions. It was their first No. 1 single in the U.S., spending a total of 18 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and set the band on their path toward global success. But the song’s beginnings were quite modest.


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“It was not a band/room performance, it was a control room concoction,” says Daniel Lanois, who co-produced the album along with plucky studio wizard Brian Eno and U2. The band’s guitarist, the Edge, and Lanois had recorded a chord pattern Edge had come up with while a Yamaha beatbox kept time. That track happened to be “on the burner” the day that the Infinite Guitar Michael Brook had built for Edge arrived at the studio. After unpacking the instrument-and following Brook’s intricate instruction on setting it up-Edge plugged it in. Both he and Lanois were blown away by “this beautiful new instrument with it’s stratospheric sound.” Edge then laid down a guitar track. It was “a nice take,” Lanois remembers, and he asked if Edge could you do another one. He did, and put the guitar down. ”That was it,” Lanois says. “It was not labored over; we were just fascinated with this new device of Michael’s. The part never changed. The two tracks he initially played made it to the finish line.”

Lanois adds that the Infinite Guitar was played through Edge’s rig at the time: a Vox AC30, and, probably a Korg SDD-3000 digital delay pedal. Describing the instrument to Guitar Player in 1985, Edge called it “a guitar that plays itself.” He told author Bill Flanagan that the relative simplicity of his part was instinctual. “I don't like to be inefficient if I can get away with it. Like on the end of ‘With Or Without You’. My instinct was to go with something very simple. Everyone else said, ‘Nah, you can't do that.’ I won the argument and I still think it's sort of brave, because the end of ‘With or Without You’ could have been so much bigger.”

What Lanois calls “the building blocks” for the song were completed by Adam Clayton's gentle, yet insistent bassline, giving a solid anchor to Edge's etherial guitars and Bono's searching vocal. Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. added his part later, which was combined with the original session’s machine beats. “It’s nice to have that explosive Larry Mullen sound,” Lanois says. “The curtains open and here comes Mr. Mullen!”


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In John Jobling’s U2: The Definitive Biography, Bono described the song as "whispering it's way into the world." But those whispers belied the pain at the heart of the song. Bono told Rolling Stone that 1986 had been "an incredibly bad year" for him, personally, and it was "almost impossible to be married and be in a band on the road." But, he told Jobling, he "didn't want to write about romance because that doesn't interest me as much as the other side." So he embraced what he called "the two-edged sword" of love.

But even a subject so close to his heart didn’t mean the words came easy. Unhappy with his original lyrics, the band insisted that Bono rewrite them. According to the album’s assistant engineer Dave Meegan, what he came back with was “absolutely stunning.” He told Jobling it was “a critical moment … it’s what forced ‘With or Without You’ to happen.”

But even with all those elements in place, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness was unsure about releasing “With or Without You” as a single, believing it sounded too odd for radio. He was eventually convinced, and the single was released on March 16, 1987. Two months later, it was on the top of the charts, a position it would hold for three weeks, while U2 moved up from arenas to stadiums, becoming the most potent rock band of '80s and '90s.