In 1985, Bono visited Ethiopia after performing at Live Aid. Many assumed this song is about that trip, since the streets there really don't have names, just numbers. The song is actually about Ireland. In Ireland (and Northern Ireland), many cities are divided: rich/poor, Catholic/Protestant, etc. By knowing which street a person lives on you can tell their religion, wealth and beliefs: it's where the streets have no name.
Brian Eno produced this and played the organ intro. The Edge did a D-chord delay arpeggio on his 4-track recorder at home to create the rest of the track.
Flanagan - Canada, for above 2
Steve Lillywhite, who produced U2's first three albums, was brought in to do the final mix.
This is the first track on The Joshua Tree
, which became the fastest-selling album in both the US and UK. In the band's 2009 bio, U2 By U2
, Bono explained explained why the band chose this as the introductory track:
"'Where The Streets Have No Name' was the perfect introduction. It is one of the most extraordinary ideas, only matched by The Doors' 'Break On Through (To The Other Side)
' as a throw-down to an audience. Do you want to go there? Because if you do, I'm ready to go there with you, to that other place. Call it what you like, a place of imagination, where there are no limitations."
This song was extremely difficult to produce. The arrangement was written on a blackboard because it was so complex.
Producer Brian Eno estimated that the recording of this song absorbed over 40% of the time spent on The Joshua Tree. Eno became so frustrated trying to mix the track that he almost destroyed the tape and started over. According to the co-producer Daniel Lanois, the assistants never followed Eno's frustrated instructions to wipe the tape. Daniel Lanois recalled to Mojo magazine January 2008 about the song's tricky birth: "It was a bit of a tongue-twister for the rhythm section, with strange bar lengths that got everybody in a bad mood. I can remember pointing at a blackboard, walking everybody through the changes like a science teacher. There's a part of Eno that likes instant gratification. He'd rather throw something difficult away and start something new."
The video shows U2 putting on an impromptu concert on the roof of of the Republic Liquor Store on the corner of 7th and Main Street in Los Angeles. This was an innovative way to shoot a video, leading to some surprised looks as some onlookers were delighted, while others were upset because they were stopping traffic.
The concert/video shoot took place March 27, 1987. U2 played the song four times, and also played "People Get Ready
," "In God's Country
," "Sunday Bloody Sunday
" and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)
." It won the Grammy for Best Performance Music Video in 1989.
The concept was similar to the Beatles famous Apple Records rooftop concert on January 30, 1969, which they used in their movie Let It Be
. When asked about the similarity between U2's rooftop video and The Beatles rooftop concert, Bono said, "We've ripped off The Beatles many times before."
This song has a very long instrumental intro. Bono's vocals come in at 1:46.
Bono (from Propaganda 5
, 1987): "'Where The Streets Have No Name' is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it's a sketch - I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling. I often feel very claustrophobic in a city, a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and a feeling of wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don't hold you down. An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they're making - literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name."
Bertrand - Paris, France
The single also included "Sweetest Thing," which became a hit when it was re-released in 1998.
Pet Shop Boys did a mashup of this song with the Frankie Valli hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You
," which they called "Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes off You)." Released as a single in the US, it charted at #72 in 1991. In the UK, it was issued as a double A-side single with "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?" which reached #4.
U2 performed this at halftime of the 2002 Super Bowl between the Patriots and Rams. As they played, names of victims in the September 11 attacks were scrolled on a giant screen. At the end of the performance Bono opened his jacket to reveal an American flag in the lining.
Speaking to Beats 1's Zane Lowe, Bono revealed that he views the lyrics as unfinished: "Musically it's great and the band deserve credit for that, but lyrically it's just a sketch and I was going to go back and write it out, he said.
Bono added: "Half of it is an invocation, where you say to a crowd of people 'Do you want to go to that place? That place of imagination, that place of soul? Do you want to go there, cos right now we can go there?' To this day when I say those words you get hairs on the back of your neck stand up because you're going to that place."
Bono said that producer Brian Eno reassured him about the unfinished lyrics. "Brian said, 'Incomplete thoughts are generous because they allow the listener to finish them'," the frontman revealed. "As a songwriter I have to realise that the greatest invitation is an invocation."
He added: "'Where The Streets Have No Name' is not a great lyric. I just wouldn't have rhymed 'hide' with 'inside.'"
In a 2001 interview with The Independent, Bono spoke further of his disdain for the opening lyrics and how they're indicative of his impromptu songwriting style of the '80s. He said: "There were a lot of lyrics that were written in five minutes instead of five hours. I remember the '80s for that. The first two lines of 'Where The Streets Have No Name' were just written on the mic:
I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
It's teenage poetry! The idea behind the song, the idea that you can transcend where you are, the idea of music as a sacrament, is so powerful, but it's this inane couplet."
This was used in the movies Fearless (1993) and How To Be A Senior (2019).
In a 2005 Rolling Stone interview, Bono explained the song's Ethiopian influence. "All this stuff about deserts and the parchedness of the earth... I wrote those things on Air India sick bags and scraps of paper, sitting in a little tent in a town called Ajibar in northern Ethiopia," he said. "It's a sort of odd, unfinished lyric, and outside of the context of Africa, it doesn't make any sense. But it contains a very powerful idea. In the desert, we meet God. In parched times, in fire and flood, we discover who we are."