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U2 - With Or Without You (1987)

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  • 80's Score80's Score80's Score 80's score: 2.58
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“With or Without You” is a song by Irish rock band U2. It is the third track on their fifth studio album, The ...

“With or Without You” is a song by Irish rock band U2. It is the third track on their fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree (1987), and was released as the album’s lead single on 16 March 1987. The song was the group’s most successful single at the time, becoming their first number-one hit in both the United States and Canada by topping the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks and the RPM national singles chart for one week, with a further three weeks at number two.

“With or Without You” features sustained guitar parts played by guitarist the Edge with a prototype of the Infinite Guitar, along with vocals by lead singer Bono and a bassline by bassist Adam Clayton. The song originated from a demo recorded in late 1985 that the group continued to work on throughout The Joshua Tree sessions. Ostensibly a troubled love song, the track’s lyrics were inspired by Bono’s conflicting feelings about the lives he led as a musician and domestic man.

Critics praised the song upon its release. It is frequently performed on the band’s tours, and it has appeared on many of their compilation albums and concert films. “With or Without You” is U2’s second most frequently covered song. In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine placed the song at number 132 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

Release and chart performance

The band’s manager Paul McGuinness was resistant to U2 releasing “With or Without You” as a single, as he thought it was too sonically unusual for release. Gavin Friday, having helped the band complete the track, disagreed and thought it would be a “certain No. 1”. The song was selected as the lead single from The Joshua Tree. United States radio stations were allowed to play the song at 11:30 a.m. on 4 March 1987, with strong warnings by Island Records against playing it earlier. The single was released on 16 March 1987, two weeks after the album was released. It was the group’s first single to be widely issued on compact disc. Clayton referred to the song’s nature as a challenge to radio, saying, “You don’t expect it there [on radio]. In church perhaps.”

“With or Without You” debuted at number 64 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, and on 16 May 1987, it topped the chart to become U2’s first number-one single in the US, proving Friday’s prediction true. The song spent three weeks atop the chart, and 18 weeks in total on the Hot 100. The song also topped Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart, Canada’s RPM Top 100, and the Irish Singles Chart. According to Billboard, the song was the group’s breakthrough with American audiences. The single peaked at number four on the UK Singles Chart, spending 11 weeks in the top 75 of the chart. The single also peaked at number two on the Dutch MegaCharts Top 40. In 2009, the song re-entered the UK Singles Chart at number 43 on the week ending 31 May, based on download sales due to Shaun Smith’s performance of the song in the semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Two videos were shot in Dublin in February 1987 and were co-directed by Meiert Avis and Matt Mahurin. The first includes abstracts shots of dancer (and Edge’s future wife) Morleigh Steinberg edited in between shots of the band playing the song. A second alternative version can be found in the Super Deluxe version of the album.

Reception

Rolling Stone called it an “inventively arranged tune… that builds from a soothing beginning to a resounding climax”. Bill Graham of Hot Press praised the song, suggesting it may be Bono’s “most controlled vocal, building from an almost conversational first verse over a bare rhythm section to a soul-baring confession”. Graham suggested the lyric “And you give yourself away” was essential to U2’s message. The Sunday Independent suggested that the song was proof the band could be commercially accessible, yet not resort to rock clichés. NME called it “some kind of love song” and found musical and lyrical symmetry between the song and the group’s 1981 album October.

Mike DeGagne of AllMusic praised the song for Eno’s and Lanois’ “gleaming” production work, Bono’s vocals and “poetic deftness”, and for The Edge’s “astute but assertive” guitar playing. DeGagne described Bono’s singing as “unleashing all his vocal power, moving from a soft, subtle intro and middle to an explosive burst of unyielding energy toward the end”. He made religious comparisons to the musical arrangement, saying the “discerning air sounds almost church-like as it slowly unravels”. Readers of Rolling Stone voted “With or Without You” the “Best Single” in a 1987 end-of-year poll, while it finished in 15th place on the “Best Singles” list from The Village Voice’s 1987 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.

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