616. ‘Desire’, by U2

Go on, who had this down as the song that finally gave U2 their first #1…?

Desire, by U2 (their 1st of seven #1s)

1 week, from 2nd – 9th October 1988

For as good as this record is, and it’s a great little rocker, it’s not the first U2 song that springs to mind for most people. There haven’t been many bluesy chart-toppers, and the ones that have appeared came in the mid-sixties for the likes of the Stones and the Animals. But this one bangs straight in with a Bo Diddley beat, and a tale of an irresistible woman – She’s the candle, In my room… Or is it about drugs – I’m the needle, Needle and spoon…? Either way, it’s about something you just can’t say no to.

For a band not afraid of grandiosity this is a simple song; and all the better for it. They were influenced in recording it by The Stooges, and released what had been the demo version after deciding that the finished take was too polished. It’s short, sharp, and possibly one of Bono’s best vocal performances. Say what you want about Bono (and I just might, over the course of U2’s seven #1s) he’s a great rock star, when he remembers that he is a rock star, and not Jesus. Here he stutters, he growls and he soars, and sounds genuinely like a man crazed with desire.

Then there’s the harmonica which, after ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ makes it two #1s in a row that have been heavy on the tin sandwich. And whisper it, but is 1988 turning out to be a good year for rock music…? I wasn’t expecting it in the era of SAW and house music, but chart-toppers for Fairground Attraction and Billy Bragg, Beatles covers, glam rock samples, a re-release for the Hollies, now this… It feels like it’s come out of nowhere, but it’s certainly welcome!

‘Desire’ was the lead single from ‘Rattle & Hum’, the follow-up to U2’s worldwide breakthrough album ‘The Joshua Tree’. They were probably the biggest rock band on the planet in 1988, and so whatever they released first from their new album may well have rocketed to the top. I’m glad it was this, though. A lot of U2’s music suffers, in my eyes, from the same problem ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ suffered: grandiosity, and not a little pomposity. Not this one (and to be fair, not too many of their UK #1s – they usually like to announce a new album with a rocking single).

And so, U2 are up and running as a chart-topping force. Off the top of my head, they’re the 4th most successful rock act in terms of #1s, behind only the Beatles, the Stones and Oasis. But sadly, after me making such a big deal of it, this is where 1988 stops rocking… A block-busting ballad looms over the horizon.


17 thoughts on “616. ‘Desire’, by U2

  1. I can’t say I ever really liked U2 – 2 Earnest for me – but this probably was them at their rockin’ best (apart from when they later made a rather good one-off with the late great B.B. King). No spoilers, but I did refresh my memory by looking up at what came next, and ‘Desire’ is indeed the better of the two!

  2. 7 number 1’s? Wow…they only had two in the US which surprises me. Rattle and Hum is my favorite U2 album by far. It was the other single off of this album that made me a fan and that was Angel of Harlem…I would have thought that would have been the big hit. Anyways it’s a good song. It’s so true what you said…. “he’s a great rock star, when he remembers that he is a rock star, and not Jesus. ”
    88 and 89 with Guns and Roses and other bands like U2…things were slowly beginning to change from the synths to guitars…it was gradual but there.

    • Yes, they have quite a few. The lead singles from pretty much all their albums, from ‘Rattle and Hum’ through to the mid-00s, will make #1.

      I like ‘Angel of Harlem’ more than this, though it is good, and something different in terms of chart-toppers. Interestingly, as I was writing this post, I saw that ‘Rattle and Hum’ isn’t that well-loved by U2 fans… Maybe too much of a departure from their new-wave, post-punk roots?

      • No it’s not loved by a lot of them…but of course it’s my favorite album by them!
        Their earlier stuff gets old to me because The Edge used a guitar delay on every single song! This album marked a change. Angel of Harlem doesn’t sound like anything they did before….and I liked it.
        Yes you are right…it was a departure and some of the hard nosed fans didn’t like it….if it wasn’t for this album…I may not have become a fan.

      • I’m not the biggest U2 fan, or the biggest authority on them, but I quite liked the experimental directions they took after this album: Achtung Baby, and so on. Even the dance-influenced album they did later in the 90s. Then they went back to more stadium rock, like ‘Beautiful Day’, and I find that a bit dull… Too polished!

      • That was the only album of theirs I ever bought but, I have been a fan of their music since my “video channel” days. The obscure video channel we discussed played a lot of early U2. Two Hearts Beat As One & New Year’s Day got a lot of rotation.

  3. “Desire” definitely sounds very different from the U2 on “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree” and The Edge’s echoey guitar sound. This was straight blues-oriented rock. I liked it from the get-go. I also dig the other tune Max called out, “Angel of Harlem.” I agree with him that “Rattle and Hum” introduced more variety to U2’s sound.

    • I like both this and ‘Angel of Harlem’… Better than I do the very earnest U2 hits from earlier in the 80s. It’s fun, and that’s not something you can always say about U2’s music!

  4. It was a cracking single designed to confound expectations after the unstoppable earnestness and emotion of Joshua Tree. Thats an all time great album and in I Still Havent Found What Im Looking For converted me to a fan as opposed to loving one or 2 singles and liking most of the rest. That should have been the chart topping U2 track. Or Pride. But this is my 3rd choice for top spot 🙂

    • I agree ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ would have made a great #1, or ‘With or Without You’. ‘Pride’ tips a bit too much into ‘over-earnest U2’ for me

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