Just about everybody who’s any kind of U2 fan at all has had, at one time, a copy of Achtung Baby in their collection. I often tell people that my favorite U2 album varies from day to day, and that’s true, but in any given week, Achtung Baby would probably get the nod on four out of the seven days. My favorite songs also change depending on when I’m asked, but if I was really held down and forced to choose, my favorite song on U2’s 1991 magnum opus would probably have to be “Even Better Than the Real Thing”. No other song sums up the whole point of the whole ZooTV concept quite as well as the band’s ode to artifice. It’s a densely layered masterpiece that works great on several layers, not the least of which is that it’s a fantastic pop song with one of the best hooks the band’s ever recorded. It’s also a musical tour de force with performances that rank in the top ten for each of our guys, and the highlights are so plentiful that it’d almost be easier to list the parts of the song that don’t make my toes curl. One of those highlights is undeniably that intro, with Edge’s distorted guitar squeal punctuated by the throbbing pulse of Larry’s drums. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is one my my favorite songs live, as well, and is my most cherished memory from the very first U2 show I ever attended.
Best we start at the beginning, though. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” made its live debut in Lakeland Florida back at the first show of the ZooTV tour on February 29, 1992. As happened at pretty much every show of the tour, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was immediately preceded by some banter from Bono as he channel surfed. At many shows, Bono would exclaim “but you haven’t come all the way out here to watch TV now, have ya?” as the band launched into the song, but as this was the first night of the tour, some ideas that would later become familiar had not yet been incorporated, so Bono simply transitioned to the song with “rock n roll, let’s go!”. One oddity about this particular performance of the song is that it was recorded in a much lower key than subsequent performances – for instance, the intro in Lakeland sounds like it’s an A or A flat, (which is similar to the arrangement on Achtung Baby) while later performances have the introductory portion in what I perceive to be D flat. As far as I can tell, this is the only time the song was ever performed in the lower key, although it’s a little tricky to properly gauge keys when listening to bootleg recordings. Whatever the case, the song’s energy and sense of momentum led to it being well-received, so that it was one of only a handful of songs to be performed at every single ZooTV show.
Every tour, there are a few songs from the previous album that the band choose as being worthy of being kept in the set-list. Last time out, Vertigo and City of Blinding Lights were the hold-overs from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and in 1997, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was one of those chosen to make the move from ZooTV to Pop*Mart, where it was played in an arrangement and style very similar to that which it received on the previous tour. A great and glorious example of this can be found on the Live from Mexico City DVD set.
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” didn’t fare as well on the Elevation Tour, but I was lucky enough to be on hand when the song received it’s first airing of the tour in Calgary, in April of 2001, my very first U2 show. Like much of what U2 played on the Elevation Tour, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” received a simpler treatment, the main difference being that Edge used fewer effects on the guitar parts. Although lacking in special effects, the song had spirit to spare, and I’ll never forget the sheer ecstasy I felt as the waves of sound washed over me. The band were clearly having fun with the song, the audience was going ballistic, and I remember one moment in particular, between the first and second verses, when time seemed to stop and shoot forward all at the same time. My hair stood on end as I was swept in an instinctive frenzy that I can only describe as tribal. That’s the only time I’ve had the pleasure to hear “Even Better Than the Real Thing” performed live, in person, but I’ll cherish that memory for as long as I live.
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” was only given nine more performances on the Elevation tour, and none at all on the Vertigo Tour. It seemed that the song was gone forever, until 2011 rolled around, the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” made it’s 360 tour debut as the show opener on March of 2011 with an all new arrangement that moved the guitar solo to the introduction and added a repeat of the song’s iconic intro during the song’s bridge, the song felt brand-new all over again. The band even thought highly enough of the new arrangement that they included it in their acclaimed Glastonbury performance in June of that year.
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” has proven repeatedly to be a fan-favorite at concerts. We all know, though, that U2 tend to shy away from mid-tempo songs such as “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, so I don’t know that it’ll ever be a set-list regular again. It’s easy to imagine, though, that it might become one of those songs, like “Party Girl” or “Bad”, that the band pull out for special occasions.