Since I am sitting down to write this on my wife’s birthday, it seems appropriate to write about one of her favorite U2 songs. With that in mind, I chose U2’s cover of the Cole Porter classic “Night and Day” for this week’s article. “Night and Day” was originally written for the 1932 musical The Gay Divorce, but U2 recorded their version in 1990 to be included on the compilation album Red Hot + Blue, which was sold to promote AIDS awareness. The entire album consists of (then) popular artists performing Cole Porter songs, which is noteworthy because at the time AIDS was considered largely a scourge of the homosexual population, of which Cole Porter was a member while he lived. I think that this is especially interesting to U2 fans because the myth of AIDS being a gay disease was one of the reasons that U2 made three separate videos for the song “One” – the band felt that Anton Corbijn’s original video might accidentally propagate the erroneous theory that AIDS exclusively targeted gay men, so further videos were commissioned. To tie it all together in one neat package, the “One” single also benefited AIDS research, and a remix of U2’s cover of “Night and Day” appeared as a B-side on that single.
Comparing the original recording of this song with U2’s cover is an interesting exercise – the original was, befitting it’s time, light and poppy, even a little bit cheery. Remember that this was written during the Great Depression, when the public was in search of something to lift them out of the troubles of their daily lives, so “light and poppy” was the order of the day. By contrast, U2’s cover is dark and intense, making the harmless love-song lyrics of the original into something more akin to obsession and unhealthy infatuation. U2 did exactly what I like to hear when I’m listening to a cover – they gave the song a new and different spin that separated it from it’s original interpretation. Where Fred Astaire’s gentle croon is pleasant and disarming, Bono’s impassioned vocals are positively arresting. An electronic beat thuds in the background while Bono wails like he’s channeling desperation itself and Edge’s infinite guitar (best known, probably, for “With or Without You”) echoes like a fever dream. As this was the first thing that U2 released in the 1990’s, meaning that it was their first release after Rattle and Hum and Bono’s famous “Dream it all up again” speech, this was the public’s first taste of what was to come from U2 – a heavier, denser sound with as much basis in industrial and electronic music as The Joshua Tree had in folk songs and country. Yes, this was the start of something special for U2, and it still sounds just as great today.
“Night and Day” has never been performed live by U2, but Bono has sung the song on rare occasions without the rest of the band. Of course, I’d love to hear a full band performance one of these nights at a U2 show, but I doubt that that will ever happen. To be honest, I’m OK with that. If this song hadn’t helped the band reinvent themselves back in 1990, it’s hard to imagine that there would even still be a U2, so we definitely owe the song a strong of gratitude, and I’m content to pay that debt while listening to the studio recording and it’s remixes.
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