Continuing our coverage of the Pop album in this, the year of its twentieth anniversary, I thought that today I’d write about something a little offbeat but still related to Pop. That brings us to “North and South of the River”, a song that initially came to life in 1995, two years before the Pop album was released. U2’s version was released in 1997 as a B-side on the “Staring at the Sun” single. The history of this song is a little unorthodox, so I figure that the first thing I ought to do is to chronicle the song’s past. It started out as a collaboration between Bono, Edge, and traditional Irish musician Christy Moore, whose name you might recognize from a few other U2 collaborations – he performed with Larry Mullen, Jr in 1986 both at the Self Aid concert and for the charity single “Make it Work”, and again joined forces with The Edge in 1999 for a song from his album Traveller. “North and South of the River”, in its originally released configuration, which featured some backing vocals by the U2 guitarist and singer, was released as a single in 1995. Interestingly, some of the music that is found in this version of the song, particularly the horn section which forms the melodic background of the piece, was first introduced to U2 fans much earlier, as it appeared as part of the Achtung Baby demos and outtakes bootleg that made the rounds in 1991 before the release of that album. The second officially released version was a solo version by Moore himself for his Graffiti Tongue album in 1996. This version is much simpler, consisting solely of acoustic guitar and Moore’s sturdy voice. There is no performance by any member of U2 on this version, but Bono and Edge are still credited as co-writers of the track.
The final officially released recording of “North and South of the River” hit stores in April of 1997 as part of both versions of the single for “Staring at the Sun”, the second single released from the Pop album. My honest opinion is that this is one of the poppiest, most accessible songs that U2 has ever recorded. The music is warm and inviting, with a fair amount of keyboard and a bubbly, congenial electronic beat that plays throughout most of the song. There’s a chorus of “doo-doo-doo’s” toward the end of the song that complete the radio-friendly package. One oddity about the song is that the main hook, instead of being a vocal one, is the aforementioned horn section, although in U2’s version of the song, the part is played on synth and not horn. The lyrics to this song really tell two stories, like many U2 songs. At first listen, one might be forgiven for assuming that the lyrics are about a romantic relationship, but further hearings begin to form the idea that it’s something deeper being sung about. It’s typical of U2 to hide a political message in what seems to be a love song, and I believe that that’s exactly what they’ve done here. I think that “North and South of the River” is about Ireland, being literally separated into north and south as it is. The song is about the search for peace in that troubled land, and an attempt to bring two parties with little common ground together.
Unlike most B-sides, “North and South of the River” has actually been performed live by U2, albeit only once. This occurred back in November of 1998, well after the final gig of the Pop*Mart tour, at a tribute to the Omagh bombing which took place just a few short months earlier in Northern Ireland. Given the song’s message of reconciliation, I feel that this was an appropriate event at which to perform the song. My only complaint is that this underrated gem has only had one public performance! The 1998 arrangement was backed by piano, so it could easily be performed by the band during an acoustic set in the middle of one of their concerts. I know, it’s pretty good for a B-side to get played even once, and U2 have no real reason to play “North and South of the River” live other than the clamoring of this one fanatic, but if I were making up a list of songs that U2 would play if I were in charge of set-lists, this one would be on that list. Of course, at this point, I’d be satisfied to hear them play anything from Pop at all.