A little over twenty years ago, at a time when Zooropa was the most recent album that U2 had released, if you had asked me what my favorite U2 song was, I’d have told you “Dirty Day”. I knew and enjoyed “Bad”, “With or Without You”, “All I Want is You”, and all the rest of the songs, hits and otherwise, that defined U2’s sound at that point in their career, but “Dirty Day” affected me in a way that no other song could or did. It was of the moment, in that it sounded so modern and obviously captured the band at a time when they were searching out new sounds and new ideas, yet at the same time it was so different from anything that was on the radio or anywhere else. Even on Zooropa, “Dirty Day” stood out as the lone rock song on album which was packed with mostly experimental Euro-pop. Heck, out of everything that U2 has ever recorded, there are very few songs that sound anything like “Dirty Day” and the song is made all that much more powerful because of its lonely status.
The song starts out with a gradually faded-in bass riff, some dire-sounding keys, threatening guitar and a simple drum pattern — mostly cymbal and snare. Bono’s unusually sober voice then joins the rising tide of sound, rising and falling over the insistent rhythm before cresting in a falsetto that is soft and gentle and crushingly urgent all at the same time. The end of the first verse is signalled when the dam breaks and the listener is swept away on waves of unrestrained guitar and passionate, unruly percussion. The pattern repeats, with the music alternating between the menace of the verse and the outright violence of the instrumental chorus several times. The climax occurs at the end of the song when Edge and Bono raise their voices together in a refrain that was borrowed from one of Bono’s favorite writers, Charles Bukowski: “The days run away like horses over the hills.”
Although “Dirty Day” stands by itself in many ways. it fits in with some other U2 songs, such as “So Cruel” and “Love is Blindness”, in one way — the theme, which is one of love gone wrong. Not necessarily a romantic love, though, unlike those other songs. At times, it feels like “Dirty Day” is talking about a paternal, fatherly love. Whatever the case, Bono is taking the blame here: “I was the bad guy who walked out.” Clearly, there was some horrific personal event that the singer is trying to distance himself from, but it seems that he knows that his own life and the life of the one he left behind, whether lover or child, are forever entwined “I’m in you, moreso when they put me in the ground.”
Like several songs from Zooropa, “Dirty Day” was only ever played live on the tail end of the ZooTV Tour, making appearances at all ten of the shows on that tour’s final leg, but nowhere else. Given the frequency with which U2 play material from Achtung Baby, I think that it would be really great if they could pay some attention to their other albums from the nineties — Zooropa, Pop, or even the Passengers album —Original Soundtracks Vol 1. Of the three possibilities, Zooropa seems the most likely, as U2 has mostly disowned Pop and there is little aside from “Miss Sarajevo” from Passengers that would fit in at a U2 show. With that in mind, I actually think that “Dirty Day” might have a chance at getting played some time in the future. Heck, I remember a time when we all thought that we’d never hear “The Fly” live again, and this current tour has shown us with “Red Hill Mining Town” that anything is possible.