This week, we are continuing our series highlighting some of the songs from Rattle and Hum, since that album is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. Today’ topic is a little bit of an odd duck–it is a song that represents the first instance of Edge taking lead vocal on an entire song, with no input from Bono. The song is “Van Diemen’s Land,” and it is a very political little number. We’ll discuss how and why below.
During the early nineteenth century, Van Diemen’s land, now known as Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia, was a penal colony which served several parts of the UK, meaning that criminals were sent there to serve out their sentences in lieu of being given the death penalty. One criminal who was sent to the island was a man named John Boyle O’Reilly. O’Reilly was an irish writer, poet, and activist who believed that Ireland should establish a separate state from England. Because of these beliefs, he was not very popular with Britain, and he was convicted and sent to serve a twenty year sentence in Van Diemen’s Land. Beneath the lyrics to the song “Van Diemen’s Land,” in Rattle and Hum‘s liner notes, there is a dedication to O’Reilly, along with a small joke, which states that O’Reilly’s poetry “wasn’t very good.” Now, I want to be clear here–I don’t believe that U2 was taking a side in the long and bloody war for Irish independence, but rather that their intent was to draw attention to the character of O’Reilly, who protested peacefully, a practice that U2 supports wholeheartedly.
The lyrics to the song “Van Diemen’s Land” are all about O’Reilly’s final free night in Ireland, and Edge is supposing that the poet would have spent those hours in the arms of a lover. I’m not sure how historically accurate that is, but as Bono has been known to say, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The music to this song fits the lyrics perfectly–all there is to the song is a simple guitar part that highlights the pain of separation and injustice that the lyrics describe. Edge does a great job on the vocal and on the guitar…honestly, if this was any other band (without Bono, the ultimate frontman) Edge would fit the role of lead singer just fine.
“Van Diemen’s Land” has been played a handful of times over the years since it was first recorded. Most of these performances came on the LoveTown Tour that supported the Rattle and Hum album. The song also made a few appearances on the ZooTV Tour, always with Edge singing solo, and there was one very special performance in 2008 with Bono and Edge singing the chorus together and splitting the verses, taking one each. Bono does his usual superlative job on his verse, and that would normally be enough to earn this rare performance heavy rotation in my household, but the harmonies on the choruses are to die for! I’ve always believed that Bono’ and Edge’s voices complemented each other brilliantly, and nowhere is it more evident than on this airing.