It’s fortunate that there are fifty-two weeks in a year–there are three U2 albums celebrating significant anniversaries this year, and my plan is to cover all three of them until they are exhausted, including all B-sides, outtakes, and any other related cuts that U2 might have recorded. Today, that means that we are talking about what is probably my favorite of all the covers U2 has recorded–“Unchained Melody.”
Everyone reading this is likely familiar with the Righteous Brothers version of the song, which was recorded in 1965, but did you know that the song was originally written, by Alex North and Hy Zaret, for a film called Unchained (hence the title) and was sung by a man named Todd Duncan a decade before the Righteous Brothers got around to it? These facts were news to me before I fell in love with U2’s mesmerizing version of this song, and set out to learn all I could about it.
I think that what is most special about U2’s version of the song is that it really sets itself apart as a unique version of the song, and doesn’t follow in the steps of any of the previously recorded versions of “Unchained Melody.” U2’s cover starts out with Edge’s goosebump-inducing eerie and ethereal guitar which ebbs and flows roughly in the established melody of the song. Bono starts singing, accompanied only by this guitar, and it is clear already to any listener that this is something special, something that doesn’t come around all that often. It is the passion in Bono’s voice that sets this apart, the deep emotion that is fueled, I’m certain, by the way he misses his wife when the band is on tour and away from their families. At first, Bono’s singing is fairly restrained, but by the time the drums and bass come in, he is wailing and keening, and the listener can hear the anguish in the man’s voice; one can almost hear his heart breaking. Indeed, the magic of this song is that it makes anyone who has ever been separated from a lover feel the emotion right along with the singer.
Of course, U2 has performed “Unchained Melody” live from the stage, probably most famously during the ZooTV Tour of the early nineties, as an addendum to “One.” These performances are quite different from the studio version of the song that U2 released in 1989, featuring just a simple guitar played by Bono and a much more understated vocal performance. Where the studio version demonstrated the strength of Bono’s passion for his wife, these live performances feel almost deflated, like he is about to give up hope in his quest for his lover’s touch.
I have to confess that I have a special soft spot for the studio version of U2’s cover of “Unchained Melody.” The first U2 music that I ever bought that wasn’t a regular album, before I even knew how much U2 music there was out there, and the first imported anything that I ever spent money for, was All I Want is You, because I wanted to hear the band’s version of this song. I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint, and it remains a favorite all these years later.