Happy New Year, everybody! I hope that all of your holiday wishes have come true and that you are now fighting fit and eager to tackle another new beginning. I also hope that this new year brings you everything you are hoping for, and that all of our lives are catastrophe-free for the next twelve months. In the spirit of beginnings, I thought that it would be appropriate to cover one of the earliest U2 songs that I know of, “Speed of Life.” As far as I know, this song was being played live in concerts as early as June of 1979…that’s even before U23 was released, so this truly is a cut from the band’s beginning days.
“Speed of Life” has a somewhat interesting release history. The version of the song that was performed live circa 1979-1980 had lyrics that seem to me to be strictly stream of thought and lacking in meaning or depth. I honestly can’t make much sense of them, at all. Perhaps that is why, when the band chose to release a version of the song in 2008, almost thirty years after the song’s last known appearance from a stage, the version that was put out was an instrumental with no lyrics at all. On one hand, I’m OK with that decision, because the instrumental version retains most of the best parts of the song, although Bono’s voice really does add a lot when it is there. On the other hand, I really do wish that U2 would release an official live set that contains the lyrics version of “Speed of Life”, polished up and in crystal clear audio, but that’s mainly because I’m an obsessive completist who aims to have EVERYTHING that the band has ever done in the best quality possible.
With or without lyrics, “Speed of Life” is a rollicking tune, with fierce drums, wailing guitar and pulsing bass. The name is appropriate, as the song races along at near superluminal speed. The song is dynamic, with moments of relative stillness and quiet, before jetting off again, charged by Larry’s rousing drum fills. This has the effect of producing several small climaxes before the big pinnacle at the song’s stirring ending. All of this exists even sans Bono’s vocals. As I said above, the lyrics are really unimportant in this case. What the song loses by excising the singer’s voice, however, is something more intangible. I’ve written in the past about how Bono has the ability to express ideas or to affect the listener without singing any sensible words, just by using his voice. This is the case in “Speed of Life.” The highs are that much higher with Bono added to the mix, the peaks that much more powerful. Bono’s straining, yearning voice adds another layer of feeling to the song that just is not there in the instrumental version.
Speed of Life is an early song that demonstrates both the raw energy and electricity of U2’s songwriting at that stage, and also how far the band has come to get to where they are now. As such, it is a powerful reminder of what is possible if we practice our craft and strive to become the best we can be. I hope that we are all able to take that lesson to heart in the new year and to come out next December as new and improved versions of who we are today.