This week we are taking a look at one of those songs that has only ever been released in a live version. That is to say that, like fan-favorite “Mercy,” no official studio version has ever been let out into the wild. Unlike “Mercy,” however, it is doubtful that a studio version of this song even exists. I’m talking about “Cartoon World,” a song that U2 performed live in the early days but not at all, as far as we know, since before Boy came out. That seems appropriate to me.”Cartoon World” is a very amateurish piece of music…fun for what it is, maybe even something to get the crowd going, but not up to the standard that U2 would set for themselves in the 1980s and beyond.
The best thing about “Cartoon World” is, without a doubt, that bass break in the middle of the song. Even now, I can’t help but nod my head in time to Adam’s playing as I listen. If you haven’t heard it, let me describe it for you. The band is in full roar, Edge is nailing a guitar solo, when it all comes stuttering to a stop. All, that is, expect for a bouncy, punky six-note pattern that Adam is coaxing out of his instrument. The sequence goes on for a bit — not too long, just enough for the listener to get into it — and you can hear that the audience is doing just that, as they begin to clap in time with the music. Then, Larry comes in on the drums, and the whole band starts up again with the song’s main riff.
The lyrics are all about daily life in Bono’s Dublin in the late 1970’s…several neighbors are name-checked, including Mrs. Brown from “Shadows and Tall Trees.” I read once that Mrs. Brown was based on a real woman, who had been friends with Iris, but Brown wasn’t her real name…I can’t recall right now what her real name was, but I like knowing that there was at least a hint of realism in these words as Bono wrote and sang them. I often think that, after Iris’ death, Bono’s day to day existence must have seemed like a cartoon world…strange, unreal, and, although predictable, unfamiliar. Everyone around him must have seemed like a fictitious character, and Bono just kept hoping that his mother would return and bring the world back to normalcy.
As I stated in the opening paragraph, “Cartoon World” has been released as a live version but never in a studio form. Even the live versions are a bit of a rarity, as the song was played on less than a dozen documented occasions. It serves as a good example of where U2’s songwriting was in the early days, as they began to play and write their own material, but I understand why it wasn’t a mainstay in their setlists. Even in those early days, the band had so much more accomplished stuff to showcase as they were trying to get signed to a contract. There is some nice aggression in the verses, and like I said, that bass break makes the song, but it still just isn’t quite up to par for four guys who would become the greatest band on the planet.