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The Videos of POP

By Collin Souter
(originally published on on 3/7/2017)

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest rock albums of all time, another anniversary for U2 is taking place in the same month, but hasn’t been getting nearly as much fanfare. While The Joshua Tree certainly merits the attention and tour, the band’s ninth studio album Pop turns 20 this year. I’m only guessing when I say that the Joshua Tree 2017 Tour will not acknowledge this birthday in any shape or form. So, it is up to fans to commemorate the anniversary of this un-finished, often misunderstood gem from 1997 that saw the band having one of its most stressful years ever.


If you look closely enough at their faces, the videos tell the story of that year: the strain, the sleep deprivation, the feeling of hopelessness due to the need to shoot a video during a tour that wasn’t going well in support of an album that wasn’t selling. The band might ultimately like to forget this particular year, but stunning and eye-popping images came out of this era that will forever be part of the U2 lore. It’s worth going back to take a second look.  


Discotheque - Whenever U2 release a first single and video, there are often hints of things to come in the subsequent tour. "Discotheque" was no exception, but nobody who watched the video back in February ‘97 could have guessed that the opening shot--a disco ball in outer space opening up to reveal our boys standing in the center--would come to fruition on stage. That was not the only tour hint in the piece. Traces of the LED screen are teased throughout while the video explodes with light, color, kitschy fashion and awkward dance moves.

Stephane Sednaoui’s concept (a dance party inside a mirrorball) had to be executed in 24 hours, so he was not able to get all of his ideas into the shoot, but what’s there is a delight for the eyes, provided you can keep up with it. Larry doesn’t appear to be on board with any of this, but Sednaoui salvages the footage he does have of Larry smiling so that it blends seamlessly with the others who are clearly having fun dressed as the Village People. The editing for the video can be a bit much at times and one wishes Sednaoui would linger on certain shots a bit longer. Nevertheless, when MTV had one of its U2 marathons the day this video dropped, it was a fun, endlessly watchable end to a long wait between albums.

Staring At The Sun - Two versions of this video exist. The version by Jake Scott (son of Ridley), again, had to be shot under tight constraints one evening when the band members probably had a hard time wrapping their collective heads around Scott’s concepts of sparks turning into light. With the clock ticking, Scott had to improvise a lot of shots and create an atmosphere that the band felt contradicted the song. The result is not unlike "Discotheque" in that the band members are seen interacting with their environment, which consists of a dark space, light effects and lens flares that result from simple in-camera tricks producing some truly hypnotic images. Unfortunately, what stands out is Bono’s obvious sleep deprivation because this was filmed during the PopMart rehearsals, which were stressful enough without taking time out to create another video U2 didn’t really believe in.

Morleigh Steinberg’s “Miami version” sees the band a little more relaxed as they stroll the streets of Miami in various forms of tourist garb. The video is basically made up of footage already shot for the Pop electronic press kit. The 16mm look feels appropriately like a home movie, but unfortunately, neither of these videos capture the essence of the song. Both were put together rather hastily to meet the demand of the single’s release at the time.

Last Night On Earth - Director Richie Smyth had a treatment for "Staring At The Sun," but the band convinced him that his retro sci-fi idea would be better for a song that actually had end-of-the-world undertones. This kind of apocalyptic tale involving slime-ridden derelicts, car chases and William Burroughs with a spotlight working in tandem with SATS (a song about, among other things, terrorism) might not be as much of a stretch as it sounds. My guess is that Burroughs' spotlight at the end played a bigger role in the original treatment. I think the right choice was made to attach the concept to this song.

The "Last Night On Earth" video is legendary in that U2 closed down two interstates in Kansas to achieve a look of desolation, which made the mayor very unpopular (he did not win re-election that year). Smyth also used footage shot in Los Angeles and blended the two together well. The result is truly one of the craziest and most surreal creations U2 have ever been involved in. It’s not hard to see why the video never really got much play on MTV (I, for one, love the insanity of it). Oddly enough, the original version had a Western-style intro that introduced the characters with large-sized captions that said things like “Escape was their only thought. … Except for this girl because she knew the truth” and “4 Hard Men!” Basically, the early version spelled everything out for the viewer. That version is gone for good, and I much prefer the final version without captions. It makes it more surreal even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Strangely, the band used the original album version of the song instead of the single version.

Please - Many of the videos from Pop take an almost literal approach to the song’s subject. Anton Corbijn took the image of being on one’s knees and expanded it to a way of looking at the world through a different perspective. In the song’s latter half, the characters get off their knees and become more like us as the world goes from a fantastical black-and-white to a more saturated color. As for the band members, they appear to be performing in a basement, but they are secondary to Corbijn’s concept, which at this point in 1997, probably felt like a relief to them. Corbijn usually steers away from band performance videos, but he had to give MTV and VH-1 something to satisfy them. Of all the videos, it is clearly the most artistically accomplished and profound--and the least MTV-friendly of them all. Corbijn’s take on the song is personal to him, but the powerful images resonate with the song’s themes of political strife and terrorism.

If God Will Send His Angels - One of the great gifts of the Best of 1990 -2000 DVD set is the audio commentaries from the directors of these and other videos from that decade. Phil Joanou’s commentary track is a real treat as he explains the intricacies of what appears to be a relatively simple video. In it, the video is split between two shots. The top shot is Bono sitting in a diner booth; the bottom shot is the people sitting across from him, many of them strangers with their own stories going on in the background. At one point, of course, Edge, Adam and Larry join him. Bono appears to be lip syncing the song rather well, but it’s actually being played back on the set in slow motion with the camera under-cranked. When played in real time, everything happens around Bono quickly as though he were an outsider. This in-camera effect gives the video an otherworldliness that is simply sublime. It’s my personal favorite of the collection, referencing the art of Edward Hopper at one point while using a concept that evokes the films of Robert Altman. It’s a single-take video that got it right somewhere around take 14.

MoFo Phunk Phorce Mix, Please - Live Mural Cut - Maurice Minnane’s video collages of the PopMart Tour on the Best of 1999-2000 video simply accomplish the goal of making the show look spectacular. Not a hard feat to pull off, really, but they feel more like straight-up promo videos for the inevitable video release of the full show.  

The PopMart Tour had pushed the boundaries of technology and broke ground in the industry. Since 1997, every major act started using LED screens while having the PA hanging above the performers. Sadly, though, because of the strain of the tour and the need to spend much of their downtime tweaking and refining the music, U2 seemed forced to make videos that had to be filmed quickly in a run-and-gun fashion, making it hard to conceive of visually complex ideas that could be nurtured and developed over time. Sometimes, though, that can be a blessing and the videos in this collection are, for the most part, a testament to that.

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