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U2 at Sun Studio on November 2, 1987. Island Records Promo Photo for the Rattle and Hum album and film. From https://www.706unionavenue.nl/66304695.
by Joe Pagetta
According to James Dickerson’s account in his 1996 book, Goin’ Back to Memphis, Sun Studio owner Gary Hardy didn’t know which band he was booking when A&M Records called him in October of 1987 to secure some time the following month. All they said was that they wanted an “authentic” rockabilly sound. It wasn’t until Cowboy Jack Clement called him about a week later to ask “if he had heard from U2 yet” that Hardy realized who he had booked. Not a bad booking for Hardy, a Memphis musician and radio show host, who had only purchased the lease to the space at 706 Union Avenue and converted it back into a studio and historic site earlier that year.
In 1987, U2 were arguably one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. By the time it booked Sun Studio, it was on its third leg of a World Tour to support its fifth studio album, Joshua Tree — at the time the fastest selling album in British history. The tour would eventually include 79 North American tour dates and sell over two million concert tickets. Joshua Tree would produce some of the band’s biggest hits: "With or Without You," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "Where the Streets Have No Name.” On the flip side, Sun Studio in 1987 was just coming back to life as a tourist and recording destination. After Sun Records founder Sam Phillips sold the Sun Records label in the `60s and vacated the space, 706 Union Avenue was home to a number of other businesses in the 60s and 70s, including a barber shop, an auto parts store, and a scuba shop. Its first sign of renewed life was in 1985 when the album Class of '55: Memphis Rock And Roll Homecoming, produced by Chips Moman, was recorded there to celebrate and remember the ''Class of '55'' — Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison — on their 30th anniversary.
Copy of Nine-O-One magazine from 1986 with cover story, "Sun Record Reunion: Together again in Memphis,” by Jim Dickerson. The issue commemorates the ''Class of '55'' — Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison — on their 30th anniversary recording at Sun Studio in Memphis. Inscribed on the cover, "To Maggie [Sherman] It was great working with you! Thanks My "Love" Carl Perkins 86." (Tennessee State Museum collection, 220.127.116.11)
What U2 planned to do at Sun Studio was finish up overdubs for a Woody Guthrie song titled “Jesus Christ,” that they had started recording with Clement for a Guthrie and Leadbelly tribute album supporting the Smithsonian. “We had a big time and got along real good,” recalled Clement to Dickerson. “A couple of months later they called me back. They said they would only do it [come to Memphis] if I could be there.”
The band also wanted to record a song they had written for B.B. King, whom they had met the year before in Ireland.
But why Memphis, when according to their tour schedule they would have to squeeze the session into one day in between dates in Indianapolis, Indiana and St. Paul, Minnesota? To Dickerson, there was Sun’s famous slapback sound and King’s connection to the studio. He recorded there before Elvis Presley did. To reporter Michael Donahue at the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, in an article published after the session, U2 lead singer Bono offered up a loftier explanation. “We figured the best thing to do was get to the center of it,” he told Donahue. “This is the center. This is where rock and roll was invented. As we’re reinventing it, we might as well team up. The spirit’s in the air. They’re all here. All these people. And not just in the photographs. They’re walking around here. We just can’t see them.”
A 1958 45 rpm record by "Cowboy" Jack Clement (1931-2013) of the songs “Your Lover Boy/Ten Years” from Sun Records. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2008.353.1 and 2008.353.2)
There was a third reason to come to Memphis. Cameras were following the band, led by young director Paul Joanou, for a documentary about their American tour and deep dive into the influence of American roots music. Live performances would be shot in early November of 1987 in Denver, interspersed with footage from stops along the way. Certainly a film about the roots of American music, that would include visits to San Francisco and Harlem, needed to include a visit to the birthplace of rock and roll.
According to Donahue’s Commercial-Appeal account, the band was so eager to get to Memphis on Monday, November 2, that they left the bulk of their instruments in Indianapolis. “We said, ‘We’ll need this guitar. We’ll need this snare drum …” Ellen Darst, a management associate for the band, told Donahue. “We weren’t going to bring that much, but we did have a few things we were going to bring. And we ran off and left them.”
Hardy helped round up instruments and musicians. Donahue notes that Memphis-based 3 Alarm, Ardent Recording Inc., Sounds Unreel Studios and Strings & Things all loaned or rented out equipment. Joey Miskulin, of Riders in the Sky Fame, came in to play organ, while Rebecca Evans Russell and Helen and Phyllis Duncan sang back-up vocals. Clement (credited as associate producer on “Jesus Christ”) brought in the Memphis Horns, led by Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, best known for their work with STAX Records, and legendary sax player, Jim Horn. With Jimmy Iovine traveling with the band to produce the recordings, Nashville’s David Ferguson engineered. According to Dickerson, Sun Studio Manager and chief engineer Dave Aron acted as assistant engineer for the sessions (though he is uncredited in the liner notes).
King alto saxophone, about 1970, owned by Jim Horn, who played on the Rattle and Hum Sessions. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2006.9.1)
Digital print of a 42" v X 34" h promotional poster of The Memphis Horns, Wayne Jackson (left) and Andrew Love, in front of B.B. Kings Blues Club on Beale Street in Memphis, about 1995. Jackson and Love both played on the Rattle and Hum Sun Studio session. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2016.228.1)
The band first visited Graceland upon arriving in Memphis, a place Bono liked “because Elvis Presley was an exhibitionist in the right sense of the word,” as he told Donahue. “He was a performer. To have his life as an exhibition to me makes sense knowing what I do now …”
The band pulled up to Sun Studio at about 8 p.m., and as Dickerson recounts, “they did what every tourist does: they gawked at the photos of Elvis and the Four Horseman.” They read the plaque outside that acknowledges the Studio’s role in rock and roll history, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Rufus Thomas all recorded. To Donohue, Bono said that the studio represented “all the years of rock and roll tradition that we rejected for so long” because they had associated it with poor imitations in England and Ireland. “So now we try to create our own tradition.”
The band got to work on overdubs for “Jesus Christ'' first, before laying down the tracks for three more songs, “Angel of Harlem,” which showcases the Memphis Horns, “Love Rescue Me,” a Bono/Bob Dylan co-write, and “When Love Comes to Town,” the song for King. They would debut the latter song live three weeks later with King, at the band’s stop in Fort Worth, Texas on November 24, 1987. According to his autobiography, The Blues All Around Me, written with David Ritz, King’s vocal track from that performance was captured for what would eventually be the single version of the song.
As Hardy told Donohue, by the time the session was over, and fans who were waiting outside the studio were allowed to come in for autographs, the band wound up using six times as much audio tape as they had anticipated. They also shot a total of 41 reels of film footage in the studio for the documentary. In a press conference with the band that appears in the documentary, Bono says U2 recorded five songs in five hours. The fifth song appears to have been a loose cover of the Roy Orbison song, "She's a Mystery to Me."
Clement, who brought his 1951 Gibson SJ200 guitar to the session, had a blast associate producing and simply being himself. As he recounted to Dickerson:
"Of course, they were a lot louder than the bands I worked with in there. But I put the instruments in the same spots in the room—except I used baffles this time. It does seem to be a magic room. I think that is because there is so much leakage. It sounds better when you play it back than when you hear it in the room. It's magic.
"All they wanted me to do was be a clown and just be what I used to be. So I danced around so they'd pay attention to me and forget the songs. That's what I do. I perform for my artists. I dance for them. It keeps their minds off the songs. People sing their best when they don't know what they're doing. They're not thinking about anything, just watching the dancing figure. They seemed to love it, you know.”
“Jesus Christ” wound up on the 1988 album, Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly, with U2 joining Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Emmylou Harris, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and others in tribute to the iconic folk artists and songwriters. It won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording in 1989.
U2 at Sun Studio recording "Angel of Harlem."
The rest of the tracks recorded at Sun Studio, and the reels of footage from the band’s American tour and trip to Memphis, were packaged as the documentary and soundtrack album, Rattle and Hum, released in October 1988. While the album did well commercially — it reached number one on the US Billboard 200 albums chart and remained there for six weeks — and spawned five singles, including the international hit “Desire,” it wasn’t well received critically.
In a review entitled “When Self-importance Interferes with the Music,” Jon Pareles of The New York Times accused the band of trying to “grab every mantle in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame” adding that “each attempt is embarrassing in a different way.” “What comes across in song after song is sincere egomania” he wrote. Rolling Stone thought it was “calculated in its supposed spontaneity,” while in the Village Voice, Tom Carson wrote: “By almost any rock-and-roll fan’s standards, U2’s Rattle and Hum is an awful record. But the chasm between what it thinks it is and the half-baked, overweening reality doesn’t sound attributable to pretension so much as to monumental know-nothingism.”
The film didn’t fare any better. Writes John Jobling in U2: The Definitive Biography:
Neither Paramount’s money nor U2’s dedicated followers could prevent Rattle and Hum from being an expensive box office flop. The rockumentary’s theatrical run in North America was cut short after it made just $8.4 million in three weeks, despite a big advertising push and opening in over fourteen hundred cinemas. Critically, too, it suffered the same fate as the soundtrack. Only now the gloves were well and truly off. Iain Johnstone of The Sunday Times called it “possibly the worst rock documentary ever made,” adding: “U2 emerge as the most bland, uninspiring, and uninteresting quartet of musicians assembled since somebody shook the Monkees out of their plaster casts.” Hal Hinson of The Washington Post wrote it off as “an exercise in rock ’n’ roll hagiography.
Dickerson, in Goin’ Back to Memphis, looks at it from a different lens. What did U2 recording at Sun Studio mean for Memphis music? While local talent did not necessarily see a boost from the attention, he notes, “the floodgates opened.”
“Everyone, it seemed, wanted to record an album in Memphis,” writes Dickerson. Between 1987-89, R.E.M. recorded Green, and Jim Dickinson produced The Replacements album, Please to Meet Me, both at Ardent, the latter including the band’s gushing tribute to Memphis icon, Alex Chilton. Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, ZZ Top and Ringo Starr all recorded in the city.
And then there’s the take by Ron Hart, who in 2018, in a 30th anniversary appreciation for Billboard magazine of the film and album, suggests that for critics “it wasn’t so much the actual music that got their collective goat as it was the way the band portrayed themselves …” He thinks they had it wrong. It’s worth excerpting at length:
...[Critics] were unfairly convinced that U2’s motives came from somewhere other than honest admiration and appreciation. But for a 14-year-old in 1988 in the first weeks of his freshman year of high school, Rattle and Hum — both the film and its soundtrack — proved to be an eye-opening introduction to music beyond my narrow scope of MTV and rock radio at the time. It was the first time I ever heard about A Love Supreme or experienced the string arrangements of Van Dyke Parks, who along with Benmont Tench on pump organ, provided the sweep of heartbreak that imbues the album and film’s closing number “All I Want Is You,” still very much considered U2’s greatest ballad. I never truly, honestly felt the shimmy of the Bo Diddley beat before I listened to “Desire,” a song that earns the distinct honor of being the first single to simultaneously top the mainstream and modern rock Billboard charts (and scored the group a Grammy in 1989). “God Part II” gave me a deeper appreciation for the solo work of John Lennon, particularly Plastic Ono Band, whose key track “God” U2 were responding to as Bono defends John and Yoko by taking a shot at controversial biographer Albert Goldman with the line — “I don’t believe in Goldman, his type like a curse/Instant karma’s gonna get him, if I don’t get him first.
To Hart’s litany of epiphanies, you could potentially add the many young rock fans throughout the world who learned about Sun Studio and Memphis rock history through the film and record; who listened to the Memphis Horns and made their way to exploring STAX Records; who delighted in discovering Clement’s contributions to rock and county; and who developed an appreciation for the blues through King. There were young U2 fans who might have only known Presley, dead a decade in 1987, through their parents. They surely now saw him and his legacy in a new light, if not at least through drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.’s eyes, who appears emotional in the film when reflecting on his visit to Presley’s grave in Meditation Garden.
Maybe that, after all, is the true impact of U2’s visit to Memphis and Sun Studio 35 years ago.
After Rattle and Hum was released, U2 went back on the road for the Lovetown tour, with King and his band as the opening act. “I’ll never know how many new fans I made on that tour,” writes King in his autobiography. “But I believe my music was heard by still a new generation of young people who seemed to feel the same thing I’d felt when I first heard the blues sung by my Uncle Jack hollering in the cotton fields outside Indianola — raw emotion.”
Joe Pagetta is the Tennessee State Museum director of communications.
Dickerson, James. Goin' Back to Memphis: A Century of Blues, Rock 'n' Roll. Schirmer Books, 1996.
Donahue, Michael. “U2 Dazzled by Sun Spirits in Memphis.” The Commercial Appeal, 3 Nov. 1987.
Donahue, Michael. “U2 Lays down Tracks with a Memphis Beat.” The Commercial Appeal, 4 Nov. 1987.
Hart, Ron. “U2's 'Rattle and Hum' Turns 30: Why Critics Had the Live Album/Documentary All Wrong.” Billboard, 10 Oct. 2018, https://www.billboard.com/music/rock/u2-rattle-and-hum-album-live-8479013/.
Jobling, John. U2: The Definitive Biography. St. Martin's Griffin, 2015.
“The Joshua Tree Tour.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 June 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Joshua_Tree_Tour.
King, B. B., and David Ritz. Blues All around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King. Dey St., an Imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2011.
Moore, Rick. “Behind the Song: U2, ‘Angel of Harlem.’” American Songwriter, 2 Feb. 2020, https://americansongwriter.com/angel-of-harlem-u-2-behind-the-song/.
Popson, Tom. “Historic Rock Site Is Back in Business.” Chicago Tribune, 9 Aug. 2021, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1987-05-15-8702060145-story.html.
“Rattle and Hum.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 July 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rattle_and_Hum.
“Sun Records - 706 Union Avenue Sessions ~.” Sun Records - 706 Union Avenue Sessions, 11 Aug. 2022, https://www.706unionavenue.nl/66304695.