Listen to this track by long-standing four-cornered Irish arena fillers U2. It’s “Red Hill Mining Town”, a high point song as taken from their epic-scale 1987 album The Joshua Tree. This song stands in the shadow of some bigger hits on that record, a part of an album that would put them into the stratosphere before the end of the decade.
Among the songs on the record that evoked lofty spiritual quests (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), the all-consuming turmoil of love as it intersects with pain (“With Or Without You”), and apocalyptic visions that sound like the end of the world (“Bullet The Blue Sky”), this one is a down to earth portrait of a town full of hard-working people in trouble.
And yet, this song by known politically motivated U2 turns out to be not your standard political song at all.
One of the most high-profile issues by the mid-1980s in Britain was the closure of the coal mines, ones that Thatcher’s Conservative Party deemed to be unprofitable. Unfortunately, this meant mass unemployment and all of the hardship that brings, without any support from a government that had not only ended the way an industry was structured, but ended a way of life without much of a plan to replace it with anything new. This trend reached its height in 1985 around the time this song was being written.
“Red Hill Mining Town” was something of a step out of the comfort zone for U2, although it certainly represented an evolution in their songwriting. An important part of this artistic stretch was found particularly in lead singer Bono’s expansion of his own listening habits, delving into folk music, and early Bob Dylan records. It helped too that Dylan and Bono had become acquainted around this same time, with the younger performer exposed to a whole new vista of artistic possibilities that his elder represented.
Another important aspect of what makes “Red Hill Mining Town” so powerful is that it does what the best folk songs do; tell the story of folks. As a result, this song is not a polemical exploration of the mining shutdowns of 1980s Britain so much as it is about the effects those political and economic forces had on people who had had their livelihoods taken from them, with no support to sustain them otherwise.
From father to son, the blood runs thin
Ooh, see faces frozen still against the wind
(Read more: U2 – Red Hill Mining Town Lyrics | MetroLyrics)
This isn’t a song about issues so much as it is about families. And apart from the sumptuousness of the production (thanks to Daniel Lanois), and the band’s performance (particularly Bono’s keening, high-register vocals), that’s why this song works so well, even if in the end it would get a short shrift. It was bumped from single status even though the band shot the video for it. The song wasn’t even performed live on The Joshua Tree tour. Those high notes are hard to hit night after night, maybe.
But, it’s one of my favourite of their songs, and certainly one that shows a side to them that goes beyond the radio anthems for which they’re known.
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