Going through the Covers review the other day, it struck me the people that U2 have covered are a diverse mix, but when you really get down to it there are a few that they have covered the most. And there’s a difference between played the most, and covered the most songs. Which is more interesting, played one song from a band 10 times, or played 10 songs from a band one time each? That they would play a song 10 times tells you one thing, about the way they like that song a lot, but the opposite is that they like that band a lot. Like I said, interesting either way.
Roll through the list of bands where they’ve covered more than one song, and you essentially get a list of really famous artists. Here’s the list of artists that U2 have sung more than five of their songs live: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Simple Minds, The Beatles, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Thin Lizzy, Van Morrison. No surprises there, right? Every U2 fan has heard them play some or all of these groups, I wouldn’t dare say they play at least one of these in every show, but I would probably be right to say they have played them at least once every tour. The common bands, famous because they are good, played by U2 because they’re well-known.
But it’s when you dig deeper into the list that you find the more interesting connections. As I said at the start, there’s more interest in those songs they play a lot. Take for example Gloria by Van Morrison, one of the most sung non-U2 songs. How did it get into the show? You’d think it was because it has the connection to the U2 song Gloria, which it has been played with a few times, but it really took off when they added it to Exit during the Joshua Tree tour (as seen on Rattle And Hum), which is where it got by far the most plays. But it turns out that Satellite Of Love is the most-played non-U2 song, at least in full and not counting snippets (Send In The Clowns and When Johnny Comes Marching Home win with snippets). Satellite was played almost exclusively on the Zoo TV tour, because it fell in with the theme of the tour, the idea of satellites and TVs and so on. So, theme is the second theme for why they play a song a lot.
And you can keep on rolling down the list like that. So many of the songs are brought in for a guest appearance because of a certain event - like when they sang Michael Jackson the day he died, or several other artists on the day they died. Or they’re in a specific location - they’ve played three different Crowded House songs, all one time each, all as a snippet, and all of them during concerts in New Zealand, where the band is from. They just played a French song, Ne Me Quitte Pas, in the last few shows in Dublin and Paris, an ode to the French. And so on. So that theme would be location.
I bet if I went through the entire list, those would be the primary reasons, but I bet you could find specific reasons for any particular song being sung on any particular day. Maybe someone handed Bono a CD and he was listening to it, and the words just stuck in his head and he heard something during the show, a particular note or series of notes, and it jogged his memory and he switched to those words for a few seconds. Could be any reason. I just know that I like this idea. I have used the songs that U2 have recorded as introductions to other artists (like Woodie Guthrie), and I bet I could use their snippet list as an intro to a much wider variety of music.