U2's finest musical moment? The end of 'Where the Streets Have No Name'

The sparkling guitar echoes at the end of the song are everything music should be. The Edge knew he wrote something special.

Members of U2 — from left, Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton, the Edge and Bono — are pictured in 1987, the year “The Joshua Tree” was released. Photo by Anton Corbijn
Members of U2 — from left, Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton, the Edge and Bono — are pictured in 1987, the year “The Joshua Tree” was released.Photo by Anton Corbijn
Published June 9 2017
Updated June 10 2017

Let me tell you about my favorite music ever made.

Not my favorite single. Not my favorite album. But my single favorite snippet of song laid to wax. You probably have yours, too. Maybe it's the drum fill from In the Air Tonight, or the ominous intro to Enter Sandman, the final fading round of God Only Knows, or the way the Boss bellows WHOA-OH-OH-OH-OHHH at the end of Born to Run.

All good choices. Here's mine: the end of U2's Where the Streets Have No Name.

The song opens U2's landmark 1987 album The Joshua Tree, which this summer is getting a sprawling 30th anniversary reissue and anniversary tour. When the band plays Tampa's Raymond James Stadium on June 14, Where the Streets Have No Name will kick off a front-to-back performance of the album in full, transporting fans back to the '80s.

As a full song, Streets is not perfect. It is among U2's most beloved songs, but it might not be their greatest, even on Joshua Tree's loaded Side 1 — it was the album's third single, following With or Without You and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. The lyrics are vague and anodyne; Bono's singing could use more polish. Depending on the day, it might not even be my favorite U2 song.

But that outro. Those final 45 seconds, from the time Bono howls, "It's alllll I can do!" to the sparkling echoes of the Edge's infinite guitar ... it's perfect. Everything about it is everything music should be. It is the atmospheric crest of a nearly five-minute build, the release you feel after tearing down the walls that hold you inside. It really does feel like sunlight on your face.

U2 has habitually reached for the highest highs a band can reach; it is both the reason for their spectacular success and why they frequently inspire such ridicule. But the end of Where the Streets Have No Name actually gets there. It reaches for the heavens and somehow grabs them.

"We play Where the Streets Have No Name whenever we need God to walk through the room," Bono once said in one of those NFL specials before the Super Bowl. "It means stepping outside yourself, imagining the possibilities. It's just asking people: Do you want to go on this journey together to that place of soul, place of imagination, the place where the streets have no name — that other place?"

Yeah, well, of course Bono would say something like that. Here's the Edge, who wrote Streets' magnificent music, in the band's 2005 memoir U2 by U2:

I was starting to get desperate and thinking about the next tour. I imagined being at a U2 show and tried to dream up what I would want to hear. It was my attempt to conjure up the ultimate U2 live song.

Quick break here to say: Job well done. U2 is built of great live songs — Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pride (In the Name of Love), Beautiful Day — but still, 30 years on, there is nothing like Streets. Never have I heard the song live and failed to get chills at the end. Not once. It simply does not get old.

Streets opened shows on their original Joshua Tree tour in 1987, urgent and strident and bursting out the gate. On the Zoo TV Tour — this, mind you, was a U2 styled in distance and irony — it was just as impassioned, leading into the emphatic drumbeat of Pride in one of the greatest live transitions you'll ever hear. Muse brought out the Edge to perform Streets at Glastonbury 2010 — YouTube it — and oh, you should see the smiles on their faces.

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On every tour, U2 may tweak the intro, Bono's affectations and ad-libs may change — but the guitar part at the end is always a crystal-clear chime in that mystical mix of time signatures. The end of Streets is technically a guitar solo, but the Edge doesn't treat it like an excuse to vamp or show off. He stands there stone-faced, flicking his wrist as the notes ping and ripple through his amps. It is perfect and holy as it is.

Back to the Edge:

It was a strange feeling when I finished the rough mix, because I thought I had just come up with the most amazing guitar part and song of my life, but I was totally alone in a big house with no one to share it with. I remember listening to the complete silence of the house for a few seconds after the music had stopped and then doing a dance around the room punching the air.

Isn't that exactly what great music should do? Shouldn't it inspire you to dance around an empty house, punching the air?

That's the impact of Where the Streets Have No Name. Those final notes ring and echo, and 60,000 fans stand and scream. U2 moves on to its next greatest hit, but the end of Streets stays with you. It stayed with the Edge in the moment he wrote it, and it seems, through the hundreds of times he has performed it, never to have left.

In the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, the Edge stares into a spinning demo tape of Where the Streets Have No Name, intent and expressionless as the outro chimes away.

"As writers, we start with the feeling," he says, "and everything follows from that."

Nothing can follow Where the Streets Have No Name, and yet somehow, everything does. The possibilities laid out by those final, perfect 45 seconds are endless. You really do want to go there, and go there with U2. When you hear that song, it's all you can do.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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