1988 Countdown: U2, “Angel of Harlem”

Kevin Seal explains that they’re shoehorning in another video that didn’t make the cutoff date, one that will in all likelihood appear in the 1989 countdown. (Basically, this means that MTV blocked out time based on ten videos an hour, but some hours (two out of the first two), they have time to play eleven.)


We open with a closeup on Bono’s boot, tapping out a rhythm. Wow, that’s a substantial heel. Sure does look like he’s boosting his height. Fade to an over-the-shoulder shot of the Edge: we see his left hand on his guitar and his shadow, which lets us know he’s wearing a hat. A klieg light dramatically turns.

You may think of 1988 as the annus maximus for U2’s dour black-and-white phase–but I prefer to consider it the time when they really liked to wear hats. U2 have donated a lot of their old costumes (sorry, “stage outfits”) to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–seeing them there this week reminded me that although I remembered the Zoo-TV era as a useful corrective to the “authenticity” they were peddling for a while, they made just as many missteps on the ironic side of the spectrum. Remember Bono as Macphisto? Remember the PopMart jumpsuits with lemons embroidered on them?


We now fade back and forth between black-and-white scenes of U2 playing the song in an empty theater and (mostly) color scenes of New York City. The empty theater scenes emphasize stark spotlights and Bono’s wide-brimmed black hat, which gives him a rabbinical mien. The New York City montage: heading across the Brooklyn Bridge with windshield wipers going (just before the “cold and wet December day” lyric–there’s some very literal-minded editing in this video), stock footage of the Statue of Liberty, a pan down the sign of the Apollo Theater, a vintage clip of Billie Holiday nodding her head, a shot of a skyscraper at night with selected windows lit up to spell “U2,” stock footage of the Empire State Building, a b-and-w shot of an NYC cop, and a shot of the Loews Astor Plaza theater with a big sign for the Rattle and Hum documentary. Then there is footage of Bono arriving at that theater (presumably for the movie’s premiere), waving to the crowd. There is a gloriously superfluous subtitle, in case you just got whacked by a crowbar and have no short-term memory, identifying the location as “New York.”

The Edge walks into the same premiere, sporting a white hat and toting an old-fashioned movie camera on his right shoulder. Larry Mullen looks dignified in a white T-shirt and a black jacket. Maybe Adam Clayton skipped the premiere?

Cut to Sun Studios, where U2 are cutting this song. (I assume this is the footage that appears in Rattle and Hum, but you can’t make me watch the movie to find out.) Larry Mullen is drumming in a small white room in front of a big picture of Elvis. Then as we cut to Bono in the empty theater, we get a superimposed image of a black girl in a peach jacket, running forward and looking happy. It could be an outtake from a chewing-gum commercial.

There’s a brief clip of Adam Clayton getting out of a Checker cab: apparently he made it to the movie after all. More footage of the outside of the Apollo while Bono sings about “Birdland on 53”–couldn’t the U2 research department dig up any images of Birdland? They make up for it with youthful pictures of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, spliced in as Bono name-checks them.


It’s not at all clear what the timeframe of this song is supposed to be, by the way. Some lyrics suggest that it’s written from the point of view of somebody in the mid-’60s reveling in New York City jazz, while Holiday and Coltrane were still alive. But the reference in the opening verse to WBLS would place the song somewhere after 1974, when the radio station started using those call letters. So maybe it’s about Bono coming to New York City and improbably hearing Billie Holiday on the urban-contemporary WBLS? Or just maybe, could it be that the lyrics are just a semi-coherent mishmash? (In fairness, I should say that I have a soft spot for this song. That’s mostly because of how it sounds–I think U2 should use a horn section more often. And while the lyrics do a crap job of saying anything in particular about Billie Holiday, they do a pretty good job of capturing how the crackling energy and artistic history of New York City can feel to a newcomer. Also, I like the “eyes swollen like a bee sting” line.)


More cuts between the empty theater, Sun Studios, and archival footage of Holiday. Then a “Los Angeles” subtitle over footage of another Rattle and Hum premiere (it looks like it was at Mann’s Chinese). Bono marches out into the street in a spotlight, standing on the double yellow lines of Hollywood Boulevard. The band did some busking at this premiere: we see a clip of the Edge with an acoustic guitar and Mullen with a tambourine. Lots of flash bulbs, and then the chewing-gum girl returns, as happy as ever.


Clayton’s cigarette smoke looks really cool in black-and-white, by the way. More empty theater shots, more Sun Studios, more archival footage of miscellaneous jazz musicians (plus still photos of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, neither of whom I particularly associate with New York). As we head for the fade, the video includes some color clips of 1988 Harlem residents, to demonstrate that Bono’s love for black people extends to the unfamous.

“Angel of Harlem” hit #14 in early 1989. You can watch the video here.

posted 7 August 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , , . 2 comments

2 Comments on 1988 Countdown: U2, “Angel of Harlem”

  1. Scraps Says:

    I really like this post, which made me smile several times. I like this series of posts. Yet why I am I commenting? To point out that Billie Holiday died in 1959.

  2. Gavin Says:

    Thanks for the correction; I actually looked that up but for some reason ignored the information once I had it. I suppose I was inspired by Bono playing fast-and-loose with the chronology himself: Holiday was not alive when A Love Supreme was released.

    (I may edit the post at some future point with the correct info.)

    Bono’s a regular Wikipedia when it comes to sort-of-correct info about Americans: witness his placing the assassination of Martin Luther King in “Pride” as “early morning, April 4” (actually, it was just after 6 pm).

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