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The history of a rehearsed song

As we have been reporting over the last week or so, one song U2 have been rehearsing in Barcelona is The Unforgettable Fire. This song has not been played live in over 19 years, missing all four of the last tours. It is, however, an interesting live song, one of a few where Edge performs double duty on guitar and keys. So let's have a look at the song's live history.

The Unforgettable Fire Tour, September 1984 to July 1985

The Unforgettable Fire had a live career spanning 5 years, 4 months, and 4 days, beginning on 2 September 1984 and ending on 6 January 1990. Its September 1984 debut was at U2's second concert in Auckland, the last of four in New Zealand that kicked off the Unforgettable Fire Tour. Its setlist placement at that show was perhaps a little brave. The band kicked off the concert with the popular Out Of Control, then followed it with two more tracks from Boy - Twilight and An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart - before playing the then unreleased Unforgettable Fire. Only the lead single, Pride, was out was out at this point in time (which explains why the set is so light on Unforgettable Fire album tracks); the album was not due for release for another month. It was only later in the main set that the band got to popular tracks such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day.

After New Zealand, U2 went to Australia, and out of ten gigs for which we have the full set, The Unforgettable Fire was played at nine of them. It typically occupied an early setlist spot the same or similar to that in Auckland, but on 14 September 1984 in Melbourne, it took the setlist spot after The Electric Co. that was then normally occupied by I Fall Down and would soon become home to A Sort Of Homecoming.

It was at the start of the European leg that The Unforgettable Fire was first paired with MLK. The duo were originally intended to be an atmospheric concert opener, and were used as such at the first European show of the tour on 18 October 1984 in Lyon. However, the exuberant crowd created such a din that MLK was barely audible and the experiment was not repeated. A combination of 11 O'clock Tick Tock and I Will Follow were instead installed as the opening punch, and at the next two shows, The Unforgettable Fire came third in the setlist without MLK as an intro. At the fourth show, MLK returned as an intro to The Unforgettable Fire, and at the fifth, the opening duo and MLK/The Unforgettable Fire were separated by the insertion of Wire as the third song.

MLK/The Unforgettable Fire quickly settled into this spot of fourth/fifth and occupied it for most of the rest of the Unforgettable Fire Tour. The band did toy with its placement, though. From 12 November 1984, Birmingham to 1 December 1984, Upper Darby, they played it later in the main set, after A Sort Of Homecoming (or in the case of the Birmingham show, I Fall Down, which had made a rare return to the slot from which A Sort Of Homecoming had displaced it). When MLK/The Unforgettable Fire returned to fourth/fifth, the song in third place became Seconds and Wire was moved to follow The Unforgettable Fire. This was unchanged at almost all of the 1985 shows of the tour. Only on a few occasions did U2 deviate; examples include rare Indian Summer Sky performances between Seconds and MLK/The Unforgettable Fire at two consecutive European shows (1st and 2nd), and Two Hearts Beat As One, sometimes preceeded by Surrender, between Seconds and MLK/The Unforgettable Fire at a small handful of North American concerts. After The Unforgettable Fire, Bono would often link it to Wire with a statement along the lines of "there are two sides to The Unforgettable Fire. This [i.e. Wire] is the other side; a song about a hypodermic needle".

The Joshua Tree Tour, April to December 1987

The Unforgettable Fire missed the opening show of the Joshua Tree Tour, but it returned to the setlist at the second show, 4 April 1987 in Tempe. Again, MLK functioned as its intro. At this Tempe concert, U2 revisited their idea of opening with MLK/The Unforgettable Fire, but this time used it to open the encore rather than the entire concert. This time, the experiment did not go quite so badly, as evidenced by the fact it was continued at the next four shows, but ultimately U2 gave up on the idea. At 12 April 1987, Las Vegas, the duo were moved back into the main set. In Las Vegas, they followed Running To Stand Still, but the next night in San Diego, they immediately followed the opening trio of Where The Streets Have No Name, I Will Follow, and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (a trio later augmented by the addition of Trip Through Your Wires after I Will Follow). For most of the remainder of the tour, MLK/The Unforgettable Fire remained a fixture after Still Haven't Found early in the main set, even if the opening couple of songs changed.

However, all was not static. At four shows on the Joshua Tree Tour's first leg, Pride was placed with its thematic partner MLK. The first time this happened, 22 April 1987 in Los Angeles, The Unforgettable Fire did not come along for the ride; the show opened with Stand By Me, followed by MLK acting as Pride's intro; The Unforgettable Fire did not show up until the middle of the main set, after Running To Stand Still. However, the other three times that MLK joined Pride at the start of the show (1st, 2nd, and 3rd), it was played afterwards and The Unforgettable Fire could come along for the ride.

Apart from missing the opening show, The Unforgettable Fire appeared at all gigs on the Joshua Tree Tour's first leg. It remained a staple on the second, appearing at all thirty concerts (a record Streets cannot claim!). However, it entered into a decline on the third leg. Out of 50 shows, it was played at 35. It was played at all September and October 1987 shows, but when U2 appeared in Saint Paul on 3 and 4 November 1987, The Unforgettable Fire was nowhere to be found, even though MLK was played. It was restored to the setlist in Denver on 7 November 1987, but struggled to hold onto its place - eleven more concerts followed in that month, with The Unforgettable Fire played at only five of them. It then made just one appearance in December out of eight concerts; its final Joshua Tree Tour performance was on 8 December 1987 in Atlanta. Even in these late stages, MLK/The Unforgettable Fire was played after Still Haven't Found, although occasionally Out Of Control or Gloria were inserted in between.

Lovetown Tour, September 1989 to January 1990

The Unforgettable Fire's decline continued on Lovetown. It was soundchecked before the opening concert, 21 September 1989 in Perth, but like the JT Tour, did not actually appear in the set until the second show, again in Perth on 22 September. The Lovetown Tour began with trios of concerts in Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane, and it was done at only one show of each trio - in Sydney, it was again done at the second show of the trio, while in Brisbane it was done at the first. At all three of these shows, and indeed at every single Lovetown appearance, MLK functioned as its intro. Like on the Joshua Tree Tour, MLK/The Unforgettable Fire almost always followed Still Haven't Found. This was again in the main set, and usually but not every time in its early stages.

U2 then moved onto Melbourne for a stand of seven concerts, and The Unforgettable Fire appeared at three of them. At the third such appearance, on 14 October 1989, MLK/The Unforgettable Fire was separated from Still Haven't Found for the only time on the tour; All I Want Is You was played between them. After Melbourne, U2 were meant to play five shows in Sydney, but Bono's vocal problems caused three to be postponed; The Unforgettable Fire appeared in the set of one of the two shows played. Similarly, it was done at the first of two Adelaide shows.

U2 then crossed the Tasman Sea to play four shows in New Zealand, the country of The Unforgettable Fire's debut, but it was not included in any of the sets. However, when the band returned to Sydney to play the three postponed gigs, it appeared in the set of the first show of the trio, 17 November 1989. Six shows in Japan followed, of which The Unforgettable Fire featured in only two. Heading into the European leg of the tour, its days were quite clearly numbered.

The European leg was meant to have two shows in Paris, three in Dortmund, and three in Amsterdam before concluding with four in Dublin to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. The Unforgettable Fire appeared in the first shows in Paris, Dortmund, and Amsterdam - and then Bono's vocal problems returned. Bono's voice showed signs of strain during The Unforgettable Fire at the first Amsterdam show and he ultimately could not go on, with the show finishing prematurely. The subsequent two Amsterdam concerts were rescheduled as four shows in Rotterdam in January 1990 and Bono was ordered to rest for a week.

When the band returned to the stage on 26 December 1989, The Unforgettable Fire did not. Its return was the next night, the 27th; this was its sole appearance in Dublin and, at present, its penultimate live performance. Early in the new year, The Unforgettable Fire managed to just sneak out of the 1980s. Its 208th and last live appearance was at the second Rotterdam concert on 6 January 1990.

360° Tour, 2009: A resurrection?

Despite appearing on the Best Of 1980-1990, The Unforgettable Fire was not played on any of ZooTV, Popmart, Elevation, or Vertigo. It was considered in some context on Elevation in 2001 - the studio version was played as taped outro music when U2 performed at Slane Castle.

Now, however, the band are actively rehearsing it in Barcelona. It has been rehearsed on multiple days between Unknown Caller and City Of Blinding Lights, perhaps as part of a segment. Interestingly, at the 22 June 2009 rehearsal, the band multiple times soundchecked a segue from The Unforgettable Fire into Vertigo. This segue has not been repeated at subsequent rehearsals. Those of us who are fans of the song (myself included) can only hope that within a few days, regardless of what songs it is paired with, it will have returned to the setlist. After all, a rehearsal is no guarantee of a setlist spot.

Posted on by Axver

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