The Infinite Jukebox: U2’s ‘With or Without You’


I remember this song for one moment.
Back in the Eighties I had a slowly expanding group of friends who I saw down one back-of-Piccadilly pub every Tuesday and Thursday night, for years. It started with a bunch who, like me, were into comics, and gradually I met more and more of the regulars, who knew all or some of the gang of which I had become part.
These included a truly sweet and lovely young lady named Felicity, who we all called Fliss, who was one of the nicest people I ever met. She was part of a musical family, and part of a family band, which included a brother and two sisters, one husband and one boyfriend. Fliss played keyboards and sang backing vocals.
A couple of times, we went to see them play, in local clubs or pubs. They were called Early Warning then, and they had a cassette of seven songs that I bought and must still have, somewhere, since it wasn’t something I would have got rid of. Later, they became The Bosnian State Opera, then shortened that to just The Bosnians.
Much as I liked them, as people and as a band, I couldn’t see them getting anywhere. Their music was clever, their harmonies brilliant, but they were out of step with what was music in 1987, and I couldn’t see them ever being commercial.
That year, they entered into a Manchester Evening News talent contest, something like six rounds of half a dozen bands playing a two-song set, the winner of each round going through to the final. We all piled in to support them. It was a crappy evening, none of the other bands were any good. Early Warning were the best on, and that wasn’t just my bias talking, but they only came second.
So that was that, though we didn’t all clear off then. We stayed to console Fliss and the rest, to have another round of drinks: not me, I was driving, I’d had my limit for the night. It was 1987, and I recall it, because it was the year of U2’s The Joshua Tree, which I’d bought. The first single off that was ‘With or Without You’, a surprisingly subtle and initially subdued song that was played throughout with great control and precision, Bono’s voice held well within himself and starting in a lower register than his usually bombastic style, but which grew in strength until bursting out into a succession of ‘oh-oh-oh-oh’s.
And I’m ready to go just as soon as everybody I’m giving a lift to is ready, and it’s edging towards midnight and I have to be up for work tomorrow, and ‘With or Without You’ comes on and I love this and I’m on what, on another occasion would be the dancefloor, and my body start to move to the rhythms, and I’m singing softly, aping Bono’s vocals, as unconsciously as I might sway in the privacy of my bedroom, because I am hypnotised by the song, and I am in all but a trance, possessed and isolated. And I know the song is but a fraction over five minutes long, but I am consumed by it and time has no meaning except as a rhythm to which I step, slowly from side to side, my head nodding, as lost as I have ever been in music and U2 could keep this going for half the night and I would not notice.
And nobody notices me, and I notice that fact, and the music winds down and I am once again in a Manchester club late on, and with all due respect to Fliss, and Pete, and Kate and Anna, and Dave and Karen’s boyfriend the drummer, who I can see in my memory but can’t remember his name, I was there that night to see you but I took somebody else’s music home with me.
And every time I play it again, not that that’s often because me and U2 have this agreement not to give a toss about each other that’s been going on for near three decades, I am on my own on that dancefloor in the dark, lost in the song and moving in a way I’ve forgotten since my knees will no longer allow me to do that.
And that is the moment I remember this song for.

4 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: U2’s ‘With or Without You’

  1. A lovely piece, which beautifully illustrates how music soundtracks our lives—certain songs having the ability to transport us back to precious moments when they first spoke to us.

    My relationship with U2 is much like yours, but With or Without You is a a fine song, in no small measure due to Bono’s uncharacteristic restraint. But this post is about much more than that—it captures something essential, universal yet deeply personal about the power of good music.

    1. The song holds that night within it, and even though its essence is a moment of aloneness, the friends of the time, none of whom I see any more.

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