“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a song by Irish rock band U2. It is the second track from their 1987 album The Joshua Tree and was released as the album’s second single in May 1987. The song was a hit, becoming the band’s second consecutive number-one single on the US Billboard Hot 100 while peaking at number six on the UK Singles Chart.
The song originated from a demo the band recorded on which drummer Larry Mullen Jr. played a unique rhythm pattern. Like much of The Joshua Tree, the song was inspired by the group’s interest in American music. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” exhibits influences from gospel music and its lyrics describe spiritual yearning. Lead singer Bono’s vocals are in high register and lead guitarist the Edge plays a chiming arpeggio. Adding to the gospel qualities of the song are choir-like backing vocals provided by the Edge and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was critically acclaimed and received two nominations at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards in 1988, for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It has subsequently become one of the group’s most well-known songs and has been performed on many of their concert tours. The track has appeared on several of their compilations and concert films. Many critics and publications have ranked “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” among the greatest tracks in music history including Rolling Stone which ranked the song at #93 of its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
The song originated from a demo variously titled “The Weather Girls” and “Under the Weather” that the band recorded during a jam session. Bassist Adam Clayton called the demo’s melody “a bit of a one-note groove”, while an unconvinced The Edge, the band’s guitarist, compared it to “‘Eye of the Tiger’ played by a reggae band”. However, the band liked the drum part played by drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Co-producer Daniel Lanois said, “It was a very original beat from Larry. We always look for those beats that would qualify as a signature for the song. And that certainly was one of those. It had this tom-tom thing that he does and nobody ever understands. And we just didn’t want to let go of that beat, it was so unique.” Lanois encouraged Mullen to continue developing the weird drum pattern beyond the demo. Mullen said the beat became even more unusual, and although Lanois eventually mixed most of the pattern out to just keep the basics, the rhythm became the root of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
“I’ve always liked gospel music and I encouraged Bono to take it to that place…It was a very non-U2 thing to do at the time, to go up the street of gospel. I think it opened a door for them, to experiment with that territory…[Bono]’s singing at the top of his range and there is something very compelling about somebody pushing themselves. It’s like hearing Aretha Franklin almost. It jumps on you and you can’t help but feel the feeling.”
The group worked on the track at the studio they had set up at Danesmoate House in Dublin. Lanois compared the creation of the song to constructing a building, first laying down the drums as the foundation, then adding additional layers piece by piece, before finally “putting in furniture”. Lead singer Bono was interested in the theme of spiritual doubt, which was fostered by Eno’s love for gospel music, and by Bono’s listening to songs by The Swan Silvertones, The Staple Singers, and Blind Willie Johnson. After the Edge wrote a chord sequence and played it on acoustic guitar “with a lot of power in the strumming”, the group attempted to compose a suitable vocal melody, trying out a variety of ideas. During a jam session, Bono began singing a “classic soul” melody, and it was this addition that made the Edge hear the song’s potential. At that point, he remembered a phrase he had written in a notebook that morning as a possible song title, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. He suggests it was influenced by a line from the Bob Dylan song “Idiot Wind”: “You’ll find out when you reach the top you’re on the bottom“. He wrote the phrase on a piece of paper and handed it to Bono while he was singing. The Edge called the phrase’s fit with the song “like hand in glove”. From that point on, the song was the first piece played to visitors during the recording sessions.
As recording continued, a number of guitar overdubs were added, including an auto-pan effect and a chiming arpeggio to modernise the old-style “gospel song”. While the Edge was improvising guitar parts one day, Bono heard a “chrome bells” guitar hook that he liked. It was added as a counter-melody to the song’s “muddy shoes” guitar part, and it is this hook that the Edge plays during live performances of the song. Bono sang in the upper register of his range to add to the feeling of spiritual yearning; in the verses he hits a B-flat note, and an A-flat in the chorus. Background vocals were provided by the Edge, Lanois, and co-producer Brian Eno, their voices being multi-tracked. Lanois suggests that his and Eno’s involvement in the track’s creation helped their vocals. He stated, “You’re not going to get that sound of, ‘Oh they brought in some soul singers’ if you know what I mean. Our hearts and souls are already there. If we sing it’ll sound more real.” Lanois also played a percussive guitar part, which is heard in the introduction. The song’s writing was completed relatively early during the band’s time at Danesmoate House. The mix took longer to complete, though, with most of the production team contributing. The final mix was completed by Lanois and the Edge in a home studio set up at Melbeach, a house purchased by the Edge. They mixed it on top of a previous Steve Lillywhite mix, which gave the song a phasing sound.
Lanois says he is very attached to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and has, on occasion, joined U2 on stage to perform it. The original “Weather Girls” demo, re-titled “Desert of Our Love”, was included with the 2007 remastered version of The Joshua Tree on a bonus disc of outtakes and B-sides.
The music video for the song was filmed on Fremont Street in Las Vegas on 12 April 1987 following their Joshua Tree Tour concert in that city. It features the band members wandering around while the Edge plays an acoustic guitar. The music video was later re-released on The U218 Videos compilation DVD. Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas’s official event organization, credits the group’s video with improving the city’s image among musicians. “The whole perception of Vegas changed with that video,” Christenson said, adding, “Now all the big names come here, some of them five, six times a year.”
The song is U2’s 9th most played live song, and has been played on every tour. It was played at every date of The Joshua Tree and Lovetown Tours, typically early in the main set. It was played at most of the 1992 legs of the Zoo TV Tour, typically rounding out the main set or being played acoustically on the B-Stage mid-set. For most of the 1993 Zooropa shows however, the song was dropped. It returned to be played at each of the PopMart Tour’s 93 shows, usually being played midway through the set. On the Elevation Tour it initially was very rare, only appearing once over the first and second legs. However, it became a regular again on the 3rd leg, being played late in the main set replacing the song “Mysterious Ways”, which was used in that spot on the previous two legs. It was played at the majority of both the Vertigo and U2 360° Tours, typically early-to-mid main set. It was used as the closing song at just under half of the shows on the Innocence + Experience Tour, rotating with “One” and “40”.
Island Records commissioned New York choir director, Dennis Bell, to record a gospel version of the song, and Island intended to release it after U2’s single. However, Island boss Chris Blackwell vetoed the plan. Bell subsequently formed his own label and Rohit Jagessar picked it up for distribution in the US. While in Glasgow in late July 1987 during the Joshua Tree Tour, Rob Partridge of Island Records played the demo that Bell and his choir, the New Voices of Freedom, had made. In late September, U2 rehearsed with Bell’s choir in Greater Calvary Baptist Church in Harlem for a performance together in a few days at U2’s Madison Square Garden concert. The Edge’s guitar was the only instrument that U2 brought to the church although Mullen borrowed a conga drum. The rehearsal was done with the church’s audio system and footage was used in the Rattle and Hum motion picture. Several performances were made with a piano player; however, the version used in the film includes only Bono, the Edge, Mullen, and the choir. Audio from the Madison Square Garden performance appears on the accompanying album.
A live performance of the song appears in the concert films PopMart: Live from Mexico City, Vertigo 05: Live from Milan, Live from Paris and the most recent U2 360° at the Rose Bowl. The versions on the Mexico City and Milan concert films consist of just Bono’s voice and the Edge’s guitar until after the first chorus where the drum and bass parts kick in. Digital live versions were released through iTunes on the Love: Live from the Point Depot and U2.COMmunication albums.
The song has been acclaimed by many critics and publications as one of the greatest songs of all time. In 2001, the song was ranked at number 120 on the RIAA’s list of 365 “Songs of the Century”—a project intended to “promote a better understanding of America’s musical and cultural heritage”—despite the group’s Irish origins. In 2003, a special edition issue of Q, titled “1001 Best Songs Ever”, placed “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at number 148 on its list of the greatest songs. In 2005, Blender ranked the song at number 443 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born”. In 2010, Rolling Stone placed the song at number 93 of its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn called it U2’s “Let It Be”, in reference to the Beatles song. The staff of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as one of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
The song was covered by Scottish band the Chimes in 1990 and was featured on their self-titled debut album. The rendition peaked at number six in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand charts. It also peaked into number twelve in the Netherlands chart. Singer Cher used to open her shows with a cover of the song during her late 1990s and 2000s concerts.
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