U2’s ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ Explores Personal Costs in an Economic Downturn: The Story Behind Every ‘Joshua Tree’ Song
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In Bono‘s mind, U2‘s “Red Hill Mining Town” was always linked with its predecessor “Running to Stand Still” – and, on some level, that makes sense. Both detail the personal conflicts that unfold just beneath the surface of larger societal ills. But that’s where the similarities end.
Whereas “Running to Stand Still” used stirring, often universal imagery to frame the dead-end life of a junkie, “Red Hill Mining Town” took a far more literal, direct tack in describing the breakdown of a marriage amidst the the doomed 1984-85 British miners’ strike. Both in scope and approach, it was very much in keeping with the old American protest tunes which Bono had been delving into back then.
“People beat me with a stick for that,” Bono told Colm O’Hare in 2007. “But what I’m interested in is seeing in the newspaper or the television that another thousand people have lost their jobs. Now what you don’t read about is that those people go home and they have families and they’re trying to bring up children.”
In this way, “Red Hill Mining Town” had much in common with earlier U2 songs like “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat As One,” both of which focused on the search for community in the face of a much broader struggle. But Bono was on to something different here, as he dealt with an issue that was rapidly becoming one of Britain’s most controversial.
The National Union of Mineworkers walked off the job in 1984 after the government, led by Margaret Thatcher, moved to close a series of unprofitable U.K. coal mines across working-class communities in the Midlands and North of England. Violent confrontations followed as socio-economic battle lines were drawn, but ultimately the miners’ protests were thwarted. At the same time, a chance encounter with Bob Dylan had convinced Bono to dig more deeply into the heartfelt, but often brutally frank works of 20th century folk singers.
“I was interested in the miners’ strike politically, but I wanted to write about it on a more personal level. A cold statistic about a pit closure and redundancies that follow is drastic enough on one level, but it never tells the full human story. I wanted to follow the miner home and write about that situation in the song,” Bono told NME in 1987. “The untold story of the coal strike is the number of family relationships that either broke down or were put under great strain. That was the final blow. Men would lose their pride in themselves and wouldn’t be able to face their children or sleep with their wives.”
“Red Hill Mining Town” evolved out of early writing sessions for The Joshua Tree, held in November 1985 at drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s new home in north Dublin. There, U2 huddled into a spare bedroom to work out a few initial sketches. “With or Without You” also began to take shape these sessions, and both songs were highly regarded by the band. “Red Hill Mining Town,” however, would endure a strange, much different fate. Originally U2 liked it so much that they considered it for a single, but the band eventually decided to release “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” instead.
“We went ahead and made a video for it with Neil Jordan and we were very pretty confident about it,” the Edge told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Then as the weeks went by and we sort of got back our objectivity, views started to change.”
Island Records president Lou Maglia had spent that time tirelessly campaigning. “I had ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ at No. 1 at album radio – which is a very important format in the United States – while ‘With or Without You’ was No. 1 at Top 40,” Maglia says in U2: The Definitive Biography. “Then I got a phone call from [label founder] Chris [Blackwell] and he said that the band’s decided that they don’t want to go with ‘I Still Haven’t Found,’ and I said: ‘What?!'”
Maglia ended up flying to Houston, where U2 were performing, to hash things out. “The record is set up to be a No. 1 record, as well as ‘With or Without You,'” Maglia says he told the Edge. They dragged their feet another five days before finally giving Maglia the go-ahead. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” became U2’s second consecutive chart-topping smash, and “a pivotal point in their career as far as launching them into that megastar status,” Maglia notes.
Meanwhile, “Red Hill Mining Town” continued to sink into oblivion. Jordan’s video was shelved and, when Bono had trouble hitting the deeply emotional song’s tricky high notes, it was dropped from the subsequent tour all together.
Decades passed, and “Red Hill Mining Town” somehow never made it onto a U2 set list. Mullen later dubbed it “one of the lost songs,” before the band belatedly pledged to re-record the track in celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree – and then to finally perform it on stage.
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