U2’s ‘Running to Stand Still’ Explores the Dark Territory of Addiction: The Story Behind Every ‘Joshua Tree’ Song
The lyrical approach on U2's "Running to Stand Still" was as meticulously particular as the music was extemporaneous. That alluring complexity turned this tale of a heroin-addicted couple living in a run-down seven-building Dublin tenement into one of the best deep cuts on The Joshua Tree.
Desperate and sick in the midst of an '80s drug epidemic, they contemplate leaving Ballymun Flats – the complex provided one of this song's central images – in search of one final score. ("I see seven towers," Bono sings, "but I only see one way out.") That searing, carefully constructed imagery is paired with a largely improvised musical accompaniment keyed by the Edge's murmuring piano and co-producer Daniel Lanois' scraping guitar work.
"There's this thing, if you're really desperate in Dublin, you can risk all or nothing on a 'run,'" Bono told Rolling Stone in 1987. "If you've got a really bad habit, you can go to Amsterdam or Pakistan or wherever and risk smuggling in a big bag. You either go down for life or you get rich quick."
This seemingly hopeless situation is framed by the failure of the old central-planning idea at Ballymun Flats. Meant to provide housing as poorer residents were pushed out of the inner city, the '60s-era housing development instead devolved into uprooted alienation, then squalor and lawlessness. Bono, who lived as a child in a more well-to-do neighborhood on Cedarwood Road adjacent to Ballymun Flats, described it as "an attempt by Ireland towards modernity in high-rise living" in 2006's U2 by U2. "Just as everyone else in Europe had found out tower blocks were not a good idea, we started building them," he added. "We used to go up and down in the lifts, because we weren't used to having lifts. Then they started to break down, and the stairs began to stink of piss."
The resulting track, so free form, trance-like and strikingly bleak, pointed directly to the often-overlooked influence of the Velvet Underground on U2. Bono later acknowledged that "Running to Stand Still" was all the "red-handed proof" anyone needed. (For his part, the late Lou Reed had also showered the band with praise.)
“It’s one of those songs where people were gathered around in a huddle," Lanois told Colm O'Hare in 2007. "Bono had the words written; this was a nice opportunity to get something live. I remember that tender moment, me playing that scrape guitar, Larry [Mullen Jr.] on the tom-tom. There was just a wonderful communication happening in the room at that time. I think it’s what people feel on that record, there was really a presence of performance.”
At the same time, the track remains open to broader reinterpretations. "Running to Stand Still" could also suggest a battle over some other personal adversity, or a search for earthly salvation. You didn't have to grow up on Dublin's Northside to connect with these struggles.
But Bono did, and what he saw stuck with him. In fact, this wasn't the first time a U2 song was shaded by the specter of drug abuse. Bassist Adam Clayton, who was said to have been devastated by the contemporary decline and death of fellow Irish rocker Phil Lynott, has reportedly referred to "Running to Stand Still" as a kind of sequel to "Bad" from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire.
"It's amazing how cheap smack did Dublin in," Bono told Rolling Stone. "And then some of my best friends started. It all got a bit messy then. I wrote 'Bad' out of that, and on this record I wrote 'Running to Stand Still.'" He then quotes the song, saying: "'I took the poison, from the poison stream, and I floated out of here.' It's almost the only way out of here."
Thankfully, U2 were among the lucky ones. Today, the towers of Ballymun Flats have long since been demolished, but "Running to Stand Still" remains.
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