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Remembering U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name, 30 years later

music

Carefully planned chaos: A look at how an iconic video came together 30 years ago

U2 singer Bono performs in the video for Where the Streets Have No Name.

Marsha Lederman looks back at the shoot for Where the Streets Have No Name as U2 readies its Joshua Tree tour in Vancouver

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Something beautiful has been happening on the streets of downtown Vancouver. (Or possibly irritating, depending on where you stand on U2). People have been hanging around outside BC Place, sitting on curbs or condo balconies above, listening to the band rehearse ahead of launching its world tour here Friday, marking the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. Based on the songs blasting out of the stadium, it sounds as though fans may get to hear every track of the band's 1987 seminal album, as well as other early hits, including New Year's Day and Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Thirty years ago in Los Angeles, music-video director Meiert Avis also had a vision for bringing U2 fans out to the streets. The streets had names – 7th and Main – if not the greatest reputation, back then. In downtown L.A., it was considered a bit of a rough area. For the video for Where the Streets Have No Name, Avis wanted U2 to perform on a building roof, in an homage to the Beatles' final public performance. The stunt was also meant to announce U2's arrival to the big, big time. U2 – a band Avis had been working with since the beginning – were already rock stars, but with the release of The Joshua Tree, they were on the brink of being gigantic.

The intent "was to be disruptive, the truth be told. And just for the point of rock 'n' roll," Avis says from L.A., where he now lives. "That was the album that was going to put them into the public eye, so [we were] using a flash mob scenario to create a spontaneous media event that one couldn't help but notice."

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The video became a one-storey high point for the band in a heady year that was full of them.

"It was definitely one of the events that kind of broke the band, just from a media point of view. It was an inevitability anyway, given the people behind the band and the label efforts behind the band – and the music," Avis says.

U2 guitarist The Edge performs in the video for Where the Streets Have No Name.

The video begins with clips of radio DJs informing their listeners that U2 would be doing a video shoot that afternoon at 7th and Main in downtown Los Angeles – a tip and a warning.

"[The radio station owners] were really specific about us mentioning that it's not the safest part of town to go to, just so we weren't liable for anything," says radio host Rita Wilde, whose voice you hear first. (In the original video before the reissue, she explains, hers was the only voice.) "They really wanted us to stress that fact."

Over on-air banter by Wilde – then co-host of the morning show for 95.5 KLOS – and other DJs, we see shots of the band and crew setting up for the performance on top of a one-storey building, a liquor store (now a Mexican restaurant called Margarita's Place). Crews had earlier reinforced the roof, in case fans somehow managed to climb up.

"There were all kinds of insurance issues and logistical issues and legal issues that didn't bother us because we were so naive and from out of town," says Avis, who, like the band, is from Ireland. "You need a measure of stupidity and ignorance to do that kind of thing … but I was blessed to have that at the time. I'm not sure many people were around who had the same fearless naiveté."

Avis is a music-video veteran, who both pioneered the art form and triumphed with it, with artists including Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. He calls music-video shooting "a very, very stressful form of filmmaking" because so much is in the director's head and so much is unpredictable. And in a case such as Streets, if it didn't work the first time, you can't return for a re-shoot.

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U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name was shot at 7th and Main in downtown Los Angeles.

"So you just have a nasty feeling of fear in your stomach. It's sort of half exciting and half you want to vomit."

The understanding, going in, was that the video would be shut down by the authorities, which produced the narrative for the video. There are shots of police warning the production team about the potential for danger amid shots of the crowds arriving.

"It's chaos but it's very carefully planned," Avis says. "But it's still chaos."

"It was crazed," says Wilde, who went down there after her shift, one of at least 1,000 people who turned up. "It was energetic. You knew that it was something special."

Ronny Bensimon, who works at Dearden's furniture store across the street, left his post to watch from the sidewalk.

"I was hoping the roof wasn't going to cave in; that's a pretty rickety building they were standing on," says Bensimon, who was then the store's vice-president, and is now CEO.

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He watched people climb trees and fire-escape ladders on his own building, or stream onto the street, blocking traffic – and rock out.

"We were just worried that we've got plate-glass windows everywhere and hopefully somebody wasn't going through one of the windows."

Nobody did. Other than a bad day for selling home furnishings, Bensimon says there were no problems. "It was a well-behaved crowd," he says. "Rowdy, but well behaved."

The band performed a mix of live songs and the video shoot to playback. Wilde recalls they did Streets four times before they were shut down.

Director Meiert Avis appears in a shot of the music video for Where the Streets Have No Name.

"The whole thing was meant to happen in magic hour as the sun went down," says Avis, noting the video was shut down "way earlier" than anticipated. "I think [the police] behaved impeccably, frankly. They didn't lose their marbles, they didn't get angry, but they were totally firm. Eventually, they pulled the fuse out of the generator." Anticipating this, Avis's crew had another generator on the roof on standby.

You can see Avis toward the end of the video, with his long hair and glasses, talking to the band's manager, as it's all going down.

"Bono wasn't really trying to rabble-rouse or create a riot; his comment in the video is, 'I think we're being shut down,' and everybody was like, 'Oh, it was kind of inevitable.' People just accepted it, like, oh, that was fun, a short breath of fresh air."

The team decamped to the Sunset Marquis, where they gleefully watched themselves on the news.

The understanding was always that the video would be shut down by the authorities, which produced its narrative.

"We were sitting in this rock 'n' roll hotel in Hollywood watching and the thing had just played out perfectly," Avis says. "It was like winning a football match or something."

The next day, Wilde was told the band wanted the audio of her show, so she sent off a tape. But she never heard anything about it again – until she was record shopping on Oxford Street in London.

"They had all these big TV monitors up and the video came on and I'm looking around, saying, 'That sounds like me.' … That's when I first learned about it and it was such a special, surreal sort of moment," says Wilde, who now does evenings at 100.3 The Sound. She remains a big fan; she'll be in Vancouver for Friday's concert, which she calculates will be her 57th U2 show.

A modern-day view of the street where U2’s music video was shot.

Meiert Avis photo

Bensimon, now 60, says he had been vaguely aware of U2 before that day and became a fan afterward.

"One thing that's interesting: even recently, some people I meet, I tell them where I work [and they say] 'Wasn't that where they did the U2 video?'"

Avis has made a long list of music videos over his career – and laments that video directors don't get much recognition for their craft. But this video, which won a Grammy Award, has been different.

"When you meet people and they go, 'What do you do?' And you tell them you made that video, it always brings a smile," he says. "I think it genuinely lights people up in some way that that happened, that it could happen."

U2 The Joshua Tree Tour kicks off in Vancouver May 12 and is at Rogers Centre in Toronto June 23.

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