It peaked at #13 in the United States, #14 in Canada, and #4 in the United Kingdom. The song became a staple of live shows, being played 645 times at 642 shows since its inaugural performance 2 April 1987 in Tempe, Arizona. Its critical reception was mostly warm, praised by music critics such as Rolling Stone. In Rolling Stone issue 1054, the song was ranked 28th in the issue's list of the "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time."
"Where the Streets Have No Name" was conceived prior to one of the Joshua Tree recording sessions by guitarist The Edge. While recording the song as a band, however, they ran into difficulty. The song's frequent chord and time changes caused problems in playing the song correctly; the difficulty was so great that producer Brian Eno attempted to erase the track. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. later said of the song, "It took so long to get that song right, it was difficult for us to make any sense of it. It only became a truly great song through playing live. On the record, musically, it's not half the song it is live." Originally, the third single from The Joshua Tree was meant to be the song "Red Hill Mining Town", but "Where the Streets Have No Name" was released instead.
The song is interpreted in different ways; a common interpretation of the lyrics is that it refers to the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, where a person's religion is evident by the street they live on. In a 1987 interview, Bono said of the song:
"Where the Streets Have No Name is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it’s a sketch - I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling. I often feel very claustrophobic in a city, a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and a feeling of wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don’t hold you down. An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making - literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. You can almost tell what the people are earning by the name of the street they live on and what side of that street they live on. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name.
He also alluded to this in a 2000 interview, saying in response to the question of what place he was referring to in the song's lyrics, "I'm not sure, really, about that. I used to think it was Belfast, you know, 'cos in Belfast you can tell somebody's religion, you know, from what street they live on. You just have to say where you're born and everybody knows if you're a Catholic or a Protestant and... I think that might have been where "Where The Streets Have No Name" started from as an idea." He said later in the same interview that the song was about "Transcendence, elevation, whatever you want to call it."
The album version of "Where the Streets Have No Name" opens with an instrumental section, starting with chorale-like synthesizer notes; the guitar, bass, and drums fade in near the one-minute mark. This part, following a I-IV-I-IV-vi-V-I chord progression, creates a "wall of sound", as described by Mark Butler, against which the vocals finally emerge after nearly two whole minutes. The bass and drums continue in regular eighth and sixteenth notes, while Bono's vocal performance, in contrast, varies greatly in its timbre, ("he sighs; he moans; he grunts; he exhales audibly; he allows his voice to crack") as well as timing by his usage of rubato to slightly offset the notes he sings from the beat. The guitar part is an arpeggio that uses delay, so each note in the arpeggio sounds twice.
This development reaches a climax during the first chorus at the line "burning down love" (A-G-F#-D); the melody progresses through a series of scale degrees that lead to the highest note in the song, the A4 at "burning". In later choruses, Bono sings "blown by the wind" with the same melody, stretching the same note even longer.
Since its concert introduction on 2 April 1987 in Tempe, Arizona, "Where the Streets Have No Name" has been played at almost every show up until the end of the Vertigo Tour. There are slight variations in the live presentation versus the recorded version; the final verse is played differently, and Clayton plays a particularly striking melodic bassline in the chorus, reminiscent of the style of Peter Hook, along the outline of a guitar part on the record. The Edge has always used a Fender Stratocaster of some sort for this song. On The Joshua Tree Tour and Vertigo Tour, he used a black with black pickguard 70s-era Stratocaster. On the Lovetown Tour, he used a Lace Sensor pickup-equipped yellow Stratocaster with a black pickguard. On the Zoo TV, PopMart and Elevation Tours, he has used a 60s-era Stratocaster that is black with a white pickguard.
During live performances, the beginning of the song has been accompanied by a red background. This background has appeared on both TV screens (The Joshua Tree Tour to Elevation Tour) and in the form of flashing lights (Vertigo Tour). The red background has appeared in the beginning on all occasions save a few exceptions—most notably at the Super Bowl performance where the names of those who perished in the events of September 11, 2001 attacks scrolled behind the band and on the Vertigo Tour, where scrolling African flags took its place. But on stadium performances in the European, Latin American, and Pacific legs, the red background would appear at the end of the song.
This video was directed by Meiert Avis. The song was performed to playback on the rooftop of the Republic Liquor Store at East 7th Street and South Main Street in Los Angeles on 27 March 1987. The scenes including the police shutting the video down due to traffic concerns are real, although the video was edited and heavily overdubbed to make it appear the band arrogantly defied the police and kept on filming the video. In reality they stopped performing upon being ordered to do so. In 1988, the music video won a Grammy Award for "Best Performance Music Video".
This was the most common 12" release. The 7" version omitted "Race Against Time". "The Sweetest Thing" made its first appearance on this single, as an outtake from The Joshua Tree. The song would later be rerecorded and released as a single from the band's 1998, The Best of 1980-1990. The single version of "Where the Streets Have No Name" is a different mix from the album, having a shorter introduction and close, and featuring additional backing vocals from The Edge. The single version was later included on the bonus disc of the 20th anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree.
"Silver and Gold" was later recorded in the studio by U2, and released as a B-side on the "Where the Streets Have No Name" single. The song was played live on The Joshua Tree Tour several times, one performance making onto the bands 1988 album and rockumentary, Rattle and Hum. Both the studio recording and the Sun City version were later featured on the bonus disc of the 20th anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree. The studio version also included on the limited edition B-sides bonus disk of the band's first compilation album, The Best of 1980-1990.
|UK Singles Chart||4|
|US Billboard Hot 100||13|
|US Mainstream Rock Tracks||11|
The version has been called by the Pet Shop Boys, in the liner notes for the album Discography, that they wanted to turn "a mythic rock song into a stomping disco record."
The Pet Shop Boys version has been significantly changed in its musical arrangement from the original version. In contrast to the U2 version's instrumental build-up, the Pet Shop Boys version opens abruptly with synthesized and sampled noises and a drum machine. The musical climax of the song is also changed in other elements; a background vocal sample of "burning down love" is played right at the start, and synthesized horns erupt with even higher notes immediately following each chorus. Singer Neil Tennant performs the lyrics with no vocal exertion or stresses, in contrast to Bono's performance. In addition, at the transition between "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Can't Take My Eyes off You", Tennant sings the two lines one after the other, with no change in pitch — pointing out the similarities in the two songs.
This version has been paired with "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?", a song criticizing the insincere humanitarian messages of a number of pop stars during the 1980s and the institutionalization of rock and roll.
The Pet Shop Boys have performed the medley live as recently as during their 2007 Fundamental tour, as well as at the Moscow Live 8 concert of 2005.