The performance that U2 gave in the DVD is my personal all-time favourite live performance I have seen. To explain why I see things that way, I’ll go through what the song Sunday Bloody Sunday represents to me personally first.
To me the song is essentially a militaristic rallying call. Although instead of call for arms, it’s a call to drop their weapons. If we see in a military action movie where the hero makes a rousing inspirational speech to their soldiers that inspires them before they march out to battle. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a music representation of that phenomenon but with an opposite message.
Songs that call for peace are fairly common in rock music but what I feel is unique about Sunday Bloody Sunday is that it is taking the anger, feelings of injustice that could have potentially inspired people to take up arms and used that same emotions tho fuel peace. Essentially the same emotions that could cause people to pick up weapons could also cause people to drop it.
The way the song achieves this was done with my personal favourite drumming moment in rock music, which is the military band drum intro. Sure there’s nothing technically difficult and there’s nothing particularly special about it in isolation but to me it’s the most emotionally resonant drum beat in context of the song due to what it represents and how integral it is to the message of the song. The idea of pacifist marching in the same discipline unity as any soldier marching to battle is quite a powerful message. It’s much as part of the DNA of the song as Edge guitar riff or a Bono vocal melody.
Due to the unique nature and message of the song, I don’t believe a studio version can possibly be the definitive version of the song. What is a rallying call without a crowd? Sure perhaps an individual could be emotionally move listening to the song on headphones but the only way the message of the song can be maximised if there is a large audience responding to it because that is consistent with the artistic direction of the song.
Now the popular definitive live version of the song is generally the Under The Blood Red Sky Red Rocks performance. It was considered by Rolling Stones magazine as one of the “Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll” particularly due to the iconic imagery of Bono marching with the white flag . However as brilliant as that live version, I believe that the Rattle and Hum version tops that.
What makes the Rattle and Hum version special and elevates this above every other version of the song in my opinion is that there is a character arc in this song due to it’s rearrangement. Using the “heroes inspirational speech to the soldiers before marching to battle” analogy that I mention before, instead of heading straight to the speech and then the march. The songs starts with a preceding trigger that made the march necessary and shows the steps that led to the marching to battle. It begin with Bono talking about the Enniskillen massacre and when the song begins, it’s not with a marching band but it’s a stripped down arrangement with just Edge on a guitar and Bono singing on top of that. The meaning behind “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away” with a marching band on top and one with a strip down arrangement is completely different as the former is a display of righteous indignation but the latter is someone with utter shock and sorrow which is the natural reaction that everyone has to a tragedy like that. Of course the band eventually did kick in and the righteous indignation came in but having the sorrow preceding the indignation follows the reaction to a terrorist attack in a more realistic manner. People mourn the dead first before focusing on the perpetrator. Then what happens after the guitar solo is where the song combines the symbolic rallying call of the music with a literal rallying call. Bono goes on a passionate speech denouncing the terrorist attack. What happens in the movie when a leader makes an inspiration speech to their soldiers, well the soldier cheers. Well in this song when Bono shouted out “Fuck the Revolution” the crowd cheers along with him. When Bono screams out “No More” the crowd responds and shouts along with him buying into Bono rallying call for peace. At the end the iconic drum intro that was absent at the beginning returns symbolising that the crowd that Bono won over during the speech is now marching along with him to the battle lines with discipline unity in calling for peace. There’s now an arc to the song with the shock and sorrow at the beginning that turned to righteous indignation that inspired the protagonist of the song to make a rousing speech denouncing the attack that inspired the crowd to march with him for peace. It’s a story with the beginning, middle and end while the studio version really only focus on the last part of the story.
Now there are two common complaints to this live version. The first is the absence of the marching band drum intro at the beginning who some people claim that the absence of the iconic drum lines at the beginning defeat the purpose of the song and remove a lot of the power. However I will argue that by delaying that intro and turning it into an outro, it makes the drum line even more powerful. As in this arrangement it is the culmination of every preceding event of the song. The second complaint is that people hate it when Bono goes on a speech in the middle of the song which I can somewhat sympathise with. However I will argue that in contrast to every other time Bono goes on a speech, this time it compositionally fits. As I already explained, the events naturally led up to that speech, the speech naturally led to the conclusion and the speech is simply an extension of the call to arm atmosphere of the music.