The Story Behind the U2 Video Filmed in Las Vegas
U2 ON FREMONT STREET IN LAS VEGAS (FILMING “I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR”)
Note: Continuing my tribute to Las Vegas and its colorful history on this the 20th anniversary of my relocation, here’s a look at some of the most memorable moments in pop culture which happened here.
The song is a feeling that most of us have shared at one time or another in our lives. Maybe more than once. After graduation. Following a breakup. After losing a job. Even upon retiring from a long career. Its message about searching for something is timeless but hopeful. It applies and appeals to everyone.
Music videos were a really big thing back in 1987. An artist or a band couldn’t have a hit song without also making an accompanying music video. Some of those videos were epic, even better than the songs. Most were forgotten a very long time ago. One video, this one, has stood the test of time.
Indeed, one of the best music videos of the mid-80s starred U2 when they filmed “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” under the neon lights of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas on the evening of April 12, 1987. U2 was then at the height of its worldwide popularity. The Joshua Tree, arguably their best album and one of the creative masterpieces of a musically fragmented era, had just been released. The band was in the middle of an American tour, which included a stop in Las Vegas and a performance at the Thomas & Mack Center (Note: I saw both U2 shows on that tour in Ft. Worth, TX).
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” has been ranked as one of the catchiest tunes in rock history. Rolling Stone magazine even placed it in the Top 100 best songs of all time. Nonetheless, the song was initially buried on an album packed with commercially friendly content sure to receive mass radio airplay. It wasn’t that ISHFWILF was ignored by music moguls and U2’s fans. Rather, it was simply that The Joshua Tree had so many upbeat radio-friendly songs that it simply risked getting lost in the overflowing treasure chest.
The idea to film U2 in a casino setting in Las Vegas that night was an afterthought. The band had no budget for production. It cost almost nothing to film, which is striking given that some videos of that time cost upwards of a million dollars. Nothing about it was planned, other than the first stages which allowed the four band members to walk down Fremont Street like lost tourists. The problem with filming a video was — hordes of fans. No one wanted to go to the trouble of hiring security and getting clearances. So, a decoy tactic was used.
Late at night, immediately after U2’s live performance at the Thomas & Mack Center came the switch. The band’s manager hired four lookalikes dressed up like U2 to pile into a limousine, and the large crowd outside the arena followed them. A few minutes later, the real band members loaded into a laundry van and headed to downtown Las Vegas to shoot a music video.
As a song, ISHFWILF is a confession. It’s a feeling that most of us have shared at one time or another in our lives. Maybe more than once. After graduation. Following a breakup. After losing a job. Even upon retiring from a long career. Its message about searching for something is timeless but hopeful. It applies and appeals to everyone. It opens with optimism….”I have climbed the highest mountain, I have run through the fields, only to be with you.”
Barry Devlin, who orchestrated the impromptu video later explained why this particular song was filmed here: “Well, let’s shoot the most sincere song they’ve ever written in the least sincere city they’ve ever played,” he said. “There was an ironic counterpoint to the song, in a way, by shooting it in Las Vegas.” READ MORE HERE AND HERE
The film’s location may have also had something to do with lighting and inherent technical advantages. Today, Fremont Street is more of a circus than a city street. Back ten years before a giant canopy was constructed (in 1996) above a 4-block area and the zone was completely closed off to auto traffic, downtown Las Vegas was just like any other seedy midtown. Cars raced up and down the street; drunks and homelessness were everywhere; the pavement smelled and hadn’t seen a drop of water in months; naive tourists ran the rats maze darting from casino to casino. That grit and grime, lit up by casino neon were perfect for the lyrical questions of search and fate amidst random chaos.
This is the setting four Irish musicians stepped into when they exited out of the rear of a laundry van at close to midnight. A shopping cart and wheelchair were found and then used to haul around a makeshift sound system and camera. The band was given minimal direction. “Walk around and sing along to the tape,” was pretty much the only guidance.
But somehow, it worked.
Perhaps the authenticity of the instant is what makes the video so fun and compelling, even years later. The most famous rock band in the world walking a city street, trying to make a video, while (uninvited) stragglers and lunatics try to upstage the filming. Devlin recalled vagrants trying to beg and assorted tourists out on the streets having no idea what was happening. “Here’s this mad guy who keeps wanting to tell you about God, and what you’re trying to do is just get away from him,’ ” Devlin said. “And that’s how they played it. It’s really quite funny, The Edge (lead guitarist) trying to ignore this lunatic on his shoulder and Bono keeping after him.”
The Edge and Bono may have enjoyed the on-film banter. However, the other two bandmates were less thrilled with the spectacle. “Larry Mullen Jr., the band’s drummer complained, ‘I don’t even have a drum, what am I supposed to do, hit the signpost with drumsticks or something?” Adam Clayton, the band’s bassist ended up staying for just one chorus before deciding he’d seen and done enough. Between takes, he hailed a taxi and raced off. You actually see this in the video, near the end. Clayton’s clearly fed up and splits the scene.
Like the memorable chase scene in the 1971 James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever, which was filmed on this same street and background 16 years earlier, the video remains a time capsule. Such a thing couldn’t be done today. We see the Mint (casino), which would be absorbed by the Horseshoe less than a year later. We see slot players at Sassy Sallys wondering what all the commotion is about. We see motorcycle cops and cocktail waitresses and taxi drivers. A Castle burger costs 25 cents. It’s a snapshot of the Las Vegas that was, but sadly is, no more.
Thanks almost entirely to this video which debuted a month later on MTV, ISHFWILF was released as a single, which had not been planned. The song instantly went to #1 and became the band’s second top hit, after “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
Postscript: I’ll add more stories from Las Vegas and pop culture later. Thanks for reading.