Fans of U2’s “Joshua Tree” album may have noticed a new version of the song “Red Hill Mining Town” circulating. A deep-cut favorite, the band had never played the song live before the current 30th anniversary tour, as Bono recently explained to a crowd of more than 90,000 at the Rose Bowl outside of Los Angeles. In fact, “Red Hill Mining Town” was supposed to be the first single off the 1987 album, but as producer Steve Lillywhite tells Variety, the original recording didn’t quite pass the band’s sniff test at the time of the album’s release. “It never got finished the way they wanted it,” says Lillywhite. “They always thought it could be a little bit better.”
At the heart of the issue: a brass band that “was considered out of tune” during the original mix, “so I was told to put the synthesizer up because, in 1986, we were very impressed that you could get really good sounding brass instruments out of a keyboard,” Lillywhite explains. “What we realized in hindsight is, yes it’s a good sound, but sometimes the sound is not as important as the spirit. When you listen to the new version, the brass band is much more emotive than someone playing it on a keyboard, so that was a mistake we made when we did the original.”
For the 2017 version, Lillywhite was able to fix that mistake, taking stems from the original recording and turning up the horns, while also tweaking other elements of the song — not an easy task considering the band played live in the studio, causing leakage problems (the drums coming through in the bass amp, for example). “You don’t get that anymore because things are never done at the same time,” he says of the process.
The new version was done over email, as Lillywhite currently resides in Indonesia, where, in addition to his continued production work, he oversees music selection for KFC, a massive restaurant chain in the Southeast Asian country.
“Edge is the one who’s the sort of scientist in the band, so he sent back notes about turning up the guitar a little bit. So I sent it back and everyone says, ‘Great!’ It was finished. Then I get an email from Bono: ‘Steve, I love that mix and think it’s fantastic, but I hate the singer. I’m going to do it again.’ And he re-cut the verses. He felt he could sing it better and with more sincerity. So he did a new vocal and sent it to me. I actually had to match a 56-year-old Bono with a 26-year-old Bono and they mixed well. I was very happy. It’s quite powerful sounding.”
While auto-tuning the brass wasn’t an option, since the horns were recorded on two tracks, Lillywhite adds that he was reminded of something Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards taught him some 30 years ago. “What I used to do with Keith’s guitar was, when it got out of tune towards the end of a take, I would turn it down and turn up an overdub to try to cover it up. He noticed me doing that and said, ‘Steve, try this: instead of turning down the original guitar, turn it up. It’ll still be out of tune but it will own it.’ That’s really true. By having the brass band be loud, it actually owns the sound.”
Revisiting tracks he recorded 30 years earlier was an emotional experience for Lillywhite and he was reminded, he says, that the band members, “Were still so young — the fact that it was their fifth album, after “Boy,” “October,” “War” and “Unforgettable Fire,” and Bono was only 26 that shows an incredible volume of work.”
You can hear the Steve Lillywhite 2017 mix of “Red Hill Mining Town” on Spotify and other digital services.