Robbie Robertson’s debut solo album of 1987 is significant for several reasons, including his team-up with U2.First of all, the album reflects Robbie Robertson’s first substantial musical contribution since the dissolution of The Band, whose final performance of 1976 was captured in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Over ten years had passed, and this length of time is reflected in the high quality and significant generic range of the pieces on Robertson’s debut. Robertson (born in Toronto, my hometown) was a key contributor to The Band both in terms of performance — with his guitar being a backbone of The Band’s overall sound — and in terms of writing. Robertson wrote or co-wrote most memorable tunes of this group, including “The Weight”.
The Band and Robertson also have an important page in the history of rock and roll due to their work with Bob Dylan during the tomato-throwing switch-over to electric in the tour of 1965-66 (following on Highway 61 Revisited, with “Like a Rolling Stone”). Also legendary are the tunes they recorded with Dylan in The Basement Tapes (1975), which were recorded in the same era as Dylan’s Planet Waves (1974), also with The Band.
Secondly, Robertson’s first solo piece is significant for collaborations with two soon-to-be superstar icons and a then up-and-coming Canadian producer. In 1986, Peter Gabriel was recording the most popular album of his career, So (1986). Gabriel’s backing vocals for “Fallen Angel” on Robertson’s album made this one of the most memorable pieces on this release. Also in 1986, U2 was recording its monumental The Joshua Tree (1987), and U2 joined Robertson on two main tunes: “Sweet fire of love” and “Testimony”. The collaboration of both Gabriel and U2 likely had something to do with the fact that Robertson’s album was co-produced with Daniel Lanois, who was the main producer for both So and The Joshua Tree. Lanois left his mark on all three albums, which do have the bass-heavy and atmospheric feel characteristic of most Lanois productions (which I like).
“Sweet fire of love” is the better of the collaborations with U2, I would say. The song is heavily marked by the presence of U2. The song opens with the clear, syncopating echo of The Edge’s guitar and Bono soon starts to supply a counterpoint to Robertson’s intense musical cries. It’s not long before Bono is the lead and Robertson supplies the counterpoint. Throughout, the drumming style of Larry Mullen is unmistakable, and the walking bass of Adam Clayton is noticeable as well. Very well done is Robertson’s own guitar playing as the song closes, which complements and duels with the Edge. Bono’s cries of “sweet fire of love” help make this song what it is.