U2 Took Over Downtown L.A. for ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’
If you're a U2 fan, you probably know the date of March 27, 1987. That's the day the band took over a downtown Los Angeles rooftop to film their guerrilla-style video for "Where the Streets Have No Name."
The live show, which took place atop a liquor store that has since become a Mexican restaurant, was arguably the first stop on the group's Joshua Tree tour, which kicked off a few days later in Tempe, Ariz.
The clip was inspired by the Beatles’ final rooftop performance from Let It Be, at the time reportedly leading Bono to quip, "It's not the first time we’ve ripped off the Beatles."
The short was directed by longtime U2 collaborator Meiert Avis, who had previously directed the videos for "I Will Follow," "Gloria," "With or Without You" and several other of the band’s best cuts. "Where the Streets Have No Name" ultimately won the Grammy for Best Performance Music Video, beating out David Bowie's Glass Spider and Stevie Nicks: Live at Red Rocks, among others.
What transpired on March 27 is relatively well-documented, and not just because there were quite a few cameras there. The Globe and Mail did a feature about that day in 2017, interviewing Avis and others tangentially involved in the shoot, like some of the L.A. DJs who can be heard over the beginning of the video. DJ Rita Wilde told The Globe and Mail that their reminders to listeners that the shoot’s Skid Row-adjacent location wasn't the safest spot came from station owners’ concerns over legal liability. She said, "[The radio station owners] were really specific about us mentioning that it's not the safest part of town to go to, just so we weren't liable for anything. They really wanted us to stress that fact."
In that feature, Avis says it was always the band’s intention "to be disruptive," and that, unlike the Beatles' semi-impromptu rooftop pop-up, the event was pretty well-planned, permitted and staged. Avis likened the event to a flash mob, orchestrated with the aim of "creating a spontaneous media event that one couldn't help but notice." (In fact, Avis has said that after the shoot ended, he and the band went back to their hotel, the Sunset Marquis, and joyfully watched themselves on the news.)
The video's crew spent the week before the shoot reinforcing the roof of the liquor store, shoring it up both for gear and in case the set was stormed by an army of fans whipped into a frenzy by the sight of a shirtless Adam Clayton. (Additional shoutout to the Edge's little braid, which some might say is the star of the video.) A backup generator was also installed on the roof, just in case authorities shut off the crew’s primary generator, which did happen during the shoot.
While multiple sources have said that the police incursion and ultimate shutdown of the shoot were very real, the band has also acknowledged that it was, in some sense, baiting the police and the media. While it's all well and good to have every radio station in town inviting people to an "impromptu" video shoot at 3:30PM on the corner of a relatively busy intersection, even the band can probably admit that if, like some of the DJs speculate in the video, 30,000 people showed up out of the blue, crowd control could have become nearly impossible — especially without planning. While the video kind of makes the police out to be buzzkills, shutting down the rebellious rockers, in some sense, they were also probably hedging their bets against potential disaster.
Watch U2's 'Where the Streets Have No Name' Video
That being said, as Ronny Bensimon, who worked in a furniture store across the street told The Globe and Mail, "it was a well-behaved crowd. Rowdy, but well behaved." He told the paper that he left his post to watch the commotion, which included people climbing trees and his building’s fire escape to get a better look. As he said to the Globe, he was just worried that someone would go through one of the plate-glass windows on the front of the furniture store where he worked, even though that doesn't appear to have been an issue.
Though the actual audio for the video is of the recorded studio version of "Where the Streets Have No Name," the band did run through it four times live that day, putting on a show for the 1,000 people who got there before the cops shut down the show.
The group also cranked out versions of "People Get Ready," "In God’s Country," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (In the Name Of Love)" — a pretty solid set list, all things considered.
Interestingly enough, the shoot’s location is right next to the infamous Cecil Hotel, which was featured in a lauded 2021 Netflix documentary. (The mural on the building’s wall is visible in many shots.) A bastion of crime, scandal and ill repute, the 700-room hotel was built in 1924 and originally attracted a high-end clientele looking to investigate the world of motion pictures. Five years later, the Great Depression struck, and things never really got much better for the hotel after that.
It's an interesting backdrop, considering The Joshua Tree, was inspired by the concept of the United States, with its wide-open spaces and occasionally thwarted American dreams.