Inspired by the Japanese bullet train, this futuristic instrumental is weird, wild and thrilling, yet also great for chilling out to. In Bono's own words, "It's a helluva sound".
Niall Stokes' book Into The Heart: The Stories Behind The Songs has a fairly long and detailed entry for this track, which really gives the music a bit of context. The seeds were planted at the end of the rollercoaster ride that was the massive ZooTV Tour, which had fittingly drawn to a close in Tokyo - a city that left Bono awestruck, feeling like he'd travelled into the future. In particular, the "special rush" of the bullet train had made quite an impression on the band, and it was still very much on their minds as they started work on the Passengers record. They even watched Japanese manga movies with the sound turned down for inspiration (how cute is that?)!
Bono explains, "We wanted that sense of speed. We wanted it to sound like being aboard the bullet train." And they certainly achieved that, largely thanks to the mixing technique of Howie B: "He takes one thing and runs with it for a while and then punctures it with another track. Basically he plays the studio console as an instrument, leaving lots of spaces and then having things come in out of nowhere. It works particularly well here because it's like the kind of feeling you catch on a high-speed train."
I agree with Bono - I think it's an extremely effective piece of music that captures exactly the vibe they were going for. I remember buying the Passengers album years ago, not really knowing what to expect from it, and being a bit bewildered when I put it on - there wasn't much in the way of melody, and the whole thing had a strange uneasy atmopshere about it. The opening track seemed icy and jolting (going hand-in-hand with the weird space-age artwork on the cover), and the rest of the album didn't really improve on that. But then I played it again one day when I was in a restless mood and didn't feel like listening to anything else, and everything suddenly clicked... I found myself appreciating the unusual sounds and mental images they conjured up. United Colours instantly became one of my favourite tracks on the album. It builds up a nice little repetitive rhythm that does bring train travel to mind, with an assortment of mechanical clanks and electronic bleeps, and I love the use of dramatic saxophone bursts (courtesy of David Herbert) to give the impression of things whizzing past at high speed. There's also lots of great atmospheric stuff in the background - all in all, there's a lot going on at once, just as there is on any rail journey. My favourite bits are the almost ghostly shrieks every so often, as if things are leaping out of the darkness to make you jump (maybe as you go through a tunnel or something). Indeed, speaking of ghosties and ghoulies...
Brian Eno's invented film, described in the sleeve notes, is naturally set on the Japanese transport system that inspired its soundtrack:
It's a shame the film isn't real, as that last part does sound oddly amusing. *g* It's supposedly directed by "Tetsuji Kobayashi", which is likely to be one of Eno's hidden jokes, as Akiko Kobayashi is the real name of Holi (who lends her vocals to "Ito Okashi" and "One Minute Warning"). There's also an older U2 connection with the name, as Iwakichi Kobayashi was the Hiroshima survivor who submitted the first drawing for what became the Unforgettable Fire exhibition. Perhaps one of the actor names is a reference to the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, while the title of the film itself appears to be a take-off of the advertising slogan "United Colours Of Benetton".
"United Colours Of Plutonium" exists in that underexplored territory between horror and comedy. It centres round a frazzled advertising executive (Damo Ujiwara) who falls asleep on the Bullet Train. In his dreams the spirits of the people he has exploited throughout his career return to haunt him. He awakens gratefully, only to discover that the 'dream' continues in a succession of Felliniesque phantasmagoria. Kobayashi's bizarre use of colour, superfast editing and extreme camera angles, coupled with a hilariously deadpan performance by Toshiro Takemitsu as the inspector who discovers a whole family of ghosts travelling without valid tickets, remains without peer.
Despite already being reduced several times, Bono reckons United Colours is probably still a bit too long at 5½ minutes ("It was murder trying to cut it down"). I dunno about the rest of you, but I think it's just right. Bono also mentions that they originally planned to launch the Passengers album on the Eurostar, playing it over a PA system on the train from London to Paris! He thinks that would have been great, as "The whole record seems to sound better at a certain speed, when you're travelling". I have to say I've never actually tried that, despite it being a fairly obvious thing to do, but I imagine he's right. Listening to the album on an actual train (or plane, etc) would probably be an awesome experience - really should give it a go sometime!