INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
RATTLE AND HUM: PERUSING THE U2 CATALOG
With a quarter century's history behind it, the U2 that arrives in Chicago next week to perform four sold-out shows at the United Center has actually been three or four very different bands over the course of its long and storied career. The quartet's development may be charted through its recordings, which comprise one of the most rewarding discographies in rock.
U2:3 (1978) Inspired by The Sex Pistols and the punk explosion of London's "summer of hate", the group came together in 1976 at the instigation of fourteen-year-old drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who placed an ad on the bulletin board of Mount Temple High School in Dublin, Ireland. Among those who responded were bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist Dave Evans (later the Edge) and an outspoken chap named Paul Hewson who, even though he couldn't sing particularly well at the time, brazenly re-christened himself Bono Vox (Latin for "good voice").
The name U2 was eventually chosen for its political and enigmatic qualities (referring to the famous spy plane, as well as the double meaning "you, too"), and it replaced earlier monikers such as Feedback and Hype. At first, the band trampled its way through standard late '70s punk fare, including material by The Pistols and The Ramones, but its own sound was beginning to emerge on its first recording, a three-song EP that won a following in Ireland but made little or no impact in the United States. The disc is a collector's item now, of course, but its embryonic sound isn't all that exciting.
Boy (1980) On the strength of its Irish success, the band signed to Island and recorded its debut album with Steve Lillywhite, a staff producer known for the booming drums and ringing guitars that he gave to New Wave artists including Ultravox, Siouxsie & The Banshees, XTC and The Psychedelic Furs. In retrospect, the relatively stripped-down if echo-laden sound of U2's debut has aged well: It doesn't seem nearly as dated as the work of other enigmatic guitar bands from this era - say, Echo & The Bunnymen, or Big Country, which appeared as a blatant U2 clone in 1983.
The disc yielded the underground hits I Will Follow and Stories For Boys, but the track that stands as most representative of the early sound is probably An Cat Dubh, with its massive drums, tinkling bells, minimalist Edge guitar licks and anthemic Bono chorus. All together now: "Whoa-oh-oh! Whoa-oh-oh!"
October (1981) More confident and self-assured, U2 opens its second Lillywhite-produced disc with the classic Gloria, which builds on the sonic hallmarks of Boy while introducing the spiritual themes so important to the musicians in their personal lives (everyone but Clayton is a devout Christian). It's a cheeky move for any rock band to pen a tune called Gloria in the wake of Van Morrison's classic, but U2 pulls it off with a song that's almost as great, building to a transcendent choral sing-along ending.
The Christian concerns continue on Fire, Rejoice and With A Shout, but Gloria aside, the disc isn't quite as strong as its predecessor. (The music has aged better than the moody glamour-puss photo of the band on the cover. Check those floppy, New Wave hairdos!)
War (1983) Having gotten religion, the quartet from Dublin now gets political. Many fans consider this U2's first great album, but I disagree: While the Lillywhite-produced music is probably the best example of the early U2 sound, with more imaginative arrangements and Edge's stately piano coming on strong, the lyrics of tunes such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Year's Day and Seconds are often heavy-handed, clumsy and strident. "Gold is the reason for the wars we wage!" Ugh.
I saw U2 for the first time on this tour, performing at New York's Palladium. Bono lost me when he started waving a huge white flag, urging us all to fall in step and join the crusade. What crusade? Well, that wasn't clear, and even at the impressionable age of nineteen, I thought it was all sort of goofy. The live album Under A Blood Red Sky bears me out.
The Unforgettable Fire (1984) Enter U2, Mach Two. Lillywhite is out, and the team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno ("ambient atmospheres our speciality!") is in. Unfortunately, their impact wouldn't really be felt for a while, and this remains a problematic and transitional effort. Lyrically, Bono is becoming increasingly obsessed with the United States - witness 4th of July, Elvis Presley And America and of course Pride, a ham-fisted tribute to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The singer was never more preachy, more self-righteous or more insufferable.
The Joshua Tree (1987) The best example of the band's second incarnation still finds Bono crooning about America, but this time, the critiques and observations in songs like Bullet The Blue Sky (about U.S. involvement in El Salvador) and In God's Country are much more artful and poetic. Meanwhile, the music on tunes such as Where The Streets Have No Name and With Or Without You finds the band moving into a starker, more mysterious sound that is less easily defined (or parodied), and which rewards repeated listenings. Part of the credit is due to a heck of a support team: Producers Lanois and Eno inspire the band to stretch out and experiment, Lillywhite comes back to remix several tunes, and a talented young engineer named Flood captures it all on tape.
Rattle And Hum (1988) Alas, it was one step forward and two steps back. U2 followed the unprecedented commercial success of The Joshua Tree with this mix of new material and live tracks that aspire to pay tribute to American roots music but wind up amplifying all the worst traits of The Unforgettable Fire. It's awkward, pretentious, ponderous - a real mess. But maybe the band had to get this out of its system before it got where it was going next.
Achtung Baby (1991) The group's masterpiece, and the introduction of U2, Mach Three. Under the increasingly powerful spell of Eno, that unparalleled artistic instigator, the band finally abandons all lingering hints of its old chest-thumping and flag-waving in favor of giving a great big post-modern raspberry. But while Bono's live posturing and the whiz-bang technical assault of the subsequent Zoo TV tour were absolutely lousy with irony, the music itself is never cold or alienating. In fact, One is probably the most heartfelt and moving song the band has ever recorded.
Overall, Achtung Baby stands as a disc that is both resonant of its time and absolutely timeless - the perfect soundtrack for slipping on the virtual reality helmet and flipping through three hundred channels of satellite TV while waiting for the Ecstasy to kick in.
Zooropa (1993) Recorded in the midst of the Zoo TV tour, these ten songs don't have quite the same impact but they do continue the playful experimentation of Achtung Baby. Bono in particular has blossomed under Eno's tutelage, just as David Bowie and David Byrne did before him. In keeping with his new stage persona of a Vegas-style Satan, he adopts a darker, more sinister tone on Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car, Some Days Are Better Than Others and the title track, while on other tunes, he successfully tackles Tony Bennett-style crooning (Babyface) and a Smokey Robinson falsetto (Lemon).
Bono also sits out for two songs, allowing the band to prove that its identity extends beyond its photogenic frontman. Johnny Cash sings on the wonderfully apocalyptic The Wanderer, and the Edge does his best Lou Reed imitation on Numb. This is far from U2's most consistent collection. But you know what they say about consistency.
Pop (1997) Have you sensed a pattern here yet? U2 seems to run in cycles of one great breakthrough album, followed by a few strong discs with various refinements, followed by a real stinker. This is another stinker.
Eno isn't around this time - Flood and trip-hopper Howie B. are at the helm - and the disc has a harsh digital sheen that contributes to its incorrect dismissal by some as a "techno" record. The band TALKED a lot about experimenting with electronic dance music, and they actually made a fairly interesting ambient album in 1995, working with Eno under the name Passengers. But Pop might have been better if U2 actually DID go techno. Instead, we get tired dinosaur rock.
Mofo is a plodding and inferior rewrite of One; the chiming guitar break in Discotheque reaches back to Boy, and Last Night On Earth is just U2 circa The Joshua Tree tarted up with some electronics. Lyrically, Bono is still "Lookin' for to fill that God-shaped hole," but he wrongly thinks he's going to find what he's looking for in the tired cataloguing of pop-culture icons (The Playboy Mansion) as well as some lame synthesizers and tired drum patterns. The band seems to be running on empty.
All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) This brings us to the present, but it's hard to say exactly where this effort fits in. It's a departure from Pop, to be sure, but as fans and critics have noted, it's a return to an "older" U2 sound - the sound of the second incarnation, more or less. It's an album that anyone who likes the band will find hard to resist, even if it's unlikely to rank as anyone's all-time favorite.
There's no heavy lifting or serious artistic ambition here. "There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard / I'm just trying to find a decent melody / A song that I can sing in my own company," Bono sings in Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of, and that pretty much sums things up. The band does deliver a batch of fine melodies - Beautiful Day, Wild Honey, Peace On Earth, New York - but there's nothing as potent or memorable as One, Even Better Than The Real Thing or With Or Without You.
Are Bono, the Edge, Mullen and Clayton still capable of making another artistic leap forward a la Achtung Baby or The Joshua Tree? We'll have to wait and see where the band is going next. Right now, it has given us an apt summation of where it's been, and the perfect fodder for an onstage celebration of all that is U2.