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Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Barney Hoskyns
U2: THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE
Ambience. Majesty. Brian Eno. Phase Two brings atmosphere to the anthems...
My only real brush with U2 was at the time of The Unforgettable Fire, a time when they were at their first major crossroads, uncertain of which direction to turn. As a band, they were a mere eight years old, desperately striving to out-grow the callow anthemics of their first four albums.
I was there and I did witness first-hand the power and the glory, the angelic majesty of U2 as the canny Paul McGuiness plotted their charm-offensive assault on the USA. I remember the band playing Hartford, Connecticut, and Philly's vast Spectrum: Bono in total control, an overgrown Boy playing the part of Rock Star so ardently you wanted to believe he was the real thing. How badly did America want to love Bono? How badly did Bono want to love the country he hymned in Elvis Presley And America?
"I think I'm a kind of part-time rock'n'roll star," Bono told me. "We're probably the worst rock stars ever. Part of it with us is the falling over and picking ourselves up off the ground, part of it is sitting up late at night in Philadelphia and saying something that will put a noose round my neck. I met Elvis Costello a few months ago and he said to me, 'I'm ambivalent about U2, I love it and I hate it.' He said, 'You walk this tightrope that none of your contemporaries will walk - they're afraid to walk it - and when you stay on it I bow my head. But you fall off it so many times.'"
For a moment there, U2 afforded a genuine guilty pleasure, earning me the considerable scorn of NME colleagues. Yes, Bono charmed even me, pushed me into a Philadelphia taxi and asked its driver to take us to the nearest decent diner - surely knowing the waitresses would drop their plates in disbelief at the sight of him - for our interview. I couldn't help liking him, and I still believe he's a good man. I've just never been sure rock'n'roll is about good men.
Following 1983's strident War and Under A Blood Red Sky, U2 knew the world's stadiums were theirs for the taking. But they didn't want to be crass about it. They wanted at least a smidgeon of the cred their NME-fêted peers, from Joy Division to Echo And The Bunnymen, had been accorded. They'd made their first three albums with the orthodox Steve Lillywhite, and even he allegedly suggested they try someone new next time.
Where could a band of trusty young arena-fillers turns to subvert their own breast-beating Red Rocks power? They turned to Brian Eno, whose work with Talking Heads - on Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, in particular - suggested he could "treat" U2's three-chords-and-the-truth evangelism in ways that might give their sound richer, artier dimensions.
Eno initially demurred - said he wasn't really interested in producing rock bands any more. Nor did Island boss Chris Blackwell want the former Roxy boffin getting his knob-twiddling hands on the label's prize rock asset. "It was hard to persuade Eno," remembered The Edge. "I think he was intimidated by the lack of irony in what we were doing. he'd come from Talking Heads, the Rhode Island School of design, living in New York, and here was this Irish band hitting everything full on, completely earnest, hearts on sleeves, no irony at all." Bono wouldn't take no for an answer, though, cajoling Eno and engineer Daniel Lanois into visiting Dublin. By the end of their first lunch together, the duo had agreed to produce the band.
The result was an album of bursting widescreen beauty that groped towards the more realised Americanophilia of The Joshua Tree without quite getting there. The group still haven't found what they're looking for on those streets with no names, but it's engrossing to watch them reach for the next record's panoramic grandeur - to hear The Edge's busily glistening guitar shapes, to hear post-'70s rock draped in such succulent, shimmering textures. Without The Unforgettable Fire, let's be honest, no OK Computer - even though Radiohead were in a sense the anti-U2... or at least the post-Cobain U2.
Recorded for the most part in the gothic ballroom of a country pile belonging to Paul McGuiness' mate, Lord henry Mountcharles, The Unforgettable Fire took the driving intensity of Boy, October and War, deconstructed it, and then draped it with keyboards and ambient effects that bathed the band's fist-punching sound in something vaporously majestic. "[Eno] catalysed our song-writing," Bono reflected years later," allowed us to get away from the primary colours of rock into another world where we could really describe ourselves in what was going on around us."
If the group hedged its bets with Pride (In The Name Of Love), the yelping homage to Martin Luther King that's easily the anthemic equal of I Will Follow and co, other tracks on The Unforgettable Fire were more diffuse and poetic - more, in fact, unfinished. born of a lyric improvisation of Bono's, Elvis Presley And America was a work-in-progress that Eno, somewhat arbitrarily - and to the band's bemusement - deemed done.
Promenade was a low-key and drifting, a dreamy sketch of a song. The instrumental 4th Of July recalled the Eno of Before And After Science, an Edge favourite. "The more conventional the song, the less interested Brian was," The Edge said. "He didn't take a huge interest in Pride or The Unforgettable Fire. But Danny was there to cover for him, so they balanced each other out very well."
Bono would later admit that not even Pride was properly completed. Which didn't stop it ascending to Number 3 on the UK singles chart. "Because of the situation in our country, non-violent struggle was such an inspiring concept," The Edge said of the song. "Even so, when Bono told me he wanted to write about King, at first I said, 'Woah, that's not what we're about, what we understand.' Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there's no argument. It just was."
Crucial to the album's sound was the greater freedom given to Larry Mullen, whose echoey, Manu-Katché-style tom fills reflected the taste for funk and African percussion that had been so clear on Remain In Light: note, incidentally, the distinct echo of that album's Listening Wind in The Unforgettable Fire's Indian Summer Sky. "There was a lot of focus on the drums and we worked on developing my playing," Mullen remembered. "I am not technically proficient, so Danny encouraged me to find new approaches and gave me the time I needed."
It was Mullen who motored the album's centrepiece Bad, the desperate monologue of a pal lost to the heroin epidemic that gripped Dublin in the early '80s.
"Bono knew the family, he'd talked to the brothers about it," The Edge remembered. "It was new for him as a lyricist, writing in the first person from someone else's point of view. I don't think there's ever been a song about addiction that captures the feeling so vividly."
A live highlight on the tours of the subsequent months, the six-minute track was another song Bono hadn't finished - and yet another that Eno insisted on leaving as was. It was almost certainly more moving for its open-endedness: you can't help but surrender to the incantatory quality of Bono's vocal, with its imploring "Let it go... and so fade away."
It's true that by the time we reach the penultimate Elvis Presley And America, the album's essential two-chord trance-mode is getting a bit tired. It's also true that the hymnal lullaby MLK - the album's closer - is little more than a variation on The Stones' spectral Moonlight Mile, not to mention a blueprint for the bogus emotion that's fuelled a generation of U2 wannabes like Coldplay and Snow Patrol. But the peak moments on The Unforgettable Fire - the gunning propulsion of Wire, the gleaming beauty of the title track, with its swirling keyboards and Noel Kelehan strings - do absolutely what they're meant to: reinvent U2 in the same way that Achtung Baby reinvented/Germanised them seven years later. In the process they enabled the group to leave rivals Simple Minds, Big Country and The Bunnymen trailing in their stadium-busting dust. By the end of 1985 - a year in which Bono sang on We Are The World and danced with the audience at Live Aid - Rolling Stone were proclaiming them "the band of the decade".
"When Eno came to us for The Unforgettable Fire, he talked about 'rock'n'roll with a wink' - how rock had become a parody of itself," Bono told me that night in Philly. "It's white music that's the problem, white music that is the straitjacket. White people in their suits and ties are afraid to take their trousers off in public. And somebody's got to burst the bubble, not for us because we've burst it ourselves and set ourselves free, but for all the people who aren't making music they could be making 'cause somebody winked and their eyes got stuck."
Rock snobs protested that popular music must be more than mere epic affirmation, but U2 shone on regardless. The charge that they benefited from punk's flushing-out and then returned unapologetically to the bombast of the '70s did not faze them. "Why can people not just see our music as part of something else?" they wondered - rather than simply in the context of rock's endless cycles. The only answer was that thousands did. Where Echo And The Bunnymen remained tied to the hip in-crowd of the weekly music press, U2 broke through to the true mass audience they've retained to the present day.
Tracks: A Sort Of Homecoming / Pride (In The Name Of Love) / Wire / The Unforgettable Fire / Promenade / 4th Of July / Bad / Indian Summer Sky / Elvis Presley And America / MLK
Released: October 1, 1984
Produced by: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois
Recorded at: Slane Castle, Co Meath and Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin
Additional vocals, instruments and treatments: Eno/Lanois
String arrangements: Noel Kelehan
Fairlight: Paul Barrett
Chart position: UK: 1 US: 12