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Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by John Lewis
U2: RATTLE AND HUM
"OK Edge, play the blues!" A vainglorious bid to join rock'n'roll legends, or a misunderstood gem?
There's a speech that Bono makes during the outro of Silver And Gold, recorded live in Denver and included on the Rattle And Hum album. It starts with a diatribe against "AparTIGHT", goes on to praise Nelson Mandela ("This is a song about a man who grew up in a little shanty town outside of Johannesburg... A man who was ready to take up arms against his oppressor"), and ends with Bono asking, "Am I buggin' ya? I don't mean to bug ya... OK Edge, PLAY THE BLUES!" It's followed by The Edge playing one of the most hilariously unbluesy guitar solos ever committed to tape.
This, in a nutshell, embodies the prosecution's case against Rattle And Hum. It is an album that was supposed to be an off-the-cuff piece of simple music-making for its own sake. But it became one where every casual gesture quickly took on the mantle of grand Public Statement, where every stage aside became scrutinised, every note freighted with significance. Where every lighthearted jam session became a potential apostasy for the biggest band in the world.
One part studio album, one part travelogue, one part document of their 1987 world tour for The Joshua Tree, Rattle And Hum is used as Exhibit A for those who hate U2. The Village Voice described it as "an awful record", bogged down with "half-baked, overweening reality" and "know-nothingism". The New York Times thought the album was "plagued by U2's attempt to grab every mantle in the rock'n'roll hall of fame... each attempt is embarrassing in a different way." Neil Tennant, quoted by Chris Heath not long after Rattle And Hum was released, saw it as something only loved by "ghastly rock purists... who want it to be like 1969 again", declaring that, "We hate it for exactly the same reasons Johnny Rotten said he hated dinosaur groups in 1976... it's stultifying, it says nothing, it is big and pompous and ugly."
There was hubris: Rattle And Hum was the album in which U2 appeared to be inducting themselves into their own Rock'N'Roll Hall Of Fame, jamming with Dylan and BB King, covering The Beatles, citing Hendrix and playing in the same studios as Elvis. There was pomposity: a brief list of Bono's onstage banter can remove the enamel from the teeth of even the hardiest U2 fan. Take your pick from: "This is a song that Charles Manson stole from The Beatles - we're stealing it back!"; "The God I believe in isn't short o'cash, MISTER!"; and "Put El Salvador through the amp and see what comes out."
The album is, of course, inseparable from Phil Joanou's humourless monochrome rockumentary of the same name, which tanked at the box office and was savaged by the critics (the New York Times, again, regarded it as an exercise in "pure egomania", one of the kinder remarks made). It was also, in retrospect, the first of many films to be regarded as an unwitting real-life recreation of This Is Spinal Tap, Larry Mullen's tearful visit to Graceland sees him all but perform a raga rendition of Heartbreak Hotel by Presley's grave.
However, it's important to remember quite how staggeringly famous U2 had become at this stage, particularly in the States, where 1987's The Joshua Tree had topped the charts, spawned two Number 1 singles (I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and With Or Without You) and sold more than ten million units in America alone. So as America fell in love with U2, Rattle And Hum is the sound of U2 reciprocating that affection.
Although U2's Irishness played well there, very little of their output to this point seemed to betray any distinctively American traits. This made them unique among the panoply of other artists fro the British Isles who had successfully crossed the Atlantic. All of them - from The Beatles and The Stones to Duran Duran and Wham! - always had a vestige of soul, blues or funk as part of their sonic armoury. For all Bono's rather cringworthy claims ("As an Irishman I feel a real closeness to the black man because we were both the underdog, because we both have soul and spirit to spit it out"), U2's music was always eerily white, a fusion of unsyncopated English post-punk and stolid celtic mysticism.
So the notion of U2 paying tribute to their black American heroes seemed something of an oddity at the time. The Edge may be able to do lots of things on the guitar - make bleeps, whale noises and police siren wails, play long ambient drones, play like he's not using his hands - but even the most ardent U2 fan will concede that he can no more "play the blues" than Bono can do stand-up.
As a result, Rattle And Hum sees U2 outsourcing the soul and the blues duties to more qualified professionals. On the live version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, the backing vocals are provided by a Harlem gospel choir called The New Voices Of Freedom, who eventually take over the entire song as the band-members drop out one by one. Angel Of Harlem is dominated by Stax veterans the Memphis Horns, whose swaggering arrangement transforms the song from an obvious retread of Like A Rolling Stone. And on When Love Comes To Town the guitar and the vocal line on the chorus is delegated to BB King.
The last two tracks were recorded at Sun Studios, the epochal home of Elvis' early recordings. Two other tracks from the Sun sessions, She's A Mystery To Me (later recorded by Roy Orbison) and Woody Guthrie's Jesus Christ are both edited out of the album, but a fifth Sun-recorded track, Love Rescue Me, does not make it on, possibly because of its prestigious associations. It's a rambling blues shuffle co-written by Bono and Bob Dylan (who also provides harmonica and backing vocals on the track), and its execution seems almost wilfully ramshackle. Around 3'30" into the track, Adam Clayton changes chord a bar too early and ends up playing a series of hilarious bum notes. The fact that they kept this take on the album speaks volumes about the deliberately slapdash, warts-and-all nature of the project, which also sees the band stumble through Dylan's All Along The Watchtower (the film suggests that they barely knew the song before going out onstage).
Dylan crops up several times throughout the album (also playing Hammond on Hawkmoon 269), and U2's fealty for him at this time was probably more eagerly reciprocated than one might imagine. By the late 1980's, Dylan was at his lowest ebb, professionally and critically, starring in the laughable Hearts Of Fire and releasing albums such as Down In The Groove and Knocked Out Loaded. If anything, it's likely that the asociation with U2 helped Dylan more than the band, introducing him to Daniel Lanois and eventually getting him out of his 1980s furlough.
Actually, iTunes now allows us to reassemble the album into several parts. There is a three-track EP we might call "The Sun Sessions", and there is the largely forgettable six-track live album (although John Lydon fans might be interested in the live version of Bullet The Blue Sky, a lift from Pil's of Banging The Door).
The remainder - effectively a six-track studio album - isn't anywhere near as bad as the haters suggest. Even when nearly paralysed by their status as the world's biggest rock'n'roll band, U2 could still write great songs. Desire is the album's one perfect pop moment, their first ever UK Number 1 and a song that was probably meant to sound like an angst-ridden tribute to Bo Diddley, but which actually sounds more like a steelier take on George Michael's Faith. The rest of the studio tracks are rather more introspective affairs. There's the creepy but moving All I Want Is You (strings orchestrated, quite beautifully, by Van Dyke Parks) and The Edge's solo statement Van Diemen's Land, a moving piece about Irish convicts being transported to Tasmania and possibly the closest that the band have ever come to writing a Celtic folk song.
There are also precursors of the experimental edge they'd develop on later albums.
Heartland, a leftover from The Joshua Tree sessions, is the most Eno-esque track on the album (Eno himself turns up to play ambient keyboard drones), while God Part II, a belated response to John Lennon's while God, has that trashy glitterball feel that would dominate later albums such as Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Hawkmoon 269 - so-called because the band genuinely mixed it two hundred and sixty-nine times before they wearily decided on this recording - is one of the scariest songs that U2 has ever committed to record, based around Bono's growling lead vocals, pitched much lower than usual, the sensual backing vocals of Edna Wright, Carolyn Willis and Billie Barnum, The Edge's howling feedback guitar and Larry Bunker's thunderous timpani breaks.
Angel Of Harlem, often dismissed as being U2's worst single, actually sounds like an above-average Dylan And The Hawks tribute. Thw only truly awful moment is the BB King collaboration When Love Comes To Town, which really does play as a third-rate Blues Brothers pastiche. ("These are very heavy lyrics for such a young man," says BB King in the rehearsal. "Thank you, Mr King," replied Bono.) As Neil Tennant says: "We're supposed to take it seriously because BB King plays on some throwaway pop song that could have been written by Andrew Lloyd Webber." One infamous revirew by Mark Sinker - controversially unpublished by the NME for fear of losing the loyalty of U2 fans - describes U2 as "treating BB King like their butler". As it happens, U2 clearly aren't overly enamoured with either Angel Of Harlem or When Love Comes To Town these days - they are rarely performed live and neither make it onto their U218 Singles greatest hits collection of 2005.
As an interesting aside, Rattle And Hum is also one of U2's most obvious declarartions of Christianity. For all their fervent evangelical background, their previous flirtations with faith-based rock were generally shrouded in highly subjective lyrics which could easily slip into secular metaphor. By leaning so heavily on African-American music - which has always found it easier to deal with devotion and spirituality - Bono allows religion to enter his lyrics more explicitly. On Pride, When Love Comes To Town, God Part II, Love Rescue Me, Angel Of Harlem and Hawkmoon 269, "love" is constantly used as a not-so-subtle codeword for "God". When Love Comes To Town talks of witnessing Christ on the cross, while God Part II might be dedicated to John Lennon, but plays as a riposte to Lennon's atheist anthem.
By the end of the album, it's clear that U2 had taken this flirtation with "roots", "authenticity" and "blackness" about as far as it could go. In a way, every subsequent U2 project has been a reaction against Rattle And Hum. It serves, then, as a curious alternative path that U2 could have entered. It was, for them, a warning as to the dangers of resting on your laurels ("A rock group is like a shark," said The Edge, "if you're not moving forward, you die"); a warning that thew position as the biggest rock'n'roll band in the world has to be constantly earned ("If this isn't our best album," said Bono of their most recent release, No Line On The Horizon, "then we're irrelevant").
For the haters, you might also regard Rattle And Hum as U2's London Calling (a primal, slightly breathless, half-finished sprint through rock'n'roll history), their Pin Ups (there are cover versions of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, along with tributes to John Lennon, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, miles Davis and John Coltrane); their Young Americans (a romantic love letter to an idealised America); or their Exile On Main Street (a series of hurriedly scribbled picture postcards sent back to the Old Country). Now it's up to you tp program your iPod judiciously and decide which
Tracks: Helter Skelter / Van Dieman's Land / Desire / Hawkmoon 269 / All Along The Watchtower / I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For / Freedom For My People / Silver And Gold / Pride (In The Name Of Love) / Angel Of Harlem / Love Rescue Me / When Love Comes To Town / Heartland / God Part II / The Star Spangled Banner / Bullet The Blue Sky / All I Want Is You
Released: October 10, 1988
Produced by: Jimmy Iovine. All live recording by Remote Recording Services (The Black Truck)
Guest musicians include: Bob Dylan, BB King, The New Voices Of Freedom, The Memphis Horns, Benmont Tench, Van Dyke Parks, Brian Eno
Chart position: UK: 1 US: 1