Monday, 5 December 2011

The U2 Debate.

It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest,
It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.
Every artist is a cannibal; every poet is a thief,
All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.

The issue of what a band should do when they have been together for over thirty years is a relatively new one. With the music industry - as we know it - only having been around for about sixty, there are very few who have yet reached the monumental landmark of being in a band together for such a long period. 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Rolling Stones, and the only question is surely; is this really a reason to celebrate? Of course it provides the perfect opportunity for yet another worldwide stadium tour where the same hits get churned out from the skeletal horrorshow that the band have become; selling their souls and their grace in exchange for millions of dollars and the ego boost that comes from thousands of people screaming your name each night. But this isn’t what it’s all about. It would seem that what ex-NME journalist Nick Kent suggests in his book ‘Apathy for the Devil’ – that The Rolling Stones were widely believed to be washed up and on the wrong side of their best work by 1972 – has proven true. Yet, here we are forty years later still watching the soulless puppet show push on through, fully aware that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger despise each other to their very core, that the words they sing and the notes they play no longer ring true and that the band and fans alike would really be a lot happier if this pretence would stop and we could listen to Sticky Fingers with a wonderful, untarnished mental image of The Rolling Stones in their prime.

U2 are perhaps the only other band who fall into this bracket who are on a par with The Stones in terms of global superstardom and the ability to still sell out stadiums in the blink of an eye, but they themselves actually hold the feat of remaining together for almost thirty-five years without a single line-up change or any periods of band hiatus. Now, it would be easy for me to take a few punches at U2 – indeed, the majority of what I have just discussed about The Rolling Stones could be effectively applied to their Irish market shareholders – however, that is not what I wish to do in this blog. While there are many questions to be raised regarding why something other than artistic drive could persuade a band to continue beyond a point where they offer the music world anything worthwhile, my main concern today lies with the damaging and resounding effect that a band can have over their own name as a consequence of providing a new generation with incredibly average material. By making music of a low calibre, a new audience who are unfamiliar with previous releases will be quick to judge a band’s merit on their latest offering, and uninspired to delve into their back catalogue, the band will be forever dismissed as irrelevant. This kind of self-slander is destructive and painful to observe and it brings me to the point that I wish to make; I do not want people to judge U2 on Elevation, Get On Your Boots, Beautiful Day or any of the other songs or albums that have frequented our airways in the last ten years or so. Nor do I want people to take one look at the millionaire cardboard cut-out version of Bono that has existed since about 1997, shaking hands with presidents and rubbing shoulders with political scum.

I want you to know how incredible U2 once were. And I want you to read on objectively.

In my opinion, there are three great albums to be taken from U2’s vast back catalogue, and by great I mean they each stand alone as incredibly powerful albums that should make any all-time-best list and make any output by the likes of Coldplay – to whom they are so readily compared – look utterly amateur. It is bizarre now to see U2’s music written off as stagnant and repetitive, when with each new studio album from 1980-2000 (that’s ten in all), they completely reinvented their sound and ambitiously swung in a variety of diverse musical directions, not afraid to alienate their fan base to achieve artistic satisfaction.

War (1983), The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991) are the big three that I would urge anyone to listen to before feeling that it’s their birthright to slag off U2 for being the cartoon band that they have now become. Each one representing the band at a completely different stage in their development, and being worthy of objective acknowledgement for what they were trying to say at the moments they were made respectively. War in particular is an incredibly ballsy album; starting hard with a martial drum roll and high pitched squeal, it's clear this album means business right from the start. The message of the song is apparent from the get go as Bono croons and then pleads into the microphone;

I can't believe the news today,
I can't close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
Tonight, we can be as one tonight.

It quickly goes on to describe the horrors of war and violence against innocent people in no uncertain terms, and the band goes about such business with uniform authority, knowing exactly what the song needs and how to deliver it. Sunday Bloody Sunday was a bold political statement at the time it was written, and it delivered a universal message of refusing to sit back and take such mindless violence whilst also being layered with a hope for the future. It is perhaps one of the best openings any rock album has ever had, as it grabs the listener from the start and prepares them for what’s to come. Coming in at number 221 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘Top 500 Albums Of All Time’ list, U2's War is as almost perfect a balance of politics, blind faith, hopeless love, and ringing guitars as you will likely find recorded over the last twenty-eight years since it's release. The band would change direction after this album and never really look back. It was an album of the moment, yet timeless at the same time. And for U2, it was a bold statement that set them on the path they were looking for.

I feel that less needs to be said about The Joshua Tree due to the fact that it is already widely regarded and plugged as their seminal album, however my point with this particular release is that the greatness lies in the songs which are not featured on the numerous greatest hits packages that Island Records have put out over the years. Running To Stand Still in particular is an emotive masterpiece, drawing from the influence of American music and culture that is so explicit throughout the album, the song considers the constraints placed upon one’s life in the throes of heroin addiction and documents the activity and emotions of a couple who have ended up in a dark and painful place as a result of bad choices and a lack of options offered to them by society.

Sweet the sin
Bitter taste in my mouth,
I see seven towers
But I only see one way out.
You got to cry without weeping,
Talk without speaking,
Scream without raising your voice.
You know I took the poison,
From the poison stream,
Then I floated out of here.

As the 1980s drew to a close, we saw the first instance of U2 doing what they are now deemed old-hands at; taking themselves too seriously. With the release of their 1988 album and concert film of the same name; Rattle and Hum, U2 sought to further portray their growing obsession with American music through the incorporation of blues-rock and gospel into their sound. Aware that they might have been dragging themselves into the dangerous realms of self-importance and stung by the subsequent backlash from critics and fans alike, the dawn of the 1990s marked a new era for U2, and they began by taking a leaf out of the master of reinvention’s book – David Bowie – and upping sticks to Berlin to record an album under the experimental production of Brian Eno. The result; Achtung Baby is a brilliant and dark parody on rock stardom.

Embodying an entirely different sound from anything we had heard from the band before, the fusion of heavy rock with electronic elements served as a powerful demonstration that successful reinvention is definitely possible. Adopting the persona of ‘The Fly’ – a stereotypical, egotistical rock star who has seen one to many excesses and who has truly started to believe his own hype, Bono could be seen on the accompanying Zoo TV tour strutting the stage in head-to-toe leather and, for the first time, adorning the wraparound shades that he has not been keen to remove in the twenty years since. The incredible depth and texture that one enjoys during a listen of Achtung Baby is rarely paralleled; each song hugely inept at creating a particular mood and highlighting the many cracks which can appear in the mask of a troubled rock star. To create an album like this some twelve years into a band’s existence is remarkable, and as Bono describes it best; “[Achtung Baby is] the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree” and boy, does it sound fantastic.

Coming off the back of a hugely successful and band-defining album like The Joshua Tree, then choosing to take that winning formula and completely twist it round is representative of the great courage that U2 possessed throughout the first twenty years of their time together, and therefore makes it all the more disheartening to see them looked down upon as the stale entity that they are so often viewed as today. Following Achtung Baby, the 90s saw them become even more experimental and unpredictable with 1993’s techno attack on media-over saturation Zooropa, followed by 1997’s Pop – in which the band delved further into the realm of electronica and alternative-rock. It wasn’t until 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind that U2 seemed to finally settle on a sound that they have stuck with ever since; a more conventional and easy-listening take which has subsequently earned them their place in music-for-Dad’s territory.

Who knows whether it would be possible or enjoyable for a band to continue to experiment and produce groundbreaking music beyond their twentieth anniversary. The relatively young age of our music industry is yet to prove it so, however something it has repeatedly taught us is that artists make their most interesting and resounding work before the age of forty – thus making this a brilliant age for one to step aside from the mainstream music arena. Sure, make arty albums that satisfy artistic desires and tour small to medium sized venues with a stripped down approach in order to reacquire a loss intimacy with fans, but do not continue to regurgitate the same songs that you were singing in a town hall at the age of eighteen and pretend that the passion is still there.

Having seen U2 perform live on four occasions between 2001 and 2011, I must say that what I have witnessed is a gradual decline in enthusiasm for the task in hand. The first show that I was in attendance at on 14th August 2001 at Birmingham’s NEC arena can be described as nothing other than mind-blowing. The performance that they gave that night was every bit as mesmerising and powerful as the footage I had spent hours pouring over from their shows in the 1980s. Full of energy, emotion and an aura of charisma from Bono which left me feeling as though my soul had been wrenched out of me and wrung out in front of my eyes, it was that moment that truly convinced me that music is one of, if not the, most powerful force of love and connection amongst fellow human beings that we have at our disposal. However, the following three shows; 2005, 2009 and then their Glastonbury performance earlier this year, have continued to reaffirm to me that the easiest way to lose one’s musical credibility is to take everything that was once fantastic about your band; and shit all over it. A lack of energy on stage, a vacant look in the eyes, the laborious delivery of a machine that has made the same movements one too many times - the past three occasions I have witnessed them have left me feeling empty and disappointed. Often overshadowed by huge set designs - which are ultimately a transparent attempt at driving attention away from the band I have paid so much to see - it has become a case of style over substance. And everyone knows U2 were never really up there in the style stakes.

That is all I wish to say on their decline, as I wish to reinforce my primary aim of urging everyone to look beyond the image of U2 that is held in 2011, and to delve back to a time when Bono was a young, politically radical and passionate individual who wanted to change the world through the power of brilliant music. Having witnessed a disappointing performance at Glastonbury this year, I finally decided that I am no longer going to chase the shadow of a once great band or open myself up to their self-slander, but enjoy the many moments of brilliance that they have already provided, and believe me – there is certainly enough of those to be getting on with.

Below I have included three videos of U2, one song from each of the three albums I consider their most noteworthy. The first two are live performances, as this is undeniably where their strength lay at the time, and where their passion and talent really shines through most effectively. As to whether Bono has done too much damage to his own image so to render them irredeemable by many remains to be seen, however in the meantime; do come back with me to a time where their music did the talking and their title as the ‘biggest band in the world’ was truly deserved.

U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday
War, 1983

U2 - Running To Stand Still
The Joshua Tree, 1987

U2 - The Fly
Achtung Baby, 1991

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