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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The first I ever heard of U2 was from Milkyum's then very hip uncle who mentioned them to us on a camping trip in Cape Cod in the fall of 1980. He told us that they were going to be the next big thing. We said; "Yeah, whatever, where's that Iron Maiden cassette?", and we promptly forgot all about U2.

A couple of years later, in the lunchroom at O'Neill, Milkyum, Billions, and I were commiserating about the usual stuff, chicks and music. Somebody mentioned that they had seen this band U2 on cable TV performing in concert, and it turned out that we all had tuned in. We all agreed that the band 'had something'. We all liked the captivating vocalist and his unique vocal style, how he let his voice crack impactfully, and we were puzzled and somewhat amazed by the guitar player who used echo as a rhythmic device, not just an effect.

It was clear, to me at least, that U2 demanded further investigation. I went out and bought their most recent release, 1983's 'War', and thus began an enduring love affair with this unique band of Irish upstarts.

I listened to 'War' in heavy rotation during my senior year of high school, and by the time I showed up at the University of Maryland I had obtained their debut, 'Boy', and the mini LP of the concert we saw on cable, 'Under a Blood Red Sky'. At this point, U2 was just one of a number of bands that I was into, but during that first semester at the U of M two things happened that would propel U2 to the forefront of my musical attention. First I met Pat Coppinger who was a huge U2 fan, and then 'The Unforgettable Fire' came out.

'The Unforgettable Fire' remains my favorite U2 record despite the fact that it's not as strong of an album as both it's predecessor, 'War', and it's successor, 'The Joshua Tree'. The place in my heart occupied by 'The Unforgettable Fire' knows no reason, it's not constrained by any objective point of view. I know songs like 'Elvis Presley and America' and 'Indian Summer Sky' lack focus, and could be construed as unfinished, but I don't care, and I don't love them any less for it. At any rate, the stronger tunes, 'A Sort of Homecoming', 'The Unforgettable Fire', 'Pride', and 'Wire' totally take up the slack, and the little mini-songs, 'MLK', 'Promenade', and '4th of July' are sublime mood moments that, for me, make the record special.

And then there's 'Bad'. Had two chords ever delivered such majesty? Maybe, but I hadn't discovered the Velvet Underground yet. U2 had.

And the record sounded so fresh and new, and from a band that had already been fresh and new sounding. With 'The Unforgettable Fire' U2 embarked on a new direction in their approach to recording. Steve Lilliwhite, who had produced all the previous U2 records, was passed over for the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Eno was all about soundscapes, and Lanois was about songcraft and performance.

In addition to the change in personnel, they opted for a change of venue as well. They set up a studio in an old Irish castle, and immersed themselves in the process of making a record without the distractions of the big studio environment.

There was something to U2 beyond the radical sound, however, something that spoke to a part of me I hadn't been aware of, a social conscience. U2 woke me up to political struggle, as they did countless others not unlike myself, and they did it at a time when such a notion was all but dead in popular music.

Primed by a few months of immersion in the new record, U2 came to the Capitol Center. That show was the closest I've come to a truly religious experience. I was moved by an empathy more powerful than myself, it was a mass convergence, thousands of people beating with one heart, a singular experience that has never been repeated, not nearly.

That summer brought Live Aid, and U2 crowned themselves the greatest band in the world in fifteen minutes, the lion's share of which came in the form of one of the most impressive live performances ever. When the band began their second song, 'Bad', Bono decided to grab the brass ring, he went beyond, beyond the barriers, both the physical barriers separating the band from the crowd, and the less tangible barriers of what's expected from a band, and the ability to deliver a message. The message was hope, and everybody got it. They got it at Wembley, and they got it at home watching on television.

So, as a huge fan, I was eagerly anticipating the next record, and when 'The Joshua Tree' hit in 1986, I was greatly pleased. The problem was, as often happens, so were countless millions of others. 'The Joshua Tree' exploded, hurled U2 to the top, and rightly so, but when Rolling Stone labels you 'The Band of the Eighties', there will be repercussions.

It was evidenced in the girth and scope of 'Rattle and Hum', that the band had lost the plot, so to speak. Sure, they were still U2, they still sounded like U2, but something had changed. Was it expectation? Growth? I'm not sure, but the band I loved, the band with it's heart on it's sleeve and a distinct and unique sound had somehow gotten distilled.

U2 were Rock Stars.

Oh well, it was great while it lasted.

I never got it....
Nothing they ever did topped Unforgettable Fire in my mind for all the reasons you cite. While I loved the songs on War, the production was dry and boring against the Lanios/Eno stuff. Edge's guitar (at that time) needed... no, demanded space.

I do think there's very good stuff on Rattle & Hum, but the indulgent "musical journey" through America changed them as you noted.
so true

but there is something about achtung baby
Yeah, something different. It's a great record, by some other band....
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