Friday, October 11, 2013

A Sort of Homecoming

Well, it's October, and the trees are stripped bare of all they wear - so it's time for another post on a favorite band - this time, U2. They are another band I embraced in college - and maybe the first band that I embraced almost in real time. I heard U2 - I Will Follow, specifically - on the radio, sometime in the spring of 1981 I think, senior year of high school. There were a lot of new wave type bands on the radio those days, and I can't say U2 sounded all that different at first - but the more I heard it, the more impression it made. They didn't sound like everyone else - the echoey production, the rattling percussion, and the riffs - the guitars - the guitars... they jumped off the radio, they stopped me cold, made me listen. I am a sucker for a riff. I remember at first, they were not that big - bands like the Police or The Knack (a couple years earlier) or, shoot - Flock of Seagulls - were in heavy rotation at times; you couldn't escape those songs. U2, at the beginning, were just one of the songs on the radio, a modest hit I guess - but every time they came on I turned it up and stopped to listen.

I went to college in Boston about the time October came out. In Boston, they were in heavy rotation. I Fall Down was the single (I believe) - but stations played both records, all the way down - though especially I Will Follow, Out of Control, Electric Co., maybe Stories for Boys, Gloria, Rejoice, I Fall Down, October.... that was enough. It is probably pretty obvious that I loved guitar music all along - U2 was the first new band (punk, new wave, etc.) that really caught my ear, and it was the guitar that got me. I liked them as much as I liked anyone, and unlike all the other bands I really liked, they were still around,, active, making music, engaged with the world as it was in 1982. They struck me, over the first three records, as the obvious successors to the Who - the insistent rhythm guitar, the energy, the power - I had become a fanatical devotee of the Who - U2 seemed like their modern equivalent...

It felt like I had them to myself the first couple years of college. My friends were mostly into either classic rock or mainstream pop - some of them were actively hostile to new wave or punk. Somehow, the ones who were into newer stuff didn't seem to be into U2 - one guy (the Springsteen fan) loved Elvis Costello, X and XTC; another guy listened to The Police and Prince all the time. (That's how I remember it, anyway - a couple years later, he drove a bunch of us to Worcester to see U2 - he must have been a fan all along - I guess neither of us mentioned it until War or The Unforgettable Fire came out.) There were more U2 fans later - after War - but the first year or so, they were really just mine.... And they were - I didn't have a lot of money in college, I didn't buy many records - just U2's records, the day they came out (if I could). Going by record stores until they did come out. Then making my poor brothers listen to them until they were as enthusiastic as I was...

And then? I saw them live, spring 85 I think, at the Worcester Centrum. That was something - but for some reason, it seemed like it opened the door to doubts. Maybe they were too professional by then - maybe their live act sounded too much like the records. Not that I was an expert on live music, but I was spoiled, listening to Live at Leeds all the time - and having seen a real guitar hero (however obscure) in Phil Keaggy - as great a show as they could put on, I guess I probably wished there was more to listen to. I shouldn't make too much of this - seeing U2 live was truly a peak experience in those days... But it didn't quite hold - and where seeing other favorite bands tended to seal the deal (The Replacements, REM, things like that), seeing U2 seemed to make room to find fault. Though it's probably just this - when I got out of college, I hit another of the periods when I started discovering music. I changed radio stations; I read different magazines; I discovered underground music (the Replacements and Husker Du), and older bands - punk, the Velvets, the Stooges, country... U2 got left behind, maybe. Or maybe, they just took three years to get a new record out, and I spent it with those bands and REM. That happens.

But Joshua Tree came out - a record I looked forward to as much as their earlier records - and though it sounded fantastic, it did not satisfy. I am going to say - it is the funniest record this side of the Song Remains the Same. It is not meant to be funny - but the lyrics - "I see the stone set in your eyes" - lord lord. On and on and on with that stuff.... I do not think that record would pass a Turing Test. Someone has fed a bunch of Rock Cliche Symbols (stones, rocks, rivers, fire, red, sky, snow, sleet, driving rain) into a computer and had it generate lyrics. I swear.... But even then - they can sound so good. Joshua Tree makes me wish I didn't speak English - because those songs, Bono included, sound fantastic. Great riffs (though they do get a bit repetitive), a propulsive beat - they never stopped sounding great. But - in his early days, Bono's songs almost make sense - and by the time of Achtung Baby, they're almost neutral again... But the damage was done. I didn't care all that much anymore...

But those early records still pack a lot of punch. And the later ones retain The Edge's riffing, and the propulsion of the rhythm section. I noticed, listening to them the last week or so, to prep for this, that they never lost that propulsion, from start to finish. Their songs race along - they lock into a groove, and they don't let up. Those early songs all have a break in the middle, a swirly abstract bit, where Bono mewls and the Edge noodles and Larry and Adam step back and Steve Lillywhite drops plates on the floor - but they never lose the beat in those sections, never lose the pulse, not on record, not live... I don't know if they were the best rhythm section, necessarily, but they were locked in (and The Edge is most definitely part of the rhythm section), and they never faltered. They are still a joy to listen to. And The Edge - he never seems to come up with more than one idea per song - but he comes up with an astonishing number of ideas, and he rides 'em into the ground. And that works for me.

Okay then - to the list: top 10 U2 songs.... you will note the heavy concentration of early stuff - I won't deny it or apologize - they started at the top, and never matched it, lyrically, musically, anything. But they have some high moments along the way...

1. Out of Control
2. The Electric Co. - 1 and 2 were obvious; the order less so. Musically, I think I prefer Electric Co. - it rocks out about as much as anything they did. But I think Out of Control gets the top because it is a better song, because it just sums up everything on the first record - and has such a great riff to it. They are, though, both of them, exhilarating.
3. Bad - they got a bit spacy on this record - and the lyrics start to get really lost. Bono trying to do improv on some of those songs - ugh... but still, when they were on - and there's this, too - for some reason, when he got to writing about dope, Bono almost starts to make sense. I notice it on the Joshua Tree - Running to Stand Still works about as well as anything there, the imagery connects to something - people, places, and it fits the themes... like Bad does. I noticed, over the years, how much this song owes to Heroin, the song (in structure at least) - and to Joy Division's Atmosphere (pretty much everything - the drum patterns, the verse structures, half the lyrics)... But hey - steal from the best. And I cannot resist the sound of this song - the way it builds, the guitar sounds, the drums coming in and building up, it is just fantastic.
4. All I Want is You - I suppose Bono's lyrics and singing are not terrible here, but this is here because of the guitar. God, I love those open chords...
5. Gloria
6. I Will Follow
7. New Year's Day - it might be my imagination, but isn't Bono singing this song from the perspective of Jesus Christ, debating whether he should come back yet or not? whether we are worthy of him? it's any easy mistake to make, I suppose. Bono makes it rather often.
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. A Sort of Homecoming
10. Mysterious Ways - I give short shrift to the later records, but they still have their merits, especially Achtung Baby. Though less character...

And so - video. Might as well start where it started for me - though I don't think I saw this actual video until the advent of YouTube. Still...

And a couple fairly early live performances - Out of control:

... and Electric Co.

And finally, first - an unembedded version of Bad, from 1984 - harder than later, more bite - I think part of what started to disappoint me about U2 was that I always heard their songs in my head harder than they played them. I would imagine Bad taking off in concert - the guitars tougher, everything faster, more violent - more like the Who. The records hinted at The Who - the concerts never delivered The Who. And over time, the music tended to slip inot the background - Bono seemed to take over more and more of the group, the sound - and I loved them for the Edge. Alas.... Still - here is Bad, from Live Aid... they were the band I watched that thing to see, not Led Zeppelin or Queen - and they are still far, far better than what those old timers offered up (however generous memory is)... This performance is starting to bloat, I'm afraid - Bono's starting to pretend he's a cowboy, he's quoting Lou Reed and Mick Jagger and seems confused by the security between him and the audience - and for most of this, the band is just vamping while Bono does his thing.... But boy, they could command a stage.

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