Ho and Hum: Is success spoiling U2? | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Ho and Hum: Is success spoiling U2? 

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To every garage band, basement jammer, and Stratocaster-copy basher in America, U2 must be the Dream personified. With scant, almost minimal musical resources, vocalist "Bono," bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen, and guitarist "The Edge" have carved out a solid and distinct artistic identity, a huge international audience, and a critical reputation as the band of the 80s. One can easily imagine an average middle-class kid shaking the foundations of Mommy and Daddy's suburban, home, banging away at "Sunday Bloody Sunday" with a hitherto unfathomable frenzy, and justifying it by pointing to U2's current stature and saying, "See! It can be done."

Indeed, to break U2 down into its individual components is to wonder with amazement just how these four well-intentioned, morally conscientious Dubliners managed to pull the whole thing off. Rhythm sections don't get any more basic than this one here, Clayton tenaciously holding down the root of the chord while Mullen pounds out four-square, to-the-beat patterns with much vigor but little invention. Bono possesses all the vocal range of an above-average grade-school choir singer, if that much, with sustain and control well within the capabilities of a pickled fraternity brother.

As for The Edge, any semblance of linear improvisation, even of a sort that guitarists scrounging for gigs at the lowest pay levels can summarily accomplish, just doesn't seem worth his while. Catchy chord fills and extensions appear to be the substance of his playing technique, with the occasional note stretched far beyond its life expectancy.

These are musicians as far removed from virtuosity as Western music can get.

Once you get past technical considerations, however, things start to change in a hurry, for despite their limitations U2 have managed to amass a reasonably impressive book of material.

"Bad" relies mostly on a redundant two-chord harmony, but the way The Edge plays the root of the changes against some shimmering extensions does create a striking effect.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" uses the simplest of arpeggiated figures for its melodic lead, but the power and conviction with which it is played, coming off an equally simple but fiery drum intro and going into the body of the song, makes it sound appropriate, almost logical.

"Pride (In the Name of Love)" is solid march-time stuff from the word go, but Bono's resonant vocal does pack a certain punch, giving an otherwise ordinary progression a surprisingly uplifting feel.

In short, U2 is a band in the truest sense of the term, the whole being one hell of a lot more impressive than the sum of its parts.

Being essentially the same group that got together in a Dublin high school some 12 or 13 years ago, U2 have developed an intuitive sense of what works within the context of their abilities and what doesn't. They clearly understand that what's important is not what you have but what you do with it. They have the sort of consistent attitude toward their sound and approach that makes music at any, level of proficiency. They know how far they can go and have never pretended to be better than they are. There's nothing phony about them.

For the past year and a half, however, their sincerity, honesty, and ideals--as well as the rapport they have striven to establish with their audience- -have been meeting their stiffest challenges. Success of the magnitude that U2 currently enjoys is usually arrived at by exploiting an audience's craving for a powerful idol, which in turn involves placing as much distance as possible between audience and performer. Thus far U2 have been able to buck this system, communicating with their audience via honest, heartfelt songs even in hockey arenas and football stadiums. But if last year's The Joshua Tree and this year's Rattle and Hum (both the film and the sound-track LP) are any indication, perhaps their newfound celebrity is starting to scramble their sense of priorities.

The Joshua Tree and the ensuing tour were, by any definition, major successes, and the record showed some new twists in the band's sound: The Edge's distinctive mandolinlike upper-position chord fills took on a more sparkling quality, and Bono added some depth to his singing. This was unquestionably the band's best-produced record, their desire to create atmospherics through music perfectly complemented by Brian Eno's production touch. The material, too, served well, never venturing too far beyond the band's abilities. At the very least, U2 did manage to come up with songs that had something to say.

But for all its accomplishments, The Joshua Tree showed signs that U2 was having difficulties keeping the creative energy where it needed to be--within the band itself. All the various keyboard voicings, the wide dynamic range in the mix-down (Larry Mullen sounded as though he were playing a completely different drum kit on almost every track), and the extraneous sounds used to give the album a feeling of density brought into question U2's ability to assume the artistic burden themselves. U2 have gotten the mileage they have from their narrow range of techniques precisely because they haven't relied on very much outside help. The strength of their best material has always stemmed from their self-sufficiency.

If diffused creative energy was a slight concern with The Joshua Tree, it is a colossal problem with Rattle and Hum, the ball and chain that have prevented the film and album from accomplishing as much as they might have. While in theory the lads are to be admired for bringing other musicians to the attention of their gigantic following, in Rattle and Hum the practice finds them horribly mismatched more often than not. Their misguided collaboration with B.B. King, the overwhelming presence of the New Voices of Freedom choir, the peripheral involvement of Bob Dylan (which, intended or not, comes across as rubbing elbows with a certifiable Big Name), and the lame use of the Memphis Horns pose a serious question: just whose band is this, anyway?

U2 is on fairly stable ground playing covers such as the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" (which, with its blaring guitar intro, does serve as a good crowd rouser) and Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (in the middle of which Bono delivers the most honest statement any rock star could: "All I have is a red guitar / Three chords and the truth / All I have is a red guitar / The rest is up to you"). But things are considerably shakier when they take on the blues. While their reasons for writing songs like this are not totally clear, the end result is, knowingly or not, a denigration of a justly proud musical tradition. Specifically, whether in structure ("God Part II") or in content ("When Love Comes to Town"), the blues, as an idiom, is demonstrably outside of U2's league. If you can't absorb this kind of music to the point where you feel it in every expression, every movement, every sinew and, indeed, in your very marrow, don't mess with it.

One aspect of Rattle and Hum that is especially curious is that the band leaves out of one format what is particularly convincing in the other. Bono's tirade against apartheid during "Silver and Gold," included on the sound-track album, is commendable but overly preachy. With "Sunday Bloody Sunday," however, he drops all pretense of sermonizing and goes straight to the heart. With the rest of the band furiously charging their way through the song as his backdrop, he delivers a powerful soliloquy on living with the brutal and senseless violence of the Irish Republican Army. This is the one moment of the film that can honestly be called gripping, but it was left off the album in favor of the new songs, several of which do not possess half the impact.

Similarly, the album's version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is the concert take recorded at Madison Square Garden. In the film, the band members are shown rehearsing it with the choir that performed it with them onstage. The simpler arrangement of the filmed rehearsal, built solely on The Edge's crystalline guitar figure, Bono's vocal, and some spirited improvisations from the choir members, is far prettier in its sparsity and ringing harmonic texture than the more formal concert performance. To have included the rehearsal take on the album would have etched into vinyl a creditable reading of one of U2's more familiar songs while including the concert take on the film (if cameras had been available) would have, if nothing else, been a very interesting sight--a black church choir from the heart of Harlem in front of 20,000 boisterous middle-class teenagers.

Amid the confusion and failed experiments that plague Rattle and Hum, some good material does emerge. U2 mines to good effect the house-rockin' Bo Diddley shuffle on the single "Desire" (see Bruce Springsteen's "She's the One" and the Who's "Magic Bus" for other uses of the same rhythm). "All I Want Is You," with its loose tempo, absence of trap-drum rhythms, and lyrics about coming to terms with the love of another, has a sweet quality that brings some of the band's Irish character to the fore; only scrapping the useless string arrangement would have made it better.

And a good chunk of the concert footage and records are certainly worth putting up in front of the band's fans, showing as they do that U2 is still as convincing an act as there is on the arena circuit. Still, there's the rub; it has been the transition to the arena circuit that has created the central problems facing the band now.

Unlike their concert audiences of three or more years ago, a sizable chunk of U2's current audience is now there strictly for bragging rights. ("Me and Donna went to see U2 last night and it was soooo excellent.") That audience is also quite young; the median age at last year's Horizon concerts couldn't have been more than 17. Unless U2 manage to broaden their appeal, develop new ways to get their message across, they might find themselves ten years from now a vestige of a time gone by. All the media intimations of U2 affecting the youth of the world through the power of their convictions just don't pan out when one looks at the similar messages of the late 60s and early 70s and the nostalgic background schmaltz they have since been turned into by "classic rock" radio and slickly produced television specials. (Rolling Stone magazine grabbing a two-hour slot of prime time?)

U2 need to regather their thoughts and consider other possibilities. In the studio, they would do best to steer away from overly glossy production and get back to the basic components that made their music affecting in the first place, constructing songs off a solid base and incorporating different rhythms, harmonics, timbres, and overtones in little ways (a twist in the bridge; developing a song off a vocal line instead of a guitar part; linking the vocals and the rhythm here and there; etc). Some of their best material, upon close listening, possesses inflections from the traditional music of their homeland ("A Sort of Homecoming" is a particularly good example). To explore this more deeply and scrap the pretensions of being blues musicians could give U2 a new source of inspiration.

Onstage, the band would do well to shuffle what's become a rather routine song order, using their hit "New Year's Day," for example, as an opener instead of a predictable closer, and encoring perhaps with an unrecorded song instead of "40" for the umpteen-millionth time. They might also rework some of their more familiar material and make better use of covers to get the audience involved. They have shown already that they are capable of both, but they haven't done enough of either.

In short, U2 needs to take a few calculated risks. This band does represent something positive in the superficial and coldly mercantile world of pop music, and it would be a shame to watch it become just another piece of slickly produced show biz. Taking chances may disorient and even alienate a lot of their current fans, but if the band doesn't change the fans will disappear in time anyway.

U2 has thousands of wide-eyed gawkers at its feet on any given night over the course of a tour. The time has come to shake that audience up a bit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Colm Henry.

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