Saints or sinners?
Transcendent, spiritual, stadium-sized music with the power to change the world or dreary, overblown, bombastic, vacuous, self-satisfied rubbish? On the eve of the re-issue of their first three albums, long-time U2 watchers Stuart Bailie and Hugh Linehan
Let me start by attempting to be reasonable.
As a world-domination project, you’d have to accept that U2 have been extraordinarily successful. You can’t gainsay their business acumen, or the force of will which took them to the top of the pile at a time when most of their contemporaries shied away from commercial success. And you’d have to give them considerable credit for the fact that they remained based in Ireland, at a time when everyone else was scrambling to get out of the place. And yes, I acknowledge that lots of people love them. But lots of people love golf. There’s no accounting . . .
Personally, I can’t stand their horrible, overblown, clodhopping music.
Those bombastic stage shows. Those bloody “anthems” (if I want an anthem, I’ll go to a football match). For more than 30 years, the U2 sound has been an irritating and persistent bluebottle in the room of my life.
Okay, there were a couple of songs on Boy that were just about tolerable.
And Achtung Baby had some listenable moments. Apart from that, it’s been a long, long, dreary ride, from the mulletted histrionics of the early 1980s to the ersatz Americana of Joshua Tree and the Spinal Tappery of Rattle and Hum, on to the hyper-extended post-modern jokes of the 1990s, and the carefully calculated snooze-rock of the past decade or so.
I’ve tried to be open-minded. Having avoided them like the plague for decades, I went to one of the Slane concerts a few years ago, and to Croke Park more recently. On both occasions, all my worst prejudices were confirmed: vacuous, self-satisfied stadium rock garnished with trite sloganeering. Never again.
And there’s something creepy about how coverage of U2 in Ireland resembles the sort of political journalism you’d find in the softer sort of totalitarian state. Their doings are charted dutifully – a few darts may be allowed at their pomposity – but is there a popular music critic in the country who has come out to declare that he/she can’t stand them? Can it be that none of them has noticed how rubbish U2’s music is? Over to you.
Best wishes, Hugh
Interesting that you believe there’s some kind of media conspiracy at home which forbids criticism of U2. I would argue the contrary, that Irish hacks are forever trying to score points and to raise their petty reputations by tilting at Bono. Occasionally, the likes of Eamonn McCann may hit the target, but mostly you get the creaking jibes and a few local observations, when the baby photos are fetched out and the debate gets hopelessly parochial.
A few years ago, I was asked to write something for a Dublin broadsheet about the band. A secondary brief from the editor revealed that he wanted dirt, dishonour and disparagement. His suggestions were lazily conceived and entirely motivated by begrudgery. What is it with your city? Sorry pal, but U2 are an astonishing band.
They did in fact deliver the worst gig I have ever witnessed – the Popmart launch in Las Vegas, 1997, when they combined an unfinished album with an over-cooked production. It sucked so badly that I would pay huge sums just to revisit the awful details. Conversely, I have seen a handful of U2 performances when Bono has willed something exceptional out of the band, his audience and his own modest proportions. On such a night, he can summon up the transcendent – a place out of linear time and rational thought. Van Morrison can take you higher into that place, but U2 are still looking for different ways to get there. When they fail, it’s mostly forgivable.
The late Bill Graham once remarked that Bono, like Bob Geldof and Phil Lynott, was a tireless overachiever. He needed those qualities to rise out of Dublin, a city that lacked a music industry, that was primarily grey and dowdy – that couldn’t even muster up a decent punk band. Bono and Gavin Friday went off and created an imagined village, a place that celebrated the odd and the uncomfortable. They gave themselves peculiar names and took mime lessons. Their early songs were studies in innocence, ecstasy and corruption, which is why Boy still sounds like an immensely bold effort.
Rock’n’roll bands tend to be random blooms that wither quickly. The survival of U2 is a fascinating aspect. Edge has been able to parlay with Bono’s flitting imagination, allowing his own art to prosper. Larry has a signature rattle on the snare and, wisely, Adam plays the straight guy. It works perfectly. And yes, they have a moral dimension that keeps their singer motivated and makes those stadium-sized platforms a necessary place to deliver the pitch. What’s not to admire?
Your point about Dublin’s inferiority to points north and south when it comes to musical creativity is undoubtedly true. But I don’t see what it has to do with the subject at hand. Tilting at Bono is indeed a minor national sport, but that’s also off the subject, which I thought was supposed to be the music.
I’m intrigued but not particularly surprised that disliking the U2 canon is seen as a sign of begrudgery and moral turpitude. Does that only apply to people from Dublin, or is it universal? As I’ve already said, I admire their will to success, and I acknowledge the contribution they’ve made to this country. But I’m sorry – what you see as transcendence, I hear as bathos. What started out as a mildly interesting post-punk band rapidly became a grandiloquent exercise in religiosity as mass entertainment. Then it got worse.
And call me bigoted, but as far as I’m concerned, anyone who sets out to change the world by taking mime lessons has already taken a wrong turn in life. Yours, Hugh
Let’s talk about spirituality, the engine that drives the U2 machine. In the early days, it was viewed as a freakish aspect with no place in punk rock and the era that followed. I think it’s fascinating that Bono, Larry and Edge were informed by charismatic Christianity and the Shalom group in particular. In the early days, U2’s friends in the media were protective of this aspect. They feared that the cynics would scoff, and in time they did.
The second album, October, found Bono at his most preachy and the songs at their least interesting. Soon after, the band broke from their religious community and have been much more ambivalent since then. Achtung Baby is the classic expression of faith in turmoil, and I think you appreciate this.
I also admire the themes of renewal and jubilation of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. While rock’n’roll has just about used up all its fuel, Bono has put the accent on one last positive push, allied to collective responsibility. The spiritual notion of unconditional love – agape – has something to do with this.
Bono’s lyrics are rich with the Psalms and the Gospels. He uses characters such as Judas and Noah to creative ends. Coming from an island where dogmatic religion has been used to disgraceful ends, I’m wary of
any form of Bible-thumping. But Bono, like Nick Cave, can still make the old book sing.
You may have helped me put my finger on one of the reasons why the whole thing doesn’t work for me: it’s not the aspiration towards transcendence, it’s the literalness with which that aspiration is couched. I have some sympathy for the friends of the band who tried to conceal the Shalom connection, because in the tribal wars of the late 1970s/early 1980s, it would have been used to give them a ferocious kicking. But there’s no escaping the fact that at times there is a strong whiff of the happy-clappy Folk Mass about U2.
Am I applying a double standard? Possibly. I may be an atheist, but I’ve never really had a problem with the overt religiousness of, say, the Wailers or Al Green. That said, for me there’s a world of difference between Nick Cave’s Old Testament Gothick (which teeters precariously but productively on the brink of self-parody) and Bono’s preachiness.
And yes, one of the reasons Achtung Baby works better is because he goes over to the Dark Side a bit more, albeit by plundering oth- er people’s back catalogues (but hey, where would any of us be without plagiarism?).
For me, rock’n’roll’s fuel tank ran dry a long time ago, and the world is all the better for it. I’ve never bought into the notion of rock music as some sort of redemptive act of mass consciousness – the concept is creepy. The best stuff has always been awkward, angular and beautiful in a way that goes against the grain of whatever the received wisdom of the age happens to be. You might argue that U2 do all of those things. But the very virtues which you see in the later work – the positivity, the unconditional love, etc – remind me of something on the Hallmark Channel.
We recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in Belfast, and of a lesser-known event that copper-fastened the politics. I’m talking about that May 1998 Waterfront Hall gig which featured U2 and Ash, with David Trimble and John Hume. The two politicians had never shaken hands in public, but it took a rock gig and Bono to make it happen. In a week that support for the agreement was dropping off to a terminal degree, this symbolic moment swung the polls by three per cent and won the day.
That’s one instance when Bono has been able to make a pragmatic difference. It almost wipes out the memory of Sunday Bloody Sunday. Bono is interested in what happens up the road. Few other acts from the Republic have shown any such concern. Therefore we’ve had songs such as Please, Peace On Earth and Staring at the Sun to document the changing times. In Belfast, the song One always resonates, a rogue song that mutates according to the emotions of the occasion.
I’m not an expert on African issues, but my guess is that Bono has given it socks, and that the politicians have often abused his concern and his proposed solutions. There are gaping contradictions in his liberality, but we probably all have a few stray lepers in the head.
I have serious reservations about the dichotomy between U2’s shiny Dutch tax shelter and Bono’s lectures to the rest of us about why our governments should raise their aid budgets as a proportion of their expenditure (funded for the most part as it is by the poor, taxunsheltered masses). But I don’t have any great problem with the decent positions the band has taken over the years.
But yes, the fact that Bono has been prepared to engage politically with some of the big issues is no bad thing, and that he hasn’t minded making a spectacle of himself in the process stands to his credit.
There’s a lot of U2 stuff we may never agree on. Where I get a thrill from the Big Music, you hear a charmless ballyhoo. My radar is veering towards the mystic, but you suspect a vacuum. My heart tells me that Bono is working to the dictates of his conscience, but you may suspect the disease of conceit.
Two thoughts to sign off with. Firstly, we probably wouldn’t have the interest to sustain this argument about another such band. That’s an indication of U2’s cultural presence. Secondly, if we ever got to sit together with the band’s collected works, we’d probably agree on a dozen songs that are incontestably great. We’re one, but not the same.