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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

Dear Stu­art

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

Dear 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?

Yours, Stu­art

Dear Stu­art

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

Dear 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.

Yours, Stu­art

Dear Stu­art

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.

Yours, Hugh

Dear Hugh

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.

Yours, Stu­art

Dear Stu­art

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.

Yours, Hugh

Dear Hugh

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.

Yours, Stu­art

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