U2: over the years

It’s so strange, you listen to the latest song of a well-known rock band for the first time, you like the sound of the song so much that you start listening to their music to an extent that you fall in love with songs that the same band made 25 years ago, even before you were even born.

In 2000, when I listened to “Beautiful Day” by U2, I went through this experience of listening to almost all of their music of the last two decades in less than two years. You could say it was a crash course in U2. I have heard U2 so much now, Bono sounds like a friend.

No matter how much the fan following may claim to get, I dare say, ‘inspired’, by the lifestyle, attitude and the shine that a bunch of rockstars carry – it is the music that defines the popularity of a rockband. It is not the clothes, it not the quotes and it is certainly not their style of smoking a cigarette. It is the music.

If I were asked to describe what U2’s music is all about, what it has been all about since they started in the late 70s, I would just say it in one word — Reinvention. It has always been about chucking the music that delivered a top hit, trying something entirely different and coming up with another topper. The transition is so contrasting that it doesn’t seem like a transition at all. (Or maybe it’s just not one.)

When U2 won the Grammy for “Beautiful Day”, a photo of the band was published in The Economic Times. I didn’t have access to television those days and it took a business newspaper to inform me about the existence of one of the best rock bands.

All that you can’t leave behind (ATYCLB) had a sad feel to it. It was like the band didn’t approve of what was going on with the world and it was their way of insisting that what was going on was not right. “Peace on earth” and “When I look at the world” are songs like that. It also conveyed a sense of a strange kind of loneliness, something like laughing at one’s own bareness. Like many U2 songs, some in the album had their own biblical references, hidden meanings.

“And it’s already gone too far

Who said that if you go in hard, you won’t get hurt?

Jesus, can you take the time

To throw a drowning man a line? ”

(from the song “Peace on Earth”)

The Joshua Tree, of course, made U2 what they are. The album marked U2’s move from rock-and-roll to core rock. “Bullet the Blue Sky” slammed America. “With or Without You” was, it could be said, their first love song. “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found” became classics. In 1987, we had a new U2. We had four guys from Ireland who didn’t do drugs and called themselves a rock band.

“In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum

Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome

Plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire

See them burning crosses, see the flames, higher and higher”

(from the song “Bullet the Blue sky”)

In 1992, Achtung Baby saw U2 dispose the core-rock music cloak. It was a strange album with a lot of experimentation. U2 behaved like a bunch of rockers with the lavish stages that they set for the Zooropa tour that followed the release of the album. The music sent out ideas in an explicit fashion. With songs like “The Fly”, “Zoo Station”, it was, kind of, experiencing a drugged state of mind. “So Cruel” and the classic “One” had sorrow.

“She wears my love

Like a see-through dress

Her lips say one thing

Her movements something else”

(from the song “So Cruel”)

In my personal opinion, Achtung Baby is U2’s best work. It showed the world how they shunned the idea of contemporary rock and were willing to try something entirely new and different. Bono said that Achtung Baby was the sound of four men chopping the Joshua tree. It carried a different personality, so different that one was not enough and Bono had to arrange for two more personas, ‘The Fly’ and ‘MacPhisto’. With The Fly, Bono could be explicit, rebellious. MacPhisto, on the other hand was more of a devil than anyone else. Achtung Baby was a reinvention of sorts and at a time when it was least required. It gave U2 a success typical of a brand new band with a debut album.

“It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest

It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success

Every artist is a cannibal every poet is a thief

All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief”

(from the song “The Fly”)

Zooropa was U2 with another new avtaar. I can’t think of any other rock band who experimented with electronica to an extent U2 did with Zooropa. It took U2 to another extreme, with “Numb” voiced by The Edge and heavy guitars. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” was heavy on drums with lots of distortion. “Babyface” was Bono’s tribute to, of all things, satellite television and the fantasies of show business it brings along with it.

“Babyface, babyface

Cover girl with natural grace

How could beauty be so kind

To an ordinary guy?

(from the song “Babyface”)

In their last album that was released in 2004, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2 seemed to get back to core rock. Something similar to what they did in Joshua Tree. “Vertigo”, time and again reminds me of the song “Elevation” (from ATYCLB). “Original of the Species” and “Crumbs from Your Table” are typical U2 classics. “Love and Peace…” has that “Bullet the Blue Sky” rebel in it.

Take these hands, Teach them what to carry

Take these hands, Don’t make a fist

Take this mouth, So quick to criticise

Take this mouth, Give it a kiss

(from the song “Yahweh”)

U2 are swaggers. They have no style, as Bono mentioned in one of his interviews. You can’t label their music. If you do, it is a mistake.

There has to be something special in the bunch of guys who sustain themselves for three decades while making good music. I don’t think of U2 as a typical rock band. Instead, I like to think of them as four good guys who happen to be making rock music.

Meanwhile, Bono has confirmed that U2 will be releasing a brand new album sometime in 2007.

Article cross-posted at desicritics.org

8 thoughts on “U2: over the years

  1. For me, it’s One all the way.. Awesome song:-) Actually it’s a bit of a coincidence that two of my all time fav. songs are both titled One, the other one by Metallica.

  2. http://rishabhs.blogspot.com/ aka Rishabh (a friend) is your man to connect to. This guy abso-friggin-lutely drools on U2. Dont be baffled to find he knows all U2’s song lyrics and the background work and story behind each song. If he werent a skyscraper and wiry thin he’d have sported a bono look too. Maybe Mr.Hewson signed some pact to be the only Bono in his lifetime. ;)

    I am almost sure he plans to name all his kids – Bono (Version 1.0, 2,0 and so on). :-D

    Oh! nope…he doesnt pay me to be his promoter. :-p

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