A Sunday Bloody Sunday Pondering, And An IOU Series Post Too
This Sunday Pondering post is part of my IOU Series. A 2-fer, you lucky kids.
Before you get started, go get a coffee or three. This could take a while…
You see, way back when, I’d mentioned to Deke that I had strong opinions about U2, and he said he’d love to hear it. Of course, I never wrote it, even when it came back up in comments here and there over time.
So Deke, here’s my IOU post about U2. It’s also a Sunday Pondering, because I have fully pondered my (long but older) relationship to the band for this post, and discovered… well, read on…
Once And For All: Aaron Takes On U2 – A Pondering, With A Wee Bit Of Rant
Born in 1974, I am a child of the late 70s and early 80s. U2 formed only two years later, in 1976. Up until 1984 (when I was 10), I didn’t even own my own music. By then, they’d released four studio albums, an EP and a live album.
As a wee kid, I heard whatever everyone else played. I can’t say I was a fan early on, as they weren’t on the radar of anyone in my immediate vicinity. My sister didn’t play their records (she was into Wham! and Billy Joel), nor did any of my friends (they liked Bryan Adams, Gowan, Mr. Mister, Glass Tiger, Platinum Blonde – as did I, and I still do). I did hear the radio, so I probably heard early singles like I Will Follow, New Years Day or Pride (In The Name Of Love) on there, though my parents usually had the radio on the local country station because it gave the best weather reports.
I remember one girl in my school, we must’ve been in grade 4 (9 years old or so), who went to see U2 in concert in Toronto, and came back with the t-shirt. From our perspective in our small country community, it was as though she’d gone to another world and back.
Somewhere in there, though, we got memberships to the Columbia House tape club, and I got several U2 albums that way. I had Boy, and the Unforgettable Fire, and War. Close to all the early stuff, anyway. I really enjoyed it, loved the energy and how the songs told stories instead of just always blathering about love. The music worked on a level for me too, simple but not simple, and tied perfectly to the messages. Of course, I’m writing it like this now – back then, I’d have just said I really liked this or that tape. But suffice it to say that I was enough of a fan of those early tapes that they were definitely on my radar for the next bit…
It’s worth noting here, before we go on, that at this point, U2 was already a huge band. It’s not like they were toiling away in clubs in 1986. But when the next record arrived, they blasted into a different level…
In 1987 (I was 13), my team went to Goderich to play in a weekend hockey tournament. We had some time to kill and were down in the square, and I’ll never forget I picked up a copy of Joshua Tree from a rack of new tapes and said “I didn’t know they had a new record out!” and, after I pawed it for awhile, my Dad got it for me! A shock – not something that happened every day. Remember, we didn’t have internet then, and in my very small town (of 300 people) we didn’t get a lot of notice about this stuff. Hell, we only had three TV channels and you had to get off the couch to change them. We didn’t get cable ’til I was 15 years old, and by then I was a lost cause for being hooked on TV. We spent a lot of time playing hockey outside, or off doing other things. I also read a lot of books (for which I am grateful to this day).
Joshua Tree blew me away. The three big singles right off the top, of course, are what they are. But I was the kind of kid who played tapes all the way through, side A and side B. I rarely rewound a song or a side. I just let the whole thing play. So I heard the whole of every record I owned, and if I had to shut it off before it was done, next time I came back to it I just pressed play and let it pick up where it got stopped. The short-attention span kids of today would do well to have more connection to longer relationships with albums like that. Said the aging guy whom they’d think was a dinosaur. Anyway, for me the real meat of the album is found after those big three tracks. The longer it goes, the better it gets.
Not long after, they dropped Rattle And Hum, a year later, in 1988. Combined with Joshua Tree, I will maintain to this day that this was their high water mark. You can talk ’til you’re blue in the face but to me they never did better than those two, and to have one right after the other… damn. Rattle And Hum became my Sunday church music, the place I went when I needed a lift, so good for the soul, and even now as I am typing this I am playing it from top to bottom and it’s damn near unimpeachable. I played my first copy of that tape so often that I wore it out, the first and only tape I ever owned that I played so much I had to replace it.
Of course, all along in here, I’d been listening to all sorts of different music, a lot of the CanCon pop and AOR rock of the day, but also jazz and swing was always a staple for me. By the time I got to high school, I was into jazz, mostly. The shop kids were sporting Metallica t-shirts and I was talking about the new Harry Connick, Jr. album. I still played U2, though, especially those last two records.
When they dropped Achtung Baby in 1991 (I was 17), I snapped it up, ready for the next dose of U2 like I’d been absorbing in recent years. And it… well, I liked it… but I realize now, in retrospect, that I was liking it because I was wanting to like it… more than I actually liked it. It’s not a bad record, but it was a shift, and not what I was expecting or wanting. I know full well that bands have to grow, change, become. Usually, I’m along for the ride and it’s cool. But Achtung Baby, I don’t know, if I were honest as my 17 year old self, and could have verbalized it at the time, I’d say something about it left me cold. I liked some of the songs, still do, but it wasn’t a complete record for me, not like the others. It was the first time I only liked certain songs, not its entirety.
So I played Achtung Baby enough that I know it by heart, but it wouldn’t be a favourite in a list. Oh no, I’m about to be that guy who says “I only liked them in the early days, all the new stuff is shit!” Haha except that Achtung came out 26 years ago and I didn’t think it was shit. I just didn’t connect with it in the same way.
And by now it’s worth noting that they were at a level of fame that few acts reach. One could even argue that, after this point, it wasn’t even really about the songs anymore, it was about the spectacle. Somewhere along the way they lost their youthful energy and idealism, and now it’s like they have to make themselves write something vital instead of just doing it.
When Zooropa dropped two years later (in 1993), I was off the bus. I didn’t like the singles, and the songs weren’t the U2 I knew. Pop (in 1997) was worse. I’d stopped buying their records. And to be honest, I haven’t bought one since Acthung Baby. I retreated, as the band only grew larger and more popular. And good on them, I say. And fair play to all those who went along with them in those new directions and actually liked those records.
I would wager, though, that people who go see U2 in concert today aren’t really going just to hear songs off All That You Can’t Leave Behind, or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (WTF title). And not from No Line On The Horizon or Songs Of Innocence either (and I haven’t looked but I assume they’re cribbing from William Blake on that title). See, there’s me having read William Blake but not heard the newest U2 record. Go figure. I still hear the singles, but I never click with any of it.
Anyway, I’ll bet folks are wanting the old stuff, the hits from 30 years ago when they pay waaaay too much to go down to the U2 show, these days. And fair play, it’s what we’ve heard, and what radio has blasted us with the most. Maybe the newer songs will become classics in their own right, years from now.
Now. Set aside the albums, because there’s another angle to this story. Bono.
But before I get into him, I should note that I don’t hear too much about the rest of the band. They seem to have been smart enough to mostly keep it about the music (and enjoying their celebrity, I suppose, Clayton even married a model), but leave the rest to their singer. That’s just my impression, as a guy who doesn’t follow them anymore. Who knows, maybe the other three are just as bad.
Bono has always been a bombastic twat, and for a lot of years it worked for him. That larger-than-life persona helped propel the band to even greater heights, a consumate showman in most ways. Trouble is, somewhere along the history of everyone blowing smoke up his ass, he started to believe the hype and his own mythology and began speaking out on political issues outside of the albums and the stage. Unless you’re Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg or Rage Against The Machine and politics in music is your wheelhouse, I generally tend to think a song or two about an issue you find important is great, and U2 were always a political (and religious) band that had things to say and that was fine.
But you’re a musician, not a politician… Not Bono, though, nope. He jumped over to a new realm, became a guy pushing for policy, telling the world (and world leaders) how he thinks things ought to be. Sad thing is, he actually gets meetings with decision-makers, and fair play if it’s just a photo op for them, but if they are actually listening, he has jumped the shark and needs to choose where he wants to be. At some point, it became less about the music and more about his grandstanding, and I’d argue the albums and the music has suffered for it. You could probably even chart a corresponding deterioration and decline in quality of the music to right around when he started speaking out more outside the music, if you cared to look it up. I sure don’t.
Yeah, here we’ve got a guy with more money than G-d going around telling the world how they ought to do things, dropping in on some impoverished place, trying not to get any on him, and then jetting back to one of his palatial residences in his private jet or helicopter. I dunno, I wouldn’t go across the street to talk to the guy, myself, these days. Fair play to those who think he has some valid place in international affairs.
And hey, for all I know, he may be quietly donating scads of money to worthy causes and not publicising that. That would be great. I just wish, if that were the case, that he’d leave it at that. Is it impossible to do good things and just quietly go about your business? The grandstanding is obnoxious, and absolutely detracts from any good he may be doing. Again, he’s been so hugely famous for so long, he’s likely so disconnected from our reality that he sincerely does not know how to be normal anymore.
I used to love U2, but I stopped caring about their new music over 25 years ago, because they stopped being the vital entitity they were, choosing fame over quality. I haven’t liked what I’ve heard in a loooong time. Shit happens, and we’ll always have those first twenty years of their career.
If you’re a U2 fan and reading this, yelling at your screen that I’m wrong and can’t wait to get into the comments section to flame me, calm down, there, Zippy. Go write your own blog about how you love their later work better and how Bono is your messiah. Just don’t link me to it.