Sean Highkin and Liam Demamiel delve into the sprawling catalog and career of U2 in our next Discussions feature.
LIAM DEMAMIEL: Most U2 conversations invariably end up on the subject of Bono, and I can’t really think of any other frontman who polarizes listeners as much as the man in the sunglasses. I know we are both big U2 fans, what are your thoughts on him?
SEAN HIGHKIN: I can sort of see why he’s such a divisive figure. There is a strong contingent of rock fans that can’t stand rock stars who have aspirations beyond being entertainers. I don’t get it myself. The amount of money and awareness Bono has used his celebrity to raise for poverty, hunger, and AIDS is unparalleled in the pop music. People see him acting all buddy-buddy with world leaders and roll their eyes, because our first reaction when we see someone worth hundreds of millions of dollars talking about hunger in Africa is to question their intentions. But I don’t think anyone can argue that Bono hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot of good for society as a rock star.
LIAM: I think a lot of it has to do with ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and an inherent distrust in some people of the good intentions of those more successful than them… a desire for some schadenfreude maybe? But I agree with you: like it or not he has had brought a lot of attention to issues that would otherwise have gone ignored. After seeing them live once I asked the guy next to me what he thought. “It was good,” he said, “”but I wish Bono didn’t waste all that time preaching at me.” I understand that when you pay to see a show you are paying to be entertained, but you can always choose to switch off — you know what you are in for. I think that people get too caught up in the debate and ‘Bono bashing’ and often forget that there are three other very talented and creative people in U2.
SEAN: By this point, I’d hope that anyone who pays money for a U2 show knows that Bono’s “preaching” comes with the territory. If you go to one of their concerts and actually come away thinking “Man, they could have played another obscure Zooropa track if Bono hadn’t spent 10 minutes talking about Africa,” then how much do you really know about the band’s history? I’ve never seen them myself (I had tickets for the Seattle show on the 360 tour but couldn’t make the rescheduled date), but I’ve seen enough of their shows on YouTube and DVDs to be able to safely assume that there are very few bands that do a better job of giving you your money’s worth, musically and visually.
And yes, as you said, the other three guys in the band are pretty damn talented too. The Edge is recognized as one of the more innovative guitarists of the last few decades, as he should be, but when was the last time you’ve seen anyone but the most hardcore U2 fans give more than a passing thought to Adam Clayton or Larry Mullen? They don’t have a sound as unmistakable and singular as Edge’s, nor do they have personalities as magnetic as Bono’s, but is there a more solid rhythm section you could ask for if you’re making the kind of music U2 make? With the exception of my beloved Rush, I can’t think of a band that’s stayed together with the same lineup for as long or at as high a profile as U2 without any serious conflicts. To me, that’s admirable.
LIAM: Yeah, it definitely is a rarity these days. It would be interesting to have more insight into the band dynamics, however U2 Co. seems to keep pretty guarded on how the band functions. But for me they really are one of those ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ bands. I was listening to Boy recently and had forgotten how tight that record sounds. Like you said, Adam and Larry are incredibly solid. On “Electric Co.” they really keep it down and let Edge do his thing and drive the song. But I like how they can also own a tune too. The bass line in “An Cat Dubh” is so simple but really makes the song. All these years later I think things really haven’t changed that much – they still are a very adept band.
SEAN: Boy is about as good as you can expect any band’s debut album to be. It’s pretty remarkable how fully realized their sound was even then, considering it was a record made by a bunch of 20-year-olds. When you think about it, not all that much has changed in U2’s sound from 1980 to 2011. I don’t mean that in the sense that they’ve been repeating themselves that whole time, because that’s obviously not true at all. But if I heard Boy in 1980 and then you played me No Line on the Horizon and told me that was what U2 would sound like in 2009, it would make sense.
LIAM: Definitely, I think “Magnificent” off No Line On The Horizon best encapsulates that. All those Boy elements are there – the Edge’s effected guitar, the solid rhythm and that soaring voice; but it still sounds new and interesting. I don’t know how they do it, but I still get excited by every new U2 release. Would your opinion change if someone played you, say, Pop?
SEAN: It would make me raise my eyebrows a bit, yes. But honestly, listen to the breakdown in “Discotheque,” or the leadup to the chorus of “Please,” or even “Staring at the Sun” — the U2 sound is there.
For the record, I’m squarely in the “Pop is a misunderstood gem” camp. At least half the songs are top-shelf U2, and even the ones I’m not crazy about (“Miami,” “Playboy Mansion”) are the kind of failures that are worth hearing once. I also thought the material from that album translated quite well live on the PopMart tour.
LIAM: I think Pop is a solid record, and often feels like the logical extension of those other great 90s albums, Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Having said that, it made me happy when they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind. That return to the more tried and tested sound and “conventional” approach has really come to cement U2 as an essential band for me. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon are thoroughly enjoyable and deceptive records. I still listen to these albums and find things that I hadn’t noticed before. While the 80s will always be my favourite U2 era, it is hard for me to find much wrong with their recent work. Yes, it is often a bit poppier, but I think it still possesses those elements that made records like The Joshua Tree perfect. I think this gets back to what we touched on earlier – evolving but with familiarity.
SEAN: On some level, I get the dislike a lot of people have for post-millennial U2. In all likelihood, they’re never going to release another Achtung Baby-type record that completely redefines who they are as a band. No band that’s been around as long as U2 continues to innovate this late in their career. Paul McCartney’s best-received solo records these days are the ones that sound the most like Beatles or early Wings albums. Dylan, Bowie, Springsteen, whoever — they’re all much more successful at this stage in their careers when they stick with what they know works. U2’s been together for 30-plus years. Whatever they do is going to sound like U2. They could (God forbid) release a dubstep album and it would probably end up sounding like U2. So you have to put any expectations of change aside when evaluating their recent work, and when you look at their last three albums in and of themselves, there are a lot of terrific songs. “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “City of Blinding Lights,” “Love and Peace or Else,” “Unknown Caller,” “Original of the Species,” “Magnificent,” Stuck in a Moment,” “In a Little While,” “Moment of Surrender,” I could go on. There’s a bunch of great non-album material from this period too, like “Electrical Storm” and “Mercy.” The question with modern U2 isn’t “what boundaries are they pushing,” it’s simply “are the songs there?” And for the most part, the answer is still a resounding yes.
LIAM: I don’t always look for the boundaries to be pushed and I think U2 have proved themselves in their ability to change their sound. Maybe that’s why I like the recent direction. For me its nice having that familiarity there and seeing how a band can push their own established sound… I don’t expect Achtung Baby Redux. The mild experimentation of their latest effort is enough for me, and who knows what they will come out with next.
One argument about the post-millennial U2 I have always found interesting is that they are too “important” or “big” commercially to shape shift again. There is no denying that Pop alienated some fans and they had to work hard to get to where they now. Now some are calling them the “Biggest Band in the World.” What do you think will be their legacy?
SEAN: I hate the legacy question, especially for bands that still have worthwhile music left to make. Are they the biggest band in the world right now, purely in terms of name recognition? Probably. One thing I can say about U2 with confidence is that they’re the last band that will be huge the way bands used to be huge before the internet caused musical subcultures and fan bases to become as splintered as they are today.
LIAM: Noel Gallagher said that about Oasis recently, but I think they hardly compare to U2 in terms of longevity. I think U2 will be one of the last big bands to have fused religious and political ideologies with “mainstream” pop music. I can’t really think of any current big bands who do it — it seems like there is not much space for that kind of thing these days.
SEAN: I guess the closest thing would be Coldplay, but they bypassed any stage of U2’s career arc where they were cutting-edge and went straight to the part where they’re the most uncool band in the world.
Switching gears for a second: What’s your favorite album?
LIAM: Am I being too predictable if I say The Joshua Tree? For me that album has always represented a band at the top of their game, and is without a doubt one of the best albums of the 1980’s. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” just on the A-side! It is as close to perfect as an album can get. “In God’s Country” is one my favorite U2 songs — I love that bassline and Bono’s vocals. That whole album has that clear American influence and spiritual tinge… I still walk away from listening to it and am amazed.
SEAN: The thing about The Joshua Tree is that you look at the names of the songs on side A and the first thought is that it’s one of the most front-loaded albums of all time, but the best songs on the album are some of the ones on side B. “Red Hill Mining Town” might be Bono’s crowning achievement as a vocalist. You mentioned “In God’s Country” — that’s one of my favorites as well. “One Tree Hill” and “Exit” are outstanding. And then you get to the hits: “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” are somehow still not played out.
And yet, it’s not my favorite U2 album. To me, Achtung Baby is the best rock album of the last 25 years. Better than Nevermind, better than Loveless, better than OK Computer, better than Appetite for Destruction.
LIAM: I like it too, but the best of the last 25 years?
SEAN: Why not? Not only is it as strong song-for-song as any album you could name, but it’s also maybe the most successful reinvention in rock history. It takes serious balls to follow up an album as huge as The Joshua Tree by overhauling nearly everything about who you are as a band, musically and visually. U2 got a sense of humor for the first time, and pulled off the toughest thing for a veteran band to do: stay current while staying true to themselves. You could hear “U2” and “hip-hop and electronic influences” in the same sentence and think the potential is there for a forced, contrived mess, but the opposite is true. It’s the most unified album they’ve ever made, and they’ve never written a stronger end-to-end set of songs.
LIAM: I think that was Bono’s best period for sunglasses-wise, too.
SEAN: Agreed, Bono was absolutely at the top of his sunglasses game circa Achtung. There’s a reason the new box set for that album features a replica pair. Although for how much that thing is costing, I’d think the sunglasses would have to be a pair that he actually wore on the ZooTV tour.
Speaking of ZooTV, that’s one of my favorite concert films of all time. In fact, you could even go so far as to say that if I could go back in time to see any tour in rock history, that would be right up there with The Who in ’70 or Zeppelin in ’72 for me.
LIAM: A U2 concert is definitely an experience. It is all encapsulating and transports you to another place — the staging and design is amazing. Kiss always talk their show up, but pyrotechnics and gimmicky fake blood hardly match up to what U2 delivers. I think PopMart would have been great to see. I like the idea of four men trapped inside a mirrorball lemon. Spinal Tap!
SEAN: Two things about PopMart: first, I don’t understand why they didn’t play any Zooropa material on that tour. Songs like “Numb,” “Lemon,” and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” would have been arguably better fits for that show even than they were for ZooTV. Second, I really wish they’d bring some of the Pop stuff back. I get why they don’t play anything from it anymore — that album is the black sheep of their catalog, critically and commercially — but now that they’ve reclaimed their status as the biggest band in the world, and a lot of the stigma from PopMart’s excesses has worn off, wouldn’t you love to hear “Last Night on Earth” or “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” again?
LIAM: I guess, but they have built up an enviable catalogue of material over the years — there is always going to be something I wish they would revisit. I am happy that they are moving on, and excited for what comes next!