Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Sort of Homecoming

And A Hearty Hello To U2 As Well!

In order to combat monotony, music was often a frequent topic of discussion at my last job.  One of the more memorable exchanges I had was with a co-worker named Bob who told me that he'd actually seen The Beatles live in Toronto in 1964.  I was in awe when I heard this.  Imagine being able to claim such a thing!  Imagine having been a witness to this sort of music history!     

Well, as of July 30'th I'm hoping to make a similar claim.  I'm hoping to see our generation's answer to The Beatles perform live and in person.

I'm hoping to see U2

Now, there are some people out there who will cry "Blasphemy!" and declare that U2 isn't fit to carry Ringo Starr's drum kit.  Well, I'm not going to stand here and pretend that such an argument is completely devoid of validity, but I would challenge critics to name another 80's-era band that continues to pack in massive crowds and wow them consistently with stellar live shows.

My history with U2 is a bit checkered.  By the mid-to-late Eighties my heavy metal heroes were releasing increasingly mediocre albums.  I was looking for something new.  This conveniently came along in the form of what I now dub "Conscience Rock", so named after it's eternal association in my mind with my High School's Social Action committee.

Here's a quote from the first part of my music-oriented blog entry from May 21'st 2010:

"I fell in with a group of friends who'd joined an Amnesty International group in High School purely to ramp up their sad odds of meeting girls who might mistake them as 'sensitive'.  I was chided for listening to The Scorpions so I began a 'Conscience Rock' phase which involved exposure to...U2 
 U2 was initially a tough sell to me, but I borrowed 'Under a Blood Red Sky' from a friend and it soon grew on me.  Thank God I didn't see the accompanying concert footage until years later since the band's appearance would surely have been a deal-breaker: especially Bono's prototypical mullet, Peter Pan boots and tendency to stage prance."

I'm not kidding here, folks.  If I'd caught sight of U2 back then I'd likely have never been a fan of theirs.  Years later I learned that these young, naive, devoutly religious boys looked the way they did because that was the way they thought they were supposed to look like.  They didn't have a stylist on retainer or an entourage of public image consultants.  All they had was a best guess as to what a modern rock band in the 80's should look like.  Too bad this made them resemble roadies for Kajagoogoo.

Mercifully, the only image of the band that I had at the time was the iconic cover of Under a Blood Red Sky and the video for the following song.  Here's a snippet from this now-famous live performance:

After the live renditions of these songs infiltrated my brain, I purchased the band's first three studio albums Boy, October and War.   The stripped down Red Rocks performance had been so powerful to me that I distinctly recall being disappointed with the studio versions of "I Will Follow" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday", mainly due to their superfluous use of chimes and violins.  Nevertheless, I thrilled at hearing "new" material by the band, particularly "Out of Control", "Stories for Boys", "A Day Without Me", "Another Time, Another Place", "Two Hearts Beat As One", "Seconds", "Like A Song...", "With A Shout", "Tomorrow", "Is That All?", and "Rejoice".

Um, did I mention that they were kinda religious? 

Then I discovered The Unforgettable Fire, still their best and most even album, IMHO.  Although I wasn't a big fan of "Pride" with it's conventional verse/chorus/verse structure and borderline pretentious lyrics, everything else is money.  From the buoyant instrumental heights of "4th of July" providing a flawless segue into the hauntingly beautiful "Bad", this album is pure genius.  I love the kaleidoscopic melodies on display in "Promenade", the propulsive drum beat and choppy riffs in "A Sort of Homecoming" and the driving attack of "Indian Summer Sky", which actually sounds like it could be an out-take from the soundtrack of The Road Warrior.     

"MLK" is a showcase for the sort of vocal passion and delivery growing increasingly extinct in today's musical landscape.  The album's title track alone is an incredible mosaic of  instrumental textures which climbs to dizzying and ever-more powerful heights.  "Wire" comes at the listener with an unrelenting guitar and bass assault and then spins off into an incredibly infectious shout-chant.  "Elvis Presley and America" winds things down nicely but Bono still can't help but raise some vocal rabble towards the end of the song.

The first time I actually remember seeing U2 on stage was probably during the "Live Aid" broadcast.  Speaking of transcendental performances, it was this moment which catapulted the band from groundswell underdogs to bearers of the rock super-group standard.  Too bad this performance nearly broke up the band.

More on that in a bit.  First, here's that historical performance in it's entirety.  Stick with it,  kiddies, 'cuz it's a doozy...

Y'see, the band didn't expect to do a twelve-minute, extended dance-mix version of "Bad" while Bono pulled his little stunt of dragging girls out of the audience to dance with.  In fact, it completely derailed the band's plan to play "Pride" as their third scheduled song.  So, for about a week after their showing at "Live Aid", Bono's name was mud with the rest of the band.  However, as soon as the amazing moment went viral (or as viral as it could go in that pre-internet world), the rest of the lads had to admit that it was stroke of inspired genius.

Then came that cultural juggernaut: The Joshua Tree.  To me this isn't so much an album as it is the soundtrack for tremendous change in my life.  At the time I was about to graduate from High School with all the fears and trepidations that go along with it.  This landmark record gave me tremendous fortitude to face what was ahead and also somehow feel as if better days were to come.

The first half of the album is an emotional roller-coaster.  Standouts include the perpetually building "Where The Streets Have No Name", the haunting and melancholy "With Or Without You", the oddly optimistic "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", the apocalyptic "Bullet The Blue Sky", and the truly heart-rending "Running To Stand Still". 

My favorite song on the entire album, however, is track six: "Red Hill Mining Town".  I don't like my odds for hearing it live on Saturday, but I remain optimistic since it would make for a stirring and rousing sing-along.  This is the band at it's most cohesive, powerful and sincere (even if the accompanying video isn't):

Well, after embracing Americana for two albums, the band went to hell with the joke on Rattle And Hum.  Although somewhat deservedly criticized for being pretentious and self-aggrandizing, there's still a ton of "A"-list material here.  Witness Edge's stark and mournful performance on "Van Diemen's Land", the chill-inducing beauty of "Heartland", the clarion call-out of "Desire" and "All I Want Is You", arguably the band's most delicate and passionate slow tune.  Oh, and you also have to recognize the penultimate delivery given to "Bullet The Blue Sky":

Regrettably, Rattle And Hum gave us too much U2 too quickly (try saying that five times real fast).  Although Bono is the band's resident extrovert by default, the rest of the band is pretty reticent.  As a result, the film's interview segments and "musical discovery" plotline seem terrible contrived.  It almost seems as if America didn't exist until it was discovered by U2.

So, what's the perfect antidote for looking too self-absorbed and serious?  Why, make a daring, avant-garde, German-influenced album that self-parodies fame and dresses the entire band up in drag!   Enter Achtung Baby, one of my top five favorite albums by the group.

If it had been released in the Eighties, fans would have been left to ponder just what the band had been smoking in order to produce such a record.  But in the early Nineties, a time of musical derring-do and alternative acceptance, Achtung Baby was birthed at a perfectly opportune time.  Plus it certainly helps that there is absolutely no dead weight on this album whatsover.

In a moment of synergistic genius, the Zoo T.V. tour that followed in support of the album was an incredible, multimedia-driven assault on the senses.  As it evolved and grew, so did Bono's stage personae.  He developed no less then three self-depreciating alter-egos: "The Fly" a black leather-clad, sunglasses-sporting egomaniac, "Mirror Ball Man" a slippery used car salesman/good 'ole boy and "MacPhisto" a melancholy demonic lounge singer who may very well have been the precursor to Lorne on the T.V. show Angel.  .   

As if that wasn't enough, each live show was an orgy of message-strobing televisions, pop cultural references, channel surfing, prank calls and video confessionals.  It was the perfect way for the band to completely erase their reputation as pompous, goody-two-shoes crusaders and still attack the media-soaked masses for their passive resignation.

Although every song on Achtung Baby is a winner (no lie!), my favorite tune has to be the deliriously melodic "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)".  This rare clip features one of "Mirror Ball Man's" many failed attempts to get then-President Bush on the horn.  It also illustrates the in-born live potential of the new material:

U2's adventures on the Zoo T.V. tour gave them plenty of fodder for their follow-up album, the unfairly maligned Zooropa.  Although it isn't nearly as even as it's predecessor, I find Zooropa certainly more complex and subsequently, more interesting, then some of the band's more recent efforts.  I keep coming back to it over and over again and discovering something new, as evidenced by the haunting title track which explores themes of moral confusion in a future rife with commercial and entertainment-related over-saturation: 

 The band has played "Zooropa" live as recently as eight days ago so, fingers crossed, I may get to hear it this Saturday.  

Am I pushing my luck to also hear Lemon?  Yes?  Um, okay then...  

In typical U2 fashion of going to overboard, their next album Pop really tested the loyalties of fans who were patiently waiting for them to record Joshua Tree II: The Revenge.  I'm a bit guilty of this myself, having chuckled at and then soundly dismissed the video for the album's lead-off single "Discotheque":

Although I die laughing every time I get to the 4:20 mark of the video, the musical landscape at the time was so dire and depressing I really didn't need one of my favorite bands to remind me of just how bad it really was, even in parody.  I needed them to step and provide an antidote to it.  Sadly, since I didn't buy this album until years after its release, it took me that long to realize that Pop actually was a solid kick back against the mediocre musical landscape of the time.

In fact, to this day, I'm confident that if the band had used a different lead-off single (like "Staring At The Sun", "Gone" or "Wake Up Dead Man") and employed a more sober video, the album would have been a massive hit.   

As if U2 could sense the collective will of it's fan base it went back to it's simpler roots with All That You Can't Leave Behind.  In doing so the band composed and released the most anthemic and optimal single possible in their bid to once again be regarded as the best band in the world.  That single was the rousing "Beautiful Day":

 The album yielded a slew of hits, some awesome ("Walk On", "In a Little While", "Wild Honey", "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of") some unfortunate (like the inexplicably meat-headed "Elevation").  Overall, though, fans came back in droves and U2 rode a renewed wave of popularity.

They managed to distill this momentum directly into their eleventh studio album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.  Sticking to the successful formula of it's predecessor, HTDAAB cranked out more radio-friendly unit shifters like "Vertigo", "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "City of Blinding Light".  Although I enjoyed both of these albums quite a bit, I still couldn't shake the feeling that the band was taking a risk-free step back and pandering somewhat to audience expectations.

Which is why I prefer their most recent album No Line On The Horizon.  Although it's wildly uneven and even a bit off-putting at times, I believe it's their deepest and most daring offering in this recent crop of releases.  Maybe I dig it because of the semi-experimental Achtung Baby/Zooropa-esque flirtations which crop up album from time to time.  Although I'm not a big fan of "Get On Your Boots" (although I do acknowledge it's potential as a stadium-pleaser) I really like the title track:

And so U2 find themselves at a cross-roads.  Like other venerable and legendary rock outfits like The Rolling Stones, their new studio releases might not be quite as urgent or relevant as they used to be.  But their appeal as a live act is as undiminished as ever, in fact this year the U2 360° Tour became the highest-grossing concert tour, with ticket sales totaling over US $700 million.

I'm hoping to contribute to this myself on Saturday and finally earn the right to claim that I've seen the biggest band in the world live.  It's been a long time coming...

EPIC   Five must-have U2 albums:
WarThe Unforgettable FireAchtung BabyThe Joshua TreeZooropa

FAIL: Sign of a great band: their earliest albums don't sound dated like this pablum...

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