Musical Turning Points in U2′s Career*

February 27, 2006


By Erin Gould
2006.02

Take a look at your music collection. Now think about who your favorites are. Whatever the order may be (alphabetical, favorite to least favorite artist, record companies grouped together, etc.) if you look long enough, you may notice a sort of division of your artists.

There are those who have a defined start place and have never looked back, always continuously making their way toward their final destination. For me, this group is nine times out of 10 the more interesting to follow. You have people creating with a sketch of an idea and then creating something so much more like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, The Clash, The Jam, R.E.M. and, of course, U2.

Then there are those artists who have found their niche and do their thing better than anyone else. You know what you get with these guys and that’s a good thing. These folks are the masters in their world and it’s going to be a long time before someone can come along and take their place. In my personal collection, I’m talking about Oasis, Chris Isaak, Michael Penn, Caesars, John Mellencamp, The Ramones and The Verve.

And while this second group will often take sidesteps and interesting roads to try something new, the first group is always evolving, always growing, always moving. The first and foremost place we get indications from this isn’t the latest issue of Blender magazine or your local bit torrent site but in the very music these artists create.

Groups like The Beatles are perhaps the foundation of this tracking of progress. You don’t just jump from "Please Please Me" to "Sgt. Pepper’s" without creating such musical milestones in between as "In My Life" "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Ticket to Ride" or "Penny Lane."

Crawl before you walk, walk before you run, run before you fly.

U2 is in the position where it doesn’t have the desire to make "Return to the Joshua Tree" or "More Achtung Baby." While there’s a legion of fans out there who clamor for less change and more of the old, I think the majority loves the ride. We don’t where we’re going but damn if we’re not having fun getting there.

I’ve taken a look at U2′s music, looking for clues to where the band’s heading, to pinpoint musical milestones in its career. More specifically, I’m looking for the songs, not new stage shows or comments made at a New Year’s Eve show. I’m looking for the signs that exist on my iPod or on a CD that show that U2 is advancing to the next level (whatever, wherever that may be) Just like The Beatles’ introduction of "Strawberry Fields Forever" to the world or Bob Dylan signaling a new arrival of "Like a Rolling Stone," U2 has had its turning points.

These are the ones that stand out the most to me.

I Will Follow An obvious starting point, but not because it’s the first song on the first album. In “Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas,” Bono advises young bands to write that song, the one that will clothe you and feed you. This is the song that Bono was referring to. It was the song that opened the doors and ears of millions. A new sound was developing here. U2, still in its fetal stage, is working on figuring out where it’s going, how it’ll get there and, more importantly, what it wants to say.

New Year’s Day With this track, U2 managed to find a voice, a radio audience and, at the same time, display a political message to the masses. A tremendous bass line and powerhouse of a chorus showed that U2′s songwriting abilities were just coming in to focus. It was also one of their first forays into the mysterious (and sometimes fruitless) world of the remix. U2 was dipping its toes into bigger waters but, all the while, never losing its sense of what it was about.

The Unforgettable Fire Taking not a step back but a step to the side, U2′s songwriting goes slightly out of focus through an Eno lens. The songwriting out of focus doesn’t mean that the band has lost its way but that it’s gaining a new perspective on the art of songwriting and creation. U2 had been shown that there are other ways to solve the equation and with Brian Eno at the head of the class, all is going to be well. And when the band begins to refocus that lens, the landscapes begin to appear and we can hear the combination of the old and the new, melting together to what will eventually become the U2 sound.

Pride (In the Name of Love) U2 distills the DNA of "New Year’s Day" into this song—radio friendly and politically awakening. This is a set of DNA U2 will be going to for years to come.

With or Without You Taking a straightforward idea and turning it on its head, this is what U2 does best. Not content with the norm, the band crafts a love song, not one that lives on sunny days walking hand in hand in the park but in the shadows where the big finish of the song we’ve come to expect doesn’t happen the way we thought it would. It’s direct, concise, and evokes a mood that is beautiful, yet haunting at the same time. All of this glides along a guitar sound that had never quite been heard before and, in its originality, has rarely been heard since.

Bullet the Blue Sky Bono’s experiences in Central America come to life in his lyrics and Edge’s E chord—rage through six strings and an amplifier. The first of what will eventually be many expressive solos, not just diddling around on the frets but conveying emotion and feeling through sound (see also "Love Is Blindness"). This song also seems to take a book from the old (The Doors is definitely in the house on this one) and the new (an almost hip hop beat mixed with rock ‘n’ roll bass and guitars) This vibe will be pushed further on.

God Part II This is the foyer to the house that will forever be known as "Achtung Baby." This track was an early indicator, even if it wasn’t meant to be, of what was to come. You have the drum machines and the real drums coming together. You’ve got the flange effects. You have the explosion of tom toms and bass lines. You have the howls of Bono’s voice and Edge’s militaristic precision of playing all merge together. It is a powerhouse of a song.

Angel of Harlem A simple song with a simple lyric that relies on the simple song writing structure of The Beatles and Dylan. Bono’s lyrical imagery is as powerful as it has been in the past, just in a different, more personal, scrapbook sort of way. This style will come back in later years and will be a template that U2 will use for many songs to come.

The Fly U2 has arrived in the New World and likes it there. The guitar belches its energy, the bass line is dirty, the drums phase in and out and Bono phones his vocals in on the phone line from hell. We also have another Edge solo that conveys emotion and, more importantly, take you to another place. It brings you up above the song, looking down at the chaos all around and shines like a burning star, falling from the sky, a song that signaled a new era.

One A distant, possibly more introspective cousin of "With or Without You." A song with so many layers and complexities that it can be interpreted in many ways; it’s a father and gay son argument, it’s two lovers having a spat, it’s a message to humanity, it’s U2 in the studio in Berlin realizing its faults during the genesis of "Achtung Baby."

Lemon In a nightclub in the city of Zooropa, the dance beats blare on the floor and the plasma screens overhead show images of her in "Lemon." We don’t know for certain who she is—a lover, a mother, a child, a dream. Whoever she is, she shines and moves beautifully, and we can’t help but watch. It’s what man does. He makes a picture to see himself up close. And U2, with the assistance of our illustrious captain, Brian Eno, take us there. It’s the first of the one-two punch of the "Zooropa" album that takes you to that setting and makes sure you’re happy with it.

Stay (Faraway, So Close) If U2′s music has shifted in the past between widescreen cinematic and low-budget indie filmmaking, this is the combination of the both. You can almost see the wet, neon reflecting in the city streets at night, all in glorious wide screen—the fine, dirty detail of every shop and street corner visible to the naked eye. A love song presented in sonic high definition as we follow an angel in love with a prostitute. But what is their purpose? We never find out but the journey through this landscape is one that we’ll never forget as the vocal soar at the end and eventually we crash to the ground.

Discothèque Still in the "Zooropa" nightclub, the alcohol rushes through the bloodstream, the company we’ve kept gets cold to the touch and the music in our head enters our hearts as we prepare for the hangover to come. The final stages of the rock/dance fusing that have been with us since "God Part II." This track shows that even some of U2′s most throwaway lines aren’t. Dig in the trash and you’re bound to find a diamond.

Staring at the Sun Answering the call put out by Noel Gallagher and his songwriting, U2 takes the songwriting structure it toyed around with in "Angel of Harlem" and put it in the context of the "Pop" mood. There’s a lot going on in this part of the world and we want you to know it with a melody that’ll stick in your head for the day. U2 succeeds.

Beautiful Day Distilling all that it had learned in the past 10 years and filtering nearly everything. U2′s sound hasn’t been this pure and crystalline in a long time. The band created a powerful chorus and magical guitar lines that could ring around forever. Some call it a return of the old U2. I say the old U2 never left. Bono has called this the beginning of U2′s ecstatic music phase. Songs from here on have more of an uplift than they’ve had in a while. We’re out of the thick of it for now.

Love and Peace or Else A combination of "Rattle and Hum" (reaching back into the past for a sound), "Achtung Baby" (take what you’ve learned and dirty it up a bit) and "War" ideals (say what you want to say loudly), this song hits you over the head with its sound but not with its message. It contains touches of so many U2 eras but somehow manages to stay fresh and exciting, ensuring a highpoint of any live performance for years to come. You’ve got the message, the strong drumming, the deep bass line, the Eno keyboards, the distant cousin of "Bullet the Blue Sky’s" solo. It’s all there for us to take in and experience.

One Step Closer A step away from the loud and brash, this song reminds you that music is like a prayer. You can ask God, Allah, your higher power (whoever they may be) for a little understanding. And hopefully, if we listen long enough, we’ll all be one step closer to knowing.

There are so many more songs I wanted to talk about; "Gone," "Until the End of the World," "Dirty Day," "All I Want Is You," "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For," "Out of Control," "Gloria," "Vertigo," "Desire," "Elevation," "Stuck in a Moment," "Please," "If God Will Send His Angels," "Mofo," "Love Is Blindness," "Tomorrow," "Original of the Species," "Wire," "One Tree Hill," so many songs that can be considered classics or signature U2 songs.

But the ones I’ve chosen are the ones that turned my world around a little bit faster upon hearing them, the ones that made me sit up and take notice. They’re the songs that reminded me why I chose this group to become a major contributor on the soundtrack of my life. But, more importantly, these songs show me that the band is always finding new ways and new sounds to tell its story. We just have to listen.

Interview: Anthony DeCurtis, Journalist

February 20, 2006


By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor
2006.02

There wasn’t just one thing that made me want to be a music journalist; it was a series of things. One part of that series of incidents and "a-ha" moments was Kim Neely’s 1992 cover interview with Axl Rose for Rolling Stone. In the interview, Neely got the up-until-that-point closed-off Rose to discuss his troubled childhood, inner-band tensions and his image.

I can remember reading that interview in my high school science class and feeling with every new paragraph that I wanted to do that. I wanted to be the one asking the questions.

Anthony DeCurtis had that same feeling when he read Rolling Stone as a teenager, leafing through interviews with the Rolling Stones and John Lennon. "I still remember the interviews I read in Rolling Stone when I was a kid," he said. "I would find a quiet place to be and read every word."

Doubtless he’s inspiring the next generation of rock reporters with the work he does for publications including Rolling Stone, where he serves as contributing editor, and the New York Times, work that’s highlighted in the recently released "In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work."

"In Other Words" features interviews with 39 musicians, actors and directors, including Bono, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. More than a collection of DeCurtis’ work, though, the book is about interviewing itself, the art behind it, and it’s that subject that had me and the writer talking for more than an hour.

"I wanted to put together a collection of interviews, something I enjoyed and wanted to read," DeCurtis said. In choosing which interviews to include and what headings to use, DeCurtis just went with his gut. "I guess I mostly went for the things that I thought were the best," he said.

Bono found his way into the book twice; one in the first chapter on "Cash Family Values" and the second in "The Spiritual Life." The Cash interview was done for a Rolling Stone tribute following Johnny’s 2003 death. "It was a little bit of a footnote," DeCurtis said of the interview’s inclusion in the Cash piece. "There was just a quote or two so I wanted to have [it] run at some length."

The other interview was conducted for Beliefnet.com, a faith and spirituality website. "I wanted to establish some of the connections between his religion and activism, how strongly that link existed," DeCurtis said of the interview.

DeCurtis believes his work with Rolling Stone helped him to get the interview for Beliefnet.com. "I did the first big political story in Rolling Stone about his work with debt and I think he appreciated it," he said. "He went some places he wouldn’t normally go, which is to say agreeing to do an interview exclusively about his religious life."

The results of the interview, a 30-minute phone call as opposed to the usual two-hour or so face-to-face done for Rolling Stone interviews, are something DeCurtis is quite proud of. "I think what fascinates people about Bono is that he is a work in progress and I think sees himself in that way," he said. "Personally I like to see that sense of struggle and ambivalence and a yearning for belief that exists within him. I saw myself pretty affected by what he had to say."

DeCurtis was also pretty affected by the interview he did with George Harrison that is also included in "In Other Words." "It was a powerful experience for me," he said. As described in the introduction to the "Meet the Beatles" section, Harrison was hard to both track down and pin down, DeCurtis not finding out until the morning of that the interview was on.

Despite the difficulties in getting the interview, and in keeping the conversation rolling, the interview turned out great and DeCurtis was able to break the news that Harrison was working on a new album. "The Beatles and The Stones were kind of it for me, that’s why I do this work," he said. "For me to be around George Harrison of Paul McCartney [who's also included in the book], you go back to that place because they were the ones, they were why I’m doing this work."

And it’s work he both enjoys and is good at, a fact he’s not quite ready to admit. "I think I’m good at certain things," he says. "I’ve worked hard at this for a long time. I still work at my technique, I’m still learning things." Even though he won’t call himself good, the editor in him will say, "There aren’t too many people I’d send out before I’d have myself do it."

Many thanks to Anthony DeCurtis, Jenna Young and everyone at Hal Leonard for their help with this article.

Event Coverage: Bono Speaks at the ASAE Forum, Feb. 3, 2006*

February 8, 2006

By Debbie Kreuser
2006.02

Bono was the keynote speaker on Friday Feb. 3, 2006, at a forum sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Called “The Future in Front of Us: Living a More Involved Life,” Bono’s nearly hour-long speech focused on the issues dearest to his heart—Africa and music. These two issues would keep intertwining throughout Bono’s remarks all night.

In typical Bono fashion, after a short introductory film about him, Bono thanked everyone for coming and exclaimed that this group was a “very different crowd” than the one he had spoken to at the same venue (the Washington Hilton hotel) the day before at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Bono started his speech by emphatically stating that “the power of rock ‘n’ roll should not be undersold.” He talked about his longtime friend and fellow African activist, Bob Geldof (“the master of the expletive” as Bono called him). Bono mentioned the Live Aid concert and his and Ali’s trip to Ethiopia in 1985 to volunteer in a refugee camp. He talked about how Ethiopia didn’t just change his mind, it opened it.

Bono recalled his infamous meeting with the Ethiopian father who offered his son to Bono to take back to Ireland so that his son would have a chance to escape an uncertain future in the refugee camp. Bono revealed in a quiet, almost saddened, voice that what he felt inside when he had to refuse the man’s request to sponsor his son (due to restraints placed upon Bono that were out of his control) was “a feeling I can’t quite forget, turning down that man.”

Bono went on to talk about the tremendously unnecessary loss of life in Africa due to AIDS and extreme poverty. He stressed to the audience that the world loses “a tsunami every month” of people in Africa due to these causes and yet there is little media coverage of it. He stated once again that this was not an issue of charity but one of justice. Bono boldly told the audience that this was the “straight truth, the righteous truth”.

Bono emphatically talked about “the chasm between the scale of the [AIDS] emergency and the response.” He spoke about the ONE Campaign’s call for the U.S. government to allocate one percent of the federal budget to end extreme poverty in the world. (currently the U.S. only allocates 0.125 percent of its federal budget to end extreme poverty). He asked us to consider this commitment of money as “an investment” “a bargain” for the United States, a way to “redescribe ourselves” to the poor of the world. Bono finished his remarks on this subject by enthusiastically stating that he is “in love with America.”

Getting a bit more serious in tone, Bono pointedly told the audience that “power brings responsibility” to help those who are less fortunate. He asked the audience members to “join us” in the ONE Campaign. Possibly alluding to the civil rights movement and the recent loss of Coretta Scott King, Bono said that the movement to save Africa’s future was “our freedom ride.” He closed his talk by once again directing our attention to “the wanton loss of life in Africa.”

The Q&A portion of the night was particularly informative with a few very interesting moments. One of the first questions asked was who had been some of Bono’s first inspirations in life. Bono immediately answered “The Clash” and spoke about the tremendously transformative power of punk rock music in society (“three chords and the truth” he said to the glee of the audience).

Bono ended his response to this question by stating that the future is “only limited by our imagination.”

Next, a potentially compromising question was asked of Bono. The question revolved around if Bono ever felt like slapping one of these dodgy politicians in the face that he has to meet while advocating on behalf of DATA and ONE. With a chuckle in his voice, Bono simply replied “I’m sure that they’ve wanted to slap me.”

Bono was asked questions like what was on his iPod (The Killers and Arcade Fire) and who were some of his personal heroes (Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev).

And then the highlight of the night. A question was read to Bono written by a 14-year-old student who stated that she wanted to bring the issues of ONE to her high school and wanted Bono’s suggestions on how to do this.

Never the performer to lose a classic moment, Bono asked the girl to come out of the audience to join him onstage. To audience applause, the girl climbed upon the stage and nervously approached Bono. Bono took her hand and bent over to graciously kiss it.

He talked to her about the importance of debt cancellation and fair trade for Africa’s future and how these were central issues of ONE. Then he asked her if she was ready to help make her school a ONE school. When she began to meander in her response to his question, Bono quizzically looked at her and pointedly asked her in a serious yet joking tone, “Are you telling me that you’re too busy?” After chatting with Bono, the girl left the stage soon after.

It seemed a poignant way to end the night. Increasing numbers of people are coming to hear Bono speak on the issues closest to his heart (Africa and music). But ultimately it seems to me that this encounter between Bono and an obviously smitten young fan is an allegory for all of us.

Bono’s speeches, while at times a bit repetitive, aren’t there simply to be enjoyed but to motivate the listener into action on behalf of the world’s poorest people.

And at a time when the fight to end AIDS and extreme poverty is at a standstill in terms of the money committed to end this crisis, Bono is trying to enlist ever increasing numbers of “soldiers” (volunteers) to fight this battle. The challenge to each one of us is when will you enlist.

From the urgency in Bono’s voice and demeanor at this event and elsewhere, I think that I’m safe to say that he would appreciate us enlisting in his battle to end extreme poverty as soon as possible.

From beginning to end, it was another beautiful night sharing the heart and soul of this amazing man.

A Personal Look Back at U2′s ‘Atomic Bomb’*

February 6, 2006


By Maggie Gerrity
2006.02

OK, I’ll admit it, I was giving U2 one last chance. "All That You Can’t Leave Behind" simply hadn’t interested me. Sure, I could pop "Achtung Baby" or "The Joshua Tree" into my CD player any afternoon and remember what U2 had once meant to me when I was 13, 17, 20, but I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe I’d simply outgrown the band.

The first time I heard "Vertigo," though, I knew I’d been wrong. The song reached out and grabbed me as if I was 13 again and listening in stunned silence to my cassette copy of "Achtung Baby." I quickly purchased "Vertigo" from iTunes and played it over and over, counting the days until I could hear the rest of U2′s new album.

I know now that I surely wasn’t the only one eagerly awaiting the release of "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb." In the 14 months since its debut, the album has sold over 9 million copies worldwide, with singles topping the charts everywhere from India to Latvia. Next Wednesday, the band is competing in five categories at the Grammy Awards, hoping to add more gramophone statues to the pair it won last year for "Vertigo." "Bomb" received nods for Album of the Year and Best Rock Album; "Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own" is competing for Song of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals; and "City of Blinding Lights" is vying for Best Rock Song.

This album, quite simply, is U2 at its best. The click of Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumsticks starts the album and he thunders through "Vertigo," "Love and Peace or Else," and "All Because of You." Edge’s guitar encases Bono’s quiet, reflective lyrics in "Miracle Drug" and "Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own," then soars on "City of Blinding Lights." Adam Clayton’s bass line anchors "A Man and a Woman," the rhythm settling in my hips every time I hear it, making me shake them without even realizing (something I have to think that sly silver fox intended).

No U2 album since "Achtung Baby" displays the continuity that "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" does. It’s an album I’ve played in its entirety again and again over the last year, and I haven’t grown tired of it. The songs fit together like the chapters of a novel, the colors of a painting. On "Vertigo," Bono desperately searches for something he can feel but by "Yahweh," he’s found peace. No matter what the topic, in each song Bono urges listeners to search for some sort of beauty or hope in our far from perfect world, because it’s all we have. This is a recurring theme in U2′s songs—from the devotion of "I Will Follow" to glitz of "Discotheque"—but here the lyrics feel more grounded, the music more polished. I believe this is the album the band has been working toward for its entire career and the strength of both the lyrics and the music make it clear that U2 is at the pinnacle of its career and will only continue to get better.

Fans couldn’t wait to hear the songs on "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" performed live. Many members of U2.com snatched up tickets in the fan club-only presale, while others battled scalpers to get highly-coveted general admission tickets or more expensive seats. More than 3 million people in the United States and Europe attended 118 sold-out shows on the tour’s first three legs, netting the band $260 million and honors as Billboard’s top-grossing tour of 2005. The fourth leg kicks off February 12th in Monterrey, Mexico, as the band takes Vertigo through South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan—places U2 hasn’t visited since PopMart—before closing in Honolulu on April 8th.

By the time I traveled with a friend to Philadelphia last May for my first Vertigo show, I already had tickets for three more shows in the fall. I’d saved up all the money I could and even taught an extra class so that I could afford to see U2 as many times as my schedule would allow. Prior to this tour, I’d gotten to see the band just once on the PopMart tour and U2′d been so far away from my nosebleed seat that it could’ve been anyone on that stage. This time, though, I had GAs and even though my friend and I didn’t make it into the ellipse, we were in the second row from the rail outside, closer to the band than I ever thought I’d get to be.

I cheered as loudly as I could as they took the stage to the opening chords of "City of Blinding Lights." I’d heard recordings from earlier dates on the tour, but I still didn’t know what to expect with the show happening right in front of me. Only when my friend elbowed me did I see Bono standing at the tip of the ellipse, arms raised jubilantly as the red and white confetti rained down on the crowd. I’m 26 years old but I’ll admit I screamed then as if I were 18 again, up in my nosebleed seats at my first U2 concert.

I never made it into the ellipse, even though I had GA tickets for two other shows. I never got to meet the band, and Bono never pulled me up on stage. I spent more money on U2 in 2005 than a grad student should spend on anything other than grad school but I don’t question for a moment whether I’d do it again. Even late in the tour, when bad weather affected the band’s travel schedule and Bono and Larry were fighting off colds, U2 still performed at its best, the guys smiling and having fun as they tore through new songs and dusted-off long-ago favorites like "The Electric Co." and "Gloria."

Even though I still love "Vertigo," other songs from "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" have taken on more importance for me over the past year. After Hurricane Katrina, as I stared helplessly at the news, I found a new meaning in "Crumbs From Your Table." The song voiced so much of my distress about what the hurricane had done to the lives of so many in New Orleans. The recent release of "Original of the Species" as a single has made me listen to it more closely. I can be shy sometimes and I love the encouragement Bono gives throughout the song for each of us to be proud of who we are. It’s as heartfelt of a song as the band has ever played and one I believe will remain in the set list for future tours. Most of all, though, "City of Blinding Lights" has become one of my favorite U2 songs. It lifts me every time I hear it, in large part because I remember my elation during the live versions of it I heard last year.

In the months since I first eased that red and black disc from its case, I’ve shouted "Oh—you—look—so—beautiful—tonight!" with 20,000 other people. I’ve seen the tears build in Bono’s eyes as he sang "Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own" thinking of the song’s inspiration, his father, Bob. I’ve gone back to U2 albums I hadn’t listened to in a long time (yes, even "All That You Can’t Leave Behind") and have fallen in love with them again. Most importantly, I’ve found my way back to U2, and in the year since the release of "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," these 11 songs have made me wonder why I ever strayed.