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Old 07-11-2005, 05:46 AM   #1
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U2 for Neophytes, Part Two*

By Teresa Rivas
2005.07




While some critics wished Bono a speedy recovery from adolescence after the band's debut and sophomoric albums, 1983's "War" soon made clear the fact that despite (or perhaps because of) all their youthful hubris, U2's members could excel at their craft. The first album to be hailed by critics as a masterpiece, its success proved vatic of their crisp and unrelenting sound that would resonate throughout the decade. Live excerpts from three shows during the War Tour led to the release of "Under a Blood Red Sky" in the fall. Many fans speculate that U2 creates albums in trilogies—"Boy," "October" and "War" being the first trifecta. The band's next album, "The Unforgettable Fire" would begin the "American trilogy" along with "The Joshua Tree" and "Rattle and Hum." This is why many people believe that "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" will not be the band’s last album because the new millennium is lacking a third work.

For many fans, 1984’s "The Unforgettable Fire" features the band they began to identify. "Pride (In the Name of Love)," a song honoring Martin Luther King Jr. (Bono did not hear the news until the day after the assassination, April 4) moved beyond simple, blind fury to a more hopeful, though no less angry, political plateau. It was this U2, decrying the loss of innocent life and the power of change, that solidified its identity as conscientious advocates of the '80s, whose enthusiasm was matched only by its outrage.

But it was not just wide-eyed idealism that made up "UF," the influx of heroin to Dublin left its broken legacy for the band to see, and, as on "War" before it and "The Joshua Tree" to follow, drug use and its desperate effects found the basis for some of the songs.

Band Aid would follow the next year, complete with Bono scaling the stage trusses and his white flag. It is the year he and his high school sweetheart and wife of three years, Ali Hewson, spent time as aid workers in Ethiopia, giving him a sense of purpose in the world deeper than music—Bono the crusader was born.

Then in 1987, everything changed. "The Joshua Tree" was born and spread its inexorable roots into rock music everywhere, and U2's legend was sealed. In the span of four explosive beginning tracks, Bono learned how to run, how to stare sultrily into the camera, the best hand in poker, and fans found what they were looking for. This was the year the band appeared on the cover of Time magazine, that they recorded the video for "Where the Streets Have No Name" on top of a Los Angeles liquor store, that the UK saw its fastest selling album in history. The world would never be the same.

U2 had gotten the job of biggest band in the world, but it is a dangerous place. A San Francisco band released an album called "U2," which masqueraded as legitimate album but was in fact a remix of "Where the Streets Have No Name," spliced with clips from a conversation Bono had with Casey Kasem that the band claimed showed U2's willingness to be a corporate band. A man in the United States murdered an actress and claimed that he was inspired by "Exit," a song about a psychotic losing control. (Not that U2 is a band to back down, the opening track to their next album is a cover of "Helter Skelter," the song Charles Manson "stole from the Beatles," claiming it gave him instructions to kill.)

U2's exploration of American culture and rhythm inspired "JT" but can more expressly felt in "Rattle and Hum," a soulful collection of raspy live tracks and experimental blues. The Edge would have his first solo track, "Van Diemen's Land" (he shared lead vocals with Bono on "War's" "Seconds") and Bono would channel the spirit of both John Lennon and Bon Dylan. In "God Part II" he tried to capture the heart and contradiction of the late Beatles songsmith, and succeeded so convincingly that when he actually met Yoko Ono she complimented him on doing a good cover of Lennon’s song. Bono took it as a compliment, but was grateful she didn't want royalties. "Love Rescue Me" is a song that Bob Dylan delivered in one of Bono's dreams. Bleary-eyed, he jotted down the seminal lyrics to the tune in the middle of the night. Serendipitously, Bono was invited to visit the legendary singer later that day and, as proof that dreams can come true, he wound up finishing the song with the man who brought it to him.

There was the tour, the plaudits and the inevitable pressure to make their next album even better. In the week leading up to New Year's Eve, 1989, U2 played three final shows in Dublin. On the last night, Bono made his infamous speech in which he said, "This is just the end of something for U2. And that's what we're playing these concerts, and we're throwing a party for ourselves and you. It's no big deal, it's just, we have to go away and dream it all up again." Thus began a spate of rumors that U2 was breaking up.

U2 had always reinvented itself after every album, but never so dramatically as between "Rattle and Hum" and "Achtung Baby." With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the band decided to spend the first bleak winter months of 1990 recording in the German capital. When they first arrived, Bono spotted a parade, and the band joined the crowd, marching exuberantly through the newly reunited city with what seemed to be an oddly subdued crowd. It turns out they had picked the one sober procession in town—defiant old communists, protesting together for one last time the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was an omen of things to come.

In the studio things were falling apart. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton were wary of the new musical directions their bandmates were spouting—about the latest technodance revolutions and hip hop beats. The schism almost drove them apart as Bono's ragged voice struggled to fill the fragmented riffs. With no work coming to fruition and a mounting pile of discarded ideas the band's dissemination seemed eminent. Until "One." The song fell together almost magically, all the music falling in sync, saving the band from the brink of disaster. As the multiple videos for the song suggest, it can be interpreted as a frank portrait of a troubled couple or an older generation dealing with the new perils that face their children. Yet the real and immediate meaning for the band was the crucible they had successfully endured, if just barely. The underlying current throughout the album is the story of a man straying from home, giving into temptations of the flesh, the ambivalent limbo where guilt meets egotism and the downward spiral of shame and accusation that is the consequence of infidelity. It is the story of relationships, hedonistic and bleak, that constitute the enduring backbone of the band.

The result was a new U2, a band that didn't resemble the four Irish boys of the previous decade in any way. Bono defined "AB" as, "the sound of four men cutting down the Joshua Tree," he will say this about almost every subsequent album as well. Not wanting to be typecast as the holier than thou, white flag waving crusaders, U2 embraced the contradictions (and the lifestyle) inherent in rock and roll and exploited in on a level never before known. And it spawned the ZooTV tour—the band's biggest world tour to date, taking them across the globe from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, bringing television, flashing propaganda and video confessionals. He transformed into three of his most famous characters—The Fly, Mr. MacPhisto (a debauched Vegas lounge singer never seen in North America) and the Mirrorball Man (a parody of televangelists seen in limited engagements) —during the tour. Clayton dated, and proposed to, supermodel Naomi Campbell, Bono met Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, MacPhisto pushed children out of the way in St. Peter's square on his way to get a blessing from the Pope. And in what was perhaps the most monumental decision in rock history, Bono put on a pair of sunglasses for the first time.

Taking the winter off from the mammoth ZooTV tour, the band found itself back in the studio. Edge's first marriage was on the rocks and the creative high the tour created was energy they felt they couldn't waste. At first everyone laughed at the thought that they could record a new album in the middle of a behemoth world tour, but that is how "Zooropa" was born. The tracks carried them further into their world of indulgence and sensuality. MacPhisto made his video debut in "Lemon," but the song's title has deeper roots than the glib sheen of frivolity. Bono was informed of the existence of an old home video of his parents and when he watched it he was transfixed by the sight of his mother on screen, years after her death. The color of her clothing was lemon. Edge had his second crack at lead vocals with "Numb." Music icon Johnny Cash brought Bono's words to life in "The Wander" and the Third Reich-ish sounding beginning to "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" is actually from a collection called "Lenin's Favorite Songs," produced by the Soviet state-owned Melodia.

Although the '90s may not seem as productive as the former decade, in fact U2 was still hard at work. Longer tours and creative estuaries like "Passengers" and soundtrack collaborations (think “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” from "Batman Forever") kept the band busy after the ZooTV tour ended. In 1996 rumors began to circulate that U2 was working on a "dance album" infused with trip-hop beats and techno influences. In March 1997 the band unleashed their biggest satire yet, "Pop." Again the band worked full throttle, the song "Last Night on Earth" derives its mood from the fever pitch in the studios where production took place, there were people working who hadn't been to bed in a week. Eventually Bono bought a speedboat to carry tracks between the two studios more quickly.

Parodying the consumer culture on which the band in part thrived yet scorned, they chose a Kmart store to introduce the album because, as Edge said, where better to sell yourself to America than at a Kmart? But in the spirit of the 90s U2 didn't just hide behind their decadence, they embraced it. The five-legged PopMart tour visited every continent but Antarctica and required the construction of a huge stage, complete with the signature 100-foot yellow Pop arch (a dromedary version of McDonald's golden arches), pixel board video screen spanning the length of the stage and fluorescent 20-foot olive spiked high on a huge toothpick. If anyone knows how to make an entrance it's U2, who arrived each evening in a 40-foot mirror ball lemon, which Clayton dubbed the transportation of the future—"fits three adults and a child!" Bono moved from mullet to Mohawk before shaving his head completely, Clayton wore a "PopTart" shirt throughout the tour and Edge's initial dabblings with a Bedazzler in the beginning of the decade clearly morphed into a full-blown addiction. The real MacPhisto of course did not renege on his deal with Mullen, who of course looked the same as their first meeting 21 years earlier.

Okay, so we're probably not going to win the battle with the sunglasses, but "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," released in 2000, was hailed as U2's triumphant return to their roots after their wanderings in the '90s. But it was not an easy task. By this time another well-known Bono had emerged—the political advocate and AIDS activist hanging around with bemused world leaders and sporting dictator-chic attire in Africa. Working to end Third World debt and increase the availability of lifesaving drugs to poorer nations and being the spokesman for Jubilee 2000 kept Bono away from his creative projects for quite some time. When he did find time to work he was also busy with the screenplay and production of the "Million Dollar Hotel" movie. U2 had performed across from the real Million Dollar Hotel in 1987 and the concept for the movie came to Bono in a dream. He worked closely in the production and does a cameo in the film. The song "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" featured on the soundtrack was also available in UK editions of ATYCLB. The words were written by Salman Rushdie, the author of a book by the same name, who gave them to Bono and asked him to set them to music. The other members of the band grumbled openly that he was stretching himself too thin, but in 2000 U2 successfully reapplied for the job of biggest band in the world.

And what return to U2 past would be complete without some criticism of Irish violence? The song "Peace on Earth" chronicles the loss of innocent life in the Omagh bombings that ruptured the peace process in 1998. The mother who never saw the color in her son's eyes referred to in the song is a true story of a woman who said she never noticed how green her son's eyes were until she saw him lying still at the cemetery. Bono also had a personal tragedy to deal with—his father's cancer began to visibly deteriorate him. The song “Kite” is his own ambivalence about fatherhood, his dad's and his own. The title is a metaphor inspired by a day Bono spent at the beach with his two daughters in a failed attempt to bond around his erratic schedule by flying a kite. Bob Hewson died just a few days before U2's performance at Slane Castle Ireland in September 2001 during the Elevation Tour, and Bono dedicated the night's emotional performance to his father.

Four years would pass before whisperings of a new album, rumors that it would be released only digitally through iTunes or that it might be scrapped after Edge left an early mixed version of the new work unattended during a photo shoot in France. But with the special edition U2 iPod (and tempting "complete" box set) impromptu free concert roving around New York City and the infectious energy of "Vertigo" there are few who will say it was not worth the wait.

And that brings us to the present. It's not easy compressing so much history into less than 4,000 words, so for the hungry fan there's so much more to know. Remember, all of this is yours.

Information for this article was taken from @U2, Interference.com, U2.com, U2FAQ.com, "Bono: His Life, Music and Passions," "Into the Heart: The Stories Behind Every U2 Song," "U2: At the End of the World," "U2: The Ultimate Encyclopedia," NME, The Oregonian and Rolling Stone.
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Old 07-12-2005, 07:14 AM   #2
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Old 07-19-2005, 05:24 AM   #3
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Great article. I remember you reviewed Philly 2. I was there too, it was a great show. Maybe I saw you. I hope I wasn't one of the fans you disliked.
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Old 03-18-2006, 04:59 AM   #4
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Superb article!

I actually learned a few things by reading this, notably the origin of "Lemon". Not sure if that's common knowledge or a somewhat unknown bit of trivia?

Anyway, kudos to Teresa Rivas, and HelloAngel for posting it (assuming you're not the same person, of course... ).
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