U2 Revolution (book)

This is a review of the book U2 Revolution by Mat Snow.

I received this book for Christmas, and skimmed through it after I opened it. It describes itself as a photographic history of the band and it is, but there is also a lot of text, which is not a bad thing. The problem is that, for the dedicated U2 fan, there are few pictures that you won’t have seen. Most of them are repeats of the common U2 pics that we’ve all seen over and over again, or they’re official pics from the band for certain albums, or worse, pictures of the covers of albums or singles. Yep, seen them all. There weren’t many that I hadn’t seen, or hadn’t seen a very similar picture (e.g. from the same photo-shoot). Ironically, it was the later pictures that I had seen fewer of, probably because there weren’t so many pics of the band in the early days so they’ve all been seen, whereas now there’s a hundred photographers everywhere they go.

As for the text, it is a fairly standard regurgitation of the U2 story. I don’t think there was much I hadn’t already read somewhere else. Now, I don’t want people to take this as a criticism. Far from it. This book does what it sets out to do, which is provide a standard history of U2 for the casual fan. Released just after the new album came out, so hoping to catch on to the people who might have heard some U2 for the first time this year, got interested and want to know more about them. Did you notice there were three or four new U2 books on the shelves this past Christmas? That’s why. Try and grab onto the publicity train as it races by. Each of them - including this one - is largely interchangeable.

The problem I do have with this kind of book is that they’re quickly out of date. To be fair, that’s true of any book that is written about anything contemporary that is happening. If you’re publishing a book about topic X, by the time the book has gotten through the publishing process, X may have gone in ten different directions. This wasn’t necessarily a problem, say, 30 years ago, but now we have the internet and anything that has happened since the book was written has been publicized and agonized over a thousand times before the book even comes out. So you do have to be careful with this type of book (an up-to-date history of X), that whichever version of the book you’re buying, you get the latest one with the latest info. Otherwise you’re just buying history.

To emphasize that point, the text of this book ends at the end of the 360 tour, but the publishers include a timeline of the band, which jumps from 2010 to 2013 so it can mention the release of Ordinary Love, and has one last entry for the release of Invisible, “a song believed to be included on the band’s thirteenth studio album.” Nope. But it does show that the book was finished a while back (somewhere around the end of 360, I’d guess), and just got to publication in 2014 (the release date for the book being in October, a month after the band released the new album). So yeah, already out of date.

A final note: there was one book about U2 released last year that I won’t be reading. It was an attack book, and I don’t see the point of those, digging up any kind of dirt from anyone who’s been near the band (a taxi driver is not necessarily a good source of information). If you’re a fan of a band, you don’t want to read trash about them, and if you’re not a fan, you’re not going to read anything. So why do those kinds of books exist?

My rating for this book: 3 / 10

Until The End Of The World

Until The End Of The World is getting back into religion, it’s perhaps the most religious song U2 has even done. Apart from 40, which was pretty much lifted directly from the Bible, I can’t think of a song that contains more religion. It is essentially a conversation between Judas and Jesus (or maybe it’s better said from Judas to Jesus), told from Judas’ perspective, after the betrayal and everything has gone down. He’s been somewhere, probably hell (“I was down the hold, just passing time”), and now they’re talking about it. I like that he’s saying “well, you were just a downer, talking about the end of the world, and I was tired of it.” Then it goes on to the end, where Judas is saying “oops, I kind of screwed up, can you forgive me?” and Jesus says “wait until the end of the world”, which amuses me because Jesus is supposed to forgive anything.

Now, if you ignore the religious aspect, you could also make this a love song, or the story of a couple. The obvious “we were as close together as a bride and groom,” meaning they were sleeping together. But one of the couple keeps talking about the end of the world, or being sad or depressed, which might be why they broke up. “I was playing the tart, I kissed your lips and broke your heart,” being talk about them separating. And “I reached out for the one I tried to destroy,” the storyteller broke up with the other person but now wants them back again.

This is interesting to me, the way you can get two completely different stories depending on your perspective. Like I’ve mentioned before, with Exit, that you could know or think of one meaning for the longest time, and then all of a sudden you see or read something and it’s like a lightbulb going on, telling you a completely different story. I don’t think that invalidates the first idea. I think it actually enhances the music creator’s reputation, like when you read something like Shakespeare and it turns out instead of talking about the king of Denmark he’s actually talking about the price of cheese in Venice. Or something like that.

I’ve said before how I like the way Bono sings either slightly different words in live versions, or sings the words in a slightly different way. In this case it’s how he sings “You miss too much these days if you stop to think”, specifically the “stop to think” part, where he makes it almost sound like he’s singing “Stop. To. Think.” as three different sentences. Really sounds good that way.

I love this song, it is as noted above lyrically interesting, and it has great music behind the lyrics too. From the squealing at the start, to the tom-tom bass, to the beat and the lead guitar following in, it all sounds perfect together. I love the lead guitar throughout, this is a song I have never tried to play (too fast for me), but one I’d really like to learn. Towards the end (as the lyrics end) the guitar starts driving the song on and on, faster and faster, and it really sound fantastic. It’s a song that makes you jump, over and over. 

My rating for Until The End Of The Word: 8 / 10

Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me

I start with a confession, I’ve never been a big Batman fan. Not just Batman, pretty much any superhero. A friend of my son asked me recently who my favorite Marvel superhero is, and I was like “ummm, Superman?” and he had to tell me that Superman isn’t Marvel. I’m not against comics, I just tend to read ones that aren’t superheroes, I prefer things like The Walking Dead or various graphic novels that are a little more story driven.

So I say all that to note that I’ve never seen Batman Forever, the movie that features Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me. I assume the song appears in the movie at some point, but I’m not sure. It could be in it, it could be over the credits, or it could just be on the soundtrack album to sell a few more records.

There’s a song which goes “Hold me, hold me”, from the sixties by Mel Carter, I’ve heard it many times but I never knew it was called Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me. I always assumed it was called Hold Me. Anyway, there is presumably some connection there, if only the title.

Bono describes the song as being the story of being in a rock band. I always thought it was about being a bad guy, but I do see what he’s talking about. My theory had been that the star was a bad guy who stole something from other bad guys, and the adventures they get in. Like I said, I didn’t see the movie, so didn’t know what the story was about, so had the vague idea that it was kind of following the plot of the movie. Of course, you can get that from the first verse, but the rest of it doesn’t make much sense to follow that plot line. So maybe this is another song that I have no idea what they’re talking about.

This is a neat rocking song. Definitely a bit of a throwback to the Zooropa album (the period when it was recorded), with the jumping and club music. There’s a few versions out there, and although I like the standard version, once again it’s the live that blows me away. The one from From The Ground Up, the live version from 360, is just great. The first couple of times I heard it, I immediately put it into my regular playlist. I love the intro and outro of it, with the whole “showtime” part. It seems like you can actually hear Bono playing the characters from the video in that version. He really does get into that MacPhisto kind of mood at times, and although just a couple of days ago I was being embarrassed by it, I think back and realize that it does tend to speak to some really good music from the band.

The video for HMTMKMKM is pretty good too. A mix of video from the movie and cartoon action featuring the band, Bono in full MacPhisto and  The Fly characters. There’s action and interest and it’s really fun to watch. It’s not art, it’s not a great meal, it’s a kind of popcorn bad for you type of thing. Enjoy it for what it is, a bit of fun. A bit like I’ll Go Crazy, I guess.

My rating for Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me: 7 / 10

Bass Trap

Bass Trap is just what it says, a trap, playing bass. An instrumental that showed up on B sides of The Unforgettable Fire single, and for some reason there’s a “Best Of” version on the 1980-1990 B sides. By best of they mean they removed about two minutes of it. If you’re going to listen to one, listen to that one, you’ll hear exactly the same as you would if you listened to the longer version, but you’ll save two minutes of your life. This music would be well-suited to an elevator or a hotel lobby.

Edge says (in The Unforgettable Fire box set that was released in 2009) that they looped a bit of bass, then he and Daniel Lanois played over it. So this ends up being another piece that was influenced by one of the two guys, Lanois or Brian Eno. They recorded so much stuff with U2, or guided them into what to write, that they really are pseudo-members of the band. I’ve never really listened to them by themselves, I wonder what their own music is like? I gave my wife a Daniel Lanois CD, Acadie, because that’s where her family originates from, but I don’t think she’s ever listened to it.

I don’t mind U2 releasing the extended or deluxe versions of albums, they can be very interesting. Listening to some of the stuff that got rejected for an album is often illuminating, when you hear something like Lady With The Spinning Head and see everything that spun out of that one song. Alternatively you hear things that are similar to what made it onto the album, too similar to include as well. And you hear things that didn’t quite get completed in this album, but might have gotten onto another album in the future, the proto-songs if you will. This is all good stuff.

It’s when you get something like Bass Trap, which was apparently included on the original Unforgettable Fire single just to fill in some space on the record. In fact looking at the variants of that single, it’s almost clear that this is exactly why Bass Trap was included, because they went up to a 7 inch record and that’s when it got added, so obviously they didn’t want a big blank space on the record. They threw this song on instead of something interesting. I don’t know if it’s because I much prefer music with lyrics (I’m not a big symphony fan either), but this isn’t worth listening to.

The problem of course is that the space on the record needs to be filled somehow, and if you haven’t recorded anything else, or if the other stuff you have is either good enough to keep for a later date, or bad enough that Bass Trap is better, then maybe it’s the right choice. I’ve never been in a band, but I always assumed they were in the studio recording a bunch of songs, then picking the best and most appropriate for the album. Apparently that’s not true, they really are just trying to get their dozen or so done before closing up shop. There may be others or parts of others left hanging around, but once they get to the magic number they need, the rest of it goes by the wayside.

Anyway, don’t listen to this. Or do, once, just to confirm I’m not missing a gem. Or because you’re in an elevator.

My rating for Bass Trap: 1 / 10

The Wanderer

The Wanderer is a U2 song, on a U2 album, and yet it is perhaps the least U2-y song ever. There might be some competition for that title, but in this case you never hear Bono sing, except for a little warbling at the end, as it’s all done by Johnny Cash. This is a really good song, great music, especially the bass (which is actually most of the music), perhaps even the best song on Zooropa, which is also odd because it’s so out of sync with the rest of the album. Kind of a finishing piece, and in a way it reminds me of The Joshua Tree, which I mentioned a few days ago goes into a kind of dark ending with Exit and Mothers Of The Disappeared. Zooropa does the same with this song.

I have always thought of The Wanderer as a song which could be the theme for the Stephen King story, The Stand. We’re talking apocalyptic, end of the world kind of stuff, and that’s exactly what the song is about. It has heavy lyrics, once again God is deep in it, and in some ways the story of man, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I can quote this one line for line, and many of the lines are trigger lines for me. My favorite is “They say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it,” yet again a reminder of modern day religion.

It reminds me greatly of When The Man Comes Around, another song by Johnny Cash. Obviously the voice is the same, but in that case the music is similar and the lyrics are even along the same sort of thread. I don’t have much exposure to Johnny Cash (I was never much of a country fan), and I think the first time I heard that song was on an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the television version of the Terminator movies. That was a great show, sadly met its demise way too soon. Anyway, in one of the episodes a SWAT team is moving in to arrest a terminator. When The Man Comes Around begins playing at the start of the scene (the only sound we hear throughout is the song), and we watch the raid, and watch the terminator kill the entire SWAT team (except the hero, of course). It is violent and shocking and emotionally jarring. I don’t get nearly that emotion from The Wanderer, of course, but I wouldn’t get that from When The Man Comes Around if I hadn’t watched the tv show.

In other music where U2 has been influenced by or joined with other artists, I have developed an interest in their other work. Except in this case, I didn’t develop it from the U2 song, I got it from a different song which I often conflate with the U2 song due to their similarities. And unlike other artists, I never took much further interest in Johnny Cash and his music.

By the way I’m irritated at iTunes, because when you have multiple artists it splits them by artist name. So you have the album Zooropa, which according to iTunes has 9 songs, and then further down you have another album called Zooropa, by U2 featuring Johnny Cash, with just one song. And they’re not right next to each other, because it sorts by artist name first (this is my choice), and U2 featured other artists who get to be in between alphabetically, so the Zooropa album is split in two. If you don’t know better, you wouldn’t know that last song was on there. I don’t know how to fix this, or if there even is a fix. And yeah, if you think that’s annoying, you ought to see what they did with Duals. One album per song…

My rating for The Wanderer: 7 / 10

Smile

I don’t know how to talk about Smile. I quite honestly don’t know what the song is about, and I’m not sure if anyone else does either. It came out of the Atomic Bomb sessions. Never a B side, it was released in the Complete U2 digital set and then in Medium, Rare & Remastered. There is almost nothing official about it. Was it just a leftover that didn’t make the album cut? Personally I rate it higher than several of the songs that made the album, but that doesn’t mean others do.

So what’s it actually about? The lyrics are not necessarily helpful. You kind of assume, based on the airiness of the words and the tune, that it’s kind of a love song. But then you stop yourself, because the repeated line through the song is “I don’t want to see you smile,” and that’s the opposite of a love song. So not about relationships, at least not good ones. Could it be talking about the end of a relationship, and you don’t want to see the other person being happy? In that case I would think of it as from the perspective of the person who’s been dumped, and they’re mad about it. Obvious line to get that idea from is “love is in this soul of mine, it’s not in your eyes”, but there’s also “the smoke machine is yours not mine”. It’s definitely possible to think about it that way, but I can’t say I’m one hundred percent in love with that idea.

So it is about religion? References to God, praying, “the ground to kneel upon”, “I will live again”. All these flat-out tell us religion, but then how to interpret them in that way? Is it about death? As I read the first verse, I’m thinking of someone that has died (“gravity not pulling me”, “picture with no sound”, “decaying”). Second verse is leaving their earthly body (“I’m breaking it”). Third has the obvious (“I’m leaving on the day of the dead”, and “I will live again, you will live again”). So I could interpret it that way, but that still leaves us with the smile line. “I don’t want to see you smile”. Is he saying he doesn’t want to go to heaven and see God, who will smile when he gets there? I don’t see it as wanting to go to hell, but rather as not being ready to go to heaven.

Well that was very interpretive of me, wasn’t it? Does it make sense, any of it? Maybe this is one of those moments when you realize that a song can have multiple interpretations depending on how you look at it, and what you’re feeling when you hear it. And then you get a definitive answer from the person who wrote it, and it turns out to mean something else.

But I’ll tell you one thing I do know: this is a really nice song. I like the music a lot, soft, slow, a little dreamy. The lyrics, if you don’t try and interpret them too deeply, are very singable. I’m always happy when I hear this song come on.

My rating for Smile: 6 / 10

Zoo TV Live From Sydney (video)

The opening to Zoo TV was overwhelming. Sensory overload is the term usually used, and it is totally true. The two times I saw Zoo TV live I was absolutely blown away by the opening, trying to look in every direction at once, trying to hear everything, and knowing that everywhere I was looking there were twenty things happening that I wasn’t seeing. It was wonderful.

Zoo TV Live From Sydney is the definitive version of the Zoo TV tour, of course. Everyone knows it, knows how the songs went and the words that were spoken. U2 is a very rehearsed group, as they have to be, and despite minor changes to set-lists you can just about guarantee what you’re going to see night after night, what Bono is going to say and when he’s going to say it, and so on. This is not necessarily a bad thing, like I said they’re so big they have to do it that way, but it means that this version of the show can stand in for any version that you were actually at. So I can watch and talk about this show, and reminisce about the ones I was at, and probably conflate many of the memories. Curious to see what happens in the Innocence & Experience tour, since the two shows are supposed to be different. How will they release a single concert video? Maybe they’ll do two.

The first time I saw Zoo TV I was near the main stage, about ten people back from in front of Edge. The second time I was by the second stage, just one person between me and the stage. My memory of that is pushing through the crowd to try and get to the front, and having people block me off because of the barrier in the middle (crush barrier I guess, so everyone didn’t rush the stage), and so turning and managing to get so close to the second stage. Ahh, good times.

I always wanted to get the words on screen during The Fly, write them down and put them into a screensaver. Still haven’t checked the Achtung Baby DVDs to see if it’s on there. I’d want to put it on my computer at work though, and then I’d probably get fired.

In real life the stage is so much bigger than it appears on tv. Long shots during the show suggest that they are ants way in the distance, but that’s not true at all. If you’ve ever been to any sporting event you know what I’m talking about, that the field looks much larger in person than it ever did on tv.

I’m not a big fan of Numb, but it’s good to see Larry get some singing time, breaking out of his shell a little. I think Bono is offstage for this song, right? His lyrics are taped I assume, since you never see him during the song. Which means that it really is scripted, because if it’s a tape you have to match it exactly. Let alone that if you have such a video extravaganza you can’t go off script too much because you’ll lose sync with the video.

Are there any definitive versions of songs on this video? Angel of Harlem certainly. I guess any songs not shown anywhere else would have to be definitive. Dirty Day is, and it’s a really good version too. The entire flashing of lights and banging of drums really has things pumping. Running To Stand Still I love, but the definitive version is still Rattle And Hum. Of course the whole thing is definitive for the Achtung Baby/Zooropa period in the band’s history. Which leads me to the last part of the show, with the uniform changes for the band - those blue military outfits, I don’t remember the point of those - and then Bono as a devil. Mr MacPhisto. I hope he looks back at that and cringes, I certainly do. He had a point to it at the time. It’s creepy now though. Amusing. Not quite so fun when it’s close up like that, better with a little distance.

It’s not a live show - in person live, I mean - but it’s the next best thing. As everyone knows, U2 live is the best show in the world, so this is close to the top of the ratings. Highly recommended for anyone interested in this period, and for any U2 fan anywhere.

And so to the unanswered question: What did the first punk rock girl wear to school?

My rating for Zoo TV Live From Sydney: 9 / 10

MLK

MLK is musically kind of dreary. Just a few different notes repeated back and forth. No drum, no bass. The words are repeated (mostly). A fairly short song overall. But this song is not about the music, and only partly about the words. This song is possibly the closest to a prayer that U2 have done. It does fit fairly well into The Unforgettable Fire, the entire album is kind of quiet and thoughtful.

Personally what I like about it is mostly that it leads into With Or Without You, and yet I’m not sure it has even done that very often. It did in the Rattle And Hum movie, and that’s where I’ve seen it played the most, where WOWY follows right after. For all I know (and I’m not going to do the research), it might have only played that way one time.

It was also sung for Aung San Suu Kyi at some points, which compares her to Martin Luther King. I suppose that could be a valid comparison, both are fighting for their people. Not in the same way, but good enough. I think they’ve also dedicated it to others over the years, which may tend to dilute the message.

On this day we get to pause and reflect about Martin Luther King (and literally as I write a commercial for the movie Selma came on tv). I have to say that I come from a point of privilege, being a white male, and so I’ve never had to live the experiences that many people go through. I can read history though - and much of the news that happens today - and my own liberal leaning tells me that we have a long way to go. The message from the song is that even if there are problems in the short term - the thunderclouds that pass rain - they will be gone one day and dreams will be realized. The question, of course, is how long it will take the dreams.

I have long had the theory that it takes the current leadership dying to produce progress. This applies to race and gender and probably many other things. In the 1960s the leaders of the country were old white men, and the up-and-coming leaders had pretty much the same views. As time goes by they lose power, or die off, and younger people slowly get more tolerant of many things. The arc of history is long but it bends towards progress. Or something like that. The question is how long to wait for progress. We see progress in women’s rights. We see progress in gay marriage. I’m not sure I see this happening in the black community in the same way. It is much more a case where white people are actively working to keep black people poor and in need, rather than enabling them to step up and improve their lot in life. This is why studies consistently show that poor people perform worse in life, and black people are a large subset of poor people, largely for historical reasons.

So how long until we see MLK’s dream realized? How long must we sing this song?

My rating for MLK: 4 / 10

Drunk Chicken / America

Back in the day, U2 recorded the song Jesus Christ for the Folkways album. I bought the album, listened to Jesus Christ and the rest, and developed an interest in Woody Guthrie. While reading his bio I found out about Jack Kerouac (as any good college kid reading this stuff should), but I never extended my interest much past Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg and his cohort. I don’t know why I didn’t, but this all comes back around again because of the existence of this song.

Drunk Chicken is supposedly a piece of music that U2 recorded back during the Joshua Tree sessions, but it never made it to an album. Listening to the music itself, it’s kind of sparse, pretty much featuring just drums and guitar (I’ll be honest here and say I’m not sure if it’s guitar or keyboard, it’s just this weird sounding noise). Edge suggests that it’s all Brian Eno, that it was an early session and the music never went anywhere. Interesting how much influence that Eno has had on the band, how much of it was him and how much them over the years?

So it’s short, only 1:34 long, and has Allen Ginsberg reading the words of his poem America over the top. Now you see where the name for the piece comes from. I don’t know about you, but for me this “song” is pretty much a waste of time. Perhaps a piece of performance art? Maybe so. I’m not casting any aspersions, but the fact that this ends up being the last song on the B sides of the remastered Joshua Tree might tell you something. It probably went something like this: “hey, we have an extra minute and a half of space on the CD, anyone got anything they want to shove in there? Oh, this instrumental piece that isn’t very good? How about some words for it? Hmm, Bono already left for the day, who’s got some audio about that long? Oh, I know what we can use…”

Weird thing is that it’s not the entire poem by Ginsberg, it’s only the first quarter or so. Why cut it off there? To fit the amount of space? The advantage of using a poem like America is that it’s full of nonsense, there’s no flow to it, it’s just a bunch of loosely related sentences, so you can cut it off anywhere and it won’t make a difference. By loosely related, I mean that many of the lines start with America, and many of them are about politics. But it’s as much a stream of consciousness as anything. I know there are people out there who will violently disagree with me about this, they’ll say it’s fantastic and well done and blah blah blah. But in the end it’s like most poetry, just a load of hooey. If I’m totally honest, it’s like most lyrics to songs as well, especially if you take the lyrics by themselves and remove the musical context. A lot of Bono’s stuff would wind up sounding odd if it were just words on a page and you didn’t have the music with it. Although a lot of it would also sound fantastically powerful as just a poem with no music (this is Billy Corgan’s specialty). Try Sunday Bloody Sunday for one.

So, a bunch of random, not even half done music, and a bunch of random, not even well done words, stuck together to make a track. Not good. Not good at all. U2, don’t do this again. Not even to fill up some space on a CD.

My rating for Drunk Chicken/America: 1 / 10

Exit

Just to show what I know about U2, I wrote this review based on what I always thought this song was about. Having read some things about it today, I can’t say I was completely off-base, but wow, I missed it by quite a way.

Exit is one of my favorite U2 songs. It’s dark and moody. It feels like you’re walking through fields, farmland or an open plain or desert, at night, in a thunderstorm. Occasional lightning drum strikes. The thundering bass all around. Crickets, of course. Howling wind. It could be a feeling of desolation if you let it. A feeling of having been abandoned, or the whole world fighting against you and trying to beat you down. Edge’s guitar at times is that storm, lashing rain on a tin roof.

But then it’s the passion, the hands of love, God reaching down to help a man in his time of need. Or the man reaching out in his mind to his lover, thinking of her and having those thoughts drive him on against the elements.

Drums come in loud, beating, beating, beating for the hands of love. It’s a feeling of power, of energy. Love it. Larry really banging the drums, I think I’ve used that line before, and will probably use it again. The depth of the bass, along with the sounds of crickets throughout the song, gives it that ambience. It fades into the song at the start, and it fades out of the song at the end, bookends to the lyrics in the middle. Atmosphere.

And a final “hands that build can also pull down”, is this the hand of God again, telling you that what he gave you he can take away? Or the hand of the lover, who in one moment can be the passion and the next the turning away?

So back to the stories I read about the song, which have Bono saying that it is based on the thoughts in the mind of a killer. Like I said, wow. Now that I read it again I can totally see that, although I don’t know that I want to. What’s seen can’t be unseen.

The live version of Exit on the Rattle And Hum movie is great (“like a star shinyshiny from above” gives me chills every time). I have Exit ranked as just the sixth best song on The Joshua Tree, which shows what a strong album it is. In only one other album would it rank lower than third, and on a couple it would be the top ranked song. It never got much attention though, it disappears from view because of the rest of the songs on the album taking all the noise away from it. And yet oddly enough, it fits perfectly within the album, it takes it into a deep and introspective ending, Exit along with Mothers Of The Disappeared (and even One Tree Hill just before them). Not quite a capstone, more a dark fading away into the night, leaving you quiet and thoughtful. At least until the album restarts and Streets kicks back up again.

My rating for Exit: 8 / 10

If God Will Send His Angels

Somehow I always thought the name of this song was If God Would Send His Angels, not Will. Maybe I don’t listen as closely as I thought.

I’m not a big fan of this song. It’s slow, kind of dreary, and not very hopeful. It has a deep religious aspect, of course, but it goes back to the well that other U2 songs have been to, like Wake Up Dead Man does on the same album (and does better, too). I don’t find the hope for the return of Jesus to be very enticing, the whole end of the world bit has been done to death, as it were. It’s not the religion part, it’s that there are certain people who take that idea to the extreme, and live this life with their eyes on the next, meaning they don’t act as they probably should in this life.

There are a few good lyrics in there. This is another one of those trigger songs, where I hear a phrase somewhere and it reminds me of some of the words here. Blister is one - “Jesus’ sister’s eyes are a blister”, although I don’t know what that actually means. My favorite line is “Then they put Jesus in show business, Now it’s hard to get in the door”, which is appropriate for what I said earlier about people in religion. There’s a lot of those guys that are completely fake, just putting on a show, using Jesus as a prop so they can make money. Pretty much anyone who has a tv show about Jesus is only in it for the money. And don’t get me started on the mega-churches, that is the total opposite of everything that Jesus preached. I remember having a conversation with someone about how many millions of dollars their church had raised, to build a huge shiny new building, and thinking what would Jesus do with all that money.

The song is off the Pop album, which (spoiler alert) is not going to rate very highly. I think it’s one of the lesser liked albums among U2 fans, so how it managed to spawn six singles (this one being the fifth) I don’t know. In fact of the entire album there’s only one really good song with staying power (and you’ll have to keep following along to find out which one it is).

Now having said all that, the video for If God Will Send His Angels is brilliant. Not at all related to the content of the song, it shows a split screen in a diner, with Bono at the top, and at the bottom are random people walking in and sitting at his table. I read that he had to act and sing very slowly for the video, because he is in time with the song and everyone else is at high speed. You do see that a couple of times, where his mouth loses sync for a bit with the words, but overall it is really well done. And the point where the rest of the band comes and sits at the table, and Bono turns and stares at Edge for a few seconds, I always think something funny is about to happen, and even though it doesn’t, it still amuses me.

So, can I give a bonus point for the video? Not really, because I’m grading on the music. And that’s not very good.

My rating for If God Will Send His Angels: 4 / 10

Fast Cars

The last song on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, at least in some cases. It was apparently only included in the UK and Japan versions of the album. That’s kind of odd, since the song gives us the album title, from the lyric “They’re in the desert to dismantle an atomic bomb.” If the song wasn’t on the album, how would it give it the name? I read once that it came from Bono calling his dad Atomic Bob, because of his propensity to explode at his son. This would make sense as the album was being written around the time of Bono’s dad’s death. 

Originally the song was called Xanax And Wine, and that version has also been released since then. They are almost the same song, pretty much just changes to some of the lyrics here and there. I don’t know why I prefer the Xanax And Wine version, but I do. I have found myself skipping over Fast Cars but listening to Xanax And Wine.

The song starts fast and stays fast, as it should, given that it’s called Fast Cars. I’ve never even attempted to play any of this song on the guitar, it is way too fast for my talent level. That actually applies to many U2 songs, the ones I do try and play are almost always either very slow (All I Want Is You) or very simple to play (I Will Follow).

I very much like the line “You should worry about the day, that the pain it goes away.” Not sure why but it certainly speaks to me. I guess the standard theory is that where there’s pain, there’s life (as Al Bundy once said), and if you give up on the pain then you give up on the problem. I think it is the same idea that you only fight if you care, and once you stop caring you stop fighting too. All themes that Bono and his dad would have dealt with through the years.

Now, regarding the song being on the album or not. I can see why it was left off the album - twice, if you count Xanax as well - because it is not a very good song (although not the worst song on Atomic Bomb, but you’ll have to wait to find out about that). Lyrically there isn’t much beyond what I already discussed. Musically it’s fairly standard, I can’t point to any great moments that stand out from that point of view either. So yeah, leave it off the album, let it be a B side on a single, or stick it in the box of tricks to work on at a later point, when it will somehow magically turn into a major hit. But no, instead they get it on some versions of the album. I can’t imagine why they would do that. Given that Bono tried at the last minute to stop the release of The Joshua Tree because he didn’t think it was good enough, why would he let an album drop that had different songs on it? Makes no sense to me.

My rating for Fast Cars: 2 / 10

Lady With The Spinning Head

If you don’t believe in evolution then you ought to listen to Lady With The Spinning Head. It’s not just the head that’s spinning, it’s a whole bunch of hits spun out from this one song. This was one of the early songs recorded during the Achtung Baby sessions, and later different parts of it were taken and evolved into The Fly, Ultraviolet, Zoo Station and even some No Line On The Horizon. This is a great song that was eventually dropped as a B side to the One single, probably because it ended up sounding too similar to all those other songs on Achtung Baby.

So, where are all these parts? Listen at about 3:05 and you’ll hear Edge’s guitar jamming out the signature sound of The Fly. Listen to the whole of the song and you can hear Ultraviolet, I think they took much of the music for that. At the start, 0.08, I think I can hear the opening to No Line On The Horizon. Maybe? Maybe not. Sure sounds like it to me for just a few seconds. They certainly could have gone back and played around with some old bits for the new album. They do that still, just look at Songs Of Innocence, a lot of sounds that could have come off the early U2 stuff. And some people say Zoo Station is in there too but I don’t know where that is. Too buried or too obvious for me. I’ll keep listening, maybe I’ll hear it some day.

I’ve never heard the Salome tapes, which were stolen demos of some of the early stuff off Achtung Baby. I’ve read about them though, and they sound like my kind of thing. Many hours of U2 sitting in a studio playing bits and pieces while they work on songs? Yep, I’d love that. I will have to figure out where I can get it from. I’ve never been much into the various bootlegs that are out there, but maybe I should be. Who knows what little gems might poke up? Of course in theory if it was a big gem it got onto an album, a little gem might have gotten onto a B side, and the rest is possibly worthless. Although it is probably very much like looking at the notes for an author on how they wrote their book, the pieces that were scratched out, ideas added in etc. Very much what I like to look at, figuring out the whole process and where ideas come from.

Now if you came here trying to figure who the heck is the Lady With The Spinning Head, I haven’t really given you an answer, have I? It’s actually quite easy once you read the lyrics (and remember this is early stuff in the process, for a song that wasn’t released on the album). “Here she comes, Lady Luck again”, “She’s got the rent, she put me in the black”, “I’m on top, when she’s around, she’s my ticket, out of town” are all references to gambling, so the spinning head is the flip of a coin, the roulette wheel, and most obviously Lady Luck. Maybe Bono had been to a casino the night before he was writing these lyrics.

My rating for Lady With The Spinning Head: 4 / 10

Unchained Melody

I’m the first to admit I’m not a great music historian. I can tell you a lot about U2 and their history, but for other musicians I have much more of an overview than a deep knowledge. I know many songs that were hits in their day, but not too many that were a little lesser known. In the case of Unchained Melody, I knew the Righteous Brothers version, probably from airplay around the time the movie Ghost came out. I think I always assumed it was their song. So when I did a little research for this piece, I was surprised to discover that they didn’t write it, and in fact it had been famous long before they even recorded it. It is one of the most recorded songs in history, which maybe explains why U2 covered it back during the Rattle & Hum era.

I have to admit that when I think of the song, I do think of the U2 version. Most folks would think of the Righteous Brothers of course, but I’ve listened to U2 so much more. I just went and listened to the Righteous Brothers version and I kind of think of it as a little slow and dreary compared to U2’s version. Weird, huh? U2 has a lot more guitar going on, of course, and I really like the way the U2 version ramps up just before the two minute mark, when Adam comes in with the bass and Larry starts pounding the drums. There are a number of U2 songs where they do that, mostly live, where they’ll start up just with Edge playing softly, then at some point the others join in and the song explodes. I think there’s a live version of Sunday somewhere that does that, and it’s great.

I always put Unchained Melody and Everlasting Love together in my mind, because U2 put them both on the B side of the All I Want Is You single, and that’s where I first heard them. That was from the time when they were making Rattle & Hum, doing the Joshua Tree tour of the US and visiting all these places which gave them that inspiration. They recorded a bunch of songs during that time, wrote a lot, and were generally getting deep into different kinds of American music. I don’t know what made them record Unchained Melody, other than perhaps hearing it and trying to play it some. They had a number of covers recorded around this time, along with their own material, so maybe it just fell into the hopper at some point.

It is an interesting grouping of these three songs together. All three are love songs, of course, and perhaps that’s what got them together at the time. All I Want Is You and Unchained Melody do have a similar tempo, and indeed you might say a similar sound to each other. The history of the band around this time (with Edge breaking up with his first wife) might also give a clue as to why they were working on songs to do with love.

My rating for Unchained Melody: 3 / 10

Achtung Baby (book)

This is a review of the book Achtung Baby by Stephen Catanzarite, not the U2 album.

Oddly enough, the opening line of this book is “This is not a book about U2.” If that seems confusing, it is, because the title, cover, and at least some of the content is about U2. But the content is about a lot more than U2, and somehow the book manages to end up not being as much about U2 as you would imagine.

The book is part of a series called 33 1/3, which are short (just over 100 pages in this case) books about various albums by different bands. I’m not sure what the rest of the books are about, but having read this one, I’m sure I won’t be reading any of the others. I’d guess that U2 would be one of the more popular bands in the series, and I don’t know if many U2 fans would be going to get other books in the series after reading this one.

To be fair to the author, he specifically points out at the start that he won’t be talking about the band. They might have mentioned that somewhere else, say on the front or back cover, so that people wouldn’t be misled into buying it. The author treats us to an extended view of the Fall of Man, and lightly wraps parts of the story around Achtung Baby. It ends up being a deeply religious book, which is fine if that’s the topic you thought you were buying.

Having said all that, I do think it presents an interesting interpretation of the album, although he twists many of the songs to fit his own narrative. The best example is right at the start, when he uses Zoo Station as symbolizing Adam and Eve being thrown out of heaven, turning into a regular couple and riding a train into town, where they begin to see the world having turned into a nightmare. The rest of the songs are used in a similar way to fit this story, which twists and turns as needed. The only song he really gets right is Until The End Of The World, which Bono himself has said is about a conversation between Jesus and Judas. Ironically though, in the book the author has to pull us out of his ongoing story to talk about the one part he is tune with the band about.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean this book is worth buying for a U2 fan. He has short sections that are actually about the songs - and he appears to be quite critical of the music at times - and fills out the rest with his religious interpretation and storyline. I would guess that maybe ten percent of the book is about U2 or their songs. There is a chapter at the end which is essentially a summary of U2’s career, but nothing in it is news for the more than casual U2 fan, and if you’re interested there are many better books out there for that.

This book is, therefore, not for the regular U2 fan. If you are a highly religious U2 fan, you would probably get something out of it. If you’re religious and want to know more about U2, you might, although I think there are better books for that too. And if you want an opinion of the book that appears to be a long way out of the mainstream, you might try it. But for anyone else, not recommended unless you’re an absolute U2 completist.

My rating for Achtung Baby (book): 1 / 10

Elvis Presley And America

This is a tough song to review. It’s a tough song to listen to, as well. I remember listening to Elvis Presley And America a number of times when I first listened to The Unforgettable Fire. It has a really good sound, but what I was trying to do was figure out just what the lyrics Bono was singing are. I think that’s a problem for everyone, since googling gives several variations of the lyrics, and even the official site’s lyrics don’t sound like what he’s singing.

Supposedly Brian Eno had slowed down the music for A Sort Of Homecoming, played it back and told Bono to sing. And Bono sang, without any written lyrics, and just made up the entire song on the spot. And they recorded it as he sang, and that became the song on the album. That is a crazy story, of course, but one I can absolutely believe. In those days Bono was at his musical best, and was able to write some great lyrics (just listen to The Unforgettable Fire, some of those words are amazing). I can certainly see him just making up a song on the spot. I could do it myself, but my version would be terrible, would be way out of sync with the music, and wouldn’t flow nearly as well as this song does. Maybe he had the angel from Stay singing the words to him.

The story also goes that he was thinking about Elvis Presley as he sang, thus giving it the name. Supposedly the Elvis of the latter days, when he was fat and tired and still a huge star in Vegas. I don’t see that at all in the song, there’s nothing that mentions Elvis, or even that gives the feeling of Elvis. I could see it being as simple as Larry - a huge Elvis fan - wanting to call it that (I make this up of course). I really have no idea.

There are few lines in the song that I completely understand the whole of the line. Those lines suggest to me that this song is about a relationship, and what they are saying and what the tone of the music is saying is that it’s a sad relationship (“Hopelessly, so hopelessly, I’m breaking through you and me”), or a sad point in the relationship, but the singer has faith that they will continue (“You’re through with me, but I know that you’ll be back for more”). But the end of the songs suggests that even though it’s a stormy relationship (“And this rain keeps on coming down, and this sky is alive”) they will eventually be reconciled (“And you pick me up, bits and pieces on this floor”).

So with all that, I do like this song. I don’t listen to it often, and it’s not one I seek out to listen to unless I’m in that kind of mood. And when I do I also like to listen to it’s album-mate, Indian Summer Sky, as well. They both seem to have a more bassy, deeper kind of tempo. It is a melancholy feeling when listening to Elvis Presley And America, but somehow in a good way. It is, if possible, melancholy with an upbeat sound in there as well. Is it truly the music from A Sort Of Homecoming, just slowed down? I don’t have a way to tell that. If I listen to the first part of Homecoming, before Bono begins to sing, then I listen to the start of Elvis, I do kind of get a similarity there between the music, especially the drums, just slower. So maybe it is.

My rating for Elvis Presley And America: 4 / 10

Stay (Faraway, So Close!)

Does anyone else think “7-Eleven” when they hear the words “green light”? It’s funny how certain phrases become stuck in our heads, and trigger other thoughts when you hear them. I’ll be watching tv and someone will say something, and I’ll think of a line from a 20 or 30 year old U2 song. I have many of those triggers, some of them from songs I haven’t really listened to in years. Weird the way our brains work. Or the way I can introduce U2 into any conversation.

Stay is a little bit of a mystery to me. It’s a song I really like, but it’s another song that seems to have a number of meanings, or that goes in a number of directions. Musically it’s good, although not outstanding, it gives off a calming kind of mood with occasional rise and fall. Not that it’s simple, it’s got a clear theme, it’s just that the theme is repeated throughout most of the song and there’s little variation. It’s the words that make the difference here, and that’s what seems to drift around. Like I said, a bunch of meanings, none of which appear to be related. It’s almost like every couple of lines the story changes, maybe like switching channels while watching tv (a theme of Zoo TV, of course). And they do mention satellite television, where you can go anywhere - and the list of cities, which always amuses me when he puts in the city that the show is in and the crowd gives a loud cheer.

The other lyric I love from this song is “a vampire or a victim, it depends on who’s around”. That speaks to a lot of things, but one I think of is the duality of the band, their seeming role as best band in the world rotating with people loving or hating their newest music. Sometimes they play the part of the vampire, sitting on top of the world, and other times the victim, when the reviews aren’t so good and they have to go away and think things up again.

The song is of course always associated with the movie Faraway, So Close, which I think I might give a review to by itself, although it’s only tangentially involved with U2. The video for the song is totally taken from the movie though, so they do have that relationship. The video is much clearer than the song though, it is obvious that the band are angels for each of their related members (well, obvious if you’ve seen the movie), and they do things for them, like Larry playing drums and Edge tuning the guitar. Adam doesn’t do anything though, he always seems to have a minor role in things like this. The best of course is Bono with the singer - surprisingly at first, it’s a female singer - and all their interaction. I don’t know how many takes it took to film, but they must have been struggling not to laugh at each other with their bodies and faces so close like that.

And every time I head the word bang, I have another trigger thought, on a bang and a clatter as an angel hits the ground. And this trigger always adds a visual, the shot of Bono striking the ground at the end of the video. Love that bit, I don’t know why.

My rating for Stay (Faraway, So Close!): 7 / 10

How the rankings work

A week in, and I think I should explain how I got to my ratings. Ratings are a very personal thing. It’s hard when two people are arguing over two different songs as to which is better. Now try a hundred songs, and then try ranking all of them one by one. So when I decided on this project, I decided that these are my ratings, not yours, and if you differ that’s okay. I’m sorry if your personal favorite is my tenth, or hundredth. That’s the way people are.

I decided that a particular ranking order would be too difficult, and give too little information to be worthwhile. How do you choose that song A should be number 100 and song B number 101? People like Rolling Stone may make their top 500 lists, but reality is that it’s very much a tossup as you get done the list, between say 250 and 400. You can have strong arguments about number 1 and 2, but by the time you get towards the bottom it’s really just one person saying “hey, I like that song” that lifts it fifty places higher.

I made a list of every U2 song that appeared on an album they released, from Boy to Songs of Innocence. This excludes many of their extras, many B-sides that became famous, and things like Passengers. That gave me a list of 146 songs. With that list, I decided to rank all the songs 1-10, and I specifically decided that I wanted it to be a true 1-10, not a list where you have a couple of songs making 4s and 5s, nothing lower than that, and the rest being 6s and 7s. So I forced myself to rate lower than you might think. I ended up with an almost perfect bell curve of results, and that told me I had done a pretty good job.

Now I know what you’re going to say: how can I call so many of these U2 songs average or below average? Best band in the world! But here’s my qualifier: these are rankings of U2 songs only. This is not saying that other songs would make the same curve, in fact if I made a list of non-U2 songs in the same way I bet their average would be well below 5. I know for sure there are no songs that would be a 10, and there might only be one or two that are 9s. So don’t use this list to say I think a certain U2 song sucks, because that’s not the point. Even a bad U2 song is still a U2 song, just like bad sex is still sex. The point is the two lists would not even be comparable, they’re apples and oranges.

After listing and rating all the album songs, I had a good baseline to work with. From there I started slotting in every other U2 song, those that were on the extra lists, those that have been recorded by U2, pretty much anything else. I have 365 days to fill, and they’ve done something in the order of 250 songs. I need every day I can get, so you might see some odd things reviewed here.

With the full list of songs set, I’m able to average each album. I’m able to look at different videos and compare them. And extras like books, concerts, and so on. A lot of these will get a rating, but I’m not sure how comparable that will be to the songs. If I really like a book and it gets an 8, that doesn’t means I’d like to read it as much as I’d like to listen to a song rated 8. Finally, I’ll give reviews and items without comments on anything else I can think of to fill in the days. Some things may not end up with a rating (like this page). In those cases a rating isn’t important. Others may get an automatic rating, like say if I attend a U2 concert it’s probably going to get a 10 - I’d rather go to a concert than listen to any song on my music player any day.

And after this brief interlude, we’ll be back to the reviews tomorrow.

Walk On

I’m going to spill a secret right now. When I ranked every U2 song for this project, I came up with four songs that I rated a perfect 10. If you know anything about U2, you can almost certainly name three of them. Heck, my mother could probably name three of them (uhhh, maybe not her. She might recognize the names if I told her them). Those three are I think the most popular U2 songs among the die-hard and casual fans alike. But the fourth, while most folks would know the song, they would also be surprised that Walk On would be among the elite.

I don’t know what it is about Walk On that grabbed me and never let go. It is musically fantastic, lyrically fantastic, there is nothing I don’t like about this song. It has clear and distinct roles for each of the four band members. I could not imagine this song missing any of their parts or any of them being different and not feeling like something was wrong. Adam once again provides the footing for the whole song, driving on with intensity, moving it slow and quick. Larry follows that in many ways, but also steps out and pushes in parts (listen to the version from U22, about the 6:35 mark it’s like a fast-beating heart racing the song along before he falls back into the crashing cymbals) . Edge does everything up front, from the chiming quiet to the loud anthemic punch. And Bono is at his rolling best, writing and singing lyrics that are perhaps his best work since The Joshua Tree.

The song is an anthem to everything. It’s about love. It’s about hanging on in the face of trouble. It’s about Aung San Suu Kyi (I have her picture, I took it out). It is, as Bono sings in many of the live versions, a message of love. It gives us the title of the album. It tells us that no matter what happens, how dark it gets, you can get up and walk on, face your challenges and defeat them. “Home, hard to know what it is if you’ve never had one”, that’s a gut punch to those of us who’ve never had to face situations that millions around the world face daily. The ending, with the "all that"s, is wonderful, pulling you along on a string to hear the different words. I love listening to the end, so many different lyrics Bono has put in there over the years, trying to hear and know each one of them. The change of the music just as that begins to what feels like it should be a chant and response is yet another example of their switching up songs to grab at you.

But what brings it to the top is the emotion. It’s hard to put into words the emotion that Walk On brings out in me. I saw U2 live twice in November 2001, just after 9/11, and the feeling of togetherness was intense. They had just done One, with the scroll of names from the twin towers, and the whole crowd was in tears. And then to bring out this song, this prayer, this anthem, this ode to the feeling that we were all feeling at the time, well, I can’t put it in words. I am not a very religious person, but those moments, in that song, were probably the most intensely religious I have ever felt in my life. As I write this I am thinking back to that and the emotion is definitely welling up again. I often get that feeling just listening to live versions of the song. I can guarantee you that when I am at a U2 concert and see that song played live I will be jumping and singing and crying and laughing and having the most joyful feeling I ever have.

I can’t think of any other song that grabs me like Walk On does. For that reason it elevates to the top of the U2 catalog to be one of the 10s.

My rating for Walk On: 10 / 10

Every Breaking Wave

I have a confession: it is a long time since I liked any U2 song on first hearing it. I’ve actually heard this about other people too, that U2 songs are something that grow on you. I suspect it’s because when I hear a new song I’m really trying hard to listen to it, to get the words, to get the tune, and that focus takes away from just sitting back and hearing the song. So in general it takes me several listens to start liking the songs, in some cases a few listens, in other cases many more.

Why say this now? Because this is the first song off the new album, Songs Of Innocence, so I’m afraid that my ratings for those songs might be lower than they would be if I was rating them a year or two from now. In fact, I was talking to someone a couple of weeks after the album was released and I said I thought it might be their weakest album in many years (that comment was in large part the impetus for this whole writing project). But now I’ve been listening to it for a few months, and I can honestly say that it has risen up the ratings since then.

Every Breaking Wave is one of the better songs on Songs Of Innocence. It is slow and thoughtful, with an interesting melody, but as I sit here and think about it, I’m trying to remember if there are any drums or bass on it. I’m sure there are, and they may even stick out in a few places, but as a general song I kind of think about it as an acoustic song (ironic since the extended version of the album is essentially an acoustic version). Now even though I’m saying that, I’ve noticed that when I do listen to versions of songs with just Edge and Bono, the bass and drums stick out like a sore thumb as being missing.

Near the end there is one great moment, the section beginning “The waves know where are the rocks”. I do love when they switch into this style of playing, twisting up the music completely from the rest of the song for a verse or so. In this case the song is slow and you get this short fast-paced section, almost completely without instruments, just a fast-talking Bono. It’s kind of like certain live versions of some songs where he adds in a little paragraph of rap, a boost of energy just where you need it.

Having said all that I have to bring in the downer part of the review. It seems to me that recently (i.e. the last few albums) Bono has had issues with some of the lyrics. I’ll point out some of them over the course of the year, but Every Breaking Wave has a good example. “Every dog on the street knows that we’re in love with defeat.” I mean, come on. What does that even mean? If it’s a literary allusion then I’m not aware of it. If it’s a bible quote then wow. Wherever it came from I cringe each time I hear it (and it’s repeated three times in the song), and wish that Bono had thought longer and harder on it. I’m not saying I could do better. Just saying he could have.

My rating for Every Breaking Wave: 6 / 10