"Rock and roll started out as dance music, but somewhere along the way it lost its hips and became rhythmically simplistic."
Like A Song: Beautiful Day
July 11, 2013
[Ed. note: This is the 78th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
I think it was September 2000. I was sitting at the computer in the office at my parents' house. The Internet had been growing in popularity for almost a decade by then, but U2's website was still more of a proto-site than anything else. It was the white outline of the rooms of a house on a baby blue field. The house had absolutely nothing to do with U2 and was more of a random placeholder image than anything else. One day, though, something showed up on it. I had to download it on dial-up, so it took forever, but holy cow was it worth it. It was the last 50 seconds of U2's upcoming single, a track called "Beautiful Day."
What you don't have you don't need it now
U2's music in the 1990s is what really turned me on to the band, so this little bit of new music was about as far removed from the music on Pop as I could fathom at the time. I spent days nonstop listening to Pop after it came out, as it was unlike anything I'd heard before. Compared with the bleep-blorps and loops of Pop, though, this muscled, stripped-down 50 seconds of super-happy pop rock was about as far removed as I could imagine for a follow-up album. Coming from the minor keys and how tired and sad Bono sounded on so much of Pop, this was like a warm breeze on a sunny summer day. I'm not speaking ill of Pop in any way as it remains one of my favorite U2 albums to this day, but it was a very different animal. All That You Can't Leave Behind is one of my favorite albums as well. It was like night in a loud, dark club turning into day on a wide, blue sea.
"Beautiful Day" was a song about movement and progression and escape. "Discothéque" focused on ephemera you wanted but could never get to. "Gone" was, ironically, about finding yourself in a place you couldn't escape from, and with no one to help you. "Please" was about the cultural, familial and religious weights that haunt us no matter where we end up. Those 50 seconds of "Beautiful Day" felt to me like it was shedding all that weight that Pop had become fused to, leaping up and running away.
The heart is a bloom
A week or so later, more tracks from the album showed up in the various rooms of the house. The first chorus of "Walk On" didn't give me the slightest hint of how much I would come to love the complete song. "Kite" had me worried as the chorus sounded like something more in line with Bon Jovi (and I'm glad I was proven wrong). The segment of "Grace" ended up being a pretty good representation of the song as a whole. The section of "Beautiful Day" that came out was the first minute or so, and it added the raw joy of the last minute. It had electronic effects, layers, and The Edge's signature echoey guitars, making it a bit more familiar, albeit in a major chord. It didn't sound quite as divorced from the band's overall ethos as I had previously thought, but the tone and energy was still different from anything they had created before.
See the world in green and blue
The song felt like it had much more of a global, universal sense to it than anything the band had created before. It took stock of amazing beauty in the world and compared that with the immediacy of the communication new media was permitting. It compared the quite, isolated flame on an infinite desert with the hideous mechanics and flames of infinite oil fields. It compared the wonder of Mother Nature with the plunder of her seas. "Discothéque" was a person who had been shoving his face into coke, sexual encounters and the corner of oblivion. "Beautiful Day" was a person looking down on all this world had to offer. Two lead singles that so wonderfully contrasted the minutiae and expanse of life.
Criticism of U2 by its fans has been going on for so long that it's at the point where it moves in cycles, like global weather patterns or clothing styles. As soon as U2 moves on to another phase in their careers, a certain group will feel left behind or not get the new direction or simply may not care for the new sound. Rather than accepting that things change and everything progresses or dies, they start picking at the current version of the band and remark about how it can never live up to this or that previous expectation and how the band is a bunch of sell-outs/musically bankrupt/past their prime. It's happened enough that by now it's a predictable occurrence within the fan community. All That You Can't Leave Behind and "Beautiful Day" seem to be getting a lot of it lately, which is why the song has been on my mind.
Everyone has his or her own experiences, tastes and associations. For me, "Beautiful Day" was the herald of something new. Not something necessarily better, but with a different energy. I feel it is the song that best represents the core of what U2 is. It's not their smartest song, or their easiest song, or their hardest or loudest or most intricate or whatever. It does have an amazing mix of passion, joy and observational clarity. It's not afraid to be happy, but it also doesn't feel like it has to appeal to the very lowest common pop denominator. If you crank up "Beautiful Day" on a stereo, it is rock 'n' roll. It is the song that brought U2 back to popular culture, regardless of what value you put on that.
I had some absolutely amazing times on the U2 360 tour. I went to places I hadn't been to before, heard songs I never dreamed I'd get to hear live, had some brilliant times with friends, and saw what is quite likely the largest single event I'll experience in my life. There was one moment that still gives me goose bumps to this day in a way that nothing else did. It was when NASA Commander Mark Kelly appeared on the video screen with cut-out words that he held up and then released, letting them float off in the weightlessness.
As we read them and the intro music built up, it gave me a sensation of awe and wonder that I've never experienced before or since. It's OK to fall into a bit of wonder here and there. "It's a beautiful day. Don't let it get away."
© @U2/Ryan, 2013.