"I am a singer and a songwriter but I am also a father, four times over. I am a friend to dogs. I am a sworn enemy of the saccharine; and a believer in grace over karma. I talk too much when I'm drunk and sometimes even when I'm not."
-- Bono, 2001 Harvard graduation speech
U2 Lists: Top 8 Alternative Songs
September 08, 2008
[Ed. note: This is the third in a "U2 Lists" series currently being revisited by the @U2 staff. The first series, which focused primarily on Top Tens, ran from August through October of 2002.]
The word alternative, when applied to music, is, at best, a loaded term. Etymologically speaking, the word is rooted in the Latin alter, meaning "the other of the two." This origin makes the classical dictionary definition of alternative "the choice between two mutually exclusive choices." When used as an adjective to describe music, however, a secondary definition is applied: "existing outside traditional or established institutions or systems." And so "alternative music" and "alternative rock" are used to describe the music of the counter-culture, an alternative to the popular music and popular rock of the time.
But with the passage of time, the counter-culture often has a knack of becoming the mainstream culture. When Zooropa won the 1993 Grammy award for "Best Alternative Album," the "alternative rock" of the late 1980s, typified by the Seattle Grunge and grunge-inspired bands had become accepted into mainstream culture, though the "alternative" moniker remained. U2's Zooropa, with its prominent use of synthesizers and heavy dance music influence, was truly in many ways an alternative to alternative music, from a band that hadn't been considered "alternative" since the mid-1980s.
In the end, really, regardless of the theoretical and historical background and justification, these are just my personal choices for "songs which deserve more recognition than they probably get." These eight songs, in no particular order, are songs that have never topped any charts. They have never and probably will never feature prominently in any live setlists. They do, however, provide a nice alternative U2 playlist to the more usual fare.
"New Year's Day" (Kevorkian Remix)
This is one of the few U2 remixes that stands up to the original. Whereas some remixes are simply uninspiring (the "Jeep Mix" of "Lemon") and some others are little more than embarrassing hack-jobs (like the "Perfecto Mix" of "Even Better Than the Real Thing"), Franï¿½ois Kevorkian's remix of "New Year's Day" preserves the feeling of the original song, and offers a true alternative version, incorporating unused snippets of the band's own studio recordings. The hands-down standout among these snippets is a vocal part from Bono with lyric fragments that aren't heard in any other version of the song, live or recorded. .
This is a song title that might make a good number of casual U2 fans scratch their heads (while we're at it, how about "Life on a Distant Planet"?). The few recordings I've heard of this song showcase an incredibly raw and unpolished band (Bono's singing, in particular, is cringe-worthy at moments) of teenagers who fancied themselves a punk outfit. It's catchy, though, and it's always nice to hear the contrast of U2's early work to the band's later output to see how far along they've come. Particularly noteworthy, though, is the Edge's rather lengthy guitar solo in this song, an early showcase of his minimalistic musical gifts.
"Love Comes Tumbling"
I will readily admit to being madly in love with this song, featuring what I think might be Adam's best, sexiest bassline ever: a perfect dancing partner to the Edge's own gorgeous guitar parts. I can think of at least one song from The Unforgettable Fire that could have been left off in favour of this b-side (yes, I'm talking about you, "Elvis Presley and America").
The now-infamous "Salome" bootleg tapes of the band's sessions at the Hansa Ton studios in Berlin show how painful and frustrating the songwriting process was for U2 during the early Achtung Baby sessions. This song, in particular, seemed to take a disproportionate amount of time to write and record, and in a manner fitting to how the band was "spinning its wheels" at the time, it was ultimately left off of the final cut of the album. Though relegated to a b-side, the song stands out for managing to be dark and playful at the same time. Drawing inspiration from the story of Salomï¿½, Herod, and the events leading up to the death of John the Baptist, Bono still manages to sneak in the mildly comical imperative, "shake it shake it shake it Salomï¿½!"
Bono has said that he has trouble listening to this song due to the choked nature of his voice. For me, though, the rough, exposed edges on his voice are what make this song: the sparse, mostly acoustic instrumentation underpinned by a beautiful electric violin part largely leaves Bono's voice out in the open and perhaps vulnerable, even. He holds nothing back when he sings "hold on, hold on tightly," at the climax of the song, and I have trouble deciding if this is an imperative command, a helpless, impassioned plea, or both at the same time. Whatever it is, it's breathtaking and it's beautiful.
Buried deep in the "heart" of Rattle and Hum, this song features some of the Edge's best work. Spacious, expansive arpeggios are laden with his signature compressed twang and echo/delay effect, and the textured, almost percussive rhythm guitar part and haunting solo at the end seal the deal. Bono's killer falsetto and some solid work from Larry and Adam don't hurt things either.
"The Ground Beneath Her Feet"
One of the "orphaned songs" from between albums, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" marked the first (and thus far only) collaboration between U2 and Salman Rushdie, the controversial British author with whom the band has had an association going back to the Zoo TV tour. The lyrics are actual lyrics to a song from Rushdie's novel of the same name: a lover's lamentation about the brutal irony of losing his woman in an earthquake, literally being stolen away by something he worshipped: the ground beneath her feet. The chorus,
Go lightly down your darkened way Go lightly under ground I'll be down there in another day I won't rest until you're found.
invokes the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, in this legend, moved the gods of the underworld to tears with his song pleading for the return of his dead wife; one can only wonder if he would be pleased with U2's setting of Rushdie's lyrics with some of the most beautiful melodies the band has yet written. It's a shame this song, eventually included on soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film The Million Dollar Hotel, didn't get more attention than it did.
What's that, you say? A U2 song without Bono or the Edge singing the lead vocal? The Edge only playing any guitar at all towards the end of the song, you say? A song about atomic skies, Bibles and guns, all sung by Johnny Cash, of all people? It made it onto the album? It closes the album?? Madness, you say???
Brilliant, I say.
© @U2/Tran, 2008. © @U2, 2008.
ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary of the English Language