"When people ask us what our influences are, we always say, 'Each other.'"
U240: Have U2 Changed the World? Part 2: The Inner Realm
August 28, 2016
A moral and cultural conscience has been a part of U2's DNA since the band's formation in 1976. As U2 evolved through the mid-1980s, their commitment to social issues became more overt in songs such as "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Bad" and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)," and they joined with groundbreaking events including Band Aid and Live Aid. On a personal level, Bono took life-changing trips to Africa and Central America, which became much of the impetus for U2's hit album The Joshua Tree. In a 1983 interview at the US Festival, a 23-year-old Bono spoke emphatically about the band's mission, saying, "We can do something. Music can change the world because it can change people." Part one of this four-part #U240 series gave examples of U2's early influences and activism. In part two, I look at the shift away from overt political and social statements, toward the nebulous world of internal demons.
From Outward to Inward
Glimpses of the band's movement to a more artsy and introspective musical approach can be seen even at the end of their first decade. In 1984, the "fire" of The Unforgettable Fire was not just about the nuclear blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the consuming flames of heroin addiction, but also symbolized the burning passions of an artist's inner realm. On 1987's The Joshua Tree, U2 honed and mastered their ability to compose music that functioned on multiple levels. "Where The Streets Have No Name," "Bullet The Blue Sky" and "Mothers Of The Disappeared" were all written about specific conflicts in distant lands, but they were also intimate descriptions of the human condition that spoke right into the souls of their fans.
During their second decade, U2 faced an unexpected dilemma. Joshua Tree had succeeded so spectacularly that the next album (and feature film), Rattle And Hum, felt anti-climactic, especially to critics who accused U2 of comparing themselves to the musical geniuses of America's past (Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and B.B. King), and panned the project as arrogant, bloated and pretentious. On the contrary, in Rattle And Hum, Phil Joanou, the film's producer, sought to capture the band members as they interacted with and honored American culture, with scenes of U2 recording at the historic Sun Studio in Memphis, singing alongside a gospel choir in a church, strolling down the sidewalks of Harlem and snarling traffic at an impromptu performance in San Francisco.
In addition to emphasizing American culture in Rattle And Hum, U2 continued to address global events of the late '80s, focusing on anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa. In solidarity with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the band affirmed international sanctions, collaborated with other artists boycotting Sun City, criticized the Reagan administration for its tacit approval of South Africa's government and advocated for an end to the legalized system of racial injustice.
But despite their success both as performers and activists, U2 faced a growing identity crisis. Unsure of the way forward, U2 kicked off the new year at Dublin's Point Depot on Dec. 31, 1989, with "Where The Streets Have No Name," and bid farewell not just to the preceding decade, but also to a very familiar way of making music. During the previous night's concert, Bono hinted at the band's uncertainty about the future with a now familiar speech: "This is just the end of something for U2 ... We're throwing a party for ourselves and you. It's no big deal, we have to go away and ... and just dream it all up again." And away they went. And for much longer than their fans expected.
The Revolution Within and Without
When U2 took the stage at Point Depot on New Year's Eve of 1989, a remarkable shift was taking place all over Eastern Europe, especially in Berlin. The once impermeable "Iron Curtain" between the Communist East and the free West had begun to crumble, allowing a new spirit of independence that eventually led to a complete collapse of the U.S.S.R. On a figurative level, it seemed that U2 also needed to cross over old borders and traverse the rigid boundaries of their own iconic image. In search of a creative place to record, the band rushed to be a part of the action in Berlin, arriving in October of 1990 on the same day that German reunification was finalized. Hoping to rekindle their imaginations, they set up in the renowned Hansa Studios in West Berlin, the same place David Bowie had found solace from drug addiction, as well as inspiration for his own trilogy of albums.
The plan, however, backfired. U2's move to Hansa in reunited Berlin only accentuated the divisions they faced with each other. In U2 By U2, Larry recalled, "It was particularly depressing because of the separation within the band. It felt confrontational … I thought this might be the end." Confused and irritated, they struggled to find a common purpose, often arguing and fighting about ideas and musical direction. Fortunately, inspiration came during an unscripted jam session. As Edge improvised a series of musical phrases, Bono began testing a tender yet somewhat tortured vocal part. "We're one but not the same," he sang. The lyric was as much a commentary on Berlin as it was on the band's own internal status. Ironically, it was through the song "One" that U2 recovered a spirit of unity and found the new beginning they so desperately needed.
The resulting album, 1991's Achtung Baby, was as radical as the revolution it was born out of. The odd-sounding material was a departure from the comfortable rock of the previous decade. The innovative production techniques included powerfully distorted guitars, rich bass lines, drum machines, sequencers and heavily processed vocals, signaling the shift toward a techno-industrial feel that would dominate three albums in the '90s.
Thematically, Achtung Baby focused less on political conflicts, and more sharply on broken relationships, personal struggles, hypocrisy, infidelity and primal desires. Here again, the song "One" serves as an example. For the cover of the single, the band selected a photograph of David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died of AIDS shortly after its release. Wojnarowicz's image, a herd of buffalo plummeting off a cliff, was dark and foreboding, matching the mood of the song and album's production, and highlighting the growing plight of AIDS at a time when the subject was very taboo. Other songs introduced intangible topics as well: "Mysterious Ways" played with themes of seduction and temptation; "Even Better Than The Real Thing" plunged into the grayness of sexual tension and instant gratification; "The Fly" suggested that half-truths were more powerful and deceptive than complete lies.
The supporting tour for Achtung Baby redefined the live concert, combining state-of-the-art staging, multiple personae and choreographed theatrics. At the core of the show was an elaborate multimedia presentation, designed around massive screens that simulated an oversaturated TV and media experience. Shirking the religious and political zeal of The Joshua Tree tour, Zoo TV was more satire than rant. And though fans cheered wildly for the sensational antics, video clips, satellite link-ups, prank calls and general sensory overload, it was hard to know how seriously U2 were taking themselves. The hyper-exaggerated concert used every technological means available to blur the lines between news, entertainment, sports, religious programming and the home shopping phenomena, while providing a critique of the very media it was using. "Watch More TV," U2 counseled adoring fans as they simultaneously illustrated the complexities of explosive media technology in the early '90s.
Bono added to the satire by playing three different parts on the tour. His eccentric Fly character peered through oversized rock-star sunglasses and spewed aphorisms as ambitious as the tour itself. "They say a secret is something you tell one other person, so I'm telling you, child," he sang, while an assortment of screens flashed a frenetic stream of messages, including, "Everything you know is wrong." Bono's second persona, Mirror Ball Man, was a flamboyant showman who was part car salesman and part greedy televangelist, a reflection of those he saw on America's religious TV networks. Consumed by his own self-importance, Mirror Ball Man would phone the White House and ask for the president, always disappointed when his call wouldn't be received. MacPhisto, the third character Bono played, came into existence after the release of Zooropa in 1993, an album that was itself inspired by the hyper-media culture of Zoo TV. MacPhisto, a greasy-haired, red-horned, decrepit has-been rocker (the logical outcome of living too long as the Fly and Mirror Ball Man), spoke of his great love for capitalism and equal disdain for the former Soviet Union. Through these three personae (characters that undoubtedly evolved from the "fool" and the "boy" he played during the Lypton Village era), Bono could personify the things he most wished to critique. It was all brilliant fun, infused with complex cultural commentary.
On the Zooropa album, U2 continued the introspective investigation they began on Achtung Baby, but shifted the focus toward the bleakness of a post-modern world. In the song "Zooropa," they offered an antidote to the cultural banality of advertising slogans and bland conformity by giving advice to the tune's female heroine, singing, "She's gonna dream up the world she wants to live in, she's gonna dream out loud." And despite the monotone commentary of "Numb," the mechanical wasteland of "Lemon" and the apocalyptic landscape of "The Wanderer," U2 inspired listeners with the vision of a hope-filled dreamer, insisting that the world could be imagined and then actualized as something better than it often appeared.
The 1997 album, Pop, rounded out U2's second decade with an expanded sense of eccentricity. Producers Flood and Howie B led the recording project, and featured the latest techno, dance and electronic music, while incorporating new sampling, looping and sequencing technologies. The album used a host of state-of-the-art tools to addresses consumerism and self-indulgence. The accompanying tour included the largest LED screen ever created, a 100-foot-tall golden arch that parodied the famous McDonald's logo and a gaudy mirror-coated lemon big enough to hold the entire band, as well as kitschy pop art that took its inspiration from a supermarket. In keeping with the theme, U2 even launched the tour in a New York City Kmart. Pop's investigation of pop culture and consumerism was the culmination of three albums in the '90s, starting with a brooding look at personal demons on Achtung Baby and then the existential effects of technology on Zooropa.
Though U2's second decade was primarily focused on more subjective themes, they weren't completely withdrawn from tangible activism. In 1992, the band joined with the Stop Sellafield campaign to create awareness about high levels of leukemia cases on the east coast of Ireland, taking a dangerous ride in a rubber dinghy to the Sellafield nuclear plant on the shores of England, and partnering with other artists in a concert to raise funds for Greenpeace. U2 also collaborated with War Child, an NGO established to assist children who suffered from the violence of war, by donating the profit from their 1995 single, "Miss Sarajevo." In 1998, U2 hosted a concert in support of the Good Friday Agreement, the accord that officially ended the Troubles, and took a lot of criticism for staging a photo shoot with two opposing leaders in Northern Ireland – David Trimble and John Hume – shaking hands in a stunning moment of compromise. That same year, U2 donated the proceeds from its single "Sweetest Thing" to the Chernobyl Children's Project, a humanitarian agency that Ali had worked with in an effort to aid families affected by the world's worst nuclear power plant accident.
Other highlights include a range of pioneering concert moments: linking live with Bill Carter in the bombed-out city of Sarajevo to hear the surreal stories of its citizens, keeping a promise made in 1993 to play a concert in Sarajevo in 1997 and having the Madres de Plaza de Mayo join U2 on stage for "Mothers Of The Disappeared" in Argentina and Chile in 1998.
During the second decade of U2's career, the band fled from the pious image of the Joshua Tree era and reinvented itself through artistic introspection and witty satire. While U2 in the '80s had been consumed with global justice and conflicts in distant lands, the U2 of the '90s focused on inner demons of the soul, resulting in a series of albums (Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop) that demonstrated the band's fascination with pop culture and marked a visionary period in rock 'n' roll history. Throughout, the members of U2 both influenced culture and were shaped themselves by the culture they sought to impact.
In part three of this series, I'll continue to explore U2's dynamic and vibrant interplay of artistic expression and social engagement as they headed into a period of unprecedented advocacy, especially by the frontman who began jeopardizing his own role in the band.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2016.