And not a small audience, either. In December their latest album, The Unforgettable Fire (Island), appeared as number three on Rolling Stone's pop chart; meanwhile, in city after city, tickets for their concerts were selling out in record time. At Radio City Music Hall they had people standing on their seats, shaking their fists and mouthing every word. The band members played like tightly tethered attack dogs. The band was dressed mostly in black leather, and the lead singer--a 24-year-old named Bono with the jut-jawed looks of a fiery young union leader--swept grandly across the stage like a Celtic Mao. At one point he even wrapped himself in a flag. The lighting was stark and powerful, red-and-black backdrops with pulsing white flashes that suggested an anarchist Close Encounters. The whole performance was less a concert than a rally, and as a rally it was powerful indeed--for my money, the most dramatic spectacle the left has produced since Jesse Jackson's speech to the Democratic National Convention.
A good deal of U2's strength derives from their musical stance. They're the quintessential big-guitar band, playing an aggressive but densely textured rock-and-roll that's full of angry majesty. With a crisp drumbeat and a ringing guitar, they create a vast, rolling sound that makes the chest swell. But their wall of sound is actually constructed of a dozen subtly interwoven influences, from the Rolling Stones to Irish folk music to Gregorian chants. This is a band that's rooted in its native culture--a culture, not coincidentally, that has more than a nodding acquaintance with hatred, bloodshed and death. And that, of course, is the other source of the band's power. Although the four members of the group are only in their early 20s, their heritage, and their willingness to deal with it, gives them an authority few other rock bands can claim.
The only problem with all this is that they make the audience feel like a crowd instead of a collection of individuals. Watching U2 you become part of the masses, mouthing slogans and shaking your fist. Even when they're singing about individuals, as opposed to ideas, their aggressive sound and Bono's stentorian delivery preclude any feelings that might be labeled tender or personal. Their new album, which was recorded in the ballroom of an Irish castle because they wanted a spontaneity you can't get in a recording studio, was clearly an attempt to get around the problem. To produce it they turned to Brian Eno, the art-rock experimentalist who's shown a flair for African polyrhythms and electronic sound processing, and his collaborator Daniel Lanois. The results are not as convincing as they might be--the record includes some indulgent moments, most notably a pretentiously titled vocal improvisation that should have been thrown in the moat--but they're promising nonetheless.
Eno's job was to raise the band to a new level of subtlety. Their previous producer, Steve Lillywhite, is a master of straight-ahead rock-and-roll; Eno tends to be meditative (though not necessarily quiet), almost Zenlike. Generally, he's confined his production efforts to groups like the Talking Heads, art bands with a discernible predisposition toward his style. Despite the range of its musical influences, U2 has never been a particularly arty outfit. How it would fare in Eno's hands was a matter of some speculation.
What Eno has done is to give musical form to the mysticism that has always been part of the group's approach. Although the band members don't publicize it, their songs are permeated with Christian belief. Their angry, wailing sound, their visions of apocalypse, their focus on death and regeneration, all be-speak a Christian mysticism that is at once primitive and up-to-the-moment. On The Unforgettable Fire (the name comes from an exhibition of art by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) their customary anthems have given way to songs that display a haunting ethereality. The subject matter isn't all that different--there are two songs about Martin Luther King Jr., for example, inspired by the thought of what such a person might have done for Ireland--but the dreamy atmospherics of the music warm things up considerably. And while their imagery is sometimes strained and their balance a little off, at their best moments they succeed in moving well beyond propaganda to a deft commentary on the human condition.
In concert, however, they remain as they were Christian soldiers in the fight for peace. This sounds contradictory, and it is, but it's also what makes them so powerful. In the middle of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," as the drums tapped out a martial beat and the crowd stood defiantly on their seats, Bono led them in a chant of "No War!" So bellicose was their tone that they could have been brandishing bayonets. It was brilliant: selling peace by giving it the trappings of war, as if, properly packaged, peace might make your blood race too. It showed a feeling for the seductiveness of violence, a realization that things are so much more complicated and difficult than they seem. It also showed a brutal realism that's probably the key to their success in these times.
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|Title Annotation:||popularity of Irish rock band U2|
|Date:||Feb 2, 1985|
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