Meditations on a U2 B-side

Notes on The Formula and a glorious b-side from The Unforgettable Fire period, with additional commentary on Success and always trusting your bass player.

What privilege, what artistic prestige, to be able to make the music one wants ― the only music one can ― and be wildly successful. And what an abused banality that is ― surely all musicians get to indulge their creativity and vision? I think your average session or pub musician is hemmed in by demand and directive, play this or do that set of covers; and when your income depends on it, you accede. But when your income is stratospheric, like the established and world-dominating behemoth of U2, you get to indulge your creative (and pretty much any other) urge quite a bit. Which is not to say that U2 are pushing the creative flight envelope so much any more ― the last few albums were pretty standard-mould U2. They’re just trying to stay relevant, and engaged; which, beyond talent, is the harder thing.

Success is the ultimate provider of options and also the ultimate limiter ― after the collaborative experiment of Passengers and Pop, U2 reined it in and re-explored their sound-formula on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Record executives want consistently growing sales, not dicey experiments that indulge whims and egos ― that is what The Formula is for ultimately. Write the hits, do that emotive-anthem thing, undertake huge intercontinental tours and keep Larry happy. But in all honesty, if U2 wanted to noodle around in the studio for a couple of years, say, like Radiohead, and be totally, crazily creative, then the privilege of success would allow them that, and fans would still keep buying. In fact, I would love it if they did just that.

But we’re talking about success on a scale so far removed from the average band tooling around in pubs that it seems abstract, stellar and absurd, like all superstardom ― and all it enables, from political face-time to jumping into any studio and working with the best people, on demand, with limos and everything on the grand scale. Success, of course, inspires major jealousy as well ― I secretly think because it’s the ultimate distraction ― and maybe that is why celebritism glows so brightly for us consumers and wanna-bes ― we lose sight of its profound ambivalence.

You can tally the factors that make up the U2 Success Formula; the band’s transparency and unforced design at least temper the illusory attraction of fame and fortune, making it seem possible and realisable within the ordinary ― and yet also slightly undesirable. Have big drive, energetic delivery in the live context, a certain hunger and keep your eyes on the big arena prize. Make canny decisions about who to work with. Work hard. Have faith in the strong chorus and hook-based melodic line. A winning Formula is half the fight for those with the public nerve and taste for fancy clothes. It can be done; it can be real; it could be yours. Just don’t let it destroy you.

But I wanted to talk specifically about The Unforgettable Fire period of 1984, when U2 made a concerted push to work with Brian Eno, and made the album that solidified the mature U2 sound and band-concept we know today, and thereby also set up the partnership (with Lanois) behind The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and beyond. It was the time when U2 really put their finger on the pop album format; of discovering a place for poetry in personal lyrics, and huge drum sounds and castle acoustics and getting into sonics and sequencers and spatial washes and reverb ― that is, going to the one-man art school of Brian. The period also produced some remarkable b-sides which have been available previously but really shine in full package glory with The Unforgettable Fire reissue. I’ll come back to that after some preliminaries.

Musical success in the pop format is determined primarily by song values. Theme and lyrics aside, there must be a catchy or cohesive, naturally appealing chorus ― melodically clear and sounding as though it had always been part of the musical ether. And on raw song values, U2 are pretty handy with the hook and emotive build-up and sing-along chorus which mark most hits. But they’re also special masters of the wide-scope Anthemic Song ― a song whose bigness presumes a stadium full of responsive fans. Anthemic is a big factor in the U2 Formula ― it would be impossible to prove objectively (as future-forecaster) but easy to recognise that in retrospect, big-scale success was coded into the U2-potential by sheer reach and propensity for their big sound and delivery. Crucially, they had achieved this talent for bigness very early in the game ― no doubt from live work, in such a way that the songs all sounded like band songs rather than songs-by-numbers (like covers), nor like obvious verse/chorus mechanics with wailing shouts at bigness. Don’t mind the wailing and introspective lyrics of Boy ― the band, right down to Adam’s driving rock groove were all keyed to the widest possible scope and venue for the songs from the start. The nascent DNA-instinct for stadium anthems will eventually fill the stadiums ― a note for songwriters.

The second major strength of U2s success Formula lies in being a strong live band. Long touring, crowd involvement (U2 fans are a different breed), impassioned performance {or over-emoting}, great sound engineering and a unique intensity that comes from enjoyment all make for a great show. Plus the fact that they never stray far from their old hits in promoting the new album; they play to the fans. Sure The Bono now uses gigs as a vehicle for political activist-rhetoric; sure the show went overboard with visual commercialism and PoMo jokes on the Pop Mart tour; sure the band courted derision for their Americana with Rattle and Hum; and sure The Bono seemed like a mulleted tosser during Under a Blood Red Sky ― but there will always be a peculiar intensity and frisson to the U2 show which I’d be personally inclined to attribute to their great live sound, projected with oomph to every seat in the house. As a 15 year old at my first major gig, I remember being floored by the solid and robust bass presence of the mix ― my first taste of The Big Sound. All respect is due to sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy for keeping the focus right. Of course, at this level of success you can afford the best engineers and serious wattage and kick-ass PAs and lighting and the trucks to ship them, but the band’s performance and songs always carry well in the live context ― I think they’re one of the best bands at tuning performance and wattage to their needs.

My third card on the U2 Formula (as formula for band success loosely transliterable for most wanna-be big-ass bands dazzled by fame) is the sound itself. Sonics equate with a band’s signature, for want of clichés. U2s is an easily identifiable sound, and importantly, it’s successfully consistent while still allowing for major sonic experimentation. It’s succinct and sufficient and yet unique. Edge has his delay and echo-driven technique (worth a whole essay in itself), Adam has vintage rock fullness and a gentlemanly musical disposition (that is, great feel in playing for the song), and Larry has a strong right foot and pure rock professionalism. He can be identified by his floor-tom fills alone. There’s no bollocky solos or noodling indulgence ― all have great interplay in service to the vehicle of the whole.

Now, before, when  I said widescreen sound ― I refer to another U2 particularity in the way each player fills the sound spectrum. Edge has a large share of the top range, Adam comfortably fills the bottom end, and The Bono further fills in the middle to high range. Unlike R&B which is mostly bottom-to-middle and isolated highs, and punk rock which is all hi-end scream and distortion {I’m thinking of the hissing hash of a Ramones gig}, there is an integral sonic balance to the U2 sound. OK, so this is a generalisation that could apply to any band; but when reduced to the level of ensemble voicings, in their case it’s a peculiarly satisfying mix, aided and abetted of course by the aforementioned engineering and mixing.

My only bug with the sound, particularly in Edge’s corner, is that it’s a feel-driven sound dependent on effects, which ain’t always convincing if you’re familiar with the full scope of guitar tones and playing techniques. Someone steeped in Americana might miss the spirit of Rattle and Hum and only hear jangle-tangle guitars and 80s sound values. When the sound hits the spot though ― especially when it’s only a couple of chords or the most basic riff ― then it’s an amazing wide-screen sound. But still there are types like Henry Rollins who feel it’s more an impersonation of music ― which of course is an odd thing for the poet Hank to say at all. Impersonation married with conviction and strong delivery ceases to be that and becomes music itself. With a footnote: the goal of good music is to become pure feeling, pure conveyed emotion with the mechanics obscured; and in that sense U2 are well on the way. It’s just sometimes with Edge ― despite being an amazing player, his arpeggiated style becomes a bit too Edge-y… after say the 10th album.

Just one further point here: it is nonetheless Edge’s sound that established the band. Boy (and its college radio fave “I Will Follow”) would have been a thoroughly average, unnoticeable album if the guitars had a standard, straight-ahead New-Wave sound. It would have been just another new rock album. So, despite seeming like an ambivalent Edge-defence, I do believe that bands ― and guitarists especially ― are defined by their sound. A guitarist has to work much harder in the chops department to stand above his brethren ― his sound has to do a lot of the work to push him there. This has to do with gear choices just as much as the player’s hands ― anyone plugging a Les Paul into a Marshall stack will eventually sound like Slash. Jazz players as a group strive for a homogeneity of sound (and only the best play against this). But when you hear an Edge or a Claypool or a Hendrix ― you know it can only be that player. And so the purists with their mad chops and noodling fretboard skills will always deride the tingle-plink of Edge, but few of them will be so distinctive and unique or stand out anywhere near as bold when they play in a band ― purely on the sonic level. Even fewer will have the subtle ability to play in service to the song.

And but so eventually we must talk about the singer. I have an ambivalent respect for The Bono, in that his voice is a gift but his use of it sometimes galls me. He has amazing timbre and reach (listen to the range of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” ― how he pushes up against his personal ceiling) and occasionally acute heart and emotion (the keening “Mothers of the Disappeared”) but he also has the habit of going for the high and breathy notes just because (secretly, I think) he knows that’s what the girls go for. As code for emotion. Oh, that Bono is so dreamy etc etc. Listen to the late 80s work and there’s a steady stream of breathy indulgence on most of the notes ― something embarrassing to the masculine ear all right. Rock and Roll is more than just breathing into the mic. But then again, as with tenors, it seems the girls go for guys with high voices (think Jeff Buckley, Robert Plant {a special case, that one}, Prince and Michael Jackson. I’d like to pop the legendary Jimmy Scott on that list, but he embodies the feminine appeal of the castrato in a way that warrants a whole separate essaying). Still, it’s hard to deny the power of singing at the top of one’s range (item: Gospel), as in “I Still Haven’t Found” ― it smacks of earnest sincerity, the full tilt, soul and all that.

I’d like to make another sidelong clarification, because we’re brushing up against the big U2 Sincerity Thing: I am inclined to state that Art (especially where music’s concerned) is the convinced rendering of passion or strong emotions ― to a point where they can seem contradictory. But it’s the passion that counts. One can sing passionately about ironic alienation or uncertainty, or ecstatically of deep loss and blues, and at least convincingly about ambivalence and doubt. Passion works to deepen and humanise contradiction ― the heart is a contradictory shop after all. Creation can be an act of transformation, and when the original vibe or intent are harmonious with the feel and final effect of the song ― and its
listenability ― then passion will carry into conviction (of the kind that sells, and trumps Rollins). A listener, an established or becoming-fan, reacts intuitively, directly, to the passion or even positive pick-up or playful ambivalence of a song ― the interplay of vocal and musical lines, its emotive and catchy force, and the movement of the band ― that make the musical experience. A band can be forgiven much if its conviction carries everything higher. A note to performers.

So then, playing in the heart of contradiction gives a complexly humane flavour. That music can thrive on contradiction is something U2 have explored quite well, and yes, sincerely at that. The crux of the contradictory problem, amid all the PoMo media saturation in the 90s and ironic winks at success, came at moments like the Sarajevo link-up during the ZooTV tour ― a band playing at sincere irony was caught helpless when confronted with the reality of people suffering in a brutal war. That was a peculiarly contemporary kind of helplessness most of us couch potatoes shuffle from our attention, but which U2 bore nakedly, in full view. The point being that ultimately, you can’t project or render irony with passion and conviction without entering one of those paralysing spirals of self-referentiality and meaningless in-joking that are ultimately indefensible. And overbearing stage sets. Either be passionate, or be ironic. Or, to put it another way, every band eventually becomes like Spinal Tap in some way; the point is to be able to carry on beyond that, to balance the passion.

{I’d also like to make another side-note on the Americana theme, where The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were expressions of fandom and somewhat discovery (The Bono: “I guess I’ve always been a fan.”) ― I think there’s an angle that hasn’t really been considered much: namely, that the U2 sound is principally sui generis ― there were common points with post-Punk New Wave attitude and approach, but (mostly thanks to Edge) there was no singular precedent of influence for U2. They are one of the closest things to a rootless band in the sense of not being genre- or scene- or trend-typified ― they didn’t begin with blues licks or American singles but a sound. They’re stateless ― and yet typically Irish. It’s carving your own niche, it’s the freedom of hybridity and distinction ― it’s the near-polar opposite of someone like Dylan who wears his influences and root-genres openly. U2 are the triumph of the directive to new bands: to get yer own sound. So the Americana of Joshua and Rattle makes the Europop of the 90s seem more remarkable, being literal worlds apart ― with Ireland the bridge between new Europeanism and a deep unqualified love of America. The best place to be, it seems, is between cultures. This also allows you to explore deeper and wider into those cultures without overt ties or grounding allegiance. It allows a strange hybridity ― without alienation.}

{{Which is not to say, again, thanks to transparency and mediated scrutiny, that one cannot complete the biographical/typically-Irish picture of what constitutes their main, early motivations: two young lads who lost their mothers early; a gifted guitar experimentalist and driven bass player; the wide-eyed enthusiasm for a Rock and Roll world beyond poverty and economic depression and old-church restraint ― and yet flailingly Christian. The turbulence of the Troubles. There’s enough history and analysis in the iconography of the band ― the frequent presence of the Poolbeg Powerstacks in videos; reference to the seven towers of Ballymun and everyday poetry; the repeated urge to get out or get some form of salvation or soul, and the preservation of what could safely be called a Christian sense of conscience (or is that displaced guilt? It doesn’t matter). Religion and identification with place; white flags; and later, mediated hypersaturation, tactical musical retreat, political activism etc. Again, this might seem like praise, but they still seem like normal human beings underneath the faultless PR and posh-activism and fancy sunglasses and New York apartments and tax breaks and piles in the bank. {I have it on good authority that The Bono’s kids get hand-me-downs and attend reasonably normal schools. But you should see where he lives.} Also the Irish have a perfectly ambivalent love/hate relationship with The Bono ― a grudging pride and a personal Boner anecdote or joke ― but he is Irish through and through. Can hold his drink, speculates in property, and can charm his way out of any curly situation (yes, this is my inference, not experience). He’s the living, large embodiment of the Irish take on Celebrity ― which is again perfectly ambivalent.}}

So now, after the privilege of fully subverting themselves and wilfully using their success to re-establish their sound, the band have given themselves permission to make legitimately earnest (if somewhat formulaic) albums again. But again, in terms of transparency, U2 show how close contradiction and Tap-like hypocrisy lie below the surface of Success, in that they are conscious of its play in the net effect without ever quite seeming a band in the hands of the industry or their own bigness. This is something.

And hence the slight disappointment at the stripped-down conservative sound of the recent albums, dialling up original Formula without really getting wet feet. In AllMusic’s sum-up of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “They’ve overcorrected for their perceived sins [in the 90s], scaling back the sound so far that they have shed the murky sense of mystery that gave The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree an otherworldly allure.” Their sense of futurity and sonic experimentalism ― drawn from being sourceless and yet differentiated, has given way to straight-ahead, album-by-Formula sensibility. A circularity if you will, or a breather, or plain old conservative thinking common to all bands their age.

There’s a sense that the U2 sound is now a barrier ― a fulfilled limitation of what’s possible going forward. None of the band have session-player adaptability (maybe Larry?); they’re locked in dynamic interdependence as a unit ― which again is partly what makes them so good live and hard to imitate successfully. The danger of this limitation is to keep making albums in the familiar way, to stop making interesting sounds and experimentations and pushing that original singularity ― when I know they’ve got a killer late-night album in them, or more soundtrack work. Remember they also shine brightest with selective collaboration and stepping away from what came before. And I don’t necessarily mean a horn section. {If this all sounds like a fan’s tribulation and bickering, well that’s true. The Formula is intrinsically conservative, uninteresting ― it’s departing from it that makes for interesting music. Being a hybrid band, I’d expect more experiments in musical hybridity, in exotic and unusual choices.}

Anyway, the song I’ve been meaning to elaborate on is a b-side originally released on the 12″ of “The Unforgettable Fire” single, a simple dreamy song that actually goes quite against the whole Formula in its relaxed and comfortable groove; a track called “Love Comes Tumbling”. While not as powerful in terms of song dynamics as the other b-side, “The Three Sunrises”, and yet nowhere near as ambient as the Eno-esque “Bass Trap”, also on the 12 inch, there’s something about “Tumbling” that I come back to again and again after first hearing it on tape at a friend’s house in 1988. Having since picked up the bass and also figured out the ultra-simple guitar arpeggio, and actually bothered going online to confirm the lyrics, buried as they are in deep reverb (to my lazy ears), I’ve come to take this song to heart. It has one of the early pinnacles of Adam’s bass playing ― all warm and relaxed simplicity with graceful good feel and tone, plus a snapped three-note emphasis that really lifts the rhythm above the near machinic simplicity of the drum pattern.

One thing I’ve noticed is that Adam’s mix-presence gets pushed whenever the band do really relaxed songs; which of course is a good thing because he’s such a gentleman-musician {I can’t think to put it any other way: he’s a believer in serious bottom end; his tone is impeccable (cf Joshua/Hum for pure vintage Fenderbass tone); his lines are simple, but perfectly apposite in terms of song dynamics. He’s not one for show-off chops, but understands that bass is the foundation for everything else. The ultimate group player}. Everyone involved must have given their eardrums a good bashing during the recording of the Fire album, as the bright polished rooms of Slane Castle gave the drums a huge natural boom and reverb, but below the sonic trickery and atmospherics lay some very big earthy bass sounds. My favourite quote from the period comes from Lanois:

Most of the time we used no effects, just a big flat-out sound that was very obnoxious and loud. In fact, sometimes I’d solo the bass and think, ‘This can’t be, we can’t use this; it’s horrible, rumbly, filthy ― and upsetting!’ But then I’d get home and listen to the song, and it’d have something.

― which is not to say that “Tumbling” sounds huge, but gentle and floaty in a non-fruity way. It sounds like a rough four-track demo that got polished and buffed up; and yet it has a lyric that you’d want to give meaningful surroundings. It’s not an album filler and nowhere near a classically anthemic song; just a classy b-side. It shows how much mileage and emotional contour Edge can draw from a simple riff; it has a fair sense of internal space and mystery; and without a knowledge of U2 the song alone would imply future potential worth keeping an

eye on.

Seeing I’ve taken such length to get to this point, I think it helpful to print the lyrics in full:

Love don’t need to find a way
You find your own way
I forget that I can’t stay
And so I say that
All roads lead to where you are
All roads lead to where you are.

The seed is spilled, the bed defiled

For you, a virgin bride
Hide yourself in someone else
Don’t find yourself in me
I can’t lift you up again
Love comes tumbling down again.

Love don’t need to find a way
You find your own way
I forget that you can stay
And so I say that
All roads lead to where you are
All roads lead to where you are.

― how I love that repeated line, which I cannot source to anywhere but The Bono although I swear I’ve heard it expressed elsewhere (if differently) in an older, other text. It implies a different kind of circularity, a causal necessity. It’s an unfocused lyric ― and I’m not touching that pseudo-Catholic thing about spilled seed and virgin brides ― but laced with a faith in ultimate love preceded by classic ambivalence (compare “The Three Sunrises”: ‘Love won’t find, find its own way home’). It’s a curiosity of fated love or retrospective destination mixed with love’s cycle of closure and renewal. Or, perhaps I’m reading too much into lyrics that may have been built on scraps in the first place, from an album whose lack of focus The Bono later regretted, but whose blurry soundscapes and ambience were meant to be impressionistic at best. Whatever the intent, I draw a strange sense of completeness and resignation from that All Roads line. A composite of musical and lyric poetry.

{That a song lyric is poetic is incidental to its success ― no-one sets out to buy or download a single just because there’s poetic or complex ambivalence in it ― but it all helps in the net effect of the listening experience. Sonic experimentation and originality have twice the power if iced in colourful wordplay or revealing poeticisms, making it doubly memorable. Ambivalence or duality of meaning are likewise realer if wrapped in poetic terms. Although his recent lyrics sound more banal, The Bono has enough writing ability to offset the Anthemic with the Poetic ― a trend I think begun in earnest during The Unforgettable Fire ― and almost always delivers his lyrics with hearty (& breathy) conviction, and knew to push them deep into contradiction during the Achtung Baby period. Which album I deliberately want to interject with here because it brought out the impish/Irish self-deprecation deep within the Formula, the deliberate darkening and simultaneous teasing of all they were known for; their being (adopt comical Dublin accent) painfully, insofferably earnest. Which impishness is of course a band’s marketing privilege and shelf-life-reinvention-necessity. It keeps the interviews (and the lyrics) fresh.}

One thing I’ve noticed with The Bono’s lyrics and song themes, is that they are never purely literal, and their (occasional) poetry often obscures their source and intent. Take “With or Without You”. Sounds like it’s about the difficulty of relationships, no? Well, according to The Bono, it’s really a testament of his relationship with his muse, his writing/singing muse as opposed to his wife, and her visitations and needs. Or “Lemon”, an oblique seduction song (‘She had heaven, and she held on so tight’) which was actually inspired by some long-lost colour footage of his mother wearing a yellow dress. The lyric source is never unambiguous or directly literal, but the meaning comes from this in-between or oblique quality; as though to truly sing or represent something artistically, you can only do it indirectly or through tactically ambivalent feeling and observation. The join between the literal and the represented is wide and fuzzy and near to contradiction, and creatively so. Does this sound like a theoretic manifesto for Irish art & culture? Either way, I’m sure The Bono could write an interesting book about inspiration and the transformative, artistic process and the way a song looks at things. {And certainly, for writing about music, the ability to read and extrapolate obliquely, to infer with equal art and intensity,
is necessary.}

To bring it back to the music, this b-side, it’s also the way Adam holds the muscular melodic ground to Edge’s tonal colouring and Larry’s rock minimalism that I find so crafty, their innate unity of interplay a comfort that’s so far away from the Big Anthemic thing and yet so light and unforced and hinting at timelessness and exploration, in line with the lyric. It’s a palliative to depressive moods of the kind brought on by dissatisfied creation. It’s everything I would want from a band and hope to even begin approaching in potential, a model of being on the right path to good work.

But there you have it: a band with big scope on the verge of breakthrough; a singer with a growth of empathetic poetry and maybe the secret knowledge that any song can be rendered sufficiently rounded with lyrics about love (note the prevalent phrases: when love comes to town, love comes tumbling, the hands of love, love rescue me, love the sweetest thing, one love, soul love, love is blindness, the sheer face of love etc). Add two enabling collaborative producers, freeze frame on that glint of ambition in their eyes (as opposed to the later, bemused & dour look of cynicism in photo and video). For me, “Tumbling” is a signature U2 moment.

I could waffle on about how my impression of the band changed after living in Dublin for a couple of years (how the band’s iconography just clicks all of a sudden), or why it is U2 alone out of all bands that make me mordantly jealous of success and fame, or relate some Bono joke (St Peter: ‘Oh, that’s just God wearing his sunglasses, pretending to be Bono’), or why the anti-Revolution rant on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (on the Rattle and Hum film) was a brave thing and full of righteous anger, or their fancy tax break arrangements and real estate and what it must feel like to be in the most successful band etc etc. But this is an end.

This essay is also available in the collection Song Logic.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

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