Saturday, June 25, 2011

U2: They May be Wankers, but they're OUR Wankers

U2 played Glastonbury last night, to two different controversies. The first being that because U2's tax affairs are now in the Netherlands, Bono is a "debt denier", not paying his fair whack. Given that he's not a British citizen, I'm not sure that its any of our business anyway (Irish Uncut rather than UK Uncut, if such a thing exists might have a view.) Bono, who lectures the world on debt, is being lectured himself. Fair enough. The second controversy is that they shouldn't be at Glastonbury - that they are an out-of-date rock behemoth.

Its mostly the second of these that has me writing a blog post. Its always seemed to be musically the most conservative of festivals (the main reason that I've only been the once.) The "ironic" Sunday night act (Tom Jones when I went in the mid-90s), a selection of big name headliners, hip indie bands relegated to 2nd, 3rd or 4th stage; and black music almost invisible (except when they make a big fuss that isn't - i.e. Jay Z), its amazing it still has any reputation for music at all. That is has, is because of that collective experience of 50,000 people in a field celebrated in Pulp's "Sorted for E's and Whizz", and, nowadays, supplemented by a healthy BBC audience. Glastonbury's headliners are big news. Yet whereas Coldplay, Radiohead and Primal Scream appear to be Glastonbury regulars, U2, like the Cure, (and Morrissey, who also appeared last night) come from an earlier era. The Glastonbury of the 80s was still a hippy leftover as much as a cultural icon. U2 are, as well, the "biggest rock band in the world" TM. The one thing that Glastonbury has never really done much of is basic, all out rock music. I'm wondering whether, in a world where the rock band has become an actual rather than metaphorical dinosaur, it was this as much as anything that caused my twitter stream to be full of anti-U2 ranting last night (even as they kept watching!)

I don't mind that at all, but culturally its fascinating. The anodyne reformed boyband Take That can wow millions with a spectacular show, below average songs, and an enormous sense of good will, despite never having, as far as I can recall, ever expressing an opinion about anything other than partying, having a good time and er... making shed loads of money, whilst U2 get pilloried. Somehow we still care about U2, and when we see and hear the unrepentant Bono in trademark shades and World of Leather 2-piece, his still taut band hanging behind him looking more like his roadies than his bandmates, we're angry about something inarticulate about ourselves. For if U2 are wankers, they are most definitely OUR wankers; that's those of us in our forties and early fifties.

I first heard U2 in the 5th year at school. I knew the name and had heard "I will follow" (that soulful/soulless early single) on Peel, whilst preferring the more adventurous music of the Cure, Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order. I don't think anyone had these overly serious, tune-light young men from Dublin as inheritors of the term "biggest band in the world." So whereas better frontmen died (Ian Curtis) or lost it (Ian McCullough) and better bands split (The Smiths, Bauhaus) or became irrelevant (The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs). U2, in 1983, were about to raise the bar. Their third album "War" impressed the knuckleheaded at my school. Anthems were probably going to go down well with a generation heading for the dole or the infantry (as happened in my school.) Amongst these guys, (and it was always guys at that point) U2 were second only to the mighty Alarm... "New Years Day" and "Sunday, Bloody, Sunday" though songs that I was tired of from the very first time I heard them, I now listen to with a certain wry nostalgia. "How long will we sing this song?" they asked rhetorically, perhaps knowing the answer was going to be "for a very long time." And, in the dire years of sixth form discos, towny nightclubs and even ironic student nights that followed over the next 3-4 years, the only rock records you'd often hear in the "student" section of a club night were "Pride (in the name of love)" and Simple Minds' "Don't you forget about me."

U2 spent a lot of time in the US, and the "Under a Bloody Sky" mini-album was a gateway drug to the band. I've never seen them, partly because they've always been massive. If The Smiths can rightly be called "our Beatles" then U2 are surely "our Rolling Stones". Yet if they never had that band's late 60s originality, and were always more in the pay of Christ than the Devil, they have tried to remain relevant in a way that Jagger and co. long gave up on. "The Joshua Tree", their 5th album, catapulted them to true greatness and it still seems a remarkable record, channelling their love of America and creating not just a spiritual record, but an enormous bestseller. It was the first album where U2 actually wrote songs, rather than sang statements. There are few covers of U2 songs from their previous 4 albums, their are endless versions of the songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" and "One" that followed.

U2, never my favourite band at school, were never my favourite band at college, and I only even heard "The Joshua Tree" because Richard from the hockey club used to play it incessantly. Over the long summer, I realised I was missing it, and bought the CD. And its been like that ever since, I'm an accidental U2 fan. Hearing a great track out of context ("Even Better than the Real Thing", "One", "The Fly", "Vertigo") and finding myself with another of their CDs, or, more recently picking up "The Unforgettable Fire" cheaply and wondering why I never bought it at the time? U2 are the rock band for people who don't much like rock bands. They've occasionally tried to be cerebral - the brilliant Eno/Berlin-inspired triple of "Achtung Baby", "Zooropa" and "Passengers: Original Soundtracks" - in a way that clearly inspired both Radiohead (in their leap sideways from "Ok Computer" to "Kid A") and Coldplay (in hiring Eno to revamp a tired brand after "X & Y") and even Oasis (the next rock band to make it big with non-rock fans, though only in Europe.)

I'm not sure that even rabid U2 fans (and I've never actually met one, though they probably exist)are full of joy at the news of a new album coming out; though there's always a track or two worth saving. When U2 are good, they are often very good. There's hardly a modern rock track this century as potent as "Vertigo" or a modern ballad as genuinely poignant as Bono's song to his dying father, "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own." The heart-on-sleeve passion that can seem embarassing occasionally gets smiled on by the rock and roll Gods.

In an age of spectacle performances - whether the bloated and tune-free Muse, the empty Lady Gaga, or the all-inclusive Take That - U2 have remained the spectacle-band to see, with their endless touring being frequently seen as the biggest, and biggest grossing tour on the planet. Yet, at Glastonbury last night, despite a phone call in to the International Space Station, the set was pared down. At the heart of it was a pretty simplistic rock and roll band. They were never the best, the most sophisticated, or the most original, but they often had the best songs, they've stayed together - the four of them - in a way that we'd all wished the Smiths or the Roses had done, and at the heart of it is the visceral simplicity that makes the best rock and roll the soundtrack to our lives. All those people watching on TV last night, and slagging off Bono and the band on Twitter, are actually doing so because U2 have always been there for us - a somewhat awkward soundtrack to our lives; coming to the fore in drunken dancefloor moments ("New Years Day") or at times of emotion in our life ("One"). I tend to play them at Christmas, something about their mix of melancholy and spirituality, or the snow in their videos.

When you have the mediocre sound du jour of Mumford and Sons (aka Brian and Micheal) "triumphing" earlier in the evening, Bono and band have something of the uncle at a wedding about them. Neither Lauren Laverne or Zane Lowe, usually so full of froth, knew what to say, this wasn't Tinchy Stryder after all. The Edge still plays guitar like he's just learnt his first riff, and thinks "this will do"; Bono still hasn't learnt to laugh at himself - at least not on stage - in the way that Morrissey, on earlier in the evening has done, but in 1985 Morrissey had a much better band - the last dozen years he's put up with a group of pub musicians. I found myself watching, but mostly listening last night. And lapping up the U2ness of it all, from the leather trousers, to the snippets of "Yellow" (surely U2 have never wrote a song as bad as that?) and "Jerusalem", to the phonecall (stolen from the band's iconic Zoo TV tours of the late 80s) to an astronaut on the International Space Station. There were plenty of things for non-U2 fans to turn over for, but the "oh my God" nature of the tweets increased as time went on. They've always been there in our lives, and they've never been hip, never been a cult band. They are U2. And so are we. They may be wankers, but they're OUR wankers.

1 comment:

David said...

Nailed in on the head. Couldn't be more correct if you tried.