Even in those tight leather trousers, he’d been up and down a gazillion stage lighting rigs, flying flags for Irish peace to mid-western Americans who couldn’t care less. He’d pulled embarrassed girls from the front rows of tiered arenas from Tampa to Tokyo for a less-than spontaneous cringing waltz while the rest of the band cut loose around him. He’d grown his hair, pulled the mullet into a pony tail and plonked a ten gallon Diddy hat on top of it, just because he could. In photos, on stage and seemingly everywhere else, he’d started wearing loosely buttoned waistcoats while forgetting to stick a shirt on underneath. Bare-chested and barefaced, he was Bono and he could do whatever the heck he liked.
In the period after the globe-straddling Joshua Tree tour, U2 could have rested a few months…a year…a couple perhaps…retired, even, and no-one would’ve complained. They were omnipresent, their serious, monochromed faces peeking out from below their wide-brimmed thinning-hair hiders with knowing looks that said, “We are Kings and don’t we know it!“
The Joshua Tree was, to date, their peak, at least commercially if not critically. Material from those early chest-beaters Boy and War still featured strongly in their live set. The pinging ambience of the Eno-produced Unforgettable Fire was a chin-strokers’ favourite. But The Joshua Tree and its widescreen grandeur found favour with half the actual planet.
What came next was not a rest or a reboot (that came a year or two later) but Rattle And Hum, a self-indulgent movie ‘n album spectacular that jigsawed together the vibe of the Joshua Tree tour with material written in hotel rooms, soundchecks and studios in the cities where U2 happened to be playing. Although it has less of a stinky whiff about it nowadays, at the time of release Rattle & Hum was given a critical kicking.
“By almost any rock & roll fan’s standards, U2’s Rattle and Hum is an awful record,” wrote Tom Carson in The Village Voice.
“This is a mess with a mission,” wrote David Fricke in Rolling Stone. “But a mess nevertheless.”
It wasn’t so much the songs – Desire‘s tubthumping three chords and the truth swirl became the band’s first UK number 1. Album closer All I Want Is You is a classic, whichever way you choose to look at it – yer actual Van Dyke Parks did that beautifully weird and slow-burning string arrangement ferchristsake! And any album that includes Angel Of Harlem (more of which later) can never be considered awful.
Some of it was pretty grim, all the same.
The band appropriated The Beatles’ Helter Skelter, “stealing it back from Charles Manson” as the frontman boldly claims, right before the band limp their way through the blandest of cover versions. If The Beatles’ original was Jaws, all sinister menace and bite, U2’s version is the totally pointless and flacid Jaws 4.
It wasn’t just the songs though, but the way the band presented themselves. With the benefit of hindsight, should you not have noticed at the time, it’s actually hilarious.
“Silver and Gold,” blabbed Bono, “came about after I’d spent an evening singing old blues songs around the piano with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger… I was completely uneducated and I decided after spending a night singing these old timeless delta blues songs, that as I couldn’t contribute one, I’d write one. I went away and wrote it, very quickly.“
“Did ye, aye?” as they might say round here.
“They say in the eighties that rock & roll is dead,” said the singer, before enlisting the help of BB King and his band for the sterile blues-by-numbers run-through of Love Comes To Town. “I don’t think it’s dead, but if it’s dying, it’s because groups like us aren’t taking enough risks.”
“Risky, is it?” as they might say round here.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” spouted a portentious Edge, “is actually a gospel song.”
“Is it, aye?” as they might say round here.
To prove the point, U2 rocked up in Harlem, soaked up the vibes in a dusty old church and, to the exquisite sounds of the Edge playing his Strat through his AC30, brought out a gospel choir who proceeded to blow a straining Bono right out of the holy water. Actually, Edge, you might’ve been right about that.
The band, well, mainly Bono – there’s a pattern emerging, eh? – quickly aligned themselves to the totem pole of music; The Beatles and Stones, blues and gospel, and by their very association attempted to weld themselves to the holy lineage. It’s that that got up folks’ noses.
At one point the Memphis-bound band found themselves in Sun Studios with an hour to kill and a killer song to cut. Recording live to tape they aimed to magnetise the magic of the ghosts of Sun Studios past – Elvis ‘n Carl ‘n Jerry Lee and what have ye – and ended up with a rattling, rolling upbeat classic.
U2 – Angel Of Harlem
Angel Of Harlem starts on a couple of big, syrupy-thick beginners’ guitar chords, with none of the ricocheting ech-ech-echo that defines most of the Edge’s sound, then hits a groove and runs with it.
“It was a cold and wet December day, when we touched the ground at JFK,” tells Bono, welcoming you, the listener, into his world.
“Snow was melting on the ground, on BLS I heard the sound of an angel.” He’s in the taxi – limo, probably – making his way into Manhattan, radio tuned to NYC’s WBLS station. Billie Holiday is singing. It’s a scene setter, that’s for sure
“New York like a Christmas tree, tonight this city belongs to me.” Slightly arrogant, aye, but then, it’s 1988. He’s everywhere, is Bono. The city and all its riches likely does belong to him. We can only imagine.
“Birdland on 53…John Coltrane, Love Supreme…Miles.” Jeez. Not content with The Beatles and the Stones and the blues and gospel conections, he’s now aligning himself with jazz. Here comes Billie Holiday too.
“Lady Day got diamond eyes, she sees the truth behind the lies. Angel.”
Forget the singer, man, the tune’s a cracker. The pistol crack punch of the snare drives it forward, Adam’s bass loose and funky. The Edge takes a back seat for once, allowing the Memphis Horns to shine gloriously in the gaps between the singing. The brass stabs and slurred trombone slides fill it all with a full-fat bluesy funk and when it slips into that stellar descending middle eight, you could be forgiven for thinking the whole thing has just eased itself off the grooves of an old Otis Redding session. It’s perfect.
It’s hard sometimes to see past the singer, I get that, but if you can make it that far, you’re rewarded with occasional bouts of greatness. Angel Of Harlem is one.