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‘Day Release

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.

U2Angel 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.

 

 

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Is There A Time For East 17?

In football parlance, a passenger is someone who, for one reason or other, isn’t giving their all for the team. “See that Jones? Nothing but a passenger the day. He’d be better aff oan the bench so he would.” The way a bus carries its passengers to their destination, so a passenger’s 10 team mates will carry him through the game’s 90 minutes. A passenger is a shirker, half-arsed and unprepared to put in the hard graft to help the others shine. No one likes a passenger.

 

In the early 90s, U2 were spearheading a post-modern zeitgeist. Their most recent albums, Achtung Baby and Zooropa had been toured globally featuring all manner of interactive stuff – TV channels flickering through the static behind the drums, phone calls to world leaders live on stage, stage sets featuring eastern European cars, giant lemons and papier mache versions of the band that were even better than the real thing…. the sort of stuff that in more recent times acts such as Coldplay and Arcade Fire have developed for their own means and which is now the standard in arena-sized rock shows. The Glasgow Zoo TV confession box was a particular highlight, with one devious wee guy announcing to 50,000 of us that there was a party following the show at his pal’s flat in Shawlands. He gave out the address too. Anyway…

Those two albums. Eno worked his magic on them, weaving an underbelly of atmosphere, ambience, and abstract artiness that allowed the tunes to shine with just the right level of weirdy wonkiness. Effectively, he rescued U2 from disappearing up their own cowboy-hatted backsides, dragging them back from mass-market mid America to rebrand them as cool European soundscapers. While Achtung Baby is undoubtedly the better of the two albums, Zooropa has its merits. Not so much the ‘follow up’, the never-quite admitted to third in the trilogy, Passengers Volume 1 album.

Just like those half-arsed footballers, the Passengers album was let down by tunes bereft of ideas and suffered from being an exercise in indulgent steps too far. Following a shelved plan to record music for a low-key film by director Peter Greenaway, the concept was for U2 to write the themes for a dozen or so imaginary films – United Colours Of Plutonium, Ghost In The Shell, Always Forever Now, and so on – and to use the exercise as a way of expanding the work they’d been doing with Brian Eno. Nowt wrong with that of course, but the results proved to be less than essential listening. Indeed, such was Island Records bewilderment with the finished result, they suggested U2 released it under an assumed name. If the record company didn’t ‘get it’, it stood to reason the record-buying public, those same millions who’d bought the band’s last 2 albums, would also struggle with the music therein. The album was released with muted fanfare to general indifference and has since found its rightful place on the margins of the U2 catalogue.

However…

One track on the album stood out as a stone-cold classic.

PassengersMiss Sarajevo

 

Miss Sarajevo fades in on a bed of crackling vinyl and lush Edge guitar, all shimmering reverb and gentle delay. Its stoned beatbox groove allows a close-miked Bono to croon all manner of throw-away lines; Is there a time for keeping a distance? A time to turn your eyes away? Is there a time for kohl and lipstick? A time for cutting hair? Is there a time for first communion? A time for East 17? Here she comes…

It’s beautiful. Stupid and meaningless, but in the middle of an album hell-bent on self-indulgence and abstract expression, it hits you between the eyes like The Ramones gatecrashing the 70s. And just when it can’t be any better, the Edge greases his guitar upwards, Craig Armstrong’s string arrangement swells fit to burst and none other than Pavarotti pops up, bathed in pathos and regret and sounding like gentle thunder. Ah, you think, Bono’s voice was deliberately quiet so that when Luciano arrived on the scene you’d sit up and take notice. Clever that, both the production and the surprise of hearing Pavarotti blow Bono’s voice into the abyss with little more than a gentle sneeze. Incredible stuff.

If Miss Sarajevo were to soundtrack a film, it’d be for the slo-mo shoot-out scene in a Scorcese restaurant, where most of the main protagonists and a couple of unfortunate waiters meet their untimely and very bloody end as Pavarotti’s tremulous tenor washes over them. Think of this as you listen. It makes perfect sense.

Not surprisingly, U2 aren’t blind to the beauty of Miss Sarajevo, featuring it at least twice on subsequent Best Ofs, proving I suppose that a good track is a good track, no matter how it first makes itself known. “There’s a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence,” pointed out an insightful Larry Mullen a decade on from Passengers’ uneasy release. So said the drummer who didn’t get to play on the one stand-out track.

Cover Versions, Sampled

Mock Turtles

Incredibly, there are still people who obliviously walk this earth who’ve never heard the skewed majesty of De La Soul‘s debut album ‘3 Feet High And Rising‘. I was enthusing about its esoteric eclecticism to a DJ pal last night when he confessed he’d never actually heard it. What?!?! Maybe it’s an age thing – when De La Soul first broke he was a right old bastard at the tail end of his 20s, deaf from a decade and more of gigging, with a set of creaky knees and a mind unable to process any new sounds that strayed too far from the cosy ‘n comfortable traditional guitar/bass/drums set-up. “Rap with a silent C” was his presumption. He preferred Bryan Adams. It was his loss.

de-la-u2

But….but….you’d love it!” I told him. “It’s the ‘Sergeant Peppers’ of the eighties! They sample loads of stuff – aye, there’s James Brown grunts and drum beats and Blue Note jazz riffs and Parliament and Funkadelic horn parts and all that normal stuff, but they have no regard for hip-hop rules. They liberally pinch Steely Dan guitar riffs, vocal ad-libs from TV chat show hosts, Johnny Cash vocal refrains, The Monkees, Michael Jackson – (‘I wanna raack with you!’) – Liberace, Hall & Oates, the Steve Miller Band, Bo Diddley, The Average White Band…. you name them , they’re probably on there.” They probably are.

de-la-soul

Produced when sampling was still something of an unknown entity in recording law, De La Soul somehow managed to get away with releasing an album totally jigsawed together from the random parts of other, wildly varied records. It’s something of a psychedelic mongrel of a record, flower-power hip-hop, a gazillion light years away from the shouty, sweary undercurrent of violence thrown out by the guns ‘n poses posses. Not that there’s anything wrong with them – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is a terrifying document of mid 80s black America and I can imagine a whole generation of parents shouting at teenagers to ‘Turn that rubbish down!‘, but as a white man from the West of Scotland, I cannae really relate to the politics of it all. Give me my hip-hop gift-wrapped in a giant daisy any day of the week.

I love spotting the samples on ‘3 Feet High…’ and as my musical knowledge has grown in direct proportion to the size of my record collection, each play of it brings another familiar fleeting riff to the fore. I’d always liked the lopsided drunk string sweep, clipped guitar and keyboard stab that runs through the whole of Transmitting Live From Mars. Along with the strings, there’s some crackly breakbeats and a French language tape instructing us to ‘écoutez et répétez‘. Arch and knowing, it wouldn’t sound out of place on St Etienne‘s Foxbase Alpha.

De La SoulTransmitting Live From Mars

I had no idea what that string part was until almost a decade later, when the Lightning Seeds put out their version of The Turtles‘ ‘You Showed Me‘. A constant refrain, the strings were clearly the same strings that De La Soul built their track around. Cleverly, De La Soul slowed The Turtles single down from 45 to 33 rpm. This gave the sample that superb slurry drunk effect.

The Lightning SeedsYou Showed Me

You Showed Me was written in 1964 by Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn. It was recorded by The Byrds, considered for inclusion on their Mr Tambourine Man album and ultimately shelved before finding favour with The Turtles. It’s an epoch-defining, West Coast hippy-dippy saccharine-sweet love song.

The TurtlesYou Showed Me

turtles

The original Byrds’ version, fact fans, was recorded at a much higher tempo, but when the Turtles’ producer first played them the track, he did so on a broken harmonium. In order to explain the chord changes, he played it at a much slower pace and before they knew it, The Turtles’ collective lightbulbs glowed brightly and they had a hit on their hands.

That string part also makes an appearance on U2‘s ‘Pop‘ album. An extremely hit and miss affair (with more misses than hits) ‘Pop‘ has the distinction of being the lowest-selling U2 album of the modern era (just the million in the States and two million in Europe!) although you could argue that by giving albums away for free on iTunes, U2 have trumped themselves since.

u2-pop-2

Pop‘ is a strange album. Not quite the freeform experimentalism of the Zooropa era nor the songs-with-sheen of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it was made under the direction of Nellee Hooper, Howie B and Steve Osborne, producers more at home with a faceless dance act than a post-modern, mock-ironic rock band with an opinionated numpty out front. Due to a bad back, drummer Larry Mullen was out of action for much of the recording, so the band began experimenting with loops and samples.

The Playboy Mansion was one of the more cohesive moments on the album. A role-call of pop culture – If Coke Is A Mystery, Michael Jackson History…etc – it’s carried along on a pitter patter of processed beats, heavily synthesized Edge guitar….and that ubiquitous Turtles’ sample. It’s a cracker…

U2The Playboy Mansion

But what about the sample? Surely, in this day and age, the relevant musicians are given credit and maybe even cold hard cash for their efforts half a century ago? Well, De La Soul lost a court case a few years back over this very sample. The writers were awarded an undisclosed amount of money in back-dated royalties. The writers of course being McGuinn and Clark. But the string part – the signature riff, if you like – was played by someone else, an anonymous member of the Wrecking Crew very probably, working for a flat Musicians’ Union fee of $25 per day, as was the standard in those days. Pop music wasn’t meant to last. They took the money and ran. Whoever played that sweeping string part must surely be regretting that nowadays.