The Vinyl 100 #92: U2 – Rattle and Hum

With Father’s Day a week away (I actually thought it was today for some reason..) now is a good time to reminisce about the joys of being a young man who wasn’t old enough to drive but old enough to beg his father to take him to the record store (or as we called them back in the early 90’s, the CD store). With that said, lets continue on with the Vinyl 100 and discuss album #92 U2’s 1988 companion and somewhat of a soundtrack piece to their film “Rattle and Hum”.

In the summer of 1993 I was deep into my U2 obsession. Grunge was, for all accounts, at its height of popularity in America – and would burn out rather than fade away with the suicide of Kurt Cobain and a music industry that milked the Seattle grunge scene “teet” dry. West Coast and East Coast rap was taking off, and captured the fascination of both white and black America (Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggystyle) and bands like Guns N’ Roses were starting to lose their appeal to me, well, I will be honest I lost interest in GNR alone. U2 at the time seemed like a band that I could get into and take seriously and I did.

U2 themselves were deep into their “Euro/techno/Brian Eno” phase with the release of Zooropa in the summer of ’93, an album that bared no sonic similarity to anything they’ve released prior, or for that matter anything else released by American music acts 1993. I was in full on historian mode and backtracking through U2’s 80’s catalog as best I could with a limited allowance and free time. I was totally fascinated with the fact that at one time U2 were simply a group of four lads from Ireland championing “rock” and its saving graces for a majority of the 80’s. So, in the 90’s, when “rock” was back, so-to-speak, U2 consciously, if not wisely, produced music that was the opposite of anything guitar orientated. That fascinated me. The earliest memories I have of U2 were actually from 1988 as I recall my aunt had a cassette collection and somehow I ended up with her copy of U2’s Rattle and Hum.

I have vague memories of seeing U2 on television or in magazines during 1988 (I was 10 going on 11 and getting over my Beastie Boys/Run-D.M.C. phase), and after all they had just broken through with The Joshua Tree released in 1987 – so they were pretty much, as Time magazine called them “Rock’s Hottest Ticket.” and all over the place.. I just missed that media blitz. From what I do recall and I think being so young at the time in 1988 and as U2 were deep into their fascination with American “roots rock”,  I honestly thought that they were a throwback 60’s band.

I am not sure what U2 songs in 1988 I might have liked. I think I wore out the first half of that tape listening over-and-over again to their cover of The Beatles “Helter Skelter” by all means it wasn’t that great of a cover, Bono flubbed a few of the lyrics, and also it opens with one of the most poignant/cringe worthy statements from Bono (…”This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, we’re stealing it back…) that statement, along with others, might have annoyed Beatles fans and music critics alike. I also recall liking the live performance of “Pride (In The Name of Love)” as well because I was a sucker for those anthemic songs that U2 were so good at crafting.

In all fairness, U2 came from the late 70’s post punk new wave era of bands and music. Their contemporaries at the time were the likes of Joy Division, The Clash, and Echo and the Bunnymen. When Joy Division died along with Ian Curtis New Order was born. Where Echo and the Bunnymen were about go blow up, they did the opposite. The Clash suffered the same fate. Where others failed, U2 succeeded. U2’s debut in 1980 was of its time and does serve as one of the best debuts of a band who would go on to greater heights. There was a restless energy with that album that came from youth (the average age of the band at the time of its release was 20 years old) and it came from a band with equal or more parts of restlessness within them. U2 pushed hard, toured hard, and evolved in the 80’s. Their musical restlessness and “desire” to evolve resulted in hiring the services of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois which in turn lead to both producing 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire with its atmospheric and multi-layered textures of music it was a precursor of what was to come in 1987…

By 1987 U2 were to ascend from being just a great band to rock legends with The Joshua Tree. An album that couldn’t have been more perfect for the time (the Reagan era 1980s), and yet, so timeless as well. With 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire there was an unfocused waking from a dream quality and aspect to that album. With the Joshua Tree things came into focus and to quote In God’s Country “We need new dreams tonight.” because Reaganomics killed hopes. U2 tapped into imagery of deserts dry, love and loss, God, escapism, etc. U2 blew up. Still fresh off that album’s success and whirlwind nature of the business and being championed “band of the 80’s/the only band that matters” the public eye was on the band. So either wisely, or unwisely, they decided to document their 1987 Joshua Tree Tour. And that’s where things could have fallen apart.

 

Rattle and Hum the film and companion album/soundtrack documented aspects of that era perfectly, almost too perfectly, flaws included. Reviews weren’t particularity kind to the film:

If U2 have a flaw, they are, or at least Bono is, very self aware. While the 9 studio songs that make up the album are really good, and some of the live tracks that make up the album are really good as well, Rattle and Hum was bloated by idea and concept and execution. A tour video diary turned into a tour movie. A movie that required people paying admission and seeing in a theater. To further compound things a lot of the best tracks were left to the film only and not released on the album, which lead to the 16 year old version of myself to track down and also lead to a statement from my father that I can’t help but always think of as I am now approaching 37 years old.. it went something like this:

16 year old David: Hey dad, can you take me to the CD store?
David’s Dad, tired after working all day: Ughh maybe, what CD do you want?
16 year old David: Uhm, a U2 CD..
David’s Dad, now trying to be funny: U2? Me too!
16 year old David: Ugh, the CD I want is called Rattle and Hum..
David’s Dad, now going all out with comedy: You know, if you don’t get a good job when you get older you’re going to end up with a job you hate and a car that “rattles and hums..”

Yep. So, after that life affirming exchange, we ventured to the CD store. I picked up Rattle and Hum in CD format, which was $18 dollars in 1993 money, and also didn’t have the song I was hoping for (The awesome live version of Bad that is in the film) but it did provide some good listening. As great as U2 was in the early 90’s during their Zoo TV phase of being ironic and shunning their own 80’s image, I actually was enjoying and discovering their 80’s image and sound. I didn’t mind Bono’s save the world antics and the fact that Rattle and Hum was just U2 discovering bands that most Americans knew of (Dylan, Cash, BB King, etc) and deciding to film it. I had the film on VHS and played it a lot. After all, U2 were a good live band at least a great visual tour documentary was made. Even if it did capture some cringe worth moments, like the now famous line from Bono during the live performance of “Silver and Gold” that goes “Edge, play the blues!” and then Edge proceeds to not play anything remotely blues style on guitar.

A lot of older U2 fans collections end with Rattle and Hum, and understandably, I guess. By the 90’s U2 changed their sound and image, and did it effectively, thus saving themselves the dreaded fate of other 80’s contemporaries like INXS, who more-or-less remained 80’s bands in many people’s eyes. But, at the same time, their embracing of irony and rock & roll’s indulgences might have thrown off fans who loved the “heart on their sleeve, save the world”, version of U2. I guess my fandom happened at the right time, I liked and enjoyed the best of both decades. I eventually saw U2 live in 2009 during the “360” tour and was surprised at the diverse age groups that came out for that show, which was filmed at the Rose Bowl, so there were about 96,000 people there that day on a warm October afternoon and evening. There were young and old fans alike. I felt like both. But there in front of me, as I happened to get relatively close to the massive stage, were the four musicians that I was fascinated with, admired, studied, read about and worshiped during my adolescence. Their music I listened to through my formative years of young adulthood. Their music pretty much ingrained in my life now. I continue through life, through failures, triumphs, set backs, good and bad luck. I do need to have my car tuned up.. because, it does, kind of, “rattles and hums.”

Go back in time!

#93 Charlie Haden – Liberation Music Orchestra
#94 Tom Waits – Small Change
#95 Captain Beefheart and his Magic and – Trout Mask Replica
#96 Fugazi – In On The Kill Taker
#97 Agent Orange “When You Least Expect It…
#99 & #98 The Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill & Run-D.M.C. Raising Hell
#100 History: America’s Greatest Hits

 

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