11. U2, Rattle and Hum
The swirling stars have barely settled into place above the snowy mountain peak in the Paramount logo before Bono announces, “This song…Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” In no time at all, U2 is positioned as saviors and protectors of no less a band than the Beatles, and by extension maybe all of music itself. They are collectively the Robin Hood of rock ‘n’ roll, bringing the purity of intent and message back to their chosen form of artistic expression, fighting the good fight against oppressive forces. Elsewhere on the double album soundtrack and companion piece to Rattle and Hum, they take aim at heartless capitalism, televangelists, South African apartheid, and acid rain. Indeed, the band is in such a fighting mood that they shape one whole song to be (most notably, anyway) an attack on Albert Goldman’s controversial biography of John Lennon, then so notorious that it was even fodder for Saturday Night Live. This is U2, then, at their most grandiose and righteous, puffed up by the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree and stretched to the length of a movie screen. It is also when U2 was still a damn good band. That makes all the difference.
Bono the social justice crusader may be in full evidence on Rattle and Hum, but the main thesis of the album is a celebration of the extended richness of American music traditions. Viewed less charitably, the album plays like U2’s inelegant attempt to wedge themselves in among the greats, exemplified by them covering Bob Dylan and writing near-pastiche songs suited for guest appearance by Dylan and B.B. King. They record in Memphis’s Sun Studios and invoke Billie Holiday. There’s undoubtedly earnestness to the spiritual quest to the soul of American music (if there’s one thing U2 is never lacking, it’s earnestness). There’s also a thick fog of beaming self-congratulation that sets the band continually stumbling on the not-so-fine line between tribute and appropriation. Their take on “All Along the Watchtower” is more indebted to the Jimi Hendrix version than the original, which would presumably be acknowledgement enough of the master guitarist for most. Including a snippet of one of Hendrix’s performances of “The Star Spangled Banner” as a separate track on the last side of Rattle and Hum does start to feel like a greedy snatch at transferred legend.
By any reasonable, evaluative measure the album Rattle and Hum is a mess. To a large degree that’s because the underlying purpose of the album is unclear. It’s sort of a soundtrack, but a huge number of songs in the movie don’t make their way to the record (I had a friend in college who had his own cassette-version of Rattle and Hum that he’d dubbed from a VHS copy of the film — it was far more satisfying of a listen). About half of it was brand new music, studio recordings presided over by Jimmy Iovine, who was easily the hottest producer at the time. There was enough freshly recorded material that it could reasonably be considered the proper follow-up to The Joshua Tree. But then the other half was largely live recordings, all captured during the tour that followed The Joshua Tree, as the band blew up to an astonishing degree. Further complicating matters, most of the new music seemed slightly out of step with what U2 had created previously. Lead single “Desire” was a big hit for the band (topped the Billboard Album Rock and Modern Rock charts and climbing all the way to #3 on the Hot 100), but it was decried by some of the faithful for its mild glammy, disco-ish underpinnings. This wasn’t what the band that made rock ‘n’ roll sound like a trip to church was supposed to sound like. Already well-trained in my first semester in college radio, I was quick to decry it as sell-out material, plenty pleased when its rapid ascension up the popular charts meant a red dot indicating “no play” was affixed next to it on our station’s copy (we had a strict policy against any track that has crossed into the Billboard Top 40, a prohibition that lasted at least two years). Now it’s one of my favorite U2 singles, invested with a liveliness and joy that’s missing from too much of the band’s work.
The messiness of Rattle and Hum is now one of the things I love best about the album. Listening back to it now, it truly seems like a release from a band that was knocked back on its heels, totally unprepared for the level of global fame they’d just achieved. A band that had previously been so prepared to make a high-impact statement with every last song now seemed to have a little bout with cottonmouth. To a degree, the album is the sound of a band trying to rediscover itself There was still an undeniable level of pretension there (seen most clearly in the film, filled with scenes of the band members visiting memorials and other quasi-sacred sites in somber black and white), but it is undercut by the freedom of exploration. Somewhere in the midst of the process that resulted in this album, U2’s ability to make any new music without extremely high, downright stultifying expectations was demolished as assuredly as if it had been hit straight on by a bulldozer. U2 had come a long way from a batch of Irish boys who ached to sound like Joy Division. They were now a global enterprise, suddenly so firmly established in pop culture that even their very best new songs flirted with self-parody. In that context, Rattle and Hum is the last gasp of the who they once were: a band that believed in the simplicity of three chords and the truth. I (and many, many others) take shots at U2 for their agonizing self-importance, but humility was no longer a viable option for them by the late nineteen-eighties. For better and worse, the overstatement of Rattle and Hum was their new default artistic route.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked