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“If people come along expecting the world from U2 then they’re gonna get it, I’m not afraid we won’t be able to give it to them.” Bono Vox 1981.
“What interests me are the three primary colours; bass, guitar and drums. The three sounds are basic enough to have unlimited resources.” Bono Vox 1982.
SOME THREE years ago ‘Boy’, U2’s debut album, was released and – pivoting on “the three primary colours”- it was and still stands as one of the most refreshing and strong-minded rock albums ever released. A voyage through adolescence to the threshold of manhood, ‘Boy’ moved from fear, remorse, and elation to realisation with a crisp agile music and spinning celestial spirit in its sense of wonder and joy of discovery.
With ‘Boy’, U2 moved out of the wide world beyond their native Dublin, determined to maintain their strong purpose and dignity within the hoary world of rock ’n’ roll but always holding belief in the power and potential of both rock music and its culture.
Having toured extensively and exhaustively they released ‘October’, their second album, but this time round they were firmly entrenched in the terrain ‘Boy’ had so successfully breezed over, embroidered and elevated. The rock beast was devouring their initial zest and individuality.
Perhaps saddest of all, Bono’s heartfelt Christianity, which for the first time came clearly to the fore, was transposed over a cumbersome, bloated rocky noise as a pointed but plain liturgy, lacking the sheer passion and exuberance of great pop music. Despite a few good moments, ‘October’ failed where ‘Boy’ had succeeded- unable to convey or sustain the intended mood of the album. From the spring and the hope of ‘Boy’ through the austere autumn of ‘October’ we come to the violent raging winter and the backdrop for ‘War’. The 11- year- old fresh faced, innocent kid from the debut album is again pictured on the cover but now his face has a distinct look of alarm. On the inside sleeve our four warriors wrap up against the frozen Scandinavian wastes. Although personal allegiances and commitments remain, ‘War’ depicts a world in conflict and disintegration.
Which is hardly news to anyone. The first thing that strikes about this record is that it’s constructed from the detached viewpoint of the cocooned rock band. Perhaps they really have just woken up to what’s going on; perhaps it is part of a contrived strategy to illustrate the growing awareness of four young men. Whatever, it doesn’t stop much of what is here from sounding like hapless, dated Clash style agit- pop.
The little drummer boy artillery lambast of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ opens; lyrically and musically it reminds me of a slightly superior Stiff Little Fingers, hardly what the world needs right now. The singing of Bono Vox is much better that Jake Burns, however; indeed his strong melodic voice is a rare quality in rock music and even when the songs and performances sink low (and they do sink very low in places), it still resounds- clear and graceful.
‘Seconds’ is the album’s oddest musical creation – the militaristic beat of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ played on a big booming bass line at half speed and overlaid with brash acoustic guitars, it sounds something like a remixed ‘Eve Of Destruction’. The subject matter is international terrorism – in or outside of government: “Held to ransom, hell to pay, /A revolution everyday/USSR, DDR, London, Peking/ It’s the puppets/ it’s the puppets who pull the strings.”
The second salient factor about ‘War’ is that it over-reaches itself. I think of the great personal fury of songs like ‘Out Of Control’ and ‘I Will Follow’ and the line in ‘Rejoice’ – “I cant change the world/ But I can change the world in me” and wonder exactly what they hope to have achieved with this literal but sincere sloganeering. Looks like just another fly poster on the wall.
Where ‘Boy’ floated and stung ‘War’ is hog-tied and ham-fisted; where ‘Boy’ propelled lucid pellets of fire and imagination ‘War’ cranks out blank liberal awareness.
After the outstanding ‘New Year’s Day’- which as Barney Hoskyns noted in his singles review is their finest single since ‘I Will Follow’- the album declines quite dramatically. Using tribal wars in youth culture as an apology to wars between nations, ‘Like A Song’ underlines again how they invest and expect too much from ‘rock culture’: “And we love to wear a badge, a uniform/And we love to fly a flag/ But I wont let others live in hell…/And we fight amongst ourselves/ Too set in our way to rearrange.”
Who, forgodsake, gives a damn? Rock music as a naïve communal ‘we can change the world’ pursuit went rigor mortis when the Stones played Altamont and the three Js (Janis, Jimi and Jim) topped themselves. If it’s to be stirred to life again, it will be through spontaneous action- not calculated manifestoes from the soap box.
The messy punky scatter life of ‘Like a Song’ redolent of their most overwrought live work fades into side two where the art of lyrical shadow boxing meets musical disintegration and the result is dreadful. ‘The Refugee’ is a hapless gung- ho approximation of ‘funk’ rock with its ridiculous “Whoooah- ooooh- she’s a refugee” chorus hardly befitting the subject matter. The rest of the side is a voyage through slashing, blaring rock histrionics- ‘Red Light’ is a sweaty, grinding laborious navvy rock work- out and ‘Surrender’, with its “the city is a mean and cruel place” lyrics sounds particularly hackneyed.
‘War’ sticks basically to the primary colours (although there are occasional embellishments from trumpet and violin). Consider then a record that attempted the same theme as ‘War’ a start of the decade, state of the earth concert- Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. It had to use a maze of strings, woodwind and horns to generate its daunting, haunting mood. One wonders if the basic rock format is equipped to deal with such a task.
The closing ‘40’ relieves the frontal assault with the most overtly spiritual song on the record. I have a lot of personal sympathy with Bono’s beliefs but I don’t think he’s ever put them across strongly or provocatively enough, and ‘40’, rendered as a summer seminar round the campfire acoustic song of praise, is another disappointing failure.
I could never underestimate U2’s concern or their sincerity but for me the uplifting passions and preoccupations that grasped the imagination on ‘Boy’ are buried too deeply in the density and overdrive of ‘War’ to have any effect. For everything the LP tries to express I can pick out music from Van, Otis, Aretha; or even for a sound that really rises like the howling seas and erupts like a volcano any of Phil Spector’s mini- orchestral epics is far more effective than the corrosive brutal dynamics of this rock music.
In spite of itself ‘War’ is another example of rock music’s impotence and decay.
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