The Killers have been around for 17 years in multiple forms, always headed by singer Brandon Flowers, but their sound has morphed many times along the way from the bouncy, 1980’s New Wave-revival sound of “Mr. Brightside” to their latest driving hit, “The Man.”
“Mr. Brightside” was all about the angst and agony of a jealous guy imagining his ex with her new lover, lightly papered over with assurances that he’s doing “just fine” followed by admissions that “it’s killing me.” It’s all set to a poppy beat overlaid with shimmering guitar. The song’s video featured the then-young, fresh, innocent-looking Flowers contrasted with a louche, dissipated character played by sleazily handsome actor Eric Roberts (Julia’s elder brother). As the Boston Globe’s Franklin Soults puts it, “Mr. Brightside” is “a song about destructive jealousy so uplifting it [makes] the pursuit of contradiction feel like a life calling.”
All these years later, “The Man” features a taut, lean-faced Flowers playing a strutting, macho Las Vegas performer in Rhinestone Cowboy garb assuring us lyrically that he’s “first in command.” He tells us, “I got skin in the game / I got a household name / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.” With a dark bass line and insistent drum driving his message forward, and supported by disco-era synth and backup singers, the sound of “The Man” is pure cockiness. When set to the brilliant video, however, the story of The Man in question follows another path altogether. It’s a very satisfying display of hubris with all the trappings of success on view, then falling away in under five minutes, a miniature movie that even ends with a film credit screen.
Flowers says “The Man” was inspired by an honest look back at The Killers’ arrogance during their “Mr. Brightside” years. Last summer he said that he regrets the negativity and arrogance he displayed to the public when the band first started out. “Around about the time that The Killers started I guess—that’s where ‘The Man’ harkens back to, and years after as well,” Flowers told NME. “I can live with it, you know. It was nice to sort of go in and inhabit that character, and that figure, and that version of myself for much longer. … I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.” The mild, articulate affability of the man in this CBC interview is a pleasant contrast to the entitled, arrogant picture of a youthful Flowers that he paints of himself.
The version of Flowers on offer at The Killers’ concert at Boston’s TD Garden this week was that of a consummate showman, joyfully, confidently swaggering at the helm of a tight band moving smoothly through a perfectly timed set. The arena rock show had the busy laser displays, giant video screens, smoke and bright visual extravagance one expects. But Flowers, slight, a little stiff but poised and dramatic in his spangly western-cut suits, exuded command, control and pleasure. His talent is such that he could have held the crowd comfortably in his hand with much less visual drama, but who am I to turn down an over-the-top feast for the eyes? And though early Killers hits like “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me” and “When You Were Young” have a Brit-pop feel far from Flowers’ Vegas roots, somehow seeing Flowers perform those songs in his crystal-covered, western-cut suits bopping purposefully around the stage still feels right.
Flowers was born in Las Vegas and has spent most of his life there, and the influence is evident in his Vegas showmanship, his dress and the tour’s set design. Interestingly, the other band members didn’t share in his aesthetic but wore the usual indie-band attire and haircuts, setting Flowers into more dramatic relief. While Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. are touring the world in support of their latest album, two of the band’s longtime members, guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer, are sitting out this tour. The recent addition of Ted Sablay on guitar and Jake Blanton for this road show made for a strong, cohesive sound, but the band’s emotional dynamics didn’t feel integrated. While the band played well and sounded tight, the event felt very much like The Brandon Flowers Show with little attention shown to other members of the band, as so often happens in bands with especially charismatic singers. The resulting event was highly entertaining but not very emotionally accessible, even though Flowers clearly reveled in the attention and gave his utmost. The Vegas-bright shine made for a fun spectacle appropriate for the giant venue, but a touch of intimacy wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.
The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.
All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heckcurrently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.
His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.
Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.
Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.
It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.
The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.
Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later see him barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.
I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.
While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.
The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.
This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.
David Fear ofRolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”
Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.
Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.
As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.
The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.
Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)
To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.
The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.
Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.
If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.
During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.
While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.
If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:
Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:
A lonely maiden from a hamlet small— A boy within a woeful city reared: They both at midnight left their port of call T’ward any destination volunteered.
Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!
Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—
The teenagers who formed U2 in 1976: Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Bono (then Paul Hewson), The Edge (then David Evans)
I’m rolling my eyes over the recent international Internet brouhaha over the free download of U2’s latest album “Songs of Innocence” to half a billion iPhone users. People are spewing such torrents of venomous virtual spittle in the direction of both U2 and Apple that one would think Apple had automatically deducted $100 from everyone’s iTunes account or forced a computer virus onto us all to destroy our iPhone software instead of providing millions with a musical gift created by one of the most popular musical groups on earth. I find this manufactured outrage ridiculous and feel embarrassment for the complainers. It’s like finding a magazine you didn’t order in your mailbox or a free box of cookies in your grocery bag—would you complain? Honestly, getting those free gifts would be worse—if you don’t want them, they waste resources, where as digital downloads need only be ignored or erased if they don’t strike your fancy: no calories, no wasted paper, just an intended treat that you can leave alone if it doesn’t bring you pleasure. In most cases, wouldn’t you be delighted to get a little something for nothing that you could sample and perhaps even enjoy?
The New Yorker’s Cartoon of the Day, September 16, 2014
Nobody would call this U2’s finest album, but it’s not a flaming pile of garbage, either, and critical response to the actual music is generally positive. It doesn’t have the urgency, intensity, pathos or power of their best work, but some of the songs (“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” “Raised by Wolves”) are catchy, pleasant enough and have some of the satisfying, pleasing style and characteristic sounds that have helped U2 sell over 150 million albums worldwide and won them 22 Grammy awards. Bono says they returned to the music of their youth for inspiration. “Songs of Innocence” is a nostalgic look back by the band toward their early years, and its title is an apt reference to a book by the great mystical Romantic poet and artist William Blake. “I found my voice through Joey Ramone,” Bono said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “because I wasn’t the obvious punk-rock singer, or even rock singer. I sang like a girl — which I’m into now, but when I was 17 or 18, I wasn’t sure. And I heard Joey Ramone, who sang like a girl, and that was my way in.”
Yet growing legions seem to be taking great delight in deriding the immensely popular band for, well, everything. But U2 has always had detractors who turned up their noses at their religious, political or social views; hate Bono’s glasses; find the band’s latest tunes derivative; mock Bono’s passionate squawks at the top of his register; find Bono’s warm baritone register pompous; make fun of the Edge’s hidden hairline; thought the band was too rebellious; think the band is too bourgeois; hate them for being too popular; hate them for not supporting the pet cause of the moment; hate them for supporting pet causes too loudly, et cetera, et cetera.
So why the anger at Apple over a surprise gift? Some complain that their privacy was invaded when Apple downloaded content to their phones. (Such silliness; you users agreed to downloads from Apple when you bought your coveted iPhones, and you each got a free present—poor you.) Others are angered because they think that giving away an album for free says somehow that music is worthless and undercuts the value of all downloaded music everywhere. But U2 was paid for their music, just directly by Apple instead of by iPhone owners. Apple and U2 certainly didn’t think the music was worthless—Tim Cook and U2 were proud and excited and felt that they were offering something of great value that would bring people joy. And people did check it out: 33 million users listened to the album in just the first six days after its release. Yet some complained that Apple chose to feature a 38-year-old band whose best years are likely behind them instead of giving a big boost to the career of a new group that hasn’t already earned over a billion dollars in sales of albums and concert tickets. (Pharrell Williams was mentioned in some quarters, but after writing and performing on “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky” and “Happy” among other big hits over the past 18 months, hasn’t Pharrell received plenty of attention on his own?) Apple was trying to share music by a band that already had a huge following, something that many people have shown a great interest in, a band with millions of fans who might otherwise have to shell out good money to buy their latest album, which would have sold respectably had it been sold on iTunes instead of given away. They specifically wanted to feature a really big band because it has a really big fan base, so more people would likely find it a gift of greater value. Furthermore, U2 has a long history of association with the iPod and iTunes. There was even a special U2 edition of the iPod sold in 2006. It seemed to Apple and U2 like a nice nod to their shared history. But thousands of iPhone owners are moaning as if Bono personally deleted Candy Crush Saga and all the contacts from their phones.
Most of the vituperation being shared online is aimed at the band itself, as if it had sent out boxes filled with live snakes instead of agreeing to share its music with vast numbers of listeners, something nearly every band in the world would have been happy to do if given the chance. Why be angry with a group of popular and talented musical artists for trying to widen their reach at no cost to fans or potential fans? The indignation and U2-hatred filling the ether over mass free distribution of art seems to me to be the folly of spoiled owners of luxury goods who are in a mad hurry to find something to rip apart.
To be fair to U2’s detractors, I haven’t owned a new U2 album since I was given “The Joshua Tree” in 1987. While that album was a massive hit, garnering accolades, rave reviews and endless awards, it was never very popular with me. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t have the driving, intense fire I had loved in their earlier albums, and from then onward I haven’t followed them very carefully, though their radio ubiquity has meant that I was familiar with all their big hits. I’ve liked most of them well enough. But they didn’t move me like the earlier albums did. By the time U2’s members became international superstars with “The Joshua Tree,” I had been a fan for a long time, listening frequently and with great pleasure to their album “Boy” from 1980 and “War” from 1983. I loved the raw, fresh intensity of their earliest albums, which sounded like no one else’s. Bono’s voice had an urgent power, a ringing, plaintive quality that forced you to listen to it and made you want to know the story behind each lyric. Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums had the precision of a military cadence at times mixed with stunning syncopation. The Edge played with shimmering waves of reverb, his mesmerizing six-note arpeggios washing over each other as they echoed, crashing into each other like waves. Adam Clayton‘s ominous bass lines on songs like “New Year’s Day” grounded all the tenor wailing, squealing guitar and rat-a-tat snare drums that floated above it.
U2’s 1983 album “War,” which features the protest song masterpiece “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
The group channelled the Angry Young Man energy that was washing over New Wave and Punk at the time via groups like The Ramones and The Clash and singer-songwriters Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, and they spun it in their own utterly distinctive way.
By far their greatest song to me, the one that breaks my heart, is “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The opening track from their 1983 album “War,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” began with a syncopated, militaristic drumbeat. To get this sound, drummer Larry Mullen did his drumwork at the base of a staircase to produce more natural reverberation in the stairwell. The driving, marching cadence was soon joined by The Edge’s strange banshee guitar howls and piercing electric violin by guest artist Steve Wickham. Then came the plaintive, questioning voice of young Paul Hewson, by then known as Bono Vox (“good voice”) and later just as Bono, asking, demanding, pleading for an end to the brutal violence and terrorist acts that were then tearing Ireland apart. The song was inspired by the sectarian and nationalist conflict based in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. Now often referred to as the Northern Ireland Conflict, The Troubles heated up and caused enormous enmity among various British, Northern Irish and Republic of Ireland factions from the late 1960s until the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998, and sporadic violence continued afterward despite the official end of the conflict. Terrorist bombings were all too common during this period, and the massive number of closed-circuit video cameras throughout London today are in part the legacy of British efforts to stamp out paramilitary terrorist attacks on London’s popular public gathering places by those who resented what they considered illegitimate rule by Britain over Northern Ireland. Brutality by government forces toward protesters inspired great hatred and many terrorist events and acts of resistance across ethnic, national and political lines. More than 3,600 people were killed during the conflict.
The U2 song is primarily a response to the “Bloody Sunday” incident in Derry, Northern Ireland (known to the British as Londonderry), in which British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders who protested imprisonment without trial. The band said that the song was in response to sectarian violence in general, and they were careful to emphasize that the song was not a rebel song, took no political stance and did not advocate for either side. U2 was anxious to discourage people from hardening their attitudes based on political lines. They hoped to remind people to consider the humanity of all involved and to put treasuring human life above treasuring political philosophy. In concert, Bono has often introduced the song by waving and planting a white flag, the symbol of an end to hostilities and violence. The song became one of their signature tunes, and is among their most beloved songs and most frequently performed concert tunes. Rolling Stone rates it 272nd on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
None of the tracks from “Songs of Innocence” is likely to make it onto anyone’s list of 500 greatest songs, but the album doesn’t need to be a milestone in music history to be a worthy effort. And while the members of U2 may be rich and famous and powerful enough to inspire resentment and jealousy from those less fortunate, they are still intensely competitive, creative, talented people whose hunger to perform and share their music has kept them touring and recording for nearly 40 years. They have worked hard and thrilled millions to earn their success; why denigrate them for wanting to continue to do what they love so much and have done so well? I don’t see Paul McCartney being thrown to the dogs for continuing to make albums full of pleasant but certainly not earth-shattering songs sung in a voice well past its prime; why can we not extend the same appreciation to a group of performers who are still creating lovely works that a huge percentage of the world’s population just received as free gifts and many will enjoy? Why not thank the gift horse that has provided us with beauty for all of these years instead of kicking it in the shins?