Saturday, March 17, 2007

In honour of Ireland, let's talk about U2


Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Even though I haven't done my genealogy, from what I heard my grandfather say, we do trace our roots to Ireland. At least through the last name, CARROLL, which used to be the cooler sounding O'CARROLL. I've thought many times about adding the O back on.

Anyhow, in honour of this great day to focus on Ireland's interesting contribution to the world, I'd like to write about what I consider to be the greatest rock band in history. No, not the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones. I'm talking of course of U2. I know there are a few detractors out there, but let's face it...the Beatles started out as a boy band that went psychedelic and cool, changing the history of music, then broke up just when things were probably going to wane for them musically (though John Lennon probably recorded his best music post-Beatles).

Not so with U2. They are a band that still puts out great music 25 years after they formed. Not even the Rolling Stones could claim that (no one goes to a Rolling Stones concert to hear their new music). My first intro to U2 was before "The Joshua Tree" came out. One classmate liked them and we had disagreements over music. Of course, what did I know? My favorite band at the time was Huey Lewis and the News. Besides U2, the classmate liked INXS before they hit it big with "Need You Tonight." Go figure! When I heard "With or Without You", I loved the song. I also loved "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and "Where the Streets Have No Name." So, my classmate recorded a copy of "The Joshua Tree" for me. Though I liked those three songs and a couple others, I thought the cd was overrated. Everyone seemed to mention that album as one of the best they've heard, but I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. For me, my favourite album at that time was Whitney Houston's "Whitney" or Madonna's "True Blue".

In 1991, when "Achtung Baby" came out, I wasn't even interested. I don't know why. I suppose it's because they made a big deal about the fact that they had recorded the album in Berlin and I never was a fan of German culture. The reunified Germany actually scared me. I thought the euphoria over the fall of the Berlin Wall was over the top. Sure, it was a great moment in human history, but it also meant fears of a triumphant, unified Germany goosestepping its way back into power. And U2 seemed to be celebrating that.

In 1992, a friend of mine sent me a copy of "Achtung Baby" and insisted that I had to hear it. From first listen, I was hooked. It was so unlike the "Joshua Tree", with a new sound that I didn't expect from U2. I listened to that album nonstop for months. In 1993, I was still listening to "Achtung Baby" often (its a rare album in which I don't grow tired of listening to it after 6 months), and was shocked to find "Zooropa" was released. I heard nothing about any new album coming out, so I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't hesitate to buy it and I found that I liked it even more than "Achtung Baby." Some shipmates of mine lamented the fact that U2 seemed to moving further and further away from their "Joshua Tree" and earlier sound. But I loved their new style...the Fly wraparound sunglasses, the over-the-top concerts with old Trabants being used for spotlights, the Mephistopheles character, and the phone calls from stage to various political leaders around the world. U2 was acting like the biggest rock band in the world, and they were. Man, I regret not seeing them in concert in 1992 like I could have.

Then came 1997's "Pop" disgrace. Only half the songs on that CD, I liked. The rest was throwaway stuff not worthy of inclusion on a U2 CD. I did like the siren sound on "Last Night on Earth." If they had more of that on there, it would have been a worthy follow-up to the one-two punch of "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa". But, by 2000, they brilliantly changed direction again, by stripping away the excess of their "Popmart" era of golden arches and disco balls, and focused again on powerful music with a message. Gone was the irony, in was the social consciousness, best reflected in "Walk On", a tribute to one of my favourite political leaders on earth: Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1990 elections in Burma that was rescinded and of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. That song has an awesome melody as well as powerful lyrics, and seems to have been inspired by Suu Kyi's fearlessness in walking on when an armed military told her to stop in a famous 1988 demonstration. Instead of obeying, she walked on and wasn't gunned down. She dared to disobey and became a leader.

"All That You Can't Leave Behind" quickly became one of my three favourite CDs of all time. It was perfect from opening song to closing one. I loved their lead single "Beautiful Day" which was followed by an even more powerful "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." Song after song, they take you on a journey, and after the 9/11 tragedy a year later, the CD seemed to take on new relevance, particularly their moving tribute to what many consider to be the world's most exciting city: "New York." I especially love their line in that song: "In New York freedom looks like too many choices..."

Though the follow-up "How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" doesn't come close to the brilliance of "All That You Can't Leave Behind", it's still a great CD by any standards, with another group of songs with cool melodies and lyrics.

But, the biggest reason why I think U2 will ultimately be considered the world's greatest band is not only because of their ability to continue to make great music, but also for Bono's personal mission to bring the world's attention to the increasing desperate situation in the developing world: that of extreme poverty, disease, and astronomical debt to the financiers of the developed world. Instead of merely indulging in the ego gratifying world where there are plenty of sycophants and fans who want his baby, Bono is trying to do something to improve the lives of the desperate poor. Though some might be cynical about his politicking, I think what he's doing is better than doing nothing. Like Bill Gates, Bono has been financially blessed well beyond what any person needs in a lifetime, so why not contribute back some to those who really need it? Has any of the Rolling Stones ever done that? It sounds like they are still partying like its 1969, what with the girls, the drugs, and the rock-n-roll.

So, for a tiny country with a population less than New York City's population, and a country oppressed for years by the British Empire, Ireland has had a significant impact on the world in music and culture. It's time we celebrate that, and for one day at least, we can all pretend to be Irish...and listen to some good music, celtic-flavoured or not. Here's to Ireland and it's greatest contribution to human history thus far: U2!

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