12
Jul 10

U2 – “Desire”

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#616, 8th October 1988, video

“Music’s become too scientific, it’s lost that spunk and energy that it had in the ’50s and ’60s. When I listen to most modern records I hear a producer, I don’t hear musicians interacting. And that quality, that missing quality is something we were trying to get back into our own music. What I like about Desire is that if there’s ever been a cool #1 to have in the UK, that’s it because it’s totally not what people are listening to or what’s in the charts at the moment. Instead it’s going in exactly the opposite direction. It’s a rock and roll record – in no way is it a pop song.”
- The Edge, October 1988

So the lead single from the new album by the biggest rock band in the world sneaks to the top of the charts for a stray week – as the Edge’s comments suggest, rock and the singles market had essentially given up on each other long ago. But in one respect he’s quite right – reissues aside, you have to go back six years to find a song quite as firmly guitar-led as “Desire” at number one. And yes, it’s rather refreshing. Doesn’t hurt, either, that U2 are using the Bo Diddley beat, which is as near to a can’t-lose strategy as rock ever devised.

What I don’t hear in it, unfortunately, is much spunk or energy. “Musicians interacting” implies some kind of spark or spontaneity to me, a group playing off one another. But not this group: U2’s music has always been ball-tighteningly self-conscious, and the aggressive traditionalism of the Rattle And Hum period sees their self-awareness cripple them.

It ought to be so obvious it doesn’t need saying, but the 50s and 60s music U2 were reaching back to wasn’t itself reaching back to anything quite so consciously. This puts the revivalist rocker in a twisty situation, caught between the content they’re resurrecting and the gesture of resurrection itself. The content is old but spontaneous, the gesture new but calculating.

A favourite way to align content and gesture is to treat both as oppositional, a rejection of now. And so since 1967 at least there’s been an idea of rock music as something you retreat to – a purifying force, like a musical and spiritual detox. This rootsy, Edenic version of rock is something musicians often make a great show of rediscovering: U2 hardly the first and certainly not the last, though setting this spiritual rebirth out in the desert was a very Bono touch.

The Joshua Tree worked, though, because it mixed revivalist aspirations with more interesting musical choices, breaking its rock songs open and turning them into lattices of sound, Edge’s guitar criss-crossing and rippling across the tracks and forming the perfect structure to support Bono even at his most messianic. I can’t listen to all of it without wincing, but on its own terms that album is a success because it acknowledges and dramatises the revivalist gesture. It makes the band’s quest for Truth In Rock something emotionally real but just out of reach.

But it’s often the way with rock bands: they don’t get number one singles off their world-beating album, they get them from the first new material after that, often with painful consequences. Rattle And Hum is what happens when Bono finds what he’s looking for and spends a double album showing it off. It’s a series of proofs of the worth of roots music that ends up demonstrating how dusty and exhausting it can be.

“Desire” is far from its worst example, but even at three minutes it meanders. At the end Bono plays harmonica, because That’s What You Do In Rootsy Rock Records, and his jaunty little solo manages to dissipate most of the mood poor old The Edge has spent the song building. At the start Bono groans “Yeah….” as if rock itself has just sucked him off.

Get past that and there’s an effective, muscular rock number that doesn’t quite lift off. The lyrics are part of the problem: fevers getting higher, red guitars on fire, needles and spoons, bright lights, city streets and so on. It’s a concentrate of cliché which Bono dilutes with his customary passionate solidity, and I can’t help but feel a Springsteen (or a Bolan, or a Reid brother) would have used that concentrated quality and turned the song into something more like an incantation or a spell. In other words, contra The Edge, maybe Desire’s problem is that it’s not enough of a pop song.

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Comments

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  1. 126
    Billy Smart on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re: 126. Why, thank you very much, Ian. Almost! I am a Doctor of Television Studies, but my thesis is about old BBC versions of Ibsen and Brecht, so I sort of attain high cultural credibility…

  2. 127
    anto on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re 123: That’s it exactly.
    The last time I saw The Commitments on Channel 4 a few weeks ago I thought ” wern’t there an awful lot of wastelands in the city back then? ”
    Probably all apartment/office blocks now.

  3. 128
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jul 2010 #

    @126 Baal! Dr Billy Smart is responsible for Tin Machine

  4. 129
    thefatgit on 16 Jul 2010 #

    @123 I visited Dublin in 1986 with some mates for a weekend pub crawl (much Guinness consumed, very little food). Not knowing the city well, we would set out from our hotel in Ballsbridge, follow the Liffey into the City and branch out to find as many bars as possible. It was mid afternoon when we stumbled upon a run-down area, not far from the centre of Dublin, which could only be described as The Third World, with much deprivation and hardship. In amongst the piles of rubbish and abandoned shopfronts was a bar that could be mistaken for a public convenience. Feeling brave, we entered and ordered our pints. It smelled like a toilet inside, and the toilet…
    …but the Black Stuff was as sweet and creamy as any I had tasted that day with a friendly guy behind the bar and locals from a storybook. Marvellous. I had little or no idea how deprived the inner city was. Quite an eye-opener.

  5. 130
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jul 2010 #

    Dr. billy@126, congratulations… I (Dr Inhibitor?) attained my own high cultural credibility by doing something vaguely similar to Tom for the years 1830-1860… see Tom, you just needed to WAIT a few years…

  6. 131
    Tom on 19 Jul 2010 #

    Pah! My Doctorate is from the University Of No Life!

  7. 132
    Erithian on 19 Jul 2010 #

    #130 “Can’t believe you gave Mendelssohn a 7 when Schumann got an 8″ …

    “why Chopin had to happen” …

  8. 133

    Awopbopaloobopalopbamberlioz

  9. 134
    thefatgit on 19 Jul 2010 #

    #130…so you missed out on discussing Tchaikovsky’s “imperial phase”?

  10. 135
    swanstep on 19 Jul 2010 #

    @ace inhibitor, 130. And those years were when Bach’s modern reputation really emerged/locked into place, right? So a Tom-like review of the period would have to struggle with whether to curse this archaic stuff that’s clogging the charts (‘And after its 56th straight week in the top 10, the St Matthew’s Passion is back at #1 again this Xmas…’), or salute its radically mathematical techno polyphony for blitzing the emergent romantic squishes.

  11. 136

    hmph, no bach no chopin: JSB radically enabled the most interesting emergent romantic squish

  12. 137
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jul 2010 #

    I’ll take yr word for it swanstep…. I was too busy poptimistically rescuing the likes of ‘home sweet home’ from the dismissals of the historico-folkist puritans… or something. its been a while

  13. 138
    swanstep on 19 Jul 2010 #

    @lord sukrat, 136. Well, no bach, no beethoven either! I was just struck by ace inhib’s 1830-1860 period choice: post-Beethoven and probably the first generation where Bach’s really widely taught and canonized. The pressure from the past of music on the present is going to feel greater than ever at that point, and the stage is set for *big* arguments about who’s got the right approach to the mighty dead guys who now loom over everything.

    Thinking over my initial quip I guess the nostalgia-prone charts of the ‘late 1980s aren’t (even in jest) a good model for what must have been going on. I do love the idea of Bach’s dancey music emerging out of the past tho’ (things like the double violin concerto sound like I feel love or maybe the SOS band to me! ‘I don’t care about those woodwinds, just be good….’).

  14. 139
    swanstep on 20 Jul 2010 #

    Ahem, an arrangement of some Bach I did to bring out its beats is now up on youtube if anyone’s interested.

  15. 140
    thefatgit on 20 Jul 2010 #

    Swanstep…nice understated beats, but I found myself wanting to hear that meaty kickdrum sample more and more.

  16. 141
    wichita lineman on 20 Jul 2010 #

    Subtract the ‘arach’ from ‘Bacharach’ and you get this loveliness:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPD8C-4U9hw

  17. 142
    swanstep on 21 Jul 2010 #

    @thefatgit, 140. Thanks. I do hope eventually to figure out a version with kick drum all the way through and a proper, through bass-line. I tried a few things at the time (a year or two back) but nothing obvious worked at all well I found. I liked that Jem song ‘They’ a few years back (here’s its vid) – what happened to her? That’s a great pop use of some stonking Bach I reckon – harder to do than it perhaps looks!

  18. 143
    thefatgit on 23 Jul 2010 #

    Swanstep, it appears that this sort of thing crops up more often than I thought. “Saturn Strobe” by Pantha Du Prince is worth checking out. The source isn’t JSB, but you get the idea of what’s possible. I would provide a YouTube link, but unfortunately my work PC prevents me from doing so.

  19. 144
    Billy Smart on 7 Sep 2010 #

    NMEWatch. Jack Barron, 24 September 1988;

    “Because throwing words at U2 is akin to tossing corn into an idiot wind, the prevailing view amongst the ‘critic’ community, who’ve been rendered impotent by the band’s massive success, seems to be that Bono Vox deserves execution by guillotine: the only problem being that nobody can find a bucket big enough to fit his head.

    ‘Desire’, recorded in Dublin earlier this year, and a taster for the group’s forthcoming double album ‘Rattle And Hum’, needs explanation. Well, it’s startling. A return to basic roots rock after the eerie, panoramic soundscapes of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, and to a lesser extent, ‘The Joshua Tree’.

    Gone is the cathedral of riding textural space illuminated by The Edge’s pristine stained glass guitar and Bono’s fervent purity Vox. And gone too is the openly spiritual facet to be surplanted by what appears to be a fevered sensuality. On ‘Desire’ everything is sweat shrunk, the band’s stadium etheriality has been compacted down to club level.

    The musical construction of the song reflects this as it rolls on the overdeveloped bicep of Bo Diddley’s ‘Not Fade Away’ motif with Bono, all moans and groans, ripping the lyrics from his pelvis instead of the alter and The Edge blumting his strings with lacerated fingers.

    Retro in extreme, ‘Desire’ is U2 simulating hedonism and sleaze. Maybe that they’ve just learned that sex isn’t a four-letter word.”

    Barron awarded Single of the Week to Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Domino Dancing’. Also reviewed that week;

    Strictly Business – EPMD
    Stop This Crazy Thing – Coldcut featuring Junior Reid
    Freak Scene – Dinosaur Jr
    Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? – The Wedding Present
    The Killing Jar – Siouxsie & The Banshees
    A Little Respect – Erasure
    New Anger – Gary Numan

  20. 145
    Billy Smart on 28 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: Caren Myers, September 24 1988;

    “In which U2 rock on down. I don’t know if its cos I’ve been living on a raft in the middle of the Dead Sea, but I was under the misapprehension that U2 do not rock out, because on the 16th day God said: “Thou shalt not rock out unless thine hymn rises up in a massive anthemic swell of glorious flailing guitars”. This is a very trad rock number, with one of those heavy clap-along rhythms, a secular lust song with harmonica, but it stops well short of exciting. Maybe they should forsake all their worldly goods and go live in a garage.”

    Myers awarded no single of the week. Also reviewed that week;

    Siouxsie & The Banshees – The Killing Jar
    Dinosaur Jr – Freak Scene
    The Lilac Time – You’ve Got To Love
    Alexander O’Neal – Fake
    EPMD – Strictly Business
    Talk Talk – I Believe In You
    Erasure – A Little Respect
    Duran Duran – I Don’t Want Your Love
    The Wedding Present – Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?
    Whitney Houston – One Moment In Time

  21. 146
    Iron J on 4 Feb 2012 #

    “Desire” is a bulky, dust-encrusted “I Will Follow”

  22. 147
    windy j on 7 Sep 2013 #

    “It ought to be so obvious it doesn’t need saying, but the 50s and 60s music U2 were reaching back to wasn’t itself reaching back to anything quite so consciously. This puts the revivalist rocker in a twisty situation, caught between the content they’re resurrecting and the gesture of resurrection itself. The content is old but spontaneous, the gesture new but calculating.”

    Great point which cuts to the heart of another matter: the lack of convincingly funky drumming in the 90s/early 00s, by which I mean failed attempts to recreate traditional 60s/70s funk/r&b sound, the end result being a kind of characature of funk; funk with quotation marks (exagerrated swing, popping piccolo snares, etc) Nowadays there are plenty of “authentic” retro revivalists that pretty much nail the sound (sharon jones/daptone/soul fire) but instead of coming across as a characature, it’s more like an ultra high-definition rendering of classic retro stylings… Like the musical equivalent of the cgi in the Life of Pi film.

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