12
Jul 10

U2 – “Desire”

Popular155 comments • 7,191 views

#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. 1
    punctum on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Maintaining a pattern in the British singles chart depressing in its predictability, U2 achieved their extremely belated first number one single with possibly their worst single. The rolling disaster that was Rattle And Hum – not least for the integrity of the British music press, for which it was a death blow – need not be understated; aching to please their newly-won American audiences, U2 confessed to roots they never had, cantering like a monowheeled Model “T” Ford though interminable dirges like “When Love Comes To Town,” “Angel Of Harlem” and “Death Rescue Me” (or should that be “Love Rescue Me”? Still, Dylan’s performance suggests the former title to be far more apposite) and hamfisted live cuts, all designed to demonstrate their mulleted Authenticity.

    I would guess that “Desire” was supposed to be their “Get Back” switchback, clocking in as it does at 2:56, but it remains a turgid “Not Fade Away” retread with Bono initially sounding (check the “bright lights” and “red guitar” in the first verse, if these highly original images have not already put you off doing so) like Ian Astbury of the Cult. But whereas the intentionally hysterical likes of “Love Removal Machine” and “Li’l Devil” somehow (Rick Rubin) ingeniously managed to make the old rock live and breathe again, “Desire,” despite its attempted dub-like dropouts and topicality (“She’s the promise in the year of election”) halfway through, is so enthralled and suffocated by its perceived need to Honour and Respect its antecedents, down to Bono’s spectacularly inept harmonica playing for which I would not even give him an empty bottle of lighter fluid in Tottenham Court Road tube station, that it squats in the vivid fields of 1988 pop like a stuffed, staid reproduction antique, or an old wino who needs to be moved along before we all end up breathing the spirit of meths.

  2. 2
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 12 Jul 2010 #

    4:10 is actually what I gave Rattle and Hum in my review for NME, combined with an aggressively dismissive review they declined to print.* I was away the week of publication; they assigned the review to someone else, who gave it a kinder notice and a much better mark (8:10). I read this while abroad, handed in my (slightly theatrical) resignation** and never looked back. Obviously it gratified me over subsequent months to see record and tape exchange fill up with returned copies of R&H, which still has the capacity to annoy me (most of their records leave me unmoved either way; not this one).

    *Sadly I have no surviving copy of this review. I don’t now recall if it was well written or just a rant.
    **As a freelancer, this was in a sense meaningless.

  3. 3
    Tom on 12 Jul 2010 #

    OMG I’d forgotten “Angel Of Harlem” :(

  4. 4
    punctum on 12 Jul 2010 #

    In the Hit Singles Citing John Coltrane League “Angel Of Harlem” is as distant as possible a second to “Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3.”

  5. 5
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 12 Jul 2010 #

    haha i can feel myself getting riled up all over again — i shall let others comment before i return to the fray

  6. 6
    Kat but logged out innit on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Watching the video to this I am struck by how much Bono looks like Tommy Wiseau in his waistcoat and long flowing black locks…

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 12 Jul 2010 #

    i’m pretty sure that I bought ‘R &H’ on the strength of the positive NME review and having listened to it was bewildered why it got such a positive press. Subsequent revelations on these pages have shed some light on the whole murky business. ‘Desire’ is too mannered – and not in a good way. For all it’s attempts at energy it never takes you anywhere.

  8. 8
    TomLane on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I can’t claim to be the biggest U2 fan, but when their singles work, they work damn good, and this does just that. Not quite sure what Tom Ewing doesn’t hear as far as energy or spunk, I hear a lot of it wrapped indeed around the legend of Bo Diddley.
    Musically, it’s all over the place, and you wonder if it knows where it’s going. Sometimes Bono seems to be catching up to the band, probably the record’s one weakness, yet the way it moves to it’s finish makes up for it. Clocking in at just under 3 minutes this achieves what The Edge was talking about; it’s a good old homage to Rock ‘n’ Roll of the 50’s/60’s.
    A #3 in the U.S. and a solid 8 for me.

  9. 9
    Steve Mannion on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Having loathed The Joshua Tree singles this is the first instance I can recall of me doing at least a brief 180 turn on a band. Desire’s basic urgency and propulsive JANG felt suitably vivid and arresting and I’m not sure I’d heard anything much like it before at the time unless that Scotch VHS advert featuring a pastiche of ‘Not Fade Away’ was doing the rounds at this time (with the Stones themselves having continued to struggle thru the 80s until the Steel Wheels tour) – more authentic/centric blues-rock being too far from a chartscape bombarded by metalists (with Iron Maiden making their major shift to regular top 10 hitters this year). Wasn’t half as keen on the subsequent R&H singles but this is still a 6 for me.

  10. 10
    Tom on 12 Jul 2010 #

    R&H is like cartoon straw-man lazy definition “rockism” come to ACTUAL LIFE, I think the fact that even U2 realised it was a bad idea within a year or so suggests that it IS a bit of a straw man.

    Vacillated between a 4 and a 5 on this though, I had to check the last couple of years and realise I’d prefer to hear all the 5s I’d given before deciding.

    (Plenty to say about U2: The Irony Years too but there’s a good opportunity for that upcoming.)

  11. 11
    23 Daves on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I keep forgetting this single even existed, never mind got to number one. It’s surely one of the laziest sounding chart toppers ever, a completely lethargic dirge dressed up as “real rock and roll”. It’s almost as if they turned up to the studio and thought a half-hearted one-take rehearsal of a new song constituted rawness and authenticity, and was therefore worthy. Rather than sounding edgy and thrilling, it manages to give over the impression of “Will this do?” Bono even sounds as if he wrote the lyrics on the spot.

    Listening again, this almost sounds like B-side material by The Alarm rather than a proper, fully fledged single by one of the biggest rock bands of the late twentieth century. I can’t allow myself to give it any more than a 3.

  12. 12
    Alan Connor on 12 Jul 2010 #

    On the one hand, how disingenuous can an Edge be? But then, if you’d never heard Desire, and you read this description of a production-conscious band working on their “no production” production, it’d give you an honest and accurate description of the sound. 

    And oh, that lyric! The music teacher asking the Head Boy for something straightforward: “just some simple earthy images – it shouldn’t sound like it’s trying to Mean Something”.

    “Sorry, Sir – I guess I couldn’t help myself.” (secretly pleased)

    (Thinking of school because I went to see the film. A bunch of other boys were, on a Friday night. Throwing Polos at the screen might have been involved.)

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I had a lot of time for U2 in the 80’s. I saw them live, twice. I bought all the albums. And R&H was eagerly anticipated…

    …but what a let-down it turned out to be. “Desire” sums up for me, all that was wrong with U2’s obsessions with Rock & Roll and Americana. If you’re going to convince anyone that in walking the footsteps of Bo Diddley, (collaborator) BB King, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Bruce Springsteen et al, will allow all that “essence” to permeate your music and your songwriting, in order for you to deliver something you believe to be a bouillabase of Canon, Mr Bono, then at least try and convince us that it MATTERS!

    And that’s the biggest let-down. I never once believed that U2 believed that any of it mattered, unless it was money in the bank that mattered. I fell out of love with U2 at this point.

  14. 14
    MikeMCSG on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I remember Q giving Inxs’ 1992 LP “Welcome To Wherever You Are” a begrudged good review and saying “Inxs are hardly U2”.
    Maybe not but both of the latter’s first two number ones sound not unlike the Aussies.

    I have a problem with U2. I quite like them, have the first two LPs and two of the later ones but they’re so ludicrously over-praised it makes me feel like I hate them. I’d be interested to hear what the older posters here think of them as all the fiftysomething rock fans I know who were into Led Zep, Clapton etc think they’re rubbish, a mediocre New Wave Act (only one of whom can actually play) who got lucky.

  15. 15
    MBI on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I love U2 very much and think the score too harsh, but I took my first look at the Rattle and Hum documentary just last month and it is an unconscionably bad piece of filmmaking. If the director’s goal was to make Bono and co. look as ridiculous as possible, it’s a mammoth success. Otherwise it’s just unbearable — the scene where they intercut footage of MLK during a performance of “MLK” has to be seen to be believed.

  16. 16
    wichita lineman on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I don’t hear the ‘spunk’ of rock’n’roll present at all. Without getting bogged down in definitions, a bunch of r’n’r signifiers are present but the cliched lyrics are – in spite of what The Edge claims – all post 50s/60s. Even restricting ourselves to the r’n’r entries on Popular, all of them are an and/or combination of fun, witty, tongue in cheek, exuberant. Desire wouldn’t sound like much fun at all at a fairground, my favourite r’n’r yardstick. Stating the obvious, The Edge’s quote is nonsense anyway, as 50s rock’n’roll is surely as POP as anything before or since in the Top 20 era – Peter Blake, for one, would likely take issue.

    One collaborator lifted a Rattle & Hum track out of the mire of self-conscious trad rock tedium: All I Want Is You would be no more than a Springsteen-alike ballad without the woozy unsettling string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks – his first Top 10 hit since Heroes & Villains in ’67.

    I was intrigued that Tom regarded The Joshua Tree as ‘canon’ in a post a few months back – I was surprised that one U2 album stood out from their catalogue as canonical. Boy still sounds mysterious and exciting now, the only record of theirs I can go back to. Any other shouts for it?

  17. 17
    LondonLee on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I had a fair bit of time for U2 in the 80s too, at least early on. I saw them at the Hammersmith Palais in 1981 (with Altered Images and This Heat supporting!) and thought (still do) that they were about the best live rock band I’d ever seen. But God this was such utter rubbish, such a dreadful backward step into dinosaur rock that I couldn’t believe they were serious at first. Hard to imagine that their first single was produced by Martin Hannett.

  18. 18
    Conrad on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I don’t think words can adequately convey my loathing of approximately 98% of U2’s output. A couple of their disco pastiche singles are entertaining, but the rock U2 I find indescribably awful.

    The sound of the Edge’s guitar, his trademark delayed note sound, actually makes me slightly nauseous. It’s the most unsexy sound rock music has ever conceived.

    You know guys, rock music is about sex and swagger. It isn’t about some half arsed notion of ‘authenticity’. What bullshitters they are.

    This particular record – from it’s pick a cool sounding, rock title down – is laughably bad. beyond laughably bad. that they had the nerve to rope in a blues legend for another one of the singles from this ahem ‘project’ to add authenticity (that word again) just makes me want to vomit over Bono’s sunglasses.

    God, I’d rather go down the disco and boogie to Your Love is Like Bad Medicine, if I want to hear third hand Springsteen retreads.

    -1

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 12 Jul 2010 #

    “Boy” could possibly hold the balance between New Wave and New Pop. If you replaced Edge’s guitar with a synth on “Twilight”, you’re pretty close to The Associates.

  20. 20
    flahr on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Am quite probably missing a lot of context here, but rather like this one – the riff is suitably springy and the “desiiiiiire” at least reaches for the hedonistic sound I think it’s trying to convey. Agreed it would be better if it finished before the harmonica bit. 5, 6?

    EDIT: reaching for The Joshua Tree I recall that there was plenty of rootsy harmonica on “Trip Through Your Wires”. And of course we’ve just despatched a harmonica-drenched single too. I hope this isn’t an omen.

  21. 21
    Alfred on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Everything Tom wrote made sense, but not about this song — by some distance my favorite U2 song between 1985 and 1991. No higher than a 6 because it doesn’t go anywhere with that striking guitar sound, but Bono blusters convincingly.

    Ex-rock critic Neil Tennant:

    Rock critics liked RAH because they want a return to the traditional rock values. What they basically want is for it to be like 1969 again. It’s this thing where British — or in U2’s case Irish — groups discover the roots of American music. U2 have discovered this and they’re just doing pastiches (his voice rises) and it’s reviewed as a serious thing because `Dylan plays organ’ on some song and B.B. King plays on some throwaway pop song `When Love Comes To Town’ that could have been written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It could be in `Starlight Express’ if you ask me.

    The fact is that the PSB stand against all of this, so it’s quite right that people like that should slag us off. Because we hate everything that they are and stand for. We hate it because it’s stultifying, it says nothing, it is big and pompous and ugly. We hate it for exactly the same reasons Johnny Rotten said he hated dinosaur groups in 1976.

  22. 22
    Rory on 12 Jul 2010 #

    In mid-1988 I bought my first CD player and CDs, which made Rattle and Hum one of the first I ever owned. What great value it seemed, 72 minutes for a single album price… until I actually listened to it. Soon it became clear that the live material was inferior to that of Under a Blood Red Sky and half the studio tracks were also sub-par. For someone who still hadn’t completely warmed to The Joshua Tree, I was wondering if my teenage U2 fandom was nearing its end. Maybe Under a Blood Red Sky, Boy, and odds and sods from The Joshua Tree, War and The Unforgettable Fire were the full extent of it.

    I aired this ambivalence in my last issue as editor of our university student mag, giving it an all-too-predictable title (I Still Haven’t etc.) and describing U2 as “just not a band that I can devote myself to wholeheartedly” and the album itself as an “uncohesive jumble”. Out of its nine studio tracks, I spent most of the review talking about “God Part II”: the song chimed perfectly with my obsession that year with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and in hindsight showed the way forward for U2, its sound a stepping stone to Achtung Baby.

    Of all the reviews I wrote for the mag in 1986-88, this was the only one I felt worth posting to my site when I was first building it a decade ago; the only review that still sounded the right notes after a decade of 1990s alternative rock and Britpop (not to mention Achtung Baby). In 2000, I saw no reason to add a footnoted caveat to my 1988 opinion that “Desire” was “a brilliant song, punchy, catchy, and complete in under three minutes – the perfect single”; and in 2010, after a decade of so-so U2 albums, so-so Bono antics, and so, so many disparaging remarks about U2 in the comments threads of Popular… I still don’t.

    There’s something about the opening of “Desire” that gets me every time: the strummed announcement of the Edge’s jangling guitars, Bono’s “yeah”, and the establishment of the rhythm in that first 12 or 13 seconds are among my favourite rock-song openings. And to my mind, the rest of the song delivers: once it shows you what it’s got it doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, but it does the necessary and then it’s over, wham, bam, thank you ma’am. “Desire” is a red-light district of a song, a quick turn of tricks, for love or money, money, money. From a band that already had a reputation for preachiness and worthiness, it was an effective rebranding, even if the rest of Rattle and Hum failed to follow through. The follow-through had to wait.

    Reading some of the criticisms here, the attacks on its lyrics feel nit-picky: okay, there’s a cliche or two, but so what? Not every song has to be a sonnet. The point of “Desire” was surely never its lyrics but its mood. Its whole three minutes are effectively a vehicle for a single word, and it’s an effective word.

    But then, I feel I’ve been here before…

    After the November 1988 issue of our mag hit the refectory tables, I expected that would be that; this was before every student paper had a website where letters to the editor could turn into never-ending comments threads, and nobody bothered to write actual letters when there was no hope of publication before the summer break. But shortly afterwards I was surprised to find a letter slipped under the office door – three or four pages of hand-written analysis of my U2 review, taking issue with it. Or some of it. Actually, very little of it – the writer agreed with my overall view of the album, and agreed about most of its songs, but vehemently disagreed about two: “Heartland” and “God Part II”. The first I had dismissed as a sub-Unforgettable Fire warble, while my critic adored it; the second she didn’t rate at all, and figured I must be a “boring political-type person” to have admired it. Well, I was studying political science, so she might have had a point; but as I would have said if I’d had a chance to reply (she gave no return address), the lyrics weren’t the main attraction of “God Part II” for me, or the problem with “Heartland” come to that: it was their sound. Most of the time I don’t give a toss what Bono is singing; what makes (or breaks) his performances is how he sings it.

    Same with “Desire”. I was 20 in 1988, and Bo Diddley beats meant diddly to me, but I knew a solid foundation when I heard it, and I heard it here. Twenty-two years later, never having got around to exploring the Diddley back-catalogue, I still get what I need from those opening bars and this tight three minutes. Rattle and Hum would get a three or four from me at best, and few of its tracks would do much better, but “Desire” gets an 8.

  23. 23
    swanstep on 12 Jul 2010 #

    The main version of Desire strikes me as just OK, but I didn’t in fact hear that until much later (and I didn’t ever see Rattle and Hum) because the version everyone played in bars and in jukeboxes and on MTV was the Hollywood Mix, which I took to be a bit of a revleation actually. Plenty of people who hated U2 *loved* that track precisely because it didn’t sound much like U2 – it was not anthem-like at all and, yeah just felt v. fun and energetic – especially in the full 9 minute version which was the vid that MTV and bars with promotional copies played.

    The 5 minute version of the Hollywod mix is on youtube here, but not the nifty vid (which incorporated much of the main vid but had lots of additional great stock footage). As a recent emigre from Australia to the US landing right in the middle of the Reagan-passing-the-baton-to-Bush-1/Dukakis election and having to deal with the extremes of the US (and pre-internet the insularity of the US media meant when you moved there you really felt *inside* something and out of contact with the rest of the world), feeling alternately thrilled and menaced by all that, the remixed track (and the longer the better) captured all that pretty brilliantly as far as I was concerned. Just as with the Coldcut remix of Paid in Full, or the DNA remix of Tom’s Diner later, the remix of Desire is the real Desire in my view, and it’s an 8 at least. The main version is a kind of muted 5 by comparison.

    In hindsight, the main version of Desire feels backward-looking whereas the remix looks forwards to achtung/zooropa/production opened out/’ironic’ U2.

    @16, wichita. I still like Boy – An Cat Dubh/Into the heart and the first 20 seconds of I Will Follow still excite – but Joshua Tree is canon (for better or worse) in that it’s never gone away! A good chunk of music in the charts ever since has had that sound – if you don’t hear a new Josh Tree band in the charts for 6 months, just wait a month or two and, amazingly, as if some fundamental physical quantity is being conserved, one or more will be right along.

  24. 24
    Tom on 12 Jul 2010 #

    #16 Important point of order! I didn’t pick that canon list, it came from list aggregator site Acclaimed Music, I just took the top 40-50 of their Most Acclaimed Albums Ever, which goes up to something insane like #3000.

    My favourite U2 single is “The Unforgettable Fire”, and I wish it had been a #1 as it would have been a challenge to write about – it’s not as if any of their faults are absent from it! That said, they’re a band who are quite well-served by Popular from here on in, I think their future #1s are pretty representative of what they got up to.

  25. 25
    George Tait on 13 Jul 2010 #

    # 24, Tom. My favourite U2 single is also ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. In fact, it’s the only U2 record that I have any strong affection for. I’m sure I read Neil Tennant saying that it was his favourite too.

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