Jul 10

U2 – “Desire”

Popular155 comments • 7,719 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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  1. 61
    Tom on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #55 in a site about number ones in the UK charts, it makes sense to contrast them with the UK zeitgeist, no? (without making any implicit claims for that particular ZG to be globally more significant)

  2. 62
    MikeMCSG on 13 Jul 2010 #

    1989 was absolutely dire. I used to do a personal Top 40 singles at the end of each year and I remember really struggling to fill numbers 30-40 with anything.

  3. 63
    Hofmeister Bear on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Tennant and Lowe would get revenge of a sorts three years later.

  4. 64
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    You know how some say you don’t really get American AoR unless you’re listening to it in an open-top car on a vast freeway on a hot, sunny day? Big Country were a bit like that; unless you were striding across huge expanses of green and grey glen in Scotland – a day’s stroll up the Creggan Road, for instance – with sun, sky and God all on your righteous side, the hearty cadences of the late Stuart Adamson and his colleagues’ bagpipe guitars can’t wholly be appreciated. Big with everyone in ’83 of course, as were Simple Minds after Jim Kerr had that famous chat with Bono on the beach.

  5. 65
    MikeMCSG on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #64 Never as good as The Skids though

  6. 66
    Rory on 13 Jul 2010 #

    @55 How I wish we had more of your zeitgeist down my way. Imagine not hearing The Stone Roses until the end of 1991, and only because I’d just moved to England. I still bristle every time I read Americans online dismissing it as an overrated parochial oddity. A lot of Aussies never got it, either.

    I like your idea of competing zeitgeists within the UK, because surely not everyone was dropping E’s and raving in a field. The interesting thing about “Desire” is that it tapped into a global mood, not a loved-up local one.

    Was there a regional effect at work here? Were U2 bigger in “the regions”, and in Irish-heavy cities like Liverpool, than in London and surrounds?

  7. 67
    DietMondrian on 13 Jul 2010 #

    This really marked a moment where it became apparent to me that my tastes had separated from those of my increasingly rockist friends, who couldn’t get enough U2. I recall listening to Domino Dancing (in the charts around the same time, I think) and hearing mates sneer “is there something wrong with the tape?” at a point where the drums are broken down; and I began hearing phrases like “it’s not real music, it’s just made with computers”. (*Sigh*) And yet they had been into Pump Up the Volume shortly before. I think they’d all started reading Q magazine.

  8. 68
    Rory on 13 Jul 2010 #

    @64 A subject close to my heart. Closer than U2.

  9. 69
    pink champale on 13 Jul 2010 #

    um, i know, i really do, but i quite like the ramshackle smear of ‘desire’ and am prepared to take it pretty much as they intended. just this once though. pretty much the whole rest of the last thirty years of U2 is confined strictly to the indifference/hostility scale for me.

    #64 not sure “come to scotland, you’ll start liking big country” would be that good a tourist board slogan.

  10. 70
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #68: Now I’m faced with the problem of what new to say about BC; Steeltown was a number one album here and so I must write about it. Not too sure how I’ll feel about it when/if I get to it (it’s #303 on the schedule so don’t hold your breath) but yes…all that confidence, that pride, and then when the world changes (but you didn’t change! Everyone and everything else did!) and you’re left behind; I remember hearing Adamson being interviewed by Janice Long on Radio 2 at the turn of the millennium and he seemed so defeated in the attempt to sell his new music (which was OK but not exactly rousing or stimulating); it really was sad.

    December 2001; well I nearly went then myself. But at the last second I decided to turn in the opposite direction and start a blog. Good job too.

  11. 71
    swanstep on 13 Jul 2010 #

    @66, Rory. Hang on, I was back in Sydney and Melbourne for the northern summer/southern winter of 1990 and the Stone Roses were *huge* in clubs then. And E-culture felt massive to me in inner-city Sydney even before I left in 1988.

    @61, Tom. Fair comment.

  12. 72
    Alan Connor on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #23: Archive on 4 recently replayed the Coldcut boys animatedly talking us through the Paid In Full samples in real time. It’s before the halfway point here and is a treat!

  13. 73
    LondonLee on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #65 I’ve never read anything that connected U2 with The Skids but weren’t they the template for that big, ringing-guitar, Steve-Lillywhite-produced sound Bono and the boys first rode to glory on?

  14. 74
    Tom on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #50 – To be honest a 2% penetration level for E probably wasn’t far off the UK figures then*, given that in self-reported surveys 50% of people claim never to have taken any illegal drugs.

    *well, in 1988 anyway – by 1991 it would have been a bit higher I guess. And the surveys wouldn’t have included under-16s.

  15. 75
    Rory on 13 Jul 2010 #

    @71 A 13-week run for “Fools Gold” on the Oz charts, starting 15/4/1990, which saw it peak at number 13 – perhaps inner-city Sydney and Melbourne accounted for most of those sales? I remember seeing the video once on TV and shrugging it off, which was why the album was later such a revelation. The album charted for 11 weeks in 1990 and peaked at 36 (admittedly, its initial UK peak wasn’t much higher), so was pretty limited in its reach; it had nothing like the reputation attached to it in 1991 UK student circles, where it was already considered a classic. Its reputation in Oz grew a bit as JJJ-culture spread in the 1990s, but relative to the UK… well, compare the number-two peak of “Love Spreads” in the UK with the 36 it managed in Australia. Both a fair measure of the general level of anticipation among each country’s music fans, I reckon.

    As for E-culture, maybe it’s another case where the Sydney/Melbourne inner cities were a world unto themselves; those usage figures suggest that its Australian heyday was several years after the UK’s. Which is not to say that it had no impact, just that it was limited compared to the late-’80s UK scene.

    @70 Good job indeed.

  16. 76
    Tom on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Actually I’m well overestimating it – in a 2002 survey the % who said they’d EVER done E was at 4% – obviously higher in younger age categories though.

  17. 77
    wichita lineman on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Swanstep at 55 and 71, you’re being rather cake and eat it. Besides, the music was largely being made in Detroit and Chicago so it can’t really be seen as a parochial M25 (and Sydney) scene. I’d love to think of 16 Lovers Lane as zeitgeist but its sales were so pisspoor the group split up.

  18. 78
    Rory on 13 Jul 2010 #

    @74 Hard to find comparable UK figures via Google… this is as close as I’ve managed, but it doesn’t cover the years in question.

  19. 79
    pink champale on 13 Jul 2010 #

    we need a popular readers survey to settle the matter once and for all!

  20. 80
    MikeMCSG on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #73 A debt acknowledged of course in 2006 with the cover of “The Saints Are Coming” which unfortunately falls into Lena’s domain.

  21. 81
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Oi, watch the “unfortunately”!

  22. 82
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    “And I can play…I play the violin…”

    “No Bono, you don’t blow into it…”

  23. 83
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    How fitting, incidentally, that we should be discussing the stars of Live Aid twenty-five years to the day when the Irish imps stole both the show and our hearts.

  24. 84
    Tom on 13 Jul 2010 #

    If I knew I had a write-up of “The Saints Are Coming” in my future I would feel pretty unfortunate, I have to say!

  25. 85
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Just because you don’t like smoochers…

  26. 86
    johnnyo on 13 Jul 2010 #

    of course U2 were massive in America at this time, and my older sister and her friends were crazy about them. i remember greeting this song with enthusiasm, if only because it wasn’t The Joshua Tree, of which i’d grown very tired.

    as well as an obvious homage to roots rock, i’ve always thought of the R&H period as the band’s attempt to reposition themselves as heirs to The Clash. releasing an “ambitious” double album so close on the heels of their breakthrough is a pretty transparent attempt to ape London Calling. as the decade moved forward the memory of the clash’s embarrasing excesses (and po-faced musical adventurism) faded away. what remained was the sepia-toned image of the western leather outlaw and LC’s dalliances with bo diddley and hollywood iconography. (i think it was around this time that Rolling Stone pronounced LC the greatest album of all time) this is what U2 seized on.

    *sorry punctuation’s kind of a mess. anyway what i mean is they’re ripping of the clash. it’s “hateful”, right?

  27. 87
    MikeMCSG on 13 Jul 2010 #

    #81 I only meant unfortunate in that it deserved to be no 1, honest !

  28. 88

    #86: yes, i was thinking about the link to the clash also — except not so much london calling as sandinista!* (and of course the clashs’s ambivalent dalliance with western imagery begins with the cover of “give em enough rope”)

    *which i have heard loudly praised for starting the fashion for “world music”

  29. 89
    Steve Mannion on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Just had a peek ahead…yeurgh this really is a pretty uninspiring run of #1s and I would be surprised if anything before March ’89 gets more than a 5.

  30. 90
    punctum on 13 Jul 2010 #

    Sandinista! Pi x infinity times better than R&H; at least it sounded in the present tense (it may even be my favourite Clash album).

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