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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  1. 101
    anto on 14 Jul 2010 #

    Re 97: Hi Ciaran. Although I was raised in Cheshire my family are from Dublin so I’m familiar with the city and generally get up-to-date news about what goes on in Ireland. Your comments certainly ring true.
    Although I’m not really committed enough to be called a U2 fan – (My older siblings were keener and were excited about Desire getting to #1. My Mum as mentioned in a previous post has never been convinced)-
    I think you have hit on something about the response to the band in eighties Ireland. Around the time Rattle and Hum came out Dublin could be a scary place. Things were hard and there was a feeling that U2 at least were young Irishmen acheiving something. The affluence came later and is a whole other story, but for all the criticism I think U2 did contribute to raising optimism.
    As for their music The Unforgettable Fire is my favourite U2 album.
    9 out of it’s 10 tracks have the sort of sound that I think they should have pursued – merging Celtic influences like Van Morrison and Patrick Kavanagh with sparseness and textures that referred to Joy Division, Brian Eno and Scott Walkers Climate of Hunter. The bulk of Rattle and Hum was a wrong turning.

  2. 102
    Tom on 14 Jul 2010 #

    #97 great perspective Ciaran! And no, I didn’t let Bono’s recent activities colour my review, in that my opinion of him has if anything improved since the late 80s. I’m not well informed enough about the causes he supports to know whether he’s doing harm rather than good, or to know whether his support is a sideshow or has actual consequence, but I’ve no problem with it in principle. Does he still come across as a colossal dickhead? Of course! But he always has done, and at least now this is mainstream opinion.

  3. 103
    punctum on 14 Jul 2010 #

    I really enjoyed Rachael’s piece. I’m always happy to read positive reviews of records to which I might not be particularly sympathetic, especially when they comes from someone who’s clearly a fan since that means that the reviewer is writing truthfully. What puts me off is routine 4/5-star reviews in the music press where you just know that they don’t mean it, that they’re giving the record imbalanced praise because then they won’t get the interview or cover story (see the NME and R&H again). But writing like Rachael’s is useful because it makes me examine the record in a new light – am I wrong to be so dismissive of it?

  4. 104
    Rory on 14 Jul 2010 #

    Despite being a big fan of “Get on Your Boots”, I didn’t give No Line on the Horizon much time when it came out, but returning to it a year later found a lot to enjoy – certainly more than in How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Its main drawbacks are Bono’s aging vocals, which aren’t what they were (not his fault, of course), and some of the lyrics, which are noticeably naff enough to annoy even a lyrics-agnostic like myself. It’s quite refreshing to hear a U2 album which is a lot better than its chart performance would suggest; makes a change from albums that were the opposite.

  5. 105
    punctum on 14 Jul 2010 #

    #101: The Climate Of Hunter influence actually occurred on The Joshua Tree. In particular Bono has said that “With Or Without You” was directly influenced by the album.

  6. 106
    Gavin Wright on 14 Jul 2010 #

    Re: #101, I’ve also come around to thinking that The Unforgettable Fire is U2’s best album (at least of those I’ve heard) – a large part of its appeal for me is the Lanois/Eno production which makes the Edge quote at the start of Tom’s piece that bit more depressing.

    I must confess I’ve never heard the album in its entirety (I’ve never heard Sandinista! either as it happens) and for the most part I’m no fan of back-to-basics roots-rock type records – I can understand the appeal for both artist and fan but it’s not an approach that excites me. I also wonder how much currency that particular set of influences has today. Obviously it’s a generational thing to an extent but you might expect that the ‘beginning of time’ element of it might elevate its status?

  7. 107
    thefatgit on 14 Jul 2010 #

    #106 There’s always an element of “back-to-basics” kicking around wherever you look. It’s not always roots-rock, but you can sense bluegrass listening to The White Stripes, or folk listening to Mumford & Sons. Someone may decide to put an “alt” prefix next to it to signify “reinvention” rather than “revivalism”, but the main thing to look out for is whether the artist fully respects the origins of the music or if they love it so much, it’s an integral part of their sound, rather than a convenient add-on.

  8. 108
    Lena on 14 Jul 2010 #

    Actually I’m looking forward to writing about “The Saints Are Coming” as I think it reflects more of what U2’s actual ‘roots’ are as such…

    Rattle & Hum as an album has a few good moments, none of them involving Bono in any way; the US is always best reflected obliquely by those from outside (i.e. Simple Minds’ superior in every way Sons and Fascination) and having the group suck up, to put it mildly, to the US was a brutal but effective way of solidifying what had been happening for a while anyway; but too brutal for those who liked The Unforgettable Fire, for instance…

    I like Rachael’s writing because she is enthralled by U2 and she reminds me of my friend Gina who was a massive fan; North Americans, if I may say so, tend to be more enthusiastic for a longer time (that is to say, loyal) about any artists they deem worth it, and that gusto is to be applauded. I may not agree with her, necessarily, but I wonder if U2 do better in the US saleswise than here…

  9. 109
    Erithian on 14 Jul 2010 #

    I’m picturing myself as a Bateman cartoon – the man who really liked “Rattle and Hum”!

    Sorry, but looking again at the track listing I’m reminded that I enjoyed every track at the time and they all stand up for me today. Yes, in a sense it was a path from which U2 had to turn away, and did so very successfully, but as Irishmen growing up under the influence of American culture this was the album they wanted to do (to paraphrase John Lee Hooker, it’s in ‘em , it’s gotta come out!), and for me the influences are reflected and the homages paid beautifully. As for “Desire”, I wouldn’t put it up there with the Joshua Tree singles, but by God they do out-and-out rock effectively. Have to disagree about the harmonica bit dissipating the mood – the effect is of a wailing Chicago blues which doesn’t have to be ept (or whatever the opposite of inept is), in fact it echoes the street musicians Satan and Adam whose own song features in an interlude in the album.

    Anyway, I’m not proposing to get into a debate on this – I sense I’m out on a limb in thoroughly enjoying both single and album, but I doubt if I’ll persuade anybody out of their views or vice versa! Incidentally, sukrat, did you know the controversy over your NME review is referred to in the Wikipedia entry on “Rattle and Hum”?

  10. 110
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 14 Jul 2010 #

    the opposite of inept is apt

  11. 111
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 14 Jul 2010 #

    and yes, i did know that, erithian: it has entered the historical record, at a suitably low and not-too distorted level

    haha i guess i was the bateman cartoon in reverse, back in the day…

  12. 112
    thefatgit on 14 Jul 2010 #

    Mind you, if you pronounced “apt” in 1940’s BBC English it would sound like “ept”.

  13. 113
    Chris Gilmour on 14 Jul 2010 #

    Another vote for the Hollywood mix, it changes the whole dynamic of the song from hoary old pub rock toot into something with more depth and a bit of swing. Would love to hear the nine minute version, not sure it was ever released officially. It says a lot that the only U2 tracks I’ve liked since ‘Unforgettable Fire’ have been remixes (Oakenfolds remix of ‘Lemon’ is breathtaking). Four for the original, seven for the 12″.

    For some reason I have a 7″ gatefold of this and I can’t quite remember where it came from; I think my Dad may have bought it for me as he thought the constant diet of SAW and Todd Terry may have been addling my brain and was trying to steer me on a different path. It didn’t work.

    I received RAH for Christmas that year. I don’t think I ever played it all the way through, it was bloody awful. I got the PSB’s Please and Human League’s Greatest Hits too, so not all bad!

  14. 114
    swanstep on 14 Jul 2010 #

    A belated big thanks to Alan Connor, #72 above for the link to the Archive on 4 piece about Crate Diggers/Vinyl Dogs etc.. It’s a seriously great documentary – the Paid in Full exposition is fantastic but, amazingly, the story gets better and better after that for the full hour! I’ll be recommending this far and wide. Thanks again Alan.

  15. 115
    Gavin Wright on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re: #107, that’s a good point and I think I would draw a distinction – really I’m singling out those eastablished acts who make conscious decision to do a ‘Get Back’-type record as a stylistic break rather than those who work with those influences in general.

    The piece by Rachael linked to above is a good read – although I like a lot of U2’s music, I’ve never entirely understood what their specific appeal is to their hardcore fans (unlike their more broad appeal to the record-buying public, which makes perfect sense) so it’s interesting to see that perspective put across. It’s also refreshing to read a review borne of genuine love for U2’s music, as opposed to Q’s usual fawning which seems based more on industry-minded respect for the band’s status.

  16. 116
    Steve Mannion on 15 Jul 2010 #

    re #113 yeah that ‘Lemon’ remix was major. Oakenfold kept re-using that hook tho e.g. on Grace’s ‘Skin On Skin’ and on Planet Perfecto’s ‘Bullet In The Gun’ which both charted top 40. The moody Dave Morales/Bad Yard mix wasn’t bad either. U2 ended up using a reworked version of that ‘Lemon’ remix as an interlude in their PopMart tour setlist iirc.

  17. 117
    intothefireuk on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Ok I’m late to the party here and most of what I think about U2, RAH & this single in particular has already been stated. I lost my way with U2 during the Joshua Tree (my personal fav prior to this is Live Under a Blood Red Sky). Didn’t like it’s reaching for all things Americana & striving for roots that clearly weren’t theirs. In fact this can probably be traced back to that mini live album Wide Awake In America which included an extended treatment of Bad. Of course the other factor which is impossible to under estimate is that U2 went global after Live Aid and that probably put the kaibosh on it for a lot of fans (as it often does). Desire doesn’t include the Edge’s trademark sound and is worse off for it. It also may be in some small way a contributing factor in the debacle that was Tin Machine (although prob Glass Spider was the bigger factor), Bowie’s own ‘Get Back’. For that alone I can’t forgive it. RAH was completely unsatisfactory and it took me a long time before I could warm to U2 in anyway (and then only lukewarm). If I had a fav single of 88 it wouldn’t be anyhting that’s hit no1 but most likely Inner City’s ‘Good Life’. Which signified which way I’d be going for the next few years.

  18. 118
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jul 2010 #

    haha world-historical pop crimes i had not yet thought to place firmly at rattle and hum’s door = TIN MACHINE

  19. 119
    Rory on 15 Jul 2010 #

    @117, blaming RAH for Tin Machine seems a bit of a stretch. Surely the chronology doesn’t match up – the Bowie/Gabrels collaboration predated the release of RAH by months. As a brief owner of its first fruits (before flogging the CD quick-smart), I remember thinking it was inspired by the Power Station more than anything.

    Had a listen to the Hollywood remix of “Desire” on YouTube today, to see what the fuss was about. I think I’ll be the Bateman cartoon on that one. I notice that it retains the disputed harmonica, too (which doesn’t bother me on the original, but sounds a bit incongruous surrounded by dance-floor beats).

    Liked your comment @109, Erithian. My opinion of RAH overall is unbudged, but their reasons for recording it seem honest enough to me: a half-live double album of roots rock was hardly the obvious commercial path in 1988.

  20. 120
    Tom on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Wikipedia suggests the Pixies were to blame for Tin Machine (by a very unfair definition of “blame”!) and this gels with my memories of the time.

    Perhaps the confusion arises from the fact Tin Machine called their live album “Oy Vey Baby”?

  21. 121
    Erithian on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Oh, and re #41 – meant to say this the other day, but heartiest congratulations! Mind you, I’d prefer “Doctor Billy”. Do they give doctorates for extensive knowledge of appearances on light entertainment shows?

  22. 122
    Paytes on 15 Jul 2010 #

    #120 More stuff to blame the Pixies for!

  23. 123
    ciaran 10 on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re:101 Anto.I must say that i would not really know much about dublins inner city as im from the south.living in Cork for a good few years now.ill take your word for it though.

    I only really visit Dublin in September every 2/3 years for the Hurling and Gaelic Football All ireland Finals so I wouldnt have a great knowledge of the city.I first remember going to a final in 1990 and it was very interesting looking back.No proper roads in place, motorways few and far between and even the road signs were fairly outdated.indeed it took us 4 hours to get to dublin that time whereas now it would take just over 2.

    Upon getting to Dublin we used to hit O’Connell street which was like a mystique for someone from the country but when you got near Croke Park you could see a number of housing estates and tower blocks which would awaken you to the harsh reality of what life was like for a lot of people back then.Not that far off Nelson Mandela House standards if I recall.Even back then Dublin had an almost Black and White feel to it.The Commitments would be the best example of this.

    Even the transformation of Croke Park from the 80s and 90s to what it is now is a sight to behold and may not have come about was it not for u2s influence on the city.throughout the 90s and beyond Dublin became the stag and hen night capital of europe.something which u2 may take credit for.they certainly helped glamourize the city.

  24. 124
    glue_factory on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re: Bowie, the Glass Spider tour and U2, I’ve heard Bowie claim that the kind of spectacle he was reaching for then was later achieved by U2. Mind you, U2’s live shows don’t feature a dancer called “Spazz Attack”, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

  25. 125
    ciaran 10 on 15 Jul 2010 #

    A few other points of note.

    You can see in the videos from the Joshua tree singles the way that u2 were going.shirtless-guitar-playing and singer-on-knees shouting into a microphone for typical american street video for “where the streets have no name” and casino based video for “i still havent found……”. it does seem that TST was made with the intention of testing the water for RAH.They knew full well that they had America in their back pocket and were intent on milking it to the full.

    I think 1988 was a turning point for u2 in Ireland aswell.Football-motormouth pundit Eamonn Dunphy wrote a book called “The Unforgettable Fire” but was plagued with inaccurate content with Bono supposedly very critical of the end product.dunphy then hit out at bono’s arrogance in the media.The resulting controversy was arguably the start of a backlash against Bono in Ireland and probably made Dunphy a satr in the process.

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