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May 11

U2 – “The Fly”

Popular106 comments • 7,275 views

#668, 2nd November 1991

The Wikipedia article on Achtung Baby is illuminating in unexpected and glum ways. For a start, the demands of Wiki-style are never kind to projects which centre on ambiguity and every last bit of knowingness gets flatly ironed out. But more, the behind-the-scenes material – a boil-down of dozens of books, articles, and retrospectives – suggests what a ghastly and drawn-out process Not Being U2 was for U2. (My favourite factoid: how one proposed album title was Man – as opposed to Boy, you understand – before someone noticed this would squarely poleaxe the whole ‘not pompous any more’ look)

This points to one of the big questions about New U2 – the extent to which this music was impressive, or just impressive because of who was making it. When we watch a film about an ex-con, for instance, we often cheer them on when they reject a life of crime or violence while expecting the drama to hinge on their return to it. In our everyday lives, of course, we don’t find it much of a struggle not to commit armed robbery. Similarly, many bands find it surprisingly easy not to make tedious and overblown rock records, so how much of the interest in U2’s early 90s material comes from them fighting these deadly urges, rather than the fact (or otherwise) of their success?

“The Fly” seems designed to state these changed priorities as clearly as possible. Everything you identify with 90s U2 – the elliptical lyrics, the attempts at funkiness, Bono getting his Bowie on and trying out different characters – is here in force, and for me the later Achtung Baby singles had nothing like the impact this did. Of course, this one had the good fortune to break Bryan Adams’ geological span at number one – after sixteen plays of “Everything I Do” I can report that “The Fly” sounds bloody amazing, and I felt similar goodwill towards Bono at the time.

But even free of context “The Fly” is a good record, as contemporary and striking as it needed to be. It’s built on a loose, loping rhythm which makes the song a harsher cousin of 1990’s ‘Madchester’ sound, with the breezy wah-wahs of the Farm or the Happy Mondays replaced by crunching, churning guitar work. If The Edge has a good comeback, Bono isn’t quite so convincing: his aphorisms set a mood well without adding up to much, and “the sheer face of love” is a fine image, but for all that the song needs it I can never enjoy his falsetto, and there’s still a few of his rock-singer-isms (“…chiiiild”) hanging around to sour the modernist milk.

At a safe distance, what intrigues me about U2’s reinvention is how little actually changed. The group were desperate to throw off their ties to a specific past, and fled into the comforting arms of another one – decamping to Hansa Studios was simply swapping a romantic America for a romantic Europe. And the elements the group played up on Achtung Baby – their theatricality, their love of texture – were always there: Rattle And Hum was a performance of a style as much as the Zoo TV material was, the heat-haze guitar on The Joshua Tree as evocative and alien as any of the electronic sound on Achtung Baby.

From this perspective choosing between Old U2 and New U2 was simply a question of working out whether Nine Inch Nails were a healthier influence for a rock band in 1991 than John Lee Hooker. But something else had shifted. U2 remained, as they always remained, an heavy-handed bunch. This was the secret of their success – in the Joshua Tree days their sincerity and scale bludgeoned you, needing no interpretation. But now they shifted their weight from content to context – they were just as heavy-handed, but about their artifice not just their art. They now hammered you with ‘postmodernism’, and in doing so helped make this thumping knowingness a signature of their times.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    Mark G on 29 Jun 2011 #

    I take it they didn’t do “get on yr boots” then?

  2. 92
    swanstep on 29 Jun 2011 #

    @Mark G., 91. No they did both Boots and Vertigo. The frontloaded Achtung baby stuff, e.g., The Perfecto mix of Even Better Than followed by The Fly to start, however, just stood out.

    That said, it appears to have been a superstar-making weekend for Janelle Monae…

  3. 93
    Ed on 30 Jun 2011 #

    @92 Re Janelle Monae, I hope you’re right, and her ranking on Amazon rocketed after her performance, but I wonder if she’s a bit too problematic ever to be a real superstar.

    On the Readers’ Poll 2010 thread, Erithian pointed out that part of her set was on a loop on the BBC red button service on Tuesday. Not sure if it’s still there, I am afraid. Online, there is a nice package including a setlist, stills and video here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/festivals/glastonbury/2011/artists/janellemonae/
    The iPlayer videos generally stay up for a week, so hurry while stocks last.

    I thought the show was great, but it was very characteristically her: the wonderful combination of exuberance and precision; the charmingly gratuitous weirdness – painting a picture while singing one song! – and the slightly distancing effect of all the theatricality, were all in evidence. If you were put off before by her Broadway show-tune tendencies, Glastonbury would not have changed your mind. The set also confirmed that ‘Tightrope’ is by some distance her strongest song. That half-second single-syllable hook – the stressed accent on each repetition of “-een” – is the most brilliantly economical and expressive pop device for a long time.

    What I came away thinking about, though, was her androgyny. For a woman to combine James Brown stage moves, Prince-like arrangements (especially the guitar), and a Jackson 5 cover (as well as a Stevie Wonder one) is even now a pretty bold move, I think. Beyonce played with some of the same ideas in her set, but she was already a megastar, so the stakes were lower.

    It occurred to me that Monae has the same sort of relationship to Brown that PJ Harvey had to Nick Cave (although that one eventually went a bit further, of course), or Justine Frischman did to Hugh Cornwell. Which helps make her cool, but may not help her become a superstar.

    That said, she did win over at least one convert. As I was over-enthusiastically suggesting that Beyonce was the best show I had ever seen, my friend harrumphed and said it was not even the best performance by a black American woman singer he’d seen in the past two days.

  4. 94
    punctum on 30 Jun 2011 #

    Thing is, in the album midweeks, Beyonce is outselling Gaga and the two Adeles put together and Janelle Monae’s not even in the top 40.

    Moral: you can storm Glasto as much as you like, but if Sainsbury’s don’t stock you, you’re not coming in.

  5. 95
    Mark G on 30 Jun 2011 #

    Yeah, but the papers also are all going “yay Beyonce!”, and pressing the red button is too much work they’d much rather re-print press releases…

  6. 96
    punctum on 1 Jul 2011 #

    Or misquote lyrics and build an entirely pointless article around them (Zoe Williams in yesterday’s Grauniad).

  7. 97
    Erithian on 1 Jul 2011 #

    Ed #93 – no, Janelle was only on the red button on Tuesday. Monday was Elbow, Wednesday was Hurts, yesterday was U2 and today is Bellowhead (which I’m looking forward to seeing tonight). Peculiar selection, but chances are random bits of Glasto will turn up on BBC4 for a week or two yet.

  8. 98
    Ed on 4 Jul 2011 #

    @96. That Zoe Williams article was a real trainwreck. It’s a shame, because she is usually excellent: I’ve read great pieces by her on feminist writing, public sector strikes and exercise, just in the past ten days. (Not a very impressive performance by Guardian readers either, who get to the second page of comments before someone points out the misunderstanding.)

    Unexpectedly, the best piece I have read about Beyonce at Glastonbury was by – of all people – Clive James in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday. There are occasional lapses into his characteristic leering, but overall it is an eloquent and thoughtful account of what makes her great.

    @97 Bellowhead are good, then? Sadly I missed them on the BBC, but I am going to Latitude this year when it has a generally pretty drab line-up, and I am looking for bright spots.

  9. 99
    lonepilgrim on 5 Aug 2011 #

    if the original Achtung Baby wasn’t enough:

    http://pitchfork.com/news/43432-u2-announce-iachtung-babyi-reissue-box-set/

    I think I’ll pass

  10. 100
    DanH on 3 Aug 2013 #

    So this was the song that finally knocked Bryan Adams off the perch? In America, that distinction belonged to “The Promise of a New Day” by pre-AI Paula Abdul. I’m pretty sure I heard it once after 1991, after hearing it a lot that year.

  11. 101
    hectorthebat on 29 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1990s (2001) 101
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 909
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 475
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 12
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 26
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 23

  12. 102
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