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May 11

U2 – “The Fly”

Popular106 comments • 8,293 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. 1
    fivelongdays on 9 May 2011 #

    I’m not a U2 fan, and this song has always seemed to be a little bit, well, nothing, really. It’s alright, but it doesn’t stick in the head like some of their better stuff still does.

    To be honest, it reminds me ever so slightly of a more industrified version of “Blues From A Gun” by JAMC, for some reason.

  2. 2
    CarsmileSteve on 9 May 2011 #

    also, wasn’t this officially deleted the week (day?) it came out thus helping its push for number one?

    seem to recall a LOT of copies hanging around record shops for Actual Years though…

  3. 3
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    I’m not a U2 fan either – as my sniffiness in the review probably makes clear – but I like this more than anything else they did post-80s.

    The instant deletion thing was covered in the Adams thread – I think it was 3 weeks?

  4. 4
    flahr on 9 May 2011 #

    There’s clearly something fun somewhere in “The Fly” – some germ of having a good time and Technicolor and S’Express – though to my ears it’s a bit too obvious what they’re trying to do (s’spect this is the “they were just as heavy-handed, but about their artifice not just their art” bit in the review?) and it doesn’t quite sustain five minutes. But hey, I’m willingly listening to it for a second time right now, so the fun at its core does seep through in some places. 5.

    The video is awful.

  5. 5
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #5 I don’t think, at this point, their rejection of Old U2 extends to the idea of “fun” exactly. We have that still to look forward to.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 9 May 2011 #

    I remember stating boldly that this would only be at number one for one week, as U2 fans would buy it in week one and no-one else would want it in weeks following.

    Which is what happened.

    So, basically, here gets born, the ide of a number one hit single selling to a bands fans and no-one else?

  7. 7
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #6 Bring your daughter to the what now?

  8. 8
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    #7 And Innuendo.

    More thoughts on this when i get a chance to put them down. Initially though, I listened to Achtung Baby last week and I thought, on finishing, “this album has a reputation that I’m not hearing”. I prefer Zooropa.

  9. 9
    Matthew H on 9 May 2011 #

    #6 I think The Jam nailed that.

  10. 10
    Chelovek na lune on 9 May 2011 #

    #1 yes! I’d not made that connection with “Blues From a Gun” before, but it certainly makes sense.

    I quite like “The Fly”; as Tom essentially says, it comes just at that moment in which all the bombast and pomp of earnestly sincere stadium-rocking U2 has been thrown off, but before the skin of the bombast and pomp and earnestly sincere new-look U2 has yet to harden. Brow-beaten leather jacket off: trendier new wear not quite worn-in as yet.

    In fact, I rate “Mysterious Ways” and the dance remix of “Even Better than The Real Thing” pretty damn highly, too. And “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, too. And “One”….well, that’s just sublime. Still.
    I’m really not a U2 fan, but it strikes me now that this period – ie that of “Achtung Baby” really was their best work.

    It’s not such a stretch (oh but please oh please let’s not bring the Scorpions into it again…) to link all this with the tumultous changes in Berlin and across Eastern Europe at this time, surely? Even if U2 were perhaps being a bit too self-conscious about that; the Wall has fallen; pompous rock moralising is (for a moment) out of the question – it’s a bit… well, “cawmniss”.

  11. 11
    weej on 9 May 2011 #

    Not a U2 fan either but this is probably the only song of theirs I actually enjoy listening to. All the things that annoy me about their music generally seem to work in their favour here, and I’m not sure why – sheer force of will seems like the obvious answer.
    It is about a minute too long, though, and some of the Edge’s twiddlings at the end of the chorus knock a point or two off. 7 sounds about right.

  12. 12
    Matthew H on 9 May 2011 #

    Anyway, I was always more of a Mysterious Ways man, but I’m enjoying this on my headphones right now. Along with the quasi-dance-rock beat, it’s got a rough edge and a weird hollowness (to match the VOID in Bono’s SOUL, no doubt). Reckon 7’s about right, and the write-up nails the peculiar relative tremors of U2’s “switch”.

    Achtung Baby has too many tracks, but the highs are high. And Perfecto mixes of Mysterious Ways and Even Better Than The Real Thing satisfactorily completed the bandwagon-jumping – in style too.

  13. 13
    MikeMCSG on 9 May 2011 #

    # 6/7 You could go back a bit earlier to The Jam for that.

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned how similar this is to the Inxs sound. Bono and Hutch were great mates at this point and clearly cross-fertilising each other ; Inxs made their best LP “Welcome To Wherever You Are” the following year.

    I thought this was quite good but no world beater. “One” apart, I thought the singles choices from “Achtung Baby” were quite poor , “Ultraviolet” and “Until The End Of The World” being two of their best ever songs, but then again it meant the album when purchased had hidden delights.

  14. 14
    Davek on 9 May 2011 #

    Still find this an awkward grab at contemporary up-tempo rock ala Vertigo, but the portion of the song where the wild guitar solo leads into the operatic vocals is really beautiful.

  15. 15
    Chelovek na lune on 9 May 2011 #

    #13 Hmm, yes I see what you mean re INXS. Though their material was mostly rather weaker than U2’s IMHO. Now, “Sometimes” by Max Q, Hutch’s spin-off project from the previous year – is definitely of this ilk. But very much inferior…

    Although let’s be frank: this was when a lot of second-rate rock bands (often newly signed to major labels and at least medium-name producers) started bunging an automated drum beat over their substandard strummings and unremarkable vocals and uninteresting lyrics. Though I’d hold the Stone Roses (and the Mondays) more responsible for this than U2, I don’t think Bono’s merry men can be entirely exonorated on charges related to this.

  16. 16
    lex on 9 May 2011 #

    I remember this existing – having had no idea who or what a U2 was previously – and being completely baffled that lots of people apparently seemed to care about it. To be honest, I remain completely baffled as to the appeal of this godawful tedious band.

    I do not remember a single thing about the song itself and do not intend to change this.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    I didn’t expect this to score that high! Was ready to defend it (at least to the same extent as ‘Desire’ but this is a bit better and more interesting).

    I give U2 a fair bit of credit for trying to take stadium rock into “exciting multimedia territory” and the Zoo TV spectacle was a smart move for a band keen to remain relevant without ignoring or obscuring newer trends (the club remixes of the band’s tracks were pretty savvy too, don’t blame them for trying to stay some sort of hip for much of the decade).

    But ultimately it all worked because of the sonic characteristics and influences that define Achtung Baby, compensating adequately for Bono’s more irritating indulgences and enabling them to sound cooler than any other major (millions-selling) rock band at that point.

  18. 18
    Mark G on 9 May 2011 #

    #16 In which case, you can’t moan, can you?

  19. 19
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #17 something I realised reading about AB/ZooTV is how… well, quaint and sweet the 90s idea of ‘multimedia’ feels now.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 9 May 2011 #

    I think Tom’s right that Bono’s the weak link here. Edge clearly has a bunch of new ideas, as does the rhythm section, and the song structure is somewhat interesting, e.g., we seem to go out on a new verse section, (which really works I find), whereas Bono just sounds like he’s trying hard to be cool or something.

    Anyhow, I’ve always found The Fly to be an inferior version of Zoo Station, the first track on Achtung Baby. I’ve never understood why *that* wasn’t the grand re-introduction single.

    Good call #1 on the JAMC connection – their Reverence single from 1992 sounds exactly like this too, only better, and its vid. was ace.

    Never thought I’d be scoring U2 lower than Tom, but for me this is a:
    5 or 6

  21. 21
    MikeMCSG on 9 May 2011 #

    # 16 Welcome to the generation gap folks !

    Seriously Lex you need to listen to things at least once if you want some respect for your views here.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    #19 Yes I admit I have a big pang of affection on that basis. The suspended Trabants, the bit where Bono channel hops thru live TV on a massive screen and so on…I’m conveniently ignoring McPhisto of course…

  23. 23
    iainl on 9 May 2011 #

    The comparison that struck me at the time, and still does, is that they seemed to meet Depeche Mode coming in the other direction of the electronic-rock divide with Personal Jesus and then the Songs of Faith and Devotion album. Except that DM were miles better.

  24. 24
    lonepilgrim on 9 May 2011 #

    the impulse for U2 to record in Berlin’s Hansa studios was no doubt influenced by Bowie’s work there in the late 70s and it provided a similar opportunity for the band to reorient themselves away from the widescreen Americanisms of their previous couple of albums. Whereas Berlin was still divided when ‘Heroes’ was recorded, for U2 the German Capital was part a newly unified European country on the periphery of the West that was still in the process of reinventing itself.
    It’s been fascinating reading the Bowie blog (at http://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/) to discover how haphazard was the creation of “Heroes’ – when at the time it was interpreted as part of Bowie’s master plan to tap the zeitgeist. U2s working process for ‘Achtung Baby’ sounds similarly problematic and that comes across in the music – for good or ill. The shuffling drum pattern sounds generic and dated. The guitar alternates between the nagging riff and more familiar Edge-isms (where he can’t seem to help showing off, rather than keeping it simple). Bono plays up his irritating qualities to good effect – I like the falsetto and the sense of conflictedness that is implied rather than telegraphed. It was an astute move or dumb luck to embrace European artifice when a more ‘authentic’ version of the US in the form of Grunge was on the horizon.

  25. 25
    Conrad on 9 May 2011 #

    Never heard this before. The riff is Hush isn’t it? As updated by The Charlatans on the Only One I Know. All very Madchester, about a year and a half too late. And yes very INXS. Pretty lame, like Bono’s falsetto, I’d give it a 2. Have they gone hip hop yet?

  26. 26
    MBI on 9 May 2011 #

    Not even sure this was released a single in the US, and quite surprised to see this is the song introducing U2 to the ’90s and not “One,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” or even “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?”, all of which have more cred as far as I can tell.

  27. 27
    thefatgit on 9 May 2011 #

    Come into my arms Bono, and save me from all that SICKLY ROMANTIC EARNESTNESS!!!

    Only problem was, Yer Man wasn’t really comfortable in the sweaty and claustrophobic industrial zone, after striding across vast canyons, looking for Gram Parsons in the desert, then trawling the Delta with autograph book in hand, seeking legend-status-by-association. But it was U2, probably the only band who could shoehorn Adams off the top, even if I was hoping that Adams’reign would be ended by some thrilling breakbeat or hardcore smash.

    The Biggest Band in the World had discovered the ’90s, and found that the 20th century was already decaying right in front of their eyes. Achtung Baby’s acutely aware of NOW as it was then, without predicting NOW, as they might have have been tempted to perceive it.

    I like TF as a kind of antidote to all that overpolished power-balladry, but like most medicines, it left a bad taste in the mouth. I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t love it either. On Achtung Baby, it’s probably one of the weaker songs, compared to “Even Better Than The Real Thing” or “One”. It’s definitely Bono’s falsetto that sits uneasily in the mix, almost curdling the whole thing. So a welcome relief in 1991, but far from perfect, and far from what was actually engaging me back then.

  28. 28
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    His falsetto totally fooled me at the time (thought it was some big lady they’d roped in). It’s relatively restrained here tho. ‘Lemon’ is where it really CURDles (oh your sides).

  29. 29
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    Am I the only cold-hearted swine who doesn’t like “One” at all?

  30. 30
    Mark G on 9 May 2011 #

    I don’t like it much, apart from:

    At a band rehearsal, our singer borrowed my guitar and did a note and tone perfect version of “One”.

    Some years later, I see a vid of Bono playing it live, and I realise he’s got the exact same make/model of guitar. So, no wonder it sounded exactly like it.

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