May 11

U2 – “The Fly”

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#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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  1. 31
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?’ was the AB single I didn’t like much at all, always liked ‘One’. Also went from heavy dislike of ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close!)’ to loving it many years later, oddly.

  2. 32
    wichita lineman on 9 May 2011 #

    “Helloooo Sarajevo!!!!!!” The McPhisto era U2 was try-hard but very funny. And not an obvious move at all, especially when so much post Manchester pre Britpop UK indie was try-hard and deadly earnest (5.30, the Catherine Wheel, Curve).

    I heard this for the first time in ages last week and was struck by how much, as Conrad mentions, it sounded like a Charlatans knock-off.

    I reckon the falsetto helps it hugely (always does in pop, like a revving engine, or crowd noise).

    Re 29: One is ghastly! A whining busker anthem. I always imagine it sung in the “impassioned” style of Enrique Iglesias. Has it been on X Factor yet?

  3. 33
    MikeMCSG on 9 May 2011 #

    # 29 I think Lex will join you in the kennel Tom. What is it you don’t like about it ?

  4. 34
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #33 I don’t know really! I don’t like it LESS than many other big romantic ballads (including several we’re going to meet) – I just think it plods. Someone on the Adams thread said that either big love songs touched him or not and if they didn’t it was curtains for them – and maybe I’m like that about “One”, I can’t give it the investment it seems to be demanding.

    I remember at the time I was a bit irked by how the chest-beatingness of it seemed to bely all the “We don’t take ourselves seriously anymore” buzz around the band, but that’s no reason not to like it on its own terms.

  5. 35
    wichita lineman on 9 May 2011 #

    One’s cause hasn’t been helped for me by a busker who sang it (with a Spanish accent) at Waterloo station EVERY SINGLE DAY. Same goes for Stevie Wonder’s Part Time Love, which a man dressed as Sylvester the cat played on a saxophone at Piccadilly Circus every day on my way to work.

    But really, I wouldn’t have thought it’s any harder to imagine someone disliking One than disliking With Or Without You. Massive rock ballads – they’re hard to pull off, and it’s easy to go over the edge. I’ve always preferred Waiting For A Girl Like You to I Want To Know What Love Is, restraint is the key. There’s a line somewhere (not sure where) in that genre that can’t be crossed.

  6. 36
    lonepilgrim on 9 May 2011 #

    While ‘One’ get’s kicked about, can I say that I really don’t care for Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’

  7. 37
    Rory on 9 May 2011 #

    Man, I have so much to say about this and no time to write it; I should be writing it all in advance, but haven’t. Back again later in the week, when you’ll all no doubt have said it all.

  8. 38
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    This ‘not taking ourselves seriously’ thing is interesting but they seemed to want to have their cake and eat it. A goofier example is U2’s next #1 (not much of a spoiler there let’s face it) but they never stopped doing big earnest romantic ballads. I can see how ‘One’ may have seemed a throwback but there’s a simultaneous dirtiness and glitz to it (or at least Edge’s contribution) that their 80s epics didn’t have and which I found more compelling.

  9. 39
    swanstep on 9 May 2011 #

    Another vote against One (just have never liked its basic feel, and was mortified to see it turn up as a friend’s wedding song!). And I can do without Mysterious Ways too. I still think that AB is a pretty amazing record tho’ – there are (from my perspective) at least 8 or 9 very good to great tracks and they’re well spread out. The beginning (first two tracks) of the record is ace, it ends (last 3) *really* strongly and there are bunch of great things in the middle. AB really felt to me like Thriller or Hysteria in that *every* track was hook-filled – it keep on giving you new entry points, new ways to like it, and any blemishes ended up not mattering.

  10. 40
    swanstep on 9 May 2011 #

    @lonepilgrim. Oh noes! Even with the vid with June Carter looking on etc.? I confess to finding it incredibly moving.

  11. 41
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    #34 That’ll have been me. One doesn’t touch me – as a result, I don’t really like it. The problem I have with it is, I feel, that lyrically it gives the impression of trying to be an intimate, one on one song initially but then seemingly transistions at the chorus into a one love for all mankind thing. I don’t mind songs that go for the one love for all mankind vibe necessarily but I tend to prefer love songs to go one on one – transitioning between the two is, for me, a no no. Isn’t the point that you’re trying to make the object of the song feel special? Isn’t that rather undercut by getting halfway through your protestations of love and then breaking off to say that, but of course, everyone is a special flower, not just [object of love song]?

    Obviously other opinions are available but One definitely doesn’t do it for me.

  12. 42
    wichita lineman on 9 May 2011 #

    Re 36: Count me in. Death porn.

    A fun pop game – ask a Johnny Cash fan* what his best songs are beyond the Sun years and the American Recordings. “Errr…..” Jesus, what was he doing for 40 years?

    *this game was invented by Pete Paphides for Beth Orton “fans” some years back.

  13. 43
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    I think the only J Cash I have outside those are Christmas songs which are enjoyably full-blooded in their sentimentality.

    And of course my kids’ favourite, the gloriously unscientific “Dinosaur Song”, “Brontosaurus Rex” and all.

  14. 44
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    #42 I like Cash – answer is Man In Black. Then Long Black Veil and Ballad of Ira Hayes (though he didn’t write either of those – which might be a disqualification).

    I said up thread that I like Zooropa – I really like The Wanderer off that too.

  15. 45
    Pete on 9 May 2011 #

    The first new number one when I was at University. We had waited so long and then this. At which point I discovered there was a thing I had never noticed before: U2 were really big. I mean I knew people liked them, but I hadn’t realised that they were so big they could have a number one with a rubbish song with a rubbish new image. All my new friends, when I scoffed at this feeble-minded U2 rubbish, showed they had The Joshua Tree or some such nonsense in their record collection. My tirade against this nonsense bounced against the tail end of a massive generational fanbase. I was alone with my Carter records.

    I’m not saying I was right, but I never wanted to be wrong like them.

    I was deeply suspicious of this U2 volte face, cosmetic that it was. Until Numb, which I quite liked as it didn’t have Bono singing on it. Int he intervening years I have softened on the Fly a touch.

    Johnny Cash in the seventies. Well, his variety hour wouldn’t present itself.

  16. 46
    thefatgit on 9 May 2011 #

    I’m with Swanstep re Cash’s “Hurt”. I loved Reznor’s internalised rage, but JC simply takes the song to a whole new level. Rallying point for the death cult, it maybe, but Cash at his worst was considerably more accomplished than NIN at their best.

  17. 47
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    I find U2 a difficult band to discuss in some respects. They’ve been so huge, have a pretty identifiable sound, a set of personalities that are well known and extra-musical activities that keep Bono, at least, in the spotlight. Frequently, the tendency is to play the man and not the ball when it comes to the music that they actually produce. I think that, personally speaking, this potentially causes me to fall victim to confirmation bias (again, personally speaking, that’s not why I come to Freaky Trigger – I actually want my biases challenged!). In this, U2 are not an act alone – I think there’s a few Bunnies coming up, particularly in the mid-late 90s that I’d categorise similarly.

    Maybe it’s because I wasn’t quite old enough to hear this at the time, in context, but when I first listened to this (several years after the fact, as I was 10 when this came out) I drew little distinction between this and Rattle and Hum/Joshua Tree. The Edge has a new box of effects but, essentially, this is stadium rock – with a big riff and histrionic guitar solo. It’s not quite sing-a-long but it sounds like what I think U2 are about – a bloody big stadium rock act (and I say this as someone who is partial to some stadium rock). But is this just my set of preconceptions speaking? On second listen, I quite liked the opening minute and a half of the track – OK, there’s a whacking great riff, but the track itself is actually pretty spare. It’s just voice, drum and bass with some Edge effects on the first verse and I found myself beginning to reassess. There seems to be something a little more “clubby” about this section of the record – but my first listen is confirmed as they then bugger it all up by putting in a guitar solo that is too long (there’s a naturally breaking point to the solo at about the 2:50 mark on the track and then they stick another 20 seconds of fret-wankery in there – why?). The remainder of the record is just bluster. I think it really lets down the opening half of the track. 5 – if they’d managed to cut a minute out of it and find a more satisfying ending, it would likely by an 8.

    Some of my view of The Fly is what I think of Achtung Baby. I see it as a stadium rock record. I think the U2 leap at this time is more to do with who they got to remix their records/who they were working with than what they’re actually doing themselves (with a couple of exceptions). I think the real change is on Zooropa, which I hear as more of an after hours record, less obviously playing to what I think are commonly perceived as their strengths and consequently surprises me when I listen to it. I just don’t get surprised when I hear Achtung Baby. Maybe those who were at the right age at the point of release can give me some insight as to just why this is/was perceived as a move on for U2.

  18. 48
    23 Daves on 9 May 2011 #

    I was never a U2 fan (and I’m still not) but “Achtung Baby” did soundtrack the late period of 1991 and even a lot of 1992 for me. I was living in my parent’s small town, and at that point I only knew one friend who had a car – or at the very least, one friend who was willing to give me lifts to places, with a strange combination of resentment and enjoyment (making sarcastic comments about his “designated driver” status whilst simultaneously clearly getting off on revving around to far-flung places playing music loudly with his mates). It’s probably not the case, but if often felt as if he only had two CDs in his car, “The Stone Roses” and “Achtung Baby”. I’ve even got a home video somewhere amidst my dusty pile of VHS tapes of us driving around the countryside while it plays in the background.

    Eventually, I had to begrudgingly admit that it’s a perfectly good album. Not a classic, and certainly not something I get regular urges to return to, but inoffensive at worst and enjoyably groovesome at best. Despite the huge part it played backing some of my formative teenage experiences, however (which mostly only involved cannabis and beer and not much beyond that, however much I’d have wanted other stuff to happen) I don’t feel any fond nostalgia when I hear it again. There’s just not that degree of personal association – it was somebody else’s obsession rather than mine.

    Still though, two things were in this single’s favour for me at the time – firstly, it knocked Bryan Adams off the top spot, which caused positive bias on my part where the former’s longevity caused disproportionately increased negative feelings. Secondly, a stadium rock band copping the grooves I was enjoying in the local alternative nightclubs and going to number one with them felt like as good as things were going to get. If the Roses and The Mondays couldn’t make it to the summit, then having somebody who simply borrowed off them getting there felt like a fair enough compromise.

    These days, I can still listen to it and enjoy it, and also (as others have pointed out) enjoy the sneaky JAMC-isms going on, but it doesn’t have quite the edge (no pun intended) I remember. Back then I’d have given it 7. These days, it will have to settle for 6. It sounds far cleaner and more calculated than my memory of it being this buzzing great wasp of a dance-rock tune which scared away Bryan Adams.

  19. 49
    Garry on 9 May 2011 #

    This was the first song I can remember hearding of U2. I’m sure previous ones were on radio but I can’t remember them. I remember the videos for this and One clearly. I liked the Fly. From here I worked backwards, liking the singles from the previous couple of albums, and then I liked the singles from Zooropa too.

    Then they released Pop – the first album they released when I was at a radio station. With Pop they promptly lost me and I’ve never been interested in later work.

    So I guess I’m not an album U2 fan, but a fan of certain songs of the late 80s and early 90s.

  20. 50
    hardtogethits on 9 May 2011 #

    A major, complicating, factor that accelerated the record’s appeal was that its video was shown on Top Of The Pops before it charted. TOTP had absolutely shunned the idea of pre-release videos, and from late 1979 right through to October 1991 its producers devised and rigorously applied rules which severely restricted the show’s opportunity to give publicity to discs from outside the Top 75. If you weren’t in the chart, you weren’t on the show (there were some exceptions in special features like Jonathan King’s look at the US charts).

    When the self-set rules changed, one video per week was shown from outside the chart. U2 were the third act to benefit, and the first to do so with a brand new release (not a track already available on an album).

  21. 51
    anto on 10 May 2011 #

    I was intrigued as to how this single would be reviewed and as it turns out I agree with most of what Tom says (including the score).
    It’s odd that in ’91 a common response to The Fly was that it was U2 trying too hard and yet listen to this back to back with their previous entry on Popular and it’s obvious that Desire is the sound of a band fumbling to grasp something that is not truly their own.
    The Fly on the other hand has held up staggeringly well. Those gutiars are the Edge at his best for certain. I can indulge the meaning-to-be-meaningful lyrics not least because I can recall scanning the sleeve of Achtung Baby as a naive child (it was one of the presents my Brother received at Christmas 1991)and thinking ” Every artist is a cannibal/Every poet is a theif ” was just like the deepest statement ever(shudder).
    I recently listened to The Joshua Tree start to finish for the first time in years and what struck me is how un-rootsy a lot of it is.
    In fact the weakest track is Trip Through Your Wires which does go for bar room bluster but so much of it seems to be about expanse and atmosphere rather than just an Irish rock band attempting Americana.
    I notice Brian Enos touches a lot more than I used to – that minimalist backing on Mothers of the Disappeared for instance.
    With that in mind Rattle and Hum seems like a distraction and had U2 thought better of it (or avoided ponchoes altogether) they might have arrived at the Achtung Baby sound a lot sooner and without having to un-learn their bad habits.
    As for Zoo tv theres not much difference between straining to show an audience how much you understand Raymond Carver and how much you understand Baudrillard so yes the instincts were similar.

  22. 52
    swanstep on 10 May 2011 #

    2 peripheral questions:
    (a) Has anyone seen the seen the full ‘trilogy’ version of Wenders’s Until the End of the World? I saw the original version on release in 1991/1992 and it was truly awful, particularly the bits set in Australia (Herzog’s Aussie film in the ’80s, Where the Green Ants Dream, is probably his worst film too!) Is it any good or at least significantly improved?
    (b) Has anyone else seen the recent guitar docu. with Edge/Jimmy Page/Jack White, It Might Get Loud? I saw it last week on a cable tv arts channel, and thought it was OK (but was glad I didn’t pay big bucks to see it out!). None of them came across as especially eloquent or thoughtful, but Edge seemed to me to come off worst: a little defensive overall about how punk rock his thousand effects units and signal processors and an army of tech assistants could be. Or something. I also wanted the docu.-maker to press him a little more about how he saw himself in relation to Fripp/Belew and other Bowie guitarists as well as compared to other influential post-punk guitarists like McGeoch and Marr. Alas not, and Edge didn’t volunteer anything on these fronts that I noticed.

  23. 53
    Tim Byron on 10 May 2011 #

    I was 9 in 1991, when ‘The Fly’ came out, and by that point, in terms of U2, I knew ‘Desire’ and that was about it. So in my head, U2 were roots-rockers with harmonica (of which there were a lot in Australia – Johnny Diesel and the Injectors, Paul Kelly and the Messengers, and the Black Sorrows to name a few). I think I had some vague idea that the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ was a sort of U2 cover, but I would have heard that before the original. I don’t think I had very much context for ‘The Fly’ or “Achtung Baby” at all.

    But I loved it! U2 were just about the coolest band in the world to me at that point. The thing about “Achtung Baby” that really got to me was the counterculture postmodernist schtick – because it was probably the first time I really came across it. As a song ‘The Fly’ is a bit more about mood rather than songcraft, hooks, and structure, and so it in some ways is a surprising #1. But it’s probably like Lady Gaga today, in that what is inspiring Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters these days is often the imagery and ideas rather than the music. There’s a bit in the video clip to ‘The Fly’ where a TV screen in the background flashes up ‘WATCH MORE TV’, and I loved that.

    Most stadium rock is incredibly po-faced, for better or worse. For U2 to make stadium rock with a wink – and have audiences lap it up – still seems like a pretty big achievement to me. Stadium after stadium of people were watching a spectacle made with a heavy dose of irony, which poked fun at consumerism, where strange phrases like “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG” flashed on screens at them, etc!

    Some of the lyrics now come off to me as being a little more faux-intellectual than they used to, but contra to @51 I still think “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief” is a great lyric (it’s just that the way Bono delivers it can’t help but remind you that he is a tosser).

  24. 54
    Ed on 10 May 2011 #

    #52b I saw ‘It Might Get Loud’ on a plane, which also seemed about right for it. In terms of personality and all-round human decency, I thought there was a very clear ranking of Jimmy Page >> The Edge >> Jack White. Page and, er, Edge were at least interesting about the technicalities of their craft. White just seemed like a self-absorbed whiner.

    The Wire had a great – and reasonably positive – review of AB, which included the classic line (roughly, from memory): “The Edge is the best guitar player now working in rock music. It’s a shame he happens to be in a band with the worst singer.”

  25. 55
    Ed on 10 May 2011 #

    #19 The vintage technology is lovely, isn’t it? Video walls! Satellite TV! Mobile phones! It’s like steampunk. A reminder of how very different the world was on the other side of the mid-90s explosion of the www.

  26. 56
    swanstep on 10 May 2011 #

    @Ed, 55. The vision of how tech would evolve from 1993/1994, i.e., from just before Mosaic/Netscape emerged to give us the first draft of the web, is best recorded in a series of ads for At&t made by the young David Fincher: I discussed those ads in a blog post last year in the context of the first, very exciting trailers for Fincher’s The Social Network (which I ended up not liking that much!), if you’re interested.

  27. 57
    MikeMCSG on 10 May 2011 #

    #50 We’ll be returning to the relaxation of those rules in a couple of entries time I think.

  28. 58

    Not sure if it’s evidence of how hard I was working as deputy editor at Wire in 1991, or an indictment of me not doing my job as music critic, but I realise as I play this I’ve never heard it before. Even though I know I own the 12″…

    What it actually makes me think of is that story about Simple Minds c.Belfast Child: that it was Bono’s advice that tricked Jim Kerr into rendering his band forever useless. Well, to me this sounds like U2 trying to be high period Minds. Which is better than any period U2; but they don’t really pull it off.

  29. 59
    Mark G on 10 May 2011 #

    #42, what was the “game” for “Beth Orton” “fans”?

    #58, what “advice”?

    I reckon Julian Cope got it right when he said he couldn’t be ‘pals’ with Jim for one particular reason. There, we can all be gnomic.

  30. 60

    Don’t know the actual concrete content of the advice! Hofmeister Bear mentions the story at Comment 29 on the Belfast Child thread: I assumed it was “be more like U2” (with the subsequently revealed intention of U2 being more like old-school Simple Minds) (ie actually good not bad).

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