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Feb 14

U2 – “Discotheque”

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#760, 15th February 1997

Discotheque A year before this, U2 just missed the top with one of their best singles: “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”, a glam tidbit recorded for a Batman soundtrack that revels in its nocturnal, glitzy movie-theme moves. It might have sounded throwaway but it also sounded like a slinky, knowing good time – proof, you might have thought, that the reinvented New U2 of the 90s had bedded in and were comfortable in their shiny skins. They were working on a new LP. It was to be called Pop. Perhaps the best from them was yet to come?

In the light of this, you might charitably call “Discotheque” ‘unexpected’. You might also call it a confused, lumbering wreck of a track that burrows and bellows in search of a hook beyond its one shabby riff. It’s one of the poorest excuses for a major release we’ll encounter, the moment at which not only the great U2 experiment in post-modern popmaking, but an entire school of thought about rock comes off the rails.

“Discotheque” sounds half-finished because it was half-finished. The whole Pop album was scuppered because, having already spent forever working on scraps for it, the band went ahead and let management book a world tour, to kick off in Spring 1997. Just as the implacable timetables of mobilisation made the First World War inevitable, so too did the logistics of giant mirrorballs and colossal cocktail sticks doom U2’s comeback. The group were still fucking around in the studio, sampling other people, sampling themselves, experimenting with ‘loops’ – they ended up rushing songs to completion just to get a record out.

It was no way for the Biggest Band in the World to operate, but that was part of the problem. Behind its rejection of revivalism, Achtung Baby had hidden a deeper revival, a return to the old Beatles dream – the promise that the “biggest” band in the world could also be at the leading edge of pop culture. Even as someone with no time for U2, I had to admit that the pop-political theatre of ZooTV had come enticingly close to doing that – no wonder the U2 of 1996 bet foolishly big on the PopMart Tour.

This time it wasn’t going to happen, on tour or on record. You can pin the crash on the lack of Eno, perhaps – instead Howie B was brought in as a resident DJ – but Eno had helped cause the crisis in the first place. Eno’s famous methods – Oblique Strategies and so forth – are tools for focusing, which means they’re also an acknowledgement that a loss of focus is likely in the first place. Crucially, Eno honed his methods working with rock bands and artists who were deliberately trying to work with new genres and styles and bring them into their music. This was a main source of progress in the post-punk world – a potted definition of what being innovative meant in rock. It wasn’t so much an ‘imperial phase’ as a imperialist one – reaching out across musics and countries to find new things to incorporate into the body of rock. Dub, reggae, African music, minimalism, disco, rap, noise, techno….

As Eno realised, and U2 discovered, doing this came with a price – a loss of purpose, as musicians more at home with tinkering and learning-by-doing than grand theory wandered in playgrounds of experiment, paralysed by options. The Pop sessions involved endless, fruitless, sampling, for instance, and vast numbers of hired hands brought in to jam and lend ideas. The Eno method, as is clear in its absence, wasn’t meant to spark creativity so much as forcibly limit it just to get stuff done.

Meanwhile, the imperialist idea of rock as a force that can absorb all other musics created some great records, but it rested on a huge inefficiency. At its core there tended to be a band, who not only had to force all these ideas into shapes they might play live, but who also had to find a creative consensus on what was worth doing, and demonstrate the ability to do useful things with all these ideas. Most of which U2 seemed to flunk. “Discotheque” essentially sounds like a jam, and an unpromising one at that. The single it feels most like to me – also breathlessly awaited, also disastrous – is The Stone Roses’ meandering comeback “One Love”, but U2 don’t even have the cock-eyed optimism of 1990 to lean on.

Instead they go for cynicism. For all the haplessness of “Discotheque”’s creation, Bono is a pro, and knows how to talk up – and dress up – a dodgy record. “Discotheque” sounds like feeling sick at 2AM outside a nightclub, hearing the beat’s muffled thump through the wall, and that’s one way of piecing together its scrappy lyrics and excusing its miserable churn. “You know you’re chewing bubblegum… You just can’t get enough / Of that lovey-dovey stuff” sneers whoever Bono’s playing this time: if it’s taking a shot at cheap pop entertainment, the blow fails to land, because this alternative is so obviously a shitty time, neither inspiring or provoking.

U2′s working practise seemed to be to ride an approach till it flamed out. Just as Rattle And Hum had bounced U2 into backing down on pure revivalism, so Pop was cause for a second rethink. There’s a particular kind of 90s rock practise which gets mortally wounded on “Discotheque” – the big budget, everything-fusion album packed with superproducers and hangers-on. Taxi for Howie B, in other words. But while bands will still adopt and adapt to other music – and sometimes, like Radiohead, be loved for it – “Discotheque” also threatens to hold up as threadbare the entire vision of rock as the natural base of musical progress. If “rockism” has ever meant anything, it means what happened on this record – an assumption that other musics exist to provide new directions and stealable ideas to four rock guys in a guitar/bass/vox/drums lineup.

It’s telling that the breakdown of the New U2 happens on the album where they decided to really embrace sampling. Hip-hop not only proved very difficult for rock to assimilate, it was far better at realising rock’s syncretic pretensions – of being a core of popular music which could absorb and adapt to anything else. In fact, it did this quite casually, and more efficiently than the rock band model had since the late 60s. The telescoping of ‘band’ into a single beatmaker let borrowings happen more quickly and with less compromise, and the competition between producers to supply beats to popular or rising-star acts meant the turnover of ideas was fierce. This may not seem relevant to U2, though let me cruelly point out that during the multi-producer elephant gestation of Pop, the RZA had managed to produce the entirety of 4 well-beloved LPs and most of Wu-Tang Forever. But Pop wasn’t some legendary over-budget folly of a record, it was an album planned, produced and marketed to a more-or-less standard corporate rock timetable. The bigger the band, the longer the album/tour cycle lasted – but that cycle was creatively ruinous. It was both a mortally inefficient way to handle a genuine artistic hot streak, and fearsomely effective at exposing the lack of one.

Post-mortems of 1997 in rock provided a neat moral lesson – a contrast between Oasis, doubling down on tradition and overreaching themselves, and Radiohead, looking outwards and forwards in critical triumph. We’ll get a chance to reassess Oasis in a few weeks, but even before then the draggy, floundering “Discotheque” provides some useful complication. Bands could be gigantic, ambitious, entirely convinced of the virtue of progression – and end up making terrible records anyhow. The apparent choice between moving forward and looking back covered up deeper problemns. In the callous language of modern business, rock music was ripe for disruption.

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Comments

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  1. 101
    Tom on 13 Feb 2014 #

    As I said on Twitter last night, “It’s like some kind of horrific cosmological constant: rock music shrinks at the exact rate required for U2 to remain the biggest thing in it.”

  2. 102
    swanstep on 13 Feb 2014 #

    I think, with Rory, that there’s been a ton of good rock since 1997, but last year felt especially notable, what with breakthroughs for Savages and Haim, Deafheaven’s shoegaze-metal opus Sunbather (my fave album of the year along with), Yeezus being pretty much rock, healthy returns from MBV, Bowie, and Wire, promising young-uns like Big Deal, and so on (e.g., albums by Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, and Vampire Weekend that didn’t grab me but that lots of people dug).

  3. 103
    Billy Hicks on 13 Feb 2014 #

    Muse are perhaps the best group of the next century that hurts me the most to think we’ll never be able to discuss them on Popular.

    Depeche Mode for the previous, both groups coincidentally sharing an all-time chart peak at #4.

  4. 104
    punctum on 13 Feb 2014 #

    Perhaps you’d like to discuss both acts when we get to them over at Then Play Long. We could do with some decent comments.

  5. 105
    Billy Hicks on 13 Feb 2014 #

    Had forgotten Depeche ever had a #1 album! And connects them further as both groups had their first #1 in a year ending with the numeral 3. And the ones prior to that perhaps being their best album (Violator, Origin of Symmetry) but just falling short.

    Looking forward to it when TPL enters the 90s, plenty of Erasure releases to look forward to before then too.

  6. 106
    baztech. on 13 Feb 2014 #

    Hello, haven’t commented on here for a while… But I will try to put some input from now on, but I am really acting as a sponge soaking in you lot’s wisdom!
    I may be wrong, but think I am around the same age as you Billy Hicks. I was 9 in 1997, and so can start to relate to some of these…
    Before now I only have flickering images of dancing to Saturday Night or No Limit (a perennial favourite of my youth according to my mum, along with Jason Donovan hits… – I despair).
    Just listened to Discotheque for the first time (understandably I have no memory of this one) and all I can say is it sounds confused and confusing in equal rates!

  7. 107
    @crumbler on 13 Feb 2014 #

    ““Discotheque” sounds like feeling sick at 2AM outside a nightclub.” http://t.co/OWTLiRTH9U cc @MeganMFinnerty

  8. 108
    fivelongdays on 14 Feb 2014 #

    Whoa, hold on there guys. Rock is not dead. Never has been, never will be.

    I know I’ve expressed my bewilderment at the continued use of the worthless term ‘rockism’ in the past, but I think there’s some serious trolling going on here.

    Firstly, Rock is a pretty big word. It encompasses everything from Snow Patrol to Slayer. And – at the heavier end, at least – wide commercial appeal matters less than some kind of cultic following.

    Secondly, if we are being specific, isn’t the so-called death of rock REALLY the death of Indie? But are you too scared to admit that?

    Thirdly, commercial death (though I’d argue that ain’t neccesarily the case) does not equate to creative/artistic death.

    Fourthly, if we’re talking about so-called rockism then what about the comments on the *thinks* Breathe thread which said (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘This is not proper dance music! Why ate there guitars? We need plinkly piano and some woman warbling about how she’s going to set you free, how there’s love on the dancefloor and how she’ll take you higher?’?

    Apologies for any typos – am writing this on my mobile. Normally I’d wait until I’m on an actual computer, but thought I needed to say something.

  9. 109
    Andrew Farrell on 14 Feb 2014 #

    Weren’t those comments by you?

  10. 110
    Cumbrian on 14 Feb 2014 #

    Re: Rock dying or not/cyclical nature of genres coming and going (with them possibly being augmented). Is there anything in this theory I have been tinkering with?

    Is it something to do with the musical interests of the parents of the acts that are making music? Dangerous to extrapolate from one’s own experiences but nevertheless, here goes – when I was a kid, my parents played music in the house and in the car. Stuff that they liked principally. To an extent, looking back on it now, it has shaped my interests (Dad – Stones not Beatles -> my looking for something with a bit of a harder edge when I am listening now; Mum loved Queen -> I also like stuff with a bit of a grab bag philosophy and a flair for the dramatic; both more into guitar/rock music more than anything else, and that is the route that I took into music as a result – whilst I love lots of stuff my parents would think a racket, I’m on firmest ground as to why I like certain things when operating within the rock area). The consequence being that, if I were able to carry a tune or actually had musical talent, I’d probably be most interested in trying my hand at rock of some stripe.

    I don’t think I am alone in this – some artists appear to be operating in a similar way. Paul McCartney leaning on music hall and older sounds in some of his work may well reflect what his parents listened to in his formative years. The Gallagher Brothers parents supposedly only really had Beatles albums lying around, along with a stack of Greatest Hits of various bands. There’s a number of other examples knocking around.

    My point then – the artists currently making music are the children from the parents in the generation following my parents; a generation that didn’t just listen to rock but were listening to new pop, rave and house, 80s hip-hop, etc. If these parents were listening to these records at home more than rock records, might it be the case that current trends are being informed by these formative experiences, which means rock takes a bit of a back seat. Assuming this is right, and people my age (early-mid 30s) who are now having kids and might still be listening to Britpop, or at least have a number of these records sitting around in their homes, do similar things, we might see a rock/Britpop revival in about 20 years time.

    Is there anything in this or am I talking bollocks as usual? It’s obviously not the only influence but it strikes me that it might be somewhat of a factor.

    Oh look, my De La Soul downloads have finished. Onto the next thing.

  11. 111
    Ed on 15 Feb 2014 #

    @89 Sadly Punctum I don’t have the budget, but would love to hear your thoughts :).

    @92 and @98: Muse are a good counter-example to my argument. They are recognisably working in the rock tradition, but also doing something quite distinctive. (As you say, that tradition includes both Queen and U2, which is obvious now, although they appeared antithetical back in 1981.) And, as you also point out, Muse are massively popular.

    I have never been a huge fan, but I saw them at Glastonbury in 2010 and they were terrific. Confirming that point about rock tradition, Matt Bellamy messed around with AC/DC riffs between songs, and they brought on The Edge to do Where The Streets Have No Name.

    @108 Tom’s Pitchfork column linked to @96 is very good about genres “dying”. Of course the language is hyperbolic. It’s not literally true: people are still making rock music. But the idea is appealing because it captures a sense that, however you judge it – excitement, cultural significance, artistic innovation, being “a driving force in popular music”, as Tom put it here – rock is no longer where it’s at.

    Those are all slippery concepts, of course. But I would defy anyone to look at rock in 1997 or 2007 and tell me it was still as vital then on any of those counts as it was in 1967 or 1977.

    I guess the analogy is with calling Latin a “dead language”. Latin is still taught all over the world, and used in some places (although not many of them outside the Vatican, I admit). The great works of Latin poetry and prose are eternal landmarks of human achievement, and they would enrich your life if you read them But it is hardly unfair to say the language is dead.

  12. 112
    Baztech on 15 Feb 2014 #

    @108 @111

    I suppose the whole rock and indie labels needs to be discussed. It appears that indie followed a similar delayed trajectory from when it begun (although when would you say it did begin..? With “Where’s Captain Kirk?”…) as rock. And now are both waning in terms of popularity. There’s still some corking bands IMO, (Horrors still going strong, Metronomy, Django Django, etc).

    Could it be both are in relative hibernation and could reappear in the charts soon, perhaps transformed? Or will we have to cope with “Pop singer + rapper” combos for infinity?

  13. 113
    Andrew Farrell on 16 Feb 2014 #

    I think it’s okay for genres to die, to everything there is a season, but sometimes there is a child born with granddad’s face, and people act funny around it.

  14. 114
    Rory on 11 Sep 2014 #

    Burning question of the day: “who is U2 and why is their album on my phone?

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