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. 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?

  2. 122
    Paytes on 15 Jul 2010 #

    #120 More stuff to blame the Pixies for!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 126
    Billy Smart on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re: 126. Why, thank you very much, Ian. Almost! I am a Doctor of Television Studies, but my thesis is about old BBC versions of Ibsen and Brecht, so I sort of attain high cultural credibility…

  7. 127
    anto on 15 Jul 2010 #

    Re 123: That’s it exactly.
    The last time I saw The Commitments on Channel 4 a few weeks ago I thought ” wern’t there an awful lot of wastelands in the city back then? ”
    Probably all apartment/office blocks now.

  8. 128
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jul 2010 #

    @126 Baal! Dr Billy Smart is responsible for Tin Machine

  9. 129
    thefatgit on 16 Jul 2010 #

    @123 I visited Dublin in 1986 with some mates for a weekend pub crawl (much Guinness consumed, very little food). Not knowing the city well, we would set out from our hotel in Ballsbridge, follow the Liffey into the City and branch out to find as many bars as possible. It was mid afternoon when we stumbled upon a run-down area, not far from the centre of Dublin, which could only be described as The Third World, with much deprivation and hardship. In amongst the piles of rubbish and abandoned shopfronts was a bar that could be mistaken for a public convenience. Feeling brave, we entered and ordered our pints. It smelled like a toilet inside, and the toilet…
    …but the Black Stuff was as sweet and creamy as any I had tasted that day with a friendly guy behind the bar and locals from a storybook. Marvellous. I had little or no idea how deprived the inner city was. Quite an eye-opener.

  10. 130
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jul 2010 #

    Dr. billy@126, congratulations… I (Dr Inhibitor?) attained my own high cultural credibility by doing something vaguely similar to Tom for the years 1830-1860… see Tom, you just needed to WAIT a few years…

  11. 131
    Tom on 19 Jul 2010 #

    Pah! My Doctorate is from the University Of No Life!

  12. 132
    Erithian on 19 Jul 2010 #

    #130 “Can’t believe you gave Mendelssohn a 7 when Schumann got an 8” …

    “why Chopin had to happen” …

  13. 133


  14. 134
    thefatgit on 19 Jul 2010 #

    #130…so you missed out on discussing Tchaikovsky’s “imperial phase”?

  15. 135
    swanstep on 19 Jul 2010 #

    @ace inhibitor, 130. And those years were when Bach’s modern reputation really emerged/locked into place, right? So a Tom-like review of the period would have to struggle with whether to curse this archaic stuff that’s clogging the charts (‘And after its 56th straight week in the top 10, the St Matthew’s Passion is back at #1 again this Xmas…’), or salute its radically mathematical techno polyphony for blitzing the emergent romantic squishes.

  16. 136

    hmph, no bach no chopin: JSB radically enabled the most interesting emergent romantic squish

  17. 137
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jul 2010 #

    I’ll take yr word for it swanstep…. I was too busy poptimistically rescuing the likes of ‘home sweet home’ from the dismissals of the historico-folkist puritans… or something. its been a while

  18. 138
    swanstep on 19 Jul 2010 #

    @lord sukrat, 136. Well, no bach, no beethoven either! I was just struck by ace inhib’s 1830-1860 period choice: post-Beethoven and probably the first generation where Bach’s really widely taught and canonized. The pressure from the past of music on the present is going to feel greater than ever at that point, and the stage is set for *big* arguments about who’s got the right approach to the mighty dead guys who now loom over everything.

    Thinking over my initial quip I guess the nostalgia-prone charts of the ‘late 1980s aren’t (even in jest) a good model for what must have been going on. I do love the idea of Bach’s dancey music emerging out of the past tho’ (things like the double violin concerto sound like I feel love or maybe the SOS band to me! ‘I don’t care about those woodwinds, just be good….’).

  19. 139
    swanstep on 20 Jul 2010 #

    Ahem, an arrangement of some Bach I did to bring out its beats is now up on youtube if anyone’s interested.

  20. 140
    thefatgit on 20 Jul 2010 #

    Swanstep…nice understated beats, but I found myself wanting to hear that meaty kickdrum sample more and more.

  21. 141
    wichita lineman on 20 Jul 2010 #

    Subtract the ‘arach’ from ‘Bacharach’ and you get this loveliness:


  22. 142
    swanstep on 21 Jul 2010 #

    @thefatgit, 140. Thanks. I do hope eventually to figure out a version with kick drum all the way through and a proper, through bass-line. I tried a few things at the time (a year or two back) but nothing obvious worked at all well I found. I liked that Jem song ‘They’ a few years back (here’s its vid) – what happened to her? That’s a great pop use of some stonking Bach I reckon – harder to do than it perhaps looks!

  23. 143
    thefatgit on 23 Jul 2010 #

    Swanstep, it appears that this sort of thing crops up more often than I thought. “Saturn Strobe” by Pantha Du Prince is worth checking out. The source isn’t JSB, but you get the idea of what’s possible. I would provide a YouTube link, but unfortunately my work PC prevents me from doing so.

  24. 144
    Billy Smart on 7 Sep 2010 #

    NMEWatch. Jack Barron, 24 September 1988;

    “Because throwing words at U2 is akin to tossing corn into an idiot wind, the prevailing view amongst the ‘critic’ community, who’ve been rendered impotent by the band’s massive success, seems to be that Bono Vox deserves execution by guillotine: the only problem being that nobody can find a bucket big enough to fit his head.

    ‘Desire’, recorded in Dublin earlier this year, and a taster for the group’s forthcoming double album ‘Rattle And Hum’, needs explanation. Well, it’s startling. A return to basic roots rock after the eerie, panoramic soundscapes of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, and to a lesser extent, ‘The Joshua Tree’.

    Gone is the cathedral of riding textural space illuminated by The Edge’s pristine stained glass guitar and Bono’s fervent purity Vox. And gone too is the openly spiritual facet to be surplanted by what appears to be a fevered sensuality. On ‘Desire’ everything is sweat shrunk, the band’s stadium etheriality has been compacted down to club level.

    The musical construction of the song reflects this as it rolls on the overdeveloped bicep of Bo Diddley’s ‘Not Fade Away’ motif with Bono, all moans and groans, ripping the lyrics from his pelvis instead of the alter and The Edge blumting his strings with lacerated fingers.

    Retro in extreme, ‘Desire’ is U2 simulating hedonism and sleaze. Maybe that they’ve just learned that sex isn’t a four-letter word.”

    Barron awarded Single of the Week to Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Domino Dancing’. Also reviewed that week;

    Strictly Business – EPMD
    Stop This Crazy Thing – Coldcut featuring Junior Reid
    Freak Scene – Dinosaur Jr
    Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? – The Wedding Present
    The Killing Jar – Siouxsie & The Banshees
    A Little Respect – Erasure
    New Anger – Gary Numan

  25. 145
    Billy Smart on 28 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: Caren Myers, September 24 1988;

    “In which U2 rock on down. I don’t know if its cos I’ve been living on a raft in the middle of the Dead Sea, but I was under the misapprehension that U2 do not rock out, because on the 16th day God said: “Thou shalt not rock out unless thine hymn rises up in a massive anthemic swell of glorious flailing guitars”. This is a very trad rock number, with one of those heavy clap-along rhythms, a secular lust song with harmonica, but it stops well short of exciting. Maybe they should forsake all their worldly goods and go live in a garage.”

    Myers awarded no single of the week. Also reviewed that week;

    Siouxsie & The Banshees – The Killing Jar
    Dinosaur Jr – Freak Scene
    The Lilac Time – You’ve Got To Love
    Alexander O’Neal – Fake
    EPMD – Strictly Business
    Talk Talk – I Believe In You
    Erasure – A Little Respect
    Duran Duran – I Don’t Want Your Love
    The Wedding Present – Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?
    Whitney Houston – One Moment In Time

  26. 146
    Iron J on 4 Feb 2012 #

    “Desire” is a bulky, dust-encrusted “I Will Follow”

  27. 147
    windy j on 7 Sep 2013 #

    “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.”

    Great point which cuts to the heart of another matter: the lack of convincingly funky drumming in the 90s/early 00s, by which I mean failed attempts to recreate traditional 60s/70s funk/r&b sound, the end result being a kind of characature of funk; funk with quotation marks (exagerrated swing, popping piccolo snares, etc) Nowadays there are plenty of “authentic” retro revivalists that pretty much nail the sound (sharon jones/daptone/soul fire) but instead of coming across as a characature, it’s more like an ultra high-definition rendering of classic retro stylings… Like the musical equivalent of the cgi in the Life of Pi film.

  28. 148
    wichitalineman on 15 Oct 2014 #

    Bono at the weekend: “U2 is in total harmony with our government’s philosophy. Tax competitiveness has taken our country out of poverty. [The inland revenue] accept that if you engage in that policy then some people are going to go out, and some people are coming in. At the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness. On the cranky left that is very annoying, I can see that. But [that] is why Ireland has stayed afloat.”

    Phew, rock’n’roll.

  29. 149
    Mark G on 15 Oct 2014 #

    Oh good, a rock group in total accord with the government. That’s what we want, isn’t it boys and girls?

  30. 150
    Izzy on 15 Oct 2014 #

    It would be a bit weird were the rock group composed of 20-year-olds. But for a group of 50-somethings why shouldn’t it be a position to take?

  31. 151
    Tom on 15 Oct 2014 #

    I don’t agree with their position, but I guess I’d rather a band think about this stuff and articulate it rather than dodge the tax anyway and then blink innocently when it’s found out with much talk of ‘our accountants’.

  32. 152
    wichitalineman on 15 Oct 2014 #

    That’s true enough. Then again, I imagine (from experience) most bands leave the whole thing for their accountants to sort out and are therefore genuinely ignorant of what said accountant is up to. So it’s quite unusual for Bono to take a hands-on approach to tax avoidance.

  33. 153
    Cumbrian on 15 Oct 2014 #

    My take on this is that here’s a guy who wanted to get involved with tackling global poverty and is somewhat politically engaged and has spent quite a bit of time with global leaders discussing what is going on and so on. Seemed like his heart was in the right place to start with but now he’s spent a lot of time talking to neo-con politicans and neo-liberal economists, his tune has changed a little. The charitable reading of this is that he’s thought about it and articulated his behaviour. My view is that he’s probably not smart enough to have argued against these guys based on his original principles and has had his mind changed for him due to his contact with the relevant people. Again, charitably, he might have been thinking throughout this process but it’s more likely he’s accepted that which authority has told him. In other words, and much less charitably, he’s been lying down with dogs – is there any wonder he has got up with fleas?

  34. 154
    weej on 16 Oct 2014 #

    Bono is the Tony Blair of pop music

  35. 155
    hectorthebat on 24 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 874
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 889
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 675
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 10
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 25

  36. 156

    […] far so good. Then Rattle and Hum. The first single “Desire” gets a drubbing, but The Edge’s riff and the rhythm section’s take on the sainted Bo Diddley rhythm […]

  37. 157
    benson_79 on 20 Oct 2020 #

    What a wonderful review. “…as if rock itself has just sucked him off” might be one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

  38. 158
    Alexander Darling on 24 Apr 2021 #

    Appealing enough, but not much of a song here. Bono and the boys appeared to be coasting at this point. 5/10.

  39. 159
    Gareth Parker on 6 May 2021 #

    There is a nice vibe to this track. I don’t really think the melody is that strong, but I could still go to a 7/10 here.

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