11
Feb 14

U2 – “Discotheque”

Popular121 comments • 12,695 views

#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. 31
    Ed on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #13 TBH, pre-punk bands weren’t very good at improvising in the moment, either, were they? I mean, I love Jimi Hendrix, but Hendrix making considered decisions in the studio >>>>> Hendrix making spontaneous decisions on stage.

    #22 Comparison also unfair because the RZA was at a very different stage of his career. He too would succumb to bloat and lack of focus and inspiration soon enough.

  2. 32
    Chelovek na lune on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #30 It wasn’t the dressing up so much that caught my eye, and made me wonder, so much as it was in one part of the video (sorry, can’t link now, but I think it was about half-way through) where there was a rather mocking (or a least dismissive) camp dance move (with exaggerated hand movements). I very much doubt any malice was intended (there is much to accuse U2 and Bono of, but not that) , but it did strike me as being potentially open to that interpretation/reading, intentionally or otherwise.

  3. 33
    Ciaran (the other one) on 11 Feb 2014 #

    The return of what Basil Fawlty might have called “The Bleedin’ Obvious”.

    There is a ghost of Zoo TV somewhere in the Pop era U2, and I had a certain respect for their attempts to shake off the thudding predictability of the old rock U2 during that 1991-1995 period. To be fair, some of their experiments worked really well; most notably the Passengers project. But by the time they were doing press conferences for the Pop Mart tour, and saying things like “pop is kitsch” (which, depending on your point of view, is either a banal truism delivered 30 years too late or maddeningly wrong-minded), I had enough. My reaction to Pop-era U2 could be summed up with the phrase “You can shove right off, pal.”

    (I don’t suppose it really needs much illustration, but the sheer gall of these artistically spent idiots – who were working at the same time as TLC and the Spice Girls and Blur and Pulp and many others – calling pop “kitsch”! It still annoys me! The Village People costumes in the video, their declarations of irony at press conferences, the utter wrongness of it all is quite breath-taking.)

    I do recall a lot of talk at the time from Bono and The “Edge” about how they were really into Underworld, The Prodigy and Orbital now, and for a millisecond I thought maybe the Pop sessions would yield something genuinely interesting. But U2 really struggle with anything outside the Bleedin’ Obvious so ‘Discotheque’ is a hamfisted mess.

    I was prepared to give it a 4 out of 10, just because of the presence of that trace of what made them quite good for a brief time, and because there is a tiny bit of light and shade in the transition from the horrible riff to the non-chorus/bridge. I’ll compromise by awarding ‘Discotheque’ a 3.

    U2 do seem keen to reawaken the (sort of) underdog spirit which set the context for Achtung Baby. At various points from here on in they repeat the mantra that they’re on the verge of irrelevance and need to pull something special out of the bag to become the biggest Band In The World (or whatever silly imagined prize it is they have their eyes on). They attempted to manage expectations for their 2000, 2004 and 2009 releases, and now I see they’re doing it again.

  4. 34
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #31: fair enough, but I think some were genuinely better than others, and it was a mode you could reasonably be expected to address. The “blues jam” is perhaps not the high-point of pop cultural glory, but it does at least gesture at an ethos of on-stage spontaneity (albeit an often rather leaden-footed one, under considerable highly conventional constraints). Especially if you move off towards the more fusion-y realms of prog — which in its roots at least (Cream, King Crimson) had an educated ear for free jazz.

  5. 35
    Tom on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Have they now entered that most dreaded of rock phases, the Perpetual Return To Form?

  6. 36
    Will on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Actually this is one of my favourite U2 singles. For me it manages to capture that disorientating, ‘not-quite-sure-if-I-like being here’ feeling of being in a club on the wrong night.

    The less said about the video the better though and the Village People homage just made me squirm at the time.

  7. 37
    @JackFeerick on 11 Feb 2014 #

    A lot here I disagree with, a lot that I’d interpret otherwise, but some damn fine writing: http://t.co/ZCOzDodJld

  8. 38
    Tim on 11 Feb 2014 #

    I’m struck by the non-traditional middle-finger pointing technique that cowboy Larry Mullen Jr is deploying in the photo at the top of the page. I am not finding any particular meaning in it but, having noticed, I am finding it quite distracting.

  9. 39
    Ciaran (the other one) on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #35: If there is a whiff of 80s onwards Rolling Stones about U2 these days, it’s their own fault. Perhaps they’re just honest enough to admit when their efforts fall below their own expectations or standards. But I do wonder how often we have to hear Bono say, like a disappointing English team at the World Cup: “This time we’ll get it right”, or words to that effect.

  10. 40
    23 Daves on 11 Feb 2014 #

    I probably haven’t listened to this song properly since it was first released in ’97, and I really wasn’t expecting to find the experience so frustrating. I wasn’t previously aware that this (and indeed most of “Pop”) was cobbled together from largely unfinished parts, but God it’s no surprise, and above all else the wasted potential sounds huge. There are brief little glimpses of elements in this track which sound as if they’re about to truly soar and go somewhere different, and in the hands of anyone else trying to create a genuine dance anthem they would – but in the blink of an eye the band always fall back into the fly-infested swamp of that buzzing central riff again. Those little diversions seem to indicate that the band didn’t really have enough working knowledge of what they were trying to emulate, really, but if they’d sat down for long enough with the right producer or mixer and relinquished control they might have come up with something a lot better than this.

    This is an ugly and shapeless record which teases you into thinking it’s going to deliver more than it actually does.

    As for comparisons to “One Love” – that’s a tad unfair. It was a disappointing release for The Stone Roses fanbase, but it’s still a hell of a lot more coherent than this. Some parts of this (though not all) could be more fairly compared to late-period EMF or Jesus Jones on a disappointing day. If they’d handled their remixes themselves.

  11. 41
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 11 Feb 2014 #

    “Jesus Jones on a disappointing day”

    Have to marvel a little at the effect this phrase has on the reader…

  12. 42
    anto on 11 Feb 2014 #

    As much as I would like to fight U2’s corner I can’t deny that ‘Discotheque’ is indeed a stringy non-song where the gross over-produced sound just draws attention to what’s not there and it’s certainly where I got off the bus with theband.
    It was unfortunate timing that it’s release occurred very close to ‘Earthling’ by David Bowie. The two together made superstars attempting ‘cutting edge’ dance sounds seem very mid-life crisis all of a sudden.
    Just as ‘Go West’ would have been a good place for the Pet Shop Boys to go their sperate ways, part of me thinks the mid-nineties were the point where U2 should have started winding things up. The Edge could have gone into film soundtracks, Clayton/Mullen become producers and Bono could have quit music altogether to pursue charity/altruistic work, privately.
    What’s really galling is that U2 were much more interesting re-mapping their own territory as on the excellent ‘Zooropa’ and with ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me….’ -which really should have been a number one – they showed they could come up with a camp pop delight if they put their minds to it. Even if disbanding had become unthinkable at this point, I would have preferred it if they had kept up the innovation (as oppossed to appropriation) and toned down the irony. I’ve never had that big a problem with U2 being straight-faced, as with Radiohead it’s their basic nature when all is said and done. Pop Mart was a queasy and expensive way of dragging out a point. All that ‘we’re really into kitsch we are’ business – very off-putting.

  13. 43
    Steve Mannion on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Can’t help wondering if at any point during the making of the video the question of what to do re the conspicuous-by-absence fifth Village Person came up. Maybe their aforementioned self-awareness kicked in here or perhaps Bono had excitedly grabbed the feathered head-dress initially before TheEdge rolled his eyes and Adam solemnly wagged a finger.

    edit: actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the VP dress-up has as much to do with them as the Spice Girls (can imagine Bono’s take on their assigned-personas being that it reminded him of the VP in either good or bad or both ways).

  14. 44
    @HalifaxTech on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Thoughts, @MrBasquill? MT @RyanMcNutt: Tom Ewing piece on the failure of U2′s “Discotechque” http://t.co/omUNkUJMxe

  15. 45
    Rory on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Anto @42: a good point about toning down the irony, and yet apart from the video for this single and the tour accoutrements there’s precious little irony on Pop: the lyrics are all pretty earnest. “Wake Up Dead Man”, for example. This album could have been U2 at their straight-faced-est if they’d packaged and produced it differently; most of the songs would have worked that way. But Zooropa – which seems to me their only “ironic” album, lyrically at least – cast too long a shadow at this point.

    I always wished they hadn’t pulled their punches with the “Mofo” lyrics. “Mother sucking rock and roll”, indeed.

  16. 46
    Tom on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #43 haha yeah of all the ‘statesmen of rock’ Bono is one where you get the impression he always has the urge to ‘respond to’ some pop-cultural trend completely outside his wheelhouse.

    #44 indeed, funk dat.

  17. 47
    lonepilgrim on 11 Feb 2014 #

    this sounds like a relentless pounding dirge to me – and not in a good way. Queen are not a band I particularly like but they managed to produce rockabilly and disco pastiches which suggest that the band found the genres amusing but enjoyable. This sounds ham-fisted and sour. I don’t think U2 can do ambiguity with any degree of subtlety and their sincere moments just become wearing.

  18. 48
    Cumbrian on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #32: Isn’t that hand gesture (plus what Bono is wearing when he makes it) a piss take out of Saturday Night Fever, rather than anything else? Though the fact that it can be misinterpreted suggests that it might not be particularly effective…

  19. 49
    fivelongdays on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Oh Tom, why must you be so ambiguous? Tell us what you really think…

    In truth, I don’t really like U2 that much – although probably not for the same reasons as Tom – and if anything, this review has marked this up a little for me – the idea of being outside a club excuses the murky work.

    It rather sounds like U2 were trying to say ‘Hey kids! We like electronica too’ and not QUITE getting it right.

    A quick addendum – all my favourite U2 songs (‘Mysterious Ways’, ‘Stuck In A Moment’, erm, that’s it) didn’t get to the top. Hmm…

    I think I’ll give it 5. I’m in a good mood.

  20. 50
    anto on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #45- Oddly enough I’ve never heard the ‘Pop’ album and thinking about it now I only recall one review which suggested it was a comedown from ‘Zoo TV’ – certainly the grey sleeve hinted that the albums title was actually ahem..ironic.
    There were some very scathing reviews for Pop Mart itself and any radio/TV broadcasts of their shows around this time felt vaguely exhausting, as though they were trying to be too many different things at once.

  21. 51
    @sIaylorswift on 11 Feb 2014 #

    “@thediscomonkey: @taylorswift13 take a few notes from dis, k? http://t.co/Ikbxa0Bhyu” 👀

  22. 52
    laerm on 11 Feb 2014 #

    I don’t think I’ve commented before, but the ideas behind this monstrosity are so interesting that I feel compelled to finally jump in with some disjointed thoughts.

    Yes, monstrosity, as in Frankenstein. I hesitate to call myself a U2 fan: War through Zooropa are all pretty listenable to me, and I like the bombast of about half this album, but what they’ve done (musically, personally) after Pop has been…I wanna say reprehensible, but I don’t think they betrayed me, so perhaps not, but maybe; we’ll see.

    It’s both brave and not-brave for U2 to decide to do what they thought was going to be their version of a techno album at this point. Howie B, the Chems, Underworld, yes, they all thought they were going to jumble them up with their schtick and find a new world. The last time rock seriously ran up against dance music and sequencers and such was the early ’80s: the successful bands were the ones whose rhythm sections were onboard with losing work to machines. Hard to find a better example than New Order (Hooky perhaps less so, but my point stands). U2’s rhythm section just had a successful (by various definitions) full-electronic take on the Mission: Impossible theme, so it seems safe to assume that they were more than fine with being button pushers. So, if New Order could do it, I’d’ve bet that U2 could more than handle it with the production team. Flood had Depeche, Howie B had Howie B, and Steve Osborne did all those Curve records (which, when you get down to it, “Discotheque” is just ripping the formula from and cheesing it up).

    So it sorta sucked. At the time, my listening habits were nearly exclusively electronic (but I liked Zooropa and Achtung a bunch) so I was looking forward to this. U2 got seduced by bleepy stuff! Yeah! It took me about three years to realize what a mess it is. Then it took me another few years to realize it’s – at times – a really fun mess. As a few commenters mention, “Mofo” is the only track on the album that truly lives up to the promise of the idea.

    So, yeah, maybe they did betray me. Maybe they dug in to the idea and realized they could enjoy it ironically, at a distance. I got whiffs of mockery in the D video too, but at the time I threw it off as part and parcel of a crap tune. I don’t think it’s pure uncut homophobia now, but I think it lives on the same street.

    Or maybe this is hindsight and my wanting to find a single obvious point to completely write off Bono. Irrelevant, probably.

    Then, I gave it a 7, I bet. Now? 3 at best.

  23. 53
    Auntie Beryl on 11 Feb 2014 #

    U2 used to be experts at selecting the gauntlet-down attention grabbing comeback single. Avoiding bunnies, they released Pride, With Or Without You, Desire, The Fly, and I guess Numb (was it a proper single?)

    I’d argue that all of those, whilst not being universally great, at least made a statement, set a marker for the parent album, and allowed a discourse about where the band had ended up after recording.

    This fails on that level and doesn’t really reflect the contents of Pop, either. The strongest tracks to my ears on that album were If God Would Send His Angels and Wake Up Dead Man, both of which could have appeared on Rattle And Hum without too many people crying foul. The 90s U2 were audibly running out of steam.

    Discotheque’s a double disappointment. Didn’t sell the album contents, weak as a standalone track. Twelve years would pass before they’d make the same mistake again.

  24. 54
    ciaran on 11 Feb 2014 #

    U2’s return was a big event in 1997 for people of my age as apart from the ‘Achtung Baby’ period we had not really experienced them in their full glory save for Hold Me… in 1995. Even with that song the animated video kept the band at arms length.

    Expectations were very high and with Britpop starting to present a threat to u2 we would have expected a huge response. Unlike The Stone Roses or the Smiths who didnt quite have the staying power, Blur/Oasis weren’t really going to disappear quietly so U2 had competition to fight off for our affections now.

    Discotheque was a bit of everything good and bad about U2. Each artist playing their part, the lively groove, the arrogance, the dreadful video which may have helped inspire Alan Partridge lap dances, the bands 90’s habit of making songs longer than they should be and the band willing to turn their hand to whatever the hell they liked. The choice of song looked somewhat at odds with the prevailing big beat sound.

    The video to me is a bit strange because the village people were not all glitterballs, satin shirts and dance halls IIRC. Maybe the likes of Chic were but the VP were more out in the open air and dance routine based than anything else so what U2 were trying to do here is a but misguided.

    I liked Discotheque when I first heard it and didnt lack for promotion but with the ‘Pop’ not far away it was soon ignored. Now that one of the others mentioned U2’s simpsons appearance this is like the episode where Principal Skinner is revealed to be an imposter from the same year.The Judge announces no one will ever mention this ever again towards the end. This also could apply to U2 around this time and with ‘The sweetest thing’ and 80s u2 nostalgia around the corner it was back to basics soon after.

    This I’d imagine didn’t win U2 any new fans but I couldn’t agree with Tom’s score.Certainly not the worst thing about Popular 97. A 5 or 6.

  25. 55
    @theseantcollins on 11 Feb 2014 #

    I have much higher tolerance for Pop-era U2 (and rock) but @tomewing’s piece on Discotheque is fascinating http://t.co/6pqNUEy5MU

  26. 56
    @bobbker on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Man, @tomewing really crushed this essay on U2 and “rockism” (among other things) out of the park. http://t.co/Xf4uUTgnXa

  27. 57
    lmm on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #20 are you referring to the LMC track or something else?

  28. 58
    mapman132 on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #56 Referring to the LMC track.

  29. 59
    Matt DC on 11 Feb 2014 #

    In 1997 there were bands left right and centre chucking a string section on everything and pulling U2-esque Big Rock moves and yet at the time it felt like there was no band more anachronistic than actual U2.

    Take Bono off this and it sounds it your standard rocky Big Beat remix, early Death in Vegas or something, but it’s a terrible, awkward look for them. No wonder everyone laughed at them at the time.

    The third track on Pop was, hilariously, called Mofo. I just remembered that.

  30. 60
    AMZ1981 on 11 Feb 2014 #

    My popular account is linked in with my WordPress account which in turn is linked in with an account I set up originally to post on a Yorkshire Chess forum – which is why I’ve ended up with a picture that shows me busy at my other great passion besides music.

    I mention this because the week this was at number one I was returning from a junior chess match with another young player who I remember singing this on the coach (the riff and the title bit). Twelve years later he and I would see U2 at Wembley together.

    I’m a fan so I’m biased. I also liked Pop a lot at the time; although I revisited it recently and it didn’t sound as good as I remember. A glance at U2’s previous and future number ones suggests that they had a deliberate habit of choosing strange first singles – from Rattle & Hum onwards at any rate. That album was no classic but offered better than the inconsequential Desire, The Fly is great but there were more obvious singles from Achtung Baby and two albums from here they’d announce the album and top the chart with a piece of filler. Some of Pop does past muster and the next two singles; Staring At The Sun (3) and Last Night On Earth (10) are better than Discotheque. And speaking as a fan any of these songs are better than the vile piece of Tony Blair approved dad rock that became their next number one.

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