Feb 14

U2 – “Discotheque”

Popular121 comments • 12,781 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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  1. 61
    iconoclast on 11 Feb 2014 #

    (Written before reading any comments; please note!)

    Every long-lived band inevitably faces a career dip at some point and releases a dud album as a result. With Queen it was _Hot Space_, an ill-advised excursion into funk; with R.E.M. it was both _Up_, which flailed about in the aftermath of Bill Berry’s departure, and the dreary _Around The Sun_, which seemingly went out of its way not to offend anybody. U2’s equivalent is the not-very-excitingly-titled _Pop_, which marked the point at which the reinvention responsible for _Achtung Baby_, arguably their best album, and the playful _Zooropa_, ran out of creative steam.

    Tom has already covered the reasons why, but it’s clear that, as is so often the case with this type of music, so much time was spent on the noises that the band seems to forgotten about the actual song. Thus “Discothèque” consists of heavily-treated vocals and a single guitar riff distributed seemingly at random on top of an overelaborate percussive backing, with only Adam Clayton emerging with any credit. It’s energetic and noisy, but ultimately hollow and too long. The best that can be said about is that – unlike the case with the first song I reviewed here – U2 have enough natural songcrafting instincts that the results are at least listenable. FIVE.

  2. 62
    laerm on 11 Feb 2014 #

    # 60: I loathed “Staring at the Sun” until I heard the acoustic version they played on tour. Good idea. Amusing-to-great idea: acoustic versions of all Pop tunes.

    Really, the album is more worthy of discussion than this tune, but it does work as a microcosm of sorts. (And, just because nobody has said so yet: “Please” is f’in’ killer.)

  3. 63
    thefatgit on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Steve Mannion @22, being in spectacularly grumpy mood this morning, I leapt in with a bad tempered and poorly argued piece of thankfully brief spleen-venting. I re-read my post and stand by most of it. This thread has taken off with some fascinating observations, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought “Pop” was, being as charitable as I can, the moment they jumped the shark.

    I stopped short of crossing the Rubicon by avoiding “this is homophobia” in my own post @8. “Verging” is carrying an awful lot of weight, and I should have edited that sentence out, and replaced it with a far more palatable “this is misguided” or something. I don’t honestly believe U2 are homophobic, and I’m positive the video’s director asked them to camp it up. I’m ok with straights camping it up, so long as certain rules remain unbroken.

    Yes, they did do VP a disservice, because VP were being used to signify something missing from the music. The same accusation could be levelled at the Spice Girls, but they were finding their feet and didn’t have a 9th album to sell. VP have so often been the go-to meme for signifying disco culture, when I saw the video, I regarded it as a lazy move. If Bono and pals wanted to dance inside a mirror ball, then that would have been enough. The whole thing with the stiff dance routines and the frankly unnecessary hip-thrusts was frankly embarrassing to watch.

    To be fair, I should be judging only the song and not dragging the album into it. There have been defenders of certain tracks off the album and that’s fair enough, but I can’t find anything on there worth defending. But back to the song. It’s not the melding of rock and dance music I’m railing against. U2 had as much right to dip into dance music as anyone, but first you need to have at least some love for it. I found no love here. It was a corporate move, and that’s how I treated it. One of my favourite bands was Blondie, who turned rock/disco into high art with “Heart Of Glass” and Tomfave “Atomic”. You could tell there was love at the heart of what Blondie did. The concept of U2 doing pop? What was “Into The Heart” but an amped up “Song For Guy”? What was “I Will Follow” but Joy Division observed through a Pop lens? So how galling was it when Bono said “Pop is kitsch”? Maybe a more accurate statement would have been “U2 is kitsch”. Given that, then we could have revelled in the irony, rather than baulked at it. Pop Mart could have been viewed differently as well. After all they were self-aware enough to pull that off and probably brought some of their wavering fans along with them. Despite all this, I still consider myself a U2 fan, but “Pop” and this single had me wondering if I’d been sold a lemon.

  4. 64
    Steve Mannion on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Probably my big gripe with the album was how much of it DOESN’T sound like Howie B and Steve Osborne were really involved and the two put their name to more worthwhile tracks in ’97 like ‘Angels Go Bald: Too’ and Osborne (with Oakenfold) on a remix of a forthcoming #1 which I still love. Or rather I don’t really see the point of their involvement in this album (where much of it focuses on keeping certain boring aspects of the band’s ‘brand’ afloat alongside the statements it’s best known for making (successfully or otherwsie), even at the expense of Edge’s sound – which you could also argue is evoked more effectively on the ‘Professional Widow’ remix) – go hard or go home lads.

    More a foreseeable disappointment than an unmitigated disaster although it is really hard to imagine a stadium rock band ever having been able to make an album that incorporates production trends of the time deemed as ‘foreign’ to them (even tho as we know U2 had forged closer connections to dance music years before most other rock bands via the likes of Morales and Oakenfold – who was still milking that Lemon remix riff even at this point – see ‘Moon’ by Virus, ‘Skin On Skin’ by Grace and ‘Bullet In The Gun’ under his own name a couple of years later) without it being widely derided as an unctuous blob of boredoom. Kid A doesn’t count because it has pretty much f all to do with dance and/or IDmusic except for one track sort of.

  5. 65
    Steve Mannion on 11 Feb 2014 #

    #63 all good points well made TFG ta

  6. 66
    Bruce Levenstein (@compactrobot) on 11 Feb 2014 #

    obviously @tomewing spent more time writing about “Discotheque” than U2 did composing it. http://t.co/akLHoQU85Z

  7. 67
    Rory on 11 Feb 2014 #

    Looking through my U2 MP3s by year of release I remember a 1997 track I had forgotten, which deserves mention on this of all threads, on this of all websites: Pop Muzik [Pop Mart Mix].

    At 8:52 it’s too long, but it’s good, if not M good. If they had included this on the album the project might have made more sense. If they’d mixed the album like this the project might have made more sense…

  8. 68
    Garry on 11 Feb 2014 #

    What I remember positively from this era is from 18-odd months later when the Singles collection was released. That is the album all the college kids bought. No one I knew had Pop. The radio station had Pop – I remember seeing it sitting forlornly in the filing cabinet (under U). It hadn’t made a big splash but that might not have meant anything – the station was quite unfocussed in 1997. You were likely to hear Belinda Carlisle followed by Radiohead – if there was any play listing it was ignored.

    My dislike of Pop really began with the Singles collection – the first real concentration of U2 I had heard. I knew the singles – and I loved them – especially those from the previous two albums – but like all singles I heard them in an initial burst on release and then sporadically over time. The Singles collection – great song-writing mixed with nostalgia – was a winner but it made the disorganisation of Pop clear.

    While the loss of Eno was palpable his return didn’t help matters. I always laugh when I hear “Stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it”, Eno plinking along on the keys. Never was a song more correctly titled.

  9. 69
    laerm on 12 Feb 2014 #

    # 67: Also a good tune, Rory (better than the original!). This and Mofo were the ones that show what could have been.

    # 68: Heh, good call on “Stuck in a Moment.”

  10. 70
    mapman132 on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Addendum to my chart stats at #20: I thought this had a fairly quick burnout on the Hot 100 but it was even quicker than I remembered. According to Wikipedia, it in fact debuted at #10 but dropped out of the Top 40 just four weeks later – nothing unusual in the UK, but a very short run for a Top 10 hit in the US, especially in 1997.

  11. 71
    Kinitawowi on 12 Feb 2014 #

    It’s around this sort of time that the populist narrative of U2 starts arguing about the difference between “effortless” and “lazy”. While laziness doesn’t truly set in until a couple of albums’ time (bunny alert: 1-2-3-14) , HMTMKMKM is the canonical effortless track; only denied the number one spot by Robson & Jerome’s Unchained Melody tripe.

    I’ve always been fond of U2, even while it’s been fashionable to hate them (several of my mates translate their hatred of Bono into hatred of the band as a whole), and I quite like most of Pop; troubled gestations don’t always have to result in crappy albums. But Tom’s nailed the problem; the lack of Eno cost the album its focus, and the result is severe bloat – average track lengths exceed five minutes for (excluding the clearly experimental Zooropa) the first and last time.

    Long songs aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but a few of Pop’s songs could clearly stand to be trimmed down, tighter; and Discothèque is sadly one of them. 5:18 is too much build to get nowhere (this is possibly the most uninspired chorus on the album) and too much fall to go anywhere afterwards.

    The U2 fan in me wants to say that Tom’s 2 is harsh – even most bad U2 is better than anything the aforementioned R&J came up with – so I think I’m stretching to a 4; U2 will reach higher heights and plumb deeper lows in Popular’s future, but for the moment I’m still in the “trying to defend them in front of those increasingly dubious mates” phase.

  12. 72
    @davidfickling on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Ah Freakytrigger–U2’s Discotheque as “the moment an entire school of thought about rock came off the rails”: http://t.co/8SR73xWPnH

  13. 73
    AMZ1981 on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Having given Pop a play last night I’m more convinced that this is a fine record on its own merits, better than the one that followed but not as good as the next two. It’s worth noting that, leaving aside what could loosely be termed the new wave (Blur, Oasis, Radiohead and another band I can’t mention for bunnying) the two biggest bands of the time were U2 and R.E.M. It’s interesting that U2 seem to be catching up with R.E.M in having a late period that seems to bitterly divide their fans.

  14. 74
    James BC on 12 Feb 2014 #

    I’m surprised so many people’s diagnosis of this record seems to be “needs more Eno”. I can’t be the only one who meets the news that such and such a band is Working With Brian Eno with a sense of creeping dread.

    Perhaps I’m too young to appreciate his best work. Has he popped up on Popular at all outside his work with U2?

  15. 75
    Tom on 12 Feb 2014 #

    #74 He’ll show up again directly in 2008. The highs of Eno’s production career are very high indeed, in my opinion: I guess this rep gives people license to ignore the less memorable parts (Icehouse!)

    My hypothesis isn’t so much than Eno would have made “Discotheque” better, but that he had a proven record for bringing high-concept cross-genre projects in to land in reasonably coherent shape. But if the actual high-concept is flawed that’s not necessarily going to improve things.

  16. 76
    Kinitawowi on 12 Feb 2014 #

    #74; it’s like Tom said though, he’s usually somebody who gets called in when the chips are already down – roughly the equivalent of all those late-90s football teams in the relegation zone sacking their manager and bringing in Ron Atkinson.

    I don’t think Eno’s had a hand in anything else Popular-wise – YET (the spectre of the bunny is however among us). Still think the best thing he did was James’ Wah Wah album, though.

    -Edit- Ahh, Tom got there first. Crossover posting and all that.

  17. 77
    Cumbrian on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Further to Tom’s point: I am not sure it’s a coincidence that Eno didn’t work on Rattle and Hum and Pop of U2’s albums from The Unforgettable Fire through to the end of the century – and that those are the two albums where U2 seem most lost/least focused? Seems to suggest that he’s a good fit for them at the very least.

    It doesn’t leave much aside from their work with Eno so it’s not exactly a difficult thing to say this – but I think all their best work has been produced by him; TUF is the best of “early U2” in my view – and I’m already on the record for AB and Zooropa.

    Edit – #76: Is he someone who gets called in when the chips are down? I don’t think that describes where he came in on either Talking Heads or U2’s careers, as both were building up to something at that time. The fact that he came in again for U2 after Pop and for his 2008 bunny after their initial run of albums seems to be the foundation for this perception of Eno. His other credits are for James, Sinead O Connor and a whole host of “world music” artists – Baaba Maal, Seun Kuti, etc – but I am not convinced that he should necessarily be looked on as a fixer.

  18. 78
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Feb 2014 #

    #74 / #75 I’ve warmed to Brain Eno after hearing him being interviewed by Alan Moore, but I agree that 40 years of making good music tasteful can’t be forgiven quickly.

    Icehouse would be quite the highlight! Except that he was on the album before the hits?

  19. 79
    Tom on 12 Feb 2014 #

    The other thing with Eno is that I don’t know THAT much about his latter-day working methods – bits of his working process with Bowie are famous, and bits of his working process with U2, but I don’t actually know very much about how Remain In Light (say) was made beyond it pissing Tina Frantz and Chris Weymouth off a lot. I’ve no IDEA how he worked with James or Icehouse. He seems as much consultant as producer so I doubt there’s a standardised way he approaches things, it must involve working with the grain of the performers’ own practises, eg the theatrical/role-playing elements of his Bowie work (making Carlos Alomar or whoever pretend he is a freedom fighter in a dystopian future… the details are in Geeta Dayal’s excellent Eno book).

  20. 80
    Cumbrian on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Consultant and collaborator seems to be the gist of Eno’s work with Bowie – Bowie and Visconti get the production credits on the Berlin Trilogy for instance – though that could be some sort of power grab/defence of their ground by those two. You’d think Eno would have twiddled something on the mixing desk at some point on all of those records.

    Best Eno/U2 story – he was going to “accidentally” erase Where The Streets Have No Name because they’d spent too long working on it and he didn’t think it was going anywhere – an idea he continues to defend in interviews. He strikes me as potentially bloody minded and difficult to work with, if you’re not willing to go by his rules.

  21. 81
    thefatgit on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Paul Morley interview with Brian Eno:


  22. 82
    James BC on 12 Feb 2014 #


    I got through one and a half paragraphs.

  23. 83
    Mark M on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Re81: I think I remember at the time loving what he said about Zappa, and I still do.

  24. 84
    Speedwell54 on 12 Feb 2014 #

    Gosh Tom – what a long review. I skipped to your score, then thought I better read it properly, as it seemed very harsh. Having listened to it again a few times I think you’re only a little harsh. I didn’t remember it being that long and dull, and have just checked and NOW 36 doesn’t edit down, although I bet the Radio 1did.

    No matter. I have an odd relationship with U2. My slightly older sister was into them first with Boy and October and I got into Blood Red Sky and was ok with Unforgettable Fire, but had gone off them completely by the time Joshua Tree surfaced. Apart from Zooropa which I loved, nothing since has hit the mark. Btw is their new stuff blacklisted on the radio?

    My scores do not often change on listening again when Popular prompts me, but this one has suffered. 4. Rory and Laerm also hint at this downward revision -wonder if it means anything.

  25. 85

    […] awful lot to say about this post: U2′s working practise seemed to be to ride an approach till it flamed out. Just as Rattle And […]

  26. 86
    Rory on 12 Feb 2014 #

    #85 If you’d asked me a year ago out of the blue I might have called this an 8, just going on my 1997 memories of it. In recent weeks I was thinking I’d end up at 7. Then I actually listened to it again, and it was 6. It isn’t because re-listening to old U2 songs makes me fall out of love with them – I still heard exactly what I first admired in Achtung Baby when Popular reached “The Fly”, and re-listening increased my appreciation for The Unforgettable Fire in later years – but Pop does seem to have suffered in hindsight. Not nearly as quickly as another ’97 album we could mention, though. And I still like “Mofo”, so when someone does a blog about all the singles that reached number 35 in Australia I’m all set.

    I don’t even mind their newer stuff. I even like “Invisible”. I’ll probably buy their next album within weeks of its release. There is no end.

  27. 87
    Ed on 13 Feb 2014 #

    Going back to Tom’s excellent original post, I had been planning to try to say something similar about an easily guessable bunny that we will be coming to in about a dozen entries’ time. Discotheque also fits the argument very well, though, and reinforces the point: 1997 was The Year That Rock Music Died.

    It was certainly the year that rock music died for me, anyway. Rock had seemed in rude good health as recently as 1991, the year of Achtung Baby, Nevermind, Loveless, Screamadelica and, er, Bandwagonesque. In the years since 1997, though, I can think of two rock albums that I have really enjoyed, one from 2000, one from 2006, and maybe a handful of individual tracks. And I don’t think that was purely a personal reaction, either, judging by the FT post on chart data that I linked to on the Beetlebum thread. Until the 21st century, rock was a significant minority presence in the Top Ten, but by 2011 it had become entirely marginal.

    There is nothing new about a genre running its course, and no shame in it, either. As the palaeontologists like to say, human beings will have the right to sneer at the dinosaurs once we’ve made it through 30 million years. Jazz had its heyday between – what? – the 1920s and the 1960s (betraying jazz ignorance here), and Classical music peaked in about 1780-1820.

    It is interesting to think about why rock died, though. Technology was probably important, both in production – the shift from physical to digital instruments – and in consumption – the decline of the vinyl or CD album and the rise of the MP3 track. The brutal effect on musicians’ creative health of the album-tour-album cycle mentioned by Tom above also crops up in many stories of the decline of individual bands. The last flickerings of excitement in rock – some of which we will eventually be meeting here – seem to have come from bands making their first albums who have not yet got stuck in that rut.

    It makes me wonder which genre will be the next to die. Hip-hop, some say, and it doesn’t seem impossible. Roughly speaking, rock’s 50s = hip-hop’s 80s: the birth of a new style, and its commercial breakthrough. Rock’s 60s = hip-hop’s 90s: the imperial phase, and the emergence of the acknowledged all-time greats. Then from the late 90s hip-hop has been like rock in the 70s: experimentation, both in the direction of greater complexity, and “back to the roots” moves, and massive commercial success for some, with the inevitable consequences in terms of artistic hubris and distancing from the audience. Which means that grime = punk, I suppose. But on that timetable, the clock is ticking.

  28. 88
    flahr on 13 Feb 2014 #


    Not that, you know, I believe the BPI or anything.

  29. 89
    punctum on 13 Feb 2014 #

    #87: I’m afraid that this post is almost entirely ill-informed. Pay me a decent amount of money, somebody, and I’ll write a detailed treatise explaining why it’s wrong.

  30. 90
    Tom on 13 Feb 2014 #

    #87 The fan/promotional ecosystem now is different too – thanks to the Internet (and for a bunch of economic and technological reasons too) it seems strongly geared to solo artists, which generally favours hip-hop, pop, R&B, and (in the US) country. More on this in a couple of Popular years, when we start getting to solo acts that came up in the Internet era and remain current stars.

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