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May 15

U2 – “Beautiful Day”

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#877, 21st October 2000

u2beautiful A theological detour. The rise of New Atheism – Dawkins et al. – seems to have made it somewhat infra dig for lifelong unbelievers like me to admit there are things we respect and admire about religions and the religious. But of course there are. For instance, one of the things I find most admirable – perhaps I just mean enviable – when I meet it in Christians is the sense of faith as a reserve of redemptive strength. The feeling that, no matter how bad things are, no matter how bad you are, Jesus loves you. The fact I don’t believe in him doesn’t invalidate the testimony of millions who have found this kind of grace when they needed it – any more than their belief invalidates the experience of those who reached for it and could not find it. I believe what they’re taking is a placebo; they believe it’s the real thing. Whoever’s right, they get a chance at the benefit, and I don’t.

Or don’t I? That kind of feeling saturates “Beautiful Day” – one of U2’s most obviously Christian singles, full of grace and floods and doves and no-room-at-the-inn. And I feel this song well enough. I think it’s the most honest and moving record Bono and the crew have landed at Number One – the one where the reliquaries of rock’n’roll and the baggage of experiment are jettisoned, and Bono sings a big, slick modern rock song about faith. Sings it well and cleverly, too – the quiet, beaten-down tone of the opening verse, that halting gap on “lend – a hand”, the breakdown into gutterals on some of the closing chorus lines; these things dramatise the idea of a man on his last chance. “Reach me – I know I’m not a hopeless case”, he pleads: there’s a need I can relate to sometimes. You don’t need to feel God is your judge to understand the urge for redemption. Irony abounds, of course – Bono’s performance here rests on him selling the idea of himself as a man of great humility. But sell it he does.

U2 are Christians, not Christian Rockers (though, like indie, that’s a genre defined by distribution and audience more than content). They are careful to make sure “Beautiful Day” is also about a lover, or a shitty week, or anything a worldwide audience wants to make it about. But I hear religion in the song’s bones. And in any case, religiosity is rarely far from the surface of stadium rock. I once wrote a piece for Pitchfork about rock music as “secular gospel” – something that harnessed the sense of yearning, awe, and the numinous in religion and translated it into a folk idiom, like soul music slyly borrowed the tactics and techniques of Church music to sing about earthly desire.

But these strategies come with a price. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in ghosts – that when you borrow from the spiritual, other inevitable associations might make the journey and haunt the music. So soul music drew on gospel to describe love and lust, and often became, at its strongest, a music about sin and the terror of judgement. Rock music harnessed the scale and awe of religion, and brought upon itself the imp of reformation – the itch to purify, refocus, be born again. In the 80s, on a song like “Bad”, U2 took a track’s length to build up a questing, burning fervor. On “Beautiful Day”, that big, stadium sized music is out of reach at the start of the song – it flares for the chorus, but dies: they have to earn it back.

Perhaps, after the exhausting – and exhausted – mess of Pop and its tour, humility came easier. U2 needed that purification themselves – though you could argue they’ve never moved significantly on since. Bono apparently objected to The Edge’s guitar tone – too retro, too close to the band’s new wave roots. But “Beautiful Day” isn’t, and isn’t trying to be, the kind of spontaneous small-band performance The Edge’s move might indicate. From its glimmering keyboards to its slightly arid drum sounds, this is as meticulously crafted and fretted over as anything on their 90s records, it’s just ended up somewhere more straightforward. It takes smaller bets than Zooropa or Pop, and they pay off: the sudden cut-ins of backing vocals on the chorus (and bits of the verses) are a good, effective example, giving a sense of the singer shored painfully up as he contemplates his life. “Beautiful Day” is a success, but U2 have become what – for better and for worse – they never used to be: a band that knows what they’re good at.

The biggest risk “Beautiful Day” takes is its sudden expansion of scale in the middle eight – “see China right in front of you”, and so on, accompanied by a ripple of William Orbit style keyboard. It shows its protagonist all the kingdoms of the earth – OK, the song isn’t all humble – not as temptation, but as a reach towards a more redemptive view, one that acknowledges the problems and error of the world but wants to love it anyway. Whether this planetary point of view is global or simply globalised – the airy take of a jet-setter with the ear of the mighty – it’s the emotional crux of the song, the turning point at which the singer shrugs off his own narrow troubles and gets that shot at redemption. If it works, the rest of “Beautiful Day” falls into place. And, for all my grudges about the man and his band, it does work. It earns the urgency of the coda – “if you don’t know you can feel it somehow”, a singer willing himself back to stardom. I am no closer, I think, to believing in God. But for a few minutes here, I can manage something quite as unlikely: I can believe in Bono.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    swanstep on 28 May 2015 #

    @ed, 90. Lou is a motor-mouth, laugh-a-minute riot on his Take No Prisoners live-set. He’s pricklish there too of course and more than a little misanthropic but not at all pompous I would have thought.

  2. 92

    Stepping in here again, the VU were feted by younger musicians in the 80s because of their sound — or their various sounds — not because of their singer. With the Doors, to the extent the same happened, it was the other way round: none of the 80s bands that “sound like” the Doors actually do sound much like the Doors; their singers sound (a bit) like Morrison.

    Adding: since two of my signature critics who favoured the Doors back in the day were Tosches and Meltzer, I have to say this is evidence that Morrison was at the time considered pretty funny (whether deliberately or not). Neither writer ever had much time for non-mischief-making seriousness in rock or out of it. (And they would surely both have seen the Doors live, probably several times.)

  3. 93
    Andrew on 28 May 2015 #

    #83 “Touch me… [take me to that other place / how can it be]”

  4. 94
    alexcornetto on 28 May 2015 #

    #81 – Taking this underground/overground debate as an excuse to throw in one of my favourite ridiculous rockstar quotes ever.

    A US music magazine called Musician put The Replacements on the front cover of an issue late in 1989, calling them “The Last, Best Band of the Eighties.”

    Next issue, Jon Bon Jovi wrote a letter to the editor, which began, “How can the Replacements be the best band of the eighties when I’ve never even heard of them?”

  5. 95
    Mark M on 28 May 2015 #

    Re90/91/92: A few quick points: 1) one of downsides artistically of dying young is you don’t get to have periods of work that people can separate out – ‘I liked him before he…’ Etc. Whereas liking the VU in no felt like condoning later Lou* (or the ghastly comeback tour) to me.

    2) He was a lot of things, but Reed wasn’t really a rock god type, maybe apart from the horrible Rock’n’roll Animal.

    Because? 3) I haven’t thought this through, maybe because as a songwriter he’s always an observer, even when might be considered the protagonist? (My blueprint for that notion is not a Reed song, but Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel).

    *i do like Songs For Drella. It should be a musical.

  6. 96
    Matthew H on 28 May 2015 #

    Re: renewal of interest in The Beatles – my own was rebooted by the John Lennon: Imagine movie soundtrack in 1988. We’d always had Help! and a couple of singles around the house, but it was tracks like In My Life, Revolution and Don’t Let Me Down (all new to me at that point) that had me diving into the catalogue. Perhaps that worked for others too.

  7. 97
    ace inhibitor on 28 May 2015 #

    the football connection is interesting. I hadn’t remembered it was the ITV premiership that briefly used BD, and at first couldn’t quite believe it – thought it must have been running under the highlights for many more years on Match of the Day or Sky. Which I think is because it seems such a perfect fit for the endlessly spiralling hype of the premier league, in which the transcendentally Real Experience (being there in the moment, taken to that other place, not letting it get away) is hugely fetishised, just at the same time as the experience is ever more mediated (not just in the sense that its mostly consumed on the telly, but also that the responses of the fans who are Really There seem themselves to be mediated through a pre-written narrative of triumph, despair etc. Witness Survival Sunday last week, in which Newcastly and Hull fans and players faithfully produced the rituals of ecstacy and abjection that had been pre-announced. In th’old days you just got relegated, which was disappointing, or didn’t; no one died or got resurrected)

  8. 98
    ace inhibitor on 28 May 2015 #

    re the velvets and the doors. In 1981 our PE teacher brought his tape player into school in order to give us 5th years his potted history of 60s music, working his way through all the usual suspects (he was a particular enthusiast for the Pretty Things, who were the only band I hadn’t heard of) through to flowerpower which, he made it very clear during a bit from ‘Are you Going to San Francisco’, was a Historical Mistake. Then he said something like “but not everyone was going on about peace and love and flowers. In New York some people were doing THIS (Venus in Furs); meanwhile in LA some people were doing THIS (The End)…”

  9. 99
    Izzy on 28 May 2015 #

    My father-in-law’s version of the 60s is the weirdest – it starts with The Shadows, and ends with Merseybeat. Get him talking about it, and it’s soon clear that he doesn’t really rate anything that came after. The odd Stones single maybe, but the ship had long sailed.

    The strangest thing is that in 1964 he’d’ve been 12 or 13. I can’t get my head around being a teenager through the second half of that decade, and all the time thinking nothing could touch Gerry Marsden.

  10. 100
    Phil on 28 May 2015 #

    #98 – that’s some PE teacher! We only had an *R*E teacher, and half the kids thought he was an utter wanker (and let him know. sadly).

  11. 101
    23 Daves on 29 May 2015 #

    #99 For the longest time, if you asked my Dad who the best sixties group were, he would reply “The Hollies” without any hesitation. He thought they were staggeringly good and would play their Greatest Hits to death.

    I raised this subject with him again not too long ago and he got embarrassed.
    “Oh,” he said. “I don’t really like them as much as that anymore.”
    “What happened there, then?” I asked.
    “I think I got carried away. I don’t think they’re THAT good,” he said, then went quiet.

    I think what happened is he got hold of their Greatest Hits album in the early eighties, when a lot of EMI hype was going on about the group and their place in the great rock pantheon (as often happens with heavily marketed “Best Of” packages) and let the combination of nostalgia and advertising get the better of him.

    I remember for a brief and weird moment in the early eighties The Hollies were everywhere, particularly with their Stars on 45 styled “Holliedaze” medley. There was a serious attempt to package them as an important band. These days, of course, I’d probably argue they’re under discussed and under-appreciated. They never did quite get the right balance…

    Unless anyone can think of an earlier example, I suspect the Walker Brothers were the first 60s group to be revived in 1975, although The Searchers also had a crack in 1979.

  12. 102
    JoeWiz on 29 May 2015 #

    Re: Beatles in the early 80s. I actually think that Lennon’s death contributed to their lowish rep in the first part of the 80s. Someone’s uploaded the entire day’s UK news coverage on the day after he was shot an you can feel McCartney’s reputation (and indeed George and Ringo’s) diminish as the day goes on. Suddenly the world is given this martyr, this faultless Saint who led The Beatles through every creative high and then surpassed it with his powerful solo catalogue. McCartney gets hideously sidelined as ‘experts’ (Tony Wilson chairs a late night discussion programme) discuss the epic originality of Strawberry Fields et al. Naturally, this was always going to happen, and if Macca had been shot that day the exact same attitude would (probably) have been pointed toward him.
    But the canonisation meant that the public, thanks to Ono’s careful and clever handling of the situation, were so focused on grieving for John, they forgot about his poor old mates.
    Not that they were really helping themselves, Starr’s solo work had long become a joke, 81’s ‘Stop and Smell the Roses’ is very nearly as appalling as it sounds and 83’s ‘Old Wave’ didn’t even get a UK release. Harrison’s ‘Gone Troppo’ from 82 might be his creative nadir, a tired, lazy album by a new father who’d rather be anywhere else.
    Conversely, dear old Paulie headed into 82 with ‘Tug of War’ still one his most vibrant and vital sounding solo records. Was he charged by the critical mauling he’d recieved after his old friend was killed? If he was, it didn’t last until the following years ‘Pipes of Peace’ which, despite containing some big singles, only fed the fire of McCartney as the frothy lightweight.
    The two anniversaries of Pepper in 87 and 92 regain the Beatles some credibility and the rest, as they say, is history.
    I could, as you might have guessed, talk about The Beatles all day.

  13. 103
    DanusJonus on 29 May 2015 #

    Re: 102 – I don’t think McCartney helped himself when Lennon was shot with his infamous ‘It’s a drag….’ quote to a journalist, though I know he later admitted regretting it. I suppose at least for Paul he’d for the most part made his peace with John before his death.

  14. 104
    Phil on 29 May 2015 #

    #101 – I should have said, we only had an RE teacher who showed any awareness of contemporary music. Obviously we did have a PE teacher or two.

  15. 105
    23 Daves on 29 May 2015 #

    Continuing the “Why was the Beatles popularity in a trough in the early eighties?” question, their association with the cheesy Stars on 45 medleys may not have helped. And while they may not have completely approved of those wedding buffet sound-a-like stomp-a-longs, they certainly issued their own medley (“The Beatles Movie Medley”) to compete with the series, one of the very few pieces of heritage-shitting the Fabs ever committed.

    Actually, just listened to it on YouTube to remind myself and it’s *worse* than Stars on 45. Just bits of Beatles tunes mangled together with no rhyme or reason. A stomping beat would have been a plus. It makes Jive Bunny seem like Fatboy Slim. (Admittedly the transitions between tracks seem to get better past the halfway point, but before that you can almost hear the edits).

    In addition to that, the sixties revival at that point was rather naff, seaside stuff. I say this because my family moved to Southend in the early eighties, and the names of various Merseybeat has-beens were regularly advertised as doing gigs there – so their peers on the, er, end of the piers were probably tarnishing things a little bit too. The main association I had with the sixties as a ten or eleven year old was lots of suited musicians smiling and playing quite simplistic beat music, and certainly the earliest part of the Beatles singles reissue programme emphasised that aspect of their work, right at a time when it seemed a bit tatty.

  16. 106
    swanstep on 29 May 2015 #

    I’ve been trying to think of overtly Beatle-ish material from the early ’80s and haven’t been able to come with much (The Jam’s ‘Start!’, Depeche’s ‘Shout’, but what else? Not any whole albums that I can think of.). By ’85 and ’86 tho’, Prince was in a big Beatles-zone on Around the World In A Day, XTC sounded very Beatles-ish on Skylarking, and World Party’s Private Revolution was the kind of Beatles/Dylan/Love mash-up that sounds now like a dry run for Brit-pop.

  17. 107
    23 Daves on 29 May 2015 #

    #106 Hasn’t Andy Partridge admitted that “Towers of London” was inspired by The Beatles “Rain”? And “Black Sea” was released in 1980.

    A lot of the power pop/ Thamesbeat sounds from the late seventies bleeding into the eighties were very clearly Beatles inspired, but didn’t catch fire in the UK. And the ones that seemingly were quite successful for one single – The Pinkees – were apparently hyped into the charts by their record label, so we may never know the true success of “Danger Games”. I suspect it wouldn’t have climbed to number nine without a strong helping hand (and it slid down the charts again pretty rapidly after peaking there).

  18. 108
    Ed on 29 May 2015 #

    In NME reader land, which was where I lived at the time, the big events were Husker Du’s cover of Ticket to Ride in 1986, and the Sgt Pepper Knew My Father album in 1988.

    Re the discussion about how did people get to hear the music, I remember a friend who had been lent a copy of the White Album by his uncle saying in about 1982: “You have to hear this”. It was the first time I had heard anything by the Beatles properly, and was knocked out by it.

    It was an enormous privilege to be able to hear it for the first time like that, entirely unanticipated, without even any knowledge of their earlier career to prepare me.

  19. 109
    swanstep on 30 May 2015 #

    @107, 23 Daves. Thanks for those suggestions. Now I think about it, a fair few XTC and The Jam and Madness tracks in the early ’80s could be fairly described as Beatles-ish. A couple of other tracks that I remember people specially describing (deriding?) as Beatles-influenced at the time, Haircut 100 ‘Fantastic Day’ (I hear some Wings in their first album too now I listen again!), Teardrop Explodes ‘Passionate Friend’. Oh, and the big one: Siouxsie et al. took their ‘Dear Prudence’ cover to #3 in 1983. Everyone I knew *loved* this single (which went onto the Hyaena album in ’84), and I remember it being genuinely ear-opening for myself and friends (lots of mental notes to selves written to give Revolver and The White Albums proper listens, track down Abbey Road, etc.).

  20. 110
    Tommy Mack on 30 May 2015 #

    Re: 102/103. Funny about McCartney’s stock being devalued by the inevitable posthumous deification of John Lennon. I’d say the critical redemption of Macca was helped by the tarnishing of the Lennon myth when the self-proclaimed keepers of his flame (Oasis and all the rest) took the ship down with them. Add to that that there aren’t really any Lennon-like artist-tyrant figures in modern pop (except perhaps Bono! EDIT: And Kanye obviously! ) while there are loads of critically respectable McCartneyish craftspeople.

    Calling back to Izzy’s earlier comment about Paul McCartney’s boundless optimism, I’ve personally always found it a little forced, desperate even. There’s a moment in the last episode of the Anthology TV series where Paul’s saying ‘I don’t think we ever really had any big arguments in the studio’ and it cuts straight to a Let It Be clip of him and George Harrison having a bitter row over George’s guitar part. If he’d maybe just once say ‘there were times I’d have liked to punch John but I still miss him dearly’ it’d ring a bit truer for me than the relentless rose-tinting. That and I only really like his singing voice when he’s doing his cabaret Little Richard impression are probably why I’ve never quite got on board with Paul McCartney. Though he was blinding in Hyde Park a few years back.

    As for U2, as a kid I always quite liked their none-more-earnest, none-more-sexless rock without any roll schtick (Sunday Bloody Sunday was one of the first songs I learned on the guitar) I guess I really went off them when everything started sounding a bit like U2 (depressingly much more on that in Popular years to come)

    Rock star as poet: Surely the problem with Jim Morrison was that his poetry was *really, really bad* by anyone’s standards. As for The Doors, who I mostly love, they’re a band who are most famous for what they’re worst at: big, noisy epic theatrical showdowns: Morrison isn’t a convincing screamer and all the nuances of the band’s usually quite intricate playing get lost in the din. Give me the quiet horror of People Are Strange or the spare, lean groove of Soul Kitchen over the fireworks. Though General Khaki occasionally used to close our gigs with an organless When The Music’s Over. As a teenager I was very impressed by the ‘father, I want to kill you ‘ shtick from The End. Now it’s ‘it hurts to set you free but you’ll never follow me’ that convinces most.

    Another EDIT: as a teenager, my favourite band was in fact The Velvet Underground who a few.people have mentioned. I first heard them…in The Doors movie!

  21. 111

    this will perhaps be a tough sell after my strictures on who does and doesn’t sound like the doors in the 80s, but there was a big and obvious and very popular placemarker in 80s pop and rock for some of the things the beatles did, and that was CHEAP TRICK — they’re not maybe beatlesque in the (very narrow) sense that e.g. oasis will be, but from 1979’s “live at the budokan” onwards they were known (in japan) as the “american beatles”, partly perhaps bcz of their vast audiences of shrieking girls, but certainly also bcz they’d retooled the sound of their first two LPs in the direction, song after song, of actual beatles precursor cuts, and NOT just vocally (drummer bun e. carlos’s solo opening “ain’t that a shame” on budokan is a straight-up love letter to ringo)

    (to be fair, there’s metalgummed echoes of many other precursors also, from the ramones to donna summer, ABBA to slade) (tho of course the last and the first are both other routes back to the beatles)

    i like cheap trick but i’m not an expert in any territory their (huge) success opened a door to (i find it hard to believe that there isn’t one)

    adding: tougher sell still maybe, but my currently unsustainable thesis is that cheap trick’s live at the budokan is basically an alb-length version of helter skelter (and a version that’s possibly as reshaping for US pop-rock in the 80s as the banshees version was for UK pop-rock in the 80s)

  22. 112
    23 Daves on 31 May 2015 #

    #111 Good call, actually. I remember Cheap Trick getting DLT’s record of the week on Radio One in the early eighties (trust me, this DID happen – with, I think, “If You Want My Love” – though it didn’t seem to translate to sales). My Mum’s irate comment? “Who do this lot think they are? THE BEATLES? They need to get some ideas of their own!”

    I can remember similar criticisms of Cheap Trick in the eighties from more credible sources than “My Mum”, which makes what happened with Oasis in the 90s quite interesting. The greater distance from the event did seem to make using them as a very obvious influence more acceptable somehow.

  23. 113
    Andrew on 31 May 2015 #

    I Want You to Want Me is one of my favourite songs of all time. Perfect pop writing. The live at the Budokan version is so exhilarating with the crowd’s “CRYING! CRYING! CRYING!”

  24. 114
    Phil on 1 Jun 2015 #

    I think the difference is that you could never look at Oasis and think that they actually wanted to be taken for the Beatles, or even for the contemporary equivalent of the Beatles. Or listen to them, really. Even when they were doing I Am The Walrus with a string section, the guitars were so much heavier and Liam’s vocals were so much snottier – you could never forget that we were on the right side of punk. I’m not sure Cheap Trick had even noticed punk.

  25. 115
    Pink champale on 1 Jun 2015 #

    @110 A friend of mine, who has a serious interest in poetry, once ventured the radical opinion that, while the Doors were clearly a terrible band, Jim Morrison was actually quite a good poet.
    So there. I must admit I’ve never put in the hours to test this theory and I have to say fr what I know of his lyrics it seems unlikely.

    I properly hate Beautiful Day btw and am shocked and appalled at the good reception it’s got here.

  26. 116
    Izzy on 1 Jun 2015 #

    114: Oasis’ I Am The Walrus never had strings, did it? I can’t listen now, but I had it on recently and couldn’t get over how relentlessly indie-heavy it gets. To be honest what I can’t get over is the designation of Oasis, on the Some Might Say thread, as the biggest shoegazing band there ever was. It colours every time I hear them, and in a good way. At any rate The Beatles were never shoegazey, so I hear no overlap at all.

    As an aside, I was supposed to be, but in the end wasn’t, at the Cathouse gig that IATW’s subtitle comes from. I regret that – the only time I ever did see them, a few months later, turned into a fiasco. Years later it was revealed that IATW wasn’t recorded at the Cathouse at all, but at an industry event where they were … I don’t know what they were doing, passing demos around or something I imagine. Anyway they didn’t want the IATW subtitle to be ‘Live at Gleneagles Conference Room no.4, The Argyll Suite’ or whatever, so went for what they considered to be a way cooler thing.

  27. 117
    Phil on 1 Jun 2015 #

    It did when they did it on Later. I don’t think it had boogie-woogie piano as well, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

  28. 118
    Pink champale on 1 Jun 2015 #

    That IATW is the best thing Oasis ever did I think and the fact that they were able to summon that level of ferocity at some bored executives on a Wednesday afternoon makes it an even greater achievement.

  29. 119
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Jun 2015 #

    I could well imagine that that Lennon-botherer Noel would use it as warm up exercises or such for the band.

  30. 120
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Jun 2015 #

    The executives seems well up for it, in fairness. There’s a claim on Wikipedia that the 8:15 version on Cigarettes and Alcohol is from the Cathouse, and the 6:30 version on The Masterplan is for the executives.

    Because I love you all and hate myself, I’ve checked, and apart from the crowd noise it would require Liam to repeat verbatim the banter at the start (“Doesn’t matter if it’s not our song, because you’re all cool”), which I would assume doesn’t much happen.

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