It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Today I have difficulty with the project of listening to the album of the day, U2′s The Unforgettable Fire. I make it loud, then even louder (it needs to be loud, it’s rock!), but it’s only making me distracted. It doesn’t draw my attention; feels sort of lackluster. I think about the rain, the radiation, the internet. And I think about how everyone I know and don’t know seems to be running around this week feeling like it’s the end of the world. (But then I look at this record’s imprint and I see it was made in 1984 and that, too, was supposed to be the end of the world, wasn’t it?)
Maybe my lack of musical concentration has something to do with the devastating triple whammy of this week’s disaster in Japan. Add to that the attendant widespread fear-mongering of related and unrelated impending disasters here in the United States by the news industry and everyone I know on Facebook and Twitter. Add to that the very real acceleration of a right-wing made disaster for the U.S. in the shape of an increasingly crazy and powerful conservative leadership who are actively and rapidly setting about blaming teachers for America’s problems; defunding decent news sources, the NEA, and lifesaving health services for women; effectively outlawing unions; negating key functional aspects of democracy; and more—all in the name of a rich-sponsored “class war” in which the “enemy” is the working poor and those who strive to fight for them? What was I talking about? Oh, right. A bunch of millionaires with guitars.
The Unforgettable Fire wasn’t the album that got me into U2 or the album of theirs most closely linked with evocative life memories (although it’s the only one I think I own on vinyl – part of a brief effort to collect “modern classics” that I never finished). That honor goes to October, which buried my feelings about U2 deep within the rubble of the town in which I grew up and the event that changed it forever.
The album October—a cassette, specifically—was the latest in several U2 albums I had special ordered at Rainbow Records on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz in the hot, dry fall months of 1989. Remember special orders? That was when you went into a store, in person, and asked the person there if they could order you an album you didn’t see on the shelves. Then they’d likely pick up the phone and call a distributor and get it in, after possibly several weeks of waiting or even months. So when I got really into U2, I took my allowance on downtown to Rainbow, scandalously located right next to the local head shop (I was 12), and I asked them one by one to get me each U2 album. I’d gotten Boy, War, and The Joshua Tree already, and had just found out that October even existed. I’d waited for it to arrive from their distributor. The college students who worked at the small shop in the heart of the sunny and sometimes seedy downtown strip had called and left a message on our family answering machine, and I was going to pick it up after ballet class during the third week of October, 1989.
Then there was an earthquake. Rainbow Records was destroyed, as was most of the street, and the disaster set the scene for an era of new (and often uncharacteristic) development, money, and culture in Santa Cruz—if my hometown was U2, it felt like the town skipped the in-between development phase that was The Unforgettable Fire and went straight from Boy to Pop. And I never got my cassette.
The Fire That Time
Released in 1984, The Unforgettable Fire features the four-piece rock sound that made us all like U2 in the first place: energetic and uplifting rock choruses, actual singing, raw but clean guitar, and Larry Mullen Jr.’s incessant, martial underlying backbeat. (Mullen is the kind of great drummer that makes you faithfully march towards wherever the other musicians in the band go, even if it’s in the direction of cliche.) I read somewhere that this album cemented U2’s status as an “arena rock ” band, although I’m not really sure what that really means. It was the band’s album after War, which made them famous, and before Joshua Tree, which made them pop stars. So, yeah: sort of an in-between moment in the spectrum of U2.
The Unforgettable Fire was famously produced by Brian Eno, he of ambient sounds and Talking Heads fame, and Daniel Lanois, the team that later produced Joshua Tree. The production is a little schizophrenic, with Eno here and there encouraging the sprawly indulgence that is his trademark but Bono’s straight-laced melodies fighting back at every turn. It sounds like an exercise in direction-seeking within the landscape of Mainstream Rock and Roll—complete with clumsy shifts between anthem-rocking tracks and meandering, dream-like, interval-esque songs.
Rock rumor has it that The Unforgettable Fire was named after a photography exhibit the band saw that centered on the nuclear atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The whole album is pretty obviously occupied with The USA and The Messed Up Stuff We’ve Done. The song titles give it away – “4th of July,” “Elvis Presley and America,” and “MLK” all speak to the US’s fucked-up racial, political, and social problems. Yet it’s also ambivalent—as with much European criticism of the States, you can sense an underlying affection for us and our culture and the uniquely successful way in which we make our problems the world’s problem. Yes, we killed the dream of MLK. But we also invented rock and roll, and musicians tend to have a soft spot in their hearts for that.
Lyrically, the thing is classic U2—earnest, haunted by politics, almost to a fault, but so sincere you can’t bear to disagree. It’s as though after the teenage-style anger of War the boys went to college and learned some bigger words. [From "Bad": Let it go. Dislocate. Who uses the concept of dislocating in a rock song? Fucking brilliant or fucking pretentious, or both.] They sound like young men discovering for the first time that the world is not what they’ve been told (although, if you’re Irish, I would imagine you know that a lot earlier than other so-called first-world folks do). Bono’s straight rhymes here are a little clumsy, actually, in the free-association style of a 20-year-old writing his first poems about politics: Love it or hate it, “light-handed” isn’t a part of it.
It’s good. However, today, I’m just not in the mood for U2’s emo guilt-mope, rockin’ though it may be. Your lyrics are nice and well meaning, dudes, and your drummer is tight, but I’m feeling a little more in the mood for this right now. Or maybe this.