Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 2: U2 - War

Welcome to My Back Pages, a new collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike...most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week, we are analyzing the lasting legacy of U2's War, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of its 1983 release on Thursday. So check the replies for our thoughts and a full Rdio stream of the record, and feel free to jump in with any comments, anecdotes, or discussion questions you may have.

Craig Manning: Nowadays when we think of U2, a year and a half after wrapping the biggest tour in history, and following a decade that saw them plastered over everything from iPod commercials to TV soap operas, it’s easy to forget where the Irish quartet got their start. Arena-scraping anthems have been U2’s bread and butter for so long that I could probably put on their debut album—1980’s Boy—for a room full of my college friends, and most of them wouldn’t even recognize it as the same band. But before Bono fucked up Spanish counting for an entire generation, before the Edge’s bell-like guitar sound became an icon of the arena rock movement, before the band built a legacy of towering guitar anthems, either drenched in newfound American ideals (1987’s The Joshua Tree) or pushing the envelope of early 1990s pop music (1991’s Achtung Baby), U2 was little more than a garage band on a date with destiny.

Dubbed at their earliest meetings as the ‘Larry Mullen Band,’ Paul ‘Bono’ Hewson, David ‘the Edge’ Evans, Adam Clayon, and Larry Mullen Jr., were a group of disenfranchised, punk-obsessed teenagers with little to no formal musical training under their belts. That lack of experience didn’t really matter though. These kids were hungry for something greater than what their modest upbringings had shown them, and as they blasted through cover songs and meandering, largely-improvised originals, something great began to take form. Bono was an innate showman, a performer unafraid of giving himself over to spontaneous flights of fancy or passionate musical connection. And when the band was signed to Island Records in 1980, their promise continued to grow, taking the form of howling, adolescent frustration on Boy, or moody, spirituality-glazed imagery on October.

But U2’s early post-punk sound wasn’t grandiose enough to carry the world-changing ambition they harbored within themselves. War, released on the last day of February in 1983, was the sound of a band outgrowing their roots and establishing new frontiers for their future security. The shift was evident from the first moments of the record, where Mullen’s militaristic drum beat and a scream from a single violin burst from the speakers. The song is “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” still one of the band’s most played and most roundly recognized to date, and for good reason. If Boy and October were built largely from punk influence and on-the-fly improv, War was decidedly more meticulous. Bono’s lyrics, which had up to that point been little more than cryptic ramblings, were suddenly fully-formed, rising and falling in a protest song that had the fist-pumping scope and guttural rage necessary to become an anthem. “I can’t believe the news today/I can’t just close my eyes and make it go away,” he sings at the outset. “How long, how long must we sing this song?” It’s a question that radiates throughout the entirety of the album.

Even alongside the two aforementioned masterpieces, War is arguably the most unique and eclectic record in the U2 catalog. Achtung Baby sent the band down a path of sonic experimentation that occupied the entirety of their 1990s output, while The Joshua Tree built the template they have spent the past 15 years trying to recreate. But War is the most scorching, politically charged rock record U2 ever made. In a lot of ways, it was a collision of where they came from and where they were going. Big pieces of the band’s punk influences are still at play here, but the singles—“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” and “Two Hearts Beat As One”—hinted at U2’s ability to fill stadiums with sound.

A big part of that was owed to the Edge, who was developing a ringing, effects-laden guitar sound all his own. Bassist Adam Clayton described the Edge’s contributions to War as “all those helicopter guitars,” a heavy layer of chaotic noise that gives the record its fierce and spontaneous energy, but the guitarist’s sound was becoming more majestic too, and it wouldn’t be long before he could give U2 the kick it needed to go global. At the same time, Bono was evolving, both as a vocalist and as a lyricist. His greatest accomplishments in the former category were still to come—I personally consider The Joshua Tree to be the most well-sung record in rock ‘n’ roll history—but in a lot of ways, War features Bono at his most lyrically striking. The frontman ripped international conflict from the headlines and injected it into his songs, and the result remains the most topical, angry, and haunting collection he has ever written. If you want to know where the activist Bono we know today came from, look no further than War.

Chris Collum: It’s a pretty well-established fact that creating overtly political rock music that also maintains superior quality is not an easy task. Plenty of artists have wandered down that road and either never returned or given us a mediocre, self-righteously preachy album or two before quickly jumping back to wherever they left off previously. Furthermore, records that tackle specific political issues head-on often make for difficult—and sometimes even painful—listening. Sometimes a little bit of vagueness is better in this area than speech-making bluntness. However, as Craig alluded to in his piece, this record did see the beginning of Bono the activist, and yes he pulls it off quite well. Bono’s greatest gift, both in terms of his lyrical and vocal abilities, has always been his ability to inject an intensely personal human element into whatever note he is singing and whatever subject he is singing about.

U2 are not a punk band and have never been one in any sense of the term, but come on: they’re a European band that formed in 1976, writing songs with very simplistic guitar parts and passionate but not technically accomplished vocals. The punk influence is undeniable. Arguably, this album is where the band sounds the most like a “punk” band in their existence, and that’s true for a variety of reasons. If we ignore the album’s political messages for a moment—which are pretty obviously inspired by punk rock doctrine—and simply look at the music, it’s more rough around the edges than anything U2 would do until Achtung Baby. Listen to what The Edge is doing during the trumpet solo towards the end of “Red Light.” That kind of almost drone-like guitar work, especially paired with Clayton’s bass lines, which often remind me of some of the stuff Paul Simonon played on early Clash records, is definitely reminiscent of some of the more experimental punk records that were made in the late 70s.

Craig Manning: Not technically accomplished vocals?! Perhaps not yet, but Bono is absolutely one of my favorite singers ever. But anyway, back to War.

Recorded in just six weeks at Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios—and with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite manning the boards—the songs on War didn’t have a lot of time to breathe. Legend has it that, on the last night of recording, the band worked until the sun came up, finishing the final bars of the final song just as the next band arrived to take over the studio. "We were trying to get lyrics down and mix it with people pounding on the door," Clayton once said. The song he was talking about, album closer “40,” is a slow-burn hymn built from the frame of the 40th Psalm. It’s also the most pensive song on the record, a brief and gorgeous fade-out that provides respite from the rest of War’s frantic outrage.

When U2 paid a visit to the United States on the 1983 tour, they ended up at Colorado’s Red Rocks in the pouring rain. In any other circumstances, the concert would probably have been canceled and rescheduled for another day, but U2 and their manager, Paul McGuinness, were in a tight spot: they had already booked a full-scale camera and recording crew to come document the show for release, and to cancel would be to lose money they didn’t have. So the band took the stage, not knowing if any ticket-holders were even going to show up, let alone clap, cheer, or sing along. But the most striking moment of that recording—preserved now on the release Under a Blood Red Sky—was the final song, “40,” where the crowd can be heard joining in one by one as the seconds tick by. By the time the song reaches its fade-out refrain—repeated cries of “How long to sing this song”—Bono has dropped out entirely, letting the choir of the audience carry the melody to its conclusion. And that one moment was a revelation. It showed how this band could create concert moments that transcend entertainment and become religious experience. The unique ability is still alive and well today, in a world where U2 remains the biggest band on the planet, but back then, it was just beginning to flourish, and War was absolutely the impetus.

Chris Collum: Definitely. The Joshua Tree often gets a lot of credit for being a hugely influential record, but War has had an undeniable influence on the last 30 years of popular music as well. One obvious example of the record’s legacy would be the first Bloc Party album, Silent Alarm, which features thunderous percussion, ringing, often aggressive guitar work—which nonetheless maintains a clean tone, busily rhythmic bass lines, and finally, impassioned vocal delivery with often overtly political lyrics. Sound familiar? Kele Okerke even sounds a little like Bono at times on that record, and hell there’s a song called “Helicopter” with guitar sounds that are very similar to what Clayton was talking about here.

That’s merely one example of the influence War has had on popular music. Another would be Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, which borrows U2’s sense of grandiosity as well as Bono’s up-front and heart-wrenching take on reality, often with political overtones. Also, while it might seem like a stretch to some, the much-beloved-in-these-parts, post-hardcore band Thursday definitely owe a debt to this record as well. Musically their only output that vaguely resembles U2 would be 2006’s A City by the Light Divided, but Geoff Rickly certainly utilizes Bono’s lyrical method of injecting personality and humanity into lyrics that wander around the fringes of making a broad-stroke political statement. It’s also safe to say that Thom Yorke and company had heard this record before they made their late-90s alt-rock masterpieces The Bends and OK Computer. Funnily enough, however, the Radiohead record that reminds me the most of U2 came out a decade later. Thom Yorke’s vocals on In Rainbows have always seemed to have that “human element” that everyone (including myself) always says Bono captures so well.

The record’s true legacy, however, is as U2’s “great leap forward.” War is the album that truly provided the roots for the band’s enormously successful career. With War these guys went from being the little-band-that-could from Dublin to being the outfit would soon develop into the biggest rock band in the world.

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