Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Rattle and Hum: Twenty-Five Years Later

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Bono with B.B. King

1988. All the girls went berserk when Bono took the stage. Long greasy hair. Sleeveless. Accent. Damp snatches everywhere. Guys hated Bono because he was a pretentious fuck-stick who got all the girls. He would have gotten a pass if he was one or the other, but not both.

Bono and I have a few things in common. Okay, only two things: Irish ancestry and the same name. Bono was born "Paul" and he adopted the nick name later in life. The Edge had a real name too, but I don't want to spoil the air surrounding his mysteriousness. He's the only member of U2 that I dig, so I don't want to burst that bubble. I like to think that guitar players (e.g. Hendrix, Santana, Dimebag, and the Edge) are not human and spawned in a lake on one of Saturn's moons and beamed down to Earth as a means to link humans with the spirit world. It would explain their weirdness, that wispy blank gaze in their eye, and the ability to manipulate your emotions with a couple of licks. They hold the power of the universe in their fingertips (like being able to use a Q-tip to drill holes into a mountain). The Edge is one of those rare supreme beings that oozes talent. Too bad he ruined the best years of his life backing up that jagoff Bono.

In high school, Joshua Tree came out and I was bombarded with all of their songs on the radio and MTV. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theatre a couple of times. That was back in the day when people still smoked in the balcony of movie theatres and you went to the back of the balcony for the specific reason to get high. I was a clean-cut kid back then and didn't dabble in the wacky tabacky for a few more years. My second viewing of Rattle and Hum was a "group date" with a bunch of friends from my school and a group of Chapin girls that included one fiery redhead that I had developed an infatuation with. She was in love with Bono and wanted to have a thousand of his babies. That was the watershed moment in which I began to loathe Bono.

The late 80s were right around the time, it got uncool to like those one-named rock stars like Sting and Bono. They had gotten too big and their heads even bigger than the football stadiums they were playing in. At that point, I had a choice -- look ahead to the future and try to find the next big band, or take a few steps back and delve into the past to discover older bands. I hopped in the time machine and went backwards. It was easy because NYC had two classic rock stations, which became my musical foundation, sort of like a prep school. In high school I got heavy into the Rolling Stones after Hot Rocks greatest hits CD was released. That kicked off the trend by record companies who cashed in on the CD craze and issued $100+ dollar box sets, which were mega-anthology of greatest hits from Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers Band. 

I came across an article in Grantland about rock documentaries. The author mentioned U2's documentary Rattle and Hum, which I hadn't seen in forever (a couple of years ago, I was flying across the country via JetBlue and watched VH-1 Classic because nothing else was on). Film critics panned the doc. Music critics thought Bono and the band came off like pretentious and out-of-touch rock stars who believed they were the greatest fucking human achievement. It's coming up on the 25th anniversary of the film and not only did I feel old, but I also I felt compelled to watch some of it from the perspective of a middle-aged wanna-be music writer and critic instead of a hormone-filled 15-year old trying to feel up and finger stuck-up Upper East Side chicks whose daddy's raked in more money in one year than my father did in his lifetime.

Musically speaking, the band in 1987 was very tight mostly because they played a ton that year supporting Joshua Tree. Those same songs were a part of the soundtrack to my teenage years... whether I wanted it to or not. The best part of the Rattle and Hum was a practice session with BB King and he told Bono, "I don't do chords well." Scratch that... BB was in the second best part of the film. The best part is when the band visited a church on 124th Street in Harlem to jam out I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with a choir of gospel singers. The third best segment included Bono sweet-talking the curator at Graceland into letting drummer Larry Mullens, Jr. sit on Elvis' Harley and take a pic of it. Mullens fucking loved the King. The fourth best part was a free concert at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, where U2 busted out Dylan's Watchtower.

With those few exceptions, the rest of doc was meh because it had very few meaningful or insightful interviews with the band (who had very little to say about... anything). The music was tight, but I found myself skipping over extended black and white concert footage. In the end, the doc missed the target. The band wanted to record their journey through the United States while touring and at the same time embarking on a parallel sojourn to absorb the richness and authenticity of American music.

Rattle and Hum represented everything that was wrong with the mechanism of the entertainment biz (this was the crossroads of the film and recording industry) because it was an obvious money grab by Hollywood and the band thinking they could outsmart the suits by allowing themselves to be exploited under the pretense of they were showing their fans that their not really rock and roll deities, rather, they were earnest lovers of Americana music (blues and soul) first and foremost, yet still the same kids who started a post-punk band. Yeah, U2 even had final cut and their original "film objective" backfired and Rattle and Hum became a super-sonic vehicle for Bono to feed his own megalomania.

Is Rattle and Hum as bad as I thought? Not really, but it's every bit disdainful for the sole reasons I stated above.

Now, at the time I saw it first... I was 15-16 and a fan of U2. In my 20s, I grew to resent the doc and Bono (for years my friends and I debated and poked fun at the statement, "When did Bono become uncool?"). All of Bono's charity work in the third world absolves him of his career of douchebaggery, because there are plenty of "stars" in the gossip rags that act like total self-absorbed wankers that don't do an iota of work pointing out the injustices of the world. Sometimes I feel the same thing you feel... celebrities should stick to doing what they do best and stay off their sopaboxes. But then again, if the Bonos of the world didn't speak out about social inequality, no one else would.

A couple of years ago I read a column from Chuck Klosterman about flying to Ireland to interview Bono for Spin Magazine.
"There is only one question about U2 that actually matters, and I'm still trying to figure it out while this four-door Maserati backs out of the garage: Is Bono for real, or is Bono full of shit?" - Klosterman on Bono
During their time together, Bono picked up a couple of kids hanging around outside their recording studio and gave them a ride in his Maserati and then asked them if they wanted to heat tracks from their new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The entire time Klosterman was trying to read Bono. Did he do these things all the time? Or did he do that because he was trying to project an image of a non-snooty rock star who can step off the pedestal and have a genuine moment with his fans? If that's the case, the Bono is a bigger douche than I had expected.

If you like music docs and dig U2, you should really see From the Sky Down (watch Part 1 and Part 2). It covers a pivotal point of U2's career in 1991 when they recorded an album in Berlin (on the eve of German Unification) that ended up becoming Achtung Baby. Producer Brian Eno wanted to record away from home in a place where David Bowie had recorded albums in the 70s. Plus, Berlin was filled with tons of cultural tension during the post-communist collapse and Eno thought that tension in the air could fuel the band's creative side.

Sounds very cliche, but they were on the verge of breaking up due to creative difference. Bono and the Edge were heavily influenced by German music (composition in dance tracks) and wanted to go more the techno/electronica route, while Adam Clayton (bass) and Mullens resisted and preferred the status quo with post-punk and soulful rock. The divided band seemed funny because you'd figure it'd be the bass/drum players who wanted to go toward that untz untz untz direction.

The Edge explained, "We were creatively exhausted and had run out of steam."

Bono added, "You start to believe what people are saying about you. You start to wonder if this is the end."

The struggles in that documentary reminded me of something Timothy B. Schmidt (bass player in Poco, Eagles, and Jimmy Buffet's band) had said in the History of the Eagles documentary... "All bands are on the verge of breaking up."

Bands are one collective ego, but when you have someone like Bono leading the group, it's a potential recipe of disaster. The band formulated several great (song) ideas in Dublin, but when they got to Berlin it was initially a disaster because they failed to execute it.

The overriding goal for those recording sessions was to "chop down the Joshua Tree" version of U2 and reinvent the band.

"You have to reject one expression of the band first before you get to the next expression and in between you have nothing. You have to risk it all," explained Bono.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," a German philosopher once said. The band did not break up and they bounced back. U2 is a chameleon of a band... constantly changing and they never look the same from album to album. Instead of breaking up, the band kept going. Two decades later and they're still going and Bono is still a bit of a pompous tit.

I'm was never a fan of postmodern U2. I liked the grittiness and political undertones of their first couple of albums and dug the cultural influences from Joshua Tree. The U2 fan in me is my 15 year-old self. But if you gave me a ticket to one of their shows, I'd check it out. As a middle-aged writer, the process of creating (while not repeating yourself) is what I particular enjoyed the most from the From the Sky Down documentary, because it captures that precise moment when band finds the courage to continue to change and evolve together as a group.

* * * *

I have been in the middle of a music documentary orgy. Here are some other posts about music docs...
Such a Lovely Place [The Eagles]
TAD [Seattle metal-punk band TAD]
German Speed and Early Beatles [The Beatles]


  1. I saw Rattle & Hum when it hit our campus theater sometime in 1989. At that point, I was just transitioning from my country music roots to loving rock--classic rock, 80s rock, metal, hair bands, you name it. So I was in full on U2 adoration phase. I remember loving the Harlem choir scene and the BB King jam. But overall, I felt like Bono was a pompous tool. I definitely hated Achtung Baby, and passed on a chance to work security for a monster concert in Ames, Iowa. But ... a lot of U2 songs still find their way into my iPod playlists. I guess that's the true litmus test for whether I like a band. And the Joshua Tree stuff and some of their other stuff is still musical genius today, when music from other bands from the same era often feels trapped in its own time.

  2. I, too, saw this in the theater while in college. Shared an apartment with a dude who worked as a projectionist, and he set up a private after midnight screening for a bunch of us a day early. That was ultimately the coolest thing about it all, as I also wasn't terribly moved by most of what went on up on the screen.

    By then I was already weary of Rolling Stone's "Band of the 80s." As a teen I dug the energy-filled Boy-October-War trio, and The Unforgettable Fire worked with me, too. But I thought The Joshua Tree was snoozerama -- especially next to all of the other much more interesting "college music" I was then discovering -- and so by the time Rattle & Hum appeared I'd had enough of all of those milquetoast hits in heavy rotation.

    They'd rock again occasionally after that. I dug the Batman single, which sounded like Zeppelin. I don't switch the channel when "Beautiful Day" comes on. Even "City of Blinding Lights" is sorta okay as a soundtrack for World Cup commercials. And I agree there's a kind of genius (or something) that will impress me with them -- even surprise me, sometimes -- that forces me to acknowledge them as better than many of their peers.

    But unlike Michael no U2 ever made it onto my iPod. I do, however, have Negativland's "U2" single, which I'll dial up every now and then for a chuckle.

  3. U2 was playing Glasgow, tough working-class crowd.

    Bono started slowly clapping his hands - "Every time I do this, a baby dies in Africa".

    And a voice from the audience yelled out "So stop fucking doing it!"