Business Day : Rock Giants Hit SA - U2 France

Business Day : Rock Giants Hit SA

vendredi 20 mars 1998

Source : Business Day

From Business Day (South Africa) :

AFTER HOURS - U2 ROLLING AWAY THE STONES

Rock giants hit SARichard Haslop examines the phenomenon of the arrogant foursome

FORTY odd years ago Frank Sinatra declared, no doubt in a fit of career preservation in the face of the ferocious onslaught of pop music and Elvis Presley, that rock ’n’ roll was "the most brutal, ugly, desperate,vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear". His prognosis seemed to be that, like theFirst World War, it would all be over by Christmas.

The Tupelo Mississippi Flash’s response to all this was, simply : "Well, sir, you can’t knock success."

Of course, had Sinatra been right, we might have been spared his duet, all those Christmases later, with one of the King’s closest rock n’ roll descendants, U2’s larger than life and twice as natural lead singer, Bono.But Elvis was right. Cheap shots aside, it is hard to knock success - particularly in an endeavour wherecommercial objectives are as pivotal as they are in pop music.

U2 are about as successful - on several levels but, crucially, on the sales level - as any rock act ever. Indeed, subject to a seemingly unlikely late run from the now drummerless REM, and the vast British sales of Oasisnotwithstanding, U2 may have assumed the mythical mantle once worn by Led Zeppelin and the RollingStones - The Biggest Band in The World.

The inevitable consequences of this kind of success is that you tend to polarise opinion. For every starry-eyed,cigarette lighter-waving acolyte hanging on to the band’s every syllable and note - and, in the nature of U2’smusic, there are likely to be plenty of those - there will be someone who complains that the band has lost thewide-eyed innocence and youthful clamour of Boy, October and War (of course they have - that was several rock generations ago), and that Bono has got too self-important for his own good.

The odd thing is that both the extremes are probably right.

Listening to the albums - from The Unforgettable Fire, where the group first took its widescreen sweep to theUS, the only country big enough to accommodate it (the same has been said about Bono’s ego), to last year’s puzzling, but ultimately thoroughly likeable Pop - you get the impression that, if rock ’n’ roll needed saving,this might be the band to do it.

Yet, despite the fact that rock will always have a place in its heart for the grand gesture and the symphonicstatement, there is often an irritating, and sometimes insufferable pompousness about U2’s output that renders it pretentious rather than portentous. It is the same apparent arrogance that used to drive Bono. No doubt it is difficult not to display a certain degree of arrogance when you have been responsible to a significant extent for defining the shape of contemporary rock, much of which relies heavily on drama for its power. And,admittedly, Pop and, to some extent, its predecessor Zooropa have tended to tone down the more obvious dramatic excesses - though I still cannot decide whether getting Johnny Cash to sing The Wanderer at the end of Zooropa was a dramatic coup or a misconceived shot at added credibility. Personally, I love the song, butnot necessarily as part of the album.

In U2’s favour, efforts have been made to keep abreast of developments in pop music, if not quite close enough to the cutting edge or, more accurately, far enough from the centre, to alienate the existing audience. Butexisting audiences tend to occupy specific comfort zones and, despite the input of Howie B, or perhaps because of it, Pop has not sold quite as well as the band must have hoped it would.

So Bono and his men stand at something of a crossroad right now. Do they keep giving the punters what they think they want, or do they continue to try and persuade them that what they actually want is something slightlydifferent ?

In interviews Bono has made the distinction between liking something because it is great, and liking it because it reminds you of something that was great. On one of Pop’s simplest and best songs he asks, "Who’ll catch the star when it falls ?" What he needs to avoid is the answer that, "This is rock ’n’ roll , buddy, who cares ?"

The next album is going to be interesting.

U2 perform in Johannesburg tomorrow night. Booking is at Computicket.

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