LAST | The Swing Revival
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I have two regrets in life. One was passing up the opportunity to meet President Nixon in 1992, getting a photo op with him and getting that photo signed. Instead, I chose to go home for spring break and do absolutely nothing. I figured I'd have another chance to meet the Big Dick. And I did. It was in Yorba Linda two years later, standing about six feet away from him. Of course, by then, he was six feet under.
The other great regret came five years earlier. My sister had an extra ticket to see the Irish rock band U2 at the Philadelphia Spectrum. It was their Joshua Tree tour and they had just reached the pinnacle of rock 'n' roll stardom (having been only the third rock band to appear on Time's cover, the other two being the Beatles and The Who). I turned her down, having only listened to a few of their songs, finding them only mildly amusing. But my sister returned with tales of a crowd worked into an unfathomable frenzy. And more than just screaming teens, these were fans who shared some secret bond, pledged their allegiance to the band, and knew every nuance of every lyric and sang along with unbridled passion-right to the very end when they sang "40" into the parking lot and onto the trains. Plus, Bruce Springsteen made a guest appearance.
I had been to concerts before - namely Diana Ross in Central Park (thunder, lightning, and wilding) and the Miami Sound Machine at Six Flags Great Adventure. But somehow this sounded different. It sounded as if the people who went to that concert shared an experience not unlike the Beatles at Shea Stadium, the Doors at the Hollywood Bowl, and, yes, like Led Zeppelin at the concert where in the middle of "Stairway to Heaven" Robert Plant cried out, "Does anyone remember laughter?" as their Ocean of fans wept inexorably. In short, I felt I had missed out.
So I started playing my sister's Joshua Tree album which, in 1987, was still on vinyl. And this time it moved me. I was swept away by wave after wave of anthems, poems, ballads, visions of an America seen for the first time by explorers in search of their musical roots. As a friend once stated, "It's simply beautiful." Granted, not everyone was infected this way. But for the many who were, their allegiance to the band became boundless. I, for one, began listening to their older albums, working all the way back to "Boy" (1980). And I read everything from newspaper clippings to magazine articles to biographies and discographies. To be a true U2 fan is to have a thirst you cannot quench, a fire you cannot extinguish. You just can't get enough.
But 11 years later, as all that's left of the fire are some glowing embers, you get the sense that maybe they have had enough. "The Best of 1980-1990" marks the first "best of" album the band has ever compiled, indicating to some fans that they have, once and for all, sold out. (Note to those fans: You're wrong and I will explain later.) The implications of such a release are twofold: First, a decade compilation marks the end of U2's original metamorphosis from generic punk rock to American folk and rockabilly. Their lead guitarist, The Edge, once said that the band's musical roots were somewhere in outer space. They could never figure out in what category they belonged and consequently spent the next decade searching for their identities (at one point even using bagpipes, hoping their music was Irish) and along the way, turned much of serious rock 'n' roll into impassioned soapboxes.
The second implication relates to age. Not only the band's, but ours. It's shocking to realize "The Joshua Tree" is over a decade old - Reagan was still president and East Germany was still a country. While disheartening to our youthful egos, it becomes clear that releasing this "best of" album is a timely and appropriate event, encapsulating songs over a decade, tracking U2's lyrical maturity and instrumental innovations (contrast with Bananarama's or Don McLean's Greatest Hits). In other words, they haven't necessarily "sold- out." Besides, people have been screaming "sell-out!" since the band left the punk rock stage, asking where you were when U2 played at the Paradise Theatre in Boston, 1981? The disenchanted, embittered fans who decry U2's massive popularity - like the fans who said Love and Rockets sold out when "So Alive" entered the Top 40 - just can't accept their tastes may actually run mainstream. God forbid.
As for "The Best of 1980-1990", fans will be happy to hear all the familiar and indispensable hits they grew up with. Arranged out of sequence, the listener can appreciate the band's diverse and extensive musical range, from the early development of the chiming riff in "Pride" to the raw punk sounds of "I Will Follow" to a respectable blues homage in "When Love Comes to Town." Equally, the lyrics are wide-ranging, from the simple longings for a lost mother in "I Will Follow" to political demonstrations in "New Year's Day" (in honor of Lech Walesa) and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (ranting against British occupation of Northern Ireland). And when they came to search for their roots in America, out came "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (what bassist Adam Clayton once described as coming the closest to the perfect song) along with the rest of "Joshua Tree" and the even more American "Rattle and Hum".
Curiously, an old side-b, "The Sweetest Thing" appears in its remixed, reborn version. Unable to fit the original onto Joshua Tree, it appeared on the "Where the Streets Have No Name" single - the challenge for U2 was in recreating that older sound, giving up the influences of post-techno and industrial that so pervades "Pop" (1997).
Of course, a true fan is never quite satisfied. The compilation seems weighted towards the Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois years beginning with "The Unforgettable Fire" (1984). In fact, only four of fourteen tracks represent the band pre-Fire (the fourth is a surprise bonus track). And the final four listed songs are straight off of Rattle and Hum (1988). Missing are "Two Hearts Beat As One," "Gloria," "40," "Stories for Boys" (their first released song under CBS records), and "Out of Control." If you are one of the fortunate who bought the CD early on and have the bonus B-Sides, you hold such rarities as "Endless Deep" and "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl," a flipside to "Two Hearts." Missing is one of their best and final punk performances, "Treasure (What Ever Happened to Pete the Chop)" which was a side-B to "New Year's Day."
According to their contract with PolyGram records, the band receives $50 million and must release a second "best of" comprising 1991-2000. By then they will be well into their forties. I don't expect they'll be producing much thereafter since they've been disdainful of bands like the Rolling Stones who continue touring into their fifties. (They seem more akin to ex-Beatles who scoff at a 3-man reunion plus Julian Lennon.) On the other hand, as Bono once said, they just might keep on producing "record after record until they're sick of us." But with die-hard fans like the ones who filled the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1987, that doesn't seem likely either.
VICTORINO MATUS , the associate editor of The Weekly Standard, is a contibuting writer for Renaissance Magazine.