Mention Irish rock megastars U2 to people, and the reactions you get will span the gamut.
To kids today, a generation after they first came out, it’s probably all about Bono – the peripatetic, bombastic lead singer who’s parlayed a magnificent singing voice and a global pop following into a second career as a global charity leader (and, it needs to be said, arch-capitalist).
To someone who came of age in the nineties? I’d imagine U2 was to them what the Rolling Stones were to me growing up in the late seventies and early eighties; dissipated celebrities noodling with making sense of their megastardom, albeit with less drugs and model-banging, but with a lot more artistic pretension ladled on top.
To hipsters of all eras? Once they left Dublin, they were trayf.
And U2 has been all of that to me, too (except maybe the hipster bit).
But mostly, U2 is the band that tied together two big strands in my own life. And the main catalyst for this, their breakthrough album War, was released thirty years ago today.
And the strands it tied together for me, and with style, were faith and rock and roll.
For me as a teenager – the gawky, greasy-haired, acne-ridden clumsy non-team-sports-inclined geek – music, especially playing guitar, was one of the few parts of my life that actually seemed to work.
And my faith – not exactly “fundamentalist” Christianity, so let’s call it “orthodox” Presbyterianism – was, and is, a vital part of my life.
The conflict arose when I started college. Not a few of my “musician of faith” classmates had the opinion that a Christian should be doing “Christian” music.
And I tried. Oh, Lord, I tried. I got dragged through the local Christian music and book shop (inevitably named “The Mustard Seed”), I listened and listened hard to what passed for “contemporary Christian” music.
And it left me completely cold.
Bear in mind, I’m a guy who feels overwhelming ecstasy during the Halleluiah chorus of Händel’s Messiah. Who loves Bach’s paeons to faith. Who marvels at Russian orthodox monastic music. Who loves great black gospel, and who has Mahalia Jackson on the IPod that he needs to resurrect long enough to re-download. Who finds meaning in Christmas music – at least, the faith-based stuff. These days, I make a point of only going to churches that use no hymns less than 100 years old.
The stuff at the “Mustard Seed?” To me – then as now – it failed on both counts; as music, it was mostly dull, formulaic, played competently but without passion, larded down with sanitized pop-music cliches, devoid of any spark that would make it catch any imagination that wasn’t being compelled to accept it as “good enough”, pale and wan compared even to mediocre gospel music; as expressions of faith, they preached to the choir.
But most of the world was not “the choir”. And that bugged me, too; was there not room for a Christian to converse musically with the non-believer?
And then came War.
Beyond matters of faith and philosophy? War was a just plain amazing record.
It was produced by the legendary Steve Lillywhite, near the beginning of a string of albums that would mark him as one of the greatest record producers of all time, much less the eighties. And for the first time – and one of the greatest times in his own career, he brought the best out of U2.
Lillywhite made Dave “The Edge” Evans’ guitar parts tighter, less-processed, less-atmospheric, more up-front in the mix, and much more aggressive musically, than on Boy and October; the album sounded more “raw” than the previous albums. Where Boy and October had featured individual bits of whiz-bangery – a passage of guitar atmosphere, a bass part, a bit of Bono’s vocal histrionics – over competent but pedestrian backgrounds, U2 on War was a fearsomely tight group, with Adam Clayton’s more-confident bass playing locking in with Larry Mullen’s drumming into a rhythm section that was finally ready to come out of the garage.
War was a key missing link in my life; the album that proved that music could be passionate and engaging and rock and roll, and still preach to the unconverted, and do it both unapologetically and with style.
“New Years Day”, features Edge’s dexterity if not raw chops at holding down both the guitar and piano parts, and a lyric that sums up the Gospel – “I will be with you again” – as succinctly and capably as any I’ve read.
And Sunday Bloody Sunday…
…with all its bombast and martial intensity, is gospel revival music for twenty-something white guys carefully disguised as a protest song. It’s pretentions and over-the-top and theatrical. And so am I. And it waves the world’s ills like a bloody shirt that challenges the non-believer to think about it…
And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die
…and the believer to try to keep up:
The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won
Back in U2’s early days, a rock critic wrote “church should be like a U2 concert”.
I wouldn’t go that far; church can be a respite from the world around us, too.
But there’s a time for quiet prayer, and there’s a time when praising Him calls for Mahalia Jackson to blow the windows off the place.
But church – and prayer, and U2 – could be more introspective, as on the band’s traditional final encore, “40”…
…a simple song about simple faith that carries out the ultimate leap of faith for a band, Evans and bassist Adam Clayton switching instruments.
U2 led a small surgence of Brit post-punk bands that wore some form of faith or another on their sleeves; Simple Minds left trails of Christian mysticism through their catalog; The Alarm daubed on a layer of over-the-top ecumenical Liberation theology; Big Country had a less-specific but overt spirituality.
The rock-crit world – largely painstakingly agnostic or spitefully atheistic – had a hard time swallowing the presence of frank faith on a rock and roll record. Some ignored it. Some rationalized it. Some turned on it. Some treated it with “Gorillas in the Mist”-style curiosity. The Christian world had its own problems; “Is U2 Christian” was a favorite debate topic at many a church youth group gathering in the mid-eighties.
And 30 years later, I still remember how that feels.
The notion that War was closing in on 30 years old was one of the original impetuses for this series. In a sense, it’s a whack upside the head. In another, it’s affirming; unlike some of the albums in this series, War doesn’t feel like it’s at all dated these days.
Chalk it up to eternal messages, to Lillywhite’s foresight, or to the portability of a power trio and a great bunch of songs, but I’ll stick by that.