Author Topic: U2's legacy re: Rolling Stone's ranking of U2 in 500 Greatest Album List  (Read 299 times)

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Offline zooguitar

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Like many long-time fans of U2, I came of age during their initial 80s heyday. For a lot of rock fans, Rolling Stone was the gateway to learning about not just the trendiest new artists but critical favorites and legacy acts as well. U2 was fully embraced by the original boomer staff of RS. Heck, they put them on the cover and named them their choice as the band of the 1980s... 2 years BEFORE The Joshua Tree!

Fast forward to 2020, and the most recent update to RS's 500 Greatest Albums List has reduced U2's presence to just 2 entries: TJT and Achtung Baby. It's not an indictment necessarily; except for a few questionable millennial hipster choices that seemed jammed in there under threat of blackmail (Red, Is This It?), the entries ranked higher than U2 are generally all considered consensus HOF recordings. Some might quibble over a few choices here and there (my personal retort to Eagles-stans is, to quote Denis Leary, "Joe effin Walsh"), but the arguments for all of them in their present rankings have reasonable merit, IMO.

It is interesting to see how U2's catalog, though, has clearly declined in the eyes of the editors of RS. Obviously, the current editorship is not the same as in 1985. But given how much coverage and cover space this band has received from the magazine over the years (not too many rock bands have their GUITARIST get an official RS Interview, let alone 2 like the Edge), it is a definite sea change.

I have written in multiple posts how I have felt that U2 has done a poor job cultivating the legacy of their recorded work for future generations (TLDR; uninspired reissue campaigns, questionable remaster audio quality, disparaging comments about their own, top-selling catalog albums). In fact, I feel they have been actively damaging it to the point where it is now coming back to haunt them. The latest rankings in the RS500 List are just the most obvious result of it.

One thing most fans of U2 generally agree on, is that from 2000 on, there was a distinct walk back from the kind of wild genre experiments that peaked with TJT and AB but also albums like Rattle & Hum and Pop. Even in 2000, the idea that All That You Can't Leave Behind was a "back to basics" U2 album was met with side glances and head scratches from many fans who couldn't trace the slick, adult contemporary radio calculus of that album to any U2 album produced in the 80s.

What it really was, IMO, was a radical change of mission statement from U2. They went from being a band that wanted to reinvent rock and roll, to being a band that writes mostly straight-forward classic rock songs, sprinkled up with 80s U2 guitar effects and song structures.

But even this, I think, only would have partially affected their legacy. After all, the classics from peak Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan don't suffer over time despite multiple terrible albums released in their later years. Let It Bleed isn't negated by Dirty Work or Bridges to Babylon. Blood On The Tracks doesn't lose stock because of Knocked Out Loaded or Under The Red Sky.

But U2 started two bad habits with R&H, that they carried over into Pop. First, they started to lose their instincts for recording ideas quickly and moving on. If not for a coordinated film release deadline from Paramount, they probably would have driven Iovine insane with endless tinkering on R&H. Outside of the singles, one could argue the best material from R&H are the cover songs they recorded for b-sides. Cover selections that eschewed iconic familiarity for more subtle gems from the American songbook ("Jesus Christ", "Dancing Barefoot", "Everlasting Love"), combined with a simple production style that captured the playful vibe of the sessions, to me best presented the original spirit of the whole R&H project. I don't know anyone, 32 years later, that thinks all the studio over-dubbing and editing that went into "All Along The Watchtower" was worth it for what is ultimately their weakest recorded performance of the song ever (Lovetown Point Depot probably being the best). Except for Zooropa's unique recording schedule, U2 have never since delivered an album in under a year's time of recording.

There was a particular nasty tone to the critical responses to R&H. IMO, a lot—but certainly not all nor the majority—reflected a racist undertone by a lot of rock press that sought to minimize African-Americans from the story of rock and roll as originators and key contributors. U2, in the band's defense, approached their embrace of blues music as a long overdue correction to their admittedly limited (ie mostly white) knowledge of rock's true roots. Yet, many mainstream white rock critics like Chuck Klosterman were not afraid to accuse U2 of "trying to be black", the subtext being that the acceptable way for white people to play music created by black people is to strip out the parts that are associated primarily with black people, like blues riffs.

Instead of trying to argue more strongly for their artistic vision, U2 opted to pull a clever kabuki on the music press by flattering their critical assessments of the band's work. Where some artists might have responded to criticisms of R&H by articulating their original vision more clearly and giving more background to their creative process, U2, after 1991, generally responded with an atttitude of Oh yeah, you're right. What were we thinking? You were so astute for pointing out our mistake. While this may have seemed like a shrewd move—in the pursuit of promoting the following album—to disarm critics/journalists by making U2 appear sympathetic to their previous criticisms, it resulted in hardening and validating the original negative criticism for any critics that shared it: I was right to view R&H as a ridiculous album; U2 themselves told me so.

Zooropa rightfully won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album (at one of Bono's most memorable international live TV appearances), and was the name of their European leg of ZOOTV. Yet that album is considered nothing more than a bonus disc in the last box set for AB. It's an album co-produced by arguably the 2nd most important rock producer of the 90s (Flood), and it gets included in the anniversary release for the album before it like it's excess stock? WTF did they bother negotiating for the ownership of their masters?

As for Pop, the artistic arguments about the songs have been played out and don't need to be rehashed here. I will say this: the thesis that U2 lost their critical rep by trying to strip back the experimental parts of Pop is validated by the overwhelming positive critical reception and legacy for Kid A. What is Kid A, after all, but what Pop could have sounded like if U2 had stuck to their original trip hop/space-rock vision?

I love Kid A. It's brilliant. But what makes it a classic is Radiohead's willingness to go to the extremes of the coldness of techno/machine sounds and still sound human. It's that unflinching but consistent daring from beginning to end is why some material on Kid A gets received much differently than similar material on Pop did, IMO. There's no retro-styled song sticking out like a turd (ie "If God Will Send His Angels") among the sonic experiments.

Many cite "Miami" like it's evidence of U2's creative nadir. Musically, I'd defend it is as one of the the most interesting and experimental tracks they have ever recorded. Lyrically, it's a wash with any of Thom Yorke's non-sensical ramblings. One man's "we could make something beautiful/something that wouldn't be a problem" is another man's "there i was sucking a lemon/there i was sucking A LEMON".

This from the entry for Kid A in the RS500 is especially meaningful:

…Thom Yorke gorged on albums by avant-techno innovator Aphex Twin and other artists on the Warp Records roster, inspiring him to put down his guitar and embrace the glacial beauty of abstract electronics, glitchy beats, and the challenge of free-form composition. “It was difficult for the others [in the band], ’cause when you’re working with a synthesizer it’s like there’s no connection…”

That is very similar to the noted frustrations U2, in particular Larry and Edge, had during recording. Edge has talked disdainfully of the lack of traditional song structures on a lot of the material they were working with, and also his difficulty finding a place for traditional guitar. Yet they were coming up with great pieces of music influenced by underground trip-hop artists like DJ Krush, and the hired studio crew who worked on Björk's Post—arguably the most important electronic album of the decade—added textures that still shimmer today. But instead of committing to their muse and letting it go where it landed without constant tinkering, they suddenly decided they needed to add conventional U2-isms to consider a song completed. This, btw, was the exact opposite of Eno's thesis for what made AB a success: anything that reminded you of U2 was considered bad and rejected. Had they stuck to that, Pop maybe has a completely different legacy.

Ultimately, these walkbacks (and even worse, "permanent revisions" in the Best Of 1990-2000) leave U2 fans feeling like suckers for having supported the art in the first place. If you found yourself enjoying "Desire" or "All I Want Is You" upon release, you're left feeling like a rube at a traveling show with a bottle of phony miracle cure when a few years later you hear them telling critics, Yeah, you're right, no one wanted to hear us record blues songs. I don't remember U2 offering fans a discount on Pop when it initially went on sale in 1997 "unfinished". Again, they think the way to repave their legacy was to validate the critics' original negative assessment and throw their fans under the bus, in the hopes of currying favor with the critics for the next release. For the band to come out after the fact with that "unfinished" statement insults fans who paid money in good faith for their art. I love the album probably more than the band does at this point, but I still resent them charging me full price for something they admit later they considered an unfinished product.

U2 proceeded to spend the next 20 years being the world's best U2 cover band. So they essentially watered their sound down to 80s-sounding U2, which was already ubiquitous on radio. This ultimately watered down the appreciation for 80s U2 in general, because looking back, 80s U2 was gone for only a relatively short period in U2's history. We're now coming up on the 30th anniversary of Zooropa, and it's embarrassing U2's reissue campaign for it was mostly limited to being stuffed for 10 years of the last 30 as a bonus disc in a super expensive reissue of AB. There was clearly an appetite for the kind of technorock experiments U2 lost their nerve making on Pop, as evidenced by Kid A's enduring legacy. Instead, U2 writes it off as "their psychedelic period", barely dipping into it on tour, presumably to save energy for [checks notes], um, "Elevation".

R.E.M. recently reissued Monster, with an alternate 2019 remix included along the original album mix. When asked why he prefers the original album mix, Michael Stipe said, "[it conveyed] exactly who we were at that moment in time". U2 spent the last 30 years trying to apologize for their least popular moments by disowning them altogether in a somewhat disingenuous bid to patronize their critics. All that ultimately did was transfer the control of their legacy to people who had already expressed skepticism towards it. By minimizing the American roots idea behind R&H, they also unwittingly minimized the same one that initially drove The Unforgettable Fire. Their Star Wars Special Edition-like remixes of some of the best songs from Pop are the musical equivalent of a "Greedo Shoots First" experience that ultimately renders whatever interesting statement the band were originally trying to make moot and redundant.

Hopefully it's not too late for our boys, and their catalog finally gets properly restored and fully appreciated in time for their 50th anniversary editions. But if U2 ultimately are only remembered for their 2 biggest catalog sellers, it will be in large part because they themselves helped dry up interest in the rest.

PS For anyone who thinks that Pop could never have been what Kid A was: Google "I'm Not Your Baby", the U2-Sinead O'Connor duet recorded for Wim Wenders' The End Of Violence that was cut at the last minute. I personally think they jinxed the album because it's the only album from the U2 90s trilogy to not feature a track for a Wenders film. It's as futuristic rock as anything on Kid A, and it's inclusion, I think, would have radically changed the album's reception and legacy.
« Last Edit: October 01, 2020, 10:33:51 AM by zooguitar »

Offline Rasmus

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Re: U2's legacy re: Rolling Stone's ranking of U2 in 500 Greatest Album List
« Reply #1 on: September 28, 2020, 03:51:51 AM »
Amazing post. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and I agree with nearly every one of them. The editors of RS are of course not the same today as in the 80's (or even in 2012 when the last list was made) but, like you, I dont believe U2's extremely reduced presence on the new list is just a reflection of that. U2 have a big responsibility for their decline and I think the points you make are very valid. It has always annoyed me how they so easily accepted the criticism of R&H and especially Pop. The turn toward safe mainstream music from ATYCLB was not just a change in musical perspective from then on, it also affected the retrospective view of the work that came before that.

Offline zooguitar

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Re: U2's legacy re: Rolling Stone's ranking of U2 in 500 Greatest Album List
« Reply #2 on: September 28, 2020, 09:40:33 AM »
Thanks @Rasmus! A lot of these thoughts started bubbling up after I had recently gotten reissues from less than popular catalog albums like Monster and Goats Head Soup. No artist has a perfect catalog, but they all add up to the whole story. It had suddenly dawned on me that after years of telling the public they were right to reject whole parts of their discography, there's now a whole generation of rock music critics who grew up hearing that from U2 themselves and have permanently incorporated that into their narrative of the band.
« Last Edit: September 28, 2020, 09:51:03 AM by zooguitar »

Offline Vox

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Re: U2's legacy re: Rolling Stone's ranking of U2 in 500 Greatest Album List
« Reply #3 on: September 30, 2020, 10:33:50 AM »
This is a great post…  I sometimes wonder what U2’s “legacy” would be like today had they broken up at different points in the past. 

I’ve said on this forum before that if U2 broke up in 1983-1984, I believe they’d be looked back now as a bit-more-successful version of, say, Echo and the Bunnymen. 

I think if U2 had broken up in 1998 or so, they’d have INCREDIBLE hipster cred today…  like young kids from Brooklyn today wearing images of Bono unironically hipster cred…  (But I don’t like hipsters like that, because I prefer life with a bit of sincerity)  Anywho, if U2 had broken up in 1998 I think they’d be looked back on as a precursor of Radiohead-like experimentation, while still having tapped into just the right amount of mainstream commercial success, for just the right amount of time. 

Here’s the thing…  when bands break up, or rock stars die off, that puts a hard stop on their careers.  Nirvana was a great band, and everything – I was one of the first people I knew to discover them…  (First I shade the hipsters, then I talk like one)  But if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died young…  if we got to see him make some missteps…  record a subpar album…  sell a song to the wrong place…  get fat and old…  I don’t think the young kids would be so enamored with Nirvana or wearing their shirts today…  I think if Nirvana had kept going, they’d likely be looked back today with a reverence somewhere between how people look back on Janes Addiction or maybe Guns N Roses.  Maybe a little more than that, maybe a bit less.  This is a thought experiment, so it’s impossible to know.

So anyway…  I think someday, after for whatever reason, a short time after U2 really “go away forever,” they’ll come back around and be appropriately appreciated critically by the general masses again for who they are and what they’ve done…  That gum will come back in style. 

Offline fardreamer

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Re: U2's legacy re: Rolling Stone's ranking of U2 in 500 Greatest Album List
« Reply #4 on: October 01, 2020, 07:24:21 PM »
I guess I’m struggling to care about an arbitrary list in some magazine.