U2, Rattle & Hum (Island)

It's always with great trepidation that I approach a new album by Irish megagroup U2. I know they're the biggest band of the 80s; I know everyone who's anyone thinks they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. And I even like a fair chunk of their stuff myself. But after a few rapturous listens, I usually end up putting their albums away and not listening to them again (until the next one comes out). They're just not a band I can devote myself to wholeheartedly.

Rattle & Hum is no different in this respect. I can just see myself now, not listening to it at all in a year's time. This is strange, because "Desire" is a brilliant song, punchy, catchy, and complete in under three minutes—the perfect single. Another song, "God Part II", is the best I've heard from anyone for years. And the album itself, clocking in at 72 minutes for a single album price, is great value for money.

But in a way, the length of Rattle & Hum is its biggest drawback. In attempting to get down everything every facet of U2, live, studio, political, artistic—they've created an uncohesive jumble of music which is far too long to make a big impact.

For starters, most of the live material is irrelevant. For me, the live mini-LP Under a Blood Red Sky was a marvel—the first U2 album I heard, and as I later found out, the one with the superior versions of all their early classics. The live material on Rattle & Hum, however, is by and large not revelatory. "Pride", "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Silver and Gold" are all inferior to the original versions. "Helter Skelter" and "All Along the Watchtower" are especially irritating; these covers of two sixties classics bring nothing new to the songs—they only seem to have been included because "U2 Did Them". The one live gem on the album is the gospel rendition of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For".

Even the new studio tracks sport a few duds. "Heartland" harks back to their Eno days (gag, retch). "Angel of Harlem" isn't too bad but the brass emphasis makes it sound like any top 40 tune of a few years back. Even Tassie's own namesake tune, "Van Diemen's Land", with the Edge on Lead Warble, sounds too much like a lift from "Australia All Over" ("And I'm gone on the rising tide/For to face Van Diemen's land" ...sure mate, too-ra-lye to you too).

So what's left? The closing number, "All I Want is You", builds slowly in the manner of "Mothers of the Disappeared" and is a good song. "When Love Comes to Town" is a neat, spare song, a collaboration with B.B. King on guitars and vocals. "Hawkmoon 269", another slow builder, may even tie with "Desire" as second-best song on the album.

The album's classic track, however, is without a doubt "God Part II", billed as "for John Lennon", and a U2-written "sequel" to Lennon's "God" of 1970. Bono matches Lennon's list of "I Don't Believes" with a list for the 80s: excess, deathrow, cocaine, Goldman (author of the book which claims Lennon was gay, misogynist, etc). It winds up with the brilliant couplet: "I don't believe in the 60s, in the golden age of pop/ You glorify the past when the future dries up".

But for me it says volumes that after Bono has sung that particular line, the next song ("Bullet the Blue Sky" live) is introduced with an actual recording of Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1969. He obviously believes in enough of the sixties to include that song, as well as the old Beatles and Dylan tracks (and even have ol' Bob feature on a new song, "Love Rescue Me").

It must be the major problem for U2: how do they break out and establish their own identity as a huge band, not just of the 80s, but of all of rock's thirty years, when they have already been embraced by the Rolling Stone brigade searching for the new Dylan, the new Lennon, the new political singers of the 80s? Are even U2 trapped in the 1980s "Back to the 60s" timewarp? Has the future dried up?

Perhaps U2 will hit the bullseye with the next album. But I seem to remember saying that after The Joshua Tree last year. It could be that U2 end up as the archetypical 80s band in more ways than one—"almost" greatness but not quite there.


First published in Togatus, 3 November 1988. Of course, since hearing Achtung Baby I think they're absolutely brilliant.
This page: 27 February 2000; last modified 8 May 2018.

©1988, 2000 Rory Ewins