Rattle and Hum

BACK ONE SUNDAY EVENING a couple of years back, now, on the “View From the” Porch at Roseholme Cottage, Caleb Giddings expressed a slight tristesse that his generation had yet to issue forth any music to equal, let alone surpass, that of the Baby Boom generation. He could have been right. I think, however, there is some dispensation when you realize that music and sound and visuals –media — were our computer revolution. Stereo was high-tech. Most of the music of the ’60s was recorded on no more than four track machines. We were hacking the arts every bit as much as the current generation is hacking cyberspace. But back then… I think at that moment Caleb was speaking, the topic was the Rolling Stones, though it could have been any one of those war-baby bands the Boomers listened to before we got our own generational musical heroes.

Yeah, that’s right. The great music of the ’60s, almost all of the bands that played Woodstock, the Gods of Rock, were all war babies. Hardly a Boomer among ’em.

The Boomers’ supposed claim to fame, the music of the ’60s, what “we” listened to when “we” marched for civil rights and when “we” “stopped the war”… just like all the other claims Boomers make to puff up the generation’s self-importance — war babies.

If you want to see the music of the Baby Boom, you have to look more at the ’70s and ’80s. Disco. Hair metal bands.

And punk.

I just sat through all but a very few minutes of U2’s Rattle and Hum, a concert film shot during the Joshua Tree tour. And after I got over the “Look how young they were then,” I realized…

This was probably the last time they got to play in front of crowds as a band. Maybe the ZooTV tour. But since, they’ve been forced to concentrate on ever greater spectacle. And it’s like a special effects movie; no matter how great the script, the directing, the acting, they can only hold their own against the green-screen CG effects — they can never prevail. A stadium act can only play to 75-100,00 screaming fans for so long before they lose the small gestures, the grace notes.

They still make music together. But, live, the band-ness of the outfit has to take a back seat to the spectacle.

Myriad bands have complained about it. The Beatles stopped touring behind it altogether, which is why the only live performance of their latter-day material is from the roof of the Apple offices in Saville Row. The Stones opened their 1975 tour at the Mocambo in Toronto. The caption under the picture in Rolling Stone read, “Oh, to be a bar band again.” It’s a theme in which anybody who’s ever picked up a 6-string would feel the resonance.

Before that, they were just graduating from clubs to arenas. The Unforgettable Fire tour, along with that watershed album, brought them the mass audience. Before Joshua Tree came out, Island and Atlantic, and the incredible Principle Management team knew it was going to be a big hit, a game-changer, but I think nobody had the hubris to think it would be the smash it was, and that the band’s career would continue as it has. We at the patch factory caught the fever, and we extended in so many ways, to produce a system that has yet to be equalled for its design purity and sheer effectiveness, even by subsequent work done for U2.

In many ways, that tour represents the pinnacle of U2’s career — what every guitar-horny teenager wants to be when he grows up. Sure, they’ve gone on to eclipse it in terms of the crowds played to, the gross ticket sales, the merchandising and sponsorship deals… And the music itself has changed and gained in power and maturity, for all it’s lost some of its magic (albeit not much). You can just tell that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is by the same band that produced War (compare Vertigo to New Year’s Day). But the sheer romance and bravado of the three frontmen dancing around the stage in gotta-move intensity to the rhythm of the beat is the goal of any would-be guitar hero. Once you’ve made it there, how long can you hold it before you start going “what’s next?” In a lot of cases, that moment spells doom for the act.

Somebody — I forget who — once said (to the effect of ) success broke up more bands than a million Yokos.

U2 is lucky that, for them, at least, there has been life after success.

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