“An entire school of thought about rock comes off the rails”: U2’s “Discotheque”

An awful lot to say about this post:

U2′s working practise seemed to be to ride an approach till it flamed out. Just as Rattle And Hum had bounced U2 into backing down on pure revivalism, so Pop was cause for a second rethink. There’s a particular kind of 90s rock practise which gets mortally wounded on “Discotheque” – the big budget, everything-fusion album packed with superproducers and hangers-on. Taxi for Howie B, in other words. But while bands will still adopt and adapt to other music – and sometimes, like Radiohead, be loved for it – “Discotheque” also threatens to hold up as threadbare the entire vision of rock as the natural base of musical progress. If “rockism” has ever meant anything, it means what happened on this record – an assumption that other musics exist to provide new directions and stealable ideas to four rock guys in a guitar/bass/vox/drums lineup.

“Discotheque” confused my U2-admiring friends, specifically the band’s wearing Village People costumes in the video. A fan of Zooropa, I wanted U2 to record the dance album it had long threatened, and Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton’s glitzy electro “Mission: Impossible” theme suggested at least two of these blockheads understood machines. As arts editor of my college paper I commissioned a review from our editorial board’s most bono-fied U2 enthusiast. The traditional songs reassured him, if memory serves. I wrote the con review (it was a point/counterpoint package). I loved “Mofo” and “Do You Feel Loved?” I wanted more of them. According to Bill Flanagan’s excellent biography, the band rejected “Wake Up Dead Man” and “If God Will Send His Angels” for inclusion on Zooropa. Who can blame them? Calling the song “Discotheque” was a mistake; this band doesn’t do halfhearted gestures. A song called “Discotheque” was going to sound like one. They were going to dress like discothequers. But they couldn’t stop winking at the audience; they had to telegraph the ludicrousness of the gesture. Interviews featured Bono praising the likes of “The Playboy Mansion” as “hymns to trash” as if (a) this needed to be said (b) writing and responding to good pop music requires belief (c) pop music wasn’t already a collection of hymns. Apart from the stop-the-presses guitar riff that cuts through the second verse’s sluggish tempo, “Discotheque” sounds a mixing board salvage. Why Bono recorded a vocal track in his lower register and another in a higher key when the melody could not support this tension is an enigma as frustrating as the decision to tuck his jeans into his boots at Live Aid.

I went to the Pop Mart show, during which the band strove mightily to enthuse the audience and itself in a half empty Pro Player Stadium. It was over: U2 were now the Rolling Stones, condemned to record albums as excuses to tour. They’ve recorded three good songs since 2000 and I’ll be damned if I’ll remember their names.

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5 Responses to “An entire school of thought about rock comes off the rails”: U2’s “Discotheque”

  1. Hans says:

    I’m not a music critic, so I don’t know what rockism is, but what do you mean?? All of musical history builds up to a mediocre U2 song. Proof : http://youtu.be/qXbWfq0JE9M

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      Rockism, which depends on certain assumptions about class and authenticity, assumes the integrity of the guitar-bass-drums combo. Much of “Pop” sounds like what Bono promised in inteviews: dance tracks decorating standard rock songs, as if you could make dance more palatable this way.

      • Hans says:

        I was being a little tongue-in-cheek 😉 I meant I’ve only heard of “rockism” strictly as a music critic term. Once you define it like that I can’t imagine how there could be much debate about it. It’s plain dumb and requires a willful and almost hostile take on the majority of musical history. But yeah, agree about “Pop”, and also feel U2 tired itself out ages ago. I’m kinda curious about the three good U2 songs post-2000s, but if you won’t remember their names you can’t tell us! Hopefully not the one that went like: “If I don’t go crazy, I’ll go crazy” or so…

  2. Hans says:

    *willfully ignorant, meant to say

  3. humanizingthevacuum says:

    “Stuck in a Moment” is one of them, despite the dreadful production (the nadir of Eno-Lanois).

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