I’m not entirely sure that I’ve got a favourite band at the moment. I’m not so faux-cool as to pretend that I’ve never had one, or that I think there’s something thoughtless about having one. And a few years ago, I’d have had no hesitation about telling anyone who asked that my favourite band was U2. But I’ve fallen out of love with them a bit over the past few years, for a couple of reasons.
The first is musical. It’s a widely held opinion that Pop was U2’s lowest point, creatively – having started to experiment radically with Achtung Baby, they took a wrong turning and only got back on course with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. In some respects, I’d agree with that – I think Pop is probably the weakest U2 album that I own, and the fact that it’s preceded and followed by two of their best makes it seem even worse by comparison. But it seems to me that the experience scared them. ATYCLB (to give it the U2 in-crowd abbreviative name) was certainly a return to form, but it was also a return to formula. It worked then, because having had two albums away from their “classic” sound they had plenty of pent-up creativity to unleash on it on their return. But I have to say that I was disappointed with the next two. There’s nothing particularly bad about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb or No Line on the Horizon, but neither do either of them have any stand-out songs worthy of joining the pantheon of great U2 tracks. And that, it seems to me, is because they’ve stopped taking risks, musically. HTDAAB and NLOTH are just a bit too derivative to be great. There’s too much there that sounds like an attempt to write the next Where the Streets Have no Name rather than an attempt to write something radically different from it.
It’s well known that Achtung Baby emerged from one of the band’s most troubled periods, when there seemed to be a prospect of the group splitting up and going their separate ways. These days, they seem maybe a bit too comfortable in each others’ company – like an old married couple who’ve been through their troubles, survived them and know that they won’t be breaking up now. But the absence of conflict has also led to an diminution of creative spark – something that’s maybe exacerbated by the fact that all of the band members have enough non-U2 activities and interests to keep them going. U2 have become an institution, and like all institutions, just a little bit tame.
Pop may have been U2’s weakest album to date, but I think that it’s also what they most need to return to – to have another attempt at something radically different that could fail as spectacularly as it could succeed. And even if it does bomb, I think their fans would forgive them if it sparks another All That You Can’t Leave Behind to follow it. But maybe the real fear is that this time, it might succeed – and leave the post All That You Can’t Leave Behind albums looking like the wasted years.
The other reason for U2’s loss of my affections, though, has been an increasing sense of disconnect with some of Bono’s politics. Which is a bit odd, in a way, because one of the things I used to admire about U2, and Bono in particular, was their crusading zeal for justice and their readiness to use their celebrity status to speak uncomfortable truths to politicians and world leaders. But recently, Bono seems to have crossed the floor, and started campaigning for the rights of the rich and powerful rather than the poor and needy.
There was always a risk that someone from the world’s richest rock band campaigning for debt relief would come across as hypocrisy, especially since the band seemingly made no attempt to channel any of their own wealth into the causes they exhort us to support. I don’t actually buy that particular argument, not least because I’m intelligent enough to realise that even the wealth of U2 would hardly make a dent in the global ocean of poverty and I’m not privy to what they do in private with their own money. But when they start endorsing proposals which would not only benefit themselves, but also damage the interests of those they purport to represent in the less developed world, then such charges become much harder to refute. Bono’s comments at the start of this year on filesharing and intellectual property rights are not only directly opposed to what I believe in and campaign for, but have also been expertly deconstructed to show that his opinions, if implemented, would have even more negative consequences for the developing world. This is a powerful enough rebuttal of the pro-IPR lobby that it’s worth quoting a paragraph here:
If Bono truly cares about poverty, education, health care and fair trade in developing regions like Africa, he should be against draconian intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement regimes and for more balance. Numerous studies (including from the World Bank) have concluded that the strong IPR regimes exported from the West to the South (many through trade agreements) mainly benefit industrialized countries. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the cost of re-aligning national laws to fit these regimes and the cost of enforcement itself. Resources that could be devoted to education, or health care or fighting poverty are instead spent on protecting transnational media companies.
If Bono really doesn’t see the contradiction here between his enthusiasm for protecting his intellectual property and his exhortations to governments to drop the debt, then he isn’t really looking very hard. And the argument that he’s simply defending the interests of small-scale music producers doesn’t wash either – I refer my readers once again to this view from the sharp end of independent music production by Steve Lawson.
By coincidence, today is also the day that the World Cup starts. You may not care about football, but you probably know that it’s taking place in South Africa. Ten years ago, South Africa was in the forefront of a legal battle instigated by the multinational drug companies who wanted to protect their rights to charge whatever they liked for their products, against the wishes of the South African government which wanted affordable access to the medicines they needed for the fight against AIDS. You can see an old BBC news report here, and a more recent retrospective about it here.
The drug companies lost that one. As the Avert website points out,
Big Pharma was eventually forced to back down and drop the case following a tremendous outcry from the international community including the South African government, the European Parliament and 300,000 people from over 130 countries that signed a petition against the action, angered over the apparent pursuit of profit over public health.
Ten years later on, we’re still fighting the same battles. Maybe Bono is simply too naive to realise that the same laws he hopes will protect his own earnings from the filesharers will also be used to protect the drug companies from having to help the poor and sick in Africa. Or maybe he knows, but doesn’t care. Either way, it’s a massive misjudgement on his part.
But anyway, back to the music. And apologies anyone who’s had to wade through all of this before getting to the song (although not much of an apology, since you could have just used the scrollbar!). Despite all of the above, I’ve picked a U2 track anyway. But I’ve picked one, and an accompanying video, which demonstrates the best of U2, and the best of Bono. The track is from The Joshua Tree, which is certainly the best album of their earlier classic period, and the video is from the 2001 Elevation Tour. I wasn’t there when this video was filmed – this is from Boston, USA, and I saw the tour in London – but this was one of the standout moments of the evening both live and when viewed again on the DVD release. Imagine this is London, imagine that I’m down there in the mosh pit (just outside the tip of the heart, as it happens), and relive the experience with me, Where the Streets Have No Name.
Direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVKWNGSmdB8