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Can U2 reclaim its punk heritage without relying on past hits?
U2 in concert in San Jose. (JACOB NIERENBERG/The Stanford Daily)

Can U2 reclaim its punk heritage without relying on past hits?

After The Daily sent them to a concert in San Jose put on by Irish rock superstars U2, music beat writers Jacob Nierenberg and Nick Burns discussed the band’s legacy during the drive back to campus. Read on for their thoughts on U2’s relationship with its past and present — and what may lie ahead in their future.

Nick Burns (NB): Well, that was quite loud for a show with an audience with an average age of about 35.

Jacob Nierenberg (JN): I think it was more than 35. You were talking about the shirts that people wore — Psychedelic Furs, Echo & the Bunnymen — such a variety of shirts from ‘80s acts that were once U2’s contemporaries.

NB: The members of U2 occupy a weird place in rock history, because they come out of the post-punk movement, and they’re listening to all these fairly avant-garde post-punk musicians — they all cite punk musicians as influences, too — and they think of themselves as punks, which is hilarious to most of us. I remember during the infamous album rollout of “Songs of Innocence” — which alienated an entire generation of people from liking U2 — Bono kept describing it as a ‘punk’ move, and was just skewered in the presses for thinking that a collaboration with one of the world’s largest companies was ‘punk.’ […] But tonight, listening to The Edge’s guitar, there is something punk and even post-punk about it. It’s just got this unique quality to it that couldn’t exist before 1979 in terms of sound.

JN: When they played “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” I wanted to make the comparison to George Harrison, if Harrison ever played with a delay pedal.

NB: There’s some Beatles comparisons to be made. Like, Bono’s John Lennon glasses. […] That’s never been a tendency in rock that I’ve been a huge fan of, the kind of —

JN: It feels like cheap iconography, or emulation.

NB: Yeah, the hippie, peacenik sort of strain.

JN: Which, in some capacity, Bono is. I mean, look at the slogans that they had onstage: “Don’t Shoot,” “#NeverAgain,” “Herstory.”

NB: But what “never again”? All this stuff that they put up there was politics without context. What did any of that stand for? Clearly it was trying to make a statement, but they also didn’t want to alienate people by actually saying anything specific.

JN: I disagree. I think they were counting on people who went to the concert to understand the context behind those statements. Like, seeing #NeverAgain, we know that’s a reference to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. […] But I was thinking multiple times throughout the concert: How many U2 fans are there out there that would have voted for Trump? I’m certain that there’s someone who would’ve bought ‘The Joshua Tree’ but not a ticket to the ‘Joshua Tree’ Tour. […] I want to talk about “The Joshua Tree” because the album just turned 30 last year. They did a big tour surrounding it, but they didn’t play a single note of music from it this time around. You said you read a concert review that touched on that?

NB: I saw a piece in the Chronicle about U2 trying to impress “with or without their hits” — of course, a reference to “With or Without You.”

JN: When I first heard that they weren’t going to play any of their “Joshua Tree”-era material, I was taken aback — it seemed like they were trying to cut themselves off from their history. But I remember them once describing “Achtung Baby” as ‘the sound of four men chopping down “The Joshua Tree.” U2 has kind of a complicated relationship with its own past. […] In the case of this tour, where they completely cut themselves off from “The Joshua Tree,” it forced them to focus on other songs — newer songs, some deeper cuts and non-“Joshua Tree” classics like “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “One” in the encore.

NB: It must be tough to try not to be defined by what will probably always be regarded as their greatest moment. I obviously would have liked to hear a lot of the songs on “The Joshua Tree,” but I’ll give it to them; they just did a whole tour just playing “The Joshua Tree,” they’re probably sick to death of playing the whole thing. […] I think U2 is a band, as we saw, that has a lot of laurels both after and before “The Joshua Tree.”

JN: “The Joshua Tree” is just 11 songs, probably three or four of which casual fans could name off the top of their heads, and U2 has at least 30 other tracks that they could have trotted out for a ‘greatest hits’ type of affair — if U2 was the kind of band that would do a greatest hits tour, but I think they’re a little too coy for that.

NB: Yeah, they’re attached to their new stuff, it seems like. I think [“Songs of Experience”] is their most personal album. It seems to deal with Bono’s childhood in a way that other albums don’t deal with so explicitly. But just because it’s so special to him doesn’t mean we have to like it. […] Even though “Songs of Experience” is definitively better than the insipid “Songs of Innocence,” it’s still, at the end of the day, fairly boring, sonically.

JN: But when they play those songs live, I think the energy and the passion that Bono desperately wants to imbue them with carries over. When they played “Get Out of Your Own Way,” I thought it sounded almost like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and even though it wasn’t, it still invoked that same sense of euphoria when The Edge’s guitar kicks in, when Bono does what Bono does and just belts.

NB: At the end of the day, I’ll listen to Bono and The Edge play fucking anything.

 

JN: Even though they were rooted in post-punk — again, this was a band whose debut album was almost produced by Martin Hannett, who worked with Joy Division — they never really fit in with post-punk.

NB: And the other side of that coin is that they didn’t fade away at the end of the ‘80s. They had this famous ‘90s renaissance when a lot of bands who were huge in the post-punk scene were creatively exhausted. […] Even some of their albums in the ‘90s that got a mixed reception really stand the test of time, I think ‘Zooropa’ is one of my favorites, and ‘Pop’ has some really good moments even if it’s not as good all the way through. It’s still much more innovative and much less boring than, say, ‘Songs of Innocence.’

JN: With ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop,’ U2 was at least trying new things and venturing out into shaky ground. They were experimenting, but since ‘Pop,’ U2 has really played it safe. They’ve effectively become classic rock. It’s weird to think of a band that started with punk and post-punk influences that became straight-up classic rock.

NB: It’s so interesting the way that rock as a genre can bleed from counterculture into culture and back again.

JN: Let’s talk about the performance of the music itself: They’ve still got it. These are four supremely talented musicians. They know how to give a good show. If you go to a U2 concert and you don’t, in some capacity, enjoy yourself, you probably hate fun — or you voted for Trump.

NB: It was a stirring performance. And we should also say something about the way that they played ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ — starting the song with clips of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, with guys waving Nazi flags and beating up people, and then Bono yelled something like, ‘This isn’t America!’ And then we get a bunch of pictures of civil rights protests as Bono rose into his famous song dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. — I thought that worked. I thought that was a great way to bring the song into 2018 that wasn’t fatuous or cheap.

JN: Seeing as the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination was just a month ago, it’s a subtle reminder that King’s message is still deeply resonant in this divided America, and I feel like that’s what U2 was trying to get at with a lot of the songs off of ‘Songs of Experience’ — their first post-Trump album.

NB: They were about to release it, and then the election happened, and then they decided to redo it because they didn’t think they could not deal with it. That move was punk in some way — confronting people with these videos of a white nationalist rally as Bono’s roaring into his most popular song. A lot of the audience, it seemed for a minute there, didn’t know how to react. […] When you confront your audience with something, and they don’t quite know how to react, that’s punk.

JN: I feel like it’s been a long time since U2 was confrontational. They might’ve been confrontational in the ‘80s by being earnest musicians who shed their post-punk roots. You could say ‘Achtung Baby’ was a confrontational response to the earnestness of ‘The Joshua Tree.’ But it’s safe to say that U2 has not really been confrontational in about two decades. I feel like with some of the songs on ‘Songs of Experience’ and the activist bent that we saw tonight, U2 was trying to get more confrontational. I think that’d be a really interesting way for U2 to progress from here: to write songs that piss people off again.

NB: I’m looking forward to what comes next.

JN: I don’t even know if that’s something I would’ve said this time last year: ‘I’m looking forward to what U2 does next.’ […] But sincerely, I think they’re the biggest extant rock band at this point. They’ve worked really, really hard to get where they are today. They’ve contributed more classic rock albums to the canon than most music scenes in most countries will ever get the chance to contribute. They’ve rewritten rock history all on their own. Knowing U2, I’d like to think they’ve still got another surprise up their sleeve.

NB: If they can do interesting things politically and artistically like they last did in the ‘90s, I think they’ve got another landmark album or two in them.

Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.