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Taking U2’s Familiar Story A Little Further, With Room for More

Book Review: Neufeld, Timothy D. U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 238 pages.

Neil R. Coulter

In the forty-plus years of U2, many people have written about the band (including the band members themselves). Through all of that prose a familiar biographical story has taken shape. No matter the storyteller, certain key moments are always highlighted: Larry’s notice pinned to the bulletin board at Mt. Temple Comprehensive School in 1976; three of the band members’ connection to, and eventual departure from, the Shalom community; changes in U2’s sound on The Unforgettable Fire; international superstardom by the time of The Joshua Tree; dreaming it all up again for Achtung Baby; political activism. There’s a comfort in hearing that story rehearsed every so often – especially as the band continues to inspire appreciative devotion from its fans with each new tour, album, or bit of news. For their fans, U2 is a kind of family and hearing all the old family stories makes for a good time.

Tim Neufeld’s U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World is the most recent book to take us through the story. If you have followed U2 for a while, you probably know the story pretty well by now. Neufeld’s book really isn’t for you.  It’s a solid introduction to the band but it offers only a little for the die-hards. After a helpful timeline, showing “Cultural Events” along the left side and “U2’s Career” on the right, Neufeld guides the reader through a quick tour of the band’s history. In telling the story, he draws on other well-known sources, especially U2 by U2 (2006) and Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas (2005), but also many other book chapters and interviews spanning U2’s career. Each chapter looks, in chronological order, at a phase of U2’s development.

I particularly enjoyed the first chapter, “Growing Up in Ireland,” in which Neufeld explains the historical background in Ireland that led to the decades-long Troubles, which so colored the lives of U2’s members. In just a few pages, he does a fine job of setting up the Dublin of U2’s youth, helping the reader understand the questions the band members struggled with as they became U2.

The final two chapters of the book look at broader themes that resonate throughout U2’s history. These two chapters read as individual essays, distinct from the narrative flow of the rest of the book. In chapter 7, “Faith and Art,” I appreciated how Neufeld showed faith to be not a static identity that a person either has or doesn’t have. Rather, faith is dynamic, a kind of companion that accompanies a person throughout his or her journey. This is evident in the overview of ways that U2’s faith has informed their activity. That those activities have changed over time demonstrates the difficulty in grasping what a living faith really is. Chapter 8, “Social Engagement,” also shows U2’s journey, in relation to political activism and dreams of a better world. The shock at the injustice in the world, evident in U2’s words and actions in the 1980s, has matured into a quieter, but still intense, way of realizing the ideals the band members have never left behind.

From the book’s title, I had assumed that more of the book would take the approach of these last chapters and examine the “world changing” ways of U2. Though the retelling of the band’s story is good, I was expecting a deeper level of analysis of the band and their interaction with the world through their skillful use of the authority their celebrity gives them. Neufeld suggests many avenues with great potential for future writing about U2, and I look forward to the ways other authors will dig still deeper. I wonder, for example, how a political scientist might investigate Bono’s leadership in global debt-reduction; or how a sociologist would analyze the context of the Zoo TV tour and its construction of community amidst contradictions and irony; or how an economist would reflect on the effect a U2 tour has on a city or nation? These are big topics that come up in any retelling of U2’s story, and I often wish that some of those points would be further teased out by specialist who might see things that we’re missing.

Neufeld’s writing style is accessible and free of jargon; the book doesn’t presume any previous knowledge of U2’s history. For me, however, the tone of the writing was at times too general — for example, saying that “As the calendar turned from one decade to another, the world was an anxious place” (70) is too quick and ambiguous a way to describe the global context which U2 attempted to engage. And, when Neufeld talks about an uncomfortable moment of the Zoo TV tour, when a satellite linkup brought war-traumatized Sarajevans to the concert’s video screens, it seems wrongly abrupt to write, “It was an intense and awkward incident, leaving Larry to believe that the band might be guilty of exploiting Sarajevans for the sake of entertainment. Many people outside the U2 franchise felt the same” (83), but then leave it there and move on to the next part of U2’s story. I was looking for more than simply the facts as they happened; I also wanted some commentary to help me process it all.

For newer U2 fans who want to learn more about the band’s story, it can be confusing to decide which book to read first. If you are interested in U2 and haven’t yet read U2 by U2, then that book should be at the top of your list. Relatively new fans would do well to read U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World next. I hope some of those fans will then respond to Neufeld’s implicit invitation to keep filling in the spaces, to help us enjoy and understand U2 from a wide variety of perspectives.

U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World is available from Rowman & Littlefield and Amazon.

Stimulating Intellectual Discussion, Premiere Rock and Roll Reading

Happy to see this review of U2 Above, Across and Beyond by Peter Roche of AXS.com on June 23, 2017.

Brush up on your Bono with brainy U2 book

It’s one thing to say a favorite band has fallen off your radar after a certain point in their career. Maybe there was some peculiar album you didn’t care for, some phase where the group decided to “experiment” or “evolve.”

Sounds familiar, right?

But it’s quite another thing—a personal thing—to insist a band has lost its way. After all, it’s their way to “lose,” right? Isn’t that the nature of art?

So it is with U2, an act we couldn’t get enough of in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—but whose last two studio albums barely blipped on our radar screens (notwithstanding all the “free album” iTunes hubbub for Songs of Innocence).

What happened?

The band members would probably tell you they grew, they matured: They evolved from the spirit-driven, punk-inspired Dublin quartet they once were into open-minded uber-rockers who recognized that the world was their stage. But we also grew, and the ‘90s and ‘00s flooded our free time with other exciting music worthy not only of rocking out to, but evaluating with critical ears.

We were in junior high when The Unforgettable Fire lit up our senses—kids without a care in the world, save the ones Bono deemed worthy of singing about. Twenty years on, we’re all married people with fancy college degrees and fulltime jobs, mortgages, and kids. So any singers and guitarists vying for what little attention we have left these days had better be on point.

Bono and the boys succeeded with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which proved a welcome return to the band’s jangly, intimate guitar rock of old. But they started losing me again with How to Build an Atomic Bomb (2005). So much so that I didn’t even pick up No Line on the Horizon (2009) until weeks after its release, only to discover none of it clicked with me.

Maybe you could sing the whole of War (1983) and The Joshua Tree (1987), but can’t name a single entry on Songs of Innocence (2014) outside “The Miracle of Joey Ramone.”

Still, we’d be the last to level a finger at U2 and accuse them of letting us down, right? Were you sometimes disappointed by their changes in direction? Disinterested in some of their post-millennial music? Sure. Maybe you just haven’t given their last two albums much of a chance, and that—if anything—you’re secretly pleased the band continues to test its boundaries, planting its heels in untrodden musical territory instead of revisiting the well-worn paths.

That’s the nature—the essence—of art. Love it or hate it (or both), the music of U2 has always forced listeners to reckon with it.

Plenty of reckoning was done at the 2013 U2 Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Held in conjunction with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (whose Director of Education Jason Hanley participated in panel discussions), the gathering invited fans and academics alike to consider (and reconsider) the legendary Irish band’s contributions to rock, to pop culture…to global consciousness.

Conference Director (and Cedarville University Professor of Literature) Scott Calhoun encouraged conference attendees to reassess the myriad ways Bono and his band have impacted or otherwise influenced the cultural Zeitgeist with their music, their message, even their (ever-changing) image.  The results of that open challenge—presented at the conference, and now available in the aggregate on Rowman and Littlefield’s Lexington imprint—is a new book “U2: Above, Across, and Beyond.”

As is the norm with a Lexington publication, Above, Across is less a fan book than it is a college-worthy appreciation of its subject.  Specifically, it is an octet of eight separate essays (or Interdisciplinary Assessments) scrutinizing various aspects of U2’s mostly-impressive oeuvre, and whose topics are thematically bound by Calhoun’s edict to thrust the transitive qualities of the band’s work under the microscope.

Put another way, these writers walked “Where the Streets Have No Name” to help find what Bono was looking for, what we listeners found, and what remains lost (whether deliberately or not) in the ether of U2-dom.

And that the authors do, with varying degrees of success—but with a common, undeniable passion for their subject.

Welshman Christopher Wales (NLA University College) tackles the group’s “Collaborative Transactions” by studying how U2 have enacted its art and interacted with its fan-base over the years in a communion of what social psychologist called “sensemaking” and “sensegiving.”  Drawing on the tumultuous (but invigorating) 1990 recording sessions for “One” at Hansa Studios in Berlin—as well as the Davis Guggenheim documentaries It Might Get Loud (2008) and From the Sky Down (2012)—Wales suggests that the whole of the band is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, that “the hats” (Bono and The Edge) and “haircuts” (Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton) carry one another through the creative process so as to realign themselves and reinvent their sound (and appearance).

In “Trans-valuing Adam Clayton” Rock Hall research assistant (and musicology Ph.D. candidate) Brian F. Wright argues why Clayton’s role in U2 is far more critical than the bassist’s naysayers would it.  While Wright agrees Clayton probably derived his propulsive, root-note style from so-called “unskilled” punks like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Joy Division, he argues that Clayton’s preference for simplicity is both conscious and creative.  Dissecting the bass lines for three key U2 cuts (“With or Without You,” “New Year’s Day,” and “Beautiful Day”), Wright makes a case for the “active” quality of the bassist’s rhythms and its tendency to lend movement to the songs, whether said lines be in the forefront (“New Year’s Day”) or background, as subtle support mechanism for Edge’s textural guitar meanderings (“Beautiful Day”).

Heck, Wright even provides sheet music (and tablature) for the songs, should you care to grab your four-string and have a go.  Cleveland rocks!

RMIT University lecturer (and club culture enthusiast) Ed Montano uses his “Translating Genres” article to discuss how U2 “replaced its 1980s monochromatic aura of sincerity with a 1990s multicolor façade of irony” on Achtung, Baby(1991), Zooropa (1993), and Pop (1997) by incorporating elements of the EDM (electronic dance music) so prevalent in clubs.  Pointing at songs like “Lemon,” “Mofo,” “Discotheque,” and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car,” Montano explains how Bono and company drew from disco (Studio 54), techno, and acid house (The Hacienda) and collaborated with (or mimicked) D.J.s like Howie B. and Paul Oakenfold to bring a fresh, danceable color palette to its work.  More importantly, Montano mulls over the significance of EDM in the balance between the group’s “gender” (masculine rock versus female EDM) and the musicians’ deliberate efforts to lampoon themselves (authenticity versus inauthenticity).

In “A Transcendent Desire” scribe Arlan Elizabeth Hess (Vermont College of Fine Arts, University of Padua) gets sidetracked debating the “Irishness” of U2 by her own (however noble) attempt to counterbalance critical homophobia aimed at other emerald isle artists, like drag queen Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill).  Hess—an expert on Irish lit and “the Troubles”—is most effective when debunking John Waters (Race of Angels) claims that Irish-ness has more to do with one’s reaction to an historic oppression (colonization) than anything else—including one’s birthplace.

“For Waters, it follows that Zoo TV was the result of centuries of exceptional Irish leadership, struggle, and adaptation,” she poses.

Hess feels Waters too easily dismisses the band’s “unique musical collaboration [and] artistic vision” when appraising U2 albums and tours—as if any other musical collective would’ve dreamt up the same music and stage shows under similar circumstances, based simply on shared “cultural inclusivity.”  Hess also touches on themes of equality, justice in her discussion, and examines Bono’s schizophrenic pulpit / performer shtick using Leszek Kolawksi’s “priest / jester” template.

English professor Fred Johnson (Whitworth University) plays archeologist in U2’s “Transmedia Storyworld” by excavating the bits and pieces of ephemera (albums, movies, books) U2 have produced over the last three decades.  Not a morsel was arbitrarily dispatched, argues Johnson—for while the songs and photos may have derived from an organic, genuinely artistic source, the members of U2 enjoy final say on what goes out into the world.  In other words, the band has created its own story—its own wunderkammer—(and continues to do so), carefully selecting which stuff (and how much of it) is put out into the world for mass consumption, depending on what its goals are at the time.

“The glittery trapping of the Zoo TV tour was clearly put on, an obvious performance,” surmises Johnson.  “Yet they were a performance that the simulacrum band of the ‘80s would never have approved.”

In “Transmitting Memories” Flinders University senior lecturer Steve Taylor sifts through Bono’s in-concert “lyrical departures” from the recorded versions of key tracks to arrive at an understanding of how the band memorializes people, places, and events during performances—thereby manufacturing unique new moments for the ticketholders in attendance.  Spring-boarding from his discovery of a shout-out to the thirteen-years-dead Frank Sinatra in a live version of “Until the End of the World,” Taylor comments upon Bono’s many mentions of past concerts, prior locations…and dead people (Eunice Shriver, Greg Carroll, buried miners in New Zealand) from the stage, and how these seemingly unscripted one-liners establish both an oral history of the band and a “collective memory” for concert audiences.

“What would motivate such changes?” Taylor ponders.

Calendrical repetition, verbal repetition, and gestural repetition conspire upon U2’s gargantuan stages, weaving a ritualistic tapestry the band tosses over audiences like a playful papa blinding a laughing toddler with her “woobie.”  There’s more than meets the eye when Bono waves at Larry behind the drums, thrusts a finger in the air, or points his microphone at fans in the front row.  These are “concert-rical” connections that make each show special and enhance the universal appeal of each tour after the fact.

Remember Bono’s white flag at Red Rocks (Under a Blood Red Sky), or how he danced with a girl from the audience at Live Aid?  These small, spontaneous gestures mean a lot in the long run, says Taylor, establishing a fascinating “fixity” to how we recollect what the band has done.

We first saw U2 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in October 1987 (on the third leg of The Joshua Tree tour). And it wasa transformative and magical concert—rife with ritual, studded with signature moments and yes, brimming with bricolage “now part of the toolbox of found objects that the band can employ in the future,” as Hamilton puts it.  The show did feel intimate, but we’re guessing that had more to do with our companions (and the booze) than anything the band was doing visually (we’re assuming it was U2; we couldn’t actually see Bono [and his broken arm] from the nosebleeds, and this was before the age of the Jumbo Tron).  They could’ve piped in a recording from some a previous show on the tour and thrown a lookalike band up there, and we wouldn’t have been the wiser.

But that’s just nitpicking—and from some thirty year on, no less.  We take Hamilton’s meaning, and will make it a point to pick up “U2 360 at The Rose Bowl” DVD as suggested.

Above, Across, and Beyond may tickle a few nostalgia tendrils, but it’s neither fanzine nor officially-sanctioned scrapbook.  This is heady stuff written by individuals who’ve given serious thought to U2’s “missteps, disappointments, failures…and ordinary problems.”  There are no glossy pictures of the group, young or old (there are no photos at all).  But there is ample (and stimulating) intellectual discussion of the Irish band’s “proclivity for change” in a world that doesn’t always welcome it.  And each of the eight articles (none longer than thirty pages) makes for an easy-to-digest, hour-long patch of premiere rock and roll reading.

“U2:  Above, Across, and Beyond—Interdisciplinary Assessments” on Amazon or order directly from the publisher by clicking here, then catch U2 on their Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary Tour.

Book Review: U2 Above, Across, and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments

“This is heady stuff written by individuals who’ve given serious thought to U2’s ‘missteps, disappointments, failures…and ordinary problems.’ … [t]here is ample (and stimulating) intellectual discussion of the Irish band’s ‘proclivity for change’ in a world that doesn’t always welcome it. And each of the eight articles (none longer than thirty pages) makes for an easy-to-digest, hour-long patch of premiere rock and roll reading.” — Peter Roche, Cleveland Music Examiner

Read the full review here.

Book Review: The World And U2

Reviewed by William R. Upchurch, University of Pittsburgh 

The World And U2, by Alan McPherson, a professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma, and a longtime U2 fan, is subtitled “One Band’s Remaking of Global Activism,” but it might be more accurate to think of this story as one about how global activism remade a band. Despite the band being mentioned twice on the cover, McPherson’s narrative primarily follows Bono’s personal transformation from “Mount Temple kid” to “superstar lobbyist,” and is written with a Shakespearean eye for tragedy and a historian’s eye for the details needed to bring the drama to life. Bono emerges as a Joseph Campbell-esque hero who finds himself in the dragon’s lair after a journey through the many layers of global poverty, sickness, and war. The supporting players are all accounted for, but as Larry Mullen, Jr. said, “Nobody could argue with what he was doing, it was clearly too important.” Bono’s activism was important for whom, though?

The World And U2 is a short book, at 104 pages plus notes, which works both for and against it. The brevity makes it a breezy read, particularly for U2 aficionados who are well-acquainted with the different periods of the band’s history. After losing touch with his youthful passion for the band and writing six books on what he calls “serious” issues, McPherson decided to “reconnect with Bono and the band by writing about something we should all take seriously — their activism.” The book’s meticulous notes and bibliography are an obsessive U2 fan’s dream. (U2 fans tend to share their idol’s love affair with data.)

The book’s chapters are arranged in chronological order, following the band members’ adolescence through Songs of Innocence and what McPherson judges to be “the final stage of their career.” Community, faith, and action are presented as both the “pillars of U2’s activism” and as “lessons … that all activists or would-be activists should carry with them as they fight injustice.” As with many books about U2, each era is brought to life through a combination of cultural and historical context and the band’s own words, of which there never seems to be a shortage. McPherson does a better job than most at connecting the two, though, and he is able to draw out some nuances in the band members’ thinking that other books gloss over. For example, he links the rant against televangelists in “Bullet the Blue Sky” to the band’s eye-opening first encounters with American televangelists in the early 1980s. These details blending historical context with the band’s broadening global awareness are worthy additions to U2 lore.

Whether intentional or not, U2 has always tried to be relevant by pitting its musical identities against the tides of both dominant and counter-cultures: Bono’s rejection of punk’s disdain for its audience; earnestness in the face of the “false optimism of Ronald Reagan”; self-aware irony in the face of the band’s earnestness; and most recently a celebration of nostalgia in the face of a fetishization of the future. U2’s activism demonstrates its identities have been a part of its collective personality from the very beginning and has, perhaps, functioned as an outlet for the complexity that’s actually in the band, which can get obscured by the process of making and selling records.

Examining U2’s global claims and consciousness apart from its songs – even while telling those stories in parallel – is one of McPherson’s outstanding contributions to U2 scholarship. So much of what is written seeks to imbue the songs with personal meaning drawn from the band member’s lives, but The World and U2 clarifies the distinction Bono has attempted to articulate for years: Regardless of how they spend their free time, they’re still in a rock band. McPherson’s inductive approach more closely mirrors U2’s creative process than does the usual approach of textual analyses of lyrics, and is wholly appropriate for the book’s subject. It illustrates the recalcitrance of injustice and inequality, in whatever form they take at a given time, which is an underlying theme of both Bono’s and the reader’s journeys. It is a startling and universal realization for activists of all stripes, and since informing activism is one of McPherson’s goals, it helps put the book into a clear focus. Community, faith, and action are not presented as a template for successful global activism, they are merely what keep the members of U2 grounded and fighting. Readers are challenged to find their own pillars, and perhaps to reflect on the story of how one group negotiated the complexities of living in a world it desperately wished to change.

At the beginning of this review I asked, “For whom was Bono’s activism important?” During a 2000 interview, Bono defined rock and roll as “that thing of wanting to change the world, or take on the world, at least the world inside your head.” The World and U2 articulates the band as an expression of this ethos, and presents Bono, in particular, as an archetype for whom injustice becomes a metonym for the turmoil inside his heart. The frustration felt by young Bono manifested itself in his early insistence on small-scale action as a catalyst for change. It came out stronger and clearer when at the height of the band’s success/excess, Bono turned to advocating larger structural solutions for redirecting the world’s wealth and power to bring about justice. The farther removed he became from his mother’s death, his father’s stoicism, economic uncertainty, and the street violence of 1970’s Dublin, the more cerebral his activism became. McPherson’s writing conveys a real sense of loss as the deeply personal spirituality of U2’s early activism gave way to the detachment and cynicism, however necessary, of managing a series of global activist brands, such as ONE, DATA, (RED), and even the brand of Bono himself.

It is a social justice hero’s journey, but McPherson does an outstanding job of weaving commentary on the changing contexts of activism over the period into the book. In a clever turn, he uses U2’s celebrity to call attention to a serious issue, just as Bono trades on his own fame. And here is where I think the book’s length works against it, especially in the final chapter: McPherson hints at a critique of contemporary celebrity activism that I would have liked to see developed more fully. The end of the book floats away amid a relentless stream of facts and statistics, yet the underlying narrative about the changing face of global activism is what makes this not just another book collecting quotes and anecdotes to tell the well-worn story of U2. McPherson drops bits of commentary here and there, but I would have welcomed more of the author’s voice in expressing the significance of the story just told, and I think it would increase the book’s appeal for a broader audience.

Still, I recommend The World and U2 to both activists and fans alike. For fans, it evokes the “feeling” of the band better than any book except U2 By U2. For activists, it transfers those feelings to a particular history, helping make sense of the very public twists and turns of U2’s activist career. At one point, McPherson reports Bono’s claim that The Clash “gave U2 the idea that social activism could make for a very musical riot.” As it turns out, the combination of activism and U2 also makes for a very readable and interesting book.

William R. Upchurch is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also an instructional designer and teaches Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of rhetoric, social media, and game studies, with an emphasis on the development of online culture and identities. You can reach him at wru3@pitt.edu or his blog www.wrutheday.com.

Contributor:
William R. Upchurch
Contact:
wru3@pitt.edu

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