On Second Thought: U2 — “War” (1983)

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By Dave Gebroe

Whether it be from a priest, a rabbi, an outspoken relative, or the Almighty Bono Vox himself, my knee-jerk impulse to being preached at is exactly that: to knee that jerk, right in the groin.  Along the same lines, I also don’t look fondly upon Greenpeace pamphlets being thrust in my face as I walk into an overly expensive stadium show.  I just don’t care for activism in my rock.  None of this explains why at fifteen years old I went to see U2 on “The Joshua Tree” tour, nor does it explain why the show left me in a state of slack-jawed awe at the mystical intensity of the U2 experience.  The long and short of it is that this gaggle of stylistically-challenged Irish rockers contained the perfect level of grandstanding self-seriousness especially during the Eighties-for a zit-faced, teenage doofus like myself to truly call my own. 

No matter how many permutations they manage to force out of their once-vital band, for me the longstanding image of U2 will be their performance of “Silver And Gold” from that hot-air epic of Americana-seeking douchebaggery “Rattle and Hum.”  Dressed in a cowboy hat, of all things, Bon(z)o needles the audience with a mid-song anti-apartheid rant.  When he catches himself drawling on interminably, instead of poking fun at his own sermonizing tendencies (something at which he became more proficient during the “Achtung, Baby” era), he actually has the brass-balled audacity to implicate the audience!  “Am I buggin’ ya?  Don’t mean to bug ya.  Okay, Edge, play the blues!”  And the unintentional punch line, especially in light of the band’s obsession with uncovering the essence of what makes America tick, is that what comes rippling out of The Edge’s amps is as authentically bluesy as the theme song to “Sesame Street.”

Rewind five years and we have the dubious pleasure of bearing witness to the birth of Bono as caricature.  There he is, that quaint, mullet-sporting crusader waving a white flag and whipping up a “No more!” call-and-response with the “Live At Red Rocks” crowd.  Looking back now, I see some dude trying a little too hard to capture his place in the American spotlight after two albums hadn’t quite done the trick. 

Those albums — 1980′s “Boy” and 1981′s “October” — still stand today as powerful works from a band that hadn’t yet discovered its voice, and was all the better for it.  “War” (recorded in the summer of 1982, and released in February, 1983) was the fulcrum point at which U2 ceased to be an Echo & The Bunnymen-derived New Romantic outfit and began striving after its own sound and tackling its own messages, however weighty they tended to be.

For some strange reason, “War” is considered the high-water mark of their early work as a band.  It replaced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the top of the charts, becoming the band’s first #1 album in the UK. There were three huge singles in America and the record was eventually ranked number 221 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Objectively, “War” was U2′s worst album until 1997′s “Pop” came along.  Admittedly, the first three tracks are excellent.  The record kicks off with the martial-drum intensity of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” then segues into atmospheric nuclear nightmare “Seconds,” and…yet another atmospheric nuclear nightmare (not to mention one of their best songs), the classic “New Year’s Day.”  At this point we’re running full steam.

The record then promptly drops off and never recovers.  “The Refugee” sounds like what might happen if Bow Wow Wow had a political conscience.  And yet, somehow, it’s even worse than that comparison implies.  “Like a Song…” was apparently intended as a response to those who believed the band was too worthy, sincere, and not “punk” enough.  Unfortunately, it’s too worthy, sincere, and un-punk to carry its message.  “Red Light” is a lame ditty about prostitution.  And so on and so forth, each tune wrapping itself around an issue and passing itself out like a pamphlet.

This might be a good time to mention that I typically try to ignore lyrics.  There are exceptions, but I have a great respect for the limitless interpretive possibilities inherent in good music.  When you take in the lyrics, it’s unavoidable that a definitive singular meaning’s going to stamp itself into concrete.  It’s like the old-time radio serial lovers who resented the advent of television; once the whole picture was available, with all the blanks filled in, the work had already been done and your imagination was no longer invited to the party. In that mode of thinking, political lyrics typically tend to be outright anathema to me. 99 times out of a hundred, it skews toward the nausea-inducing if the words are at all distinguishable. 

“And we love to wear a badge, a uniform / and we love to fly a flag / but I won’t let others live in Hell” (from “Like A Song”)

How am I supposed to get a groove on when some young rock star hopeful’s enunciating these putrid lyrics clear enough for me to hear?  Even “Two Hearts Beat As One,” ostensibly “War”‘s love song reprieve from the relentless political proselytizing, kicks off like Bono forgot he was stepping away from the pulpit for a moment: 

“I don’t know, I don’t know which side I’m on / I don’t know my right from left / Or my right from wrong” (from “Two Hearts Beat As One”)

Christ, even his love songs from this era were framed in a context of political opinion.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that “New Year’s Day” started life as a love song Bono wrote for his new wife, but was promptly rejiggered into its current state as an Armageddon ditty inspired by the Polish Solidarity movement.  What an incurable romantic!

This sense of weighty grandiosity all starts with that album cover; it sports the same kid from “Boy,” but his childlike wonder’s gone the way of the dodo.  Check him out, scowling at us, admonishing us for the poor state in which we’ve left the world he’s inherited.  Hey, come on!  What the hell did I do wrong?  How did I get implicated just by picking this record up off the rack?

Like many important artists through rock and roll’s long, storied history, U2 is sensitively attuned to the tweaking of their aesthetic strategy based on what’s come just before.  But there’s something about their approach that feels more like a marketing plan than an artist’s bid for mercurial, outside-the-box thinking.  Their entire journey of “growth” can be traced back to “War.”  After this record, there was a lyrical de-emphasis in favor of ambience (“Unforgettable Fire“), followed by a maniacally grandiose lyrical re-emphasis (“Joshua Tree“), which prompted a nose-thumbing at themselves, beating the wags to the punch in their attempt to control the depth to which they were satirized (“Achtung Baby”), etc.  In retrospect, all these moves seem suspiciously calculated to keep any and all detractors of the band at bay.

There are apparently those close to U2 who feel as I do, as can be evidenced by producer Brian Eno coercing Bono to tear down his mulleted crusader image by fully improvising a set of mumbled lyrics for “Elvis Presley & America” on their next record.  Although I do dig the tune, so begat a career of low-rent about-faces designed to keep the record-buying public convinced that they were still the best damn band in the world.  The grand sum of this people-pleasing bobbing and weaving leads me to believe that they must have felt more than just a passing feeling of kinship with Sally Field as she took the stage at the 1985 Oscars and immortalized herself by admitting that, “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

U2 — “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” US Festival, 1983:

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