There is something inherently confessional in a blog, even in a science blog. There is an urge to reveal—do you feel it?—that is normally kept safely in check. Mine is pretty well locked down. And yet I admire those who, on occasion, have cast off their reins and opened their hearts with great honesty. I think particularly of Richard’s pieces on “depression” and, more recently, faith. The opening lines are enough impart a tingling, cliff-jumping sense of danger. I’ve never really felt moved to take the plunge – until now.
So here goes my confession. It will be rather shocking to some, perhaps to many of you.
I. Love. U2.
I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me. But I can’t help it. For those of you who are still reading, I’d like to try to account for myself. It’s a long story because, and this is really the key, it has been a very long journey, one that started right at the beginning of the 1980s in Northern Ireland.
I think I must have been sixteen years old when my older brother borrowed Boy from a friend at school and brought it home. From the opening salvo of chiming guitar in that first album I was sold. We dutifully taped the record on the music centre—this was well before music became digital—and our lives were never the same again.
A year later we saw them play live at Slane Castle in County Meath. They were only third on the bill, coming on before Hazel O’Connor (remember her?) and the magnificent Thin Lizzy. But, unless my memories are deceiving me, it was U2 I had really come to see. They played some songs from their upcoming second album, October. The energy of the performance was fantastic and the fearless religiosity of some of their material strangely refreshing, especially to a fairly devout teenager.
The following winter we saw them again, on a cold night at the Maisfield Leisure Centre in Belfast and heard for the very first time the signature tracks, New Year’s Day and Sunday Bloody Sunday, from War. Here was a band that could articulate in music the lament for wasted lives in Northern Ireland. And they could knock out a bloody good tune while doing so.
The Unforgettable Fire marked a change of direction that showed a maturing fearlessness and was followed a few years later by the brilliant intensity of The Joshua Tree, perhaps U2’s finest album. Around this time I was a student in London. In 1984 I got tickets to see them at the Brixton Academy: they hadn’t yet conquered the stadia of the world but they were certainly working on it. Bono had started to manifest a predilection for sermonising during concerts but not everyone was ready to listen. When the band paused so he could speechify, some wag from the crowd yelled at him to shut it and get on with the music which, with only the slightest of pauses, he did.
A couple of years later—I was still in London but had started my PhD—I saw them again at Wembley stadium (1987?) but remember little of that concert except that the band was very far away. I’d been spoiled by the intimacy of the smaller venues and have not seen them live since. But I’ve remained devoted to the music. The release of Achtung Baby in 1991, when I was a postdoc at the Institute for Animal Health in Surrey, brought a healthy injection of cynicism and humour that has remained ever since, even though they have clung resolutely to the thread of religion. It also marked a return to the harder edged rock-and-roll that I love.
The less said about Zooropa, the better. It has its moments but most of it feels like stuff that was swept up from the floor after Achtung Baby had been finished. Pop, more experimental and somehow lacking in the earlier confidence, was nevertheless an improvement. It was the sound-track to some of my early grant-writing.
And then came All that you can’t leave behind and How to build an atomic bomb in which I think U2 rediscovered themselves and their true mission. Superlative clanging rock combined with some painfully beautiful songs – I’m thinking particularly of Walk on and, more especially, Sometimes you can’t make it on your own, Bono’s aching plea to his dead father.
I know lots of people loathe them and, believe me, I can see why. But I just don’t give a damn. For sure, Pope Bono can be a bit much at times but my hat is off—he has turned his fame outwards and fashioned something amazing from it in his charitable work. It’s his refusal to play the straight rock’n’roll star that appeals to me. And anyway The Edge is the real unsung hero of the band: among my friends he was and will always be the coolest man in rock music. His hair might be a lot thinner these days but The Edge is a consummate musician and I cannot begin to account for how much pleasure I’ve had from his guitar riffs over the years.
So last Monday on my normal flit through Victoria station I stopped in at HMV and got my hands on No line on the horizon. I’ve been listening to it all week. The music is more complex than the band’s more recent offerings, the melodies less accessible at first hearing. But it is—as the song says—Magnificent!
Please forgive me.