U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Justin Cober-Lake

Unlike so many of their younger peers, U2 aren't writing protest music. They also aren't trying to shift musical paradigms. Instead, they're writing pop songs for a large and expectant public (a populist step in its own right).


How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2004-11-23
UK Release Date: 2004-11-22

Over the past 25 years, U2 have been many things: young punks, mainstream superstars, political activists, and arena rockers (just to get started). They've been seen as inspiring, pretentious, committed, and excessive. With their last release, 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 embraced their true position as pop icons by creating catchy, occasionally moving, but not incredibly intense music. "Beautiful Day" alone was worth the front-loaded album, until it almost wore out its welcome in the media. With How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (ending the longest release drought of U2's career), everyone's excited to proclaim the group's return to its earlier, harder sound, but that's just not true. Instead, U2 relies on its pop sensibility, creating memorable guitar hooks and following the blueprint of the last album, just minus the fullness of the sheen.

By the time this album actually reached stores, the public had been saturated with the debut single and leadoff track, "Vertigo". Its most persistent appearance comes with an iPod commercial that the networks have on a nearly continuous loop. As with "Beautiful Day", this song's only defense stems from the fact that it's so good. Your snobbish side wishes it wasn't so -- it's in a commercial as soon as it's on the radio, if not before -- but it's one of those tracks you can only hate if you choose to. The opening count-in, the Hola!'s, Bono's clever phrasing, the chorus lead-in of "oh-oh-oh-oh". Bono's penned accessible lyrics, but they contain enough ambiguity to remain interesting, a quality useful in helping fans to sing along without feeling like dolts.

That accessibility's aided by the crisp production. Steve Lillywhite, and obvious choice, heads the production. He's helmed plenty of important recordings, including the early U2 albums, the Talking Heads' Naked, several Morrissey albums, and work by the Dave Matthews Band, XTC, Travis, and Peter Gabriel. Long-time colleagues Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (who co-produced The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree) provide additional production work. The resulting sound is exactly what you would expect from a trio who are well-respected and on the inside of U2's work. The central guitar, bass, and, drum parts stay fully separated, and the electronic effects and synthesized sounds maintain their importance without gaining prominence on any tracks.

With the old crew all in place, it's not surprising that comparisons to the old U2 sound come up, and they're not entirely unwarranted. "City of Blinding Lights", for example, has the quick, clean strumming that made "Where the Streets Have No Name" a classic. It also has, however, a reliance on the synthesizer for mood. The effect works wonderfully, U2 sounds updated. On this track (unlike others to come), the bombast stays in check and Bono's questions sound earnest without being overzealous. The same strengths of "Vertigo" shine here: the wordless syllables, the guitar hooks, and the smart lyrics. It's undeniable that this band is the same one that recorded tracks like "With Or Without You", the group's connection to their emotionally harder numbers is less apparent. "City of Blinding Lights" and "Vertigo" are great pop tunes, but they lack the musical and lyrical guts of "Pride (In the Name of Love)" or "Sunday Bloody Sunday".

The transition to such deliberately mainstream pop is both easier and harder to follow because of Bono's outspoken politicism. As his band's audiences has grown, Bono's had increasing opportunities to discuss his platforms. Oddly, though, his music has been losing the political edge that's become such a focal point of his personal (or at least non-musical public) life. Bono's probably the leading celebrity activist in the world right now. He never drops out of protesting sight for long, yet this album, despite its title, stays apolitical throughout almost the entire disc. "Love and Peace Or Else" has the title (and Elvis Costello allusion) to be the album's radical moment, but it lacks the musical weight for either an anthemic call or an intimate question. The track's big moments reach into pomp, and the emotional ones reach into melodrama, as with the lyrics "Here's my heart you can break it," the type of phrase that has too often bogged Bono down. I'll hold out hope that music can help bring change. In this era, the revolution won't be televised, but it might be webcast, just not to an iPod U2 Special Edition.

Even during political moments, the group's never hesitated to use religious imagery, often constructed around conflicted, thoughtful takes on faith (as in "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", especially the Rattle and Hum version). On Atomic Bomb, the questioning faith has been replaced with boring requests, bland praise, and banal observations. "Yahweh" (a traditional name for the Judeo-Christian God) visits clichés like "This love is like a drop in the ocean" while pseudo-philosophizing on issues like "Why the dark before the dawn?" and "Always pain before a child is born". The main guitar part sounds as if the Edge wrote it in his sleep -- sticking close to the formula without livening it up.

It's a shame that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has to end with the dud of "Yahweh", because it's actually a quite good album. It's neither aggressive nor retro, and U2 sounds better for moving forward, even if they seem increasingly diluted in delivery at times. Unlike so many of their younger peers, U2 aren't writing protest music. They also aren't trying to shift musical paradigms. Instead, they're writing pop songs for a large and expectant public (a populist step in its own right). They've avoided the bubblegum, but they've kept the hooks and emotion. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb isn't the best album they've done, but it's still better than most of what's on your dial these days, even if that dial is tuned in to a commercial.

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Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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