U2: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 | Photo: Mikey Brown (cropped) via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
U2: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 | Photo: Mikey Brown (cropped) via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

U2’s Creative Fire from Inferno to Embers

U2 burned brightest from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire to the ZooTv Tour’s end in 1993.

The ZooTv Tour – Taking the Gospel to the Big Screen

U2 has always been best as a live act. Bringing their music, and message, to the masses, has always been their MO – live is where they live. However, the Achtung Baby tour ZooTV was a different beast: a media-saturated, distorted and disorientating time that called for a setting and stage that could make sense out of the senselessness and be entertaining as well. It was a rock ’n’ roll show, after all.

Prior to the ZooTV Tour, video was used to magnify musicians – to create clarity and perspective for fans. However, ZooTv was all about distortion, disorientation and obscurity. It was about denying access to the musicians and band and instead providing full access to all the flickering images beamed down from the satellite stratosphere. As a counterbalance to this, U2 designed the B-stage which would extend far into the crowd: out there U2 would be surrounded and engulfed by the crowd without shades or masks and just play older, familiar material on acoustic instruments and encourage fan sing-alongs.

This tour would set a new standard that other acts had to follow – including U2 themselves. U2 would go bigger and more colorful, but never again would the spectacle merge so well with the songs: the setlist, the flow of the show, the gadgets and props – the whole became bigger than its parts.

ZooTv was intended to be a vehicle for sensory overload – a sensory sickness if you will – but the music was always in the driver’s seat and at the core of the show: music was the cure. The tech-heavy and showy ZooTv tour succeeded in connecting with audiences on a spiritual level which is what U2 is about–taking their fans to church. This time the church just looked and sounded a lot more different: Total confusion and total communion.

Zooropa – Doing What You Want and Nearly Getting Away with It

In the midst of a two-year touring trek U2 would write and record songs for what was intended to be an Ep but would become the full-length album, 1993’s, Zooropa. The album was heavily inspired by the crazy environment that surrounds a tour and the ZooTv Tour was crazier than most.

U2 was on the top of their game and they could do no wrong: all their antics were received with open minds and hearts– critically and commercially. This belief manifested itself in the approach to the new album. Never had U2 sounded so free and out of their minds.

According to Bono it was an attempt at a Sgt. Pepper-y-type album: it was free from the usual constraints and made in the vacuum of their mad-touring minds. It won a Grammy for best alternative album, but it didn’t produce the stir that U2 had hoped for. After the tour they would take some time off and become Eno’s “backing band” on 1995’s Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1 – an album of soundtracks to (mostly) fictitious films.

This move wasn’t understood by the critics or fans and was quickly stamped as a U2 album and therefore also unfairly reviewed as one. It produced a minor hit with a song made popular by Pavarotti, “Miss Sarajevo”. This song would continue the trend of unlikely duets as heard with the Johnny Cash duet on Zooropa – an eerie but perfectly fitting end to an off-the-cuff, alternative album.

The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and, partly, Zooropa marked the end of a string of albums produced by Eno and Lanois. The producers would come back later for two subsequent albums, but by then U2 found themselves in a different position and in a new musical environment: they were now middle-aged and new things were at stake.

Post-Peak: Re-enter the Critics

U2 has always responded to criticism and navigated artistically according to the nature of said criticism: Achtung Baby wouldn’t be the way it is without the criticism of Rattle and Hum. Pop (1997) wouldn’t have been such a mix-bag bundle of musical genres to cater to all tastes had it not been for the confused reaction to Zooropa and even more so, to the Passengers album. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) would have been taken in another musical direction had Pop and its marred PopMart Tour been received differently.

Interestingly, the paring down approach of All That You Can’t Leave Behind brought back much-needed commercial success for the band, which in turn spurred similar efforts such as the even more retro-sounding successor, 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.(Case in point, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb both won big at the Grammys.

After the end of the ZooTv Tour and Zooropa U2’s subsequent albums suffered from not taking things to their conclusion, for not taking risks and not ‘abusing their position and fuck up the mainstream’, as Bono so eloquently put it during the band’s acceptance speech for Best Alternative Grammy win for Zooropa. No Line on the Horizon had plenty of promising starts (thanks to Eno and Lanois) but succumbed to wanting a sing-along-chorus to accompany their subsequent pre-album planned worldwide stadium trek. Again, as with all their post-ZooTv tours, an innovative stage design would save the day as both die-hard fans and curious casuals alike would turn up to see the giraffe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19KstSgU-c0

Tracklist – How Long Does It Take to Sing This Song?

Why do so many bands burn out after a decade of being on fire and why do some bands keep on playing anyway? What factors are at play here? What would the song titles look like? Probably something like this:

  1. The Youth Thing – becoming too complacent when reaching 40
  2. How to get snared by the trappings of success
  3. Fighting to stay relevant and still be a part of the conversation
  4. Clinging on to power 
  5. In debt to our fans
  6. The We-don’t-know-how-to-do-anything-else song
  7. The obligation – to our label and our employees
  8. The band is our identity 
  9. Out of pure love for making music
  10. The Age Thing – losing innocence, curiosity and maybe open-mindedness with age (radio edit version)

Maybe all of the above could apply to U2 – after all, they always strove to do everything and to be everything to everyone.

Interestingly, R.E.M. makes for an important comparison here. R.E.M. rose to fame and peaked at the same time as U2. However, they didn’t quite match the popularity of U2, but they didn’t really cater to that popularity either. They obtained massive success with 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People without even touring. Monster (1994) followed and so did the critical reviews and R.E.M. emerged from this with one member less and a diminished following.

Meanwhile, U2 carries on carrying that flame, diminished as it may be these days.

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