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U2 comes full circle, but songs at core

BY GEORGE LANG Modified: October 16, 2009 at 10:05 am •  Published: October 16, 2009
Since the full-scale reinvention of U2’s tours as an electro-savvy stadium extravaganza with the 1992-93 "Zoo TV” tour, the chatter about each worldwide venture centers on the new set. Most major touring bands now rely on massive fiber-optic screens that can shift settings with every song. But U2 are still big believers in the breathtaking tour colossus, whether it’s the giant arch and 40-foot lemon on the "Popmart” tour or the so-called "claw” that dominates the "U2 360” stage, which arrives Sunday in Norman at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

But as U2 descends on Oklahoma for the first time in 26 years, the most important reason to attend the "U2 360” concert is the same as it was back in 1983 at the Lloyd Noble Center: the songs. The following is a study guide for all that you can’t leave behind.

U2 had already released a three-song EP titled "U2 Three” in 1979 on CBS’s Irish label, but that modest recording did little to herald their 1980 Island debut "Boy,” and not many bands premiere so fully formed as U2 did with the opening track and first single, "I Will Follow.” Influences can be clearly heard (Public Image Ltd., The Clash, Joy Division), but U2 ably synthesized those sounds on "Boy” to create possibly the most identifiable sonic template of the post-Beatles era. But it’s not just the early anthemic sound of U2 on display: The band laid the groundwork for the atmospheric adventurism of "The Unforgettable Fire” with "The Ocean” and "Shadows and Tall Trees.”

U2’s big, reverb-laden sound was perhaps even more fully realized on "October,” as shown by the dramatic opener "Gloria,” but U2’s second disc was botched when in 1981 someone stole a briefcase holding Bono’s lyrics notebook at a Portland, Ore., concert. "October” is the work of a great orator robbed of his script — the sound and fury is there, but it signifies nothing. Incidentally, the briefcase was returned to Bono five years ago, but since no songs from "October” make it into current U2 set lists, do not expect revisions anytime soon.

Purists often cite 1983’s "War” as U2’s greatest achievement, beginning with the martial protest epic "Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and carrying on to the great singles "Two Hearts Beat as One” and "New Year’s Day.” Steve Lillywhite’s production on "War” is almost a textbook case on showcasing the gifts of a superb four-piece band, and Clayton and Mullen deliver the Irish funk on "Seconds,” "Refugee” and "Red Light.” "War” capped off the early period by fully encapsulating the band’s passions, politics and youthful energy in what resulted in U2’s first classic.

"The Unforgettable Fire”
Released only 19 months after "War,” "The Unforgettable Fire” signaled a major sonic departure in which texture and nuance held as much sway over U2 as military-precise rhythms and flag-waving anthems. Produced with an ear toward expanse and mystery by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, "The Unforgettable Fire” channeled U2’s signature sounds into more adventurous territory, whether it was the frenetic "Wire” or the slow-building tension of one of the band’s greatest ballads, "Bad.” It also was the first collection in which Bono’s increasing obsession with American iconography found center stage: "Pride (In the Name of Love),” "Elvis Presley and America” "MLK” and "Fourth of July” all featured heroes and images from the country that U2 was preparing to culturally dominate in the next few years.

"The Joshua Tree”
This is where it all happened: U2 streamlined its melodies, and Bono’s lyrics became more direct. When the album first appeared in the spring of 1987, central classics such as "With or Without You,” "Where the Streets Have No Name” and "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” almost sounded too simplistic. In truth, U2 was just aiming at bigger, worldly concepts of identity and belonging, and running them through their (temporary) immigrants’ view of America. Whether they were critiquing U.S. military might ("Bullet the Blue Sky”) or reveling in roots-rock textures ("Trip Through Your Wires,” U2 was in fertile territory. For a segment of U2 fans, "The Joshua Tree” will always be the quintessential U2 album, the record that made them the biggest band in the world.

"Rattle and Hum”
The flip side to the acclaim and gigantic audience for "The Joshua Tree” is that it created a monster. U2 became so enamored with being that biggest band in the world that its members, and Bono in particular, lost their ever-loving minds playing soul music pastiches ("Angel of Harlem”), glomming onto B.B. King for blues credibility, recasting "Still Haven’t Found” as a gospel song, covering Bob Dylan and/or Jimi Hendrix, answering a John Lennon song (the atrocious "God, Pt.


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