Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: U2 By U2

“U2 by U2” is a biography of the band as told through segments taken from lengthy interviews with vocalist Bono, guitar player Edge, bass player Adam Clayton, drummer u2 by u2Larry Mullen Jr., and manager Paul McGuinness.  It’s a large format coffee-table size book that combines hundreds of pictures with extensive text.  The large format makes the book a pain in the ass to read, but that’s a minor quibble.  There’s a lot here for fans of the band.

Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s pretty hard to deny that U2 are unlike any other rock band.  From the time they first got together in 1976 through their most recent album “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” they have have never rested on their laurels but have always tried to produce new music.  During the 1980s culminating with ’87’s “The Joshua Tree” they produced some of the most moving and uplifting music ever to come out of the rock genre.  Through the 1990s they changed it up by adding dance and electronica elements to their sound and in the process lost a significant portion of their fanbase.  With the turn of the new century they engineered something of a return to their earlier form and their popularity began to grow again.  They have stood as proud symbols of personal and public responsibility in a field noted for self-absorption and excess, have then succumbed to the self-absorption and excess of the rock-star life, and, in the person of Bono, have become deeply involved in the day-in, day-out struggle to bring aid to people who desperately need it in Africa.  Other celebrities talk the talk but U2 has walked the walk.  There is no other group in the world like them.  I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the recently released deluxe edition of “The Joshua Tree” and was absolutely thrilled by “U23D“.  With that recent history I really wanted to like “U2 By U2”.  But then I read it.

The book has several strengths.  Each of the four band members comes through as a distinct individual; by the time you finish, you have a pretty good idea who’s talking simply by reading what they have to say – you don’t need the name attached to the quote anymore.  Clayton sounds like an easy going and pleasant man who feels like he is along for the ride and is delighted to be so.  Mullen comes across as deeply pragmatic, rooted, and distrustful of new things.  He’s the guy who often shines the cold light of rationality on Bono’s extravagant flights of fancy.  Edge is mostly about the music.  U2 has sounded the different ways they have because the Edge has become interested in different kinds of music over the years and worked tirelessly to develop the effects he gets from his guitars and keyboards.  Bono comes through as something of a self-obsessed drama queen.  For him, everything is epic, nothing is ordinary, everything is symbolic, and it’s almost always all about Bono.  He’s also a great storyteller.  They all sound thoughtful and you often wish you could pursue the conversation further with each of them.

“U2 by U2” is especially strong in its discussion of the music.  When they talk about their earliest years it’s striking how much they sound like any one of a million other groups of kids who got together to play music with the dream of becoming a band.  They started where all of us started.  For people who are interested in this sort of thing the most interesting part of the book is their discussion of how most of their recorded songs were created.  They rarely make music by either Edge or Bono coming in with a song that the others modify.  Instead much of their music seems to slowly come into form as bits and pieces from many sources aggregate, intermesh, break apart and recombine.  It comes across almost like an undirected organic process in which everyone contributes.  Much of this is fascinating.

So why did I end up being dissatisfied with the book?  U2 has marketed itself as a band that cuts through the bullshit and tells it like it is and “U2 by U2” appears to have this quality.  However as I read more and more of the book it semed like I was getting less and less of a real sense of who these guys are and what this band is like.

A number of examples could be brought forth but one will do the job.  In the 1980s Bono visited El Salvador and reacted with outrage and righteous indignation over US involvement in supporting the terrorist regime that was running rampant in the country.  The result was songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared”.  In the 2000s the same Bono was prominently photographed palling around with US President George W. Bush who headed a US government conducting a disasterous war in Iraq and renditions of political prisoners to secret prisons in countries that do not abide by the Geneva Conventions for the purpose of torturing them for “information”.  The contrast is striking and one can’t help but wonder how Bono got from one place to the other.  As you read “U2 By U2” it becomes clear that Bono is a thoughful man who is rarely content with accepting the easy answer to difficult or complex questions.  You would really like to hear what he has to say about the stark contrast between his actions in the 1980s and 2000s, not to defend or condemn, but simply to understand where he’s coming from.

The intersection of Bono, Bush, El Salvador and Iraq is addressed in “U2 By U2” but not by Bono.  Other band members say that Bono’s activities raised some issues but that they trust Bono in political matters.  This is all well and good but it is hardly satisfying if you’re interested in what Bono thinks about all this.  Bono’s contribution to the topic is to report that Bush is a really funny guy who cracks good jokes and is “very personable in person”.  Other than to note that he and Bush have different opinions about Iraq, that’s it.  From a guy who can and does go on at length about how he feels about the smallest thing and how he is affected by anything going on in the world around him, this feels like a major cop out.  By having band members address the issue in a superficial manner while Bono remains silent, “U2 By U2” gives the impression of forthrightness without the substance.

As I read more and more of “U2 By U2” and felt the disconnect between the book and I growing ever wider I wondered what had happened.  What did I miss?  Where did I go wrong?  And then Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, said something that provided the key that unlocked the book for me.  He was discussing the choice of tracks that would go on U2’s career retrospective album “Best Of 1990-2000” when he said

The mythological aspects of a great band are something we’ve always been aware of, as I think The Beatles were and the Rolling Stones are.  I don’t think it’s surprising that U2 are protective of the way people regard them.

Reading “protective of the way people regard them” was like a light going on in a dark place.  Well, duh.  “U2 By U2” is a very sophisticated exercise in impression management.  It’s a marketing ploy.  The book is a vastly more sophisticated 21st century variant of the “Mickey is a Taurus and his favorite color is blue” marketing fluff that filled liner notes for bubble-gum pop bands in the 1960s.  I suppose it was very naive of me to think a band like U2 would really lay it out in a book they wrote about themselves and so my disappointment that they didn’t should probably not be taken very seriously as a criticism of “U2 By U2”.  Still, it’s hard not to think that the band of 1987 would have stepped up and dealt with the heart of the matter rather than polishing their image.

“U2 By U2” is filled with great stories, great pictures and a whole lot of interesting information about how most of the band’s songs were created.  Readers interested in what the band thinks about some of the political and musical aspects of their career that have proven to be controversial will have to look elsewhere.  If you like U2 and can accept the book as a marketing tool designed to protect their self-perceived status as a mythological band, you’ll probably enjoy “U2 By U2” a great deal.  Bono has often been quoted as describing “Achtung Baby” as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”.  Some people responded that it sounded more like four men running away from The Joshua Tree.  On the evidence provided by “U2 By U2”, they’re still running.

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03/31/2008 - Posted by | book reviews, music | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Doors is a large-format coffee table book that appears to be modeled along the lines of U2 by U2.  It’s loaded with photographs and serious fans of the band may find the pictures alone […]

    Pingback by Review: The Doors with Ben Fong-Torres, The Doors « Tuned In To Music | 04/25/2010 | Reply


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