Thursday, October 27, 2005

U2 continues to take on the world

"There had never been a band that had made it out of Dublin. It was us against the world. It was an impossible thing to do." — Bono

It's easy to identify rock 'n' roll's icons from the '50s and '60s. A greater challenge is determining which bands from 1980 to the present will carry the torch long enough to achieve iconic status. Right now, only one comes to mind with certainty.


When the Irish quartet — singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — plays a sold-out Toyota Center this Friday it is part of a trifecta of rock 'n' roll's elite that will visit Houston before year's end.

U2 will be followed into the arena by former Beatle Paul McCartney on Nov. 19 and the Rolling Stones on Dec. 1.

Unlike the Beatles and Stones that were born in the '60s, U2's legacy began a quarter century after rock 'n' roll's birth. But the band is the first of its generation to match up with rock's venerable legends. And U2 isn't a museum piece or a band warming up its past; its course is still being plotted.

Making a legend

The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder all achieved rock 'n' roll sainthood and are enshrined in the genre's Hall of Fame in Cleveland. They all share three characteristics: These acts have been cited by subsequent generations of musicians as influences; their older work has remained relevant over time; and over these sustained periods of creativity, their fans always asked, "What's next?"

U2 has met these pre-requisites.

It has also replenished itself every few albums with sounds and themes that bely its history. From youthful rabble rousers to Americana explorers to pop-cultural pundits to middle-age contemplators, its music has breathed a life right along with the bandmembers, and fans have always answered the call.

It's partially attributable to the band dynamic: The Edge, Mullen and Clayton quietly push the music forward, with Bono as the public face of the band, singing, talking and, sometimes, meeting with heads of state.

"I think Bono is really, really comfortable on a big stage," says singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. "He's a leader of men and not afraid to say, 'Come follow me.' "

Fans continue to follow.

Bruce Springsteen gave the introductory speech when U2 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Springsteen said that he was certain that U2 would be the last band for which he would know the name of every member.

He pointed out that what makes a legend is the near implausibility to stand out amongst the throngs trying to make impressions with guitars.

"It's embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens," Springsteen said. "This was music meant to take on not only the powers that be, but on a good day the universe and God himself, if he was listening."

Some body of work

U2 has distinguished itself by creating 10 studio albums in 24 years that are different from one another, yet they all seem to be part of some pre-panned story arc.

"Rock 'n' roll is the sound of revenge," said Bono at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. "So make your enemies interesting, I would say."

The band has done a fine job keeping its enemies close.

The adrenalized raw stadium power of U2's earliest guitar cascades on I Will Follow and Gloria gave way to Irish protest songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day.

When the band was fresh out of local anger, it explored the American experience on mid-'80s epics like The Unforgettable Fire and 1987 Grammy winner The Joshua Tree.

In the '90s, on albums like Zooropa and Pop, U2 embraced layers of digital embroidery on top of its naturally-constructed rock marches and emerged with the futuristic sounds of The Fly and Lemon.

More recently, on 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind (an album anchored by the Grammy-hording single Beautiful Day) and last year's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the members of U2, all now in their mid-40s, have peeled those exploratory musical layers away and re-examined their musical bones. Simultaneously the members also re-examined their lives to a different marching anthem — the march of time.

There are more styles of music competing for attention today, more bands making more music than there were in 1980. U2 is the first legendary rock 'n' roll band whose members were all born after the birth of rock n' roll itself. It's getting harder and harder to discern who will join its ranks as a modern icon.


When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Toyota Center, 1510 Polk Street.

Tickets: Sold out.


U2's discography: From A(chtung) to Z(ooropa)

Boy (1980): Produced by Steve Lillywhite (Peter Gabriel, Morrissey), the chorus to lead song I Will Follow (``If you walk away... I will follow'') became a prophetic metaphor for U2's aversion to trends and fans willingness to accept their experimentation.

October (1981) An album full of high ideas about war and religion that lacked radio appeal (with the exception of Gloria). U2's most culturally Irish album, even as the band made its initial club forays into the U.S.

War (1983) Boy was a protest album by scared kids venting through music in their garage. War was a protest album by a budding rock 'n' roll band realizing for the first time that it had an international podium.

Under a Blood Red Sky (1983) For those who missed the War tour, this eight-song-live sampler established U2 as the ultimate arena band. It also gave non-album track Party Girl a home.

The Unforgettable Fire (1984) U2 was ready for superstardom and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois helped guide them there. Bono's lyrics take a nostalgic look at Americana on Pride (In the Name of Love), 4th of July and Elvis Presley and America.

Wide Awake In America (1985) This four-song EP proved that U2 B-sides like Three Sunrises and Love Comes Tumbling were superior to most other band's A-sides.

The Joshua Tree (1987) One of the best rock 'n' roll albums ever made, nearly every track is single-worthy as it adheres to a dusty landscape visualized on the album cover. The band earned its first Grammy for this project including album of the year.

Rattle and Hum (1988) A soundtrack from the band's journey through America, this is the first - and only time to date - where too much music made for a subpar U2 album.

Achtung Baby (1991) The official launch of Phase II of U2's career, the band finds happiness in a warm credit card, hunkering down in the studio and coming out with a lush album of distorted guitars and layers of sound created by digital effects.

Zooropa (1993) An EP that turned into an album, this separates U2's casual fans from the die-hards, though it features one of the group's greatest ballads in Stay (Faraway, So Close) and the only guest vocalist to ever appear on a U2 album, Johnny Cash on The Wanderer.

Pop (1997) After mining everything from rock to disco to synth, U2 didn't seem to know where to go next. Discotheque feels left over from Zooropa while Staring at the Sun is yet another tremendous ballad that fits better with Achtung Baby.

All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) The band rediscovers itself by taking a ``less is more'' approach and completely deconstructing its music. The start of U2's third and current phase, All That You Can't Leave Behind is the group's most rock-oriented record since The Joshua Tree.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) A slightly bigger sound than All That You Can't Leave Behind, issues of time and an appreciation for family and life are at the core of songs like Vertigo and Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own. - U2 continues to take on the world

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