The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Seven)

4. Numb
 
There’s nothing quite like divorce to focus the mind.  Sometime in 1990, before he left for Germany to commence the recording of Achtung Baby, The Edge and his first wife, Aislinn O’Sullivan, came to a painful understanding.  Their 7-year marriage was over.
 
“It was a grim period for me, finally looking failure in the face and seeing this was something that could not be redeemed.  We tried.  We went to counselling.  I think it had gone too far,” he noted in U2 By U2.
 
Despite the emotional turbulence he was experiencing from the separation he threw himself into songwriting and became completely devoted to U2.  Unsurprisingly, Achtung Baby ended up becoming a very dark record with a number of songs featuring indirect lyrical references to his personal life.
 
As with every album U2 have made there are plenty of songs left over from the sessions that are not only unworthy of being included on a full-length release but also as exclusive bonus tracks on CD singles.  Down All The Days is an example.  Adam Clayton told Neil McCormick, “The song didn’t really work but the instrumental backing was interesting.”
 
After Achtung Baby was completed and released to tremendous critical acclaim and commercial success the band launched their equally applauded Zoo TV tour.  In February 1993, the band found themselves with a lot of free time on their hands after spending a year on the road.  They were 3 months away from the final leg of the tour which would keep them in Europe and Asia for the rest of the year.  It was suggested that they could work on some new recordings, just enough to fill up an EP.  But Bono convinced the others to make a proper album instead.
 
As a result, old ideas were dusted off and new ones were created in the studio.  Ultimately, Down All The Days was given another chance.
 
According to Adam Clayton, Brian Eno added some keyboard work to the original backing track.  But the song was missing a fresh set of vocals and lyrics.  Enter The Edge.
 
“The lyric came very quickly and tapped into many of the ideas behind Zoo TV, the sense that we were being bombarded by so much information that you find yourself shutting down and unable to respond.  I wrote so many verses I had to cut two out,” he explained in U2 By U2.
 
Bono agreed with him wholeheartedly about the “too much information” aspect while also remarking that the song captured his state of mind after the end of his first marriage.
 
“It is a relentless portrait of what he was feeling at the time and what a lot of people were feeling in the wider world about media.  He was in that spot but it became a great metaphor for the media overload generation incapable of feeling anything for the pictures you see,” he observed in the same book.
 
According to Alan Cross, The Edge thought about Bono doing some kind of rap over the music.  But at the time, The Edge was the only one in the studio.  In the end, he made history.  Numb is the only U2 single that features The Edge on lead vocals.  (He also takes the reigns on Van Dieman’s Land, an album track on Rattle & Hum, and Seconds, an album cut from War, where he shares vocal duties with Bono.)  Larry Mullen Jr. sings one of the first “I feel numb” lines while Bono’s Fat Lady vocals make a triumphant return.
 
Despite all the various effects, vocals and instrumentation involved, putting the whole thing together was unusually simple.
 
“The mix was the easiest thing in the world.  You just put up the faders and let it go,” The Edge remarked in U2 By U2.  All in all, “[i]t was a few hours’ work and [required] a lot of editing.”  (For the record, Robbie Adams did the actual mixing.)
 
In an unusual move, the song was issued as a video single (exclusively available on VHS), something the band had never done before and haven’t since.  The 4 minute and 18 second track, the first release from Zooropa, furthered the themes established on Achtung Baby, as did the incredibly silly video which features The Edge miming to the song while trying not to crack up as various people annoy him in numerous ways.  (By the way, it’s Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington who press their feet into his face near the end.)
 
Later that year, The Edge performed the song all by himself during the MTV Video Music Awards.  Playing it completely straight, as he does on the recorded version, it turned out to be one of the weirdest live performances in Television history.  (His blue ensemble didn’t help matters.)  During his 1993 Al Music special for MuchMusic Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of the song.  He replaced the original words with sections of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs And Ham.
 
 
 
It opens with a hooky drum loop, followed by electronic effects and a woman’s voice, faintly heard, talking about “psychic friends”.  Then, The Edge begins his mono rap.  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. aren’t far behind with their traditional bass and drums, respectively.  And that’s just the first minute.
 
Numb is the most unlikely U2 single.  Bono’s not the lead vocalist here.  The Edge’s guitar is notably absent.  The melody line features exactly one note.  And it was released exclusively on videotape.  (The audio version can only be heard on the Zooropa album.)
 
And yet, it is one of their greatest achievements.  Over a decade since its surprising release it has aged remarkably well.  One could make a very strong case for it being the band’s greatest overall song, an opinion I held for much of the 1990s.
 
The lyrics are the strongest element.  Today, a number of lines perfectly describe the hypocritical, modern-day, neoconservative, ultra right-wing philosophy and declining movement, whereas in 1993, it was conceived as a satire on the state of the media and a commentary on The Edge’s emotional status after his divorce.  A number of the “rules” rattled off by The Edge have frequently been broken by The Republican Party.  (“Don’t cheat”, “Don’t hoax”, “Don’t spy/Don’t lie”, “Don’t project”, “Don’t leak”)
 
It’s right there in the first verse:  “Don’t move/Don’t talk out of time/Don’t think/Don’t worry everything’s just fine.”  It reflects a corrupt government’s viewpoint.  We’ll handle the boring job of running the country.  You stick to keeping quiet and looking the other way, especially when we’re up to no good.  Or how about other lines in other verses, like “Don’t hope for too much”, “Don’t grieve without leave”, and the aforementioned “Don’t leak”, which might as well be describing the Bush Administration’s “lowered expectations” strategy, their long memory for those who criticize or “betray” them, and the idea of staying “on message” without giving away their real motives and actions, respectively.
 
That being said, this laundry list of rules, made up mostly of actions and feelings you should never express or else, has a striking fascist streak about it, even if there is a subtle sense of exaggeration.  They sound like orders from an imaginary dictator given to a typically oppressed citizen programmed to embrace his lack of freedoms in favour of loyalty to the state above all else.  Initially, in an environment like that, fear would swallow you whole.  But the longer you’re stuck there the less you feel and the more likely you are to embrace this unnatural state of affairs, as indicated in the chorus of the song.  (“I feel numb/Too much is not enough/Gimme some more”)  It’s like being an addict.  Living in a perpetual state of peril inspires you to seek comfort any way you can, even if it means sacrificing your own humanity, sanity and individuality in the long run.  Nine Inch Nails did something similiar in 2007 on the Year Zero album.  One song has a section that goes, “Persuasion/Coercion/Submission/Assimilation”.  That sentiment wouldn’t be out of place on Numb.
 
The Edge’s droning vocals are perfect but not without precedent.  John Lennon was known for writing parts of melodies that used exactly one note.  (Think Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds or Strawberry Fields Forever.)  The U2 guitarist takes that idea as far as it will go by using the technique for an entire song.  Call it an anti-melody.  By using the lower end of his register he nicely overemphasizes the robotic quality of those silly rules.  Through that one note he persistently and stubbornly plays you understand how he feels.  It’s inhuman to live a life under so much restriction and repression.  You don’t even have to know that he was still reeling from his divorce.  The theme he expresses here is universal.
 
We can’t forget the music, though.  Brian Eno’s keyboard solo is instantly memorable, simple and moving.  Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming is funky and loose, a nice, ironic touch.  Adam Clayton remains the unsung hero here with his steady bass playing.  And Bono’s Fat Lady vocals on the chorus is an effective contrast to The Edge’s low, flatlined rap-sing.
 
Never a staple on Top 40 radio, Numb is another one of U2’s lost singles.  It’s their own fault, really.  When you don’t issue the song on CD, what do you expect?  Who would want to buy the video when they can just wait for it to reappear in a greatest videos collection?  Not the smartest strategy, fellas.  And remixing the song for The Best Of 1990-2000 instead of including the original version?  Also stupid.  There was nothing to fix.
 
Nevertheless, it remains a vibrant example of U2’s best work.  It’s soulful in an environment of endless emptiness.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 27, 2007
10:49 p.m.
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Published in: on July 27, 2007 at 10:49 pm  Comments (1)  

The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Six)

5. The Fly
 
In 1990, U2 were ready to work on their seventh full-length album.  Having spent plenty of time writing and recording in Ireland and America over the years, a fresh location was in order.  On October 3rd, they boarded the last flight to East Germany.  That very night the East and West officially reunited.  It was a new world they were preparing to re-enter.
 
It was a critical moment for them.  After slugging it out for more than a decade they ended the 1980s on top of the music world.  Two straight best-selling records, multiple Grammy awards, and plenty of critical acclaim for their music and their live shows.  They even made the cover of Time Magazine, a rare achievement for a rock band.  They had to figure out how to keep the momentum going without relying on old tricks in order to satisfy their growing fan base.
 
Naturally, the plan was to make a different sounding record than The Joshua Tree, a bold leap forward into the great unknown rather than a sequel of roots-oriented rock.  Earnestness was to be replaced with irony, seriousness with bouts of satire.  Even funk and electronic experimentation weren’t out of the question.  From the very beginning, imagery and role-playing would play integral roles in the eventual material and the groundbreaking tour that would follow the release of the album.
 
But getting off to a productive start was an absolute struggle.  Much to the band’s disappointment, Brian Eno was not immediately available.  However, Daniel Lanois was and so were Paul Barrett, the band’s loyal sound technician, and Ian Bryan, who previously helped out recording songs for Rattle & Hum.
 
They set up shop in Hansa Studios, the same place where Iggy Pop and David Bowie made parts of The Idiot and the entire Lust For Life album in 1976 and 1977, respectively.  One of the first songs they worked on was Lady With The Spinning Head.  It had potential, but never developed the way the band wanted it to.  Clocking in at just over 6 minutes it is an engaging number, to be sure.  It might be the only U2 song that deals with the roulette table at a casino.  But it was never great enough to be included on Achtung Baby.
 
However, it was a starting point for no less than three new songs, all of which would make the cut.
 
When Brian Eno arrived a few months later, everything changed.  For one thing, the screaming died down.  (According to Alan Cross, Bono and Daniel Lanois occasionally disagreed so vehemently their arguments degenerated into loud, angry, verbal tussles.)  For another, he rejected much of the band’s material and seized control of the troubled sessions.  It was decided that everyone should move back to Ireland to start anew.  It was one of many wise decisions he made.
 
While back home, Bono had found inspiration from an unlikely source, as he explained in U2 By U2:
 
“Fintan Fitzgerald, who was running our wardrobe, had found this very Seventies superfly set of blaxploitation sunglasses.  I would put them on whenever we hit a problem and make everyone laugh, running off at the mouth and describing the visions I’d see.  I quite liked being this character, a barfly, a self-appointed expert on the politics of love, a bullshit philosopher who occasionally hits the nail on the head but more often it’s his own finger-nail he leaves black and blue.  I thought I could get a whole song out of him.”
 
That, he did.  For lyrical inspiration he referred to the work of Jenny Holzer.  The Ohio-born conceptual artist, now based in New York, is well-known in the art world for projecting or simply using phrases or “truisms” in numerous manners in public places, an idea she’s repeatedly developed over the last 30 years.  Bono wanted this new character he stumbled into, which he called The Fly because of those sunglasses, to spout a series of these truisms one right after the other.  (One such line, “taste is the enemy of art”, was mysteriously dropped from the final lyric.)
 
“The way I saw ‘The Fly’ was like a crank call from Hell…but the guy likes it there,” he further explained in U2 By U2.
 
The bassline from Lady With The Spinning Head was remade into the main hook.  The first line of The Edge’s famous solo was taken directly from the last section.  In Spinning Head, the same line repeats several times.  In The Fly, you hear it once in its original form and then he plays around with it, expanding further on the original riff.
 
The rest of the music was written from scratch.  Because Bono was singing in character for the lead vocals (leading up to and during the choruses he also sings in what he calls a Fat Lady voice, high and with strong Gospel inflections), they were noticeably altered to give it an otherworldly quality.
 
When it was issued in the fall of 1991, it foreshadowed much of what was to come for the rest of the decade.
 
So, what were the other songs that recycled elements of Lady With The Spinning Head?  Well, there was Zoo Station, which opened the album, and UltraViolet (Light My Way), which was the second-to-last track.  Spinning Head, curiously, would not be issued on The Fly CD single.  It would later surface as a B-side to both One and Even Better Than The Real Thing.
 
 
 
Here’s an important question:  how many bands or individual artists have made it big in the music business by developing a signature sound?  The answer:  quite a few.  Here’s a follow-up:  now, how many of those same performers, upon reflection of their success, decided to go a different route?  In other words, how many have had the courage to completely change their approach, to discard what worked so well for them in order to literally begin again and somehow stay relevant? 
 
It’s a much smaller number, isn’t it?
 
That’s what makes U2’s The Fly so special.  It’s more than just a great single.  It’s a declaration of change.  Unlike many of their 80s contemporaries who stubbornly and fatally refused to adapt to the climate of the 90s, although it was excruciatingly difficult, U2’s adventuresome spirit inspired them to discover new sounds and lyrical ideas, and earn even more critical acclaim and financial riches as they would enjoy a very strong decade.
 
How ironic, then, that The Fly was the least commercially successful single from Achtung Baby.  Despite being the band’s second number one single in Britain (Desire was the first) and dominating rock and alternative radio, it only got as high as 61 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart.  Curiously, all the other singles were either Top 10 smashes (One and Mysterious Ways) or hit the lower end of the Top 40 (Even Better Than The Real Thing and Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?).
 
Nevertheless, it remains the most important single from that album.  Imagine releasing a U2 song that doesn’t feature either The Edge’s famous echo unit nor Bono’s impossibly high vocals, his Fat Lady voice notwithstanding.  Considering how wildly popular The Joshua Tree album was it appeared the band had lost their minds abandoning their biggest strengths.  But instead of falling flat on their faces they triumphed.  And it was no miracle that this happened.  This band have a perfectionist streak that knows no bounds.  They absolutely refuse to settle for less and, for the most part, they have excellent instincts.  However, it’s too bad they constantly second guess themselves after the fact.  This song is most certainly not “dated” and David Bowie was wrong.  It didn’t need a redo.
 
The Edge’s guitar work is extraordinary.  He sounds even more confident here than he did on When The Streets Have No Name and Pride.  How did he achieve that rather warped sound, anyway?  It’s unrecognizable at first, this alien approach, but when we arrive at the solo you realize that no one else plays that way.  It’s not a simple showcase, either.  There’s less minimalism and even less restraint.  It’s louder and somewhat psychedelic, which is rather ironic.  The Edge is no Jimmy Page but this is as close as he’s ever come to sounding like him.
 
Bono is at his most conspiratorial singing in that low, can-you-keep-a-secret tone of his.  As he lures you in with his suspicion and “insight”, strangely, you find yourself hanging on his every word proving once more that only a master salesman can win you over with this much bullshit, or at least keep you listening.  The creep factor is high, though.
 
The strongest verse is the third.  Dashes of truth mixed in with cynical paranoia.  One line – “It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success” – perfectly describes U2.  Thankfully, no matter how many risks they take, ambition has never permanently eroded their accomplishments.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 26, 2007
3:21 p.m.
Published in: on July 26, 2007 at 3:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Five)

6. Where The Streets Have No Name
 
Brian Eno was frustrated.  Something was amiss and he was about to take matters into his own hands.
 
U2 had spent many months developing new material for their fifth record.  From the beginning, it was a struggle.  Nearly 30 songs were in contention for this crucial album but progress was slow.  As the end of the recording sessions were in sight, the band realized something very important.  They were missing a certain kind of song, a big, spectacular anthem that would not only find a home on radio but would sound fantastic during live concerts.
 
It was The Edge who composed the music.  Finding himself alone without any distractions he started working on the tune in his new house, as he explained in U2 By U2:
 
“I took a room upstairs and set up a few keyboards, a bass, a guitar, and a drum machine.  At first nothing came.  I was recording onto a four-track tape machine, working alone, sequencing keyboards to the drum machine.  I was starting to get desperate and thinking about the next tour.  I imagined being at a U2 show and tried to dream-up what I would want to hear.  It was my attempt to conjure up the ultimate U2 live song.”
 
When he finished mixing the demo he was most pleased.  “…I thought I had just come up with the most amazing guitar part and song of my life…”
 
Meanwhile, Bono and his wife, Alison, were in Ethiopia.  A representative of World Vision had contacted the singer personally to invite him to check things out for himself.  Initially, he was worried about it becoming “a PR thing”.  But when he was reassured that the trip would be private, he readily agreed.  It was the smartest decision he ever made.  Little did he know, he was about to become an important advocate for change in Africa.
 
The young couple were assigned an orphanage and a feeding station to look after.  It was here that he would write the lyrics to The Edge’s new song “on a scrap of paper, an Air India sick bag, I think” without even realizing it.
 
When he returned from his trip, the band spent many hours trying to improve The Edge’s initial take.  They had a hell of a time trying to recreate all the different elements.  No matter how many rehearsals and takes were done, they simply weren’t getting anywhere.
 
At one point, Brian Eno had an idea.  He would erase what they had down on tape and have everyone start from the beginning.  In his mind, this would expedite the recording process.  The band would finish the song faster if they scrapped everything they had saved, which was giving them great fits of frustation anyway, and try again with a clean slate.  Fed up with the lack of progress and all their wasted efforts he made his move.  At the exact same time, Pat McCarthy, the tape operator, came in and literally blocked Eno’s path.  He absolutely refused to budge and Eno backed off.  U2 continued working with what they had.
 
When manager Paul McGuinness suggested bringing in former producer Steve Lillywhite to help out, the acceptance of that decision was a major turning point, even though he believes Eno and Daniel Lanois were not happy about it.  Lillywhite mixed the song and even picked it as a possible single.  It would become a Top 20 hit in America and a Top 5 smash in the UK. 
 
In the end, the band could never get one full take of the song.  Bassist Adam Clayton noted in U2 By U2 that “the version we’ve got was cobbled together from a few different takes.”  As a result, it took them a while to work it all out in a live setting where you only get one chance to make it work.
 
In the many years since its release, it’s become what The Edge had hoped it would when he was writing the music for it.  It is a reliable concert staple.  During The Elevation Tour, the band performed it during a particularly memorable, sold out, 2001 show in New York’s Madison Square Garden.  The lights were on for the duration of the number and when it was over, according to Bono, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  He was so moved by the collective outpouring of emotion, he said to the crowd, “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight.”  The line would end up in the chorus of City Of Blinding Lights, one of the great singles from their 2004 album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.  Greatness inspiring more greatness.
 
 
 
In U2 By U2, Bono called it “the perfect introduction” to The Joshua Tree.  “It is one of the most extraordinary ideas, only matched by The Doors’ ‘Break On Through To The Other Side’ as a throw-down to an audience.  Do you want to go there?  Because if you do, I’m ready to go there with you, to that other place.  Call it what you like, a place of soul, a place of imagination, where there are no limitations.”
 
He’s almost right.  Where The Streets Have No Name is actually the superior of the two hits.  And it’s not just the main lyrical thrust of the song that’s extraordinary.  The musical execution is first-rate, as well.  It’s the search for some kind of utopia with typical Irish bitterness.
 
Forget the butchered version of this song, which carelessly scraps most of that marvellous intro.  For me, it’s the full 5 and a half minute song or nothing at all.  It begins with atmosphere as a deeply moving amalgam of long keyboard notes quietly and patiently fade in.  And then The Edge takes over, demonstrating once again his genius for simple, hypnotic guitar lines.
 
Every member of the band plays a pivotal role here.  Adam Clayton’s bass playing is the anchor, giving the song the fat bottom it requires to take off.  At times, it’s quite distinguishable, stealing just the right amount of attention before letting the others take the lead again.  Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming is unusual and appropriately energetic.  No hi-hat, just the pounding of the bass drum, the snare and those tom-toms, which gives the song a gritty, tribal feel.   Add his perfect timing on the cymbal crashes and he sounds even more confident than he does on Pride.
 
Bono’s vocal performance is typically strong, a mix of passion and emotional anguish.  The more you examine the lyrics the more you believe the song is about sex, about finding a way to let go of all inhibitions and give yourself completely to your lover resulting in mutual satisfaction.  But all is not well here.  (“The city’s a flood and our love turns to rust”)  There are a lot of distinctive images like that.  The use of sunlight as a redeeming source of energy.  (“I wanna feel sunlight on my face”)  Unforeseen circumstances starting to sever a once solid relationship.  (“We’re beaten and blown by the wind/Trampled in dust”)  The constant repetition of destructive patterns.  (“We’re still buliding and burning down love”)  Through it all, though, there is hope.  Not only is the song very sexual, it’s also a rescue mission, a last-ditch effort to rekindle a dying love by putting it through some kind of spiritual cleansing.
 
It’s a perfect companion song to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  The characters in both songs are essentially searching for the same thing, that elusive inner peace not found in the deserts of their despair.  Where The Streets Have No Name, however, is more hopeful and moving.  Bono has a plan here, where in the other song he’s running out of options.  He still might not find the key to his happiness in “a place/High on a desert plane” but at least he’s found a new location to thoroughly examine.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, July 21, 2007
2:41 p.m.
Published in: on July 21, 2007 at 2:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Four)

7. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
 
“The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt.” – Bono, The Rolling Stone Interview, October 2005
 
Long before Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards made it the theme of both his campaigns for The White House, Bono developed this concept of The Two Americas, which was the working title for U2’s fifth album.  After spending time with his wife in Africa and Nicaragua in 1986, he saw firsthand the dark side of American foreign policy.
 
In U2 By U2, he observed, “I started to see two Americas, the mythic America and the real America.  It was an age of greed, Wall Street, button down, win, win, win, no time for losers.  New York was bankrupt.  There was a harsh reality to America as well as the dream.”
 
He also came to the realization that his lyric writing needed to move beyond “sketches” and into areas of more substance and emotional colour.  Reading became an obsession for him.  James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Charles Bukowski, Truman Capote.  He devoured them all looking for fresh inspiration.  After initially dismissing the blues to members of The Rolling Stones, they played him Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.  He immediately revised his opinion.  It was during those listening sessions that he made yet another discovery, as he related to Neil McCormick:
 
“That is when I realized that U2 had no tradition, we were from outer space.  There were no roots to our music, no blues, no gospel, no country – we were post-punk.  Our starting points were the NME, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Penetration and The Buzzcocks.  It was a strange situation.”
 
Musically, the song, like many in the U2 catalogue, started out simply as a jam.  They gave this one an odd name:  “Under The Weather Girls”, which sounds like a Before And After puzzle on Wheel Of Fortune.  While the title would not survive (someone’s idea of a joke?), an unorthodox drum part would.  The Edge was unmoved by the original take.
 
“It sounded to me a little like ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ played by a reggae band.”
 
But the band kept plugging away.  Daniel Lanois told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2004, “I remember humming a traditional melody in Bono’s ear. He said, ‘That’s it! Don’t sing any more!’ — and went off and wrote the melody as we know it.” 
 
Bono found the voice for that famous melody while playing around with it on the mic.  Like Pride, he was pushing his tenor to the very limit, hitting impossibly high notes that only he could.  In that moment, The Edge remembered jotting down a title earlier in the day, a phrase in need of a song to attach itself to.
 
“I tried it in my head as Bono sang, and it scanned so perfectly that I wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to him as he sang.  It was like hand in glove.”
 
While The Edge was fiddling around on his guitar one day, Bono heard the famous riff – “a couple of notes that worked for him”, the guitarist noted in U2 By U2 – that would be a major reason for the song hitting number one in America.
 
The gospel feel of the track was unlike anything the band had stumbled upon before (The Edge told Q Magazine in 1998 that the band were listening to that kind of music during the making of the album), and mixing it all together was tricky.  Steve Lillywhite, who produced the band’s first three studio albums, made the initial effort.  But, in the end, Edge and Daniel Lanois, working from the former’s own studio, added things on top of it, as he explained to Neil McCormick:
 
“We had a very unorthodox habit of mixing on top of a mix, adding a little of the same ingredients a second time to the blend.  That is what gives it the weird phasing sound.”
 
It would later be nominated for 2 Grammys.
 
 
 
Spiritual intimacy.  Bono used that phrase in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine when describing the songs that connect with him the most, songs that also maintain a sexual intimacy.  I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For achieves both.
 
It begins with confident, staccato guitar work.  A tambourine quickly follows and within seconds, The Edge is at his typically minimalist best.  Once again, he squeezes the most emotion out of the fewest notes, which he picks individually here.  No barre chords required, especially in his remarkably restrained soloing.  Larry Mullen Jr.’s distinctively off-kilter drumming is quite appropriate.  Its surprising rhythm exemplifies the adventurous spirit of the entire Joshua Tree album.  It’s as if the band is announcing through the music that unpredictability is the new normal.  All bets are off from this point forward.
 
Unlike Pride, where he reserves the high notes for mostly the chorus, Bono spends the entire song in a higher register.  Try duplicating what he does here.  See how far you get.  It’s unlikely you’ll make it to even the halfway point.  You’ll run out of energy very quickly and you most certainly won’t be able to match his limitless passion.  It is quite simply an astounding performance. 
 
As he goes on a 4-and-a-half-minute quest for spiritual satiation, we learn of all the ways he’s tried to find God and failed.  He’s wandered aimlessly through natural environments (“I have climbed the highest mountains/I have run through the fields”); he’s tried escaping the confines of urban life (“I have run, I have crawled/I have scaled these city walls”); he’s tried sex (“I have kissed honey lips/Felt the healing in her fingertips/It burned like fire/This burning desire”); he’s tried being nice (“I have spoken with the tongue of angels”); and he’s given into temptation (“I have held the hand of a devil/It was warm in the night/I was cold as a stone”).  No matter what he does, there’s deep unsatisfaction.  But the journey continues.
 
It’s a song that remains timeless.  It not only captures the emptiness of Ronald Reagan’s America, a period best known for greed, shady behaviour and general cluelessness, it is perfectly in tune with the Bush era which seems far darker and colder than the late 1980s.  Corruption is more widespread today, thanks to across-the-board misinformation, the new currency in media, along with incompetence and stupidity, which are now viewed as attributes, not weaknesses.  All in the name of absolute power.
 
Throw in a plea for racial and spiritual equality (“I believe in the Kingdom Come/Then all the colours will bleed into one”) and a thank you to a crucified Jesus (“You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame”), and the song ends as it began, with Bono still uncertain about what it is he’s after, what he so desperately needs in his life that he feels he’s missing. 
 
Like Mofo, there isn’t a resolution here, just hope for some kind of inner peace.  That is the ultimate irony of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  Amongst so much doubt comes so much motivation to find faith.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 19, 2007
4:47 p.m.
Published in: on July 19, 2007 at 4:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Three)

8. Beautiful Day
 
“When you hear a song like ‘Beautiful Day’ on the radio it sounds so effortless but to get that song to that place was hard, days and days of trying to put this jigsaw together.”  – Larry Mullen, Jr. from U2 By U2
 
Nothing has ever come easy for this band in the recording studio.  What should take seconds often takes minutes.  What should be done in minutes is usually done in hours.  What is supposed to be finished in days usually takes weeks or even months.  And when they set a deadline a year in advance, chances are they’ll need another year.
 
Is it any wonder Bono likens the process to making sausages?
 
But for all their stubborn, perfectionist tendencies, U2 frequently deliver the goods.  It is on very rare occasions that they release something mediocre.
 
After the Pop album, the subsequent Popmart tour and the first greatest hits package, the band went back to work hoping to pull back a bit on their experimentation which was becoming increasingly controversial.  Subtlety was the order of the day.
 
An early contender for their 2000 release, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was Always.  The very sexual track was never good enough in the eyes of the band.  (One line – “The soul needs beauty for a soulmate” – would be later recycled for A Man And A Woman on the How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb CD.  Another line – “Well, if you dream, then dream out loud” was lifted from Acrobat, an Achtung Baby album cut.)  Inevitably, the supposed artistic failure of the song would evolve into something far more substantial.
 
At some point, the band had a jam session in “the small room” in their Dublin studio.  It was a new start for a new song.  The initial effort needed a lot of work.  The Edge thought his guitar chords sounded too positive, but when Bono took note of a sour sounding keyboard part Edge incorporated the rhythm into his playing, altering the song to his satisfaction.  Then, there was concern about the actual sound of his guitar.  For the first time in years, he brought out the famous Explorer echo unit which became his signature sound in the 1980s.  Bono had doubts.  But it suited the tone of the song and the time was right to bring it back.  It stayed.
 
Much tinkering followed.  Parts added here, others dropped, some enhanced by technology.  Then came Bono’s lyrics.  In U2 By U2, he explained the inspiration for them:
 
“I was influenced by an Australian preacher I know called John Smith, who was a pastor for the Hell’s Angels at one point and who is a very eloquent speaker with a brilliant mind.  I remember him talking to me about how depression is a nerve end.  Pain is evidence of life because it reminds you there are things in your life that aren’t right.  So you should be thankful for it really and celebrate that there is so much to live for.”
 
Once everything was recorded, it took two weeks to settle on a proper mix, according to The Edge.  By accident, a couple of background vocals from Always ended up in the song.  Listen for Edge singing “always” in the background during the last two lines of the first verse.  (“You thought you’d found a friend to take you out of this place/Someone you could lend a hand in return for grace”)
 
In the end, the song was a worldwide smash.  It hit number one in Britain.  It went on to win every Grammy it was nominated for in 2001 including Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.  After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the song became even more poignant for listeners.
 
As for Always, it was issued as a B-side on the Beautiful Day CD single.
 
 
 
Transcendence despite depression.  Optimism in the face of tremendous adversity.  Deep appreciation for your own life while stuck in the dirt of human traffic.  Beautiful Day might feature the most ambitious series of lyrical ideas Bono has ever devised.  And with the full range of his vocal power put to good use, the words are given even more emotional resonance.
 
How appropriate that the human heart is so ably represented by Brian Eno’s beat box, so prominently heard throughout the song.  It’s already adrenalized when the song begins, but when Bono sings in that low, conversational tone of his, it pounds more forcefully, giving the track an added boost it would not have otherwise.  Throw in that classic, bitterly beautiful guitar sound by The Edge and the always dependable rhythm section, not to mention those terrific technological touches (including a drum machine, of all things), and you have a brilliant number that alternates between quiet contemplation and loud, emotionally charged outbursts of hope.
 
The opening line sets the tone.  (“The heart is a bloom, shoots up through the stony ground”)  Nature vs. progress.  Being born amongst so many dead souls.  It’s the first of many lines of contrasting images.
 
Stagnation, frustration and claustrophia fuel the rest of the opening verse.  Then, in the chorus, right after the Chicken Little reference, a sense of renewed purpose, all because of the weather.  How amazing that sunshine, unashamedly radiant in a sky of blue, can lift even the darkest of spirits.
 
The second verse sounds like a metaphor for U2’s struggles in the studio.  (“You’re on the road but you’ve got no destination/You’re in the mud, in the maze of her imagination”)  The creative muse, so difficult to track down amongst so much distraction and self-doubt.  The last line – “You’ve been all over and it’s been all over you” – is as universal as it gets.  Who can’t relate to that?  The chorus returns right on cue, urging the listener to not let such matters dissuade the potential joy a day of true beauty has.
 
After a hopeful plea for transcendence (“Touch me, take me to that other place”), we come to the best part of the song.  In a 2000 interview with Hot Press magazine, Bono revealed that during the “See the world in green and blue” section, he was writing from the point of view of an astronaut in space observing all the beauty and chaos of Earth.  There’s a strong environmental theme here which echoes the use of opposite images lyricized earlier in the track.  There’s the natural wonders of vegetation and oceans (“See the world in green and blue”) and what happens when man carves it up and pollutes it in the name of big business (“See China right in front of you”).  Similiar lines bring us to the reference to Noah’s Ark (“See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out”) and more urgent cries for personal fulfillment while seizing the day at hand.
 
The final section, so simple and direct, reminds us of the futility of greed and the reassurance that emotional fortitude and instinct can overcome gaps of knowledge.  (“What you don’t have you don’t need it now/What you don’t know you can feel it somehow”)  Another subtle reference to the band’s unorthodox style of songwriting and recording, perhaps?  Regardless, it’s like getting a personal pep talk from Bono directly.  You can’t help but listen intently.  You want his enthusiam to infect you personally.
 
Beautiful Day sweeps you in with its urgency.  It refuses to let your cynicism blacken its heart.  That it manages to do this in a little over 4 minutes is its ultimate accomplishment.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
1:15 a.m.
Published in: on July 17, 2007 at 1:15 am  Comments (2)  

The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Two)

9. Mofo
 
When he was 14, Paul Hewson lost both his maternal grandfather and his mother in the same month.  In September 1974, “Gags” Rankin suffered a fatal heart attack after a drunken night of celebrating his wedding anniversary.  While watching her father being buried Iris Hewson collapsed from a brain hemorrhage.  She later died in hospital.  Paul, the youngest of two sons, was never the same.
 
In the U2 By U2 coffee table book, Bono notes the following:
 
“You don’t become a rock star unless you’ve got something missing somewhere…If you were of sound mind or a more complete person, you could feel normal without 70,000 people a night screaming their love for you.
 
“Blaise Pascal called it the God-shaped hole.  Everyone’s got one but some are blacker and wider than others.  It’s a feeling of being abandoned, cut adrift in space and time.
 
“Sometimes this stuff follows the loss of a loved one…So many years later, my own hole can still open up.  I don’t think you can ever completely fill it in this life.  You can try to fill it up with songs, family, faith:  by living a real life, but when things are silent you can still hear the hissing of what’s missing.”
 
By the fall of 1995, it was time to address this matter head on.  After completing the Passengers project and contributing an old Achtung Baby leftover, Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, to the third Batman movie, U2 reconvened in their new studio in Dublin to work on their next album.
 
The Edge had spent much of his downtime in the early 1990s immersing himself in the world of clubbing while going through a painful divorce from his first wife.  He became fascinated with the technology and the energy of this music it inspired.  He started listening to it more and more and fiddled around with his own ideas.
 
Yes, it’s true.  Pop was supposed to be a dance album, a full-length valentine to club culture, but Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., the always dependable rhythm section, weren’t terribly happy about this idea.  Larry, who was recovering from back surgery at the time the sessions began (an important procedure he had been putting off since The Joshua Tree tour of the late ’80s when he was initially injured), hated the idea of being replaced by drum machines and loops.  With the exception of the first three songs on the album, Bono and The Edge’s dance concept was scrapped.  The final result left them all unsatisfied.  In U2 By U2, Bono calls the album, “the most expensive demo session in the history of music”.  Despite numerous remixes over the years, Larry still thinks they never properly finished it.
 
It is that third song, one of seven singles issued from the album, where Bono addresses what’s been bothering him all these years.  Before settling on Mofo, the nearly 6-minute Pop standout once went under the name of Oedipussy, perhaps the most uncomfortably Freudian working title ever.  Mofo, itself, is the abbreviated version of Motherfucker, which is strangely incestuous in its own right.  Wouldn’t Mother have been the best choice for a title?
 
 
 
Bono couldn’t stop talking about this song when the band did press for Pop and the subsequent Popmart tour in early 1997.  It’s no wonder it was the opening number for every show during that period.  And yet, Mofo is one of their lost singles.  On an album full of underappreciated numbers, it might be the most underappreciated of them all.
 
The lyrics are pure Catholic guilt.  The wildly successful son calling out to his dead mother hoping in vain for some kind of approval after over 20 years of deafening silence.  (“Mother/am I still your son?/you know I’ve waited for so long/to hear you so say so”)  The insecure father who worries about losing himself completely in his music and his search for inner peace to the detriment of his young children.  (“Looking for the father of my two little girls”)  The lost Christian still searching for spiritual enlightment in the darkness.  (“Looking for the baby Jesus under the trash”)  No matter how much he grows as a writer, a family man and a champion for other lost souls, the grieving over her death never ends.  (“Still looking for the face I had before the world was made”)  He even gets in a sly reference, albeit switched around, to The Tubes’ most famous song while simultaneously losing himself with his bandmates in a photo shoot.  (“White dopes on punk stare into the flash”)
 
It’s a deeply moving song lyrically but with that ominously danceable arrrangement, it’s enhanced considerably.  It’s hard to tell which embraces the darkness more.
 
I used to dismiss the hook as sounding too much like the bassline from The Who’s Squeeze Box.  But years later, the song grew on me to the point where I stopped caring about the similiarities.  It’s too moving to resist now, too energetic to remain stationary.
 
The song is an excellent representation of Pop with its compromised structure.  It is not a pure dance song despite its dominating technological spirit.  Larry Mullen Jr. jumps in with his frenetic drumming 11 seconds in and The Edge’s guitar playing, so simple and yet, so powerful, isn’t far behind, even though his role here is that of a supporting player.  But like all second bananas, he steals the show with some of his best work.  As usual, he squeezes the most emotion out of the fewest notes.  The final minute of the song showcases him in top form.
 
Ultimately, it’s Bono’s song more than U2’s.  It’s his inner turmoil laid bare, his confusion about his identity openly and willingly exposed, his disappointment with the lack of boundaries in his life honestly lamented.  In the end, all he can do is find comfort through prayer.  (“woo me sister/move me brother/soothe me mother/rule me father/show me mother”)  But, at the end of the day, it’s still not enough to make the pain go away.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 15, 2007
4:01 p.m.
Published in: on July 15, 2007 at 4:01 pm  Comments (2)  

The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part One)

Making a Top 10 list is usually a colossal pain in the ass.  Why?  Well, for one, it’s rarely easy.  With an abundance of choices, it’s frequently difficult to narrow them down to just two, essential handfuls.  Then, there’s the matter of getting the order right.  It’s not unusual to second guess yourself or constantly re-arrange the placement of your selections.
 
The following list, however, is a delightful exception.
 
Since 1979, U2 have recorded and released over 60 singles.  I’ve heard all but 4 of them.  (Another Day, the studio recording of 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, A Celebration and the original version of Out Of Control are awfully hard to find and have never been issued on CD.)  Very rarely does this band produce a stinker or a commercial flop or a combination of the two.  Indeed, there are many individual treasures in their catalogue.
 
But what are their absolute best singles?  Which songs, spawned off of studio albums, soundtracks & various compilations and issued for the purpose of mass radio and TV consumption, represent their finest hours in the recording studio?
 
Let the debating begin:
 
10. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
 
They called it “militant pacifism”,  fighting for peace without ever throwing a punch or brandishing a weapon.  It was a typically contradictory idea from a band with a long history of them.
 
This was U2’s first attempt at an image and it served two purposes.  It was cheap (acquiring white flags was not a lavish expense) and it was a simple, visual representation of the music they recorded for their third album.  Despite its shaky logic, it brought them to the next level of their development.
 
While on tour for War in 1983, the band made a stop in Hawaii of all places.  On November 16, they had a gig scheduled at the NBC Arena in Oahu.  Before the show, they had an opportunity to do a soundcheck.  An imprompu jam session provided the starting point for their first great single, a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on War.  The skeleton had been unwittingly created, thankfully preserved on tape.  But it would be months later before layers were added to transform it into a fully developed body of substance.
 
Also during this period, Bono had a fateful meeting with a Rolling Stone writer named Jim Henke, an early champion of U2.  He gave the former Paul Hewson two books.  One was about Malcolm X, the other, Martin Luther King Jr.  Bono immersed himself in the lives of these fallen civil rights leaders but found himself more drawn to King because he was the complete opposite of himself.  The Irish soul singer wouldn’t hesitate to use violence when necessary at various moments in his life whereas the American icon strongly resisted such temptations.  Bono admired this difficult stance he took and it would prove a turning point in his own life leading to all kinds of political and charitable crusades later on as the band’s fame and credibility grew hand in hand.
 
In 1984, that original jam session would be unearthed and the band would tinker constantly with the arrangement while working on other material for The Unforgettable Fire.  Contrary to what has been previously noted by at least one historian, it was not an easy song to finish.  It most certainly did not take 15 minutes to complete.
 
The sessions began in early May at Slane Castle in Ireland.  The basic foundation was laid down but changes were constantly being made.  During a 28-minute documentary about the making of the album, Bono claims that King’s best speeches were the ones where he “threw away the script”.  And in the spirit of that claim, Bono proceeded to experiment with improvised lyrics.  (He also notes later on, “If you come to the microphone with finished words and a finished melody and that’s all you’ll have when it’s recorded.”  Clearly, he was hoping to spontaneously improve his lyrics during any one of his vocal sessions.)  When they moved to Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin the following month, he was still trying to come up with better lines right in the middle of a take. 
 
Why was it so difficult to settle on a particular version?  One word:  perfectionism.
 
For one thing, it was too long.  Producer Brian Eno notes during the documentary that it originally clocked in at about 5 and a half minutes.  At Windmill Lane, they were initially able to cut a minute off the running time.  But Bono was unhappy with his lyrics and the tempo, among other things.  He thought the words could be better and that the pacing was too fast.  Years later in the U2 By U2 coffee table book, he complained about being discouraged from further developing his original thoughts.  He notes that everybody else was more interested in the feel of the song rather than what he was trying to say.  He rather insanely dismisses the final result as being a “simple sketch”.
 
In the end, the finished version runs for 3 minutes and 49 seconds.  Both the single release and the album cut are the same.  No more trims were necessary.  Issued a month before the public unveiling of their fourth album, Pride (In The Name Of Love) would be the band’s first Top 40 hit in America.  While it didn’t get any higher than 33 (it was, however, a Top 5 smash in Britain), it was a major breakthrough in more ways than one.
 
 
 
U2 are notorious for underrating certain songs in their catalogue.  Pride is a prime example.  Despite what certain members of the band, and even some critics will tell you, it has all the key elements of a great U2 song.  There’s a reason it’s been played over 700 times in concert.
 
Think about it.  Besides the first-rate lyrics, there’s Bono’s alternately restrained and impassioned vocals; Larry Mullen Jr.’s pounding drum rhythms (easily, his most recognizable); Adam Clayton’s quietly steady bass playing, and the confident strumming of The Edge’s memorably echoey riff.  From the moment you hear that guitar and those drums collectively kicking off the song, you immediately pay attention.  It’s hard not to.  That introduction, one of their finest, dares you to ignore it.  You can’t.  It marks the arrival of the complete U2, the U2 that would go on to make great albums, not just great singles like this one.
 
Then Bono starts singing about Martin Luther King Jr.  Although, sometimes, you wonder if he’s really thinking about Jesus.  The second verse mentions Judas Iscariot’s kiss of death.  (“One man betrayed with a kiss.”)
 
Essentially, this is a eulogy not just for two great civil rights leaders, but also for the movements of “militant pacifism” they both so ably led in different millenniums, movements that always seemed more brave than smart, but undoubtedly influenced positive societal changes in the years that followed.
 
In a matter of 12 lines, Bono evokes rich images of stubbornness and conviction, of an idea leading to a belief further leading to a movement of irresistible force.  There’s a sense of carelessness in certain lines, a sense of numbness his heroes share because feeling pain or any kind of discomfort would be an admission of failure.  (“One man caught on a barbed wire fence.  One man he resist.”)
 
In the chorus, Bono asks the rhetorical question, “What more in the name of love?”.  Indeed.  What else could one do to “overthrow” the old order beyond giving motivational speeches to the faithful, organizing peaceful demonstrations and sacrificing your own life?
 
There’s the famous factual inaccuracy in verse three – “Early morning, April four” – which directly references King’s 1968 assassination.  (He was really killed at night.)  If Bono had simply added a “u” to the spelling of “morning”, he wouldn’t have to concede anything.
 
Pride is an impossible song to sing.  The notes that Bono reaches speak well of his talent for hitting high, emotional peaks few others can reach themselves, especially the most well-intentioned karaoke singers.  The way he restrains himself in the early verses before erupting in passion during the choruses reveals both a sensitivity and sensibility about his vocal approach.  By reserving his passion for specific lines, the song has a chance to breathe and not feel overwrought.  Although his humming near the end has a duck-tape-over-the-mouth quality about it, it doesn’t detract from the overall result.
 
If Bono is serious in his criticism of his own lyric writing, what else could he possibly have said here that would’ve improved what he already recorded?  The Bono of 1984 did all he could to pay tribute to two men he never actually names in the song.  In just under 4 minutes and with simple, evocative imagery, not to mention that emotionally charged arrangement, he reminds us of their historical significance and, most especially, their stubborn determination to see their ideas and beliefs come to life.  Without question, he admires their pride and their refusal to let anything stand in their way.
 
In a way, he resurrects their humanitarian spirits in Pride, hoping their reawakened ideas will inspire him to follow their lead out of the recording studio and off the concert stage.  He admires the struggles they went through and, in the years since this song’s initial release, he understands the value of incremental victories, something neither of these men ever aimed for.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 15, 2007
1:36 a.m.
Published in: on July 15, 2007 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Catching Up And A Preview

It’s that time once again to take stock and get caught up with what’s been happening with this website.
 
As of this moment, The Writings Of Dennis Earl is closing in on 11000 page views.  (Right now, the exact number is 10842.)  I probably should’ve made a big fuss about hitting 10000 several weeks ago but just never got around to it.  It’s not a terribly impressive number when there are numerous sites that receive millions of hits daily but still, I’m encouraged to keep going. 
 
It’s nice to read website comments and personally addressed emails, especially when they’re positive.  Keep them coming.  Remember, you can leave feedback directly on the site by posting a comment about a specific piece or by writing something in my Guestbook.  Speaking of which, I’m disappointed that no one has contributed anything to it yet so I would encourage all my readers to leave feedback on there.  Positive or negative, I read every comment & email (dennischarlesearl@hotmail.com), and appreciate it when anyone takes the time to offer their thoughts about my writing.
 
My Amazon Book List is about to get some new entries.  There are some titles I’ve read and enjoyed in the past that will be added soon and at least one new title will be included, as well.  (More on that in a moment.)  Since the list was posted last summer, there have been 469 clicks but sadly, no orders.  I urge you to check it out and enjoy some solid fiction and non-fiction writing this summer.  You won’t be disappointed.  Every time you place an order after directly clicking a link from my list, I get a small cut of the sale.  Simply clicking is not enough to earn me a little dough.  You need to buy an actual book.  It’s my only revenue stream so every purchase made through that list is much appreciated.
 
I’m very close to finishing U2 By U2, the 2006 coffee table book that I received as a Christmas gift last year.  With just a chapter and a bit to go, I hope to get more than one piece out of it.  In fact, I’m hoping to do a lot of U2-related writing as the summer progresses.
 
You may have wondered why there have been infrequent postings as of late.  Well, let’s just say I lost my rhythm and I need to get it back.  Many of the postings on here are the result of spontaneity while some have been in the planning stages for longer periods.  It’s not always possible to say ahead of time what’s coming soon, although I do try to offer teases.  Inspiration can happen so fast you have to write immediately or you’ll lose the opportunity to create something potentially spectacular.  While I sometimes regret getting too ambitious for my own good, I’ve learned that when you lay out what you hope to accomplish in a piece such as this, you’re motivated enough to flesh out most of these ideas.
 
Having said that, though, because there are a lot of unused ideas running through my head, a number of which I don’t have 100% confidence in, it’s best at this time to keep quiet about them.  They require a lot more scrutiny and contemplation.
 
In the meantime, I hope you’ll continue to visit The Writings Of Dennis Earl and enjoy my latest offerings.  With over 300 pieces (including my Fading To Black items) already posted, there’s plenty of reading material for you to enjoy.
 
Thanks again for visiting.  New stuff will be posted soon.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 13, 2007
2:20 p.m.
Published in: on July 13, 2007 at 2:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Freddy Vs. Jason

He’s been forgotten for 4 years.  No one speaks his name.  No one dreams about him.  No one is afraid of him anymore.  But Freddy Krueger has a plan.  Despite being burned alive by vengeful parents after narrowly avoiding a lengthy prison sentence for killing their children, despite being killed off in sequel after sequel after sequel after endlessly resurrecting himself in the nightmares of new victims, he’s found yet another way, a loophole, if you will, to bring the terror back to Elm Street.
 
Enter Jason Voorhees.  By pretending to be his crazed mother, Freddy is somehow able to convince the Crystal Lake killer to do his dirty work for him, to kill teenagers in order to spread fear throughout the entire community.  Essentially, he needs him to be his warm-up act.  Freddy needs to feed off their fears in order to regain his old powers so that he can get back to killing on his own terms.  Jason doesn’t let him down.
 
That’s the premise of Freddy Vs. Jason, a great title in search of a great movie.  Essentially, it’s a predictably overwrought and unscary Dead Teenager Movie, to borrow Roger Ebert’s famous description.  It’s another awful, illogical mess but with good visuals and a few, genuinely funny moments.  Put another way, it’s the worst Nightmare On Elm Street movie and the best Friday The 13th sequel, a dubious double achievement.
 
Monica Keena plays Lori Campbell, a troubled, busty teen with a lot of heavy drama in her life.  Her mother died in a car accident (or so she was told) and her father never remarried.  Her ex-boyfriend, Will Rollins (Jason Ritter), believes Dr. Campbell murdered her, an accusation that landed him in a psychiatric ward.  His attempts to contact her by snail mail have all failed.
 
Lori and her father live on 1428 Elm Street and on a dark and stormy night when he’s away, her ridiculous friends, Kia (a remarkably bitchy and self-conscious Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child), and Gibb (Katharine Isabelle), a busty, chain-smoking drunk, keep her company by playing a couple of rounds of Fuck, Marry, Kill.  The Howard Stern Show, this isn’t.
 
Then, a couple of dudes show up with more booze.  One of them is Gibb’s obnoxious boyfriend.  (She’s only with him because she loves his ass.  Yes, she’s that shallow, which explains why she puts up with his constant complaining and bad manners.)  The other is a rebound guy for Lori who, unfortunately for him, still pines for Will.  In fact, the sensible Lori is put off by his presence altogether.  The crotch scratching and his feng shui schtick are a tough sell.  (Kia pulls her aside at one moment and basically tells her to live in the present and get laid.  Great advice to give a virgin in a horror movie.)
 
Not too long after that, someone is brutally murdered.  Local law enforcement have a pretty good idea who the culprit is but they keep things on the down low.  Later that same night, Lori has her first nightmare about Freddy in an interrogation room in the police station.
 
Meanwhile, a TV report about the crime is seen briefly by Will’s friend, Mark (Brendan Fletcher), at that same psychiatric ward.  After talking it over with him, Mark decides to hatch a plan to get them both out of there in the dead of night.  Will is worried sick about his former girlfriend and wants to personally find out if she’s alright.  Mark’s brother allegedly committed suicide but Mark believes he was bumped off by Freddy.  Like Lori, he’s had similiar nightmares and that’s the reason he’s in the nuthouse. 
 
Neither of the two friends have had any bad dreams since being institutionalized.  We learn that’s because all the patients there take a dangerous drug that suppresses them.  How dangerous is it?  Well, the FDA hasn’t approved it yet and if you take too much, you have a lovely coma to look forward to.  (According to the Internet Movie Database, this is a reference to Dream Warriors, the third Nightmare movie, which I’d completely forgotten about.  It’s only slightly better than this one.)
 
After making contact with Lori and her dopey pals, Jason continues his brainless manhunt while Freddy slowly recuperates his evil powers.  There’s a massacre at an outdoor rave, a return trip to the psychiatric hospital and an inevitable series of confrontations between Freddy and Jason.  Once Freddy is back to full strength, he decides to eliminate Jason the best way he knows how:  through his own nightmares.  Like every other character who’s ever come in contact with him, though, he can’t believe how impossible it is to kill him off.  The laws of science have never applied to him.  His numerous victims, however?  Oh, they apply, alright.
 
In every movie of this nature, we get the usual, archetypical characters.  Besides the aforementioned virgin, bitch, smoker/alcoholic, and jerky horndogs, we get a sometimes amusing stoner, a well-meaning (and sometimes amusing) nerd who suddenly stands up for himself and a very helpful police officer who’s not aware of the longstanding Krueger blackout, a multi-year movement of silence intended to snuff out the threat of Freddy for good.  (The plan, which involves redacting records of his existence and, absurdly, the names of his many victims, is preposterous, hard to enforce and more than a little ridiculous.  Besides, the overeager Mark unintentionally screws it all up rather easily, anyway.  No wonder he was locked up.)  You could cast all these familiar roles with the best actors you could think of.  The result would be the same:  uninteresting characters we never get too attached to who aren’t long for this movie.
 
There is one moment, though, that is deeply appreciated.  At one point, Kia finds herself face to face with Freddy.  She puts him down hilariously by mocking his sweater and his glove of finger knives.  She correctly notes the bitter truth that few will say out loud:  he really isn’t scary.  How can he be when he’s referencing FDR and Don Rickles for throwaway punchlines?  The character is not unlike The Cryptkeeper from those old Tales From The Crypt comic books, the source material for the Hollywood horror genre.  He can’t resist bad puns and overused cliches.
 
The odd thing about Freddy Vs. Jason is how it feels more like a Nightmare sequel drenched in the blood of Friday The 13th with the masked man taking a back seat to the child killer.  Completely ignoring what takes place in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Jason X, this film picks up where Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday left off.  It begins with a double resurrection and ends with yet another promise of more mayhem in the future, even though neither villain should be alive, especially the one without a body.
 
And that’s the biggest frustration about both of these franchises.  No matter how many times these characters experience death, no matter how many of their body parts get sliced off, no matter how many times you burn them, drown them, stab them, shoot them and even, explode them, like some miracle out of the New Testament, they always return fully intact for more bloodshed in a follow-up feature.
 
After suffering through 18 of these movies (7 Nightmares, 10 Fridays and Freddy Vs. Jason) over the last 4 years, I’ve reached my breaking point.  Most of these movies stink more than freshly made cat turds roasting in the hot Arizona sun, while the rest never reached their full potential.  There just aren’t many areas left to be fully explored by either franchise, but that won’t stop New Line Cinema from squeezing out every last dollar they can.  For instance, it’s only a matter of time before we get the inevitable prequels (Freddy’s Springwood Slasher days; Jason’s first 11 years, how he cheated death the first time, and how he lived before becoming a killer).  Beyond those plots, though, where else can either of these franchises go without repeating themselves yet again?
 
Hopefully, no one is willing to answer that question.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
9:10 p.m.
Published in: on July 3, 2007 at 9:09 pm  Comments (2)  

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Is it a stalker or her cinematic past coming back to haunt her?  That’s the question Heather Langenkamp is trying to find the answer to in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, yet another disappointing chapter in the long-running Nightmare On Elm Street series.
 
If you recall, Langenkamp played Nancy, the young heroine who thought she successfully vanquished the notorious child killer turned nightmare dweller, Fred Krueger, in the original movie.  She returned to do battle with him once more in the third film, Dream Warriors (which featured a young Patricia Arquette).  In New Nightmare, it’s 10 years after the release of the original film and this time, she’s playing herself, an actress married to a special effects technician (David Newsom) and the mother of a young son (Miko Hughes).
 
Weird things are happening in the Langenkamp household.  Unexplained earthquakes (aftershocks?) that no one else in L.A. is experiencing, for one thing.  For another, her son, Dylan, is acting out of character.  Even though he hasn’t seen A Nightmare On Elm Street (Langenkamp refuses to let him watch it), he knows the famous song ("One, two.  Freddy’s coming for you…").  He’s been having bad nightmares about a mean man with claws.  He sleepwalks with his eyes open and when Heather tries waking him up, he screams like a banshee.  One night, he actually attacks her believing he is Freddy, complete with knives taped to his little fingers.
 
Meanwhile, she’s been getting weird phone calls off and on.  A man who sounds an awful lot like Freddy keeps tormenting her on the other line.  He may also be sending her odd pieces of mail:  ripped pages each with a capital letter drawn on them.  (Once they all arrive, they spell out the very helpful command, "ANSWER THE PHONE".  As an aside, why doesn’t she have call display or an answering machine?)
 
Then, inevitably, there are mysterious murders.  Desperate and deeply perturbed, she tries finding comfort in her old co-stars.  After appearing on a TV show with Robert Englund (terrific as himself, despite the unfunny one-liner he’s given to say), who dazzles and delights the studio audience by making an entrance as Freddy, complete with make-up, the costume and that famous glove of finger knives, she learns that, much like herself, he’s been having nightmares about the character.  John Saxon, who played her father in A Nightmare On Elm Street, does a good job trying to comfort her during a playground sequence when she tries to explain what’s going on.  One of his lines even inspires a very big laugh.
 
At one point, she takes a meeting with Robert Shaye, the real-life founder of New Line Cinema, the longtime distributor of the Elm Street series.  He informs her that Wes Craven, the writer/director of the original, is working on a new Nightmare screenplay and there’s a role for her if she’s willing to play Nancy again.  She balks at the offer and ends up meeting with Craven himself who is also having nightmares about Freddy.  There’s a moment that’s too clever by half when after they exchange dialogue, Langenkamp notices Craven’s computer monitor which not only prominently features the exact same lines they’ve just spoken but also informs the audience of the next edit.  Uh huh.
 
He talks about how storytellers are able to contain the presence of evil literally in their stories by capturing them with endlessly imaginative devices (like a genie in a bottle, for example) but since they’ve stopped making Elm Street pictures, Freddy is out there trying to break through into the real world.  Only Heather Langenkamp is blocking his way in.  Nice try but I’m not buying it.
 
Despite a few effective moments – those famous knives penetrating a car seat, the freeway sequence, that tongue – it just doesn’t work.
 
It doesn’t help that I’ve always been let down by this series, anyway.  Not one of the seven films is any good, although they are definitely better than any Friday The 13th film you can name.  (Thankfully, there have been characters we’ve actually cared about.)  Despite very good special effects and some good performances, they just aren’t terrifying. 
 
And then there’s Freddy Krueger.  He’s just not scary.  He looks too cool, he’s too campy with his puns and quips (although, some are really funny), and I’ve never cared whether he wins or loses his battles.  It’s hard to hate and even fear a character like that when he looks so fantastic.  It’s no wonder kids dress up like him at Halloween.
 
Also an ongoing problem is the fact that the filmmakers keep resurrecting him artificially in sequel after sequel which defeats the purpose of killing him off in sequel after sequel, although, admittedly, whenever the Friday The 13th franchise revives Jason Voorhees, it’s far more absurd and laughable. 
 
New Nightmare seemingly attempts to find a new angle for the character to come alive again but it’s an unconvincing disappointment.  All through the film, it’s just not possible to suspend your disbelief.  You’re constantly wondering when the movie is going to start scaring you in an original and entertaining way.  It never finds one.
 
In the end, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is too long and not scary enough.  Some of it feels familiar (the tortured child stuff) and it just never grabs you.  It’s too bad because Craven is a good filmmaker.  Check out The People Under The Stairs, Red Eye, Scream, Scream 2 and Music Of The Heart for the proof.
 
(Special thanks to Rob Kerr.)
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
12:23 a.m.
Published in: on July 3, 2007 at 12:23 am  Leave a Comment