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  

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