This month marks the 25th anniversary of U2 jumping the shark. If that doesn't ring a bell, maybe it's because the band is one of the few superstar acts ever to brave that kind of overexposure and ridicule and... jump back.
The theatrical film Rattle and Hum and its companion two-record set represented, to some, U2's coronation as the world's biggest and best rock band and, to others, their biggest boondoggle. Director Phil Joanou's earnest rockumentary was released by a major studio (Paramount) and got an unheard-of wide release (in over 1,000 theaters). Giant one-sheets were printed up depicting each of the band members in close-up. If you were waiting for a bus in November of 1988, chances were good that Larry Mullen Jr. had your back.
U2 seemed to be having a hard time staying on-message. Much of the Rattle and Hum music represented a back-to-roots move, with the band employing a gospel choir or B.B. King, or recording at Memphis' Sun Studios, to cement their interest in archival Americana. But there seemed to be more hubris than humility in the footage of their arena shows. And the massive rollout for both album and film didn't shout "back to basics." With that mixed a message being sent out, was it any wonder that the reaction was also all over the place?
Jon Pareles summed up the dismissive side in a New York Times album review ominously titled "When the Self-IMportance Interferes With the Music." "It's a mess," he wrote. "Bono starts the album with his foot in his mouth as he introduces 'Helter Skelter,' saying, ''This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.' He'd forgotten that U2 is not the Beatles — and he goes on to scramble the lyrics." He didn't like the roots-heavy originals any better, saying, "Unfortunately, blues and soul aren't U2's main roots.... 'Angel of Harlem,'' desperately dropping jazz names in a would-be tribute to Billie Holiday, comes across as overwrought and frantic... (Their) urgency has curdled on Rattle and Hum, where U2 insists that clumsy attempts at interpreting other people's music are as important as the real thing. What comes across in song after song is sincere egomania."
Examples of that line of thinking continue to pop up today in web pages like the one titled "Top 5 Awful Moments From U2's Rattle and Hum" (the film, in this case), which cites "the first two seconds of the movie" as the very first awful moment... those two seconds being the aforementioned Manson/Beatles quote. In commemorating another moment, the video cuts back and forth between U2 visiting Graceland and Spinal Tap doing pretty much the same thing in their movie. And as the No. 1 awful moment, the site offers a live version of "MLK": "Are you sh---ng me, movie? There is no band in history that could justify superimposing the lead singer's face on the image of Martin Luther King. No, U2, no!... I think it's very clear that U2 were pretty embarrassed by how they looked and acted in this movie, considering that they spent the next decade doing the exact opposite of this, going self-consciously artificial and arming themselves in hipster irony."
But not everyone knocked it. Robert Christgau (the "dean of rock critics") gave the album a better grade than he afforded most of U2's output (a generous B+), writing in the Village Voice, "This partly live double-LP is looser and faster than anything they've recorded since their first live mini-LP... A good half of the new stuff could knock over unsuspecting skeptics."
Christgau's thoughts on the original material would seem to be born out by history, since most fans would consider the quartet of "All I Want is You," "Desire," "Angel of Harlem," and "When Love Comes to Town" as ranking in U2's top tier of material. But at the time, it was hard for see that forest of first-flank songs for the blustery "Bullet the Blue Sky" trees.
Grantland writer Steven Hyden recently waxed on about the film at length in an essay about rock docs, saying, "Rattle and Hum is remembered today as one of the band's worst blunders... By November 1988, when Rattle and Hum was released, the media regarded U2 more like distinguished statesmen than like a rock band... A backlash was inevitable, and Rattle and Hum unwittingly played into the perception that a metric ton of bulls-- had been affixed to the bottoms of Bono's cowboy boots in the wake of The Joshua Tree's success. At the same time, a quarter-century removed from U2's hectoring late-'80s persona, Rattle and Hum is surprisingly watchable."
But Hyden's reasons for liking the film don't always play like praise: "I don't think it's outrageously revisionist to declare Rattle and Hum the most quotable rock documentary ever... 'Am I buggin' you? I don't mean to bug ya'; 'Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles; we're stealin' it back'; 'OK, Edge, play the blues'; 'Apar-TIGHT!' — Rattle and Hum is rivaled only by This Is Spinal Tap in the memorable-lines department, and U2 didn't have the benefit of some of the world's finest improv-comedy minds coming up with their material."
In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Bono suggested that Rattle and Hum represented the end of an overtly sober era for U2, as they tried to wrangle with being the biggest band in the world. In the Joshua Tree period, "We were very earnest. Which explains those very iconic stony-faced photographs, where Anton Corbijn would only take the picture after we’d stopped smiling. I remember [manager] Paul McGuinness saying to me, 'You’re in danger of looking like the men too stupid to enjoy being at Number One.' We always have had a laugh, but in our public persona we’re a little self-conscious, and we need to throw off a bit of moral baggage – which we got to do on Zoo TV [in the '90s]."
Bono found someone else to credit or blame for the project's controversial roots moves. "Dylan was responsible for Rattle and Hum because he’s the one who said... that you have to understand the past, where the music comes from. He was talking to me about the McPeake family and the Clancy Brothers and then Hank Williams and Leadbelly, none of whom we knew."
Back in '88, he wasn't afraid to play up the conversely grandiose side of Rattle and Hum. "You know, they say in the '80s that rock & roll is dead," Bono told Rolling Stone. "I don't think it's dead, but if it's dying, it's because groups like us aren't taking enough risks. You know, make a movie. Put yourself up there against what's out there, Robocop and Three Men and a Baby. That's great for rock & roll, not just for U2. I think you've got to dare." As for the controversial line about Manson and the Beatles, "If that's gonna get up some people's noses, all the better. I don't even know what it means. It means something, though."
Phil Joanou seemed to disparage his own movie in that same RS piece. The earnest tone of the documentary was "totally my fault," he said. "The movie was meant to be a fairly serious depiction of their music, as opposed to a light one. I have footage that could have changed that, but my plan was to do an aggressive, grab-people-by-the-throat-and-shake-them kind of movie rather than a romp through America with U2. A romp with U2 wasn't something I could swallow, so I went for an overly serious, pretentious look at U2. That's a fair criticism, but what the hell?"
When I interviewed the Edge about Rattle and Hum in '88, the guitarist seemed worried about perceptions of Bono. "People have this strange idea of him as a perfect human being, and now they react in shock and horror when they see that he's much like anyone else. He's got a bum rap in some ways because he's become known as a great spokesman for a generation — with songs like 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' in particular. But that was actually my idea, and he's been sort of lumbered with this thing as a result of that song!"
It seemed as if delusions of grandeur might have stolen U2 away from us. But then we stole the band back. (As Bono would say, that means something...)
With their next album, Achtung Baby, and the resulting Zoo TV tour, they ditched the perhaps too-obvious idealism and even the roots moves and embraced electronics and ridiculous shades. An if-you-can't-beat-'em, join-'em sellout move? Hardly. By full embracing the dichotomies of pop, U2 managed to be as serious as they always wanted to be while pretending to be shallow and "slide down the surface of things." And with that, they ensured they'd intrigue us for 25 years or more to come.
As for Rattle and Hum? With some distance, you can pick out what works — several of the original songs; a lot of well-shot concert footage — and forget the regrettable one-liners and visits to Elvis' grave. Even if it symbolizes U2's most nervous moment of transition and self-discovery, it's not a bad way to hover on waterskis above a great white man-eater.