One cannot get to the subject of Rattle and Hum and then only talk about the music. Because Rattle and Hum has become less a U2 music project and more a monument to the band’s hubris. Or appropriately a growth, and like any unhealthy growth the band took to cutting it off as soon as it could. U2 spent the next decade of their careers trying not to come across in any way like they did here. That is how unsatisfied they were with both the film and, even more likely, reactions to the film.
This is also true of the director Phil Joanou, who came up with the concept for Rattle and Hum and would later dismiss the film as “pretentious”. That distancing might also be because he did not envision himself directing, throwing out more experienced names like Martin Scorcese, Johnathan Demme and 2015’s MVP George Miller. Essentially a tracking of all of U2’s antics in America after The Joshua Tree, what began as a natural successor to the band’s big live breakthrough Under the Blood Red Sky kept expanding, and what The Edge called “a scrapbook” of Americana eventually became a large blockbuster undertaking, and turned into the documentary the, if you will, rockumentary, that people went to see. And that Spinal Tap reference is no undeserved dig, as will be explained.
But is the toxic reputation of Rattle and Hum – both the album and the movie – completely warranted? As I’ll attempt to go over in as sprawling a way as possible (like a U2 movie project!): Yes and no.
When people talk about Rattle and Hum people can forget that a lot of great music is there. Not just the live renditions of classic songs – all sung in a prime period for the band – but in songs recorded specifically from the album. And whilst the next U2 album would be a deliberate departure, the seeds of it sonically can be felt on some of these album’s deeper cuts. Just a shame it’s on “God II.”
When people talk about Rattle and Hum the movie and how much they dislike it, they mainly talk about the first half. Almost everything after the black and white sections are a great concert movie, and have one of the most powerful moments of the band’s entire career. Just a shame there’s a lot to slog through as well.
As you can see there’s a lot to get through. In an effort to organise my thoughts, this page will contain my thoughts on the music/ album, and I’ll sort another page for the movie review.
But the first few seconds of both elements help to exemplify people’s problem, with Bono introducing a cover of “Helter Skelter” thusly: “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” Quite apart from any beliefs that Manson somehow owned the song after the Helter Skelter killings, this sentence will become the template for the overreaching quality of U2 for the entire record/movie by claiming that somehow they own it now.
The biggest complaint of the time was that U2’s ingratiation of both great American music and famous artists was deemed. Dylan, BB King, Hendrix, Presley, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones and the aforementioned Beatles can all be accounted for in some way. Where critics of the time had a problem with that conceptually, I was born after this movie came out, when U2 can legitimately claim to be both one of the most popular and most influential bands to ever live, so I had no problem. And if I had become famous in that time I would have wanted to play BB King every damn day, so I don’t see any problem. I believe Bono and the band when they say they were only showing how much these people influenced them.
So what’s the problem? Well, it’s how they go about showing that influence. Because after that comment – in fairness probably only said to get a crowd of thousands of people going – in the end the cover of “Helter Skelter” is just fine. Bono sings it well, but proves just how hard it is to hit those high notes, and the band perform exactly the way you expect. So this makes it one of the most middling examples.
After that introduction we get an example of the Edge singing (though he had previous done that on “Seconds”) with the first new composition “Van Diemen’s Land” (odd that a movie and album so engrossed in “Americana”. This is probably the country-ist song U2 have written, with references to kings and needing to be held, and a lot of that is down to it just being the Edge and his voice (and an organ towards the end of the track), and although the track is actually quite pleasant and Edge is not a bad singer, it does exemplify why Bono leads the band.
The first legitimately great song comes on next with the lead single “Desire.” The Bo Diddley beat helps to keep every instrument rolling: the bouncing bass; the pattering drums; the repeating riffs and even the harmonica add to that sensation of rolling. The lyrics are simple but go through many possible topics of Desire with breakneck speed, with the city streets, money, religion, violence, obvious references to heroin (“needle and spoons”) and of course women all accounted for. It’s the Rattle and Hum song most likely to still be played live, and with good reason!
We then have the first major digression from the movie by cutting the cover of ”Exit” that includes elements of the Them song “Gloria” (mainly Van Morrison’s soulful tones). Which is a shame, because the live performance of “Exit” is more passionate that even what’s on the album, one because of the Morrison inclusion, but mainly because the live environment making some of the more rehearsed anger on The Joshua Tree feel immediate. Instead we have a track only on the album: “Hawkmoon 269.” Edge claims the number is the amount of mixes the song had, and although I presume it to be a joke I could buy it, because this thing is incredibly elegant. The timpanis, the swirling guitars, the organs and multiple rising vocals all perfectly layering upon each other. Unfortunately they do this for far too long a time, and the track in its repetition doesn’t reach the same kind of accumulation that something like “Bad” did. Also, is it me or does it have similar chord progressions to “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
The movie and album diverge a lot track listing wise from this point, moving to the “All Along the Watchtower” cover. This prime Dylan – aka incredibly difficult for anyone to fuck up – and the more traditional U2 vibe of Clayton, Edge and Mullen for this cover works better than it does for “Helter Skelter.” Where they fuck up is in the one place I personally would have kept sacrosanct: changing the bloody lyrics! Adding the verse “All I’ve got is a red guitar/ three chords and the truth/ All I’ve got is a red guitar/ the rest is up to you” is particularly hilarious consider all the macho posturing occurring during the chorus (see movie review), but it’s another example of the egotism getting in the way of the music in a much more tangible way. Unfortunately, it’s not the worst. That’s coming shortly.
This moves on to a run of live performances of established U2 songs (barring a nice snippet of a genuine bluesgrass song by street performers. You’d think they could have got a tiny bit more work out of this, but I can’t seem to find any). The first is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and if you recognised the gospel influences of the song in The Joshua Tree, don’t be too proud of yourself, as the band make it abundantly clear by working with a large goddamn choir! And I admit, I get a fair kick from this. Cheesy? Of course. But I have such an affinity for the passion of gospel that I’m honestly amazed I haven’t been converted to religion again.
Then we get to “Silver and Gold,” a great B-Side from The Joshua Tree that is given a full opportunity to reveal its greatness. The guitar play from Edge and Clayton working together is pulsating and filled with tension, especially when the guitars are muted and the bass hit hard picked notes through the spaces. This is then beautifully paired with the build-up and powerful playing drumming from Mullen when the songs moves to its harder section. The band just work together beautifully here, and the subject for the song is pointed and fantastic, about a man, in a shanty town outside of Johannesburg a man sick of looking down the barrel of White Africa, ready to take arms agains- sorry, I admit I took that reading from someone else. Because, not thinking the words in the song were enough to convey the message, Bono feels the need to stop the song in its momentum and stumble into some pre-prepared proselytising that is the apex of arrogance of the entire project. You want him to shut up even before he pronounces “apartheid” as though he is sneezing, and talking about intense rock and roll things like economic sanctions, all of which would including the infamously passive aggressive ending: “Am I bugging you. I don’t mean to bug you.” Well, tough titties Bono, because you are. And then you tell the Edge to “play the blues” in a song that’s clearly not blues. Seems all that Americana training didn’t pay off there.
Fortunately that’s the most annoying the record gets. For a long period after that we just get some good music. First in the classic “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The instrumentals are tuned down half a tone because Bono’s vocals sound somewhat shot – it was a pretty exhaustive tour – but otherwise the energy from the crowd more than makes up for any of that. It’s particularly good to hear because except for “Bullet the Blue Sky” it’s the only other known song on the album, even when the movie played plenty more. I assume the band was concerned with familiarity?
That’s somewhat OK, because then we get another great song written for the album with “Angel of Harlem”. There’s a whole thing about recording in Sun Studio giving a band a certain energy, and I certainly believe it here. The bright heartland rock guitar tones are uplifting and Bono pushing his vocals to breaking point makes things sound in the moment, but of course it is all helped by the soulful backing band of trumpets and all sorts of brass behind them. Sadly the next song, “Love Rescue Me,” cannot keep up that energy. It feels like another instance of the song being too long, everything feeling a tad as opposed to genuinely blues-filled. And whilst the contributions by Bob Dylan to lyrics (and a vocal passage, just to let you know he’s there) are really good unlike Prime Dylan above Eighties Bob was not at his best when resorting to sha-la-las.
We then come to the BB King duet “When Love Comes to Town”. The “U Talkin’ U2 to Me” podcast described this song as “unfortunate,” and I can’t say I agree. It’s relatively simple blues rock, but with the focus on sonic textures that Edge engages with, it’s quite a nice change of pace to hear King just do some good ol fashioned, soulful BB King guitar solos (his forte. As he says on the documentary, he’s not so good on the chords). In contrast to the blues rock of that track we have the most ambient/moody song on Rattle and Hum with Heartland. A lot of the reason this song stands out is what is going on in the bass of the track, both from Clayton and Eno’s playing in the intro giving a watery sensation to the Heartland in question, which in turn is counteracted by the choral vocals that feel like the song going up. In this song we find some examples of classic – some may say generic – “arena rock” (mainly those choruses), but it all helps to give it a unique feeling compared to the rest of the album.
One can also claim uniqueness on “God Part II” but, well, the annoyingness had to come back sooner than later. I stand by my comments in the intro; the basis of this tracks drum-machine driven and synth bass sound is the definite precursor to the kind of experimentation U2 would do in the nineties. Sadly it’s lent to a misguided attempt to make a response song to John Lennon’s “God”, which if you were going to do that I would have advised reconsidering the lyrics. The contradictory ideas of “Don’t believe in excess…Don’t believe in riches/but you should see were I live” are confusing enough, but my brain shuts off here: “Don’t believe in forced entry/ Don’t believe in rape/ But every time she passes by/ Wild thoughts escape.” Well I’m glad you don’t believe in rape Bono, but the following comment is a little too much Robin Thickian for my liking.
After that we get an excerpt of the “Star Spangled Banner” on guitar, which was really cool when Jimi Hendrix did and hasn’t really been since. It does somewhat establish a return to a rockier tone for the performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Just like “Exit” before (and “One Tree Hill” in the movie), the song really benefits from its live environment. Barring Bono’s unusual accent at points, the snares, guitar cries, pulsating bass and vocal wails all come from a more immediate place, and it also gives more energy to the “speaking” parts.
After all that though – whether listening to the album or watching the meaning – we leave with a song that is in the list for one of their greatest (and quite overlooked, probably due to it being on this project): “All I Want is You”. It shares its anthemic nature and beautiful simplicity with “Bad,” but brings to that the things learned from The Joshua Tree with the searing Springsteenian solos, and the epic scope of the string section that accompanies it. It is an extension of the idea of U2’s music from Joshua Tree trying to have a cinematic scope, and the final breakdown and union of all the instruments at the song’s climax truly earns being called cinematic.
Speaking of cinematic, before making any kind of conclusion of this album, we should talk about the movie as well:
…are we back? Good. Wasn’t that a roller coaster of emotions?
So that is a sprawling look at the growth of Rattle and Hum. I was torn in whether or not I would rank the album the lowest of U2; there’s so many great moments that make it easy to return to (some more than their latter output), and even though less consistent than even October, its highers are higher. But there is ultimately too much slog and not enough momentum to keep the rattle and hum going.
Despite the big success of both the album and the film, the bad will that was building around the band finally had a place to fester to everyone else. Both the director and the band felt that they needed something to save their images, and Phil Joanou would fortunately recover in the following year with the great State of
But U2 knew a problem when they saw it. The well of Americana had run dry, and they saw that the critical community was no longer caring for it, and so soon would the general public. They would have no choice but to move into whole new territory, and in order to save public perception begin work on both a new album and a new public image. And there would only be one acceptable outcome: it’s was gonna have to be great…
What did you think, though?
U2 Album Rankings
- The Joshua Tree
- Unforgettable Fire
- Rattle and Hum