my family left IRELAND three generations ago in the early part of the 20th century, relocating to NEW YORK CITY. i carry an IRISH surname that traces its roots back to the small village of CAPPAWHITE just outside of LIMERICK in COUNTY TIPPERARY. in my teens i was lucky enough to get the opportunity to visit IRELAND with my family and witness a part of my heritage that really i only primarily knew through music.
specifically that of THE POGUES and U2.
whereas THE POGUES in my mind represent the complex mindset and identity of the IRISH DIASPORA, U2 seems (especially during their early career) to be a stridently modern IRISH band. influenced by the sonic experimentalism and lyrical insularity of POST PUNK, their early output seems militantly focused on presenting a vision of an IRELAND that is full of dignity and passion, as well as vulnerability.
WAR (ISLAND, 1983) in particular to me is the soundtrack and aural memory of the interpersonal brutality and cultural devastation that was THE TROUBLES. standout tacks such as "SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY" and "NEW YEARS DAY" showcase the personal toll of growing up when such unceasing and indiscriminate violence was occurring with little end in sight. those songs may be located in a specific geography and time related to IRISH HISTORY, but for me growing up it was a touchstone when traveling and encountering sites of human cruelty, tragedy, despair and mass casualties in other locations in KOSOVO, CAMBODIA, BOSNIA and GHANA (CAPE COAST CASTLE). that is not to say that these songs are sullen or depressing, in fact its the opposite. they are anthems to the human spirit of persevering and carrying on despite every evidence to the contrary that all is lost and humanity is depraved.
BONO is often mocked (sometimes rightfully so) for his often quixotic megalomania with regard to global initiatives. but i see that sort of inner fire, that very IRISH sense of empathy percolating first through these early songs in which he put his passion and sense of moral righteousness in his music. these songs touched me as a child and informed me of what it meant to be IRISH, that of being lost and itinerant yet never losing a sense of self or empathy for the other; essentially being at home in the world and finding commonality with all, including your enemies. maybe the dude was secretly BUDDHIST. regardless, i consider this album a deeply IRISH album that i return to from time to time when thinking about my ancestors and starting anew in a new country. something i have done several times on several continents.
RED HOT + BLUE: A TRIBUTE TO COLE PORTER (CHRYSALIS, 1990) was a compilation album spearheaded by the RED HOT ORGANIZATION that raised funds for worldwide AIDS research, relief and awareness efforts.
and im not gonna lie, the reason this compilation stands out to me almost 30 years after its release is DAVID BYRNE's cover of "DON'T FENCE ME IN." growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, my early musical memories revolve around car rides with my father in which he would play MORRISSEY / THE SMITHS, THE KINKS, THE STRANGLERS, THE BEATLES and TALKING HEADS. DAVID BYRNE's former band is most definitely a formative influence for me and this rendition of the COLE PORTER standard with its heavily syncopated LATIN (BRAZILIAN?) rhythms was another example of BYRNE's ability to organically utilize textures from global traditions without sounding paternalistic or hokey (like say PAUL SIMON).
i was in KINDERGARTEN when this compilation came out and it was my introduction to the idea of AIDS, and really just the concept of disease in general. i remember my parents explaining to me how it was raising money to help people for a disease with no cure, which was pretty heavy for a little kid.
going back and revisiting the compilation there are several standout performances from the likes of KIRSTY MACCOLL with THE POGUES as well as NENEH CHERRY, DEBBIE HARRY with IGGY POP, U2, TOM WAITS, k.d. lang, and the JUNGLE BROTHERS(!). its hard to imagine now how talking about AIDS was at one point taboo, but it was. and its pretty amazing that these artists, all pretty seminal in their own right, took a stand for an underserved community that was suffering and in need of help and destigmatization.
if you havent already, RED HOT + BLUE: A TRIBUTE TO COLE PORTER is definitely worth revisiting. just goes to show the quality of the songwriting of COLE PORTER, which really is a surprise to no one. there is a reason he is so celebrated among musicians of all genres.
i have early memories of U2's ACHTUNG BABY (ISLAND, 1991). specifically seeing the evocatively colorful and downright sensuous STEPHANE SEDNAOUI-directed "MYSTERIOUS WAYS" video on small tv in the guest room of my family's house in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. i must have been 7 years old.
there was a definite energy happening with that record. to date its easily my favorite U2 record with standout tracks like "EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING," "LOVE IS BLINDNESS," "ZOO STATION," "ACROBAT," "UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD," and the aforementioned "MYSTERIOUS WAYS." even today, this record still moves me. also, how do you not love a record whose titled references a scene from the cult comedy THE PRODUCERS (EMBASSY, 1967). forget and put aside any ill will you may harbor towards BONO and his pretentious JESUS complex for a moment, realize the dude named a record after reference to a MEL BROOKS film. that is the very definition of awesome.
any fan of the group will know that this record marked an important transition for the band where they in essence gutted and discarded the sound they had mined on previous releases throughout the 1980s. essentially guitarist THE EDGE was known for a jangly, delayed sound that made previous albums like WAR (ISLAND, 1983) and THE JOSHUA TREE (ISLAND, 1987) such seminal recordings. that ended with this record. sonically he explored digital / inorganic soundscapes with the help of returning producers DANIEL LANOIS, STEVE LILLYWHITE and BRIAN ENO that made use of everything from phasers and wah pedals to god knows what else behind the scenes. the results were startling and expansive, yet still sounded like THE EDGE through his unique melodic sensibilities that shone through new layered textures.
besides the sonic experimentalism at the core of the record, the lyrics and persona of BONO went through a huge transformation. in essence he discovered irony. yes there are earnest tracks that call back earlier materials such as "ONE" and "WHO'S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES," but those are an exception to other more forward-looking tracks like "EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING" which seem to thrive on playing with the concept of authenticity in a world dominated by MASS MEDIA , specifically the newly emerging power of CABLE TELEVISION. its a heady concept that makes me think of other conceptual art pieces by the likes of DAVID BYRNE and TALKING HEADS. another song i really adore is "UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD" which on first glance seems to be a classic love song where the protagonist is self-loathing and conscious of being unworthy of reciprocated love, but what you realize is that the subject of the story is in fact JUDAS ISCARIOT and his betrayal of CHRIST in the GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE. i know BONO is CATHOLIC and all, but this interplay of romantic and spiritual love through betrayal is very clever. maybe even literary. at the very least it is not standard rock fare by any means.
my favorite songs on the record are "LOVE IS BLINDNESS" and "ACROBAT" which i believe were entirely written by THE EDGE about his then divorce. those two tracks are so completely and utterly raw and nakedly vulnerable. really quite the achievement. it seems en vogue to hate U2, but i always go back to those two songs which i would put up against anything by any artist during any period in ROCK N ROLL history. i do believe they are that great.
i should also mention that during my elementary school days participating in local SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA sports events, one of the songs in the car on constant rotation was "ZOO STATION." for me that song is divorced from its BERLIN metro station origins (which i did get to visit!) and to me represents summer track meets and soccer tournaments as a youth. so i have deep sentimental attachments to this record. just want to put that out there.
so much more i could go into in terms of production (recorded at the legendary HANSA STUDIO) and history (recorded near the recently opened BERLIN WALL), but suffice to say this is a great album by a great band at an important inflection point during their career when they really outdid themselves. arguably that hasnt happened since, but man what a great album. definitely worth looking into and investigating further. higly recommended.