back in the 1980s there was a distinct cultural moment were everyone got excited over bloated charity singles that often featured a chorus of god-knows-how-many notable artists singing in unison. two that come immediately to mind was the MICHAEL JACKSON/LIONEL RITCHIE-penned "WE ARE THE WORLD" (COLUMBIA, 1985) for USA FOR AFRICA (over 45 POP musicians) and the RONNIE JAMES DIO-penned "STARS" (POLYGRAM, 1986) for HEAR 'N AID (made up of over 40 prominent METAL musicians), both of which raised funds for famine relief in ETHIOPIA. buying these singles was less about musical enjoyment, since the songs were objectively horrendous, and more a form of altruism. although it begs one to wonder why the artists just didnt advocate for direct funds as there is no doubt corporate record companies made a pillaging off these recordings.
enter STEVEN VAN ZANDT.
during this period he had recently departed BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's infamous E-STREET BAND right at the cusp of the release of what would become their commercial breakthrough BORN IN THE U.S.A. (COLUMBIA, 1984) record. at the time a journalist friend that had reported on the horrors of APARTHEID in SOUTH AFRICA suggested he write a protest song as a charity-style single. at the time it was still deemed acceptable for prominent musicians to perform at the SUN CITY resort/casino in SOUTH AFRICA. in fact prominent acts at the time such as QUEEN, FRANK SINATRA, ELTON JOHN, LIZA MINELLI, ROD STEWART and LINDA RONSTADT had done just that to their own shame in retrospect. the "SUN CITY" (EMI, 1985) single took aim at the resort specifically and the regime and its racist power structure politically at a time that the UNITED STATES still supported it. even in retrospect its a pretty bold and impressive statement, even if the song is a little bland. participating artists in the ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID activist protest group (who similarly took a vow not play in SOUTH AFRICA until the abolishment of APARTHEID) included the likes of BOB DYLAN, GEORGE CLINTON (PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC), BOBBY WOMACK, LOU REED (THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), RAY BARETTO, RUN-DMC, KEITH RICHARDS (THE ROLLING STONES), JIMMY CLIFF, BONO (U2), HERBIE HANCOCK, GIL SCOTT-HERON, PETER GABRIEL, HALL & OATES, KURTIS BLOW, STIV BATORS (THE DEAD BOYS), AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, RINGO STARR (THE BEATLES), BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and JOEY RAMONE (THE RAMONES) among many other JAZZ, R&B, ROCK N ROLL and early HIP HOP luminaries. PAUL SIMON was offered and declined participation due to his friendship with LINDA RONSTADT and the fact that he was then working on his GRACELAND (WARNER BROS, 1986) album at the time with SOUTH AFRICAN musicians, of which he has received (well-founded) criticism ever since for cultural appropriation. that recording was also in violation of UNITED NATIONS cultural boycott against APARTHEID. so there is that.
in this digital era we are all too comfortable with the idea of charity telethons and hashtag activism getting the word out on efforts to encourage fundraising for disaster relief efforts or the victims of the latest international tragedy. its part of the fabric of how our capitalist society functions at this point. but an activist single that take aim at altering AMERICAN foreign policy stances with regards to one of its allies. that i cannot find another example to compare. its a complete anomaly. and a singular achievement for all those involved, especially VAN ZANDT.
fuck PAUL SIMON.
as a kid in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA i played a lot of sports, but mainly basketball. going into 6th grade i personally knew the head coaches of the three local high schools. its funny to look back at it now, but at the time i was a sports prospect. of course, my family moved to NIGERIA later that year and my whole world literally shifted overnight. but during those late elementary years i have fond memories driving everywhere between LOS ANGELES and SAN DIEGO with my dad on our way to and from basketball camps and tournaments listening to U2 records.
there were certain songs we'd play as hype music which included AEROSMITH's "DREAM ON," THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE's "VOODOO CHILD (SLIGHT RETURN)" and U2's "IN GOD'S COUNTRY" and "WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME" off their landmark THE JOSHUA TREE (ISLAND, 1987) record. i still to this day visualize long drives to places like ESCONDIDO, ANAHEIM HILLS and HUNTINGTON BEACH to those tracks. what drew me to their sound was how they manipulated the idea of SPACE. whether through THE EDGE's reverb and delayed guitar manipulations or those epic slow fade-ins punctuated by BONO's howling voice full of YEARNING and DESPERATION, their just seemed to be a palpable sense of forward momentum. PUSHING FORWARD to new frontiers despite the obstacles. its easy to see in retrospect how those tracks worked as hype songs.
as an adult i have come to appreciate the GLOBAL CONSCIOUSNESS of U2, regardless of the fact that such is often used as a focal point for castigation and aspersions, especially at frontman BONO. there is something very IRISH about having EMPATHY for another's suffering and i feel that he is coming at his political pronouncements from an inner place of DEEP COMPASSION. i may be alone in that but thats my conviction. when you look tracks like "BULLET THE BLUE SKY" or especially "MOTHERS OF THE DISAPPEARED" (which is about the suffering of mothers whose children were abducted by REAGAN-backed military dictatorships in CHILE and ARGENTINA) there is a conviction to utilize his artistic medium to further AMPLIFY these political efforts and draw world attention to them.
which he did.
less literal are the iconic singles "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR" and "WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME." its interesting that there is very much a thread of geography and the concept of DISPLACEMENT in much of the lyrical content from this record. again, very IRISH. the idea of searching for something important but unnameable and maybe even unattainable, like LOVE, ACCEPTANCE or even a COMMUNITY is an aspiration that is deeply human. its almost metaphysical in nature. having spent extensive time abroad in places like NIGERIA, ALBANIA, MYANMAR and VENEZUELA, i have literally visited people on streets with no name. BONO very eloquently seeks to provide REPRESENTATION and a voice to the voiceless and those who are FORGOTTEN and looked over by our entrenched POLITICAL and ECONOMIC SYSTEMS that dont value or even acknowledge their EXISTENCE. this is a concept i consistently struggle with.
and that struggle of living with a CONSCIOUS and bearing witness to the STRUGGLES of your neighbor is central to THE JOSHUA TREE. its the thread that ties seemingly disparate tracks like "ONE TREE HILL" with "WITH OR WITHOUT YOU." what is our individual RESPONSIBILITY to our COMMUNITY? what bonds us to each other on an inter-personal level? it really is an amazing accomplishment both SONICALLY and CONCEPTUALLY and for me it is a deeply sentimental record that reminds me of my own CONNECTION with my father.
so yeah, THE JOSHUA TREE is worthy of its hype and well worth checking out.
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.