Saturday, February 1, 2014

U2 - Under A Blood Red Sky

When I began this review, it initially came with a lower rating.

In fact, the text to the actual review was more than a little harsh, to the point where I knew something was eating at me. "I used to love this album when it first came out," I thought, "so why all of a sudden am I gunning just to knock these guys down?" I knew there was something more to my sudden distaste for Under A Blood Red Sky, a stop-gap extended play released less than a year after their third album War and bargain priced just before Christmas of '83.

So why the dramatic shift in opinion after 30 years. It is true that tastes change, but if anything, time has confirmed a lot more positive aspects of music I enjoyed as a teenager and young adult, particularly records that I specifically remember listening to a lot.

And Under A Blood Red Sky was a record that I listened to a lot.

I know what you're thinking, and you're right. A lot on my changing opinion of this record and the band in general, all centers around that self-righteous fuck Bono whose mere image evokes a strong negative reaction from me.

I suppose you could make the argument that those very abhorrent qualities in Bono were already visible three decades ago, but I'm sticking with the idea that the first real evidence of oversaturation didn't really come until The Joshua Tree blew up. And even that was a record in which you said, "Man, this fucker is going to blow up" because it was one of those albums where everything just aligns up for a band, and you know it's their time.

And you know there's nothing you can do about it. If they were your band for a moment, they became everyone's band afterwards.

But The Joshua Tree wasn't the record that forced me to reconcile with the fact that U2 had become too big to hold on to.

That record for me was Under A Blood Red Sky.

Which leads me to the other, much larger reason why I was so hellbent on ripping out a mean and snarky review of it, despite the fact that:

1.) being mean and snarky about U2 is the fucking norm today, man, what's point of spending any amount of time just to be a redundant voice of the obvious?

2.) I hadn't actually listened to the record in over 20 years, probably, and it seemed cheap to pen a mean-spirited review without giving the record a complimentary listen again.

3.) I knew that I actually still loved Under A Blood Red sky after all.

There is another reason why I got a bit aggressive with this review's first draft, and it takes place in the Fall of 1984, prior to the release of U2's fourth studio effort, The Unforgettable Fire. I had been invited to escort a very lovely young lady to the homecoming dance at her Catholic high school. The school shared a bit of a rivalry with the local public school that I attended, mainly because the Catholic high school's boys basketball team were really good. They were state ranked and could really put it to our squad when we had the obligatory tip off between each other, and that created a little bit of drama in the community at times.

But, you know, I don't sweat such nonsense. Plus, the chick was super hot and only a moron would put some silly school rivalry in front of going on a date with such a fine looking young woman, am I right?

I had this swell '68 Plymouth Fury III coupe in which me, my special lady friend and another couple arrived at the dance at the Catholic high school. I parked in the school's parking lot which was lit and featured a city cop car in front as a certain deterrent.

We went inside, danced a bit, and at one point a group of guys who had graduated the year prior showed up in the gymnasium a bit tipsy. They completely ignored their dates, most of whom seemed to be fine with the idea that they were going to their high school homecoming dance with a college guy, regardless of how little he interacted with her. Regardless of the fact that he was acting more immature than his younger counterparts.

The smug fucks made their way up to the d.j. and one of them pulled out a cassette tape from their pocket. Shortly afterwards, the spoken introduction of "This song is not a rebel song..." came over the portable Peavey loudspeakers and, from that moment on, took on a completely different meaning for me.

The graduates joined forces and began air drumming, playing air guitar or acting like Bono, raising their fists and high-fiving each other's performance.

Nobody acted like Adam Clayton.

I remember that feeling - the resentment building inside of me. Somehow, U2 had slipped out of my hands and into these wealthy suburban Catholic boys.

What makes this all the more ridiculous was the fact that War was already a popular record in my school. Not in the same league as 1999 or Pyromania, but big enough to find its way into multiple car stereos while cruising around on the weekends.

So in reality, it was less about U2 being discovered by more people, but the issue was that I felt they were being discovered by the wrong people. I glared as I watched of this preppy cracker mouthing "How long must we sing this song" into his clenched fist, burning with anger that this group of douchebags were totally ruining one of my favorite bands.

Suddenly, a teacher/chaperone/whatever comes walking hurriedly into the gym and heads to the cop that's supposed to be acting as security. He'd been standing by the refreshment table for as long as we'd been there, watching the pretty girls dance and trying to look authoritative around the boys.

The guy approaches the cop and I can make out two words: tires and slashed. The word spreads quickly and we all follow the authority figures out to the parking lot to investigate.

It's at this point where we see the damage. Not all, but well over a dozen cars had one or two tires slashed. There were a lot of angry words tossed around and a few more event sponsors circled around the cop as he called for backup. It was clear by the number of vehicles vandalized that there were probably several people involved and that they probably took some time completing it.

One of the rear tires on my Plymouth featured a prominent hole in the sidewall.

I was pissed. If it had been some kind of inter-school retaliation then I felt that I deserved a pass at any vandalism resulting from the hand of a fellow alumni. My Plymouth was a unique car, relatively well know around my peers, and I'm an amiable guy with very few real enemies that would target my tires simply because they were in the parking lot of an opposing school.

We all went back inside and gave our information for the official police report. I questioned out loud why a cop was hired for dance security if there wasn't any real security being provided. That got the cop's attention. He looked at me sternly and asked "What more do you want me to do?"

"I dunno. Maybe leave the soda and cookies long enough to check the parking lot once in a while."

The crime was later solved and I learned that it all resulted because one of the main instigators had an old girlfriend that had moved on from the relationship and asked a new boy to the dance with her. I knew one of the parties involved and confronted him about it several months after he had successfully avoided me. When we finally did have words together, he told me that he was drunk, wasn't actually a part of the tire slashing and had stayed in the car with the others took to the damage. He apologized for being a part of the events and admitted that it was a stupid. When it became clear that I wasn't so easy to forgive him, even after the cost of the damages were settled and he and the rest of his crew had paid their debt to society.

"What more do you want me to do?" he asked.

U2 could have asked the same question. They were not responsible for my miserable evening. They couldn't control the mass fame that was resulting from their music and they certainly didn't deserve the personal vendetta that I felt was owed because of all of this personal drama.

Because Under A Blood Red Sky is a very good live document, deserving of the same praise that is held for such titles like Live At Leeds or any other notable rock and roll concert recording.

Unlike the video version which features nothing but the band's Red Rocks Amphitheatre performance, the audio version pulls from three separate concerts. A few of the tracks are from the Colorado dates, but all of the second side comes from a gig in Germany-including the version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" which features the infamous "not a rebel song" intro from our most hated frontman.

Speaking of, the Red Rocks video version is clearly the most visually superior document, perfectly suited for the format. Watching Bono connect among rocks, rain and flames was unlike anything else from that decade, and it marked one of the first examples of a band that was initially part of something beneath the mainstream being clearly able to connect with a large audience.

In other words, you saw Under A Blood Red Sky and wondered, "Why isn't everyone getting this?"

And when they did, I got mad. Go figure.

The audio document is nothing more than a well-cherry picked collection, designed to sound like a band that was much bigger than their sales receipts would suggest. In other words, Under A Blood Red Sky was a perfectly constructed marketing tool, helping to create a reality where even venues like Red Rocks would become too small for the band to perform in.

What results from the extended play record is something that prompts novices who are drawn to the visual grandiosity to explore into the band's catalog further. This is something that a good live record should be able to do. The 8 song set lifts the obvious catalog highlights like "I Will Follow," "Gloria," and "New Years Day" while hitting a few deep cuts in the process, all of which pass for first-class material. It suggests to listeners that the band was consistent in their execution, and with the exception of their album October, they really were.

Under A Blood Red Sky not only suggests this, it manages to exceed the originals in many instances. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is the obvious example of this, but "The Electric Co." really shines and the closer "40," with it's epic outro of the entire crowd singing "How long to sing this song..." made getting to the next U2 show a high priority.

Speaking of "The Electric Co.," the original version of Under A Blood Red Sky contained a moment where the band gets quieter and Bono breaks out a spontaneous taste of "Send In The Clowns." This portion was removed when I bought UABRS on compact disc, the result of a copyright issue. As silly as it may seem, I would try to find a copy with this extra half-minute of banter because it provides another example of how Bono was able to create these memorable moments of connection. It's literally a moment that was repeated for other shows, but put aside how contrived this passage may have been and consider how awesome it must have been to hear a band come across with such sincere intention that moments like this were seen as special.

Listening to it again, it continues to resonate. I'm confident that anyone approaching this band with new ears will find Under A Blood Red Sky as a passionate and memorable statement. What helps is how the band still sounds like they're trying to prove something, and you can hear on another stop-gap live offering a few years later (Wide Awake In America) how much the band had moved from spontaneous moments of emotion to more carefully constructed drama.

The move certainly may have assisted with escalating the cynicism towards U2, but even with decades of the band's frontman slowly eroding their credibility, Under A Blood Red Sky remains as good as a live document as you'll find for these superstars. It captures U2's ability on stage during the end of the band's first creative era and suggests that moving away from that style was a brave one, regardless of how much the move contributed to the lead vocalist's inflated self-worth and how much you want to forget how of their popularity was based on the reality that U2 was once a hungry band who worked very hard at building the sanctimonious stage they walk on now.

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