U2 in the 2nd Grade

I really dig U2. Pound for pound, they’ve done interesting things for thirty years, even when those things are colossal missteps.  But no one is ever going to call them spontaneous. In fact, ‘overwrought’ comes to mind. Time and again, whenever a new CD comes out and there’s the usual articles in Rolling Stone, Spin, etc, the band talks about working endlessly on every track, over and over, for weeks and months. For example, for their latest CD, No Line on the Horizon, co-producer Brian Eno showed to Rolling Stone his iTunes, which had “hundreds of discarded songs and alternate takes.”

For prior LPs, some of those outtakes and alternate versions made their way to the bootleg circuit, and when the sound quality is adequate, you get a real glimpse of their creative process. You can hear the rough edges, the beautiful mistakes and crunchiness they tend to vet out of the end result.

The most legendary of these collections is Salomé (The Axtung Beibi] Outtakes, a 3 CD set that’s floated around since Achtung Baby was released in late ’91. These sessions have been described as “The sound of four men chopping down a Joshua Tree,” and they certainly sound like a band in transition.

When listening to the bursts of energy, clipped songs and studio chatter, I think of that passage from Six Degrees of Separation where Flan Kittredge says, “I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. “ I’ve always read this as meaning that children at that age have enough control to present themselves, but not enough smarts to edit themselves.

These songs are in the second grade. And while I wouldn’t recommend this set for the casual listener—how many of you really want to here 9 versions of a future b-side called “Salomé”?—there is one standout track that sums everything up. It’s called “Take You Down.”

U2 – Take You Down (5:17, right-click to download)

Sure, it sounds like a U2 song; in fact, it sounds like three U2 songs (parts of this workout ultimately got folded into the songs “Ultraviolet,” “The Fly,” and the b-side “Lady with the Spinning Head.”) But you can also hear a passionate sloppiness, such as two simultaneous tracks of Bono’s mumbly stream of consciousness ‘lyric writing’ or a moment when he tells the band where he’s going to sing next.

It’s basically a shitload of ideas, phrases, garbled melodies and hooks, with a bunch of overdubs and all the faders up—exactly the kind of thing you don’t get on a finished U2 CD.

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10 Comments

Filed under Music, Plucked from Obscurity

10 responses to “U2 in the 2nd Grade

  1. kimthorson

    This is perfect for snowboarding.

  2. Is there a sentence missing from that quote from Six Degrees of Separation? Something to the effect of “the teacher said ‘i know when to take the drawings away.'”

    • True, Eagle Eyes Yapelli. You could say I did the same: I knew when to cut the quote short. I remember the first time I watched the film (which, boy-oh-boy, hasn’t aged well), when that monologue occurs, I thought that line you referenced was, well, I don’t want to criticize John Guare, but I thought that one line didn’t affect me as much as everything before it. I think that’s why I clear in my post to note it as “I’ve always read this as meaning,” which spared me from everything I just wrote here.

      But you and your steel trap of a brain forced the issue. Well played, Yapelli.

      • Gotcha. I didn’t think you had left it out on purpose or I wouldn’t have mentioned it (lest I become one of those annoying Internet people who is constantly writing comments that begin “well, actually…”).

        To me, “I know when to take them away” is… Well, I was going to say the “punchline” but perhaps “payoff” is more accurate. And it gets at the heart of what you’re talking about regarding U2’s overwrought sound.

        U2’s ultra-polished, high-gloss sound has always left me cold. Perhaps i’d like the band better if the producers knew when to take their records away.

  3. jen

    i stopped liking U2’s music after joshua tree because of the over-produced quality.

    my favorite song of theirs will always be “treasure (whatever happened to pete the chop)” …is *that* what’s in the mystery package i’m getting?

  4. Jansen

    So Cool. Thanks Steve. I’m a huge Eno fan and I think he had a big impact on them. This is fascinating. They sound good a little rough.
    I’m not a big Coldplay fan but I bought their last one (Viva La Vida )because Eno produced. Dissapointing. He pulled out a lot of tricks that Eno fans will instantly recognize. The best stuff on the record are the musical addendum that are sort of stapled onto the back of a few tracks. They make me think of this rough session. There’s a great jam at the end of “Yes” That clearly was an Eno inspired studio jam. They didn’t know what to do with it so it’s tacked on at the end of the track (Eno even throws in the sound of a tape coming up to speed to make the emotional splice) it’s the rawest most emotional thing on the record and what I hoped there would be more of..very U2 in a way,the most Lo-fi immediate thing on the album by far..It kicks in around the four minute mark..

    And for all those that it isn’t already painfully obvious, Mr. A Is the man. No one can Hold it Down on Music and Cinema with more clarity, persuasiveness or enthusiasm.

    • Hey, Jansen…Thanks for the kind words!

      And thanks for steering to some interesting shit on Vida La Vida. I always thought there must be some neat stuff on that CD, but I’m sorry to say I lost patience pretty quickly. I’ll check it out.

      • Jansen

        I know what you mean, I only heard the part I’m speaking of because I was trapped in a car and my wife wanted to hear the record..

        I suddenly realize that you were the man who cemented my Eno love. I had one album of his with Harold Budd (The Pearl) New Age before the term. I also had Music for Airports, which I liked very much. But you gave Apollo to Damon, which he brought along for my first Acid trip. We spent the night running around the Pepsico compound. It was late into the evening and we were gazing at the stars. I was playing a bunch of nonsense. He said “check out this record Steve gave me.” Well, it shot us all deeeeep into space. All we kept saying was “Eno HAD to be on acid when he made this , Had to!!” Still one of my favorite records..
        saltobello strikes again!!

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