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U2 Dares To Conjure Up The '60s
Critics haven't been kind to Bono Hewson

"This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles," Bono Hewson says at the beginning of U2's new "Rattle and Hum" album. "We're stealing it back."

Hewson must have realized that the words - an introduction to U2's concert version of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" - would be a red flag to those who had already complained about the Irish rock band's taking itself too seriously. The obvous dig: "Oh my God, now these guys think they're the Beatles."

It's doubtful, however, that Hewson envisioned the savagery of the criticism that would be leveled against those opening words, which have become a symbol of what some see as the band's attempt to equate itself with rock's greatest heroes.

U2 has probably received more critical support than any mainstream rock entry since Bruce Springsteen, but there was an undercurrent of discontent last year - a possible backlash to the "enshrinement" of U2. Critics were calling the quartet "the world's greatest rock band," and the group's "The Joshua Tree," which went to No. 1 in almost every major record market around the globe, was awarded a Grammy as best album of the year.

With the release of "Rattle and Hum," the undercurrent has turned into a tidal wave of abuse.

Some critics see the album's emphasis on rock's '50s and '60s styles and passion as crass attempts by U2 to show that it is the natural heir to rock's most prized legacy. Among the other red flags in the album: a remake of a Bob Dylan song, a collaboration with blues guitarist B.B. King and the recording of some songs in the Memphis studio where Elvis Presley got his start.

"When Self-Importance Interferes With the Music," snarled the headline on Jon Pareles' review of the album in The New York Times. He charged that the album was "plagued by U2's attempt to grab every mantel in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

Spiritual self-righteousness

In England, Melody Maker, a key pop weekly, led off its review with a headline that echoed what the reviewer felt is a self-righteous tone in many of U2's spiritually accented songs. The headline: "The Lord's Prayer."

The question is what effect this crossfire of reaction will have on a young band (the oldest member is 28) that until recently has enjoyed widespread support from critics.

U2 has done a remarkable job of not letting commercial success lead to artistic compromise, but the band may now be facing its biggest test. Will it be tempted by criticism to temper its vision?

If U2 has an artistic Achilles' heel, it may be its eagerness to live up to what it sees as the idealsm and integrity of rock's finest moments. The danger is that the band may look to critics as the arbiter of rock 'n' roll honor and begin second-guessing itself in view of the sharp critical disagreement over the band's latest step.

The reactions to "Rattle and Hum" were far from all bad. Time magazine calls it the best live rock album ever made, and Dave Marsh, a critic who prides himself in spotting falseness and corruption in artists, raves about the record. Writing in his Rock & Roll Confidential newsletter, Marsh declares, "(It) sets a mark not only for the rest of U2's career but for everybody else who picks up a guitar in the next few years."

Daring follow-up

U2's main reassurance, however, should come from the album itself.

"Rattle and Hum" is one of the most self-revealing and-or unguarded rock albums ever attempted - a remarkably daring collection that examines the power and limitations of rock music on a variety of levels.

Rather than being a document by a band that is using the blues and rock history to further its career, "Rattle and Hum" is an extraordinary example of a band refusing to play it safe. Following "The Joshua Tree," which has sold more than 5 million copies in the United States alone, 95 out of 100 bands in U2's place would have simply tried to duplicate that album's themes and sounds.

Instead, U2 - whose sound had been based almost exclusively on post-'60s rock strains - explores in "Rattle and Hum" the people and styles that gave birth and passion to rock 'n' roll. In the process, the band members examine their role as rock 'n' roll artists.

In the album's most naked moment, Hewson sings about the struggle of musicians (or all artists) who have to keep reaching deeper and deeper insided themselves for truths. "Love Rescue Me," co-written by Bob Dylan, includes the lines:

Many strangers have I met
On the road to my regret
Many lost who seek to find themselves in me
They ask me to reveal
The very thoughts they would conceal...

These are the thoughts not of a smug or self-righteous man but of someone struggling with his ideals. In an age when most mainstream bands don't even consider such questions, U2 is staking its career on them.

U2 has shown a tendency to listen to criticism. For example, there has been occasional grumbling, even from critics and fans who greatly admire U2's work, that the band's high idealed tales of social conscience and responsibility sometimes gave the impression of a holier-than-thou attitude. Lead singer Hewson, who writes the band's lyrics, repeatedly stressed in interviews in recent years that he was not the man of virtue and honor outline in such songs as "Pride (In the Name of Love)".

But a songwriter must make his stand in his music, not in his interviews - and part of the breakthrough of "Rattle and Hum" is Hewson's willingness in such songs as "Desire" and "Hawkmoon 269" finally to begin addressing his own insecurities and shortcomings.

Power of '60s sounds

There is arrogance in the "We're stealing it back" line, but it isn't the arrogance of self-congratulation. Rather it is the arrogance of a musician who believes that music can again inspire and heal the way it did in the '60s.

Where "Helter Skelter" has been turned into a macabre novelty by its association with the Manson horrors, thousands of other songs have been neutered in a variety of ways - from use in commercial jingles to endless recycling on "classic rock" radio formats.

Most of all, however, there has been a steady erosion over the past two decades of faith in mainstream rock music being anything more than passing entertainment.

When Hewson says, "We're stealing it back," he is not claiming to be a Beatle. He is trying to reclaim the song's original spirit - and he's using "we" in the collective sense of the rock community.

At the same time as he yearns for a renewal of rock's power, he acknowledges that musicians can be only the catalyst for change. The ultimate power rests with the audience.

-From the San Jose Mercury News, November 29, 1988-