Friday, June 1, 2018

A Window Above: Ultraviolet

Song: "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"
Writers: U2 and Bono
Original Release: November 19, 1991
Band: U2
Album: Achtung Baby

I have mixed feelings about U2.  On the one hand, they are one of the most dependable bands in the world, producing a vast catalogue of engaging music over several decades.  On the other hand, they've been successful and enduring enough for reasonable comparisons with groups like the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd or even Led Zeppelin, the Who, Stones and Beatles.  I have never felt the boys from Dublin quite measure up.  The songs are good, even occasionally great, but not genius or innovative.  Bono's a top front man but as instrumentalists, the others definitely fall short of the masters.  No group of their ilk has benefited quite as much from sound production, either, suggesting that their success is owed as much to the likes of Brian Eno as to any of the band members themselves.  (Yeah, I hear you throwing Pink Floyd back at me on that one but David Gilmour and Roger Waters were far more involved in the production of their own music than the U2 boys have been.)  Maybe 50 years from now, history will judge U2 more kindly in comparison than I do now... but I doubt it.

That said, I do like U2.  I've even seen them live, the Zoo TV tour, 1992.  Even if they're not in the very top tier, they're significantly better than average.  Do you want to know the secret of the band's success?  It's not Bono, at least not entirely.  It's the drums.  Larry Mullen Jr.'s fast, driving rhythms behind the much slower melodic rhythm is every bit as emblematic of U2's sound as Bono's sexy crooning.  The effect is most noticeable in "With or Without You" and it is an element of the band's music many others have sought to imitate. 

My favorite U2 song, though, is "Ultraviolet."  Unfortunately, it was the one song from Achtung Baby that they didn't play at the concert I saw.  It has served as one of their encores - as a prelude to "With or Without You" - in the years since but alas, not that night in Ames.  Mullen's drums are especially effective in this one.


  1. Ooh... I'd have fight you over U2.
    Mostly kidding.
    And I'm not a music person, in that I know nothing about music other than listening to it, but I've read a lot of stuff about them, and The Edge is generally considered one of the greatest guitar players alive and has been the driver on a lot of innovation. He personally developed some kind of echo system (the extent of my knowledge) that has been considered instrumental (intended) in the music industry since then.
    However, you're right about the drums. Mullen is the only one of them with any formal training in music and is the one who put together the band to begin with.

    1. Oh... you're a fan!

      Don't get me wrong. I like them, too, and one cannot argue against their success or their staying power. They are definitely in a highly exclusive group of bands, all-time. But do they belong in the top tier of that group? No. Is The Edge good? Sure. Does he belong in the Hendrix-Clapton-Van Halen-Page pantheon? (Worth noting: three of those guys are still alive.) Not even close.

  2. I don't know. Their songs speak to me in a way that none of those other groups do. Better lyrics. Everything. Even if Bono isn't technically a great singer. He has the emotion to make up for it.

    I have no ability to judge the Edge and his ability. I can only speak from what I've read about it, including, at some point, Clapton saying he's one of the greatest who ever lived. I'm pretty sure it was Clapton who said that, at any rate.

    1. No doubt, that’s high praise from a worthy critic. And you will get no argument from me on Bono as a frontman. He’s genuinely one of the all-time greats. As for lyrics, I will take the other bands but will grant it’s a matter of taste.

  3. I have really mixed feelings about U2. I was 14 when The Joshua Tree came out, so I followed their transformation through Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and the Eno project Passengers with interest.

    They mentioned Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed in their liner notes and featured William Burroughs in a video. They seemed like they were trying to see what sort of underground stuff they could sneak into stadium rock for a few years (back when those tags still meant anything).

    But everything since 2000 has been... so much like a U2 cover band to me that I've almost forgotten I ever liked anything about them.

    They had some classic songs, took pains to innovate for a few years, and influenced a lot of other bands. I'll try and give them some credit for that.

    1. First, hello, Harry! Thanks for stopping by and for following.

      Some years ago, my wife and I enjoyed VH1’s Classic Albums series a great deal. The episode about The Joshua Tree was interesting and, unfortunately, confirmed many of my long-held assumptions about U2. At one point, Bono sits at the mixing board with Eno, clearly mystified by the process that, frankly, made him an extremely famous and wealthy man. It compared unfavorably with Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran - a band I enjoy far less - who completely immersed himself in production.

      Not everyone is going to be a Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder or Prince who seeks to master every stage of the creative process. Some would - and have - called such people control freaks. I have known expert-level musicians who wouldn’t know the first thing about how to work a sound board. But especially in popular music where the final, packaged recording carries your legacy and especially for a band so dependent on sound engineering, something beyond a passing interest should be expected.

      There’s undoubtedly more to the story than I am giving them credit for, as Andrew’s comments suggest. Indeed, they are to be admired for having done more with less and for longer. I certainly love my Beatles, the songwriting masters, but the band imploded before any of them were 30. The most technically sophisticated bands in history - Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin - all fell apart. U2 is still rolling.

      Rush, on the other hand... we should talk about Rush sometime!