"This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles," Bono Hewson says at the begining of U2's new "Rattle and Hum" album. " We're stealing it back."
Hewson must have realized 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 taking itself too seriously. The obvious 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 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 mantle in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
Reminiscent of Lloyd Bentsen's you're-no-Jack Kennedy line against Dan Quayle, Pareles accused Hewson of forgetting--in making the "we're stealing it back" remark--that he is in U2, not the Beatles.
The Village Voice called the album "an awful record . . . an embarrassment"--decrying it as another false step by a band "already overconvinced of its importance in rock history."
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 cross fire 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 idealism 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; instead of pursuing its own artistic impulses, it could end up weakening its vision in hopes of seeking some sort of consensus approval.
The reactions to "Rattle and Hum" were far from all bad. Indeed, Time magazine calls it the best live rock album ever made--a work in which U2 both celebrates its new-found fascination with rock's roots and explores its own role as a powerful and inspiring rock force.
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."
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 this country 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 inside themselves for truths. "Love Rescue Me," co-written by Bob Dylan, includes the lines:
\o7 Many strangers have I met