Once upon a time, many years ago in a world not yet quite gone mad, musicians were like mushrooms and bands were spawned in patches, artistically related gene pools of little fellers, all sprouting up overnight, creating instant genres. Just add humidity and Presto! These sudden eruptions were contagious, and the youth of the day were transformed into carbon-copies of each style, with each musical form having its own hierarchy of superstars. A bit like the Greek gods, but not quite.
The rock ‘n’ roll era set the ball rolling in the late 1950’s, as several white gentlemen exploded into the public eye, all playing that same devilish brand of driving guitar music that sent the kids silly overnight. They stole it from the blacks, of course, but this is an article about why U2 are complete shit and I haven’t got time for that right now. Let’s move on.
One of those chaps back then was called Elvis Presley, and he just happened to become the most famous of all the rock ‘n’ rollers. Presley might not even have been the most talented of the bunch, but he danced funny and people saw sex in it, and that was that. Buddy Holly, Chubby Checker, and even The Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, had to take a back-seat to the man they called The King. Just the way things go, apparently. But it set a pattern for the future.
Fast forward slightly, to northwest England in the early 1960’s, to the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. A new kind of music had evolved called Merseybeat, a blend of rock ‘n’ roll, skiffle, R&B, and Doo-wop. There was a host of bands playing this new form, in the many coffee shops of both cities. Its roots were again in the black music of the American south and Midwest, brought back on vinyl to England’s industrial heartland by sailors docking in the northwest ports. One of the Merseybeat bands was called The Beatles, and they became the most famous of the lot. Everybody else, The Searchers, The Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, and others, all jumped in the back with The Killer and Buddy Holly, while The King and The Fab Four maintained control of the vehicle.
A few years later a phenomenon known as Garage Rock music emerged in the United States, and Garage bands with wonderful-sounding names came flowing out of the woodwork; The Seeds, The Count Five, The Shadows of Knight, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and The Standells, all produced work bearing a similar crude yet stylish hallmark. The term “Garage Rock” was a largely dreamed up notion that most of these young bands were middle-class suburban white kids who rehearsed in the family garage. That the sound quality did sound like it had been recorded in such a place didn’t hurt. But one band became the most famous Garage band without anybody but me ever realizing they even were one. That band was called The Doors, and the cheesy organ and rough-ass vocals of Garage Rock finally had a figurehead, a man who called himself The Lizard King, Jim Morrison. The Shadows of Knight, Count Five, et al, clambered into the monstrous back seat of the collective vehicle, as Morrison and the lads began to clamber into the front with the big boys heading for psychedelic oblivion. Until, that was, a clan of roughnecks from Newcastle, England suddenly appeared, the leader of which grabbed The Lizard by the scruff of his neck and lobbed him and his band into the back, while roaring “beer and acid!” Eric Burdon and the Animals had joined the party.
I realize that by this point that there were other musical genres out there, like Motown, Soul, Bluebeat, Mod, and Ska, but we have to keep to the highway here, and can’t afford to get side-tracked, at least not if I’m gonna reach the bit about U2 being complete shit in decent time, and I know you want to hear about that, so let’s put our foot down and move on. In fact, let’s just pretend that the phenomenon known as British Rock never fucking happened at all, okay?
The 1970’s had Glam-Rock, which was frankly bizarre and more than a little gay. A huge number of bands jumped on the wagon at this point, but one artist protruded above the rest like a strange, gilded sex-toy. David Bowie didn’t just invent a nickname for himself, he invented several metamorphosing personas, each with its own nickname; Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane all graced television and magazines, while Bowie was described as a genius by those who’d been touched by his alien fingers. As Bowie snaked into the front seat (winking and licking his lips at The King, who became very uncomfortable), Slade, Sweet, the Bay City Rollers, Wizard, T-Rex, and Mott the Hoople dived in the back, where a bottle of gin was making the rounds and the air was full of pungent smoke.
If you’re getting bored with this repetitive chronology, then that’s fine, in fact that’s perfect, cos it sets you up for another pattern that began to emerge around this time; music became devoid of originality, and almost died. But then something else happened, something called Punk Rock, which saw a quite intelligible rabble of colorful characters prancing in the limelight, spitting, swearing, and sometimes even singing. In the same way that industrialization brought an end to the “Little Ice Age” (would’ve been a great big ‘un otherwise, so quit whining about fossil fuels, suckers) Punk Rock intercepted the trend towards declining musical quality, and got everybody excited for a couple of years, while more than a few oldsters vigorously objected. Again (zzzzzzzz) one band seemed to embody everything there was to say about Punk Rock, and that band called itself The Sex Pistols. As The Stranglers, Angelic Upstarts, Damned and Buzzcocks belly-flopped into the back seat, The Pistols joined the front-runners, amid the clinking of bottles and bags of brown powder that had insidiously appeared with them. Johnny Rotten spat a huge ball of phlegm into Paul McCartney’s eye, and Sid Vicious, who initially had followed Rotten mindlessly, suddenly grabbed the wheel and executed a Starsky and Hutch-style U-turn, as they headed for Nowhere in Particular, not a nice place, let me tell you. In fact, Sid and his brown powder would be remembered by all and sundry for this act, in which he almost rendered himself a proper punk, thereby performing his only truly artistic maneuver ever, by murdering his girlfriend and becoming a black man’s prison bitch. Only his suicide prevented him reaching such dizzy creative heights, which some say was a shame. It could’ve been payback for all those white man’s rock ‘n’ roll covers he’d been belting out, tellingly towards the endpoint of the Pistols great Swindle.
When things had settled down a bit, this decline continued, and the conscientious objectors got what they deserved; a crappy hit parade full of mediocre garbage. Nobody seemed to know what the hell was going on, and people like Joe Jackson and The Buggles did their best to convince us all that they had the situation under control. Somebody even dreamed up a name for this non-scene; they called it New Wave. New Wave was kind of like the Kingdom Protoctista – a catch-all term to describe a species that doesn’t really fit into Animals, Plants, Fungi, or Bacteria, but lacks any features consistent or distinguishable enough to actually be considered a Kingdom in its own right. At this point, no single band or artist was deemed to be capable of driving the vehicle at all, or even being invited into the front seat. In fact, Sid had driven the vehicle off over the curve of the globe, and many were beginning to wonder if it was ever coming back. The slippery slope became oily, defying purchase and sending the vertiginous upper-echelons of the “street-level” industry into paroxysms of near-sexual delight. Faceless, out of touch, upper middle-class fuckwits everywhere began asking themselves the same question; all the talent has dried up, there are no more original ideas! Does this mean that we actually get to decide what people listen to now?
Since the late 1950’s, the music industry had been in the clutches of an uncontrollable band of hard-core substance-abusers and incestuous, violent lunatics, precisely the type of people you should have at the helm of a behemoth such as this. But as the 1980’s dawned, a far darker and savage brand of beast took the reins; the straighthead.
Despite having been the frequent recipients of bullying in high school, straightheads are dangerous people, let me tell you. They’re the ones who initially said no to drugs, but then started doing coke and smoking pot in their mid-20’s, when everybody else had grown out of it. They’re the ones who said things like, “Trainers look so stupid! They’ll never catch on!” back in 1980, when human beings finally got a clue, threads-wise, and the world went irreversibly Adidas trainer-crazy. Ultimately, the quintessential straighthead is a person who, utterly lacking in originality and toughness of any kind and feeling deeply unhappy about it, seeks to deflect peoples’ gaze from their soulless eyes, to other more superficial aspects, such as fancy hair and clothes. Straightheads like to be the center of attention, while maintaining an ability to be outside the action. They want to be a glamorous mystery, one that never gets its hands dirty or is seen to be uncool. In short, they are sissified brats who want it all but lack the balls to grab it the old fashioned way, so they invent their own culture and social hierarchy and remain clustered in exclusive incestuous groups, far from the trenches. Manipulation is their way, not conquest.
Straightheads begin thinking about pension plans, mortgages, health insurance, and having children, when they’re around nine years old, and they begin building their evil empires right away. You can almost see their pupils distorting into dollar signs when you look into their glazed, inhuman eyes, which is one reason the bullies liked to punish them so much. Straightheads simply love labor- and time-saving devices, especially mechanical or computerized ones that somehow make others do their work for them, and, let’s face it, they’re all huge drag queens on the sly. This combination of exertive unscrupulousness, moneylust, and rampant trans-gender kinkiness was about to be launched at humanity like a bent rocketship (or a poison arrow) loaded with the wrong type of fuel and manned by unwilling, cowardly pawns. When straightheads finally clasped their clammy fingers around the swollen, throbbing gearstick of rock ‘n’ roll, that gearstick shriveled and died like a poisoned fawn, but nobody was asking, “Who killed Bambi?” Oh no, my friends, these toxopholites were firing up the barbeque and discussing hot sauce.
Hot sauce in this case is, of course, money. Beadage. Dosh, cash, wonga, Benjamins, greenbacks. The straightheads spoke the language of money, lived it breathed it, owned it wholesale. In fact, it was the only language these proto-yuppies understood. And now it was their turn. The artists who’d moved music forward for decades, in the frontline trenches at the interface between dream and reality, were gone. All that remained was a wide open market, and millions of young minds to hypnotize into believing they should buy this or that record, simply cos a man on the television told them to. While the luminosity drained from music’s last embers of originality, in the form of bands like Blondie and the B-52’s, the straightheads filled their boots and their bellies and dreamed of what would be.
One of the things that would be was New Romanticism. New Romanticism, being pretty much the first truly straightheaded venture, was almost a Trojan horse, as underneath all that explosive dyed hair and make-up there lurked some quite normal lads who just wanted to rock ‘n’ roll. And rock ‘n’ roll they did, though unfortunately the tools of their trade were more suited to a bad science fiction movie than a concert stage. Guitars and drums were suddenly ousted from the roster of musical cool, replaced by the assorted keyboards and drum-pads of electronica. It was now possible to play entire sets and not actually have to think, by programming your “instrument” to simply repeat groups of notes, large fractions of which had been purloined from the curriculum vitae of previous, more organic pioneers. Needless to say, the straighheads absolutely adored it. The individuals composing bands like Duran Duran, The Human League, Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Visage, and The Teardrop Explodes, were sometimes normal working class blokes who’d been forced by the straightheads into applying lashings of eyeliner, eye-shadow, rouge, and together with synthesizers, frilly blouses and blue rinses in their hair, they caused a sensation.
Unfortunately, New Romantic only appealed on the mass level to those in the population who themselves embodied these girlish traits. They were the first modern musical genre to actually repulse and anger the coolest kids of their generation. Instead of running out and buying Heaven 17 records and spending all their time in front of the mirror glossing their lips, ordinary young kids were throwing missiles at the TV whenever these pretenders appeared, and were forced to take a deep look back into the chronological catalog, to a golden age called the 1960’s, for relief.
Heaven only knows who actually went out and bought those records back in the early 80s. I think I may have shoplifted a few, or bought shoplifted records off other people, but I certainly didn’t fork out my own hard-scrounged cash for crap like that. No, instead I listened to the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, and even Herman’s Hermits, before I’d turn an ear to the New Romantics. Well, actually, that’s not completely true, cos what happened was, a genre within a genre emerged, that of the closet music listener. Basically, this meant using headphones, or turning your stereo way down in case your friends were passing in the street outside, and surreptitiously listening to certain tunes by these flamboyant purveyors of electronic faggotry. It was a risky business, and loose lips cost cred. A form of unacknowledged omerta perfused young folks everywhere, as each had his own closet faves that he daren’t ever breathe a word of. It was a New Romantic code of silence, the rudimentary tendrils of the straightheads evil plan to colonize minds and control pocketbooks.
Fortunately, those of us who spearheaded the resistance pledged loyalty to musical high-quality, on pain of death, and we kept them at bay with our 60s heroes (who by now were taking on a most purple, psychedelic tinge; we’d worked through the R&B and the British Invasion stuff, and the likes of Jimi Hendrix, 13th Floor Elevators, and Lou Reed were now the only game in town).
Presently, bands like Simple Minds and Big Country galloped out ahead of the herd, like Celtic Cossacks on guitar-bagpipe hybrid steeds, racing across the cold, dry cultural desert of the mid-80s and leaving the peacockery of New Romanticism to die in the fetid mud of its own circular straightheaded endeavors. Others, such as The Alarm, also struggled free of the electronic miasma, and followed their two big Celtic brothers, being joined in time by the likes of The Waterboys, another non-English outfit that fancied themselves to be somewhat cool, for reasons that have never been made completely clear. That these bands played real instruments appears to have been part of it, which, relatively speaking, would be understandable if they weren’t all so fucking dire. In fact, all of these Celts had one very strange thing in common, and that thing set them apart completely from the New Romantics; they all toiled under the extraordinary notion that they actually had a message (in all honesty, REO Speedwagon or an average dose of Rod Stewart pissed all over their ridiculous guitarplay, itself loaded with that same wide blue Scottish sky effect without any preposterous designs toward significance). The straightheads’ grip on the situation was never stronger, though, and as this motley band of delusional, freckled masters of mediocrity thundered apace on their unicorns, and the hippest kids of their generation angrily looked the other way, another set of Gaels joined the fray. They were to become the straightheads’ moment of supreme glory, a band propelled by pure hype and zero talent, into the contender’s position for “greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world”. That’s right, it was U2.
And oh, the irony, oh, Ireland! This tiny moss-covered rocky recipient of that warm river-within-an-ocean called the North Atlantic Drift is home to a quite sparkling species of equally warm hominid. The history and creativity oozing from every Celtic fort and juicy blade of chlorophyll-laden grass on Eire constitutes a jade and emerald ledger, one shot through with veins of pure gold. This is a people both downtrodden and transcendent, be it a prehistoric goldsmith who fashioned chunky rings bearing ancient, swirling pictograms, or a modern Irish bricklayer throwing a building together with the precision of an Egyptian pyramid builder. The Irish corpus callosum superbly connects its numerical and artistic hemispheres, forging a wild and precise form of self-expression, a whirlwind heavy with both jewels and trowels, and nowhere is this more evident than in its music. What many lineages experience as a furry, green, little used bridge across the brain, the Irish genome utilizes as a veritable autobahn. Since before time began, this bi-hemispherical vantage has been a hot-bed of dance, of song, of instrumentation, lived and breathed with almost unparalleled accomplishment and feeling. In the modern era, bands such as Them, Thin Lizzy, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Boomtown Rats have exploded from that green kaleidoscope, their baffling streamlined catalogs studded with material both timeless and timely. And the beauty of the place is that whether you’re sixteen or sixty, there is always a pub crammed with jiving devils that’ll stand you a pint and listen to your song. These people know a good time, and they fucking well know their music. They are biochemically superior to most other breeds, and will never walk by a ringing payphone without answering it, under any circumstances. They are just the same as you, really, but you when you are in a fantastically good mood. This magical place, my reeling friends, is where that piece of dogshit called U2 crawled from. Go figure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not given to generalizations, especially those which encompass entire nations, millions strong. I am a firm believer that the population of any city, town or village, be it in Scotland, Peru, China, or Zimbabwe, is composed of a blend of personalities, a genetic configuration expressed via the actions and words of its denizens, and in every corner of the globe we have a certain degree of diversity. But, that said, the Irish seem possessed of a most inordinate tendency toward authenticity, honesty, and happiness. I’m sure the city streets and country roads of Dublin, Limerick and Tralee have their share of proper miserable bastards, but overall that fraction appears generally smaller than do the populations of other industrialized nations. But we are side-tracking here, so back to the point.
There are people alive today who will tell you, quite seriously, that U2 are better than the Rolling Stones. If you are reading this and the previous sentence failed to switch on your incredulity button, then you’re either a fool or an extremely jaded and open-minded person, but a fool nonetheless. U2 are better than the Rolling Stones? Excuse me, but I do not recall ever receiving that particular fucking memo. Apparently, the world passed me by sometime in the early 90s, when this type of belief system engulfed civilization. But all things must pass. Since the death of New Romanticism and the rise of the phenomenon called U2 – the straightheads answer to the Beatles – the music industry has slowly been forced to come back to the people, its tail between its legs, in search of actual talent. But beggars can’t be choosers, and what they managed to drag from the burning wreckage of the late-80’s and early-90s wasn’t pretty and it was impossible to identify the victims, they were busted up so bad.
Again, it was difficult to identify them because they exhibited no discernible consistency, no characteristics in common to actually dredge up some semblance of their being a cohesive genre for kids to rock to. Instead, there were only the marred and twisted sunglasses of Bono, reflected in the headlights like an indestructible rabbit in the face of a plastic car full of pretenders and nobodies.
That’s right, a plastic car, a toy thing, a puny replica. Sid Vicious had stupidly driven those old pioneers off to Nowhere in Particular, never to be seen again. A duplicate of that strange polished vehicle simply had to be constructed. The kids who’d been “looking the other way” for several years while U2 wrought their special brand of havoc on the minds of the young, had come to depend almost entirely on that old template, the blues-rock riff, cos quite honestly that’s all anyone ever really needed, until the straightheads took over and tried to take it away. It’s true that Bowie, Roxy Music, and some of the weirder garage people had evolved some musical sounds very unique, but these were exceptions, and they generated their own set of imitators.
These committed young musicians now set about the grim task of rebuilding a vehicle that was true to that archetype, and slowly something half-decent emerged from the chaos of the previous two decades. The music industry was faced with a horrible choice: The mindless, careless brainwash that was U2, or a bunch of actual musicians who are only able to produce copycat sounds from previous eras. What to do, what to do..?
Sometimes, right before something momentous happens, we sense a snap in the air, a silent, joyous moment of complete objectivity that is suddenly shattered by the screams caused by the labor pains when a new thing is born. In the late 1980s, the cool kids had been delving frantically back through time for almost a decade, in a bid to experience quality sounds, and those kids had grown into masterful purveyors of a hybrid thing, a queerbeast that danceth under the moon and appeared terrifyingly before one in the night. The Queerbeast danceth, that is what the Queerbeast doth do. And what a queer beast it was, too. Horned and hoofed, athletically obese, with scales and fur and vaguely luminous patches around its wrists and neck, this thing crawled from under the standing stones of northwestern England with only one thing in mind; to get people royally fucked up. The Queerbeast was neither a quadruped nor an anthropoid, and when it stood on any two of its several legs, it attained many hands in height. Across its asexual belly there jiggled a mass of technicoloured teats, each offering a different, and quite unique, elixir from the animal depths of its mysterious reproductive system. Its eyes, large and ellipsoid as they were, exuded feline predatory and motherly nurturing instincts simultaneously, and on its many feet it wore expensive trainers manufactured by fantastic, unknowable designers. A sound issued from the Queerbeast, a sound both menacing and beautiful, which activated people like the tune of the piper to the rats of Hamlyn. People were set on the move by this odd Frankenstein entity, and they followed it. They followed it to the nightclubs, and to the warehouses and factories of the dark, satanic rural hinterlands, and all at once the organic and the electronic were molecularly fused in a great wash of orgasmic conception.
A new genre had once again been invented by the people, and nobody called it anything at first, cos nobody thought it needed a name. Many of the proponents of this thing hailed from the Manchester area, but many didn’t. One thing was for sure; The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans, 808 State, Northside, The Farm, The La’s, The Soup Dragons, and many more, were in plentiful supply and this was no flash in the pan. This was something else.
Manchester had seen its share of proto-versions of this thing since the 70’s, in the form of Joy Division, and then later in The Smiths, but now everybody seemed to have grasped a form of cool unseen collectively since the late-60’s, and the only thing to rival its novelty was its contagiousness. England’s northwest had been the seat of the Northern Soul movement, also in the 70s, whose flared-trousered army enjoyed nothing more than amphetamine-fueled all-nighters at clubs like the Twisted Wheel, and Wigan Casino. Northern Soul’s unique stylists were among the very first to adopt the effeminate “wedge” hairstyle, baggy jeans and boat-pumps, which were to become inextricably synonymous with the later soccer “Casuals”, and indeed it was these scallywags to whom the scene called “Madchester” truly belonged.
The whole scene became a celebration, a collective enlightenment whose flames flickered like delicious tongues, drawing all into its orbit. As droves of young people flocked to warehouse parties, and the nightclubs drafted in tight posses of a new breed of DJ, one skilled in the purveyance of the light show and the seamless blend from one track to the next, it became obvious that music’s Dark Age had finally passed. Or had it?
While the world went Ecstasy-crazy and danced all night, the straightheads skulked in the shadows, plotting to reclaim their crown. Their cannon-fodder was fired hard at the walls of Madchester, in the form of Rick Astley (a Mancunian himself), Jason Donovan, Michael Bolton, and in April ’89, hot on the heels of 1988’s “Summer of Love”, the straightheads wheeled out their ultimate killing machine; U2 and BB King, together on the same record! Now, I’m a gentleman and a sporting one at that, and I can tell you right now that as I sat befuddled and hypnotized in the pulsating pubs of Manchester, this jukebox Trojan Horse took us all very much by surprise. And the worse thing was we almost liked it.
As this thing, this unspeakably gigantic vision, trundled towards our psychedelic fortress, one or two heads turned in bewilderment, while the rest danced madly via their chemically assisted metabolism. But slowly, more and more heads began to turn, and rumors spread like wildfire through the castle. It was difficult to discern what it was at first; it certainly wasn’t made of ebony and ivory, but there was a suggestion of the media-lunar about it, an immeasurable ball of stone, half of which lay in shadow and was invisible, the other half gleaming like the vicious smile of a psychopathic circus clown. Love had come to town, like a primeval, cratered asteroid headed directly for the group heart.
For the past several years, the kids had been forging their mighty weapons, laying strange and unlikely alloys on the musical anvil and pounding them into weird forms, hybrid actualizations of the organic and the electronic. They had succeeded in overcoming the once insurmountable credibility barrier placed in the path of electronica, by dovetailing its minutiae with elegance and brute force to the undulating tendrils of the old-fashioned monkey beat. Where it was once believed that there was no substitute for the chaotic, rhythmic reports of pure human neurology, there was now the realization that this neurology could be grafted onto something mechanical, and together the two could live in harmony, like a knight and his armor.
The straightheads killing machine threatened to undo all this good work, by catapulting its heavyweight bi-chromatic orb into the heart of Fort Madchester, destroying their technicoloured sounds and crushing their light-shows like tinsel at a Christmas party in a Salford high-rise suddenly turned extremely violent. The crater from this impact cleaved the destiny of music like a reproductive isolating mechanism, causing two species to emerge from one. The denizens of Madchester continued to dance even as their habitat was fragmented and torn asunder by the killing machine, and presently the energy drained from their cohesive dreamworld and off to its bifurcated fate. Madchester was no more, and the straightheads congratulated themselves on a job well done.
But things that are alive will never stop changing, and as one of the new species took off on a totally mechanized mission, the other, more organic species generated reinforcements in the form of bands like Oasis and Travis, and a new age dawned, a product of the cleansing that comes after war. Noel and Liam Gallagher were the ones who finally unveiled the replica vehicle in all its popular glory; a bizarre, teal-colored, slightly out of style thing with a suggestion of a streamlined shape and a tendency to play tricks on the mind. It looked bad, then it looked good, then it looked bad again, but overall it appeared wearable, like a sweater your Auntie Maggie buys you for Christmas that could elicit compliments or mockery when you wear it in the pub, and there was only one way to find out. It wasn’t the original, Sid had seen to that, but at least it was something.
The Brothers Gallagher jumped in and revved her up good and loud (after a brief fistfight to decide who should drive) before zooming off across the land to pick up more like themselves, bands who would come shivering and blinking into the light, having sheltered from the machinations of an entire decade in the dark.