"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:
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 not the thoughts of a smug or self-righteous man but 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, stressed repeatedly in interviews in recent years that he was not the man of virtue and honor outlined 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 songs such as "Desire" and "Hawkmoon 269" to finally begin addressing his own insecurities and shortcomings.
However, with the release of "Rattle and Hum" the debate has shifted from the question of Hewson's lyrics to the issue of the band's integrity and ambition.
It's as if some observers can't imagine, in an age where the most promising bands rarely attract more than a cult following, that a rock band could seriously reach for the leadership and impact of the legendary '60s bands without being terribly pretentious or deceitful.
Dave Marsh argues that the biggest difficulty for some detractors of the album is, indeed, its scope and ambition.
"It's as if, living in a mediocre period, people believe it's the obligation of a young band to live down to these standards," he writes.
Rather than see U2's exploration of rock's past glory as an insidious marketing maneuver, Marsh praises the group for focusing attention on some of the music's richest styles.
"They may . . . pull off the feat of getting B.B. back on the Top 40 for the first time in a couple of decades and they've surely re-established blues as the musical center of modern rock, which is a prerequisite for restoring a sense of center to pop music and its offshoots."
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 last two decades of faith in mainstream rock music being anything more than passing entertainment. No one--other than Springsteen--has reached out to a mass audience with U2's quality and impact.
When Hewson says, "We're stealing it back," he's 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.
The New York Times, in reviewing "Rattle and Hum," scolds Hewson for adding what it calls a "messianic line" to Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower":
It quotes the line: All I've got is a red guitar/three chords/and the truth.
But the review fails to mention the Hewson line that follows: The rest is up to you.
That tag changes the new lyrics from being a celebration of U2's power to a challenge to the audience.
In "God Part II," Hewson expresses the frustration he feels as a musician in an age when people romanticize about the energy and social activism of the '60s but do nothing to help restore it.
I don't believe in the '60s, in the golden age of pop
You glorify the past when the future dries up.
The irony, of course, is that "Rattle and Hum" is an album every bit as triumphant and radical as anything in the "golden age of pop"--a record that, indeed, celebrates the rock's past, but also--warily, yet undeniably--toasts its future.