Their performance isn’t marked by precision or technical mastery. It’s an onrush of unbridled enthusiasm all the way through – a frenzied, joyous romp that treats the show as if it’s their last (because, for all they know, it is). Possessed by such exuberance, U2 doesn’t appear to steer their music; like mediums overtaken by sonic spirits, the music pilots them instead.
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In my older and more vulnerable years, alternating pangs of conscience and vanity compel me to sort my pleasures into the things I can enjoy unabashedly and the things I feel one must apologize for enjoying. Over the past couple of decades, my beloved Irish rock quartet U2 has sprinted headlong into the latter category. There’s no sense denying it – they’re pretty cringeworthy nowadays. It’s grown so inescapable at this point that whenever U2 makes a headline, I brace myself for the onslaught of vicarious embarrassment that’s sure to follow (and the deluge of texts from friends who ridicule my fandom). I thought I’d survived the worst of it once everybody forgot about the clumsy Tomb Raider commercial that was the “Elevation” music video. But no! I still had the conceptually ill-advised and thoroughly cursed Spider-Man musical in store. Plus the free album release that was as invasive as spyware for every iTunes user – and, given the virulent critical response, about as welcome. (It was a solid record, you ingrates!) Why, as recently as this St. Patrick’s Day, Bono treated the world to that horrible poem of his, proving against all probability that it was possible to feel worse for Ukraine.
Whatever. At least I can give thanks that U2’s collective heart remains in the right place. Unlike certain washed-up talents, they haven’t taken to spewing anti-vaccine anthems or arguing with obvious Twitter bots (admittedly, a bar so low as to be subterranean). U2’s sin amounts to excessive earnestness: a genuine (albeit misplaced) belief that their once-prodigious musical and lyrical abilities have yet to decline; that celebrity of their stature still confers responsibility and moral authority; that a few choice words delivered with stardom and sincerity behind them might still have the power to change the world.
For anyone besides U2, such attitudes might constitute naivete or hubris. But it’s understandable why the band would believe in such things, since their music could at one point accomplish them. In times past, their signature sound could instantly summon the world’s attention – and sympathies – to political and moral causes. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “North and South of the River” turned hearts and minds against sectarian violence and schismatic politics during Ireland’s Troubles. “Mothers of the Disappeared” mourned the victims of US-backed fascist dictatorships, hitting harder for concluding The Joshua Tree, an album that feints at celebrating America up until that final track. “Miss Sarajevo” reasserts human rights – and human dignity – for Sarajevans under siege during the Bosnian War. Their 2002 Super Bowl halftime set, with its tasteful commemoration of 9/11, comforted a country still reeling from the attacks, and remains the stuff of live television legend. These songs and performances weren’t melodramatic, throwaway fare where the message is the medium, and the righteousness of sentiment the justification for the composition. They were – and are – great works of music, infused with the melodic and poetic sensibilities that used to define U2’s output.
The tragedy for my favorite band is that “used to” is the operative term. To honor U2, one must speak of them in the past tense; the present mostly underscores the powers they’ve lost. The uninspired, paint-by-numbers pop of U2’s recent releases (such as 2017’s “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” or the pedestrian “Ordinary Love” from 2013, which predicates its entire raison d’être on its stated mission to honor Nelson Mandela) have created a strange paradox wherein the farther back into their catalogue one reaches, the fresher and more unique they sound. Each early track telegraphs routes the band could have traveled; in them, one hears the echoes of all that might have been. Consider, for example, “A Day without Me” from their 1980 debut Boy. The soaring chords and howling vocals that characterize the bulk of U2’s corpus (think “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” or “Beautiful Day”) aren’t its primary engines; instead, it delivers an insistent guitar pluck that mimics the persistent insecurities of the introspective narrator. There’s nothing in U2’s loadout quite like it. The odd thing is, most of their older songs, even through the sonic disarray of a fledgling band seeking their wavelength, evoke that same sense of uniqueness despite their overall dissimilarity. It leaves one with the peculiar impression that the former U2 sounds like an alternate-universe version of the band we now know.
The divergence between their past and present selves has grown so stark that studying the old U2 really does feel like peering into a different universe – one where they can be enjoyed without reservation; where their unrealized pursuit of success makes their music searching and adventurous; where they buzz with the uncontrolled electricity of youths who haven’t yet found themselves, but are enjoying every moment of the attempt. If not for the audio and visual time capsules of their early recordings, one would struggle to imagine that there had ever been an era when U2 was that good and cool. Even those among us who remember it still need reminding.
To my mind, this is what makes their 1983 concert film U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky so valuable. The film captures U2 in a moment of professional precarity that’s unthinkable in light of the superstars they’ve become. At the film’s outset, the band teeters on the precipice of ruin and obscurity. But over the course of their seismic performance, they transform into musical powerhouses and cement their status as rock royalty. Live at Red Rocks thus documents the remarkable spectacle of a band entering their prime in real time – and, for those of us watching through the gray days to come, briefly restores their original spark.
Right from the start, Live at Red Rocks situates U2 in a uniquely vulnerable position. To be clear, U2 has never recoiled from vulnerability. “Lemon” explores Bono’s uncontrollable grief while watching home movies of his mother (who died when he was 14), and the memorial urge inherent in all recordings. “Magnificent” reads as a rumination on the struggle to make good on, and justify having received, innate talents. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” discusses the responsibilities that follow from undeserved epiphanies, having grown cognizant of all who were denied them. But the type of vulnerability showcased in Live at Red Rocks is one they’ve never encountered before or since: total financial collapse.
The concert in the film represented U2’s attempt to push beyond the Irish music scene and onto the international stage. The plan was to perform for an American audience at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and film the show for British television. But to ensure that a major British broadcaster would actually carry the show, U2’s producer waived any payments for the rights – meaning that the band would have to fund the filming on their own. U2’s record label and their concert promoter contributed significant sums, obviously expecting a return; U2 themselves, then a bunch of broke twenty-somethings, pitched in $30,000 USD (the equivalent of about $85,000 today) – “everything that was in the bank, basically,” notes drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Their manager purportedly stated that “the band’s entire livelihood was riding on this,” and he wasn’t exaggerating. If the show didn’t succeed, U2 would have been a toxic asset – a time and money sink unworthy of further investment. Failure likely would have spelled the end of their act.
And because fate rarely responds well to temptation, it rained the day of the concert.
The looming threat of disappointment and defeat pervades Live at Red Rocks’s first shots. Sullen roadies veiled in raincoats mill about the empty stage, halfheartedly adjusting wires and sound equipment. Listless camera operators conduct damp interviews with shivering fans. The sparsely populated amphitheater, filmed hours before the concert, looks as unforgiving as a mountainside in the downpour – the kind of place where the heroes of Greek myth are left to die. You couldn’t script a less auspicious start. But with so much wagered on the performance, what is there to do but proceed?
So on U2 goes, a cocktail of ambition and uncertainty. An MC hypes the crowd through the rain, telling them that Bob Dylan once put on a show at Red Rocks. An appearance at the venue alone is something to celebrate, he implies; U2, by virtue of being there, has already reached Dylan’s league. But you wouldn’t guess by the look of them. When they climb onstage, one first notices their confused aesthetic. Bono, crested like a Polish chicken, has wrapped himself in a pseudo-bondage leather chic that’s more appropriate for a Judas Priest cover band. Bassist Adam Clayton seems to have wandered in from a business casual setting. The Edge wears plaid. Only Larry, dressed in something light and breathable, has remembered that they’re an arena rock group. They’re clearly fishing for their style, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. And as Bono struts about the stage in his best Mick Jagger impersonation – stopping to introduce songs by name for fear the audience isn’t acquainted with them – it hits you that you’re not watching studied professionals. Three albums deep into their career, they’re still a bunch of gawky kids, unsure how to wield their burgeoning powers.
Accordingly, their performance isn’t marked by precision or technical mastery. It’s an onrush of unbridled enthusiasm all the way through – a frenzied, joyous romp that treats the show as if it’s their last (because, for all they know, it is). Possessed by such exuberance, U2 doesn’t appear to steer their music; like mediums overtaken by sonic spirits, the music pilots them instead. Each entry in their setlist discharges with firehose ferocity, as if overflowing with energies the band cannot possibly contain. Even the film itself isn’t immune to the outpouring. Damage from the heavy rain mars most frames, announcing itself in dendritic intrusions on the peripheries. The fractal burns are reminiscent of the radioactivity piercing Chernobyl reactor photographs; they suggest that the film, seared by the intensity of the spectacle, is breaking apart at the seams. (Stars are born among surges of energy, after all.) It all combines to morph U2 into something uncontrolled and wondrous, a force of nature like the storm they’re braving.
In the crucible of their performance, a gradual transformation takes place. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it happens, but somewhere along the way, the fledgling U2 disappears, and the peak U2 materializes. Maybe it’s the moment when Bono introduces their guitarist by his stage name (“Do you know who this is? This is the Edge!”), forging a new identity for him in an impromptu christening. (Poor Adam’s introduction is merely “This is the bass player,” as if Bono, prefiguring a future David Letterman joke, has forgotten what to call him.) Maybe it’s the point where their rainwater baptism dissolves the last of Bono’s pomade, and he actually starts looking cool with flattened hair. Maybe it’s the gradual decline in daylight, which makes the band seem like a continuous source of luminescence as night falls. Or else it’s when torchlight erupts atop the surrounding rocks, lending a ritualistic air to the proceedings onstage.
When it occurs matters less than that it occurs. It’s apparent mostly in retrospect, during a momentary lapse back into the insecurity the band carried at the show’s outset. Late in the film (coincidentally, during a rendition of “A Day without Me”), Bono addresses the crowd with a surprisingly unguarded message: “I won’t forget this evening. Don’t forget this evening.” He professes gratitude for the opportunity to perform, but also begs to remain in memory – a shy plea from somebody whose confidence is a front, and who, deep down, really wants to be liked. The contrast with the confident rocker from seconds before makes clear the extent of U2’s transformation. That sudden reversion to vulnerability, an instant before changing back into the rock star we didn’t realize had emerged, demonstrates how far the performance has taken them.
Ironically, it was exactly this uncertainty in themselves – their discomfort at never knowing for sure whether people accepted them – that made U2 stars. They weren’t out to attain immortality; they still clawed after relevance. Want of laurels to rest on left them restless, driving them to throw their entire being behind every performance, every record, every note and lyric. The resultant music lacked the pretension of superstars trying to live forever. That variant of U2 was glittering and pyrotechnic, aglow with a hope that, if even for a single moment, they might burn brightly enough to leave an afterimage, and remain in view no matter where you turned. I’d like to think they succeeded – because, through each long year of their torturous decline, that glorious afterimage is still what I see whenever I look their way.
Yet even as I perceive glimmers of U2’s extraordinary heyday in their present, I detect symptoms of their exasperating future when I look into their past. What they’ve become colors what they used to be. Hindsight often feels like prophecy after the fact; accordingly, the end of Live at Red Rocks seems to presage what’s to come. The audience’s continuing cheers prompt U2 to give not one, but four encores. It’s as if the band is unwilling to say goodbye (or else stuck in a moment they can’t get out of). After all, it’s hard to let go of a good thing; why end a magical night sooner than you must? But the brutal truth is that U2’s encore initially sucks. They opt for “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” which, with its grating melody and nonsense utterances, is easily one of their worst numbers. (To add to the aural and cognitive dissonance, Bono claims it’s a song they save for special occasions.) Watching it now, the misstep feels like a preface to their later career. Convinced there’s no line on their horizon, they don’t know when to go away; lacking the sense to step aside gracefully, they churn out legacy-corroding pabulum.
But those sour notes aren’t the last we hear. The neverending encore eventually wraps with a performance of “40” – an unusual choice on its face. Fans consider the song something of an oddity, as it’s the sole entry in U2’s arsenal where Adam and the Edge swap instruments. (A moment’s inattention, and you’re sure to miss that they shoulder one another’s guitars when returning to the stage.) That subtle departure from expectation contributes to the song’s appeal: it’s out of the ordinary without being ostentatious. It sounds both familiar and different, such that when Bono sings “He set my feet upon a rock / And made my footsteps firm,” you almost do believe he’s been lifted into some brave new world, and is inviting you to follow. For us loyal viewers four decades down the line, “40” provides a comfortable ending note – a suggestion that, despite their long regression into mediocrity, U2 might have one last surprise in store for their final act.
It’s fitting, then, that Live at Red Rocks concludes with the audience, later joined by Bono, repeating the chorus to “40” in rapturous delight: “How long to sing this song?” Straddling rhetorical question and chanted mantra, the words ring of asking, of wondering, of searching. How long are we going to keep playing the hits? How long will we let fading stars cling to past greatness? How long until the words “I will sing, sing a new song” contain more promise than threat? How long can we drink from a drying well of joy? How long should we continue singing before age and indignity mute us? How long until nobody sings these beautiful bars, or remembers to sing them? How long until it all falls silent?
We don’t have the answer. But until we do, we’ll keep singing.
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All images are screenshots from the film.