Thursday, May 24, 2012

The power of One

As you might guess from the title, today's theme is prejudice, and about overcoming it against the odds. The cover in question is by one of my favourite bands who were covering, at the time, one of my least favourite bands.

Achtung Baby was released in 1991 and heralded a new era for U2. The first single, The Fly, was dripping in vocal effects and synths. It marked a departure from their previous work and was part of a much bigger re-imagining of the band. 80s U2 were a rockband with a message. 90s U2 were a stadium pop band with a keyboard.

I hated it.

Don't get me wrong, it's not because I had such respect for their 80s music - I didn't. I thought they were just a bunch of political tossers with too heavy reliance on 3 chords and a delay pedal. But I hated their "new" stuff because it was so pretentious. The Zoo TV Tour, a stadium tour attacking commercialism, was basically taking the piss out of the people who had paid money to see it, and I hope the people in the first few rows were issued raincoats to protect themselves from the wank spurting from the stage.

So by the time their third single One came out, I inevitably hated it too. Although, musically and stylistically, it was more Joshua Tree than Zooropa, and although it used a whole five chords, I still hated it. I hated it for Bono more than Edge, though. I remember picking up on the line "are you trying to play Jesus to the lepers in your head". I mean really. Was that supposed to be deep or something? I knew their little fan boys and girls would be lapping it up, and couldn't they just see how pathetic it all was, really? Fanboys can be so blind.

1991 also heralded a fairly new era, musically, for me. I was just starting to get into some bands that would stay with me for the rest of my life (so far, at least). In particular, R.E.M. caught my attention. Out of Time, their biggest album by far, was released and topped both pop and alternative charts, pretty much causing the death of the newly coined concept of "alternative". I'd love to say I was into R.E.M. from their early days, but I wasn't. I had heard Orange Crush, but was otherwise pretty much completely unaware of them. That changed very rapidly though, and by the end of 91 I was well versed in the entire back catalogue.

So that was me in 91. Hating on U2 and loving REM.

Many years later, around 1999 or 2000, I was searching on Napster for "<band name> cover" (feeding my addiction) and found a file called "One REM U2 cover". I downloaded it to see how my beloved and irreverent REM would treat this overly self important song. And then Stipe's vocals started and I was mesmerised.

Stipe treats the lyrics with his usual abandon. Not through contempt, just due to his completely terrible memory. He mixes up the lines so that they don't rhyme and any semblance of sense is completely lost. But he sings it with such conviction that I immediately fell in love with it. I remember picking up the guitar, wanting to learn how to play it simply because I loved it so much.

What I didn't find out till much later, when I saw the video on youtube, that this was only 2 members of REM. The rhythm section of this "cover" was being provided by Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton from U2. (Incidentally I wonder if Clayton pulled Mike Mills aside and said "sure, you're a good bass player, but you'll never be great unless you start wearing stupid suits." The song was performed/record in 1993, and it was around that time the Mills started wearing stupid suits of his own.)
So this put me in a great quandary. A song I hate, covered by a band that I love. Not only that, but I  like the cover. Even the "lepers" lyric is left, miraculously under the circumstances, untouched and it doesn't grate. How does that affect my feelings for the original? Should it?

The fact is, it did. By removing my irrational hatred of U2, and replacing it with my irrational love of REM, I gave the song itself (rather than any specific version) a second chance. I prefer the REM version, simply because I love Stipe's vocals, but I quite like the U2 One. Basically, I can listen to either version and really like it. My prejudices cancelled each other out.


It's still a stupid lyric, though.


  1. I was at the MCG in 1993 to see the Zoo TV tour. Thankfully, whilst I was on the ground, I wasn't quite within in range, so no raincoat was necessary.

    It was a great concert too.

  2. For a while in the late 80s/early 90s I thought I was the only one that hated U2. Where were you when I was laughing at Bono's goggles in The Fly and everyone was like, "Nah, this is the best band in the world!"

    And don't get me started on The Joshua Tree.

  3. Something I realised about myself a while back is that stuff which would usually simply leave me cold becomes infinitely more annoying when you hear people call it 'genius'. Radio head for example. Never did a thing to hurt me beyond not being my cup of tea. By the thirtieth time I'd heard someone extolling the glories of Kid A I hated their goddamn guts. So not their fault. I think looking back on it I had the same reaction to U2 around the time they sang One and so blamed them.

    By the time I heard the rem cover which like you I love, I was no longer hearing of U2's po-mo brilliance on a regular basis. The whole band felt more palatable.

  4. Where was I, Rhett? I was in Bendigo, hating U2 with Budge, and annoying our friends at parties. And yes, I agree that the fact that everyone else held them in such high esteem meant that they were even easier to dislike.

  5. I think I saw the U2 on the rattle and hum tour in 89?

    They were so hyped by my school friends, best live band in the world, etc. I was into rattle and hum and was really looking forward to it. I had seen Pink Floyd the year before and had my mind blown. And U2 were the best live band in the world, how excited was I? Too excited it turns out. They just tried so hard to get the stadium rock happening. That was pretty much when I stopped listening to them. I know their later songs, how could you escape them, but never really listened to them. It was nice to listen to this cover and actually listen to it rather than it being on the playlist while shopping at Coles.