Dissonant Notes

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rescuing ‘The Fly’ by U2



Like every sane human being, I have my issues with U2. For years I hated them and the mere mention of their name made me rant and rave like a homeless drunk. All the while, though, I always knew that I loved Achtung Baby. I had bought it on cassette when it originally came out and I immediately thought of myself as a U2 fan. Then I heard The Joshua Tree and decided that perhaps they were the worst band I had ever heard in my life. Achtung Baby must have been a fluke. Best consign my liking of it to some dusty backroom in my mind alongside my liking of “Turtle Power” by Partners In Kryme. As the years rolled by my U2 diatribes began to bore even me, and come to think of it didn’t I also like ‘I Will Follow’? I picked up their first three albums and while I couldn’t say any is a masterpiece they still featured some fierce, streamlined post-punk. The Unforgettable Fire marked my stopping point as I could not stomach Bono’s wimoweh’s and on top of that ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ still made me nauseous. It was then that I returned to Achtung Baby. My love for it had doubled. Tripled even. It is all but flawless. Yet there is a song on the album I rate above all the others. I still remember with great clarity hearing it for the first time. I still remember buying the 7”. I’m talking about the album’s first single, ‘The Fly’.

It starts off with a burst of electric noise. Then some percussion. Then a riff. A riff of such brain-melting simplicity. A riff of such monstrous insistence. At some point singing must begin. Will the spell be broken?

“It’s no secret that the stars, are falling from the sky,
It’s no secret that our world, is in darkness tonight,
They say the sun is sometimes, eclipsed by a moon,
You know I don’t see you, when she walks in the room”


Achtung Baby marks the point when Bono’s words became as interesting as U2’s best music. It seems almost unfathomable that this is the same group who recorded The Joshua Tree. Gone is the roots rock Americana. In its place is European decadence. Gone is the empty pseudo-poetics and in its place we have playful ambiguity. Bono is actually playing around with irony. What separates Bono’s irony from that of somebody like Beck is the ambiguity. There is nothing ambiguous about Beck’s lyrics. They are meaningless. Your brain doesn’t have to do anything. If you’re in on the joke, all is well. On Achtung Baby, Bono uses irony to confuse, to instruct, to question. Not for cheap I-get-it laughs. You’ll notice I’m praising Bono as a lyricist here. Take a deep breath, agree, then move along.

The song grinds and pulsates. There comes a point in the song, right after the guitar solo and just as the falsetto vocals come in, when a noise emanates from The Edge’s guitar. What is that noise?

It is the sound of thermonuclear Ragnarök.

It is the sound of a Geiger counter after being dropped into Chernobyl.

It is a black hole giving birth to electricity.

It is the loneliest wolf howl processed through an I Am T-Pain application.

Have your U2 hate, but don’t deny when they get it right. So absolutely right. Their swirling vortex sucked in pop, rock, industrial, electronica, dance, hip-hop, and in doing so created something forward looking and essential. In doing so they created the best rock album of 1991. Yes, the best rock album of 1991.

Then comes Bono’s parting words.

“Little guy I’ve gotta go, yeah I’m runnin’ outta change,
There’s a lotta things, if I could I’d rearrange”


As well as being brilliant, these two lines manage to sum up both Bono’s arrogant messianic conceit and his genuine desire to actually do some good. ‘The Fly’ is monumental, and it remains one of the weirdest, most experimental sounding records ever to make Number One in the UK. To deny its brilliance is simply wrong.


1 comment:

  1. Nice post! And you are right about that noise after the solo and while the falsetto goes:)

    ReplyDelete