Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Alastair McKay


A journey into the subconscious of U2. And Captain Eno. And Howie B. Oh, and Luciano Pavarotti.

Original Soundtracks 1 is not a U2 album. It is a collaboration with Brian Eno in which, unlike their other collaborations, Eno's influence is dominant. As an album, it has more in common with Eno's Another Green World, or Byrne and Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, than it does with the rest of U2's canon.

U2's more conservative fans would listen in vain for the qualities they have come to cherish. There are precious few choruses, hardly any guitar breaks, and the singing is muted, with Bono sounding distracted and distant rather than his usual exultant self. The drums, to the eternal chagrin of Larry Mullen - who considers the album to be an act of self-indulgence (if not outright folly) - are replaced by percussive loops. All of which, oddly enough, is rather refreshing.

Musically, Original Soundtracks is the sound of a band clearing its throat. It can be viewed as the final part of U2's weird trilogy, which began with the brilliant Achtung Baby, and was followed by Zooropa, before dissolving rather beautifully with a full-blown experimental album. Pop, the record that followed, was like an argument between the two versions of U2: it didn't know whether to be ironic or sincere, and was caught sonically in the no-man's land between the stadium and the night-club.

On Pop, Bono was trying to be Prince. Original Soundtracks is a tribute of a different order. It is U2's take on David Bowie's Low, with Bono channelling Bowie and Eno's strangest phase. Just as Bowie had inhabited and abandoned the character of Ziggy Stardust, Bono had invented and discarded the character of MacPhisto as a vessel for the impulses of his exaggerated self.

But post-modern irony is an enervating business, and towards the end of recording Zooropa in 1993, U2 hit a wall. Their perfectionism had become self-defeating. To overcome this, Dr Eno prescribed improvised recording sessions, where the group would turn on the tape machine and play without constraints. He described this as "working with a broad brush rather than the one-hair brushes we'd been using".

This was an exhausting time in the career of U2. The Zoo TV tour had been a multimedia travelling art show that celebrated and satirised the bombardment of commercial imagery in the capitalist world. That was heavy freight for a rock'n'roll band to carry, and it split U2 in two. The Edge and Bono relocated to the South of France to do up their holiday homes. Larry and Adam moved to New York, where Larry learned programming, and the duo composed the theme to the new film version of Mission: Impossible.

Britpop was in the ascendant, and the boundaries between rock and dance were being blurred by the likes of Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers. On their long furlough, U2 had fallen in love again with the possibilities of music. They planned to warm up for the next U2 album by doing a film soundtrack, initially signing up for Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book.

After that fell through, Eno suggested that they stay in the zone, and record soundtracks for imaginary films. When the group convened, he stressed they were under no obligation to compose radio-friendly unit-shifters. U2 had always improvised in the studio, but here they indulged in free-form jamming, which Eno recorded and then cut down for use in later sessions.

"Listening to the original improvisations as they came off the floor, you feel the excitement of the process," Eno told U2's fan-club subscription magazine, Propaganda. "The dynamic between things falling apart slightly and coming back together again is an important aspect of improvisation. You have to be careful not to disturb the organic flow of the thing."

Eno was installed as "Captain" of the sessions, and assumed the role of choosing the material and deciding what music would be worked on. He employed various techniques to encourage improvisation. The studio had noticeboards with working song titles scrawled on them - Tokyo Drift, Antarctica, Fleet Click - most of which would be jettisoned. One of the boards sported a motivational slogan: "Make The Music Of The Future You Want To Live In."

The futuristic sound of the record was inspired by the closing leg of the Zoo TV tour, when the group found themselves in Tokyo, basking beneath the neon in Electric City, inhabiting a kind of Blade Runner-inflected waking dream.

The early sessions involved jamming while film clips played, but with hours of jamming captured on tape, the creative process became more focused. The Glaswegian dance music specialist Howie B was flown to Dublin to act as a catalyst and offer fresh inspiration.

"Bono and The Edge were at a party on a Thursday evening, and they'd heard a twelve-inch that I'd done on [record label] Mo' Wax," he recalls. "They asked who did it. On Friday afternoon I was out in Dublin meeting the band."

Howie B describes his initial meeting with Eno and U2 as being like a "throwdown".

"One of the first things that Eno did was he gave me a cassette. he said: "Look, Howie, I've made a cassette for you to listen to which has got a minute of each thing on it." There were reportedly around twenty-five hours of jamming on tape. "He goes: 'I'm going to play it to you right now, and I'd like your comment after each minute.'

"There were tons of those minutes. I can't remember how many there were. I was like, 'Oh God, no!' That was Eno's throwdown to me. It was like, 'OK, what have you got?'"

U2 and Eno continued in the band's Hanover studio in Dublin, while Howie B was sent to another studio in Temple Bar. "I would take the tapes that they'd been working on and do my bit - add sounds, tweak their sounds. If I needed more drums or I wanted to change the groove then I got Larry over. A few basslines I replaced, some of the guitars I replaced."

The mood was relaxed. The band were enjoying the sense that they could create music without pressure - a feeling they hadn't experienced since the first rush of unselfconscious energy that produced Boy.

"I just went ahead and did stuff," says Howie B, "and then I presented it to them. Every evening I would go to their studio, we would have dinner, and I would play them what I'd been doing. Eno was coming over to my studio and doing little keyboard bits, and little vocal things."

Howie B says there was no preciousness. "It was very free and very un-U2ish, the way they did it: the song structure, instrumentals, the sound, the length of the tracks. Even not calling it a U2 album. There was no ego there. It was just, 'OK, let's go for some really interesting sounds, but not spend three weeks going for that sound.' Things moved very quickly. It was a lot of experimentation - but you can hear it. You can hear that there's something special about that."

With Eno's avowed interest in the beauty of things falling apart and being heard to do so, the only formula on Original Soundtracks 1 was that there was no formula. Bono talked approvingly about how in dance music, the songs had no centre. The tracks, says Howie B, "didn't have the verse, chorus, AB, AB, ABC pattern" that characterise most U2 songs. "It was AAAAAAABA. Or just A!"

What does this odd alphabet sound like? It sounds like a journey into the subconscious of U2. United Colours comes in quietly on a shrill breeze of metallic synths and a drum beat that morphs into a squelchy rhythm. It captures the futuristic sense which underwrites the album, sounding like a train speeding through an urban landscape.

Slug is propelled by a brushfire of percussion, with Eno's yen for melodic simplicity to the fore. There's a kind of clockwork melody over a textured rhythm - like a wobbleboard being played underwater - before Bono's somnambulistic croon appears, running through a list of things the singer doesn't want to do. The words are more or less meaningless, but they do hint at a playful confusion between romance and faith which is more fully-developed on the gorgeous Your Blue Room. Yes, it could be an outtake from Low, but it really does have a lovely melody. The song - one of the few which actually made it on to a film soundtrack (Antonioni and Wenders' Beyond The Clouds) - is an electronic hymn in which sex and God are conflated.

Bono has explained that the lyric is based on the idea that sex is a conversation: "On one level it's purely carnal, but on the other it's a prayer. It's an incredible thing to say to your lover or your maker: 'Your instructions, whatever the direction.'" Not that you need to know that. Eno has always favoured the sound of words over their meaning, and the song has an effortless grace, at least until the robotic coda about "zooming in, zooming out" breaks the spell, with The Edge's guitar threatening to skip the light fandango.

The sense of emotional distance is maintained on the following three tracks. Always Forever Now has Bono crooning at half-power over a neuralgic rhythm. A Different Kind Of Blue is a suggestive fragment, with a melody struggling to escape. Beach Sequence (also used in Beyond The Clouds) is a sunny piano figure with Bono's voice mixed low, fading into the sound of rain on metal. The mood is continued in Corpse (These Chains Are Way Too Long), which matches a crashing chain, the crackle of a vinyl record, and some shower-stall singing by Bono. One Minute Warning is an ejaculation of propulsive electronic percussion, and Ito Okashi, with a haunting vocal by the Japanese singer, Holi, sounds like music from another movie entirely.

The last three tracks are all about moods and textures. Plot 180 is an argument between percussive banging and washes of melody; Theme From The Swan is about rain and sawing strings; Theme From Let's Go Native a brisk interlude of thundering funk.

Then there is the hit, Miss Sarajevo, an anomalous song on an anomalous record. The fact that it exists at all is a reflection of the strange environment U2 were travelling in - an airspace where world celebrity and politics shared a parachute. The song was inspired by what Bono called "surreal acts of defiance" during the war in Bosnia, including a beauty contest in which the women wore sashes which read "Do they really want to kill us?" It was filmed by documentarist Bill Carter, who also collaborated with the Zoo Tv tour, broadcasting the voice of ordinary Sarajevans. It was written in response to the pleading of Luciano Pavarotti, who wanted a Bono song of his own to sing.

Miss Sarajevo shouldn't work. A brooding rock song with an operatic aria in the middle and a lyric borrowed from Ecclesiastes ("A time for everything under heaven") is nobody's idea of a good night out, but the reality is closer to one of Malcolm McLaren's mash-ups than it is to Bohemian Rhapsody. And it's beautifully sung, by Bono as much as by Pavarotti.

The other anomaly is Elvis Ate America, a Bono beat poem in which Howie B encouraged the singer to rap over electronic backing which he characterises as being "dirty Hawaiian". Actually, Bono's poem about Elvis isn't half bad. But as a rapper, he's more Chuck Norris than Chuck D, and the song is a car crash. It's also the most U2 moment on what is the best U2 album for people who don't like U2. Still, even in this moment of failure, there is something gloriously unembarrassable about it.

Tracks: United Colours / Slug / Your Blue Room / Always Forever Now / A Different Kind Of Blue / Beach Sequence / Miss Sarajevo / Ito Okashi / One Minute Warning / Corpse (These Chains Are Way Too Long) / Elvis Ate America / Plot 180 / Theme From The Swan / Theme From Let's Go Native
Released: November 6, 1995
Produced by: Brian Eno
Recorded at: Westside Studios, London and Hanover, Dublin
Additional musicians include: Luciano Pavarotti, Holi, Howie B, Craig Armstrong, Paul Barrett and Holger Zschenderlein
Chart position: UK: 12 US: 76