Conventional wisdom says that bands play stadiums because they’re so popular that they need a huge venue to hold the fans. Because they play such large venues, the bands must then adapt their music to fill that space and the outcome is stadium rock. In the early 70s (at the very birth of what is now stadium rock), Pete Townshend turned this theory on its head and instead said that the Who played stadiums, not to accommodate the fans, but to hold the massive sound the band had been developing in the studio. While the Who developed the genre (with help form Zeppelin, Mott the Hoople, et al), U2 has perfected it with stunning effect. The proof is in the newly released U2 Go Home: Live From Slane Castle.
Mediocre stadium rock bands have chipped everything I love about rock and roll away over the years. The spontaneity, the camaraderie, and the intimacy…it all goes out with the wash at a large stadium show. Add to that the “Broadway” factor of big shows and you’ve lost any interest I may have had in the band.
But U2’s Slane show stripped away most of the cheese of the big productions—and they’ve certainly been guilty of going overboard with the lunacy of the Zoo and Popmart tours—and left us with a band…again, after all these years. Somehow, U2 managed to keep a show in front of 80,000 people intimate. Gone were the pyrotechnics and the audacious costumes. Gone was theater. Gone were the characters. What was left was basically four guys who have been playing together for 25 years and who have never, ever, sounded better. There’s genuine camaraderie among the band, especially between Bono and the Edge who seemed to be looking at each other with sly grins throughout the entire show.
But while the schmaltz of stadium shows was mostly gone, the majesty of stadium rock remained. What U2 has done over the past two and half decades is nearly impossible. They not only perfected a genre of music invented by rock’s royalty, they developed a sound that is uniquely their own. I’ve mentioned that phrase—uniquely their own—in other reviews of Aimee Mann and George Harrison, but think of what a feat that is. In the 50 plus years of rock and roll, there are only a handful of artists who have truly created a sound that is immediately recognized as their own. And what U2 has developed is the Perfect Stadium Rock. You can hear the opening riffs of most any of their songs and KNOW it is U2, just as you can immediately recognize a George Harrison solo. That is amazing.
The opening notes and military studder step of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is as powerful and moving today as it was in 1983. It set the foundation for what would lead U2 to “Beautiful Day,” the greatest piece of stadium rock ever written. Don’t believe it? Watch the footage (WM, Real) of the band playing the song on the Slane DVD and tell me your heart doesn’t race a bit and that the air on the back of your arms doesn’t stand up like the sea of arms in the film’s frames.
Sometimes it’s hard to be a U2 fan. Bono’s preachy ways can sometimes rub us all the wrong way and the weirdness that was U2 in the late 80s and early 90s pushed the boundaries of irony, self-importance and authenticity. But in the end, U2 is a great band. The Slane shows prove it once and for all and I’m glad to have followed the band for 20 years.