Do You Feel Loved? 25 years of Pop
9 September 2014 is a day that will live on in infamy for those that follow or forever deride little known Irish band U2.
At the Apple product launch event that day, U2 performed their new song ‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’, after which Apple CEO Tim Cook asked aloud “Wasn’t that the most incredible single you have ever heard?” Given ‘Shake It Off’ by Taylor Swift was released just three weeks earlier, it wasn’t even the most incredible single of the current lunar cycle. But Cook’s dubious music criticism was immediately overshadowed by the next move where it was announced that U2 would be giving anyone who had an iTunes account a free album. Their surprise new album. We all lost our collective shit. Mostly negatively.
Let’s briefly talk about getting things for free.
In the early 90s, my Brother received a Sega Master System II game console. In the years that he owned that console he did not buy one game. Thanks to the generosity of Mr Sega, the system came with an inbuilt game Alex Kidd in Miracle World where our family tried but failed to defeat Janken the Great. Sure, every now and then we would hire games from our local video emporium but, mostly, we stuck to punching eagles and playing rock-paper-scissors with Janken’s henchmen.
If only rock-paper-scissors was a successful way of ending armed conflict we wouldn’t have to worry about Putin advancing on former Soviet states.
So instead of rejoicing the fact that we all received a free album from the biggest band in the world, there was near consensus that it was an invasion of our privacy. This was despite the fact that it contained (probably) the most incredible single you had ever heard and that we were moaning about it on Facebook who know a thing or three about invading people’s privacy. Bono and his collaborations with Danger Mouse were simply not wanted on devices that track all our moves.
Through all the months and years (and counting) of the take cycle concerning the rollout of Songs of Innocence, there were a small subset of U2 acolytes who were pleased as punch about the debacle.
No longer was their cherished album the butt of jokes.
Pop was finally free.
Released on 3 March 1997, the 9th album from U2 should have been a coronation of their dominance of the 90s. Instead, Pop became a kind of short hand for having gone ‘too far’*.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where Pop broke down. Perhaps it was when drummer (and Dorian Gray devotee) Larry Mullen Jr was sidelined for the first half of the recording sessions, leading to increased tension and concerns his contribution to the group‘s sound was being overtaken by drum loops and computers. Since their cover of ‘Night and Day’ in 1990, the band’s music had gradually included more and more elements of electronica until, by the time they released 1995's Eno led side-project Passengers, it had become a cornerstone. It is unlikely that record gets much play at the Mullen Jr ranch.
Perhaps it was when manager Paul McGuiness booked in the world tour before the record was finished, thereby rushing a band known for procrastinating into wrapping up the record and giving them little time to see if they could play the damn songs live.
Perhaps it was announcing the tour (to be called PopMart) in the lingerie section of a Kmart in Manhattan to an audience wondering “I thought we were done with all this irony shit?”.
Perhaps it was the band performing at said press conference the song ‘Holy Joe’, a B-Side from first single ‘Discotheque’ because they ran out of time to rehearse.
Perhaps it was the video for ‘Discotheque’ where the band are dressed up like the Village People, leaving the audience wondering “I thought we were done with all this irony shit?”.
Perhaps it was when the PopMart tour began and some of the songs had to be done in different arrangements or abandoned altogether because they ran out of time to rehearse.
Perhaps it was the decision to release six (six!) singles like it was a fucking Michael Jackson record, all of them providing diminishing returns on the charts.
Or perhaps it was because people just wanted Radiohead now.
*This is the second album of 1997 I have chronicled that would be tarred with being too excessive. Hit me up Penguin Publishing for a full book on 1997!
All of the above is well understood and, in a few short years they would be back on top of the world. That would start with the release of ‘The Sweetest Thing’ (a re-recorded B-Side to promote their 1980s era Greatest Hits record) and then be franked upon their smash ‘back to basics’ record All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
But what gets lost in all this is that, for all its faults, Pop is actually a pretty good album and, if we are being honest, it was the last time U2 took a fucking chance.
Unless you count giving their album away for free, everything since Pop has been more conservative than a Mike Pence fever dream.
Shall we start with the first three songs sounding like the beginning of a banging club set? The aforementioned ‘Discotheque’ gets the party started, leading into ‘Do You Feel Loved’ which sounds like a hyped up Achtung Baby era number. Things get hedonistic with ‘Mofo’ which is the only genuine electronica song. On previous 90s albums, ‘Mofo’ would get a participation trophy and a spot as a B-side track at best. Here, they stick their neck out and place it in the coveted third slot on the album.
Your move Apollo 440!
And then the party crashes. Well, that was the narrative at the time.
Sure, the next song is the big ballad ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ but the knock on the song shouldn’t be that it interrupted the party atmosphere, rather that it was a re-tread of the superior ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close!)’ from 1993s Zooropa. ‘If God…’ also had the misfortune of being on the City of Angels soundtrack where it was overshadowed by ‘Iris’ from The Goo Goo Dolls. A few short years earlier they happily divided the spoils of the ‘Batman Forever’ soundtrack with Seal. This time? Not so much.
Things start to even out in the middle of the record with a run of three songs that, in their own way, would eventually be seen as classic U2.
At the time of release, ‘Staring At the Sun’ was considered in the mold of a Noel Gallagher crowd pleaser. Released as the obvious second single, it should have satiated the charts until Oasis returned in the Summer. The issue was they couldn’t perform it live, at least not in its original form. Relegated to an acoustic version during the PopMart tour, ‘Staring At The Sun’ remains one of the great ‘should have been a smash’ songs of the 90s.
Meanwhile, if ‘Last Night On Earth’ sounds familiar to you, it would be because the music was stolen wholesale in 2000 for the hit song ‘Elevation’ by *checks notes* the band U2.
Don’t fall for imitations, go to the original.
‘Gone’ is one of the handful of songs that were re-recorded after Pop and to be honest, is better for the process (read: get The Edge to contribute backing vocals). By the time 2001s ‘Elevation’ tour kicked off they had mastered it. See below.
Note the lighting director’s use of the primary colour spotlights on the band as per the Pop album cover. Proof that they didn’t wipe the album’s existence entirely.
So this is where things start to become quite indefensible.
‘Miami’ and ‘The Playboy Mansion’ were exhibits A and B that any old pish could be tossed off and thrown onto the record. The former is a demo at best in which its only redeeming feature is Edge’s guitar riff towards the end. The latter meanwhile, needed more time to cook in the studio and could have done with a re-write of the first two verses which are terrible. Get past that and the song could be considered a lost cousin to ‘Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World.’
As the stats from Spotify show, they are the two least spun songs from Pop.
The song that has grown in stature over time is ‘If You Wear That Velvet Dress’. Bono has always fancied himself as a part time lounge singer and this number gives him ample opportunity. His big band re-recording with Jools Holland has its admirers, but I prefer the low key production on the original version.
We are almost at the end but we have a bit of time for the return of serious U2 (and perhaps the real genesis for All That You Can’t Leave Behind). ‘Please’ has the band once again covering The Troubles and, whilst it doesn’t have the same reach and might as ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, it was a sobering reminder that conflict still raged in Northern Ireland.
More often than not, the last song on a U2 album is reserved for what I like to call ‘Bono speaks directly with God (or Jesus or himself) for a few minutes’. On Pop it is no different with ‘Wake Up Dead Man’. Here he asks Big J:
If there’s an order in all of this disorder
Is it like a tape recorder?
Can we rewind it just once more?
Sadly, not many people rewound their cassette version of Pop. Or pressed ‘play again’ on their CD player. Sure, the album went to number one almost everywhere but that was guaranteed. Pretty soon though it was a staple of used record stores, usually brought in for store credit, along with the distinct orange jewel case that was REM’s Monster and the distinct piece of shit that was Van Halen III.
Over time though, schmucks like me started to pervade the comments sections on video streaming sites and social media and quietly exclaim that Pop is an underrated gem.
We won’t be stopped until we convert every last one of you.