It’s been a mixed week for Bono. First came the revelation that the U2 frontman had lost £92 million following a misguided investment in mobile technology stocks – surely the most baffling rock star business decision since Liam Gallagher started flogging parkas at £500 a pop.
Still, the singer’s dismay at being down to his last £280 million will have been offset by the happier news that his band’s 1991 album ‘Achtung Baby’ has been named the most influential record of the past 25 years by US indie bible Spin – just ahead of Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times and The Smiths’ ‘The Queen Is Dead’.
My initial reaction to this was one of astonishment. American music critics tend to be so nerdishly indier-than-thou, you’d normally expect the winner to be ‘Spiderland’ by Slint, or something earnest and yawnsome by Neutral Milk Hotel, rather than an 18 million-selling stadium rock record.
But once I’d reset my face from a “beg pardon?” grimace, I realised that the Spin team were entirely correct. Rather than diminishing over time, U2’s influence has grown with each decade. Trouble is, that’s a cause for angst, not celebration.
With ‘Achtung Baby’, U2 set the default mode for the next two decades of guitar music – sonically expansive yet lyrically evasive, “emotive” yet essentially meaningless. Today, thanks to U2, all bands with vague designs on the mainstream sound broadly the same.
Coldplay, Keane, Snow Patrol, even the reborn Take That – all the biggest selling acts of the past ten years have adopted a U2-like sheen.
Noel Gallagher learned how to write anthems by listening to U2. Early tunes like ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Slide Away’ are essentially ‘One’ with a northern accent, communal, arms-aloft ballads that sound big and impassioned but frustratingly aren’t about anything at all.
‘Achtung Baby’ is U2’s coolest record. The band recorded it while on a horizon-expanding musical diet of My Bloody Valentine, Alan Vega, Nine Inch Nails. The production is pristine. It’s stood up well. But the lyrics are risible.
Take a song like ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’, with its lame similes (“You left my heart empty as a vacant lot”), pointless sylabble-filler (“Hey hey, sha la la”), and clumsy archaisms (“Who’s gonna fall at the foot of thee?”). Thee?
In those verses lie the first traces of the billowing clouds of bullshit that would later waft from the vocal cords of Chris Martin, Liam Gallagher, Gary Lightbody et al.
Then there’s the guitar sound, of course. The Edge’s trademark chime, like a lot of the motifs that defined the 1980s, has never quite gone out of fashion. Today you still hear it everywhere, employed by every serious young band in possession of a delay pedal, from Chapel Club to Delphic.
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But what’s had the most profound impact is not the sound, but rather the underlying philosophy that U2 represent. It’s the polar opposite of punk rock – the notion that scale is all that matters, and selling out The O2 the only ambition worth having.
Bands like The Courteeners routinely tell the press “We want to be as big as U2” as though it indicates fearlessness and chutzpah, as opposed to being a craven and grubby admission of greed.
Spin have have made the right call, then – in the most depressing way imaginable. ‘Achtung Baby’ changed music, and ever since we’ve been stuck in a moment we can’t get out of. So here’s to you, U2. Your legacy is a quarter-century of boring, blustery, formulaic rock. Well done.