August 20, 2004
Speaking to my inner fangirl

Tmatt at Get Religion has a terrific post about U2, which includes his reminiscences about interviewing the band 22 years ago for a local paper. He links to a fascinating L.A. Times article that looks closely at U2's songwriting process:

"Songwriting comes from a different place," he [Bono] continues. "Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That's when magic happens." ...

Bono and guitarist the Edge bring ideas into the studio -- a title, the trace of a melody or a catchy riff -- then bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen join in the actual construction of the songs. The grueling give and take sometimes stretches for weeks as the musicians toss ideas back and forth, equal partners in the search for an emotion that seems fresh and deeply rooted.

When the marathon sessions are going well, Mullen says, the rehearsal studio feels like a playground. When they're going badly, it feels like a boxing ring.

"We're tough guys," Clayton says. "We know we'll get there eventually. A lot of it is perspiration. You just have to put in the hours and do your time." The Edge is fond of repeating the band's private joke that it's "songwriting by accident."

The process really fits the way the music comes out. On the upside, few bands capture raw emotion quite as effectively as U2 (at least for me). On the downside, I've long noticed that the band's big musical weakness is its lack of melodies. There are prescious few U2 songs you can whistle to yourself and come out sounding like a tune. (Not surprisingly, the few that you can whistle include their greatest hits.) The band relies on an enveloping sound and mood, which, when it works, really really works.

I wonder what this means for how long the music will outlast the band itself. A good melody becomes a folk tune, passed around for centuries, and I suspect a lot of Beatles songs are headed that way. On the other hand, a lot of classical music has hung around quite a while relying on sound and mood without any particularly strong melodies. Will my grandchildren be interested if I tell them I saw U2 in the Oakland Coliseum in 1997? We'll see ...

Posted by Camassia at August 20, 2004 01:48 PM | TrackBack

A quote attributed to Bob Dylan is that U2 has produced a string of songs that scale the musical heights, "but nobody else is ever gonna be able to play 'em." The nexus of what makes it all work is, truly, not very reproducible: sound and mood, to which I'd add commitment and a not-so-secret Holy Ghost kick. In order to function as advertised, the genius of the whole U2 thing pretty much requires U2 themselves.

Posted by: Beth on August 20, 2004 02:12 PM

I said on GetReligion I'd email you, but am not seeing your contact address. If you'll email me, though (I'm assuming this form gives you my address), I actually will make good on my promise of a prize...

Posted by: Beth on August 20, 2004 08:51 PM
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