U2, War, 1983
We start today with one of my favorite bass player jokes.
A band is on stage playing. The singer is singing, and thinking "I'm gonna totally hit on that girl in row five when we're done." The guitarist is playing, and thinking "I think I need some new pedals. Maybe a new amp. I don't have the right tone tonight." The drummer is playing, and thinking "This sucks. I should have gotten more money for this gig." And the bass player is playing, and thinking "A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A."
I think of that joke when I listen to early U2 records (and especially when I watch early footage of the band). As much as I think Adam Clayton's playing fits the early U2 albums like a glove, and he's obviously a crucial aspect of the band's personality (and apparently kept them from disappearing into hard-core Opus Dei Catholicism) he's not the most dextrous player in the world. Nevertheless, he's a great example of a guy who wrung just about all he could from his talent (his real talent seems to be being a famous rock star-- he does that side of his job admirably), and even though he's the worst musician in the band, his contributions to early U2 are invaluable.
"B (Sunday) D (Bloody) G (day!)"
In fact, this album and the first Violent Femmes record are what I learned to play the bass to. I bought a bass in the summer after 8th grade and came home with it knowing only how to play "Smoke On The Water," so I pulled out the two albums with the bass playing I most admired and started playing along. By the end of the summer, I had both those albums covered, moved on to Who records, and that was basically that. I didn't really play much bass in high school-- I got to when our bassist did lead vocals for a few songs-- but I finally had the chance in college to dig in to the instrument more thoroughly, and these days it's definitely my instrument of choice.
My first bass.
"New Year's Day" was such an important song to me on so many levels. I heard it for the first time right before a weeklong class trip into the woods of Wye Island. That week was easily the most unhappy week of my young life-- I was in the depths of 8th grade awkwardness as deep as one could go-- and when I got home, I took a 45 minute shower, made my folks drive me to the mall, and I bought War. That kid on the cover said it all; that is exactly how I felt. I even looked a little like him, only far less tough and able to stand up to a camera. I played that record out for the next month. Literally, I ended up needing to replace it from overuse a year later.
I don't know if I have the critical perspective necessary to make this assertion, but this song seems to stand head and shoulders over every U2 song that came before it. I love the first album Boy, and some of those songs have aged extremely well, but it sounds like a young band's first record. While that's part of its charm, the recordings lack a little confidence and muscularity in the playing. The second U2 album, October, is one of the worst second albums ever made by a major artist. It's close to being a career killer. Only "Gloria" survives as a listenable track. Some of the songs still translated live, it's true, but it did not suggest a band on the rise. In fact, it seems as if the band considered breaking up for a number of reasons.
A lot was riding on War, then, to solidify the band, and "New Year's Day," the pre-release single, had to deliver. The first five seconds tell you that the band has upped the ante in every way. First, there's the sound of the track. Those bass notes are enormous-- they fill up your speakers and headphones. Those piano keys play a perfect, instantly memorable tune, and then Bono and the drums come crashing in. The drums finally sound as big as Larry Mullen's playing. The production here, by Steve Lillywhite, is as important as any of the band's contribution. Lillywhite's long career was made right here. It's also the first album on which Mullen recorded with a click track, and the difference is immediately noticeable. Gone are the time fluctuations from the early songs, and it gives this track the propulsion it needs to last over five minutes.
Edge's playing is much grittier here as well. A lot of the guitar part sounds improvised and designed as a response to the vocal line, and while there's nothing complicated going on, Edge's choices are terrific. The two note figure that rests underneath the line "I... will be with you again," for example-- it's just four notes, but it fills up the sound without cluttering it.
The other great thing about "New Year's Day" is that it's not a "safe" single. Unlike "I Will Follow" from the first album, it doesn't even seem like an attempt to write a hit. It's almost six minutes long, and it's close to a full minute before the vocal starts. Moreover, it's a piano-based song, one of the few in the band's catalog, so it doesn't even introduce the band's signature delay-pedal sound. Instead, Edge chicken-scratches through the breaks with some of the funkiest (and perhaps the only funky) playing of his career.
Despite all the rule-breaking, it's such a singalong. Bono's vocal is tremendous here, one of the best of his career. Those high notes he hits near the end are lost to him now, and probably because of how much gusto he put into them as a kid. It's hard for me not to scream along by the end, even though I never had those notes in the first place.
Say what you want about U2 (and I'll have plenty to say later about their more recent catalog) but this song encapsulates pretty much what there is to love about rock music. A great track for the first day of school, don't you think?