December 13-19, 2006

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The Forgotten Art of Audacity

New releases from U2 and Oasis rewrite their glorious history

By David Sason

"The minute that U2 is a crap band, we're all out of here. And crap isn't measured by sales or even relevance. It's about the sense of adventure. Is it still there? Are you still blowing your own mind? Are you still growing as a musician and as a songwriter?" --Bono, 1998

I'm still kicking myself for missing U2 and Oasis in concert back in June 1997. Driving to the airport, I saw the Popmart tour's 100-foot, McDonald's-spoofing golden arch rising out of Oakland Stadium (now called McAfee Coliseum) and was enthralled. But, $50 was a lot for a 17-year-old a couple of weeks after graduation. I remember the bustling naiveté of that summer fondly, but both bands' new retrospectives show that they'd rather forget the late '90s altogether.

Popmart golden arch

The Popmart tour's golden arch.

U218 Singles spotlights the band's impressive roster of songs the world knows by heart, from the chiming anthem "Pride" to the regurgitated guitar crunch of "Vertigo," but nothing from 1997's Pop, their immersion in electronica and trip-hop textures. U2 seemed bulletproof in the '90s, having successfully gone from holier than thou chest-thumpers to self-mocking ironists while keeping both their philanthropic and artistic integrity intact. The album and tour, announced in a K-Mart under a sign reading "Pop Group," were poised to cement their status as rock's Andy Warhols.

Of course, the entire extravagant undertaking was a critical and commercial flop and the band has since sworn off theatrical multimedia spectacles and musically retreated to more uplifting, echoing guitar-driven anthems, many appearing on U218 Singles. But Pop remains U2's last "new" album, with the band still deviating from successful formulas. Bono was at his lyrical peak, with astonishingly dark explorations of consumerism, fame, faith and the perils of pop culture trash.

And while "Discotheque" is even more ridiculous today, the rolling rocker "Staring at the Sun" is far superior to "Elevation," as is the mournful yet resolute appeal for Irish peace, "Please," a more mature and complex dissertation than the youthfully outraged "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

It was poetic justice for many when U2 got trapped in their enormous lemon during a Norway concert that summer, but Popmart's provocative visuals--like an evolutionary chart ending with a shopping cart-wielding homosapien--were endlessly more imaginative than their current show, a Stones-like, guaranteed night o' crowd-pleasers for which $50 can barely get you in. U2's tours now make news for their record-breaking profits (although the Stones recently reclaimed the top spot), a feat undoubtedly contradictory to their incessant reminders they emerged from punk rock. It's ironic that one of U218's two new tracks is an obscure Skids cover with Green Day, considering U2 best embodied this spirit by foregoing punk's commercialization in favor of synthesizers and shtick.

Oasis was a stellar opener to have in '97. The brash British quintet was making headlines as much for their swaggering hard rock as for their hard-partying lifestyle, reminding the "alternative nation" of rock and roll excess. Loudmouthed songwriter Noel Gallagher feuded via the press with Blur, suggested that reluctant rock stars like Eddie Vedder go work in a gas station, and repeatedly crowned Oasis "the best band in the world." Noel and his brother Liam's infighting made them the Davies brothers of my generation in an ongoing bout of the talent vs. the pretty face. Back then, you weren't sure if singer Liam would even show up for a gig until you saw his ennui-ridden unibrow sauntering downstage. But musically, they were at the top of their game.

Then came the third act. Be Here Now was not the masterpiece expected after the one-two punch of Britpop classics. It reeked of forced psychedelia, with Oasis taking their self-professed Beatles succession to heart, even attempting to emulate the utopian vision of "All You Need is Love" with the awful, horn-drenched hit "All Around the World." Suddenly, the John Lennon sunglasses didn't seem so quaint. Although the album was more Dr. Pepper than Sgt. Pepper, their sheer gall was something to behold, especially in an age of ubiquitous anti-rock stars.

Considering the subsequent band member departures, divorces and drug addiction (explaining their judgment regarding master ax-man Johnny Depp's guest spot), Stop the Clocks' sole disavowal of Be Here Now is understandable. But some songs were actually hits, like the excellent, Smiths-like, melancholic ballad "Don't Go Away." And "All Around the World" still packs enough twenty-something nostalgia for a recent AT&T commercial. But in their place are mediocre B-sides and the Liam-penned "Songbird," a decent elementary effort that does little else aesthetically but corroborate their sibling rivalry's evolution into mutual respect. Furthermore, Oasis' 18-track collection is spread over two discs, a deceptive cash-in that makes me long for the days when their fan disregard came in the form of berating from the stage.

Although their brilliance plateaued with Be Here Now, it's disheartening to see Noel trading his own hype for those of others. "I wouldn't be arrogant enough to try to convince people that Don't Believe the Truth is a better album than Definitely Maybe; it wasn't," he recently told Spin. "You can't argue with the masses."

In hindsight, I skipped more that June than an amazing double bill or the best arena rock light show that money could buy. I missed two beloved bands on their last creative legs, with their artistic spirit not yet crushed under the weight of commerce and public opinion. Sure, Oasis and U2 are only human and I've since learned there's nothing remotely cool about fighting with my brother, but I don't need more reminders of mankind's foibles. What I need are newcomers to truly believe they're the next Beatles, while boldly quipping that Elton John only writes songs about "dead blonde girls." And I need the biggest band in the world to risk it all over an electronic fetish--not to be content remaking The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby over and over again. With my class of '97 reunion closing in, I realize that while some of us were just beginning, others were already done.

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