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Did I Disappoint You?

My commute this morning began with a rendition of U2’s One – one of the those songs that’s invariably more listenable when performed by someone else. According to The Covers Project, the song’s been covered by Information Society, Mica Paris, Robbie Williams, REM, Johnny Cash, Tait, Big Fat Snake, and Warren Haynes, though I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s not the end of it.

My version was by Automatic Baby, which nicely ties together my thoughts. Upon being invited to celebrate Bill Clinton’s inauguration with MTV, it turns out that only Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were available from REM, so they teamed up with U2’s Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton and performed One.

It’s a remarkable synchronisation really, the two acts’ career trajectories. When you consider the two bands, there are many parallels, both in fact and in public perception. Both started off a little in the back woods: REM in Athens, Georgia, and U2 in Dublin (remember, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland), around the same time, and initially ploughed a more ‘niche’ vein. U2 headed off on the post-punk route, U2 the intellectual, jangly alt.pop. 

With early recognition came success: U2 peaked first, with Live Aid and later The Joshua Tree becoming one of those big huge deal albums. But soon after REM hit the big time with Green after signing with Warner, and both bands kick off a slew of hit singles: Pride (In The Name Of Love), The One I Love. Bad, The End Of The World As We Know It. With Or Without You, Stand. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Losing My Religion. One, Everybody Hurts. It goes on.

1992 finds Clinton elected and U2 and REM teaming up. Having weathered the Metallica vs. Gn’R battle, these two indie superpowers are vying for the position of biggest band in the world, with Achtung Baby (1991) and Automatic For The People (1992) casting shadows for moons to come.

After this, things go a little downhill for both. Monster is critically acclaimed but the public are wary of its edgier, rawer sound, and New Adventures in Hifi is similarly unpopular. U2 stumble through the mid-nineties in thrall to Brian Eno and experimental Euro beats. The latter half of the decade leave both bands struggling to catch up with the breathtaking pace they’d set for themselves during the first half.

The new millenium sees U2 heading for easy anthem after easy anthem to recapture their late 80s glory: REM are still faltering through a series of sub-par albums. Both are bands that will inspire a similar reaction: wide-eyed adoration in devotees, but rejection ranging from plain disgust to sympathy for anyone who likes them. It’s not cool to like either band these days, but nevertheless both sit atop a stadium rock pedestal that few ascend, both capable of The Big Spectacle and both still capable of aiming for Biggest Band status again.

It’s a funny old game, this music business. I for instance don’t really like U2 – I don’t like Bono in much the same way as many don’t like Stipe, for his pretensions and god complex. I don’t like U2’s resting on their laurels, but admit that REM (whilst retaining a distinctive sound on each release) have failed to set the world alight recently. But I can look back at 1992 with a bit of faux-nostalgia, seeing two big, big names at the peak of their games, collaborating like this. It’s nice, once in a while.


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