We all have our concerts we regret missing. That one amazing show we knew we should go to but ended up missing for whatever reason… for me it was Alice Cooper when I was in high school, but most especially Zoo TV. This is the story of three U2 albums: Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. If you knew me at the time, and you got me started about U2, you’d hear my analogy between the Beatles and U2. How each had their “black and white” phase, both sonically and visually, and how their overwhelming popularity pushed each group to really explore and experiment (unlike lesser acts, who’s success forces them to retreat and to try to repeat the formula that brought them the success).
Achtung was U2’s Sgt. Pepper (simultaneously a complete break from their past work and a complete masterpiece), Zooropa was their Yellow Submarine (even more experimental, but also more hit-and-miss), and … well, at some point U2 went “back to their roots” (ie stopped being interesting), but not before releasing Pop, an album which requires a whole shift in paradigm to understand. So now hear this:
“And remember, power moves aren’t about being cool, they’re about being awesome.” (That may be the worst possible episode of The Show to start with if you’ve never seen one before, btw.)
So, over the course of these three albums, U2 stopped trying to be cool, and started to concentrate on being Awesome. The awesomeness is pretty evident on Pop, with unabashed songs like Discothèque and The Playboy Mansion. The attempt to be cool (i.e. detached, in contrast to their earlier earnest work) is in effect from start to finish on Achtung Baby — in fact, it’s what distinguishes it from the ultra-sincere previous studio album, The Joshua Tree.
Musically, Zooropa is the least successful of the three albums. It finds the band in its most experimental and exploratory phase, and the duds come as fast as the successes. But none embodies everything that is right with this period of U2’s music better then “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.” One of the things that’s cool about the song is that it doesn’t even have a proper video; it lives on only as an album version and several live permutations. The basic one is above. Check out how the staging had evolved in short order:
Now we’ve got Bono, in full-on lead singer parody, singing the first verse to himself in the mirror, in some sort of Satan’s dressing room. If anyone’s keeping archetype score, don’t forget Pink from The Wall here. OK, but let’s get to the heart of what’s great here. It’s how directly the faux-nihilism of the concept of the song leads to its greatness. The second person — the “you” of the song — is held in utter contempt by the song’s narrator. Yet the staging, and the setup of the song, makes clear that the “real” singer has at least as much contempt for the “narrator.” The whole thing twists back on itself, and nobody ends up guilty except maybe the un-self-conscious pop star that Bono mocks.
After all that, it’s almost unnecessary to examine the formal qualities of the song itself, but let’s run through them anyways. Refer again to the music-only version of Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car. We open with a bit of obligatory static and some classical music (I don’t even have to refer to my CD sleeve to tell you that this sample was credited simply to something called “Lenin’s Favorite Songs,” in a transparent bit of liner-note showmanship). What follows sounds novel even today, despite being built out of fairly mundane sonic blocks.
The cry-cat effect, in evidence on various guitar parts from all over this era, finds its way to the snare in the main bit of the song. (In technical terms, the effect emphasizes frequencies that are higher the louder the input is. Compare the snare on the first part of this song to the guitar on Mysterious Ways to hear it.) After that, the song is largely built on the bass part. Sonically heavily compressed, the sound is nonetheless a tribute to Adam Clayton’s oft-overlooked creative force.
We get a few other keyboard/sampler sounds, but the only other distinguishing sonic feature is the lead vocal’s reverb advance/retreat. I’m not sure how conscious the untrained ear is to this, but this song is an early blatant example of a lead vocal that vacillates between dry and wet (echoy) sonics for emotional effect.
During the chorus, in the live version, the monitors flash “A-HA” and “SHA-LA,” in bold all-caps, a tongue-in-cheek “This is a Pop Song” deceleration. This is not unimportant, because it marks the single most conceptualized point in U2’s career. It’s the most “meta” they ever got, and maybe the most “meta” any pop star can ever get. Nothing before or since had tried as strenuously to deconstruct (and perchance to mock) the relationship between the cult-of-personality of a music star and the idol-worshiping ID of the pop music fan.
And maybe it’s just as well. Pop is a better album overall, and mines a similar territory, but the emotional space of the narrators of Staring at the Sun and even Last Night on Earth is much more familiar then that of Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car. Mostly forgotten, the song deserves its place as the marker of the most self-consciously and deliberately detached narrator in the pop canon.