U2's 'Rattle and Hum' Turns 30: Why Critics Had the Live Album/Documentary All Wrong

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U2 at the Brit Awards in 1988.

“This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”

Those were the first words uttered by Bono in the 1988 U2 rockumentary Rattle and Hum before the band ignited a sold-out McNichols Sports Arena in Denver with a rendition of “Helter Skelter” so electric Manson himself might’ve felt its vibes through the walls of San Quentin. Thirty years later, Manson is dirt in the ground and “Helter Skelter” is 12 minutes long on the 50th anniversary edition of The White Album coming out this November. Yet the critical disdain for both the Rattle and Hum film and its chart-topping soundtrack remains the same as it ever was. Upon the release of the Jimmy Iovine-produced album (Oct. 10) and the film (Oct. 27), Rattle and Hum was met with largely complacent and downright hostile reviews.

“By almost any rock & roll fan’s standards, U2’s Rattle and Hum is an awful record,” wrote Tom Carson in The Village Voice. “But the chasm between what it thinks it is and the half-baked overweening reality doesn't sound attributable to pretension so much as monumental know-nothingness.”

In The New York Times, Jon Pareles accused the band of trying to “grab every mantle in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame” before scowling “what comes across in song after song is sincere egomania.”

“This is a mess with a mission,” wrote David Fricke in his year-end review of Rattle in the Dec. 15-29, 1988, issue of Rolling Stone. “But a mess nevertheless.”

For most of the naysayers, it wasn't so much the actual music that got their collective goat as it was the way the band portrayed themselves to filmmaker Phil Joanou, who was only 26 when he directed Rattle and Hum (it was his second feature film behind the 1987 high school black comedy Three O’Clock High). At its root, it's a highly stylized concert film culled from U2’s blockbuster tour in support of their breakthrough fifth LP The Joshua Tree -- the album that catapulted Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. into a new stratosphere of superstardom. In between performances, however, were scenes of the group traversing through American cities crucial to the fabric of rock n’ roll’s history.

They went to San Francisco to play the “Save the Yuppies” concert in Justin Herman Plaza, where they dazzled the impromptu crowd with a version of “All Along the Watchtower” which served as the perfect middle ground between Bob Dylan's original and Jimi's fiery takeover of the song. They visited Harlem, where they cut a gospel version of their Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with the New Voices of Freedom choir and caught the renowned street blues duo Satan and Adam busking on 125th St. They headed down to Memphis to visit Graceland and cut some songs at Sun Studio, including “Angel of Harlem” featuring the legendary Memphis Horns and references to Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and “Love Rescue Me,” a co-write with Bob Dylan which, along with the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy, helped many U2 fans get hip with Zimmerman. They also recorded “When Love Comes to Town” at Sun, a song that helped many young U2 fans find their way to the catalog of the song’s soulful co-captain B.B. King and such blues classics as Live at the Regal and Indianola, Mississippi Seeds.

These were the scenes that drew the ire of music critics, who were unfairly convinced that U2’s motives came from somewhere other than honest admiration and appreciation. But for a 14-year-old in 1988 in the first weeks of his freshman year of high school, Rattle and Hum -- both the film and its soundtrack -- proved to be an eye-opening introduction to music beyond my narrow scope of MTV and rock radio at the time. It was the first time I ever heard about A Love Supreme or experienced the string arrangements of Van Dyke Parks, who along with Benmont Tench on pump organ, provided the sweep of heartbreak that imbues the album and film’s closing number “All I Want Is You,” still very much considered U2’s greatest ballad. I never truly, honestly felt the shimmy of the Bo Diddley beat before I listened to “Desire,” a song that earns the distinct honor of being the first single to simultaneously top the mainstream and modern rock Billboard charts (and scored the group a Grammy in 1989). “God Part II” gave me a deeper appreciation for the solo work of John Lennon, particularly Plastic Ono Band, whose key track “God” U2 were responding to as Bono defends John and Yoko by taking a shot at controversial biographer Albert Goldman with the line -- “I don’t believe in Goldman, his type like a curse/Instant karma’s gonna get him, if I don’t get him first.” The atmospheric beauty of “Heartland” -- featuring Brian Eno on keyboards -- was a perfect gateway to the more esoteric moments on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, especially for someone who went into the Rattle and Hum experience as something of a U2 skeptic. 

It was the strength of the live material featured both on screen and throughout the soundtrack that helped make this cynical young music fan so annoyed by those Joshua Tree singles on heavy, heavy pop radio rotation throughout 1987-88 a true believer. Largely split between black and white footage at McNichols and beautifully shot color celluloid at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, the film's rousing renditions of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Bad,” “With Or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” (where the project’s title comes from, as well as the main cover/poster art) burst through the surround sound with more impassioned energy than the studio originals. Elsewhere, there’s simply no touching the live rendition of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from Madison Square Garden with the aforementioned New Voices of Freedom in tow that temporarily transformed the Mecca of sports and entertainment into America’s largest Baptist church in the most transcendent way possible.

There are two specific performances from the concert portion of the film that would’ve either cemented your devotion to U2 or confirmed your disgust for them. The first one, “Silver and Gold,” is a supercharged version of a song Bono recorded with Keith Richards and Ron Wood on Little Steven’s 1985 Sun City charity album for Artists United Against Apartheid where Bono goes on a lengthy riff about the troubles of South Africa at the time before asking the crowd “Am I bugging you? I didn't mean to bug ya” and then directing The Edge to peel off one of his best guitar solos of the '80s. And while it wasn't included on the soundtrack itself, there isn't a more pointed or combative version of the War screed “Sunday Bloody Sunday” than the one U2 performed at McNichols Arena. Evoking the fierce rendition the group delivered at Red Rocks five years prior, Bono goes into an impassioned rally against the Irish Republican Army with a defiant “fuck the revolution!” He continued, “What’s the glory of taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and his children? Where’s the glory in that? Where's the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where's the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of a revolution that the majority of the people in my country don't want" and then leading the audience in the “No More!” chant that defined the Red Rocks version so resonantly. It’s easily the most powerful moment in the movie, one made real enough for the band to invoke a moratorium on performing the song in concert until the second leg of the Zoo TV tour five years later.

“They say in the Eighties that rock & roll is dead,” Bono told writer Steve Pond in the March 9, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone. “I don’t think it’s dead, but if it’s dying, it’s because groups like us aren't taking enough risks. You know, make a movie. Put yourself up against what’s out there. Robocop and Three Men and a Baby. That’s great for rock & roll, not just for U2. I think you’ve got to dare.”

Thirty years later, it’s time for the skeptics to look beyond the allegations of bombast, self-importance and idol worship levied at U2 by American music journalists and dare to experience Rattle and Hum with fresh ears – and you may appreciate the wonder felt by a 14-year-old freshman who marched straight from the movie theater to the record store on the other side of the mall to pick up the cassette immediately after seeing it back in 1988.