In the early 80s, the best live band on the planet was Queen. It was an undisputed truth, the sort of truth I liked, as a conservative fundamentalist who liked his truth to come in distinctly marked boxes. The liner notes of the double live album Queen Live Killers said that Queen were the best live band of the day, and that was good enough for me. I was 13 years old. Life didn’t feel particularly secure. But as long as I had certain fundamentals to hang onto, I was okay.
Then I saw a video of U2 at Red Rocks on Channel 4’s The Tube. And my truth came crashing down. Here was a band that was quite possibly as good as, if not better, than Queen.
I was distraught. I know now that my epistemological framework had been rocked. At the time I did everything I could to convince myself that I had been mistaken. Alas, there was no chance of that. I bought U2 Live Under A Blood Red Sky and played it until the red vinyl bled!! I knew every note, every word, every nuance. My favourite song was the little known Party Girl, and in mind at least I sang it just like Bono.
When U2 came to Perth in September 1984 I was in the third row from the stage. I’d slept out all night for tickets and fallen in love with a girl in the queue who had light sensitive eyes and suffered from migraines. I never saw her again. She never saw me at all. When Bono sang Party Girl, few in the crowd knew it. Imbeciles. I stood on the back of the chair and raised myself up above the crowd and sang every last word. Bono watched me do it from two metres away. At the end of the song he said Thank you … to me. My schoolmate, a moron I wanted to start a band with and who had the dubious honour of being the first boy from our school who had had sex with a girl when she was on her period, said to me: ‘What a start to your singing career, mate!’ He then spent weeks telling everyone in school Bono had said thank you to the both of us. What a bean.
When U2 returned to Perth in September 1989 I was suffering from anxiety and didn’t want to be in the crowd. I spent almost the entire show wrapped up in my own adrenaline, until the moment the band played People Get Ready and Bono pulled our mate Stu Beattie out of the crowd to play guitar. Strange coincidence, Stu was also guitarist in a band I had formed with Stu’s brother, my mate Al (lead guitar). The band, Fat Boy Five, was famous for playing just one gig. But what a gig. Taking U2’s lead, each band member had a pseudonym. I was Big Beefer. Al was Al Beef-Pattie. Stu was Stewin’ Beaffie. The bass player was Ian “The Sausage” Roll. The drummer was Whopper Beaffie. We played songs like (I Could Walk) 500 Miles and Ca Plane Pour Moi. I can’t believe we never made it.
Back to U2 … From the moment Stu got on stage, the concert for me was transformed. Anxiety gone. In its place, frisson. U2 followed up with Bad, my second favourite song, and my cosmos was transformed. U2 really were on a plane above all others.
Anyway, to the point of this meandering. In November 1991, our first daughter was born in Esperance, a town on the south coast of Western Australia. One of the most beautiful places in the world. That same week, U2 released Achtung Baby. You’ll know that Achtung Baby sounded so different from anything U2 had done before, Bono called it the sound of them chopping down the Joshua Tree. I immediately fell in love with the album—like, the instant I played it. I remember the very first time like it was yesterday. No, better than that. Like it was this morning. Carolyn rang me from the maternity ward to give me an update on our first offspring. But it was right in the middle of So Cruel. I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, tell me later … just listen to this,’ and held the phone to the speaker.
She was/was not impressed. You choose.
A couple of weeks ago Achtung Baby was reissued on vinyl, along with Zooropa. I’ve never heard it on vinyl and I’ve never heard it this good. This album has serious grunt. Larry and Adam are on fire. Seriously, the guys had entered an alternative spiritual dimension when they made this album. If you don’t believe me, watch their documentary From the Sky Down, particularly the segment that recounts how One came to be born. It’s goose bump stuff. Like the Trinity walked in the room and said ‘Let’s write the best song ever.’ And that’s what One is … quite simply, the best song ever written.
Just as Achtung Baby is the best album. I say that not as the fundamentalist who used to claim such things about Queen, but as a postmodernist whose epistemological framework has been rewired by faith, hope and love. Sure, I’m open to multiple truths … except when it comes to what is undeniably the greatest work of art ever pressed into vinyl.
Or my name’s not Big Beefer.