Dozens of bands have played Arena Rock with varying degrees of success, but U2 flat-out sanctified it. Like other bands that have achieved greatness, they did it by fusing the attributes of different musical styles into a unique blend that is virtually a style of its own.
Paul “Bono Vox” Hewson, David “the Edge” Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. took the raw anger of punk, focused it with the righteous social consciousness of protest music, prismed the resulting beam of intense emotion through a shimmering haze of echoplexed guitars, and bounced it off a kickass rhythm section. The resulting sonic tumult could get a stadiumful of people up on its feet, stomping in the stands… charging off to war, if it came to it. (Or so it seemed, anyway.)
Bono (as he came to be known) was the master of the monumental gesture, like marching across the stage with a colossal white flag, or beginning a song with an even bigger wordless cry, in equal measure an exclamation of pain and fury and a call to arms. The Edge’s guitar work stretched the boundaries of the instrument’s capabilities, sometimes sounding like many guitars, sometimes not like a guitar at all. Through it all, Clayton and Mullen held everything down, their toes digging tenaciously into the trembling earth. The sheer conviction of this quartet took them beyond the realm of MTV darlings, and well above the crowd of big haired, spandexed, steel-horse cowboys of the day, making them the de facto Rock Kings of the 1980’s.
Even more remarkably, when they handed the crown off to R.E.M. in the 90’s (after that band, consciously or not, duplicated U2’s issue-oriented sturm und drang), they blended a heavy dollop of Technopop into the mix and successfully reinvented themselves as a sort of uber-dance band, replete with high-tech multimedia highjinks. The stadiums remained packed, and U2 proved that you can have a sense of humor about yourself without sacrificing your social conscience.
It’s a new millennium now, and all these post-grunge grumblers and neo-punk posers better watch out, because the crown is up for grabs, and U2 is still out there, still churning with conviction.