Flop Mart

U2 brings its carnival to Denver--and Denver shrugs.

Hubris: an overweening self-confidence that can lead to calamity. Many a hero in Greek literature met a grim fate as a result of this failing, and in virtually every case, their collapses were richly deserved. These characters weren't merely examples of the how-the-mighty-have-fallen concept that gives many of us common folk such a charge. No, they were far more than that, if only because their demises were caused to a large degree by the sin of pride. Or, in the case of Paul "Bono" Hewson, who headlined a May 1 extravaganza at Mile High Stadium with his band, U2, the sin of pride in the name of love.

The setup for U2's current troubles has been positively mythic; seldom in the history of popular music has an act so readily participated in its own abject humiliation. The band--vocalist Bono, guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.--allowed a steady stream of hyperbole to issue from its camp about its next album, to be titled Pop, throughout virtually all of 1996. And from the beginning, reports about the content of the recording were inextricably mingled with matters of finance. According to these effusive sources, U2's latest songs would leap forward by incorporating the sonic accoutrements of electronica, techno and trip-hop, but they would also be overtly "fun," accessible, and commercial as all getout. Given the disappointing reception to 1996 releases by supergroups R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Hootie & the Blowfish, as well as the sense that the modern-rock movement was essentially played out, the U2 disc was held out as the hope of the music business, a guaranteed success that would snap the industry out of its slump and open the door to a daring sound sure to capture the hearts and minds of the global music patron.

Cracks in this theory began to appear late last year. The performers had planned to release Pop in November in order to cash in on the lucrative pre-Christmas market, but they missed their deadline. Hence, they resolved to issue the juggernaut in the post-holiday period that is annually the softest from a record-sales perspective. This choice in itself was a gamble, as was the decision to put out a first single, "Discotheque," weeks prior to the album. Why? Because if the cut stiffed, its demise would be a severe blow to the launch of the full-length.

That was pretty much the way things worked out. MTV, VH1 and major radio stations in a variety of formats across the country rolled out the red carpet for "Discotheque," but listeners by and large responded with yawns. The cut was certainly light and bouncy, but it was no breakthrough; in fact, it was so willfully disposable and subtly condescending that repeated spins became simply irksome. So, too, was the announcement of U2's stadium tour, made in a Manhattan Kmart and presented in so smarmy a manner that fans who had once prized the players for their sincerity could be forgiven for wondering what on earth had happened to these guys. From the beginning, ticket sales at locations across the country were dreadfully slow, and the appearance in stores of Pop did little to light a fire under them. The CD, as it turned out, was no more radical than Achtung Baby, which itself had been inaccurately ballyhooed as revolutionary upon its 1991 release. But times had changed and the vibes surrounding the project were extremely sour. It entered the Billboard album chart at number one, but the total units moved were roughly equal to the first-week figures racked up by Pearl Jam's No Code, which accountants subsequently deemed an economic catastrophe. And as was the case with Code, the sales of Pop began to tumble almost immediately. Seven weeks after its arrival, it was being outsold by the Notorious B.I.G., the Spice Girls and discs by Celine Dion, Jewel and No Doubt that had been available for well over a year.

Most artists would be humbled by such a repudiation, but not U2. The TV special U2: A Year in Pop ran on ABC on April 26, the day after the tour opened in Las Vegas, but rather than using their hour of network time to stretch out, take chances or display other sides of themselves, Bono and company offered a fawning, conceited U2 infomercial that made most MTV rockumentaries seem like The Sorrow and the Pity by comparison. Examples of painful moments are too numerous to list in their entirety, but lowlights included narrator Dennis Hopper's gushy (and out-of-date) crowing about how music retailers saw Pop as a gift from God; Bono's declaration that U2 was, at its best, the most fascinating band on the planet; pretentious guest spots by the likes of painter Roy Lichtenstein; and videotape of Allen Ginsberg reciting the lyrics of "Miami," a track from Pop. The U2 brain trust apparently felt that having the late poet and NAMBLA booster intone Bono's "dese-dem-dose" words would make it clear to all that they were rhymes of a rare and fine quality. Instead, Ginsberg's folly only underlined how desperate the quartet was to be taken seriously. Viewers certainly didn't take the bait; based on overnight ratings, U2: A Year in Pop was watched by fewer people than any hour-long program ever shown by one of the big-three networks in prime time. That's right--ever. Even the last episode of That's Incredible did better.

Meanwhile, in Denver (the third stop on the tour), public response to the upcoming U2 concert was nightmarish; only around 27,000 tickets had been sold just days before the date (a Fey Concerts source puts the final tally at just under 30,000). That might seem like a big story, but reporters and critics at the mainstream media outlets in the area ignored it so consistently that they seemed like victims of mass hypnosis. (Only the Denver Post's Bill Husted had the bad form to break ranks.) Both daily newspapers sent writers to Las Vegas to review a show that they would be reviewing again a week later; of course they returned with glowing notices. Radio stations gave away reams of tickets in between announcements that "good tickets are still available." (Yeah--about 35,000 of them.) And TV stations provided pre-event coverage puffier than anything this side of a Klondike and Snow update. The sight of stout Channel 7 reporter Bill Clarke risking a coronary while chasing after Bono at the airport and shouting, "Where's the parties?" was enough to send even the most sober-sided observer into paroxysms of laughter.

None of this prelude would have mattered, of course, had U2's Pop Mart tour lived up to expectations. But with all the hoopla, what were the chances of that? Slim--and none.

May 1 at Mile High was cloudy, overcast, windy and cold--perfect weather for a tragedy. But the members of Rage Against the Machine had no interest in playing at a wake. Even though they kicked off their set at two minutes past seven, when the sky was still light and the crowd was even sparser than it would be later in the evening, they attacked their songs with a fever and passion that energized ticket-buyers, many of whom seemed to have come to see them, not U2.

Rage lead singer Zack de la Rocha continues to fly using only his left wing, but his anger was more than enough to overwhelm his one-dimensionality; he stomped, hopped and stormed around the stage like a hyperactive child throwing the mother of all tantrums. Keeping up with him fit for fit were bandmates Tim Bob (bass), Brad Wilk (drums) and Tom Morello (guitar), who have developed into a three-piece of formidable power. Musically, they offer a fairly routine menu--punk-funk, with a side order of hip-hop--but they cook it better than practically anyone else on the current scene. Morello, in particular, is an absolute marvel, using a seemingly limited amount of riffs in an exceedingly imaginative and propulsive way. During cuts like "A Bullet in Your Head" and an unexpected, funkified and all-but-unrecognizable cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the four flailed away like cops from their hometown of Los Angeles working over Rodney King. As a special bonus, Tim Bob played for part of Rage's allotted 45 minutes wearing a Denver Broncos helmet and blue-and-orange shorts--which constitutes the closest thing to a joke these notoriously humorless men have ever told. The group used no lights and no special effects and was dwarfed by the enormity of U2's stage, but it nonetheless left boosters buzzing. If there was ever a bad sign for a headliner, that was it.

Nearly an hour later, with the sun down and the air exuding a bitter chill, the lights went down and the enormous sound system began pumping out a remixed rendition of "Pop Muzik," the 1979 one-shot by Britisher Robin Scott, better known as M. At the same time, the immense video screen--a curved goliath that dominated an entire end of the stadium--began flashing logos behind props such as a towering golden arch, an oversized lemon sheathed in cloth and what looked like a cross between a cocktail olive and an atomic symbol. In the midst of this sensory overload, the Edge, Clayton and Mullen appeared on a walkway built onto the field and moved toward the stage; they were trailed by Bono, who was clad in a boxing robe. As he shadow-boxed down the aisle, it didn't take a Freudian to figure out where he was coming from: He was brimming with poise and ready to take on anyone and everyone who stood in his way.

The band's first combination was indicative of the contradictions that followed. The proceedings began with "Mofo," the most overtly techno of Pop's offerings. But despite (or perhaps because of) its pulsing beats and overtly modern sonics, the track stubbornly refused to take off. When some acts take on an unfamiliar style, they are able to infuse it with enough of their essence to make it their own. But here the U2 four seemed to be posing in new outfits that didn't fit them. The fans noticed: Their reaction did not become wildly enthusiastic until the group segued into a straightforward version of its first FM favorite, "I Will Follow." By this response, it was evident that the majority of the people at the stadium hadn't dropped fifty dollars or more on a ticket in order to have their minds expanded by dance pyrotechnics. They were more interested in nostalgia.

The musicians seesawed between these two extremes throughout the night, blending new material accented by tongue-in-cheek pictorials intended to comment on the capitalist culture (now, there's a fresh topic) with note-for-note regurgitations of their greatest hits. The juxtaposition was an uneasy one, in large part because Bono could not commit to either role. He seems to admire David Bowie and Madonna, who are able to disappear inside alternate personas on a regular basis, but when he tries the same trick, he doesn't have the moxy to follow through with it. The same failure of nerve was evident on U2's last stadium jaunt, dubbed Zoo TV; Bono would slip into the skin of a lounge-lizard type known as the Fly for a few minutes, but just as you were about to accept him in this guise, he would start begging to be accepted as the same old melodramatic apostle of Christ that he had always been. Such inconsistencies marked him as a lousy actor, but they also suggested that by acting in the first place, this most seemingly forthright of performers was unintentionally revealing himself to be a dilettante of the highest caliber.

That's not to say that the satire that was part and parcel of Pop Mart was a complete bust. Although the golden arch was a predictable notion, it was a striking one, and the video bank was an impressive technical innovation. Most such screens merely reproduce visuals, but this one used simulated pixilation to stunningly abstract effect. Moreover, the direction and editing was first-rate, cleverly blending graphics, animation and live shots to heighten the overall impact. Even when the music wasn't captivating--and songs like "If God Will Send His Angels" and "Staring at the Sun" sounded surprisingly flat--there was always something intriguing to watch.

Still, a concert is supposed to be about music, not architecture, and it was obvious that U2 connected best with its audience when it was spinning out the smashes. The only one that underwent substantial changes was "Bullet the Blue Sky," which was interpolated into an interesting medley with "Miami" and a few snippets of the score from West Side Story. (A light display that formed a pyramid of sorts over the field also helped make this segment memorable.) Otherwise, the biggest curveball was Bono's decision to cheer the election of Tony Blair as England's prime minister in the coda of "Pride (In the Name of Love)." Too bad it made little sense: Linking Blair, the Bill Clinton of Britain, with Martin Luther King Jr., the subject of "Pride," made about as much sense as likening me to Mahatma Gandhi because I once ate Indian food.

The denouement was equally quizzical. The players briefly left the stage, later emerging from inside the giant lemon, revealed to be an oversized mirror ball. Immediately thereafter, they played "Discotheque" on the walkway, but rather than following this superficial ditty with something similar, they went directly into "With or Without You," supposedly among the combo's most heartfelt and meaningful odes. A similar clash occurred between "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," a soundtrack offering from 1995 that sounds like off-the-cuff Duran Duran, and the finale, "One." A sober plea for love and understanding, it received a tender reading that was capped when a huge heart filled the video screen. Were we supposed to be warmed by this image or to view it as a con--just another piece of consumer crap? Probably even Bono didn't know for sure.

U2 didn't leave Denver whipped. The gig was not as popular as it might have been, but most of the people who went to it were sufficiently diverted. However, the band's immediate future looks bleak. Ticket sales in several other cities are even lower than they were here--and word of the poor turnout thus far is bound to spread, increasing the likelihood that music lovers will find other ways to spend their money. Pop Mart is limping badly and might eventually collapse under its own weight. But the consequences of this debacle could be positive. Bono could look in the mirror, realize that one of the reasons things went sour was his own egotism, and decide to make some changes. Anyway, that's what the Greeks would do.

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