ith respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus bring you the first in a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.
The Match-Up: U2 formed in Dublin in 1976, releasing their debut album Boy in 1980 and quickly became superstars in their home country. By the mid-80s, this stardom had spread to the rest of Europe and eventually to America, and by the time of 1987’s The Joshua Tree, U2 were arguably the biggest band in the world, with a pair of #1 singles and the first of a series of gigantic world tours under their belt. U2 recoiled somewhat from their fame in the 90s by trying on a series of different, experimental skins, some of which complemented the band better than others, but by the end of the decade, they were ready to return to their arena-rock roots and quickly regained their status as one of the biggest bands in the world, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, for which their music was often used as an inspirational backdrop.
R.E.M. formed in Athens, GA in 1980, and released their debut album Murmur in 1983, quickly becoming college radio favorites. They released a series of critically acclaimed and increasingly commercially successful albums through the mid-80s, leading up to the 1987 breakthrough of Document, which gave the band their first top ten hit. At the turn of the decade, they were arguably the second biggest band in the world, releasing a series of commercially successful and critically adored albums, but hit a brick wall with the “return to rock” release of 1994’s Monster, from which the band never really recovered. After the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, R.E.M. turned in a softer, more production-driven direction, but found neither much commercial or critical success, each album of theirs selling less than the one before it.
Why They Deserve to Be Compared: The career trajectories of U2 and R.E.M. are amazingly similar. Both started out as critically acclaimed college radio mainstays, but got gradually more successful until they both broke out on a much more major scale in 1987, and pre-Nirvana, they were probably the two most successful and important alt-rock bands. Even after the grunge breakthrough, both acts were able to maintain Godfather status—in 1996, I remember my alt-rock radio station devoting an entire weekend to R.E.M. before the release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, half a year later, MTV played the entire U2 videography leading up to the release of Pop. Both acts spent the 90s in a state of identity crisis, experiencing the greatest ups and downs of their careers as a result, but both evened out by the end of the decade—for better or worse.
Differences Worth Noting: Though the bands share much in the way of audiences and timelines, the appeal of the groups is obviously extremely different. U2 started out their career attempting to be the “social conscience of rock,” singing about important political issues and generally wearing their heart on their sleeve, while R.E.M. did pretty much the exact opposite, opting for subtlety and restraint over obviousness and chest-beating. While U2 singer Bono’s lyrics were sung loud and proud, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe’s lyrics were cryptic and often incomprehensible; The Edge’s guitar licks were anthemic and piercing, Peter Buck’s lines were muted and understated. The two bands sort of met halfway in the early 90s, with R.E.M.’s music getting more and more commercial and U2’s getting more and more cerebral, but even then, few would confuse R.E.M.’s moody, ornate pop/rock with U2’s alt-crunch. Also, the two bands’ chronologies split at the turn of the millennium—though both are currently at a somewhat undeniable artistic low point, U2 still go multi-platinum every time out, while R.E.M. has more fans swearing “never again” with each disappointing new release.
Each released a handful of EPs and singles prior, but the story of both groups really begins with their debut LPs, Boy and Murmur, and those albums’ respective lead singles (and opening tracks), “I Will Follow” and “Radio Free Europe.” Today, Murmur is seen as a career high point for R.E.M., acknowledged as one of the blueprints for alternative rock, and generally acclaimed as one of the finest albums of the 80s, while Boy is seen as little more than a precursor to what would eventually come for U2. I find both of these perceptions wildly inaccurate. In fact, Murmur is inconsistent and often somewhat ho-hum, time having greatly diluted whatever what was revolutionary about the album upon its release in 1983. Boy, on the other hand, has aged far better than most give it credit for, and today stands as U2’s most consistent long player from their first half-decade.
It’s more or less a tie coming down to the lead singles, both of which are definitely classics and which set the stage for the next decade of each band’s development. “Radio Free Europe” is brilliant, an almost completely indecipherable but oddly compelling piece of jangly and bizarrely bouncy post-punk (when listening to it, you can still almost feel the paradigm shift). But I have to give the edge to “I Will Follow,” perhaps U2’s best and most inspiring anthem, not bogged down in the self-motivational hogwash or bumbled politics of later anthems, sounding wide and loud enough that it feels like the whole world is listening with you.
Bono and Michael Stipe each made for rather unusual rock star archetypes. Bono was arguably the first enormously successful rock god since John Lennon to actually give a shit about the world around him, educating listeners about Bloody Sunday and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his early hits and going on to meet with presidents and world leaders, appearing on the cover of Time, and getting nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this decade. Just as interestingly, in between his two periods of self-righteousness he decided to deconstruct the idea of a rock star for the post-modern 90s, creating the stage characters of The Fly and MacPhisto (!!!) for his world tours, calling the president live on stage and telling him to watch more TV, and just generally acting weird.
Michael Stipe clearly cared about stuff, too (AIDS was a big concern, among others), but his public image was far more introverted than Bono’s loudmouthed “you’ll listen to me whether you like it or not” appearance. Stipe is actually more of an American Morrissey, active in some social arenas but more interesting for his guarded personal life and deliberately obscured sexuality. Gossip flew throughout the 90s about who Stipe was involved with—Courtney Love, Natalie Merchant, even Kurt Cobain were all rumored sexual partners—and through his videos and public appearances he became one of the oddest sex symbols of the decade, the mystery of his sexuality no doubt adding to the allure.
Both frontmen are extremely compelling figures, but the edge has to go to Bono here for continuing to stay interesting through the 21st century—he still does ridiculous shit, making pointless cameos in Entourage and paying for first-class plane tickets for his favorite hat, but he’s still a relevant enough public figure for us to care at all. Meanwhile, Michael Stipe finally acknowledged himself as a “queer artist” in a 2001 Newsweek interview, and even dressed like a sickly Boy George for his appearance at Live 8. By then, no one really cared anymore.
The evolution of both R.E.M. and U2 can be traced just as readily through their videos as through their music—both bands start with relative austere videos, get post-modern around the turn of the decade, start working with various different experimental directors and eventually return to form by the end of the millenium. The directors read like a who’s who of legendary video helmers—Romanek, Jonze, Jennings, and Sednaoui for R.E.M.; Corbijn, Godley, Akerlund, and also Sednaoui for U2. Each band has a set of videos that rank among the most iconic ever made—for R.E.M., the gorgeous “Losing My Religion,” the hysterical “Pop Song ’89,” and the unforgettable and oft-parodied “Everybody Hurts,” and for U2, the image-defining “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the tragic “All I Want Is You,” and the sublimely bizarre “Numb” and “Discotheque.”
Though the two groups may be even in the classics department, R.E.M. definitely trumps here, simply because when they fail with a video, there’s still a certain dignity, a sort of silent, understated mark of thoughtful quality that the band brings to each clip. When U2 strikes out with a video, it’s a debacle, witnessed in such jaw-droppingly horrific videos as the clips for “Walk On,” “All Because of You,” “When Love Comes to Town,” and what certainly must be a career nadir, “Elevation (Remix)” from the Tomb Raider soundtrack.
U2 arguably did this several times throughout their career, but none finer (or more obvious) than with 1991’s “One,” one of the band’s best remembered songs today, recently being covered by Mary J. Blige and named in a UK VH-1 poll as having the greatest lyric of any song ever (for one of the song’s more innocuous couplets, even). R.E.M., on the other hand, did this once and only once, and for a band so focused on the subtle and the personal, some of their fans still haven’t forgiven them for it. That song of course is 1992’s “Everybody Hurts,” also one of the band’s biggest hits, the backdrop to a pivotal episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, and as previously mentioned, the soundtrack to one of the most iconic and easily recognized and mocked music videos ever made.
Though I believe “Everybody Hurts” has in fact been underrated by time, overly derided by R.E.M. fans not ready to share their favorite band with the rest of the world and brilliantly functions as the centerpiece for the band’s greatest album, Automatic for the People, I still have to give the victory to “One” here. There’s a few reasons why, but the only one that really needs to be mentioned are Bono’s post-lyric exhortations at the end of the song—you know what I mean, the “oooooh, ohhh, baby, baby, baby, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” part. Alone, it speaks far more than the main lyrics to either song do.
Oddly enough, despite having frontmen perceived as egomaniacal and self-centered, neither Bono nor Stipe has bothered to release a solo album, and efforts outside of the band are sparse at best—Bono sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and did a duet with Frank Sinatra on a cover of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Stipe sang with Rain Phoenix for the theme to “Happiness” and released an EP of versions of a Joseph Arthur cover as a Katrina benefit. In fact, the most memorable side work from either band doesn’t come from the lead singers, but from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who played 12-string on The Replacements’ classic “I Will Dare,” and from U2 rhythm section Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., who had possibly the last instrumental top ten hit in Billboard history with their re-working of the “Theme to Mission: Impossible.”
Now I like Lalo Schifrin as much as the next guy, but c’mon, “I Will Dare”! No contest.
This is more important a match for this Vs. than you might think, as awkward genre experimentation is extremely important to the careers and successes of both groups. Despite the fact that R.E.M. are poster boys for Pasty Caucasianism 95% of the time, the other five percent of the time, they also happen to be one of the best blue-eyed funk bands in the business, as evidenced by singles like “Orange Crush,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and the second best indie rock/hip-hop hybrid of all-time, 1991’s “Radio Song,” as well as on extremely memorable song excerpts like the slap-bass that closes “Finest Worksong” or the frenetic funkout that provides the outro to “Camera.” If their sub-career as the world’s whitest funk band wasn’t enough, R.E.M. also has some classic excursions into bubblegum pop (“Stand,” “Shiny Happy People”), grunge (“What’s the Frequency Kenenth?,” sorta), and even a brief flirtation with electronica (“Aiportman”). “Real” R.E.M. fans tend to be wary of these genre-hoppers, for the rest of us, though, they’re among the most enjoyable things the band has done.
They’re matched pretty much every step of the way, though, by U2, who began their musical tourism with Rattle and Hum’s excursions into blues (“When Love Comes to Town”), soul (“Angel of Harlem”), Bo Diddley-era rock (“Desire”), and picked it up again with 1993’s Zooropa and 1997’s Pop, which ran from eurodisco (“Lemon”) to new-age trip-hop (“Numb”), to Underworld-esque house frenzy (“Mofo”) and even took a pause for a country ballad (the Johnny Cash sung “The Wanderer”). And that’s not even mentioning the sheer WTFery of the permanently unclassifiable “Discotheque.”
The bands’ awkward genre experiments are about equal in merit, but the edge here goes to R.E.M. simply because they seem willing to try this stuff more often and more casually than U2, who appear to be all-or-nothing with their genre hopping—could you imagine “When Love Comes to Town” on The Joshua Tree? “Lemon” on Achtung Baby? Thought not.
There are many moments I could use for this match, ranging from “Man on the Moon” playing over the credits to the film to which it gives its name, or Hugh Grant blasting “Zoo Station” in About a Boy. Really though, this comes down to two of the most brilliant uses of music in recent popular film—“All I Want Is You” in Reality Bites and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” in Tommy Boy. “All I Want Is You” in general is one of U2’s more underrated ballads, and the use in the romantic climax of one of the otherwise worst movies of the 90s is powerful and moving enough to actually make us care about these awful, awful characters. Still, it doesn’t hold a candle to David Spade and Chris Farley triumphantly singing along to the “End of the World” chorus during one of the more encouraging spots in their sales journey, before miserably failing to keep up with the verses—a moment shared by 99% of us in some embarrassing form or another.
I have not listened to the most recent album by either band, nor do I ever intend to. I am quite certain the process would be too depressing to stomach. Reveal and All That You Can’t Leave Behind were bad enough, but both at least had a classic lead single and a couple decent songs scattered throughout, but there’s nothing classic about “Vertigo” or “Leaving New York,” surely two of the most unimpressive rock singles of the decade thus far. The win here has got to go to U2, though, for two reasons. One: you at least get the sense that U2 is still trying—too hard, maybe, and in all the wrong areas—but at least it’s still something, which is more than can be said for R.E.M., who no longer appear to be trying at all. I’ll take embarrassing failure over surrendered mediocrity any day. Two: even if both bands suck now, U2 at least do a good enough job of reminding fans of their past glories that they still manage to sell three million of every new album.
With the possible exceptions of KISS and Nirvana, just about every rock act worth a damn from the last 30 years has made an appearance on The Simpsons at some point, the ranks of which include both R.E.M. and U2. The former’s appearance was in the 2001 episode “Homer the Moe,” featuring the band’s performance of “End of the World” in a bar set up by Homer to spite Moe. The cameo includes lots of references to R.E.M.’s environmentalist image (“They think they’re saving the rainforest!”) which fall flat, because R.E.M. hardly have a public image strong enough to poke fun at. The episode also includes Homer flubbing the verses to “End of the World,” a weak retread of the previously mentioned Tommy Boy scene.
U2’s appearance, however, is far better played, since U2 actually has a public reputation worth making fun of. Homer interrupts U2 during the Springfield stop of their PopMart tour to try to promote his run for Garbage Commissioner, and there’s a fair share of classic quotes (“WHAT THE….bloody hell?” “The man’s talking about waste management! That affects the whole damn planet!” “Can I come?” “No!”). The funniest moment, though, is after Homer is on stage, and Bono says “Now Homer, I hear that Ray Patterson is a fine Garbage Commissioner.” The idea that Bono would know about the reputation of the incumbent Garbage Commissioner of every city he tours in doesn’t even seem that farfetched.
U2 and R.E.M. are lucky examples of the somewhat rare phenomenon of having their biggest and best song arguably be the same, U2 with “With or Without You,” a #1 hit for three weeks in the Spring of ’87, and R.E.M. with “Losing My Religion,” a #4 hit in the Summer of ’91 (and winner of the 1991 Best Video VMA). Both songs are among the greats of pre-Nirvana alt-rock, and manage to eclipse even the towering reputations of their respective bands. This isn’t a hard decision, though—great as “With or Without You” is, “Losing My Religion” is simply one of the Great Pop Songs, one of the few songs where I can literally not find a single flaw—it is structurally, melodically, lyrically and conceptually brilliant in pretty much all ways.
For me, this comes down to Automatic for the People vs. Achtung Baby. It seems only fair to acknowledge that the masterpieces I would hold here to be the best and most representative work of either band are not necessarily the works every fan would choose—just as many R.E.M. fans would choose Murmur as Automatic, just as many U2 fans would choose The Joshua Tree as Achtung. Still, Murmur and Joshua are only half-great albums to me, poorly paced and with too many clunkers to be considered masterworks. Achtung Baby and Automatic for the People are evenly paced, conceptually unified, and just all around more mature works, even if their earlier works were more important or more influential.
This is a really, really tough match. Both albums are flawed, but unquestionably brilliant, both reinventions of their band's sound that look to the future without disregarding the band's past, both works that spun off over half the tracks as radio hits, both works that neither band could ever live up to again. In the end, though, I've got to give this one to U2. This may just come down to the fact that Achtung just means more personally to me than Automatic—that I like "One" more than "Everybody Hurts," that "Even Better Than the Real Thing" rocks me harder than "Ignoreland," that "Who's Going to Ride Your Wild Horses?" brings me closer to tears than "Try Not to Breathe" that "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" puts a bigger goofy smile on my face than "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" and that "Love is Blindness" haunts me more after the album finishes than "Find the River." But when dealing with bands this great, ultimately that's the only criteria I can really use.
U2 6 - R.E.M. 5