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November 2011


Achtung 20

While researching Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 I stumbled across something I hadn’t realised before. Writing such books gives you the opportunity for self indulgence, some days listening and watching the same song for hours upon hours and being able to tell your wife that it is “research.” During my time on the Achtung Baby chapter it hit me, probably for the first time, just how great this record is; how it is indeed the band’s greatest moment. Most would cite Joshua Tree as U2’s definitive album, as I would have before this discovery, but Achtung Baby is simply astounding, perhaps even because it comes in the slipstream of Joshua Tree. I remember buying it, midnight Sunday as Ireland’s U2 album release tradition was, at Virgin Records on The Quays in Dublin. I had just moved to Dublin two months earlier, probably inspired by U2, and when I got back to the car and put it in my portable CD player and through the car stereo I was dumfounded and confused. What is this? Where did this come from? What have they done? I can still remember that first sound of Edge’s guitar riff on Zoo Station, like pneumatic drills bouncing off the Berlin wall. Of course we’d already heard The Fly, and were slightly bemused already, but that first listen to Zoo Station was and still is something other.

It was as if Achtung Baby sat up, out of the pack, raised by its originality onto a new plateau, and it still remains there twenty years later. In some of the presentations I have given on U2 I play a piece of the Rattle and Hum movie and then move straight into the video for The Fly. My word! The transformation in mood, in colour, in sound, in image, in every kind of way. No rock band has ever reinvented with such a quantum shift and to do that and make an even better album than what was considered your life’s work is even more astonishing.

To get another visual glimpse of the change just look at the panoramic scenes from the Joshua Tree packaging and then the disc label on Achtung Baby where Anton Corbijn focuses in on graffiti on some door somewhere; from widescreen to as close in as possible. It is a reflection of the content. Joshua Tree had songs about justice issues that spanned the world but Achtung Baby zoomed in on a band wrestling with art and identity and one of its members going through a heartbreaking divorce. U2 had only dabbled ever so briefly with love songs in their first decade but here they were starting their second ten years with a whole record on the subject. That the sounds of Achtung Baby are massive and the topic of the material microscopic adds to the fascinating, brilliance and utter originality.

Twenty years after that night in Dublin I have just opened the Twentieth Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set. It is expensive and hefty with 6 CDs and 4 DVDs. The cover, the book of photos and the art prints remind you of the sensory bombardment that the album still is. Inside the value for the longterm nerdlike fans is scant reward for their £75. They’ll have the record and it’s follow up. They’ll also have most of the b-sides and remixes. Also with the DVDs. Most of it has already been available. Having said that it will probably be the fans who have the stuff that will purchase this beast and the scant will thrill. The recent documentary From The Sky Down that tells the story of the record’s uneasy birth is fresh. On CD there are a few unreleased tracks and what is called Kindergarten; The Alternative Achtung Baby. Like The Beatles Anthology the Kindergarten mixes give a new template to rediscover the over familiar and there are very interesting moments like on So Cruel where the song’s protagonist gets trampled under the feet of the horses that own the space between love and lust; that doesn’t make the final cut. Of the new songs Oh Berlin reveals the place in the process where the band were stuck in the sound of Joshua Tree b-sides but there are some lovely moments particularly the instrumental Near The Island and hearing Maria McKee’s voice on Everybody Loves A Winner.

What these newly released recordings do is give the story of the album’s evolving in early takes and other song experiments. At times you see how they are not making it through, in other songs you are asking who suggested that they keep moving on from some reasonable places they had found, because some of these songs would have done but they wouldn’t have been great. Bono needed stretched more in his writing and in the finding of his voice. It gives yet another reason to marvel at the finished product. Since Achtung Baby U2 have spoken of two albums unfinished in Pop and No Line On The Horizon and hinted that Bono could have worked harder on the songs of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Achtung Baby stands as the complete work, perfect in its form and this box reminds us of that fact and gives us hints of the blood, sweat and tears of its construction.

more Stocki on U2

Lyric For The Day 8.11.11 from Shake It Out by Florence and The Machines


“And I am done with my graceless heart

So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart”

-          From Shake It Out by Florence and The Machine 


When this couplet jumps out of Florence’s new record you can’t help wonder if she has been listening to Mumford & Sons. Marcus Mumford writes about the secret of grace as the welcome at the restart and here Florence uses two of the key words in the Mumford boys’ theological definition of grace. Florence claims no religious allegiances but recognizes the big spiritual themes in her work. Shake It Out is about someone with the devil on their back looking for some kind of salvation. This couplet is about an act of repentance, turning away from the old and ringing in something different and new; a Nicodemus born again moment. Perhaps what is missing is the need of God to bringing about that restart. In Florence’s song it seems that she can do it herself whereas in orthodox Christianity only Jesus can deal with the old heart and give the forgiven clean sheet of a restart.


Bad As Me Deluxe

Tom Waits must be the best songwriter in America right now but the gnarly snarl of his voice must keep out of most people’s homes! However, it is maybe the fact that he makes Bob Dylan sound like an altar boy that makes him so special. Tom’s never going to smooth out that ragged hoarseness but if you are looking for an album that might convert some folk to the acquired taste then Bad As Me might be the one. Songs like the opening Chicago with its clatter and chug,  Get Lost with its almost rockabilly feel, Bad As Me with its freak out voice, rattle and bombardment of great one liners and Hell Broke Luce with its marching rhythm and profanities, all have a certain accessibility that previous albums would not have got near. On the other side then Waits has re-awakened the balladry of his early asylum records on Kiss Me, Back In The Crowd and his version of Auld Lang Syne, New Year’s Eve. Marc Ribot’s guitar shines brighter than ever and is supplemented with luscious effect by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Keith Richard not only adds guitar but duets on the delicate Last Leaf.

In all over effect Bad As Me could be regarded as Tom Waits’ twenty first century version of Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads, with lots of searching and yearning and movement across a country that is economically depressed in recession. There are a few goes at the bankers and wealthy who leave the rest with the rind. As always the lyrics are earthy, dark, hilarious and downright weird in different places and in some instances the same rhyming couplet. What Tom Waits seems to do is much what Jesus was doing in the Sermon On the Mount. In that sermon Jesus spoke to the everyday ordinary sinner while the pious and perfectly religious Pharisees stood around critiquing Jesus and judging his crowd. Jesus quickly levelled the playing field. He looked at the “bad” sinners and told them that if they committed adultery and felt bad then they should know that if the “good” religious folk around them even thought about a woman they had committed adultery in their heart and were as bad as them! Starting from this kind of equal footing of badness Jesus inspired and encouraged, not a defeatist gloom, but against the run of play a repentant turned around life; with that confession that all are bad as me there is if you seek closely “the nail on the cross.”

Don’t be even tempted to download but on this occasion be extravagant and buy the deluxe edition with three extra songs and a stunningly presented book with lyrics and a host of photographs taken by Mr Waits himself. This might indeed be his accessible masterpiece.

Lyric For The Day 6.11.11 from Mysterious Ways by U2


"if you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel"

From Mysterious Ways by U2

I have used the phrase a lot, since I learned it from Darrell Johnston, while he attempting to teach me how to preach at Regent College, Vancouver, but the story of our humanity as it is found in those opening chapters of Genesis is of a people who in reaching to be more than we are ended up as less than we are. Not satisfied with being human in a world created and order by God we always want to make ourselves God, knowing more, controlling more and being served more. As we reach… we end up lower than our full potential, fallen and tainted by our own egotistical self-indulgence.

As many of us head to Church today in hope of reaching and connecting with God, Bono’s line here is a secret to the Universe. Rather than reaching beyond ourselves we need to reach for God by humbly recognising our place and God’s place in the grand scheme of things. This will not only put believers in the right place to seek God but also make us the right kind of people to be useful to our neighbours; not self-righteous and judgemental but humble and servant-like to God and neighbour. A humanity that wants to be served rather than to serve, that wants to be worshipped rather than worshipping is never going to reach its full potential. On your knees is the very place to find life in all its fullness.



A friend was telling me that he was asking himself why his friends should consider Church or Christianity; what would give them the need to align themselves with such things? It got me surmising. For centuries we have concentrated on reminding our non-believing friends that they will die and they need to get their eternal destinations sorted. As I have often said myself, we invest in leaving a good insurance policy for our loved ones when we die, is it not important to have an insurance policy to take with us. That has been our sales pitch in evangelism for some centuries but it is probably, for a whole lot of reasons, not going to make many inroads into this generation of my friend’s friends.

When we go back to Jesus himself, it wasn’t his sales pitch either. Oh he did talk about judgement and he was quick to damn those who thought they were saved from it, either by their wealth or religiosity, but when he was asking people to join his gang there was a different hue to his pitch. In most situations he wasn’t so obsessed with after death as he was with a radically different life before death. “Follow me” was a call to another way to live. “Repent” was about a turnaround in lifestyle. “Selling all you have and giving it to the poor” was a tangible look at what repentance might actually work out like. As was “loving your enemies.” Jesus modelled in his teaching and life a revolution that he asked people to sign up to if they were dissatisfied with the nature of this old fallen world and called people to crash in another very different kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is a call that I believe my friend’s friends are longing for. It is challenging and inspiring and asks more form them. Whether people are camped out at a Cathedral demanding a new and radical way for us to do our commerce, whether they are growing moustaches (the men friends anyway) to raise awareness money for cancer, or whether they are asking for racism to be kicked out of football, people want a better world than the one that they have. The best model for how different relationships and ambitions work out in this life is Jesus who still asks us to turn around the way the world works and bring in a better day for all. It is a bloodless revolution, apart from his own that was shed to make the impact of the revolution possible and the ultimate fulfilment of the revolution in the afterlife a guarantee.

It is not a smug and pious pew filling liturgical assent to a few theological thoughts or Biblical verses that make us feel that we are in and that everyone else is out that we are called to. As my Masters supervisor Stephen Williams says, there is nowhere in the Bible where we are called to heaven; we are always called to act here and now on earth. Pious and judgemental pew fillers will draw none of my friend’s friends to Jesus. Revolutionaries who live out the radical subversive manifesto of the Sermon On The Mount might just. When God’s people have advertised the faith with authentic revolutionary lives then it will be a harder call for my friend’s friends; do they want to be part of the selfish problem or part of the selfless sacrificial cure.

Lyric For The Day 3.11.11 from Gimme What You Got by Don Henley

Don Henley EOTI

“You can arm yourself, alarm yourself

But there’s nowhere you can run

Cause a man with a briefcase

Can steal more money

Than a man with a gun”

-      From Gimme What You Got by Don Henley

If there was an artist who had a vision of the cataclysmic disaster that the worship of money would reap then it was Don Henley. How bizarre that one of the hedonistic Eagles would become a prophetic voice against profit as the bottom line. Henley’s entire Inside Job record is a hard poetic swipe at the damage being done to the earth and humanity by unaccountable anarchic capitalism. Henley is a master of seeing the long term fall out of the short term gain. I have always loved this lyric from the album before, The End Of The Innocence, and how it targets the respectable rats in bowler hats in the business, banking and stock market sector as the new cowboy outlaws! Play it loud from a tent at a Cathedral near you!

Lyric For The Day 2.11.11 from Talking At The Same Time by Tom Waits

Bad As me

“Well we bailed out all the millionaires
They’ve got the fruit
We’ve got the rind
And everybody’s talking at the same time”

-      from Talking At The Same Time by Tom Waits

Tom Waits doesn’t miss the obscene side of the world in recession. As people literally find that they can no longer pay the mortgages that bankers gave so enthusiastically, and even if they can they find themselves in negative equity, those bankers continue to pay themselves obscene bonuses. That something is wrong with the picture could never be more obvious and it is simply a wonder that people have not taken to the streets or, in London’s current case, the Cathedrals before now. The Old Testament is full of ethical economic advice and none of it hints at the millionaires being the ones who get the fruit and the rest the rind; though it is the kind of imagery that those prophets might have used!

Lyric For The Day 1.11.11 from Let Robeson Sing by Manic Street Preachers

Let Robeson Sing
“A voice so pure - a vision so clear
I've gotta learn to live like you
Learn to sing like you”

Manic Street Preachers had many reasons to write a tribute to Paul Robeson. Robeson was a black athlete, singer and political activist who used his songs in the political ways, and with similar left leanings, that the Manics have ambitions towards. He was linked with Cuba as they were but he also had a role in Welsh history too. While in Britain in the 30s Robeson got himself involved with justice for Welsh miners; thirty years before the height of his country’s own civil rights’ campaign a black man was standing alongside the miners of the Rhondda Valley! Another Welsh singer Martyn Joseph has also paid tribute in song.

The powerful thing about the Manic’s tribute is a man whose life and vocation for singing were intrinsically linked. Robeson’s father was a minister and Robeson was the first singer to use Negro Spirituals in performance. Though he didn’t end up being a lifelong Church member he had a deep spirituality that linked art and life and justice. The lesson of the Manic’s song is a lesson for artists everywhere.