'The Fly' brings U2 screaming into the 90s [October 26, 1991]
Plus: Genesis, Kylie, Carter USM, and The Commitments
This week’s Number One: ‘The Fly’ — U2
I was an avid comics reader in the early 90s, specifically the British sci-fi comic 2000AD.
Like most comics, 2000AD had a huge problem each year. The sci-fi comics readership consisted entirely of school-age boys, and those boys tended to stop buying comics during the summer. And so, 2000AD came up with a strategy to keep their readership engaged during those fallow months: the Mega-Epic.
Mega-Epics were 26-part stories starring the comic’s flagship character, Judge Dredd. The story would run every week for six months, a period that felt infinitely long when you were a teenager. At the end of six months, you would be exhausted. Exhilarated. Transformed.
Afterwards, the comic would reward your perseverance with a little low-stakes, one-off story. Usually something funny. A sweet little amuse-bouche before resuming the normal order of business.
After our journey though Bryan Adams’ epic run at the top, I think we deserve a nice palette cleanser. Something light and frothy and forgettable that we can joke about. Something like this week’s Number 2, ‘Dizzy’, by Vic Reeves and The Wonder Stuff.
But no such luck. We have to talk about the song that replaced ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ at the top. We have to talk about the new song from the biggest band in the world.
In previous issues, we talked about how some 80s bands struggled with the transition into the 90s. Rock bands found this change especially difficult. The big, bombastic sound of the 80s now sounded unbearably cheesy, and young audiences wanted something a bit more spikey. Something with a bit of edge.
U2 seemed like the least likely band to make that transition.
The last time we heard from U2, they were headed in the opposite direction. Rattle and Hum seemed like a vanity exercise, with Bono trying to rewrite American history so that he somehow invented blues-rock. They seemed like a band with with a future of Vegas residencies and then possibly dying of a heart attack on the toilet.
In fairness to U2, they also realised that this was their destiny.
And so, U2 copied Bowie in the 70s. They packed their bags, fled America, and headed to Hansa Studios in Berlin.
They also drafted in Flood as their new producer. Flood (or Mark Ellis to his mum) was an experienced engineer who had worked on The Joshua Tree. Since then, he’d become a hugely successful producer in his own right, overseeing records with a very modern, industrial sounds like NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine and Depeche Mode’s Violator.
‘The Fly’ was the first thing to emerge from those Berlin sessions. And, in the space of roughly four minutes, U2 seemed to have solved the problem of how to transition to the 90s.
Like many U2 songs, it starts off with a big meaty solo from The Edge. But where something like ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ evokes huge amphitheatres, the intro to ‘The Fly’ sounds like rain-soaked alleyways and abandoned factories.
Even Bono’s vocals are reigned in a bit, delivered in a kind of whispery sing-speak. The lyrics, he says, are supposed to be a person in hell speaking to the living about the upside of eternal torment.
For the next couple of years, Bono would play a character called The Fly, who was an insufferable, narcissistic rock star that wore leather jackets and wraparound shades, even when he was indoors.
“We are what we pretend to be,” said Kurt Vonnegut.
Had U2 gone full industrial? Well, we’ll talk about that in a few weeks when Achtung Baby comes out, but the short answer is: no, not really.
In fact, ‘The Fly’ ended up being one of the band’s less popular hits. According to Spotify, it is the 7th most popular song on Achtung Baby. There are only 12 songs on that record.
But for a brief moment, U2 had gone industrial.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘No Son Of Mine’ — Genesis
We Can’t Dance was the 14th album from Genesis, released some 22 years after their debut and 16 years after Peter Gabriel walked out. It’s also their biggest, having shipped a billionty copies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most of the songs are completely indistinguishable from Phil Collins’ solo work. ‘No Son Of Mine’ musically sounds like ‘Another Day In Paradise’, and the lyrics are a similarly plodding treatment of Very Important Issues. It’s a weird fit for an album that’s often quite funny.
(The best Collins-era Genesis song is their collaboration with Spitting Image, ‘Land of Confusion’.)
Number 11 (↑ from 16): ‘After The Watershed’ — Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine
What do Carter USM and The Verve have in common?
They both got absolutely bodied by The Rolling Stones’ legal team in the 90s.
The Verve lost most of the royalties for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ because they sampled the riff from ‘As Tears Go By’. Not even the original riff either, but the one from a later orchesteral re-recording of the song.
Carter USM’s Jim Bob starts singing ‘Ruby Tuesday’ during ‘After The Watershed’. It’s so offhand that it almost sounds like an ad-lib that they decided to leave in, but The Stones did not take kindly to this homage and filed an injunction against the band that prevented them getting any radio airplay. Eventually, Carter paid compensation and handed a Jagger & Richards a songwriting credit.
It’s all extremely ironic considering that The Stones built a career on ripping off blues artists.
Number 19 (New Entry): ‘If You Were With Me Now’ — Kylie Minogue and Keith Washington
Kylie’s previous hit, ‘Shocked’ from earlier in 1991, has a major historical significance. It was the last Stock, Aiken and Waterman song to make the Top 10.
Mike Aiken quit the Hit Factory shortly afterwards due to nervous exhaustion, leaving the other two to soldier on alone. This duet, which peaked at Number 4, was the first big hit of the Stock and Waterman era.
Number 20 (↑ from 30): ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ — Paul Young
1991 felt like a gap year for Paul Young. He did ‘Senza Una Donna’ with Zucchero, he covered ‘Both Sides Now’ with Clannad, and then he released this Crowded House cover on his own. I hope he had a nice time. He seems nice.
Number 37 (New Entry): ‘Lightning’ — Zoë
“Lightning never strikes twice,” sings one-hit-wonder Zoë, on another song about weather. It peaked at Number 37.
Album of the Week
The Commitments OST — The Commitments
You have to be Irish—and born before the Celtic Tiger—to understand what Ireland’s underdog mentality in the early 90s.
Everyone was thrilled by U2’s success. Not so much for their music, but because it was nice to see four Irish lads get good jobs in America. Our economy was shite, the Northern quarter of the country was a warzone, and the English seemed to be actively hoping that the nuclear power station in Sellafield would explode and wipe out all life west of the Severn.
That’s why we got behind this film, a classic underdog tale of working class kids (almost) making the big time. It’s also why we, as a nation, got so excited when the movie and the soundtrack became global smash hits.
Is The Commitments OST also introduced a lot of people (including yours truly) to soul music. Lots of these songs would have been completely unfamiliar at the time, including ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, and some of the deep cuts from Otis and Aretha.
None of these versions are as good as the originals, of course. But they’re energetic and charming, much like the movie from which they originated.