Around 1957, rock’n’roll was a new thing, with what was still a relatively new trick, the electrification of guitars. Said electric guitar was the musical equivalent of a nuclear warhead, devastating in its sheer volume to the extent of obliterating acoustic basses and weak drumming. Fifty years on from that, though, was the first time I heard M.I.A.’s “20 Dollar” through a record store sound system, and I realised at that exact point that guitars just aren’t the ultimate in heavy music machinery anymore. When armed with silicon chips, you can enact a kind of implacable, utterly focused abrasion that renders guitars tinny and scrappy by comparison. And naturally, this means that one of the most likely contenders for hardest, heaviest U2 song is “Mofo”.

It begins with a small bass rumble, as if to literally suggest a storm brewing, and before we know it there’s a masses of bubbling, snapping bursts of electronic noise and a thwacking of metallic drums. At 0:27, we get the song proper, with the introduction of an undulating synth line that, yes, is slightly reminiscent of Underworld as so many reviewers have pointed out. What Underworld have never done, though, is what enters at 0:35, a great shrieking guitar slide, echoed out to sound as huge and piercing as possible. In fact, the guitar here is a) very much present, and b) full of these odd noises, bending and sliding and never seemingly able to hold a note for one pick of a string, although there rarely seems to be more than one in any given “riff”, which makes the whole part a masterpiece in sheer minimalism. At the three-minute point, or thereabouts, a series of programmed-sounding hi-hats come in, even though the drumming is apparently organic – in any event, what’s real and what’s not is almost impossible to tell here anyway, because the sheer density of the production means that certain small blips, grinds and other noises flash by unnoticed on any given listen. There could be a frickin’ banjo in there; no-one outside the band would ever know.

At 2:26 a strange calm emerges for a brief moment as the song enters the bridge, and it reappears at 4:39 too, as to suggest that a reprieve might come, but of course it never does, and the song fades out with the same dense, messy mass of machinery plunging onwards. It has left us, but it will never leave the protagonist. I mentioned Underworld earlier, and of course what adds to the heaviness of “Mofo” is the kind of deeply twisted lyric that Karl Hyde has never really done. To be fair, that’s because Hyde deals in absurdities and abstractions, looking at club culture with a slightly weary attitude to its crassness, whereas here there’s a bigger issue – yes, once again it’s Bono’s mother, and following on from “I Will Follow”, “Tomorrow” and “Lemon”, I’ll argue that this manages to up the stakes from those predecessors. Here the tone is tough, hard and sexual, presumably to cover up the vulnerability, but understandably (but still disturbingly), these two aspects merge together – the issue is “mother”, the attitude is “fucker”, the result is a “motherfucker” of a song. This attitude can’t keep on forever, though, and those glowing keyboards at 2:26 and 4:39 rip off the mask and expose weakness (Mother, am I still your son?).

The drama, sheer noise and conflation of extremes into something genuinely surrealist – not just odd, because this does seem to be from the subconcious – and disturbing (a song about one’s mother effectively called “Motherfucker” ain’t exactly healthy) is what makes this one of U2’s great songs, and such a fanstastic way to close Pop‘s manic opening quarter. In fact, if I’m honest, I reckon there are probably only a few songs that top this in the entire U2 discography. I hereby challenge you all to prove me wrong.


~ by 4trak on October 1, 2008.

One Response to “Mofo”

  1. Amazing post, except it was more likely around 1953-54 that rock ‘n’ roll was a new thing. By 1957, it had exploded. By 1958, it was dead. For two years, it struggled to survive… see “Hit Parader” mags from 1959-60. But hardcore guitar instrumentalists like Link Wray, Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, as well as garage-bands like the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders, kept it alive, and brought rock ‘n’ roll back to the charts. This was before the British Invasion made it all permanent.

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