First of all, this:


Yes, this might well be the greatest riff in all of U2, which is why it simply must be reprinted here. Of course, the other major aspect defining “Discotheque” is that it prompts Super-Fun Things A U2 Fan Could Do With A Time Machine #2, which is to go back to a decade before the single’s release (set your DeLorean to February 3rd, 1987) and describe the video, which pretty much is the last in a run of utter visual classics (the Zooropa era had particular greatness in this regard). Yet, of course, said video provoked a backlash, because in the end a great number of U2’s fans are somewhat, well, American and thus prone to discophobia, instead preferring something very white and electric-guitar led. “Discotheque” is, but dressing up as the Village People, the band gave the impression of it being otherwise.

Even so, to hell with empty backlashes and reactionism; the guitar and synthesisers in this song pull out riff after brilliant riff, unsteady and slightly chaotic in their melodic contours – the one above, for example, bouncing around various perfect intervals, and the post-chorus (Looking for the one/But you know you’re…) one zig-zags as if fighting to gain control of itself. The way it’s all fuzzed out, too, is insane – I initially thought the main riff was chorded, but this is all a good thing. Like “Mofo”, the sheer detail, the bits of squelching synthesiser and mass of cowbell all overload the system, which ironically would’ve have made the song perfect for ZooTV. In any event, the sheer OTT nature of it all certainly set it up well for the lunacy of PopMart – indeed, it was usually the first song of the encore once the band emerged from the Lemon. The other remarkable thing is that, whilst Pop was not viewed (and still isn’t) as an utter renewal of U2 soundwise, this song is them sounding like they’re from outer space again, as the band argued they did with The Unforgettable Fire. Sure, you could point influences – Underworld, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Depeche Mode, Blur, Saint Etienne – but none of these truly take too much hold.

Lyrically, the subject matter varies. If you believe Bono, it’s a “Paul McCartney song” about love (You just can’t get enough/Of that lovey-dovey stuff), and if you believe, well, anyone else, it’s obviously about ecstasy and mindless sex (You know you’re chewing bubblegum/You know what that is but you still want some), although this isn’t something the band ruled out. In essence, then, it’s the most effective song on Pop when it comes to what the band intended, which was apparently a lightness that nonetheless acknowledged darker aspects of society (with the link, by the way, you want “Jo Whiley Radio 1 in Dublin”).

Whilst the lyrics do hold a depth underneath their apparent lightness, that lightness is very much trying to assert itself, not least at the end when any subtlety is removed with a coda of BOOM-CHA!. With self-consciousness, this is embarrassing, but U2 aren’t often about self-consciousness, and they’re certainly not here. To sort-of quote Stylus Magazine on this song, “it works as a symbol for [the late 1990s] at large; extremely risky, more than a little embarrassing, but kind of awesome and infinitely preferable to [today]”. Damn right – “Discotheque” and its parent album, I’d argue, captures what I remember of 1997 far more than the most overhyped record of that year (OK Computer, for those unaware.) in that, yes, those were relatively stable and happy times in the (Western?) world – the Bosnian War fading, the Clinton presidency rumbling on steadily, the optimism of early New Labour – even if they were filled with an undercurrent of dread and perhaps outright fear – the whole Y2K panic amongst the IT-illiterate, the debate (in the UK) over the sovereignty-sapping Euro, and the Asian financial crisis. Some may question whether “Discotheque” stood up to the test of time, but today’s music is all too often so backward-looking, ripping from every previous decade instead of forming new ideas for the 2000s that, if anything, the test is yet to come. It may never come.

Actually, what may be “Discotheque”‘s greatest virtue is a virtue in all the best U2 songs, but maybe most here, in that it can be what you want it to be. It can be a smart commentary on society, or it can be a dumb singalong. It can be a rocker (the New Mix or Vertigo tour version) or the complex electronica piece it is on record. The band makes it open enough for the interpretation to be about, erm, your opinion too. And it’s an invitation I gladly accept.


~ by 4trak on October 5, 2008.

One Response to “Discotheque”

  1. I’ve been reading through your reviews of all the songs from Zooropa, the Passengers and Pop this week. These are all stunning pieces of criticism and interpretation. I was starting to feel like I was the only one in the world who saw the brilliance of their post-Rattle & Hum, pre-ATYCLB period. Thank you for endless hours of reading joy.

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