Sunday, March 26, 2017

U2's Joshua Tree Turns 30 -- An Appreciation

IT STARTS WITH THE LOW METALLIC SOUND of something coming alive, dawning, surging with energy and with urgency. Over the first 1:46 it gains a rhythmic momentum. Then, at 1:47, it gains a voice:

"I wanna run, I want to hide. 
I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside. 
I wanna reach out, and touch the flame
where the streets have no name."

With that declaration -- 30 years ago this month -- U2's fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, took off, catapulting the already-popular Irish rock group to global superstardom.

That cinematic first track, Where the Streets Have No Name, was a declaration of purpose. A sonic attack was coming, one aimed at the wide-open spaces of America.

U2 came, saw and kicked ass.

Four of the album's 11 tracks crashed the Billboard Hot 100. Two of them -- With or Without You and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For -- went all the way to the top, a pair of number one hits from a band that sounded nothing like other acts dominating the charts that decade.

They weren't synth pop like Michael Jackson, George Michael or Madonna. They weren't turn it up to 11 arena rockers like Asia, Journey or Bon Jovi or heartland rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seeger and John Mellencamp.

U2's sound was spare, almost martial, dominated by Bono's mournful voice alternately quiet and soaring, augmented by the reverb-heavy guitar play of a man called The Edge. They were backed by Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums. It was a classic Beatles-style line-up, but the output was otherworldly.

To be sure, this band hailing from Dublin, not Liverpool, hit singles and all was no singles act and the power of The Joshua Tree is in the sustained message and mood of its 51-minute run time. The magic was in its sequencing.

It plays like a great mix tape. For just what that means, we turn to an authority on that topic: Championship Vinyl used record store proprietor Rob Gordon:

"You've got to kick it off with a killer to grab attention, then you've got to take it up a notch, but you don't want to blow your wad, so then you've got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

High Fidelity
author Nick Hornby's ode to rock music and arrested development, wasn't published until 1995. The movie version, starring John Cusack as Gordon, wouldn't hit theaters until 2000, but by then the rules for track sequencing were already well established.

And for whatever other conventions U2 may have discarded in their rise to planetary superstardom, they followed the mix tape formula to a tee on Tree:

Side A

Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still

Side B

Red Hill Mining Town
In God's Country
I Trip Through Your Wires
Mothers of the Disappeared

Side A's first three tracks weave a kind of sonic spell, each song building on the one before it, until the discordant, wailing Bullet the Blue Sky, (a song about the terrible might of American airpower) brakes the reverie. The side closes with an intimate ballad about a failing relationship -- or, some say, drug addiction -- or perhaps about anyone trapped by circumstance and losing ground, delivered in mostly hushed tones and quiet piano-led instrumentation, Running to Stand Still.

Side B is simultaneously more powerful and less cohesive, its emotional climax coming with the searing elegy One Tree Hill, reportedly recorded in a single take. The final cuts, Exit and Mothers of the Disappeared seem almost unworthy followers. Given all that came before them, what could?

The Joshua Tree album topped the charts in nine different nations including the U.S., U.K., Canada and New Zealand, but oddly stalled at number 3 in Australia, and won the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

An entire generation has been born, grown, gone through college, joined the workforce and started families since its release, yet -- in testament to the Joshua Tree's timeless power -- it still sounds current. 

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, March 4, 2017

KISS Transformed! Marvel Comics Gives the Hard Rock Gods the Superhero Origin Story They Deserve

ALL THE GREAT SUPERHEROES have great back stories, origin stories: tales of blood and self-sacrifice and of science gone wrong.

Rock and roll heroes. Comic book heroes.
Superman was sent to Earth by his parents from the dying planet Krypton. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. Doc Bruce Banner, belted by gamma rays, turned into the Hulk and Bruce Wayne, eyewitness to his wealthy parents' murder, became the crime-fighting vigilante Donald Trump Batman.

But what about those heroes with mythic garb, great powers and guitars? What about KISS?

Born out of the New York City glam rock scene in 1973, the quartet -- Gene Simons on bass, on rhythm guitar Paul Stanley, on lead guitar Ace Frehley and the drummer, Peter Criss -- adopted outlandish on-stage persona: silver-trimmed black platform shoes, skin-tight costumes and full facial makeup that transformed them into the fire-spewing Demon, Starchild, Space Ace and Catman.

Within three years, the band released six albums with dynamic titles like "Hotter Than Hell," "Dressed to Kill," "Destroyer" (which included a love song called "Beth," their first top 10 hit), and "Rock and Roll Over."  But it was in in-concert double-LP "Alive!" -- featuring the timeless anthemic "Rock and Roll All Night" -- that launched them into the stratosphere.

Stanley, Criss, Frehley
and Simmons give blood
for the cause.
Membership in the Kiss Army fan club exploded. There were t-shirts to be worn, posters to be hung, lunch boxes to brandish, but something was missing: a backstory worthy of their renown.

Enter Marvel Comics.

While not yet the multi-media behemoth it became as part of the Disney empire, the 1970s saw Marvel's superhero stable ascendant. While the more staid DC comics universe still heavily relied on its Batman/Superman - Gotham/Metropolis polarity, Marvel's marvels were flawed, quirky, quarrelsome, sarcastic and self-deprecating. Some came from places you could actually visit, like Queens.

Now, the real life NYC denizens known as KISS would become part of that fantastical world. Their birthplace: a photo booth in the authentic Times Square arcade, Playland.

"A Marval Comics Super Special!" a first-of-its-kind magazine-sized publication, hit the news stands early in 1977. "Forty pages of full-color comics. Plus never-before-published photos and features. Printed in real KISS blood." 

Shout it out loud, indeed. Inside, this story:

"Heads up Flaming Youth! Hither cometh they destiny!" an old, blind man, being attacked by sidewalk thugs, shouts at the passing Stanley and Simmons before hurling to them a cube later identified as the Box of Khyscz.

Pursued into Playland, where they were already headed to meet Frehley and Criss, the foursome duck into the booth to pry open the box. Inside are three wood-carved figures and black star -- the Talismans of Khyscz -- that instantly transform whoever holds them. Moments later... "in a paroxysm of thunder and lightening"... BOOM!*

And there they were.

Catman pouncing, Demon spitting flames, Star Child searing a man's soul and Space Ace teleporting them all to the momentary safety of Battery Park, where they soon met the man claiming ownership of the Box of Khyscz, the Monarch of Latveria: Dr. Victor Von Doom.

The Wrath of Dr. Doom.
Through time and space they traveled, across pages and pages of adventure studded with cameos by Marvel A-list-ers: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, plus the devil himself and a thuggish, jealous feline gangster, before their climactic confrontation with Dr. Doom in Chapter IV: "See Latveria and Die!"**

Forty years later, amid line-up changes and reformations, in make-up and not, KISS endures.

In 2014, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Their comic book debut: a keeper.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

* For those who dispute the educational value of comic books, I note the vocabulary-building word choice.

** Vaguely Baltic-sounding, Latveria may or may not have been an amalgam of Latvia and one of its neighbors, Lithuania or Estonia and may not have been under Soviet influence.