Out There

The forgettable fire

The B-Sides: The Best of 1980-1990
Island Records

Hard to believe U2's first record (Boy) hit stores 18 years ago; harder still to believe they're regarded as futurists even now, the fathers and sons of post-modern rock and roll. Until this double-disc "limited-edition" collection arrived last week, it felt like not so long ago that George Gimarc was playing "New Year's Day" and "I Will Follow" on his old Sunday-night show, promising a new-rock revolution around the corner. But listening to these songs so many years later reveals that they've turned to empty echoes, their promise having been reduced to threats (cf. Live). Never mind that from the get-go, U2 made music for the arenas; never mind that their obvious role models weren't so much the punks but the dinosaurs who had yet to turn to oil (Zeppelin was, after all, still around). Somehow, U2 has managed to keep on keepin' on by staying one step ahead of the trend without getting too far out front. That they're heralded as revolutionaries (Achtung Baby, maybe Zooropa, definitely not Pop) with each successive disc must make quite the joke to the kids who've grown old listening to Bono Vox turn into Robert Plant.

Almost two years after Pop went poof--and the ABC-TV special U2: A Year in Pop became the lowest-rated television show in the history of the medium--comes this best-of-and-rest-of, divided into the ubiquitous A-sides and B-for-Better-Left-Alone sides. In other words, here are songs everybody in the world already owns, and a few you didn't need. The A-sides that make up disc one--every damned one of 'em, save the add-on "rare" single "Sweetest Thing"--are monster hits, the stuff of classic-rock radio triple-shots. From "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to "Desire" to "All I Want is You," there isn't one that would sound out of place on KZPS-FM; ain't a single one of them you didn't burn out on a decade ago, before Bono fell in love with himself and the Edge discovered Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

There's nothing here post-Rattle and Hum, none of the ironic, between-the-quotes rock and roll that would propel U2 from the arenas to the stadiums. Also missing are the deep cuts that make the early records bearable; would that "The Electric Co." was among its odds-and-ends. Instead, both discs include "Sweetest Thing," as though such a winsome toss-off was worthy of double duty; ironic how a band given to grander-than-life aphorisms could turn in such a muted Elton John yelp. The Patti Smith cover, writ in such histrionic understatement, is outdone only by the droningly overwrought "Unchained Melody." Proof that U2 is and always has been "alternative" only for people who don't really like new music and wonder whatever became of the Alarm.

--Robert Wilonsky