I’ve never quite been able to get my head around why Rattle & Hum was so roundly detested in the critical community. I’ve read all about how people interpreted the fact that U2 were celebrating some of music’s brightest stars to mean that the band thought they themselves were one of those stars. I’ve heard folks complain that the movie which the album serves as a soundtrack for is humorless (?!?) and too structured, I’ve even seen whole blogs devoted to discussing why U2 shouldn’t have gone to Graceland, or at least not let the drummer talk about it. At the end of the day, my opinion is that people didn’t like it for the same reason that people whine and moan about the band now. U2 are successful, and people love to tear down anything that’s successful. The truth is that there’s some brilliant stuff on Rattle and Hum, not least of which is the Grammy winning single “Desire”.
“Desire” was the first single released from the album, and it serves as the perfect mission statement for that period of the band’s development; that being that they were just learning about the music that America’s tradition of rock ‘n’ roll is based upon, and they were excited to share what they’d learned. “Desire”, being created around the “Bo Diddley Beat”, is a perfect example of what the band were trying to accomplish – to take everything that was great about American music and to put their own unique spin on it, which was done in this specific example by turning the classic rock and roll riff into a song about everything that drives humanity. You can call it greed, addiction, or simple want, it all boils down to desire, a point which is wonderfully illustrated by Bono’s lyrics, sung in a voice that’s both ragged and confident; one that’s positively dripping with hot and sweaty yearning.
As one might expect for a song that was originally released on the Rattle and Hum record, “Desire” made it’s live debut on the Lovetown tour which supported that album back in late 1989. These early performances were very similar to the original album version – thanks due to the fact that it’s a fairly simple song, and therefore relatively easy to recreate live. Of course, the fact that these performances were so similar to the album version isn’t a bad thing at all, and the Lovetown performances of “Desire” were spirited, energetic affairs which the audiences always cheered loudly.
Of course, U2 being U2, they’re always looking for new ideas and arrangements – new ways to do the same things they’ve always done, and so it was that the “Desire” that premiered at the first night of the ZooTV tour sounded different from anything heard before, although the changes were accomplished by relatively small tweaks in equipment. The simplistic guitar arrangement was beefed up with some new effects that gave it an entirely new sound, and the arrangement of the song was changed so as to highlight the antics of Bono’s Mirrorball Man character, also incorporating some rhythmic piano from a remix that was included on the original “Desire” single. The performance of this that was filmed for the Outside Broadcast documentary is an absolute must-see, showcasing Bono at his satiric, messianic best.
Desire didn’t fare as well on 1997′s Pop*Mart tour, appearing at only 12 shows out of 93. These performances were all abbreviated acoustic productions, performed solely by Bono and Edge from the B-stage that still managed to be a whole lot of fun. “Desire” was played much more regularly on the Elevation tour. This tour again featured the song in a simplified arrangement from the B-Stage, sometimes incorporating the rhythm section that’s such an integral part of the magic of the song, sometimes stripped back even further to just vocal and guitar. When Adam and Larry did participate ,they would join B&E at the tip of the heart for presentations that never failed to get hands clapping in the audience.
Since then, “Desire’s” only come out to play on rare occasions – only 23 times in the last decade – and most of those – although not all – have been of the full-band acoustic variety, most of which were unpolished and rambling in a way that seems somehow appropriate for this fast and free-spirited song. It’s this same somewhat bohemian sensibility that leads me to believe that we haven’t seen the last of “Desire”. The song is perfect for any-time the band are feeling spontaneous or in the mood for some fun, and I’d be amazed if the song doesn’t continue to make acoustic appearances at whatever sort of live shows U2 performs in the future.
"U2 101 - Desire",