Home > Uncategorized > Salome, Strauss, and U2: Part Two

Salome, Strauss, and U2: Part Two

[Note: Please read the previous installment  first.]

Berlin, late 1990. The infamous Wall dividing the city had fallen a year earlier, and Germany became to all intents and purposes reunified on 3 October. Within just a few months, two audio recordings of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome were made in the city. For Sony, Zubin Mehta led the Berliner Philharmoniker, with Eva Marton in the title role and Bernd Weikl as Jochanaan. A month later, Giuseppe Sinopoli recorded a version for Deutsche Grammophon with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, accompanied by Cheryl Studer and a newbie named Bryn Terfel. In keeping with the biblical theme, both were recorded at Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche. In addition, Sinopoli conducted the Deutsche Oper in a videorecording on the now-defunct label Teldec, with Catherine Malfitano and Simon Estes. It is currently available on DVD from Kultur, as well as on YouTube with Spanish subtitles. The sound recordings appeared in late 1991, along with a French language version recorded earlier in 1990 in Lyon, while the videorecording came out in 1992.

Around the same time, an Irish rock band licking its wounds came to Berlin to create what would become one of the most iconic albums in rock history. Bill Flanagen describes this wilderness period for U2 quite well in his 1995 book U2: At the End of the World, which is the source for much of what follows in the next few paragraphs (which you may skip if you’re already familiar with the story).

After the success of their 1987 album The Joshua Tree, released 25 years ago this month, U2 faced a generally negative critical reception for the album and documentary Rattle and Hum the following year. Although intended as a tribute to rock’s origins and early history, critics perceived pretentiousness, pomoposity, and presumptions of greatness as U2 played alongside such luminaries as Bob Dylan and B.B. King. The negative criticism did not hurt the commercial success of the album and film, but U2 took it to heart. Members began to doubt the band’s future, becoming concerned that they were already playing a “greatest hits” cavalcade at live shows, and that they had cultivated an overly-earnest image.

Internal conflicts complicated matters further. Along with bassist Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., producer Daniel Lanois questioned the seemingly radical “new direction” that guitarist The Edge and frontman Bono had in mind. Furthermore, the Hansa recording studio had fallen into disrepair. Luckily for the band, on the verge of breaking up, veteran producer Brian Eno dropped by to act as mediator, pointing out how the differing perspectives were actually complementary. His impartial encouragement is credited with helping U2 figure out where to go, and perhaps even saving it.

Aptly, the almost spontaneous formation of the song One, which derived from work on Ultra Violet, proved a turning point. Doubts remained, but the members of U2 ultimately decided to stay together, both as bandmates and (as they met 15 years earlier) friends. They eventually moved recording operations from Berlin to Dublin, wrapping up production a few weeks before the album’s release date of 19 November 1991. Meant to deflate accusations of pomoposity, the album was given the jokey title Achtung Baby (an allusion to Mel Brooks’ musical-within-a-film Springtime for Hitler, which features a “hip” Adolf Hitler). Readily discernible musical influences included electronica, dance music, and an increasingly mainstream musical style saddled with the label “alternative.” (Just a few months prior, Seattle-based band Nirvana had released its first hit album Nevermind.) After having paid homage to rock’s past, U2 returned to a more chaotic musical and historical zeitgeist, with an eye towards a possible future for the band… or maybe even for popular music as a whole.

“But, wait,” you might be saying. “I thought you were going to talk about similarities between U2 and Richard Strauss.” No need to fear. The most obvious connection comes from Salome, a song that didn’t make it on the album, but was released as a single. Sounding like a Herod using more contemporary colloquialisms (Shake it shake it shake it, Salome), Bono pleads with Salome to dance for him, but not to stop. He would have to fulfill his promise, whatever it may be. In the Wilde play and Strauss opera, after the Dance of the Seven Veils, Herod is surprised and horrified by Salome’s request for Jochanaan’s head.

Less obvious, but still heavily related to the Salome theme, is a song that did make it on the album. Mysterious Ways refers to someone named Johnny, who has been “livin’ underground, eatin’ from a can.” The connection is quite clear: John the Baptist / Jochanaan, imprisoned in the cistern of Herod’s palace. U2 adds a twist, though. Maybe hooking up with Salome, or acknowledging a feminine manifestation of the divine (taking a “walk with your sister the moon”) is “all right” because “she moves in mysterious ways.” Aber, wer ist dies Weib? Salome? An abstract divine feminine? God Herself? Whatever the case, it is more optimistic than the Wilde and Strauss versions of the story. Oddly enough, the openings of both Mysterious Ways and Strauss’ Dance of the Seven Veils share some interesting rhythmic similarities. U2’s tempo is slower and the overall atmosphere is less frenetic and malevolent, but I’ve wondered if someone snuck out to catch a performance of the opera in Berlin, and brought back some ideas.

Ever since my sophomore year of high school in 1988, I’ve considered Strauss one of my favourite composers. Nonetheless, I didn’t make the connections between his music and some of U2’s songs until over a decade after Achtung Baby. Despite U2’s fame, their music remained out of my listening orbit until about a decade ago.
After hearing Achtung Baby for the third or fourth time, something clicked for me. More specifically, the sixth song on the album haunted me, its dense and complex tonal textures reminding me in the abstract of a Straussian composition. Rarely performed in concert, So Cruel is a deeply personal song reflecting The Edge’s separation from his spouse, which occurred around the same time that Achtung Baby was being recorded. I also picked up on affinities with Roy Orbison, most certainly in Bono’s vocal stylizations; in fact, Orbison is cited as a definite influence. So, how best to describe it? As if Strauss and Orbison collaborated on a song, written in an ambient mood?

As for “Mysterious Ways,” I prefer the embellished version that emerged during the ZooTV tour. From the performance in Sydney, Australia, on 27 November 1993 (and featuring The Edge’s second wife Morleigh Steinberg as the belly dancer), this one is two minutes longer than the studio recording. While the original fades out after four minutes, the concert version begins to pick up steam as The Edge sings along with Bono. About 20 seconds later, a surprise for those used to the studio version. New lyrics (I feel your comfort, love. I need your comfort…), and a thrilling variation on the main theme that seems taken from the Straussian playbook. The tension has already been created, but a slight key change keeps on building it. Bono’s voice seems to leap all over the musical scale, The Edge’s guitar providing some modicum of melodic stability, striving towards convergence with wherever Bono’s going. Adam and Larry’s rhythmic accompaniment keep the song even more grounded, paradoxically lending yet more tension. It gets quieter again. Bono stops singing, the instruments play it cool. But you know something else is gonna happen. And then Larry pounds on the drums, almost like the effect of a timpani roll in Strauss, and The Edge starts riffing again, not seeming to mind as Bono/Herod cavorts with Morleigh/Salome. (C’mon, love!) It goes on for another minute, Bono once again doing his vocal acrobatics before the play ends.

There might be the obvious affinities with Strauss’ Salome, but the riffing in “Mysterious Ways” reminds me more of sections from Elektra (1909), in which librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal lent heavy Freudian twists to Sophocles’ ancient Greek tale of vengeance. Just listen to this sequence (up through 2:52) between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis, as well as the finale with Elektra’s ecstatic and fatal dance of victory. They’re a bit slower in tempo, but a similar kind of buildup appears in the orchestration.

At the end of the concert version of Mysterious Ways, the dancer leaves the stage, and the band becomes introspective with a devastating version of One and the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody.  A few years later, performing as “The Passengers” (more usually Bono, The Edge, and Brian Eno), U2 played another version backed by an orchestra. The performance here is under the title “Pavarotti and Friends,” referring to the opera singer’s collaboration with artists from the popular realm. Most famously, Luciano appeared with U2 in the song Miss Sarajevo, reflecting on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Of course, such performances can get flack from purists in both “popular” (“too pretentious”) and “classical” (“too watered-down”) camps. Such opinions are fine, of course, but the point here is to underscore the ways in which both musics are linked. (I have my own reservations about execution in certain crossover recordings, but that’s for another posting.)

Besides these more concrete associations between U2 and the classical realm, Bono himself has mentioned how his father “Bob” Hewson listened to opera, blasting recordings as he sang along or conducted with knitting needles. Given what this posting has focused on, it is difficult to deny that the listening preferences of Bono’s father likely had some influence on one of the world’s best-known rock bands.

Post-script

Around the time U2’s most recent album No Line on the Horizon was released, I had begun thinking about cross-genre similarities and how conventional modes of categorization prohibit people from making such connections. A chill went up my spine the first time I heard the ending of the titular song of the album. Almost like a message in a bottle from a generation before, Salome had returned for U2. This time with a more explicit connection to Strauss’ opera: the so-called “love motif.” I haven’t come across anything referring specifically to this connection, and I have no evidence that this was deliberate, but listen for yourself.

Indeed, she moves in mysterious ways.

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