October 16, 2002

The Fly is Dead, Long Live The Fly

Cross-posted from @U2.

The Edge just killed my favorite U2 song, but I don't hate him for it. Not callously, but not casually, U2's guitarist dismissed the importance of the first single off Achtung Baby as perhaps not deserving of the place it holds on some (but not all) editions of their new Best of 1990-2000 compilation. Of course, it's his song, and he can say whatever he wants to about it, but I profoundly disagree with his recent comments in Q magazine -- that he is "not sure about" "The Fly" anymore, that he's "not sure whether it's really stood the test of time."

Eleven years ago "The Fly" got me interested in a band that I'd never really cared about and didn't really know very well, and the album that it previewed rapidly became (and still remains) one of my favorite albums by anyone. The song that Rolling Stone called "desperate clangor" and U2 itself described as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree" didn't trouble the American charts very much, stalling at number 61 as a single (though it topped the U.K. chart), and the song's video got stomped on MTV by the latest Guns N' Roses clip. It seemed like everyone else barely noticed this song, overshadowed as it was by the subsequent bigger hits on the album, so for a little while it really felt (however preposterously) like "my" U2 song. The band had decided to give radio "something weird" to announce their return to the limelight, and for U2 this was a very weird song; the rusty, cacophonous percussion, whispered vocal, falsetto counter-vocal, and thick dub bass were solid revelations, but Edge's gritty, soaring guitar and that solo were total knockouts, especially coming from a guitarist who didn't do flash and hardly ever took guitar solos.

Stranger still, Bono's words detail a conspiratorial, one-sided conversation with a narrator who has fallen into the pits of Hell and, to his surprise, enjoys it there. U2's frontman had always used basic religious imagery in his lyrics, but he had never come close to writing anything like this. As a lyric, "The Fly" was definitely Bono's first well-executed Biblical allusion, even though it seems more informed by Paradise Lost than anything else. Fallen angels became Bono's mouthpieces during this period, and like its sister song "Ultraviolet," "The Fly" stars none other than Satan, putting himself back together after his ejection from Heaven, muttering to himself using the royal "we" and consumed by a crippling nostalgia that is only hinted at by the detached, cynical truisms emanating from his jealous heart. While not the sharpest lyric on the album, it did what it was supposed to do at the time: turn all of the preconceptions about U2 inside out.

Further illustration came when Bono totally immersed himself in the character named for the song, complete with bug-eyed goggle shades and augmented by a reptilian black leather suit, betraying traces of Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and countless other rock stars. He dyed his hair black, as Elvis did, and embarked upon a two-year bender of posing, lying, smoking, swearing and generally looking cooler than he ever had before. His entire demeanor became a blatant caricature of his own celebrity, and he appeared to revel in it. Diehard and casual fans alike believed the joke and bought the myth, and Bono, as The Fly, topped not a few Sexiest Male Rock Star lists.

The Zoo TV tour gave "The Fly" its best chance to shine. The song became a powerful anchor for the live set, overloading the audience almost immediately with a rapid-fire visual assault of the same ironic one-liners zipping across every onstage television screen, and though that's almost always cited as the main reason its performances were so stunning, that's not the whole story. A cursory listen to any of the live bootlegs recorded during that tour (the August 16, 1992, Washington, D.C., mix is my favorite) reveals the extra musical muscle provided by U2's majestically blunt rhythm section. Larry's machine-like tenacity and Adam's swaggering bass line overpower Bono's vocals, and would do the same to Edge were his parts not equally assertive. The live performances outlined the song's inherent structural dichotomy, best pointed out by Bill Flanagan when he said "The Fly" was a blues song crossed with a gospel tune. He's right -- the E chord 8-bar verse lifts into an elegant A for the chorus and a blistering B for the bridge, a progression that Elvis wouldn't be unfamiliar with. It shouldn't work, superficially, but it does, and it rocks.

After Zoo TV I thought "The Fly" was gone for good; Bono sang a few of its lines during "Discotheque" in St. Louis on the PopMart tour, but other than that the song didn't see live performance until its unusual but still welcome revival for Elevation's first and second leg. Transposed up to an A key (and tuned to A flat), "The Fly" now closed the main set for most of the concerts, with a new, Eno-esque ethereal beginning chorus. Bono often gave vague, nebulous monologues over this section, and was no longer playing guitar for this song -- free to roam the stage, run laps around the Heart, and dive into the crowd, which he did almost regularly. Ten years on, the live performances of "The Fly" were still interesting and powerful, but certainly less so than Zoo TV. The song apparently struggled to keep its relevance in the Elevation set, and it was dropped by the time the tour took a victory lap around the U.S. in the fall of 2001.

The song's epitaph, I guessed, would now be its appearance (or not) on the '90s Best of collection. I wasn't so sure it would make the cut, and indeed, it will not end up on the U.S. version of this release. The volume of fan response to even the possibility of its exclusion was surprising, even without the "is it, isn't it" teasing of the U2.com official track list. I didn't mind either way -- as I told some friends, I already had the single on CD, cassette, vinyl, and video, just like a good fanatical freak should. After all, what song needs validation from the band when it's helped power two of their best tours? What diehard needs this kind of validation from their band just so they can feel like "their song" wasn't excluded from what amounts to a cash-cow release for casual fans? Not me. This compilation isn't exactly a guarantee to storm the charts, at least not on the scale of its '80s counterpart, so I figured maybe U2 would have some fun with the track list (which they did) and not include simply the singles. As a non-factor on the U.S. chart, "The Fly" would be out. Rampant fan speculation about its inclusion as a hidden track as well as a neat visual hint with the compilation's cover belied the assumed death signs, and supposedly "The Fly" will be there on foreign issues of the album. I still doubt that it will be played live ever again. At least we know why the bizarre saga happened the way it did, and even if Edge is bored with "The Fly" these days, it's still mine, and still yours. It's a great rock & roll song, and it's on a timeless album, so turn it up.

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