This may be the end of what little credibility I’ve built up as Someone-Who-Writes-About-Music, but I’m going to be a contrarian dickhead here and say that I genuinely like U2‘s “Discothèque” and, furthermore, I liked the ensuing album, Pop. The song was released as a five-track single on February 3, 1997, and was met with wildly divisive reviews.
At that point it had been nearly four years since their prior album, the massively successful Zooropa, an album that most fans hold up in the rarefied strata occupied by Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree; many fans and critics were expecting, hoping that the band would continue down this path that had made them the global superstars that they were in the mid-90s. Bono & Co. were not having it. It’s almost as if they said to themselves, “You want us to be superstars? You want us to be the face of rock-and-roll? Okay, well, we’re going to be the most ostentatious self-absorbed rock stars you clowns have ever seen.” I have to believe there was an element of self-parody to this song and, honestly, I respect the artistic integrity behind such a gesture even if the execution fell short by popular standards.
So, “Discothèque” comes out and it’s loud and brash and over-produced and, worst sin of all, self-aggrandizing. As far as I can tell, very few people got the joke. I’m not sure if I got it twenty-one years ago, but with the benefit of hindsight it’s still pretty funny. And even if the humor went over my head, I still liked the song. The heavy fuzz of Adam Clayton‘s bass behind the heavy funk of The Edge‘s guitar was infectious, and supplementing Larry Mullen Jr.‘s drums with programmed percussion was a logical progression from the band whose prior record boasted “Numb” and “Lemon” as singles. So, too, was Bono’s continued metamorphosis through his The Fly character which dated back more than half a decade at this point. Watching the video, you can almost hear him thinking, “People think I’m a self-absorbed, narcissistic asshole, I will deliver an object lesson on being a self-absorbed, narcissistic asshole.” The theater is brilliant, but the song stands on its own as well, especially two decades hence when no one seems to like anything they’ve put out recently.
Also very much worth mentioning is this single’s b-side, the underexposed and underappreciated, “Holy Joe.” The “Garage Mix” of this song is just a straight-up rocker and feels almost like an afterthought to what it seems they were trying to do with the Pop experience. This track is as close as U2 got to embracing the ’90’s defining rock genre, grunge. Not to say that this is a full-on grunge tune, but it definitely has aspects of that, married nicely to the production ethos of their current project at the time.
The importance of the expanded single release is going to be subject to how individual listeners feel about the song. I enjoy it, but I know a lot of fans experienced an almost visceral backlash to this song and the album it previewed. The 90s were also a decade in which you couldn’t escape multiple remixes of every single that got recorded by a major label artist and “Discothèque” is no exception. The “DM Deep Extended Cut” is a ten-minute dance club banger while the “Hexidecimal Mix” either makes use of a different vocal take from Bono or is produced in such a way as to make no difference. The trance-like “Howie B. Hairy B Mix” drones on for seven-and-a-half minutes with a nearly Asian tonality to segments of the song.
I don’t expect this article to change anyone’s mind. I expect the vast majority to go on hating “Discothèque” now because they did then. But if anything, even though I loved it on its release, I think I like it even more now. Part of that, of course, ties into nostalgia – twenty-one years ago I was in my mid-twenties, so who isn’t going to have some pleasant associations with that time in their life? But part of it is the song itself: I can appreciate what I view as the sense of humor that went into making it and I appreciate the simplicity and simple pleasures of a goofy, pointless radio hit a lot more now than I did back then. I just can’t get enough / of that lovie dovie stuff… let’s go. Let’s go. Discothèque!