June 6, 2008
Though “Orange Crush” owes a significant stylistic debt to Gang of Four, a band R.E.M. have name-checked throughout their career, the song is actually more like R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky.” U2’s song predates R.E.M.’s by about a year — by the time The Joshua Tree was in stores, an early draft of “Orange Crush” became a setlist staple on the tour for Document. There are some major differences between the two, but the songs have extremely similar utilities in the context of each band’s live repertoire. Essentially, both songs evoke the sound of “war,” mainly by abstracting martial rhythms and nervous, trebly guitar parts into something that somehow has the same effect in an arena as a thundering metal riff. For each band, the arrival of the song in their set signals two things to the audience:
1) Now It Is Time For Us To Rock Hard, In A Very Serious Way
2) War Is Very Bad; Please Think About That While We Rock
U2 have embraced the abstracted, amorphous quality of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” and have done their best to reinvent the song for each new tour. This is a good idea in pragmatic terms, but in practice, it’s gutted the song, and in some cases, canceled out its original sentiment. Chris Conroy explains:
“Bullet The Blue Sky” suffers from pretty much the exact same identity crisis. It’s been played on every tour since it was written, largely because the band don’t have any other songs in their catalogue that will allow them to show off bruising hard-rock chops. It, too, is a profoundly anti-violent song — it was written in disgust at how the American military was used to subjugate dissent in Central America — but every time it gets trotted out, Bono desperately tries to make it new and relevant by pointing it at some other conflict. On the Elevation tour, he came the closest he’s come to successfully making it matter again, turning it into a sharp attack on gun violence with a hammy-but-haunting riff on the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman. Seeing that song shoved down America’s throat when it was played on the first leg of Elevation was remarkable: here was a band that actually did have the balls to say something that large segments of the audience might not like; here was a band who wrote songs that represented their ideals, and performed them with conviction. But after September 11th, the band dropped that level of interpretation from the song, and hearing it played in New York City became a disturbing experience: inside the arena, it felt like the audience was taking the song up as a battle cry, as a “we want revenge” violence fantasy, losing themselves in the brutality of the music and not in its lyrics of condemnation for the exercise of force.
On the Vertigo tour, “Bullet The Blue Sky” has become spectacularly muddled. It’s obviously impossible to sing a song about the American military abroad in this climate without having that song be about the Iraq war, and Bono knows it; he’s been incorporating “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” into the lyric, and suddenly the song becomes bizarrely, schizophrenically, pro-soldier — at last night’s show, Bono quite literally dedicated the song to “the brave men and women of the United States Military.” How are we supposed to take that? Obviously conflicts like the Iraq war can produce a difficult line to straddle — it’s virtually impossible to respect what the soldiers are being required to do, but it’s impossible not to respect the impulse to serve one’s country in the name of idealism. A song about hating the sin but loving the sinner could definitely be a rich gold mine for the band to explore, but “Bullet The Blue Sky” is not that song.
Much to their credit, R.E.M. have never lost sight of what “Orange Crush” is about, and despite being performed on every one of their tours since 1987, it’s certainly not played often enough to become the tired ritual that “Bullet” has become for U2 fans. Lyrically, “Orange Crush” is in a peculiar zone in which the words are a bit too vague to draw out a particular narrative, but specific enough that it’s impossible to remove the song from its context — the American army, and the Viet Nam war. That said, its central theme is easy enough to suss out: In American society, young men are taken out of their ordinary lives and sent overseas, often to perform horrific duties in the name of freedom.
There is certainly some implied question of whether this is a Good Thing, but that’s not necessarily the focus. Instead, Michael Stipe seems far more concerned with what happens to individual soldiers, and how they may deal with being thrown into these intense, life or death scenarios, and how they may cope with being complicit in acts of large scale violence. The chorus of the song is atypical but highly effective; its odd contrast of anguished moans, howls, and incomprehensible distorted words places the listener in the mindset of a soldier thrown headlong into chaos.
Stipe’s empathetic approach no doubt comes from the fact that his father served as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. The band have insisted for years that the song is not about Michael’s father, and I’m inclined to agree, at least not in the sense that the lyrics are meant to express anything specific about that man’s experience. The important thing is that Stipe’s connection to his father informs his concept of war, and goes a long way towards humanizing a song that would not have to be anything more than vague signifiers and empty platitudes in order to connect with a large audience.