The big news from this past week seems to have been the great set that U2 played at West Hollywood’s Roxy Theatre. In case you missed it somehow, U2 played five songs (nearly half their set) from Boy-era releases, which means material that came out in 1980. The most surprising (and exciting) of these performances, to me, was “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”, a song which was released as the A-side of its own single back in May of 1980, before U2 had ever released an album. Before the Roxy show, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” had only been played nine times since 1990, and not at all since the Elevation Tour in 2001 – that’s nearly fourteen years between performances!
“11 O’Clock Tick Tock” is a song about the punk scene as it existed back at the time the song was written. More accurately, I should say that the song has to do with the disintegration of the scene as Bono saw it at the time. Punk rock had started out as a reaction against the “big” progressive rock sound and ethos of the early to mid-1970’s. This meant that Punk rock was founded upon the idea that there were no stars in the rock ‘n’ roll gig – since anybody could make music, (which was another part of the culture which was strongly embraced by young U2) the musicians weren’t above any member of their audience or anyone else. Punk rock preached that big, nice dressing rooms and other forms of special treatment for the musicians weren’t necessary. The problem became, though, that as some bands emerged as heroes emerged in the culture, they began to make demands that Bono felt were unbecoming for punk rock acts. Bono therefore became disillusioned with the scene, which we see reflected in the line “I know we haven’t long. We thought that we had the answers – it was the questions we had wrong” “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” is a kind of funeral dirge for the punk rock scene, as seen in the refrain “sad song, sad song”. 11 o’clock is an hour before midnight, the end of the day, so we can read the song’s title as another reference to the scene’s impending end.
Bono was mourning the end of the culture that had gotten him involved in music in the first place, and in many ways the end his youthful idealism at the same time. That’s not to say that Bono lost his ideals, but he was forced to leave behind the idea that his movement wasn’t as pure as he had once believed. I think that this realization is just part of growing up, and it happens to all of us. Each generation rebels against what came before it and then learns the lesson that ideas that separate us or make us feel unique aren’t as important as the things that bring us all together, like music is supposed to do in the first place.
Thinking of how Songs of Innocence and its accompanying tour are all about the band’s formative years, it’s not a surprise that “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” found its way onto a setlist, even if it was only a club gig. In fact, I’d be surprised if the song doesn’t appear eventually at a “real” Innocence + Experience tour arena show, in that rotating second spot in the set-list that’s been mostly filled so far with alternating songs from Boy, “Out of Control” and “The Electric Co”.