It confounded fans and critics alike, but Ed Power argues that the song, which brought Bono’s MacPhisto character to life, represents a fateful fork in the road for the band
By the summer of 1995, there was one question U2 couldn’t get out of their heads: why so serious?
Bono and the boys had already completed the first leg of their journey from dour stadium preachers to neon-soaked satirists with the $150 million-grossing ‘Zoo TV’ tour, which had criss-crossed the globe from February 1992 to December 1993. Now the Dubliners were about to go one step further. They would do so by lending their name to the ultimate symbol of pop culture tackiness: a superhero movie.
“I figured it’d be good for us to be involved in something that’s basically throwaway and lighthearted.” So said the Edge, the U2 member who’d pushed hardest for the group to embrace the gaudiness of blockbuster cinema, as embodied by Joel Schumacher’s new Batman caper.
‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ was what came out of U2’s first serious engagement with Hollywood and mass entertainment (Bono and the Edge would return to the super-hero genre in 2010 with their disastrous ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ Broadway musical).
The single was released 25 years ago this week. A quarter century on, it arguably stands tall as one of U2’s final moments of genuine inspiration. From then on, they would turn ever soggier at the edges, transitioning into their own cash-hoovering tribute act.
Sadly, the track has come to be too closely associated with Schumacher’s atrocious ‘Batman Forever’, for which it was partly written.
Schumacher’s tilt at the Dark Knight was a nipple-flaunting travesty. And U2 were caught up in the backlash. That’s largely due to the Kevin Godley/Maurice Linnane-directed video, in which Bono, in his cartoon alter-egos of MacPhisto and The Fly, stalks the streets of Gotham.
All these decades later, the time has surely come for the song to receive its due. As a showcase for the Edge, delivering his best T-Rex impersonation via huge lumbering riffs, it’s a delight.
And then there are Bono’s lyrics. Here pop’s grandest ego grapples with celebrity and his own messiah complex (about which he is clearly in on the joke).
“They want you to be Jesus, they’ll go down on one knee,” he sings. “But they’ll want their money back if you’re alive at 33. “
The story of how U2 came to soundtrack a terrible Batman movie is quite a tale. There are many swerves in the road, featuring fast-food chain McDonald’s, Jim Carrey and the trials of commuting from Dublin Airport to the docklands.
‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ was originally put together in 1993, as U2 rushed to complete their surprise new LP, Zooropa. The record was a brain-bending anomaly in the U2 catalogue – an avant-garde mystery box thrown together between ‘Zoo TV’ dates.
U2 had a reputation for plotting every aspect of their career. With Zooropa, they ripped up the road map and went with their guts. They were also flying by the seat of their rock-star pants. As the deadline for releasing the album loomed, they jetted in and out of Dublin for all-hours recording sessions at their Windmill Lane HQ. It was exciting but exhausting.
“I’d be in the studio until three or four in the morning,” the Edge reflected, “and then going home, getting up the next day and getting on a plane at lunchtime, going off doing a show, coming back at 1am, staying up again till 4am. [It] was pretty mind-numbing by the end.”
Up against it, they didn’t have time to complete all the material. One of the pieces left in suspended animation was ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’. The decision to omit it from the record came late, however. By then, its initials had already been stencilled into Steve Averill’s fuzzy cover artwork.
In parallel with this, Bono was embracing his more theatrical side through the character of MacPhisto. He’d created the alter-ego at a rehearsal on the eve of the opening show of ‘Zoo TV’, at the 7,200-capacity Lakeland Civic Centre in Florida on February 29, 1992.
A mouthpiece through which Bono could satirise his most outrageous rock star fantasies, MacPhisto quickly became essential to the ‘Zoo TV’ experience. Each night, in his gold lamé suit, Bono-as-MacPhisto would place a phonemail live on stage. He variously dialled up former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra and Cork County Board secretary Frank Murphy.
The experience of being somebody else was refreshing to Bono. MacPhisto had stayed with him even as ‘Zoo TV’ finally wound down. Post-tour, U2 were emotionally and physically shattered. In need of recuperation, they had decided to take 12 months off – the longest hiatus of their career to date.
Bono, however, was keen to continue his adventures with the lamé lounge lizard. Which is how he and Joel Schumacher came to discuss the horned rock god potentially appearing as a villain in ‘Batman Forever’.
Bono’s Batman passion had been fuelled by the previous two Dark Knight films, ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’. Alas, the director of those movies, Tim Burton, had been pushed out of the franchise. Those with a financial stake in Batman had become concerned about Burton’s dark vision for the superhero, and in particular with the weird and grotesque ‘Batman Returns’.
One of the loudest protesting voices was that of McDonald’s. The fast food chain had a tie-in deal to promote ‘Batman Returns’ with its Happy Meals.
But there was disquiet at the House of Ronald over the film’s grown-up sensibility. Danny DeVito’s Penguin, spewing black ichor, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s BDSM-themed Catwoman were not conducive to flogging chicken nuggets to children. The message came through that the next Batman flick needed to be more family friendly.
“I think I upset McDonald’s. [They asked] ‘What’s that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth,” Burton would say. “‘We can’t sell Happy Meals with that!’.”
Burton wasn’t bitter and suggested Schumacher take up the mantle. With that blessing, the director of ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ and ‘The Lost Boys’ stepped in and accepted the challenge of creating a Batman palatable to Happy Meal vendors and comic book fans alike.
He was keen, too, for Bono to be involved. Yet the more he read the script, the more he realised there wasn’t room for MacPhisto to go up against Val Kilmer’s Dark Detective.
Schumacher understood that the one thing the new Batman didn’t need to be was controversial. In that context, how would a rock star playing a satirical take on Satan go down? And anyway, the movie was already well-stocked with villains It had Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face. With heavy heart, he broke the news to Bono. He also wondered if U2 might fancy contributing to the soundtrack instead.
“I met with Bono while I was putting together ‘Batman Forever’,” Schumacher would say.
“He’s an enormous fan of the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films and we talked for a long time about him appearing in mine. But we had Jim Carrey playing the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Two-Face, and sadly there really wasn’t enough room for another baddie. He understood my reasoning and then he wrote that fabulous song for us which was wonderful."
Strangely, U2 fans don’t appear to particularly rate ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’. Nor do critics, who have consistently ranked it as one of the Dubliners’ more throwaway endeavours.
But maybe that’s why it’s so special. Because it is U2 daring to be throwaway. With the ‘Pop’ album that followed in 1997, U2 tacked too hard to the prevailing winds of trip-hop. They ended up sounding like a middle-aged Morcheeba cover-band. And after that they went increasingly stodgy and bloated.
Even at the time, ‘Hold Me’ was loved and disdained equally. It charted at number one in Ireland and at two in the UK. And it was nominated both for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and Razzie for Worst Original Song. It “lost” both.
Twenty five years later, has the time come for U2 fans to finally give Bono’s Batman moment its due? The case can be made that it represented a fateful fork in the road. At that point, U2 had nothing left to prove. They could have built on the momentum of both ‘Hold Me’ and ‘Zooropa’ and become Radiohead before Radiohead did – a stadium-filling act willing to sacrifice some of their mass popularity in order to remain creatively fresh.
Instead, with 2000’s plodding and histrionic ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, they doubled down on being the biggest band in the world. In 2020, they are certainly among rock’s highest earners. In terms of artistic credibility, however, have U2 ever been more irrelevant? Slapping on ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ on its birthday, it’s hard not to be haunted by the spectre of where U2 might have gone from there.