INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker MARCH 14, 1987 - by Colin Irwin
"THIS IS WHAT WE DO BEST"
America, good and bad, profoundly informs the new U2 album, The Joshua Tree. Still, Bono is no preacher, he claims. "Eno said, 'Bono has given me enough, but he hasn't given me all he's got.' I've given him more, but there's a lot more to come."
"Once, we were asked to set up an audience with the Pope. We were told the Pope wants to meet U2. We thought, 'This is a good laugh - he must have heard Gloria. So we got the message and said, 'Fair enough'... I'll meet anyone.
"So I thought, 'Yeah, I'll meet the Pope, impress the relatives.' In one way, I'm attracted to him because he's Polish, and I like Polish people, and he has a tender heart. But on the other hand, he's very conservative and some would say he's put the Catholic church back a few years... So in the end I said, 'OK, we'll meet him privately.' Word came back from the Vatican... 'No press? No publicity? But it's the whole idea!' I said, 'Sorry mate, join the queue with the rest of the punters.'"
Bono needs a shave. It's not a desperate need, but there is something incorrigibly Geldofian about him as he bustles about his business, showing early signs of inelegant wastage. Tossing his ponytail behind him, he grabs a mic and bends forward awkwardly, peering hard at unfamiliar lyrics heaped on the floor in front of him... "In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia..."
He bounds over, all smiles and pumping handshakes, a kiss for Regine his publicist. "Sorry to keep you waiting... How are you? Very good of you to come over. Thanks for being patient. Can we get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Something stronger?"
A fleet of Filipino handmaidens? The freedom of Dublin? No, nothing, Bono. Just an intro. And so U2 play The Dubliners' Springhill Mining Disaster, a heartbreaking, deathly song the band are knocking into shape to play on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show (which goes out in Ireland at 9pm!) as part of a Dubliners silver jubilee celebration show, also involving the likes of The Pogues, Planxty and The Fureys.
The Edge painstakingly explains how U2 were groomed on Coca-Cola, American television shows and Top Of The Pops, and that it wasn't until they left to start touring that they realised they were Irish. "And it wasn't until then we realised how special The Dubliners were."
Bono's back, dazzling us with anecdotes, slipping into a series of impressions for which Phil Cool might find a use. "Ronnie Drew [singer with The Dubliners] came up to Larry in a bar once and said (perfect Ronnie Drew voice), 'Are you with the U2?' Larry said yes, and he said, 'Jeezus... my boy, he loves your band. It would give him such a thrill to say that a member of the U2 bought his old man a pint.' So of course, Larry had to buy him one. That's real class, that is.
"See, there are two sides to The Dubliners' music. One is the Paddy at the bar swigging out of a bottle and then, when it's finished, breaking it over somebody's head. The other side is Springhill Mining Disaster, and that's why we're doing that song."
U2 are back in the fray. Their new album, The Joshua Tree, leaves the traps this week and the usual wheels of promotion and touring groan into action. Separately, they explain away the album's ideas and motives with a unanimity that is almost uncanny. Have they been rehearsing their lines? Have they been knocking this one around for so long that they've finally come up with a consensus of opinion?
The album's about America, a new-found awareness of its roots in R&B and country nestling in perfect disharmony alongside their old awareness of its political shame in Central America. They sing rendingly of the mothers of the disappeared, carrying a plug for Amnesty International on the sleeve, while deliberately leaving the flaws they all knew remained on Trip Through Your Wires, an anarchic shambles of a song rooted in twelve-bar blues.
No accident. Bono regards it as only the second album they've ever made, that U2 only really started with The Unforgettable Fire. Suddenly they wanted to write songs where the lyrics weren't scribbled down between takes. Suddenly Bono wanted to sing properly. Suddenly they wanted to become a real band.
"Have you heard the new album yet?" enquires Bono in the corridor, between further bouts of startling hospitality. "Not bad, is it?" He disappears, chortling.
The Edge: "Bono's writing words in a way he hasn't done up until now. He's so much better as a singer now. And we're listening to different things now. We're getting more interested in the classic songwriters, country singers and stuff. It's all relative to our interest in America. It's like we didn't really discover our Irishness until we travelled out of Ireland. And then you go to America and find yourself totally alienated by it.
"Then, slowly, you realise there are different levels to it. The America of the great R&B and country performers, and in civil rights, people like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
"We worked with T-Bone Burnett and Robbie Robertson, and Bono did a session with Keith Richards, people who are hooked up on that. And some of the writers, the new journalism of people like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, the way they were able to bring you to a place - it's almost cinematic. We tried to do that on the album."
Bono drags me screaming to the pub round the corner, in the heart of dirty Dublin's docks. We'd been in the management company boardroom, ducking out of the adrenalin firing the atmosphere all around as the heartbeat of the U2 operation hit peak cylinders of professional panic. The Joshua Tree readies itself for world domination.
"The molecules in this place," he'd said, "they're just flying around. You may think you won't be affected, you've only just arrived, but you will - I promise you will."
And so we perch on two stools at the bar, the nods and greetings from staff and customers and the odd bit of U2 memorabilia discreetly decorating the walls suggesting the chaps aren't entirely unacquainted with this particular watering hole. Bono swiftly sinks an Irish whiskey in the manner of a real rock'n'roll star and bemoans the lack of good writers in the music press, while I keep half an eye on the progress of Terry Marsh on a TV in the corner. "You like boxing? I've got tickets for the [Marvin] Hagler fight in Las Vegas. I'm fascinated by boxing as a writer, but as a person... I met Muhammad Ali, you know, he's a U2 fan."
"Honest injun. Dick Gregory brought him to see us. I was completely blown away by it. I just thought, 'This is one of the greatest sportsmen who ever stepped into the spotlight. A man with real class. A man with a real sense of humour."
Was he in a bad way?
"Listen, even when Muhammad Ali's in a bad way, he's still good enough for me. We have some weird fans. We had Bishop Tutu ring us up. In America, I went to one of the anti-apartheid allies, and the tour was having an effect on America - people were joining the anti-apartheid movement, which was a real thrill. The same thing happened with Amnesty International. They doubled their membership after that tour. We didn't actually speak to Bishop Tutu, but we had a call from his daughter. She said, 'My father wants you to know that your tour of America has consequences, and he appreciates the work you're doing for the anti-apartheid movement.'"
A drunk has collared Larry Mullen at the bar, engaging him in an argument about Self Aid, before telling him the story of his life. U2 were sued at Self Aid, he insists. Larry regards the accusation with equanimity, explaining that, while they didn't agree with all the principles of Self Aid and while it hadn't worked out quite the way any of them had hoped, he had met an unemployed guy in a pub soon afterwards who'd thanked him for appearing on it and said it had given him encouragement.
That conversation alone, explains Larry, was ample justification for them playing the gig, irrespective of all the other shenanigans. They shake hands warmly and the drunk departs, impressed.
Larry Mullen is not only the youngest member of U2, he's also the prettiest. We talk about Bono. Didn't he ever feel the teensiest surge of envy as Bono careered around, grabbing the adoring masses and vigorously dumping them into the palm of his hand?
"No, no, NO!" he says, horrified. "Being a singer is a terrible responsibility. I sometimes get the odd twinge that I wouldn't mind playing lead guitar, just like a couple of notes, but that's about as near as I would want to get to the front."
I'll have a word with The Edge.
"It looks so frightening being the singer. Especially from where I am. You know, Bono disappears into the audience and you don't know what is happening. You just have to play on and hope for the best, but it's very worrying. I trust his judgement, I really do, he has an instinct for these things... but it doesn't stop you worrying. I don't always understand it, but I trust it."
The Basildon fireman [Terry Marsh] has won the world title and Bono is off on a rant about violence and peace and stuff like that.
"People think the reasons I'm attracted to Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Jesus Christ are that, in some way, I'm a real man of God myself. In truth, the real reason I'm attracted to these peaceful men is I'm the guy with the broken bottle. I grew up that way and I despise violence, I despise the violence in me, and that is why I'm attracted to men who've turned their back on it.
"There was a gig in America once where I threw Larry's drum-kit off stage and had a go at the band. And Edge, who is my ideal - he's completely composed - he was so outraged by the violence in me that he gave me a severe dig in the mouth. It was amazing. I've known him all my life, and it was a really good dig in the mouth. It knocked me over. This was on stage, in front of the Talking Heads and The B-52's. I think they all thought it was part of the show.
"You see, for me to sing on stage, the only way I can do it is if I'm really committed to it, and if I sense anything less than complete commitment from the others, then I get very antagonistic towards them, and occasionally this has led to a bit of a fracas. Larry was having a bad night and I was having a bad night and - well, some people come to see U2 and expect to see me in saffron."
You are a bit of an icon to a lot of people.
"I think I must be a very bad icon. People mistake the music for the musician. What's special about U2 is the music, not the musician. I and the others are just ordinary people and our trade is to make music. Somebody else's is to build houses or work in a factory or teach. We're just getting to grips with our trade as songwriters, that's all."
But surely you encourage it? All that flag waving and wading into the audience creating frenzy, don't you feel uneasy about that?
"I do. We went on stage in front of fifty-thousand people at Milton Keynes and it had been raining all day and the field was like an Irish bog. We went on and I thought, 'How can I live up to this? These people deserve the best concert of their lives, how can we live up to that?' And I couldn't answer it, I can't come to terms with it.
"That feeling has led me to exaggerated gestures on stage, but I've since decided words speak louder than actions. I've got to put the actions behind me. I always resented being on a stage, I always resented that barrier between me and the audience, and this led to that infamous gig in Los Angeles where I ended up falling off the balcony and a riot ensued and people could have got hurt.
"The band took me aside backstage and said, 'Look, you're the singer in a band, you've just got to get up there and sing. People in the audience understand the situation, you don't always have to remind them that U2 aren't stars to be worshipped - they already know that.'"
"Oh, they do. But by doing that, it looked like a big star trip when it was exactly the opposite I had in mind. It was something that went back to what I was doing back at the Dandelion Market in Dublin and received a good kicking on that occasion."
But by going into the audience, surely you're bound to incite them?
"Yeah, isn't it funny? I swear to God that was the last thing on my mind. It came out of the exact opposite feeling. We were born out of that punk-rock explosion. I was sixteen in 1976 and in a punk band, and this idea of separating the artist from the crowd was the antithesis of what that explosion was all about. I carry that with me and I would end up in the audience as a result. But it was a big mistake."
It won't happen again?
"Nope. Scouts' honour. If the band were here, they'd be groaning now, saying, 'We've heard that before.'"
The band confirm they have heard it before. The Edge seems positively bemused by Bono's behaviour on stage. "We used to sit him down before a gig and say, 'Listen, you're not going into the audience tonight, are you?' And he'd say, 'No', and he'd really mean it. But he can't help himself. As a singer, he feels the need to physically get close to people. When he's on stage, he's in a different mental state. Performance for Bono is so total that he comes off stage sometimes and he's totally in space."
Don't you get embarrassed by some of his exploits?
"Embarrassed? No, not embarrassed. Just petrified."
Greg Carroll was a Maori. U2 met him on one of their excursions to the Antipodes and he became part of the road crew, returning with them to Dublin to become involved in their personal management. One day Bono asked a favour of him and Greg duly went off to collect Bono's motorbike. On the way back he crashed it and was killed.
The Joshua Tree is dedicated to Greg Carroll, and one track on the album, One Tree Hill, was written as a direct response to his funeral. A sort of therapy for the band, perhaps, as Bono can hardly bear to talk about him.
"He was almost flesh and blood with U2. We met him in Auckland, New Zealand. Auckland is a city set around five volcanic mounds and the smallest one is called One Tree Hill because there's a tree at the top of it. We met Greg Carroll there and he worked with us on The Unforgettable Fire Tour.
"He was one of those guys you say he's too good for this world. We haven't, and I don't think we ever will, get over his loss. And he died doing me a favour. I don't know what to say. He further made 1986 the most paradoxical year in our lives. That's why the desert attracted me as an image. That year was really a desert for us. It was a terrible time.
"Death is a real cold shower, and I've had a lot. It's followed me around since I was a kid, and I don't want to see any more of it."
One Tree Hill is followed on the album by Exit, another song of violence and death. Its positioning on the album would indicate conceptual programming, but U2 insist the song is about no specific person and is purposely vague.
The Edge, who had a hand in the lyric, says it's the prime example of their new cinematic approach to constructing songs and was partly inspired by reading Mailer's The Executioner's Song. Bono, on the other hand, talks of Flannery O'Connor and black comedies from the Deep South of America.
"It's just a short story really, except I left out a few of the verses because I liked it as a sketch. It's just about a guy who gets an idea into his head. He picks it up off a preacher on the radio or something and goes out and... I haven't quite worked it out yet whether it was a suicide or a murder. The words just came out very quickly on the last day of the record. We had thirty songs for the album and chose eleven of them, but I wanted a song with that sense of violence in it, especially before Mothers Of The Disappeared.
America, America. It dominates the world and thrills and appals U2. Adam Clayton was appalled when, halfway through their first major US tour, he noticed that they'd adopted the first signs of American accents. Panic set in. MTV and American radio was subsequently banned from their ears and an urgent SOS went out for a rescue dispatch of tapes of the John Peel and Dave Fanning shows, lest they become any more contaminated by the bile of American music.
Thus freed from the taint of American media brainwashing, they started to prod beneath the surface a little more. Asked who he is listening to now, Edge will reply, "Hank Williams, Archie Edwards, Willie Dixon and Mel & Kim." And Bono talks wistfully of listening to Keith Richards playing gospel songs on the piano and he, Bono, being introduced to his first John Lee Hooker record at the age of twenty-five.
"It didn't change my life, but it changed my attitude to music. I went home that night and wrote Silver And Gold. I met T-Bone Burnett once in a bar. He said, 'I'm writing a song at the moment, it's called Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her. I'm in Room Five, would you like to join me?' How can you turn down an invitation like that?"
"So we went off and wrote that song. He'd then hand me the guitar and say, 'Now you play me one of your songs', and I'd look at the guitar, turn it over and play the beat on the back and sing it unaccompanied because U2's music was without root. We, as a group, formed our own sound devoid of any background, because our record collections started in 1976 with Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith and The Clash and The Jam.
"Silver And Gold was my desperate attempt - and I wrote it in two hours - to write a song that belonged to a tradition. I was writing it about South Africa, about a man who was at the point of violence, which is something that fascinates me."
Cropped hair, allied to a jaunty pair of pince-nez, gives Adam Clayton the air of an eccentric American college professor. An odd illusion for a man with such an urbane, even aristocratic manner, which itself seems at odds with a man who plays bass with U2 and uses the words "rock'n'roll" at any available pause in the conversation.
There's no specific U2 sound, he insists, because they keep changing it. At one point, they were working on the album and Bono interrupted Edge and said he was beginning to sound like U2. Edge took the point and wiped the slate clean. They wanted to make a live-sounding album because that's what rock'n'roll is all about. They know the album is technically flawed, but that's what rock'n'roll is all about. This album is rootsier because, shucks, that's rock'n'roll. And boy, those old '50s records; half of them are out of tune and the playing's awful, but it sure as hell is rock'n'roll.
One of the first things Bono greets us with, between offers of tea, coffee or perhaps something a little stronger, is a eulogy about Ben E King's Stand By Me and its perfect right to be at Number 1.
"Adam Clayton... Adam Clayton," bellows Bono suddenly. "If it wasn't for Adam Clayton, I wouldn't be in U2. Adam Clayton found Paul McGuinness, our manager. Adam Clayton booked our first gigs. I owe so much to him. He's totally committed to being in U2.
"For a few years, I didn't know whether I wanted to be in a band and U2 didn't know. We thought we might break up. It was after Boy, which I thought was a great album. I lost interest. I had less interest in being in U2 and more of an interest in other sides of me, whether I was talking to a Catholic priest in the inner city or a Pentecostal preacher, I was sucking up whatever they had to say. I was interested in that third-dimensional side of me and I thought rock'n'roll was a bit of waste of space.
"I thought, 'OK, U2 were good at being a band, but maybe we could be better at doing other things, like getting involved in the inner city or something.'
"We were teetering on the brink of collapse. Adam was completely heartbroken about this. He was totally disillusioned, because he was more interested in other spirits like whisky or tequila or anything else he could lay his hands on. I'm alright now, I've come to terms with being in a band. I think now that this is what we do best."
The next U2 single will be called With Or Without You, a melodic ballad that sounds like a smoochy love song but, if it is, someone's put acid in the champagne. At the moment they're editing the video. Bono's face appears on the screen, harsh and cold, his hair swept cruelly back to emphasise that this is no standard standard.
Bono is uncharacteristically immodest about the song. He thinks it's brilliant. He thinks it should go to Number 1. He thinks the charts need U2 right now a hell of a lot more than U2 could ever need the charts. He almost believes the song has turned him into a half-decent singer.
"I don't think I've been a good singer, but I think I'm getting to be a good one. On Unforgettable Fire, I think something broke in my voice and it's continuing to break on The Joshua Tree, but there's much, much, much more there. At the end of Unforgettable Fire, Eno said, 'Bono has given me enough to get away with it, but he hasn't given me all he's got.' I've given him more on this record, but there's a lot more to come. I know that.
"See, I'm loosening up as a person, about my position in a rock'n'roll band, about U2, but for years I really wasn't sure about who I was or who U2 were or, really, if there was a place for us. People say that U2 are self-righteous, but if ever I pointed a finger I pointed it at myself. I was defensive about U2 and therefore I was on the attack.
"When I hear U2 records, I hear my voice and I hear an uptightness. I don't hear my real voice. A lot of it was to do with writing words on the spot, making them up as I went along. But Chrissie Hynde said to me, 'If you want to sing the way I think you want to sing and the way you can sing, then write words that you believe in.' I'd never done that. I was literally writing the words as I was doing the vocals."
"I thought writing words was almost old-fashioned. A hippy thing to do. I thought what I was doing in sketching away was... Iggy Pop had done it and he was a bit of a hero. I thought that, as soon as I had a pen in my hand, I was a dangerous man and..."
He suddenly stop dead mid-sentence and I wonder if it's a coronary.
"I hear U2! It is! It is!" He's very excited; they're playing his song. "It's Where The Streets Have No Name, it must be on a radio. There. Do you hear it?"
Either he's hallucinating or I am.
"I want to be a singer. I aspire to being a soul singer. My heroes are Van Morrison, Janis Joplin... but on the other hand, they're Scott Walker and Elvis Presley, and trying to work in the two is where I am at the moment. The other interesting thing is that all the people that inspired me when I was growing up all had the same confusions of faith. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, Al Green, Marvin Gaye - this has been a real encouragement to me."
He pauses to reflect again on With Or Without You.
"It's a great single. God almighty, I hope it gets into the Top 10, I really do, it's a classic 45."
Fighting talk, but who cares about his singles when your album is almost guaranteed to go straight into the charts at No 1? And on St Patrick's Day.
Clayton and The Edge still cringe as they recall the last time they were on Top Of The Pops. "We were the first group that went on that show and our record went down," says Edge, smiling. "We really felt pretty stupid doing it, though. We were on the same week as Echo & The Bunnymen - that was when Echo were still talking to us - and Mac suggested we swap guitar players. I actually thought it was a pretty funny idea, but somebody said there would be trouble from the unions, so we didn't do it."
But Pride was a hit single, and a damn good one.
"It's the highest chart placing we've had, but we're really terrible at producing singles. We're never prepared to work out all that remix stuff and all those other promotional devices, it's never been a priority with us."
"And ultimately," adds Clayton sagely, "I hope people will remember Pride for what it was about rather than the fact that it was a hit. It was important for us to have a single which said something, rather than just make a nice noise on the radio."
"I guess I'm just an over-the-top kinda guy." Is that a plea of guilty?
"The Irish are great dramatists. The English hoard words and the Irish spend them. We're loose. Like James Brown - 'I'm a sex machine' - now that's not subtle. On one level, we're accused of being too subtle and, on another, we're not subtle enough. I'm interested in a certain language. On this record, I'm interested in a lot of primitive symbolism, almost biblical. Some people choose to use red, some people choose turquoise. Some people like lavender. I like red.
"During this period, I was influenced by the John Lennon handbook. I had it in my breast pocket... Sunday Bloody Sunday... after all, John Lennon wrote the first one. What upsets me is that when people see U2, they see only Sunday Bloody Sunday and the guy with the white flag. They don't see Drowning Man, which was on the same album. There is another side to U2. Sure, we arrived with a placard in our hands - and bold placards - but that's not just what U2's about."
But you shouldn't be surprised when that's what the media pick up on.
"Oh, we deserve everything we get on that one. But Boy wasn't like that. Nor was October. It was simply one album, War, which was a reaction to the new-romantic movement, the cocktail set-mentality, and deliberately we stripped our sound to bare bones and knuckles and three capital letters - WAR - and we put these prime colours in. But we've stood accused since then for that one album. You could say the same thing about John Lennon, he went through a similar sort of period, or Bob Dylan on his earliest work, Masters Of War and all that. It was just a period we went through."
Do you regret it now? "No."
Last year, Bono went to Nicaragua and El Salvador, where he met some of the mothers of the disappeared, inspiring the album's final track. The Amnesty International tour hit San Francisco and Lou Reed took him to Mission Street, where the walls are covered in anti-American slogans and vicious murals. There he met the Chilean artist Rene Castro.
"I was drawn towards Central America through meeting him. At first he didn't pay me much attention, until he discovered the Amnesty connection. Amnesty saved his life. He'd been captured when Allende was killed and they had the military revolution. He was tortured. He had a hole in his chest. They bored a hole in his chest. He was in the stadium with Victor Jara when he had his fingers cut off and then, eventually, was brutally murdered.
"Amnesty International had got him out and people from the Latin American community came to our gigs and Rene Castro sent me some of his paintings and, eventually, I was asked to go to Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Nicaragua it's, well, it's the sexiest revolution I ever saw. Women in khaki uniforms standing on corners and, well, I don't like anyone with an Armalite rifle, but they were standing there smoking cigarettes and looking like Miss World.
"And then going to Salvador, the difference in the air was incredible. You could feel the atmosphere of malevolence from the troops. It was awful. I wrote Bullet The Blue Sky out of the fear I felt there, using very primitive imagery. Because Salvador looks like an ordinary city. You see McDonald's, you see children with schoolbooks, you see what looks like a middle-class environment until you go twenty-five miles out of the city and see the villagers and the peasant farmers.
"I was outside on my way to a village, and the village was bombed and it scared the shit out of me. I didn't know which way to run. They were mortaring the village and there were fighters overhead and it was completely... And this little farmer says to me, 'No worry, it's over there.' He was going through it every day of his life and he'd learned to live with it, whereas I was there just for a few weeks and I was really concerned with number one at that point. Troops opened fire above our heads while we were there... just flexing their muscles... and I literally felt sick.
"The idea that people at our concerts in America, their tax was paying for these instruments of torture, was something I hadn't quite come to terms with."
He turns to Larry Mullen. "Do you think I should be talking about this? Probably not."
Terry Marsh is world champion. The new album is called The Joshua Tree. And they wouldn't tell me why.