INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker NOVEMBER 10, 1984 - by Adam Sweeting
"I'M MY OWN WORST ENEMY IN MANY WAYS"
Bono has waved white flags, disrupted Dylan gigs, raged at politicians and piloted his band to becoming one of the world's biggest. Now, as the Eno-enhanced The Unforgettable Fire looks set to make them even bigger, Adam Sweeting corners U2 in a selection of big tents and roadside urinals across France and discovers that Bono might just turn out to be a decent politician himself...
And so it came to pass that I finally met U2 for the very first time in a huge tent near Nantes. Backstage, the band was wandering about the debris of wiring, moveable screens and Portakabins stacked up on bricks. I wasn't sure what to expect. After all, I'd heard all the rumours, too, about pre-match prayer meetings and the somewhat Old Testament attitude to things like Bono sauntered up, a stocky, pixyish figure with his long hair bundled up under a grey Crimean War-style cap. He was swigging on a bottle of Heineken. In a flash, an anecdote was upon him.
"I really hadn't realised how bad this band can be," he began. "In Sydney we came out and started playing Gloria in two different keys. Adam comes out onstage" - he swiftly dropped into bassist Adam Clayton's familiar groin-thrusting stage posture - "and because he's tone deaf he didn't notice," Bono cackled.
"Thing is," he continued, "when we're bad I go right over the top and become the complete rock'n'roll idiot. Paul Morley from the NME came to see us in Dublin, and the band were awful that night. After I'd invited the entire crowd up onstage and then pulled the PA down around our ears, I went backstage and just put a paper bag over my head in despair. Morley came into the dressing room with his head in his hands and he goes, 'Bono! Metaphysical peaks! Metaphysical peaks! Joy Division at the Lyceum' He hasn't liked one of our gigs since..."
Bono is: polite, courteous, much sharper than Ian McCulloch gives him credit for and disturbingly funny. I also have a strong suspicion that he's been doing his homework on your correspondent. this is both flattering and unnerving - exactly the reaction, I daresay, which Bono intended to create. Bono knows what he wants and gets it.
Guitarist The Edge, once known as David Evans, stepped out of his bathroom, drying his hair. He dressed himself hurriedly, then switched off the small Sony tape recorder which had been pumping out The Art Of Noise. There was a knock on the door as room service arrived with tea and coffee.
There's a gentlemanly quality about Edge which insists that protocol can and will be observed under the most improbable conditions. In a foul, stuffy tent, he will ensure that visitors have a drink in their hands. in a plush Parisian hotel, refreshments are a must, silver teapots on a tray this time. Edge seems to have remained innocent, somehow.
"The first time I came to London from Dublin, I was really... not shocked, but the biggest impression that I had was that of the sexuality of the city," Edge recalled. "Dublin and Ireland generally are obviously very influenced by the Catholic church, it's very conservative sexually in terms of dress, generally in every way. When I first went to London, it was a real buzz, a real rush, because it was such an exciting place.
"I don't know what it is about cities. I think it's because you're depersonalised, you can display your sexuality anonymously. if you went around in a mini-skirt somewhere like Kilkenny, a small town in Ireland, you might find yourself in trouble. But a city has that kind of anonymous quality and you can get away with it." He tinkled his spoon round in his china cup.
"Wow! That's a kind of heavy topic for this time in the morning."
Your band seems very family-orientated, Edge, feet on the ground and all that. A lot of groups at your level (or even earlier) start shedding old girlfriends and mates from home. They go mad.
"I can fully understand that," said Edge, "because when Grand Madness starts taking over, y'know... this lifestyle is so weird, this is no way for a human being to live. When that really starts taking its toll, you start to question everything about yourself. Everything that smacks of normality, suddenly becomes a kind of alien to what's happening around you.
"The thing about this band is that we were friends before we were in a group, and we've never lost that, and that's a really important thing. A lot of groups actually start to move apart and start to worry about solo careers within the band and their own personal profile, and suddenly you have divisions and what have you. A real band, I think, is a family in a way, it's a unit, not just a working unit but something that works socially. I think my closest friends are the members of the group, and that's risky because when you're working with your friends the kind of friction that can happen can be really serious."
Have there been memorable ego battles within U2, then?
"I think so," riposted Edge a trifle dubiously, "but I also think we were honest enough to realise that that side of the human being is very unsavoury and ina sense futile, and we just rationalise it and... if someone had to give in they had to give in. There have been times when we've been less inclined to call round to one another, but it's never got to the stage when anyone's not been speaking or... you see some bands like The Who, the classic example, beating each other onstage. It never got as bad as that.
"Within the band we've got some very ugly sides. I suppose everyone does, but when you're living so close to one another you really find out about it. Again, I suppose we've known each other for so long we've managed to iron out all those kind of problems before the band actually took off, which is a real advantage."
In Paris, U2 played in another giant tent, in the middle of a rusting jungle of girders and mud, busted concrete and shattered factory buildings alive with derelict grandeur. They filmed a part of [Jean-Jaques Beineix's 1981 film] Diva here, according to Larry Mullen.
The rain thundered down all night. At the mixing desk, the harassed soundmen flung cellophane over their machines to try to keep out the wet. Onstage, Edge's keyboards wouldn't work in The Unforgettable Fire and his guitars were out of tune. Afterwards, Edge just sighed and shook his head, smiling weakly.
But U2 got through the set, somehow. So many things went wrong that Bono had no choice but to junk the maps and fly by the seat of his leather trousers. "I just wanna say," he spluttered at one point, "that this band and this audience deserve better than this place." It was too packed to move, and so hot that your flesh felt like it was trying to escape down your trouser legs. At one point, as Edge played a guitar break, Bono crouched at the front of the stage handing out glasses of water to the suffocating punters.
The new album, The Unforgettable Fire, is, of course, quite a departure for our boys. Iy veers hectically away from the hard - or harsh - dynamics and polemics of War. Produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, The Unforgettable Fire finds the Dubliners in shifting, swirling mood. No doubt I should lecture you at this juncture about Rock, Religion and Politics, but frankly I can't be bothered. I like The Unforgettable Fire for its clean break with the past and its multiple possibilities, but I find some of the material on it unfinished and well short of inspirational.
Bono describes the LP as "out of focus". Edge sees it this way. "We were determined to make an LP of contrasts, not just the one-dimensional feel, something that had something for everyone. Our audience now is a huge cross-section. It's not just fans of War - there are people who hated War and loved Boy, people who hated Boy and probably love Pride or something. It's beginning to widen, and I didn't feel War really showed off the full breadth of our abilities as songwriters or musicians, so that was one of the things that was in the forefront of my mind as we were writing the songs and getting the production together.
"Every side of the band should be showcased, and I think it's been done successfully. With a song like Pride you can see there is a certain craft to the songwriting. It's only successful pop song we've ever written, and I use the word 'pop' in the best possible sense. Pop for me is an easily understandable thing, you listen to it and you comprehend it almost immediately. You relate to it instinctively.
"A lot of the rest of the LP isn't like that at all. You listen to it once and it probably sounds a bit confusing. As you get to know it better, it draws you in and you personalise it, it becomes something personal to you. The lyrics as well, I think you can personalise the lyrics because there is an openness to them which is open to interpretation, which I was excited by."
It was no great surprise, then, to find U2 struggling a bit with some of these songs in front of a live audience baying for more. Bono himself, at the Nantes gig, pointed out to the crowd that the band were still learning how to tackle these elusive, multi-layered pieces onstage. This seemed a rare instant of vulnerability from the man famous for flag-waving, breast-beating and PA-climbing, and I liked him the more for it.
And anyway, despite the multiple malfunctions, Wire jabbered like a hot electrode thrust into raw nerve-endings, Bad spanned tighter and more gripping extremes than the recorded version, and Pride struck home with poignant nobility. If Indian Summer Sky and A Sort Of Homecoming veered off the beaten track, well... there are quite a few gigs left to go yet.
Adam Clayton, bassman, is faintly anomalous in the U2 set-up. It is Adam we may encounter pottering about backstage after the show in his personally monogrammed white towelling dressing gown. It is Adam we might find ourselves propping up a bar with in the middle of the night while the other U-boys are dozing peacefully. It was Adam who only recently took Bono to task vis-à-vis the attitude of the band.
It was Bono himself who told the story. "Adam really gave me a hard time," he said, aghast. "He says, 'My dear Bono, you are responsible for the morale of this unit and frankly you're falling down on the job. I think you'd better get a grip on the situation.' So... fair play to him." Bono's eyes widened ruefully. "He's the man to thank."
Clayton, with his curly fair hair, specs and vaguely supercilious public school accent, maintains an air of moneyed independence. He lacks Bono's missionary zeal and one somehow can't credit him with Edge's tireless, scholarly application. However, Adam is the social lubricant of U2, a laconic commentator on the group's comings and goings, the wry observer of the scenery through which they move.
When we arrived in Nantes, Mick Jones' new band [Big Audio Dynamite] were just finishing their supporting set. We could hear it quite clearly from outside the tent. Clayton ambled up and lit a Silk Cut.
"Yeeees," he murmured, "did you hear much of their set?"
No, we were too late.
"Hmmm. Yes. Perfectly acceptable Ladbroke Grove rock." Clayton smiled and sniffed the night air. "Well, better get ready. See you later." And with that he was gone.
Is it something of a challenge playing this new material, I enquired later?
"Yeah, I think towards the end of the War tour we were definitely getting itchy feet to move on, and that' s a bad stage of touring because you really can't do anything about it - when you feel you've played the songs enough and you just want to get away from it. But there's an awful lot of people around the world that want to see us, and why should we just end up playing for London and New York who see everyone who comes through? I like to be able to tour in other places. It's not always fun, it's not al;ways together, but you have to accept that as part of the problems of going to these places."
It was touring, according to Adam, which kept U2 in business up until War came along and broke the band Stateside. Had they not kept up the hectic touring routine, he reckons they might have gone under. Then came War and the cash-flow slipped decisively into the black. So...
"With this new record we knew we had a very strong, firm base and we could afford to take a few risks. Hence Eno coming in - it defined the spirit in which we were gonna make that record. The spirit of it was very much, 'OK, we'll rehearse the numbers as much as possible, but we're also totally open to basically seeing what happens,' and this in itself became a problem, as we ended up with roughly twenty-five pieces of music.
"We thought that might be a freeing thing, but in essence t wasn't, because you have so many different choices - which songs do you decide to go for? Really, only half of the prepared material got on the record, and the rest of the material was the stuff that we'd created under the influence of Eno, so to speak."
For The Unforgettable Fire, U2 experimented with new methods of creating music.
Adam: "The traditional way of U2 writing a song is well known now. We all get into a room, bash out ideas and then Bono sings over it. And we thought, well, this wasn't fully realising the potential of the songs, so Bono and Edge spent time together getting things to a point where the arrangements and chord changes were fairly set, and then the band came in and did their magic. But really that only worked for a couple of songs."
"The one in particular it worked best for was The Unforgettable Fire, and not really any of the others survived that treatment. This band cannot play other people's songs, and it was almost like that with Bono and The Edge saying, 'Here's the song, here's the demo, have a listen to it, see what you come up with.' And unfortunately, once I'd heard what they'd done, I found I already had a preconceived idea of how the bass would be, rather than if they'd just presented me with, say, the guitar line, when I would have had a bassline coming through that was totally mine. So it was very limiting. It justifies itself if we got a song like The Unforgettable Fire out of it, but I don't think we can write a whole LP that way. We still have to resort to the painful process of working it out note by note."
It seems a far cry from the rock'n'roll madness which Clayton has allegedly succumbed to from time to time.
"Um..." he pondered, "I used to think I was into being a rock star, I'm not terribly interested in it now. I may have gone through a phase of being high on limos and pads and girls and stuff, but now that's not what it's all about for me at all. I like what we do. I like very much what our music is about, and that's the satisfaction I get out of it. I really don't need, any more, the approval of other people - I'm secure enough within that."
But once upon a time?
"The worst periods are making records, as there's a couple of months of intense activity where your ability as a musician is being constantly questioned. And that is very, very trying. War was less traumatic than October. October was very tough, and it probably7 did send me a bit batty for a year or so. The nice thing was that The Unforgettable Fire was really just as difficult as October, but I'm relieved I've come through it relatively unscathed."
"I don't know much about politics but I know a little about people," said Bono as the bus wheezed and clanked its way towards Paris, "and I responded to Dr Garrett FitzGerald, who's now the Prime Minister of the country, as a man more than a politician. See, I met him before he was Prime Minister, at heathrow. I just walked through the security cordon, pushed them aside, went up and had an argument with him. For about half an hour, y'know? The police were coming up to me, but he said, 'No, no, it's all right.'
"Then he said, 'Well look, let's continue this conversation when we get to Dublin,' so we went on the plane and ended up sitting beside each other and we had another row. It was not in an aggressive way. I was asking him why politicians don't speak the language of the people, why they invented their own language that leaves the rest of the country out. I was saying that any leader had to throw away the political language they had and speak to people.
"Then he wrote to me and he came down while we were making War. Then because I'd been mouthing off to him about unemployment, he said, 'Well we're putting together this emergency committee on unemployment - I want you on it.' And I said, 'Well what can I do?' So essentially I was a troublemaker. All I could do was arrive at these meetings and when people said, 'What young people feel like...' I'd say, 'Hey, I'm one of them.'
"But I realised that I wasn't unemployed. I realised I didn't want to speak at a committee meeting about unemployment without someone unemployed with me. I realised that there was another language, Committee-Speak, and I didn't understand this either... So not only was there Polit-Speak, there was Committee-Speak, and I didn't really speak the language."
But Bono, isn't the language you sing in with U2 rhetorical, larger than life? A gesture, to some extent?
"Yeah," said Bono. ":I often use words not just for what they mean but what they sound like, the way they bump up against another word. I'm more interested in impression than detail at the moment. I'd like to start using everyday speech - as I'm getting more and more interested in the folk tradition. As they said of Brendan Behan, 'If the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like...' What's the word?"
Bono: "Like people who just spend on everything, they just throw words and see what happens. I think as I go on I am going to work towards a balance between the impression and the detail."
He thought for a while.
"I'm my own worst enemy in many ways."
Why? Because you talk too much?
Bono chortled. "Yeah, I do. I don't talk too much when I'm with people that I believe in and they believe in me, but that whole thing of brushing up against Irish politics, it was a bad thing for the group."
Could that have anything to do with why U2 get tarred with accusations of being pretentious, overblown and bombastic?
Bono winced faintly. "I think it's more a kind of pompous thing rather than pretentious. Usually it's because... coming from Ireland you're a bit like [makes aggressive nutting motion], so people ask you a question and it's Bop! And it came across as being a little heavy at times. but I never pointed a finger at anyone other than myself. Sometimes the tone of my voice gives the impression of a warning, but I never ever point."
I told him that the previous night's gig had seemed low-key by his standards - he didn't wave any white flags and he didn't climb the PA, thank God. It was almost apologetic.
"The War thing, they were symbolic gestures, that's all. Y'know, the white flag... I was sick of the green, white and orange. I was sick of the Union Jack and the Stars And Stripes. I wished the colours could be drained from them and just leave the white flag. And I felt that a lot of people wanted that to be said - a lot of people who were in our audience. It was something very, very simple, and the anger that came out at that time... anger is a dangerous thing - in the hands of a man like meself! It can come across that I'm angry at the audience, angry at them. It's always us with U2. I never write songs about 'you' or 'they'. It's 'us'. It's 'we'. It's 'I'. Always. It's a big difference."
Maybe the problem with War was its military sound. While you were singing about the struggle for peace, the record actually sounded very militaristic.
"But," said Bono, "it was that thing I was getting into at the time, and I still believe in, which is militant pacifism. That's what Martin Luther King was, he wasn't a passive pacifist, he was a militant pacifist. It was the release of a lot of... 'Cos people out there, if you can articulate something for a mass of people as you're singing, it might just be something like 'no more, no war'. Everyone feels like that. They don't go through every day thinking about it, but yet it's in there.
"Everybody's aware right now of the fact that there's an alliance between Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, that there are missiles moving into Germany, but you're not aware of it on a conscious level, are you? You don't wake up and think, 'Oh, another day that might be our last.' You don't think like that."
I think some people do, actually...
"Well, this is it, it's there whether you like it or not. When you are an outlet for that, a great explosion takes place."
I think U2's similarities to a crusade earned you a few brickbats.
"Yeah, that was probably it. The real crime in the music press is... you can say what you want but you better not believe it. I think because of the spiritual side of the group that I was associated with, people thought, 'This is dangerous', y'know? That this guy believes in what he's saying, because rock'n'roll is all a shirk and a shrug. And of course, I'm not into rock'n'roll for that. I'm just not, and I think that made people feel uncomfortable. In Ireland the two things you shouldn't talk about are religion and politics, and there they were."
Larry doesn't do interviews. He's currently going through a James Dean phase, with short blonde hair, denims and biker boots. Larry drinks beer and likes to watch girls, sometimes.
Larry likes to play drums.
In the gents at a roadside caff somewhere in France are all of U2, tour manager Denis Sheehan, U2's bus driver and a Melody Maker journalist. Adam Clayton stands at the urinal. "It's funny how having people watching can put one off one's stroke," said Clayton mockingly, shaking himself back into his trousers.
"I was at this gig once in Ireland," Bono recalled, "and I was in the Gents trying to have a pee, and there was this guy waitin' behind me and I just couldn't get it to happen. Anyway I finally did, so just as I'm leaving this guy turns to me and says, 'Stage fright, Bono?'"
"Since we started thinking about being a band we were always very aware of his [Eno's] work," said Edge, "not just his production work with Talking Heads and Bowie, but also his solo stuff. Not so much in the last couple of years - I must admit that his ambient work has passed me by - but stuff like Before And After Science. I bought that record and at first it confused me slightly, but as I got to know it, it impressed me more and more. His use of textures and different instrumentation I really enjoyed a lot. And we ripped off a few of the production ideas.
"There's one particular track on Before And After Science which impressed me a lot, he had some echoed drums on it, so when we were putting together I Threw A Brick Through A Window for October I brought down the record and we stayed up very late one night with Steve Lillywhite and got out some Rototoms and started working on that, and it worked out well. And when we were deciding on a producer for this record, his name kept coming up. I mean, within the band there's quite a variety of tastes in music and producers, but whenever Brian's name was brought up it seemed to meet with unanimous approval."
Edge moved on to the band's Under A Blood Red Sky video.
"The visual side owes a lot to the weather being so bad," he admitted. "If the sun had been shining, I'm sure that video would be OK, but it certainly wouldn't suit the group in the way that it does. It's those accidents sometimes that... it's seizing the moment. That's another thing we learned in the making of this record, it's the accidents and knowing what to do with them that makes it good.
"Like a few times at soundchecks, there's one particular case of a song we've never recorded called Be There, which was a great illustration of that. I picked up a guitar and hit a chord, just a normal E barre chord, but the guitar roadie had tuned it totally wrong - all the strings were tuned to wrong notes, and the resulting chord which was some weird sort of minor seventh suddenly sparked Bono off. And Adam and Larry were messing about with something, and suddenly there was an entire song, melody and lyric. It just appeared on the end of Bono's tongue. It was really remarkable.
"Those moment's, they're quite rare, actually, I think, and Brian and Danny Lanois were very quick to catch the fact that something was in the air, and make the appropriate move. 4th Of July is another example of that. Myself and Adam were just in one of the rooms in Slane Castle where we recorded the backing tracks, messing around. Brian had some treatments set up for a vocal effect and he patched the guitar into them. Got a rough mix going, it sounded really good, so he just put on the quarter-inch tape machine. So 4th Of July never went to twenty-four-track, it just went straight to stereo tape. So we've just taken a section of improvised live work, almost, and it just captured a lovely mood."
Bono (who says "we're still really travelling musicians, it's just that we have buses now and computer mixing desks") sees U2 as straddling traditions from Ireland to America, even as far as Australia. Edge talks about the "American Wakes" familiar from Irish literature of the famine years, when people would gather to send the emigrants to the States on their way, realising they'd never return. This, he says, is a reason why America holds a mythic place in Irish affections.
Bono puts it more simply. "The Irish built America," he says. he wanted to call the new LP Bits And Pieces Of America at one point. While Edge points to similarities between American and Irish folk musics, Bono speaks of the power and open spaces of the North AMerican continent, characteristics dear to U2's conception of themselves.
"America is just a very powerful place," said Bono. "You fight with it, you wrestle with AMerica. I always say there are two Americas, there's one that's spelt Amerika and that's, y'know, eight channels, that's Ronald Reagan, that's pistols and the Ku Klux Klan. But I'm interested in America, which is open space, which is a new-found land, the cities, the people in cities who come to see us play and who I feel are extraordinarily open to our music and have not got preconceived notions about the group or are not as inhibited sometimes as audiences in other parts of the world."
One of Bono's current preoccupations is the loss of roots in popular music, a fixation he shares with Van Morrison. Perhaps it's because the Irish are respecters of tradition that Bono and U2 have been able, more than their contemporaries, to try at least to forge a link back to rock's illustrious heritage. U2 and Springsteen share a mutual respect, while Bono got onstage with Bob Dylan in Dublin last summer and improvised his own version of Blowin' In The Wind. This earned Bono a gale of flak in the Irish press ("How dare this pompous man rewrite Bob Dylan's songs!") but Dylan loved it. His kids are U2 fans.
It's perhaps due to this concern for a rich and shared past that Ireland's folk tradition has always been an unobtrusive but vital and potent presence in U2's music. Check An Cat Dubh from Boy or Tomorrow from October. These did not appear by accident. They're critical clues to U2's origins and their ultimate destination. If audiences around the world love the band, their status in Dublin could almost be described as "legendary" in the fullest sense.
In an effort to put something back into the homeland, U2 have started a label called Mother, with distribution through Island. Soon, there will be a twelve-inch single called Take My Hand from traditional Dublin group In Tua Nua, featuuring violinist Steve Wickham (who played on War) and uillean pipe specialist Vincent Kilduff (he appeared on October).
"We're not the big bad wolf that people make us out to be," said Bono pensively. "We are fish out of water, and as I say, one of the reasons that I have sometimes been heavy-handed is because I have been aware that people see me as... because of the belief I have in God and in music, some people see this as naivety, some as stupidity. I read this and so I get tense and overreact. And as I say, I'm my own worst enemy. I've dug a few holes for the band, to bury them.
"The criticism I get... Y'know, somebody said Ian McCulloch's done more press about U2 than we have in the last two years - everywhere we go, Australia, Europe. I suppose I ought to send him a cheque. But I refuse to let it get in the way of my appreciation of what I believe is a very good group. Echo And The Bunnymen are a very good group and they're in danger of not being a good group because some things are poisonous and they get into the system.
"I've also been very hurt about it at times. Everyone goes through periods of self-doubt, and when there's another voice saying, 'You're right to go through periods of self-doubt,' it sorta hurts me.
"It's made me rethink the music press, because I don't want to get into the music press, I don't want to be remembered for negative things, I want to be remembered for positive things. I think there's a lot of people in music who deserve applause, y'know. People you wouldn't expect. For instance I've a lot of time for Tony Wilson of Factory Records, a person like that, and Elvis Costello and Paul Weller. There's a lot of good music in England. Why is it a competition? Just because the charts go ten, nine, eight, people think it's a competition."
With The Unforgettable Fire, whether you think it flawed or not, U2 have avoided the heavy rock trap that was yawning beneath them and have suggested capabilities their detractors probably never suspected. I learned from meeting them that they have a very shrewd conception of their place in the great scheme, and are also well aware of how they're viewed by the press and public. This quartet can think, chew gum and make hit records all at the same time.
"People charge us with being traditional and it gets up my nose," complained Bono. "Why are people concerned about changing the face of music, when the face is really only a facade? Like there's Bruce Springsteen working within traditional American rock'n'roll, and he says more than so many other people. he says more with a scream than so many people do with pages and pages of words. Take Van Morrison. He makes soul music and some people have tried to write him off, but he certainly hasn't been. That man! He's a genius."
Bono has a gift for making contact with people, either singly or en masse. Maybe this makes him a politician after all. Shrewdly, he hands back the compliment to the people who made U2 famous. "People in the audience know more about the people in the band than everyone gives them credit for. People in the press sometimes want to a side of a personality, and sometimes I'm portrayed in a very one-dimensional way, but... the music is better than the musician and the audience is better than the journalist. I'm working on this thing that they know about these things... they know about music, as a mass, they know whether it's good or it's not good."
He sipped some tea to ease his croaking throat. "If there's a difference between the art and the artist there's something up. I really do think that, and there's such a vast difference in a lot of cases."