Chicago Tribune MAY 9, 2001 - by Greg Kot


The 'best band in the world' keeps the fire alive after twenty years.

It's really hard to find a rock band," U2's lead singer, Bono, is saying. "You can't make them. You have to grow them."

The topic is not the difficulty of being in U2, once the biggest rock band in the world and now, yet again, in serious competition for the job, but of major groups who had broken up or drifted into lower-volume careers: Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, The Cure, even the newly low-key REM and Pearl Jam.

"I got sad and a bit cross when the Pumpkins broke up because they were a real group that really balanced each other, and now they're letting that go," Bono says. "When the news came in that Zach de LaRocha had left Rage Against The Machine, I turned to (bassist Adam Clayton) and said, 'Too many meetings,' because I know what that's like - it's hard to get four people to agree on anything. You want to make music, but first you have to have a meeting about something else. But you have to sit there and get through it, or else you can't go on."

For twenty years U2 has not only moved ahead, they've thrived with the same line-up intact: Bono, Clayton, guitarist The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Their current tour is selling out arenas across North America, including four shows at the United Center on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The band's latest album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, released last October, has sold more than two million copies and has restored the luster to the band's reputation. It's the most intensely melodic U2 release since The Joshua Tree in 1987, and also the least experimental since then. In many ways it's a mid-career summation in the mold of The Rolling Stones' hits-laden Some Girls (1978), a reassertion of what U2 does best rather than a groundbreaking exploration of the future, a la the group's masterpiece, Achtung Baby (1991).

The Edge offers a different interpretation. If there is a sonic mastermind behind the group, it is the guitarist, whose array of electronic effects pedals turns him into a one-man orchestra in concert, backed by one of rock's sturdiest rhythm sections. In the studio, while making All That You Can't Leave Behind, he pulled out a few variations on the echo-laden guitar riffs that were his trademark during the quartet's anthemic '80s period, most notably on the album's first single, Beautiful Day.

"But even that song is quite innovative and fresh for us," he insists, citing the track's electronic rhythm bed, fashioned by co-producer and atmospherics guru Brian Eno. "When I first played Bono the guitar part, he went, 'Ahh, hold on, that really sounds like U2.' But I was like, 'Hello, I am The Edge. We are U2. No one has the right to sound like that as much as I do and we do.'

"The key to the record is that it doesn't have a problem making some references to things we've done in the past, if those things are truly great. That was the bottom line. Most groups I would imagine are very busy trying to stick to their own style, but we at all times have tried to avoid repeating our style or sound. Now we're open to using ideas from the past in a new context. We found the freedom to plunder the past, if it's the best thing for the song."

Once the members of U2 were four Dublin teenagers who formed a band despite one glaring deficiency: None of them could play their instruments, let alone write a song. Then the world changed when The Ramones came to Dublin in 1977.

"It was a pivotal moment for us as a group - we suddenly saw the opportunity to actually do something with the music, as opposed to it just being something to do on a Wednesday afternoon," the guitarist says. "It became something that we were overtaken by, the potential of being a band, writing our own songs."

When Ramones singer Joey Ramone was dying of cancer in a New York hospital recently, Bono called him from the road. U2's In A Little While, an aching soul ballad, was the last song Ramone heard when he died April 15. That night, and in subsequent concerts, U2 has been playing The Ramones' I Remember You and the gospel hymn Amazing Grace in tribute to the singer.

"We didn't sound like The Ramones, but what we got from The Ramones was more fundamental and central: They were the reason we became a band," the Edge says. "Having seen The Ramones play, and then The Clash soon after, it was like, Whoa! We can be part of this. These guys have done it their way, and we will find our way. There was a sense that the door of possibility had swung wide open."

U2 not only didn't sound like The Ramones, they never carried themselves like the down-to-earth punk rockers from New York. U2's ambition was immediately apparent: They wanted to sound as big as the world, and gave off the aura that they wanted to conquer it as well. Yet the group's lyrics and many outside charitable interests provided a subtext of Christian humility and humanity, and the music - at its best - incorporated both those extremes.

Every few years that balancing act was upset by spasms of arrogance that invited a backlash. In 1988, the band was chastised for self-significance run amok as it filmed itself touring America and hob-nobbing with blues and country royalty in Rattle And Hum. And in 1997, it presented its most lavish stadium tour yet, the Pop Mart spectacle, which hauled in nearly eighty dollars million in revenue, yet reflected poorly on the band with its panoply of special effects, including, most Spinal Tappish of all, a forty-foot lemon, out of which the quartet emerged for encores. The much-maligned Pop album and tour nonetheless contained many poignant moments, particularly in ballads like Wake Up, Dead Man, which sounded like despairing journal entries from a world choking on excess.

"A lot of people compared the show to a more straightforward rock 'n' roll circus like Kiss, and other bands who have gone down the road of big flashy production," The Edge says. "For us it was always about the search for something of real resonance amid the razzmatazz of the rock 'n' roll experience. That's the fascinating thing to me about rock 'n' roll. On one hand it's seemingly all about earthbound, hedonistic, carnal subjects. But it also touches on things that are much more profound and metaphysical. We went into Pop excited about making a dance-oriented record, and instead came out of it with what I think is our most blue, dark and despairing music."

All That You Can't Leave Behind, in contrast, is tinged with a more hopeful attitude, and it's apparent in the live performances, which begin with the band emerging with the house lights up and charging into Elevation and Beautiful Day, then winding down the show with the consoling pleas of Walk On.

"One of the elusive qualities in music is joy," The Edge says, "because it's easy to slip into a very awful happy thing that is just obnoxious. But pure joy is a life force, the vitality of people doing something and loving it, and to get that on a record is difficult to pull off."

That U2 does pull it off on many tracks from the new album makes for an experience that can be uplifting for believers, and tough to swallow for listeners who want their rock served up with a more self-effacing attitude. The old conquer-the-world arrogance remains; it allows Bono to go on national television, as he did last February at the Grammy Awards, and declare that U2 was reapplying for the job of "best band in the world."

It is a quest that has come up constantly in my interviews with the band the last decade. They enjoy being rock stars, but they also cling to the belief that being in a rock band is about more than claiming the spoils of stardom, that it can be about changing lives both in and out of the concert arena. They record albums for a giant corporation and charge as much as a hundred and forty-four dollars for a concert ticket, as they are doing on the current tour, and yet they refuse to sell their music to corporate sponsors or television advertisers. They crow about how their latest album debuted at Number One in more than twenty nations across the world, and yet Bono spent most of his time between recording sessions lobbying congressmen, bankers, economists and even then-President Bill Clinton in Washington, D.C., to pass legislation reducing the Third World's debt to the United States (he was successful; last November 6 Clinton signed into law an appropriations bill providing four hundred and thirty-five million dollars in debt relief to as many as thirty-three of the world's poorest countries and publicly thanked Bono for his lobbying efforts). This is a band that thinks big on all levels, that doesn't see why it can't have it all and is disappointed when other rock bands don't aim as high.

"We finished the album and realized in one sense that it was special, but also off-kilter," Bono says. "In a world where (hip-hop acts such as) OutKast and Jay-Z dominate the record charts, we thought we might just fall off the edge. You realize there's not a lot of what we do out there, and people miss that."

Nor is The Edge apologetic about his bandmate's bravado: "I think every band from The Beatles to Nirvana that achieved greatness in their records and their concerts did so because they were on fire for it. And I don't think that's so unique, but keeping that fire alive is tough. What's helped us stay creative and focused over time is that as a band we still function very well, and still operate the same as we did when we first formed. We haven't splintered into little divisions. We are still as four people pushing in the same direction and we are still mates, and maybe when people look back that will be seen as the most unique thing about U2. Maybe we're not going to go down in history as the best band in the world. But we just might go down in history as the best example of a band, and more of band than any other band."