Q FEBRUARY 2007 - by Peter Kane


The making of U2's breakthrough album. Includes boffins and nudity.

After three increasingly successful studio albums, all produced by Steve Lillywhite, U2's fortunes were firmly on the rise. The gigs were getting bigger, America's interest had been perked. The same option was to do more of the same. Instead, they decided to move onto new territory with the seemingly unlikely help of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. There was a fresh working environment, too, a stately pile called Slane Castle in County Meath, Republic of Ireland, where recording began on May 7, 1984.

BONO: We knew that the world was ready to receive the heirs to The Who. All we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin, without a doubt. But something didn't feel right. We felt we had more dimension that just being the next anything. We had something unique to offer.

LARRY MULLEN: It seemed we had done very well on three chords and the truth, but we needed someone who could take our songs in a different direction, add new textures and explore new ways of using the studio.

BRIAN ENO: Larry Mullen liked my old records a lot and he phoned me up one day and said U2 wanted me to produce them. So I said, "I don't think there's anything I can do for you." Finally, after a couple of months of back and forth, I had this long conversation with Bono, who's a brilliant talker and very smart. And I said, "Look, if I work with you I will want to change lots of things you do, because I'm not interested in records as a documentary of a rock band playing onstage. I'm more interested in painting pictures. I want to create a landscape within which this music happens." And so Bono said, "Exactly, that's what we want, too."

EDGE: I could see how Eno has shaped his career not around any one particular overriding talent but through a collection of, I suppose you would say "second-rate abilities". But the way he used them, that he'd been so determined to follow the areas in music he found stimulating to create a career - that must be totally unique.

BRIAN ENO: [Islands Records boss] Chris Blackwell thought I was completely the wrong person for the job. He thought I'd turn it into art rock, so I took out the insurance policy of bringing Dan [Lanois] along. I thought that at least if he was there it would be a good, well-produced record with good performances, because Dan has a very good way of working with musicians. He's very encouraging and he can get people to do fantastic things.

DANIEL LANOIS: I didn't know a lot about U2 before I started working with them. When the invitation came I started educating myself. I liked the energy and I thought the singer had a lot of potential.

PAUL MCGUINNESS: I was looking around for a place for the band to rehearse, and the best I could come up with was the Church Hall in [South Dublin district] Ranelagh. It was rather overpriced and I mentioned this to Lord Henry Mountcharles one day and he said, "Well, fuck that, I'll give you somewhere to rehearse and I won't charge you half as much." Lord Henry lived at Slane Castle where the band had played with Thin Lizzy [in 1981], and he had become a good friend of Adam Clayton. The band decided this was such a great environment to work in that we brought recording equipment in to do the album.

DANIEL LANOIS: The castle was pretty fascinating technologically. It ran on river power, on a turbine system. Power was up and down all the time. If the river was down a little bit or it hadn't rained for a few days we had to get the generator going.

BARRY DEVLIN: They wanted someone to chronicle the making of the album, but they hadn't thought through what that would actually mean: being constantly interrupted by a film crew. They were really ruthless. They just kept slapping up notices on the windows and doors saying, "No Entry". That's why the film is shot in that artful kind of way - reflections, impressionistic views of guitars on steps - because that was as close as I could get to the little bastards.

BONO: The sound [at Slane] is magnificent. If Phil Spector was going to lie in state, it would be here. And we have this thing in our head: we're going to make big music. That's who we are. We're not indie, we're not miserable, we're full of joy and we're going to take over where Phil Spector left off. Big ideas, big themes, big sound. We're going to take risks and prove just how elastic a rock band can be.

EDGE: One of the inspirations was the Peace Museum in Chicago. There was an exhibition called The Unforgettable Fire showing paintings and drawings by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Painting was part of the therapy to help these people purge themselves of their internalised emotions. The image of that catharsis, couple with the insight it gave into the horror of nuclear holocaust, stuck in Bono's mind.

BRIAN ENO: With U2 I championed the songs that didn't seem very U2-ish or things that had strong beginnings but no clear destination. They were always very receptive.

EDGE: The more conventional the song, the less interested Brian was. He didn't take a huge interest in Pride or The Unforgettable Fire, but Danny was there to cover for him, so they balanced each other out very well.

BARRY DEVLIN: I'd never seen a bunch of people work as hard in my life. They worked all the time. Sixteen-hour days were typical.

DANIEL LANOIS: Things got a bit silly after a while. I think we were on the home stretch of the recording, and it was decided that we would rid ourselves of all worldly possessions except "The Unforgettable Fire". That meant us being nude. Maybe not entirely nude. I think there were some fig leaves involved.

Recording was completed at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios between June 6 and mid-August 1984, the finished album being released at the beginning of October. It sailed to the top of the UK charts, became their biggest US hit to date (Number 12) and earned them the accolade of "Band Of The '80s" from Rolling Stone magazine. Mission very much accomplished.

BONO: It enabled us to get away from our live reputation in a way. We were able to say, "Look, we are making a record - it isn't a live show. It's music and it should be listened to." And that, in a way, was how the tour settled in. The powerful moments of the set were the musically powerful moments, as opposed to whatever was happening visually. We owe Eno and Lanois so much for seeing through to the heart of U2.

Who's who?

PAUL MCGUINNESS U2 manager almost since day one, and often referred to as the band's "fifth member".

BRIAN ENO Ambient music pioneer and producer of considerable clout, not least for Talking Heads and Bowie.

DANIEL LANOIS Canadian co-producer of the album, also a performer in his own right.

BARRY DEVLIN Director of the documentary about the making of The Unforgettable Fire. Now a TV writer.

The Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984): Politics + Weirdness - U2 Mark II begins here.

Fearing they were in danger of getting stale, U2 called on Brian Eno and Canadian studio wiz Daniel Lanois. Experimental, atmospheric and deeply textured, the results announced a new, mature U2, with only the Martin Luther King tribute Pride (In The Name Of Love) treading a familiar-sounding path. After Live Aid the following year, they would be genuine global stars.