COVER STORY : U2’s U-Turn : The band’s ambitious ‘Rattle and Hum’ film and double album rattled many fans, critics and even the four Irish idealists themselves. On the eve of their U.S. tour, they talk about how they got back on the high road.
The surprise still shows on U2 drummer Larry Mullen’s face as he recalls his reaction after picking up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine’s recent critics’ poll and seeing that his band had been picked as “comeback of the year.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” the young man with classic James Dean good looks says, sitting in a chair during a break in a video shoot on a sound stage at suburban Pinewood Studios, where many of the James Bond movies were shot.
On the surface, it’s easy to understand the drummer’s surprise over anyone even suggesting that the heralded new U2 album, “Achtung Baby,” represented a comeback.
* The Irish quartet has been one of rock’s most popular and acclaimed groups for years-- the most popular and acclaimed since the estimated 14 million worldwide sales of 1987’s Grammy-winning album “The Joshua Tree,” an inspiring series of songs about spiritual quest.
* On its last tour of the United States in 1988, U2 packed stadiums and generated reviews that compared the group to the Beatles, the Who and other landmark bands of the ‘60s. Certainly, critics were divided over “Rattle and Hum,” a 1989 concert film and soundtrack album, but the double album sold about 7.5 million copies around the world.
* After a three-year break, the band roared back late last year with “Achtung Baby,” which entered the U.S. album charts at No. 1 and has already sold more than 6 million copies. This weekend, U2 begins its first U.S. tour since 1988, and tickets for tonight’s Miami show sold out in 12 minutes. The group will play the Los Angeles Sports Arena on April 12-13 and the San Diego Sports Arena on April 15, and there’s talk of a Southern California stadium show later in the year.
Yet the “comeback” line--even if it was meant a touch playfully--struck a nerve in Mullen and probably in some of the group’s most demanding fans.
“You know,” he says earnestly as the rest of the group stands nearby, watching a playback of the video scene that has just been shot, “there was some truth in it. We had some serious problems when we got back to Dublin after ‘Rattle and Hum.’
“A lot of our fans were confused by the movie and they started asking what we were all about and where we were headed--and that’s good because we needed to sit down ourselves and think about those questions.
“There were times (since “The Joshua Tree”) where priorities got confused. There were times when you weren’t sure what you were meant to be doing. Are you a musician? A rock star?”
Those are questions faced by every band that enjoys massive success in pop and learns that the old cliche about the pressures of fame are all too real. But the questions were particularly delicate for U2 because this was an idealistic band that had seen so many earlier groups succumb to lifestyle excesses or artistic complacency. As with Bruce Springsteen in the ‘70s, there was an unwritten pledge by U2 in the ‘80s to be tougher than the rest.
After a few months of individual soul searching in 1990, the band headed to a Berlin recording studio for some tense weeks to deal with the question of its future.
“We had to start from scratch in a way . . . get in touch with ourselves musically,” Mullen continues. “If we didn’t come up with the right answers, it could have all been over because I think we all care enough about U2 to end it before we just make a joke of it. Everything was on the line. We didn’t want ‘Rattle and Hum’ to become our ‘Let It Be.’ ”
It’s a sobering parallel: “Let It Be,” the 1970 documentary about a Beatles recording session that telegraphed the friction that would eventually cause the band to dissolve, and “Rattle and Hum,” the 1989 U2 tour film.
The tension in the latter case was not between the band members--who, by all accounts, still maintain the closeness that has characterized the group since it was formed during their school days in Dublin. The strain was on the group’s image.
Some critics saw the U2 actions during the “Rattle and Hum” project, including writing a song with Bob Dylan and performing with B.B. King, as an egomaniacal attempt to demonstrate that U2 is what many other critics had been calling it for years: the legitimate heir of the ‘60s rock tradition. Some longtime fans saw the relatively big-budget movie as pretentious--a sign that U2 had lost touch with its audience and its rock ideals.
Though they stand by the film, the band members acknowledge some misjudgments in letting what was conceived as a small- scale project grow into a wide-screen spectacular that opened in nearly 1,500 theaters and was backed by a suffocatingly massive Hollywood film ad campaign.
“It was just the sheer quantity of the promotion that turned people off,” guitarist Edge (Dave Evans) says. “There is something in rock about discovering a band . . . about it being your own personal band and when its picture and name is on every billboard across the whole nation and on television every 15 minutes, it’s a different thing. It’s like peanut butter or a product. The whole thing was out of scale.”
Paul McGuinness, the group’s Dublin-based manager, takes the blame for the extensive campaign.
“I never realized what an enormous thing a movie campaign could be,” he says. “From my experience in the record business, I always believed that if all the visual elements of a campaign were tasteful and good looking, nothing could go wrong.
“But I wasn’t prepared for the difference in the size of the movie campaign and the average record campaign . . . how all across America for a couple of weeks, you couldn’t turn on your TV without getting U2 in your face. That’s not the way records are marketed. It’s much more subtle and I think a lot of the band’s old fans found it distasteful. The aftermath I think, quite honestly, was that no one wanted to hear about U2 for a while.”
Marc Porter, a 22-year-old Englishman, was among the fans turned off.
“My friends hated ‘Rattle and Hum’ because it was U2 trying to be Michael Jackson or something,” he said two days before the Pinewood video shoot, while waiting on London’s famed Carnaby Street to watch the band shoot some other scenes for the video.
“It was like they were more interested in being stars than in making music. You see it happen to so many bands, but I never thought it’d happen to U2. They were writing about real issues about the heart and the soul, and suddenly they were in Hollywood like (expletive) Warren Beatty or Richard Gere. I even threw away my old U2 T-shirts.”
But the fact that Porter was standing with dozens of other fans on Carnaby Street was a sign U2 has won back the disgruntled fan with its gripping “Achtung Baby” album. The collection is a dramatic departure for the band.
Where U2 built its reputation with uplifting songs about man’s highest ideals, the material in “Achtung Baby” tends to be darker and more desolate. The musical textures, too, changed from eloquent, ethereal sounds to more contemporary dance currents.
In the process, the group shows more dimension--elements of humor and self-deprecation that were rarely found in earlier works. Some critics have hailed the album in even stronger terms than for “The Joshua Tree.”
Even an early evening rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the fans who were waiting outside the Zoo, a Gap-like clothing store on the street that was the heart of the Mod fashion scene in the ‘60s.
When Bono, the group’s charismatic lead singer, arrived at the store with Mullen, Edge and bassist Adam Clayton, Porter unbuttoned his bulky jacket to reveal his new T-shirt with homemade lettering.
It was an update of the title of U2’s first hit single: “I Will Still Follow.”
The idea at the Zoo was for U2 to perform “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” a song from “Achtung Baby,” in the store window while the audience watched through the glass. The glass between the band and the audience was designed to underscore the song’s theme about how fantasies and something untouchable become even more intoxicating than the actual experience.
As the camera began rolling, the song was played over a sound system in the street and the fans swayed to the swirling instrumental textures. In the store window, Bono--dressed in a shiny leather outfit and wearing dark glasses in a teasing poke at rock star cliches--moved with many of the twisting and turning gestures that have become his trademark on stage.
As the record played on, he began pressing against the glass, as if trying to make contact with the girls who were reaching up for him. During the instrumental break, he noticed a woman’s jacket on a sale-rack hanger and grabbed it. The jacket was much too small, but he put it on and began strutting around the floor.
A member of the video crew seemed puzzled by this ad-lib, but the fans on the street outside whooped it up. They’re not used to seeing U2 in such a playful mood.
“One of the things we wanted to do with this album is show people that there is another side to us, especially Bono,” Edge said a couple of hours later as the band got together for some late pizza in a nearby restaurant.
“People see him as this very serious guy who is always carrying the weight of the world around on his shoulders and that’s not the whole picture. He’s also a very funny guy and I was hoping we could get more of that into what we do.
“Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a combination of utter throwaway ideas and things that have great importance. I used to love Gary Glitter as well as Pete Townshend when I was a kid. We wanted to get away from all that U2 earnestness on this record--not to come up with a ‘new image’ but to show ourselves more accurately.”
Integrity is rarely an issue in rock because few acts exhibit the ambition, passion and craft to touch audiences on anything but a superficial level. The only bands usually measured by such words as credibility and honesty are cult groups who seem to deliberately sidestep the mass market.
From the beginning, however, U2 set its sights on the whole pop spectrum. U2’s live shows asserted the uplifting and purposeful qualities associated with Bruce Springsteen, who had reintroduced the term hero to rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘70s.
While encouraged by the do-it-yourself energy of the London punk scene, the band relied more on a mainstream rock approach--a bit of the youthful urgency of the early Who and the sharp, ringing guitar qualities of such experimental late-'70s groups as Television and Public Image.
During the early years, the group struggled to find itself thematically in a series of deeply introspective songs that explored spiritual and political issues. While not doctrinaire, the lyrics were based on the group’s acknowledged Christian perspective. The group had built such a following by the time of its “Joshua Tree” album that it was widely regarded as the most important rock group in the world.
“Rattle and Hum,” which was a mix of live versions of old songs and new songs, reflected in places the pressures of all that attention and stardom--as the band dealt with questions of whether rock, in an age where the music was often viewed as simply entertainment, still had the power to move audiences and affect social change as it did in the ‘60s.
Even before the film, however, some critics and fans found the group too “self-important.” In one sarcastic review of “Rattle and Hum,” a critic referred to U2’s lead singer as “God . . . err Bono.”
But Dave Marsh, the outspoken New York critic, defended the group with a telling appraisal of the contemporary rock scene. Writing about the critical backlash to “Rattle and Hum,” he said: “It is as if living in a mediocre period, people believe it’s the obligation of a young band to live down to those standards.”
By the end of the group’s 1989 world tour, there were so many pressures on the band that Bono stunned a New Year’s Eve audience in Dublin by declaring at the end of the concert that it was time for U2 to go away. Some interpreted the remark as a sign the band was going to break up. Bono didn’t mean it that way, he explains now. But the irony was, there was considerable uncertainty about the future of the band in the weeks and months afterward.
If the “Rattle and Hum” backlash represented the early signs of a possible public crisis facing the band, the band’s struggle for identity and direction in the early months of 1990 represented a private crisis.
“We went back to Dublin in a fairly crazy state,” bassist Adam Clayton said, leaning on a table in the Soho area restaurant. “I think it was a period of deciding whether being mega was any way I wanted to live my life. I think it was definitely a time for me to ask, ‘Is this a path that is worthwhile pursuing?’
“We had all been on the move for the last 10 years and this was our first chance to sit back for a few months and try to put everything into perspective. It was the first time people who had bought houses or been married could live in those houses for more than two or three months--and it was very comfortable. We all had to decide for ourselves how important U2 still was in our lives . . . whether there was really still a commitment.”
During that time at home, the four band members did agree to recommit themselves to U2, but they each realized the need for a new musical direction. They had enjoyed the blues and rock roots experimentation of “Rattle and Hum,” but it had been a sidestep--something done for fun. They didn’t want to continue pursuing it in the new album.
Rather than record in Dublin again, they went to Berlin, where Bono felt the social and political changes might help energize the music and give him some themes.
Despite the renewed enthusiasm, the band was tense during the Berlin sessions as they struggled for a sound.
“One thing we all agreed upon,” Mullen explained at dinner, “was to get our rhythm section in shape. When I listen to some of our previous records, I feel a little uncomfortable. There are some very good ideas, just badly executed. And the reason they are badly executed is that we were still learning. We were determined to get the rhythm right this time.”
It wasn’t easy.
“We have been shouting at each other for 10 years and we do kill each other over the music,” Bono said. “We fistfight over the music. We don’t speak over the music. Remember, we were 14, 15, 16 when we met and we didn’t even have any (musical) vocabulary. Now we are learning to communicate to each other without throwing the drum kit into the audience or gagging the singer. There has been improvement, but in Berlin, it got very heavy again.”
Besides jamming in the studio, the band members spent a lot of time in their off hours listening to music--everything from old Sly Stone records to such new, rhythm-oriented bands as Nitzer Ebb, Stone Roses and Front 242.
Gradually, the sound came together--the arty, guitar-driven textures are among the band’s most confident and vigorous ever. How surprising then that the lyrics--mostly written by Bono--are among the group’s more introspective and questioning.
There are moments of humor in the album, but most of the songs touch on elements of romantic conflict and pain with much of the eerie authenticity of the best tracks in Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love.”
Sample lyrics from “One”:
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt.
Elsewhere he offers:
Every artist is a cannibal
Every poet a thief
All kill their inspiration
And sing about their grief.
Since the troubled tales of 1989’s “Tunnel of Love” were followed by Springsteen’s divorce, questions are now bound to be raised about the stability of Bono’s own marriage.
“Well, the lines are blurred between fact and fiction on the record,” he said as the others listened. “There is a certain amount I don’t wish to talk about, but I think that right now a lot of people are going through a re-evaluation of this love and sex thing. It’s in complete crisis, not just about AIDS.
“Love can be comforting, love can be destructive. It can reflect greed or compassion and I’ll tell you the bad news,” he added, laughing, “there’s more where that came from. I may have written or begun 50 songs in this vein. We thought about putting just a few of them on the album and balancing them with something else, but it didn’t tell a complete picture unless you had them all. That’s the point . . . to show all the different sides of this thing called love.”
In fact, Bono’s marriage (he and his wife have two young girls) is intact, though he acknowledged, “There is this tug of war between this (Gypsy) side that wants to wander and the side that wants a home. With me, there isn’t a very large side that wants to have a home, but I am very glad that I do and I am not going to let go of it.”
Bono also appears to have reflected upon problems in Edge’s marriage in some of the material on the album.
“I think Bono did draw on it,” Edge said, wearing his trademark bandanna and referring to his separation.
He seemed no more eager to talk about personal matters than Bono, but added: “It is just part of being in a band . . . the strain it puts on friendships, relationships. Certainly, I can’t divorce (being in a band) from my marriage having problems. But I don’t like to think about it in those terms. The conclusion I have come to is that it is possible to have both.”
Sensitive about the backlash from the “Rattle and Hum” promotional campaign, U2 refused to do interviews when the new album was released last fall. They wanted the music to speak for itself and it’s just now, on the eve of the world tour, that they are beginning to grant a few interviews.
Ever since U2’s 1980 debut album, Bono (real name, Paul Hewson) has been the band’s chief spokesman, but he seemed more reserved than usual during the dinner conversation, preferring to let the other members of the group explain the changes of the last three years. And it’s just Edge on the cover and talking in the lengthy Q&A; interview in the March issue of Musician magazine.
Even on his own two nights later in the band dressing room at Pinewood Studios, Bono seems wary of saying too much. He realizes that image can get in the way of the music--that people don’t value what you say if you come across as some sort of caricature.
“I didn’t even recognize the person they are talking about as me . . . not even remotely,” he says of some media portrayals. “But I do think I know what happens. I take a lot of photographs and sometimes when you take photographs of a face, the face changes as soon as you put the camera on it so that the very quality that makes you want to photograph that face goes away. The face tenses and sometimes becomes even ugly.
“Sometimes I think I am a bit like that when I am put in a spot and things focus on me. I actually distort a bit,” he says.
Pausing, he looks around the room, uncertain about whether he should go further.
“But I also do take the music painfully, ridiculously, boringly serious. There is part of me that goes, ‘Remember it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.’ But then I don’t really buy it and I don’t think Jagger does either. Rock ‘n’ roll can be as important in expressing ideas and emotions as any book or movie or play, and I think it is a lie to deny that.”
In that view, Bono follows in the tradition of such rock leaders--and heroes--as John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison.
But Bono does have a playful side that is often missed in interviews. “I feel like I’m wearing a giant condom,” he snaps wryly, wiping the perspiration from his forehead as he stands under the hot video lights at the Zoo in the shiny patent leather suit.
He has also consistently tried to draw a distinction between the lofty ideals of U2’s music and his own difficulty in living up to those ideals.
One of his favorite songs, “Acrobat,” deals with personal contradictions and doubts.
Don’t believe what you hear
Don’t believe what you see
If you just close your eyes
You can feel the enemy . . .
And I must be
To talk like this
And act like that.
“I have learned to embrace the contradictions in life and that’s one of the messages of the album,” he says, leaning back on a couch in the studio dressing room. “There was a time when they were tearing me apart because I am not able to live up to a lot of the things I believe in.” Bono pauses again when asked about the strain of “The Joshua Tree” and “Rattle and Hum” periods.
“There was a reason we opened ‘Rattle and Hum’ with (the Beatles’ frenzied) ‘Helter Skelter.’ That’s the way our lives felt sometimes,” he says, almost with a sigh. “There were times on that tour when things could have unraveled. Even on ‘Joshua Tree,’ heads left people’s bodies (laughs) and not just the four members of the band, but some of the people around us.
“It’s hard to talk about that and the reasons behind the songs on the album without sounding like a guest on one of those (confessional) TV shows, but there were definitely times when the fire you are playing with starts to play with you and it can destroy you before you even know it’s there. But there is a thing we have that makes us strong. You can call it faith, you can call it lots of things, but it helps pull you through.”
A video aide enters the room and tells Bono he’s needed on the set.
The young Irishman, however, wants to first go back to an earlier question about the reason for so much tension and doubt on the album.
“Basically, for the first half of the ‘80s there was a slight ostrich element about us and that was good. We were on a spiritual sojourn and we discovered a lot of good stuff that keeps you strong and opens your eyes a bit,” he says.
“But there was a point then where you have to actually walk into the real world and it kind of went a bit wrong. I had a few bad experiences, really bad experiences, and some of that is what you hear in the album. If the first chapter of U2 was innocence, this one is about innocence lost.”