POP MUSIC : It's a Global Thing With U2 : The show includes Satan masks, gold lame suits and an onstage phone call to Sarajevo. Just the usual hijinks from the band that went there and back

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

"Let's see what's on TV tonight," Bono says, pausing on stage at the microphone after finishing an acoustic version of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" during the opening night of U2's four sold-out concerts at historic 72,000-seat Wembley Stadium.

Bono picks up a remote control and points it at a battery of video monitors, some as big as a movie screen, at the rear of the massive stage--just as he had done night after night during the Irish band's U.S. tour last year.

In the U.S. shows, Bono used the remote to trigger images from actual TV broadcasts--home shopping channels, evangelical preachers, news anchors--echoing the concert's theme of a society under siege from media overload.

But on this night, there's a single image on the biggest monitors: three women speaking to the audience from Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, via a special live satellite feed set up by the band. They're talking about the Bosnian killing fields and how they have lost hope of England or any other country stepping in to help them.

It's a stark message, especially in the middle of the energy of a rock show. There is a hush among the fans in the stadium that was the British home of 1985's Live Aid concert.

The moment was a throwback to the grand, dramatic gestures that U2 would have done back in the "The Joshua Tree" days--before the band members began worrying that their reputation as the "conscience of rock" was overshadowing the music and turning them into caricatures of pompous, self-important rockers.

As Bono stood at center stage now at Wembley, the question was whether he would show a flash of the group's old activism or let the moment pass, fearful of renewing all the old criticisms?

The answer was important because U2, as the critical and commercial leader in rock, can greatly influence other bands.

Staring at the video monitors after the women fade from view on the Wembley stage, Bono, 33, answers the question defiantly. In the hush of the stadium, he declares: "Tonight, we should all be ashamed to be European."

Not everyone is pleased with the segment, which was repeated--with different people--throughout the European tour. The words "pompous" and "bombastic" resurfaced in some reviews of the show.

In an interview the day after the concert, Bono is unfazed.

"It's not that our beliefs weren't there last year," he says at the band's hotel. "It's just that we wanted to make statements in different ways. But that doesn't mean we can't ever speak in a more straightforward way . . . even if it is going to renew some of those old charges.

"(U2 drummer) Larry (Mullen) warned me. He said he was uncomfortable with the Sarajevo segment . . . that this is a rock 'n' roll show. He said, 'I don't mind, but you know you're going to get killed for this.' And I knew he was right. But in the end, this is more important than the show."

So what's this about satanism?

Bono--who began portraying the devilish Macphisto, red horns and all, this summer on the European leg of the band's worldwide "Zooropa" tour--has a wry, almost conspiratorial smile on his face at the mention of the latest rumor growing out of his colorful '90s persona.

Not only did U2 move away from uplifting anthems in 1991's "Achtung Baby" and this year's "Zooropa" albums, but Bono also became onstage the anti-Bono: portraying a jaded, egotistical rock star, complete with such cliches as black leather pants and gold lame suits.

"We've heard every rumor since this tour started and that's good because one of the things we wanted to do was turn our image inside out so that no one knows quite what to make of us," he says, comfortable with the topic.

"We felt we were being made a cartoon of--the good guys of rock and so forth--so we decided to make some cartoons of our own and send them out as disinformation."

Many of the old detractors saw humor in Bono's flamboyant stage mannerisms, but some longtime fans were shaken.

They felt Bono was so convincing in the new role that he might, indeed, be caught up in the rock excesses that he supposedly was lampooning--including admiring himself in a full-length mirror and thrusting his crotch back and forth at the video camera on stage in a mock sex act, an image that was relayed to the audience on the giant monitors.

The Satan rumor, however, represented the ultimate irony for the leader of the band long known for asserting its Christian values.

What was fiction in all this role playing?

What was reality?

"Playing the characters started as fun," Bono replies. "People had read reports of egomania and suddenly they were seeing their worst nightmare on stage and they were agog. You have all these rock stars grabbing their crotch, and here I was screwing the entire audience via the camera.

"In being these characters, I was kind of saying, "So what? So even if the rumors about me being out of control are true, what does that mean? Does what you wear or how you act on stage make your music any more or less interesting?"

About his sometimes confusing new image, he concludes, "It's a trap when you agree to being one person because when you step out of character with that, you look like a hypocrite. There's nothing now to step out of because they're not sure they really know me any more."

There is a strong spirit of confidence around U2 these days as the band moves into the final leg of a world tour that will end Dec. 10 in Tokyo. The group's Nov. 27 concert from Sydney will be shown in the U.S. on pay-per-view TV.

Not only have the group's tour and latest album, "Zooropa," brought added acclaim, but PolyGram also rewarded the band this spring with an estimated $60-million contract, the biggest ever for a rock band.

Yet the main reason for the optimism within the band is the music itself.

U2 has been at the pinnacle in rock before--its 1987 "The Joshua Tree" sold 10 million copies worldwide and was the first true rock collection to win a best album Grammy since the Beatles' legendary 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Even so, the group's spirits were low at the time because the band members worried about being at a dead end musically.

The answer was going to Berlin and virtually starting from scratch--experimenting with new rhythms and textures and songwriting techniques.

The result of the tense weeks in the studio was "Achtung Baby." The songs still dealt with values and ideals but with more questioning and doubt than idealism and hope. That same spirit carried over into the live show, an elaborate, high-tech affair.

"We really feel we have a new lease on life," says bassist Adam Clayton, who is engaged to model Naomi Campbell. "Going into the '90s and 'Achtung Baby,' I feel we made a decision then that if we are going to be the righteous men of rock 'n' roll, we are going to be very miserable.

"I think we realized that issues are more complicated than we once thought and that we don't want to be continually earnest about what we do. We are not a religious cult . . . we are not a political theory. We are a rock 'n' roll band. There's room for more . . . in the music and in the way we present ourselves to the public."

Although the "Achtung Baby" transition now looks easy, it was a risky gesture and the band's brief U.S. and European tour in early 1992 was a test of the waters.

When the band went into a Dublin studio in December, says manager Paul McGuinness, "It was as much a surprise to me as anyone else when they emerged with a fully fledged album. They could have come out with a single or an EP or they could have come out with nothing."

By the final weeks of the U.S. "Zoo TV" stadium tour last fall, U2--whose members met while in high school in Dublin--knew that it wanted to spend the time off in the studio before starting its European tour.

Although the "Zoo TV" tour was built around the music of "Achtung Baby," the group was clearly in an experimental mood, using the songs as musical starting points. In the shows, they changed the textures and, in some cases, the focus of the songs in invigorating ways.

"We didn't want to let that energy go to waste," says the Edge, who received co-producer credit (with Brian Eno and Flood) for the first time on the "Zooropa" album.

The Edge's guitar work has always set the tone sonically for U2, from the ringing optimism of "I Will Follow" to the shimmering anxiety of "Running to Stand Still." But he is now the official leader of the band in the studio--a role that has been evolving since the "War" days.

The Edge started doing recordings in his hotel room on the U.S. tour and collating some of the improvisations from sound check so that the band would have something to work from once it got back to Dublin.

"But that was about it," he says of the "Zooropa" album process. "We didn't really have any clear direction, and that was helpful. It's like you are in the studio with no pressure, no deadlines. I suppose in that atmosphere of freedom the music and the ideas came through in a very pure way."

"Zooropa" probed even more aggressively than "Achtung Baby" what the band sees as the far-ranging disillusionment of the modern age. In some ways, in fact, the album captured the anxious, even paranoid tone of the "Zoo TV" tour so that it seems almost a souvenir of the tour.

On the differences between the U2 of the "Joshua Tree" period and U2 today, the Edge adds, "I think to a certain extent the differences are all very trivial . . . more style and presentation than content.

"I felt very weird carrying on with the show after the Sarajevo segment. I had this weird feeling in my stomach after listening to what they had to say, especially that crushing line of 'I don't think you are going to do anything.' It may not be what someone thinks of as entertainment, but I've never thought of rock music as just entertainment."

No one in the band appears more comfortable with the direction of U2 these days than Bono, who was always at the center of the "self-important" barbs.

A thoughtful man blessed with the legendary Irish gift of gab, Bono did most of the interviews for the band because he is the most outgoing member of the group.

Although he has a colorful sense of humor and strong awareness of his own limitations, he was open to attack because he takes rock 'n' roll seriously in an age where so many people have lost faith in rock stars because they have seen so many either self-destruct or compromise their principles.

Thanks to the band's last two albums and his role-playing on the U.S. tour, Bono feels he has sufficiently shed the one-dimensional "social crusader" image to speak out with some of the aggressiveness of the "Joshua Tree" period.

On the point, he says, "I feel I can get away with it now, maybe. Or maybe it's just that there is something going on that needs commenting on.

"For a while, I started being envious of comedians and how they could get away with stuff at a time when rock was being gagged . . . 'oh, here comes a message, watch out--and so forth.' But comedians can go into a club on the Sunset Strip and they are able to give the finger to the Establishment and talk about homelessness and everyone thinks it's OK. I was really jealous of that."

It also helps, in terms of putting the band in proper perspective, that other members of the group--especially the Edge who will be featured alone on the cover of Rolling Stone late this month, are participating more in interviews. The result is that when people read about U2, it isn't just Bono talking about social issues. The other three focus mostly on music.

This allows Bono, who is married with two young daughters, to step back a bit from the constant media glare. He hopes during the group's year off in 1994 to explore some of his longstanding interests, including writing a play and doing some more painting.

"The most remarkable thing about the last two years," he says, "is how our audience has followed us out on a limb.

"Some of the old fans lost interest, I'm sure, and that's fair enough, but we always had this feeling that the audience was an elastic thing . . . that they wanted to be pushed, stretched, challenged, taken on a ride, taken on a trip. It's extraordinary to me that they have gone out as far with us."

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