Far Down the Road, a Sudden U-Turn
Bono is behind the wheel of his black Mercedes sedan, taking a visitor on a mini-tour of the city as he heads downtown to meet the other members of U2 for dinner.
The rock quartet has spent much of the day in its rehearsal studio on the River Liffey preparing for some television appearances, and it’s time to relax.
U2 isn’t fond of performing on TV--they haven’t done it in 15 years. But they are excited about their new album and are eager to take advantage of every promotional opportunity, especially after the disappointing sales of their last album, 1997’s “Pop.”
Driving through the narrow, cobblestoned streets, Bono enters the central city--home to historic Trinity College, whose grounds Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett once roamed, and the restored buildings of Temple Bar, the city’s new neighborhood for artists, filmmakers and designers.
These are heady times in Dublin, thanks to a financial boom over the last decade that has turned Ireland’s once struggling economy into Europe’s fastest-growing.
But Bono’s not talking about Dublin’s history or economy. He’s speaking of the city’s pugnacious character, and how it helped shape the restless and competitive spirit that drove U2 to become the most celebrated rock band in the world--and how it is now spurring them to work hard to regain that position.
“There’s something about this city that’s been good for us--a sort of city-as-critic attitude that becomes part of you if you live here,” he says, looking at his passenger and seemingly paying no attention to where the car is headed.
“In Los Angeles, people are very nice. You park your car and someone will say, ‘Hi, I love your new album.’ In Dublin City, it’s more like, ‘Oh, hi. Your new album is [expletive].’ And they haven’t even heard it yet. It’s just part of the humor and the wit of the city.
“I don’t think that Dublin attitude is any kind of masochism, but I do think it keeps you in the mood for an argument,” he continues. “That’s good training for what we do because being in a band is like being in a street gang. A band has to leave room for the rows and the arguments if it’s going to be able to compete.”
Now Bono’s inattention to the road has led him into a dead-end street. He has to back the car down the narrow lane to get back on the proper route to the restaurant.
During the last three years, many in the music world have been asking whether U2’s career hasn’t taken a wrong turn.
The group was at the absolute center of the pop world in 1987 with “The Joshua Tree"--an inspiring series of songs about spiritual quest, including “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It sold more than 18 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy for album of the year.
It was the kind of eloquent and towering work that linked U2 with the Beatles, the Who and the other great bands in rock.
Detractors, however, complained that U2’s tales of moral courage and ethical behavior were holier-than-thou. Bono was branded “St. Bono” and the band became the target of parodies.
Like many rock acts before it, U2 was stung by the backlash, and the band reinvented itself with 1991’s “Achtung Baby,” another brilliant album that set aside much of the group’s glistening, guitar-driven sound for darker textures, and themes that set aside the unbridled idealism for an exploration of the tensions and contradictions in love and faith. On stage in the landmark “Zoo TV” tour, Bono turned to role-playing, presenting this rock idealist nightly as a leather-clad, egomaniacal rock star.
But the band may have overdone the irony and reinvention when, after 1993’s “Zooropa” album, U2 returned with the “Pop” album and its related PopMart tour.
The songs were still solid, but many fans were confused by the group’s increasing reliance on electronic loops and samples that came out of a collaboration with such dance world figures as London’s Howie B. And what was with dressing up like the Village People in a video for the single “Discotheque”?
U2’s new album, titled “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and due in stores Tuesday, should clarify things. As evidenced by “Beautiful Day,” a track from the album that has been embraced by radio stations more than any U2 song in years, the music again is graced by the glorious textures of Edge’s guitar, and Bono has dropped the masks.
The songs have a classic feel--from the pure exhilaration of “Walk On” to the thoughtful, bittersweet commentary of “Peace on Earth.”
“We spent most of the ‘90s experimenting and I think we finally realized on the PopMart tour that it was time for us to start stripping back again,” says Bono, who recalls a telling moment during the PopMart U.S. tour.
“We got into Washington, D.C., before all our equipment arrived and rehearsed with just guitar, bass and drums--none of the loops or samples that we had been attaching to the songs. Howie B. came in during the middle of the rehearsal and he said, ‘Wow, what a sound. What is this?’ We told him it was us, it was what U2 sounds like. I think that’s when we realized that it was time for us to get back to the essence of what we do.”
Rather than take a lengthy break after the PopMart tour, the band pretty much went straight into the studio in Dublin and began working on the new album.
One of the key steps in the reconnection with the classic U2 sound came the day Edge played the guitar riff that propels “Beautiful Day.”
Bono’s first instinct was that it was “too U2,” but Edge thought it felt right.
“It sounded fresh again,” says Edge. “We had been exploring the fringe of what we could be and what rock ‘n’ roll was all about, and that was essential. I think the group would have died creatively if we hadn’t moved into uncharted territory. But eventually we needed to return to the center. I don’t know if we’ve made a great record or not, but it is our record. It’s us standing there naked, if you will.”
It’s been a beautiful day in Dublin, the sun warm and radiant. The mood inside the HMV record shop on Grafton Street, the heart of one of the city’s premier shopping areas, is upbeat as “Beautiful Day” plays over the speakers.
Around the corner at the office of Hot Press, Ireland’s most widely read pop magazine, editor Niall Stokes speaks about the high hopes for the album.
From his unique vantage point here, Stokes has followed U2’s career closely, and he’s proud of the fact that the group has stayed in Dublin rather than move to London or the U.S. One of the scars on the Irish psyche over the years is the departure of so many of the country’s great writers and musicians after they become famous.
“It would be harder to find four nicer people,” Stokes says in his cluttered office. “They are intelligent guys with a strong curiosity and a hunger to make a positive impact on the world.
“I think they were very definitely worried about becoming a rock cliche after “The Joshua Tree” and “Rattle and Hum,” but I think they were also intrigued by the energy they saw in dance clubs here and in Europe, and they wanted to incorporate some of that into their music. Ultimately, they may have ended up putting a bit more emphasis on the sounds of the record than the songs. But this time, they seemed much more interested in an album of great songs again.”
The mood is equally optimistic in U2 manager Paul McGuinness’ office a couple of miles down the River Liffey.
The walls outside his office are covered with framed articles about U2 and gold and platinum albums. But McGuinness speaks in the somewhat reserved tones of a banker rather than the flamboyant style associated with so many pop managers. He brings a steadiness and frankness into play when discussing the group’s triumphs or its missteps.
“Looking back, I think the packaging surrounding the ‘Pop’ project was a little too imbued with irony,” he says, sitting at his desk. “Calling the album ‘Pop,’ calling the tour PopMart, going on stage underneath the giant McDonald’s arches and having the opening press conference at Kmart.
“I think a lot of rock fans feel there is a certain integrity and nobility to the music, and I don’t think they appreciate it when you start poking fun at it by holding your press conference at Kmart. An awful lot of people, just skimming the news, thought the whole tour was sponsored by Kmart. That’s not something that they wanted from U2.”
Despite the wrong turn, Bono still beats the rest of the band to Cooke’s Cafe, a favorite spot of the group for years. When Bono sees that Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton haven’t arrived, he heads across the street to a pub.
He’s moving so fast on the busy sidewalk that most people don’t recognize him, but a few heads do turn.
“Beautiful Day,” a young woman shouts, giving a thumbs-up sign. So much for the leveling spirit of Dublin.
But Bono is already at the pub door and apparently doesn’t hear her. He must be a regular because the bartender hands him a glass of Guinness before he even orders.
The singer spots movie director Neil Jordan and novelist Patrick McCabe at the far end of the bar, and when he joins them, their conversation picks up so easily that you figure they must see each other a lot. Jordan, perhaps best known in America for the gender-bending film “The Crying Game,” directed the film version of McCabe’s acclaimed novel “The Butcher Boy.”
McCabe is working on a novel about gambling, and he asks Bono about the time he spent in LasVegas rehearsing for the PopMart tour.
Bono thrives on the company of artists. He wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders’ film “The Million Dollar Hotel” and has spoken of writing a play.
But most of his time away from U2 over the past year has been spent in behalf of Jubilee 2000, a campaign to encourage the cancellation of debts owed by poor nations to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
In that effort, Bono has met with such world leaders as President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the U.S., the $435-million Clinton administration proposal to help write off debt is nearing congressional approval. About Clinton, Bono says, “He’s got an ear for ideas. He heard the melody line of what we were saying.”
The work with Jubilee 2000 sometimes played havoc with the recording schedule for the new album, but the rest of U2 was supportive of his efforts.
“Whenever someone suggested to Bono that this work is taking too much time, his answer was that it is precisely this kind of activity that gives him the energy and the inspiration he needs as a songwriter,” manager McGuinness says.
In the pub, the conversation among Bono, Jordan and McCabe is interrupted when a stranger steps up and asks the director why he doesn’t make westerns.
Bono senses it’s time for his exit. He tells Jordan and McCabe that he’ll see them later, then pushes his way through the crowd and back onto the street, where he joins the rest of the band.
It’s not easy holding a rock band together for more than 20 years, but the members of U2 have handled the journey well. They haven’t gone through the public feuds that have characterized many rock ‘n’ roll relationships, and they seem comfortable with each other offstage as well as on.
Even though they’ve been with each other much of the day, they greet each other warmly as they arrive at the restaurant.
U2’s story is one of the great ones of rock ‘n’ roll--one that is largely free of the cliches that are chronicled nightly on VH1’s “Behind the Music.”
U2’s history dates to the time in the mid-'70s when drummer Mullen put a note on the bulletin board at Mount Temple Comprehensive School seeking anyone who might like to start a band. Bono, whose real name is Paul Hewson, Edge (Dave Evans) and Clayton answered it.
By 1978, the foursome was generating enough of a buzz around Dublin to get written up in Hot Press and find a manager in McGuinness, who believed enough in their future to go into debt to support the band until it signed a contract with Island Records in 1980.
“Boy,” U2’s 1981 debut album, was a richly affecting look at youthful awakening that gave the group its first anthem in “I Will Follow.” The record was built around Bono’s passionate singing and Edge’s distinctive guitar playing.
On subsequent albums, U2 put together one of rock’s most distinguished bodies of work as Mullen and Clayton’s increasing fluency as musicians gave the recordings a richness and character.
Another major step in defining the core U2 sound was hooking up with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for “The Unforgettable Fire” in 1984.
Eno’s own albums are considered textbooks in entrancing ambient music, and Lanois is a master at making the most personal musical statements seem even more revealing and unique by injecting all sorts of seductive and exotic musical touches. Together, they helped U2 develop the sleek, caressing textures that did so much to define the sound that was eventually showcased in “The Joshua Tree.”
But the topic at dinner isn’t the glory years, but the bump in the road during the “Pop” project.
The problems started with a deadline crisis. The four had to deliver the album in time to start the PopMart stadium tour in the spring of 1998, and they simply ran out of time. They weren’t satisfied with the arrangements.
Even worse, the recording process left them with insufficient time to master the intricacies of the various tape loops and other electronica devices employed in the live show.
“I think everything ended up in such a rush,” Mullen says during dinner.
“We underestimated how long it would take to get ready for the show. We ended up in Las Vegas under-rehearsed. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. We had built a reputation as a great live band, and all of a sudden we were placed in a situation where we didn’t know if we were able to deliver.”
Because the dates were so tightly scheduled, the band couldn’t rework the arrangements until the end of the first leg of the tour, which grossed almost $80 million, second only to the Rolling Stones tour that year. Still, the show lacked the creative knockout punch of the band’s earlier “Zoo TV” stadium tour, and attendance in several cities was below expectations.
Bono doesn’t feel the tour really hit its stride until the second leg, which included a series of South American shows.
“The low point for me on the tour was Los Angeles,” he says. “Los Angeles has always been one of the best shows of the tour, but I didn’t feel like we connected with the audience this time. I felt like we were just popcorn . . . entertainment for the night. But if you take a look at the PopMart video, which was shot in Mexico City, you’ll see the show the way it should have been on the whole tour.”
Whatever the perception might have been from the outside, there was no sense of desperation surrounding the new album.
“You’ve got to remember that change is nothing new for us,” says Edge. “I remember how surprised our record company was when we started working with Brian and Daniel on ‘Unforgettable Fire.’
“People thought we had just about cracked [the U.S. market] with the ‘War’ album. We had a focus, a sound and we were starting to write some good songs. Then Brian and Daniel come in, and people start saying we’re suddenly getting arty and using keyboards all over everything. I remember the savage reviews we got. Now, it’s considered one of our best records. We had to go through ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ to get to ‘Joshua Tree,’ and we had to go through ‘Pop’ to get here.”
The early reviews of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” have been glowing. Rolling Stone gave it four stars (out of five), calling it the group’s third masterpiece (along with “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby”). The album represents “the most uninterrupted collection of strong melodies that U2 have ever mounted,” the magazine declares.
England’s Q magazine suggests that the new album is “a synthesis of every previous U2, a mirror held up to who they have become rather than who they’re pretending to be next.”
The group hasn’t abandoned all traces of electronica. “Beautiful Day” opens with some almost cheesy synth-pop touches before surrendering to Edge’s guitar-driven celebration.
Except for the sluggish musical design and heavy-handed lyrics of “New York,” this is music that reaches out with open arms and an open heart.
That doesn’t mean it’s always sunny.
Eno and Lanois, who also worked on “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby,” return, and their swirling, ambient touches keep the music fresh and alert.
Framed by such elements as the lush, orchestral touches of “Kite” and the R&B; currents of “In a Little While,” the lyrics either reach for comfort or warn about the time when none is available.
In the process, the band tries to put some twists on classic rock images. “Grace,” an especially caressing number, is not all that different philosophically from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” but sidesteps the worn-out “love” imagery.
The strongest moments come when they raise their voices impatiently to God, first questioning his ways in “Peace on Earth” and then acknowledging their own flawed faith in “When I Look at the World.”
“Dance music has been a U2 fascination since 1984,” Lanois said in a separate interview. “Bono asked, ‘Why is it people don’t dance to our music?’ The truth is rock ‘n’ roll is not particularly danceable. You don’t dance to a Jimi Hendrix record.
“There’s a magic when U2 gets into the studio, but perhaps over the last few years, the band thought they saw some magic in other corners, and they tried to incorporate some of that in their [musical] platform. But it turns out they are their own best platform.”
The “Beautiful Day” single went straight to the top of the charts in England and elsewhere in Europe, but the question remains whether U2 can regain its commercial standing in this country--especially amid the crudeness and rage that dominates the rock world. Will any of this stylish music be of interest to the millions of young rock fans who are championing Korn and Limp Bizkit? Or will U2 have to rely solely on its older fan base?
Jeff Pollack, a programming consultant for scores of radio stations and MTV, was enthusiastic about the album’s chances as soon as he heard “Beautiful Day,” and he remains confident the album is going to be a radio favorite for months, both at rock and pop formats.
“The album represents what everyone loves about this band . . . strong melodies, great lyrics, songs with meaning,” he said. “This is an album, like the Sting album, that will be with us for a long time. It’ll be on the charts 52 weeks.”
The band will preview songs from the album on MTV’s “TRL” at 3:30 p.m. Monday, and on “Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub .Com” at 11 that night on the USA cable network.
Jimmy Iovine, who produced or engineered records for U2, John Lennon, Tom Petty and Patti Smith before he co-founded Interscope Records, was anxious when he went to Dublin to hear it for the first time because this would be the first album released by U2 on Interscope, and he wasn’t a fan of “Pop.”
“I was nervous when I sat down to hear it, but I knew 30 seconds into the first song that they had nailed it,” Iovine says. “When you hear a great record, it sounds three-dimensional. You don’t know where the middle is. You can’t quite see where the magic is coming from, but it’s there. It was back to the U2 that I loved.”
It’s past 10 when the band finishes dinner, but Bono is still eager to talk. He heads on foot for the Clarence Hotel, which he and Edge own. The pair had a sentimental attachment to the old hotel because it was one of the only places in the city center that would welcome the punk-rock crowd in the early ‘80s. Since buying it years ago, they have turned it into a chic spot.
Bono passes a tiny arts center where the group played some of its early shows.
“It’s funny,” Bono says. “When people kept making fun of us as this band that wanted to change the world, we’d say, ‘No, no, we just want to be musicians.’ The truth is we really did want to change the world.
“Megalomania, if you will, set in at a very young age with us. But it wasn’t just megalomania. We came out of punk rock, but not the [outrageous] Sex Pistols. We bought into the [politically minded] Clash. We have always been ideologues. We were in the back of the bus reading Bibles instead of Playboy when we were 19 or 20.”
Inside the hotel, he sits at a table in the back of the closed restaurant and talks about the 1998 terrorist bombing in Northern Ireland that led him to write the angry “Peace on Earth.”
“The bombing in Omagh traumatized the whole country,” he says of the incident, which killed more than two dozen people including many children. “People were weeping openly on the street. They read all the names on the radio at 6 p.m. and all traffic stopped.
“There was a real stink in the air that Christmas in Dublin and Belfast. Children’s choirs were on the pavement singing about peace on Earth, but it sounded out of tune.”
But not every song in the album is rooted in social consciousness. Most of his themes, in fact, are tied to more personal events.
Bono doesn’t go into the details, but there were some incidents in his life--such as the deaths of close friends, including rock star Michael Hutchence--that left him feeling vulnerable.
“There was a moment that had to do with one’s mortality,” he says in the deserted room. “It was a time when I saw how you could suddenly lose everything, and it woke me up in a way.
“Suddenly the person in the bar who was very interesting before becomes boring. You want to spend more time with your family, with your kids. You also realize you don’t have the time anymore for things like the irony and the masks. There was never any irony in the songs, just the way we presented them. . . .”
1981: Bono was only 20 when U2 made its Los Angeles concert debut at the Country Club in Reseda in April 1981. The show opened and closed with versions of the Irish quartet’s early anthem, “I Will Follow.”
1983: Eager to establish an emotional bond with his audience, Bono went to sometimes dangerous extremes on early tours to make each night special, including leaping from the balcony to the main floor of the Los Angeles Sports Arena during a July 1983 concert. Eventually, others talked him into putting all his passion into the music.
1987: By the time “The Joshua Tree” album was released in spring 1987, U2 was already being hailed in many quarters as the best rock band in the world, thanks to such inspiring tunes as “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Fans from around the world wrote adoring messages on the walls near the group’s Dublin rehearsal hall. Bono was already beginning to feel the pressure of being looked upon as “St. Bono.”
1992: Fearing that the spiritually minded tunes and straightforward, heartfelt stage presentations were painting the group into a corner, U2 began reinventing itself with its “Achtung Baby” album and the spectacular Zoo TV tour. Onstage at the then-Anaheim Stadium during that tour, Bono resorted to role-playing, casting himself as a leather-clad, egomaniacal rock star.
1997: Encouraged by the success of the experimental musical textures and ironic symbolism of the “Achtung Baby"-Zoo TV experience, U2 continued moving forward in both areas. But it confused much of its audience with the dance undercurrents on the “Pop” album and wry marketing devices that included dressing up like the Village People in the video for the “Discotheque” single.
2000: Returning to its classic musical stance in the “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” album, U2 launches an aggressive campaign that will include its first TV appearances in 15 years--part of a fight to be heard in a pop-rock marketplace filled with crudeness and rage.
Robert Hilburn, the Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at email@example.com.