U2: Pluck of the Irish
Trouser Press by Jim Green (1982-03)
People haven’t asked U2 if they’re the future of rock. They’ve told them.
Not that U2 don’t believe in themselves, their originality and their own excellence; at the least they know they’ve got the potential to become a major group, if the ability to move people with music still counts for anything amid the spurious trappings of what vocalist Bono Hewson, 21, describes as the rock circus. Hewson isn’t one to ignore praise, although he feels it should be put into perspective:
“We may well be the future of rock ‘n’ roll, but so what? When I go back to Dublin, to my girlfriend it’s more of a distraction that I’m in a band than any big deal — and my old man shouts at me for not doing the dishes before I go to bed.”
Hewson’s dad and girlfriend obviously haven’t let U2’s press go to their heads, but the prose penned in celebration of the band would set most people’s heads reeling. Reviews of their records in the British music press are often diarrheic outpourings about “archaic flourishes and modernist conviction,” or mere mindless gushing.
Articles, too, have been consistently vacuous. One of the few bits of information to be gleaned from various U2 stories is that interviewers apparently elicit precious little from the band members — most notably Hewson, U2’s most prominent interviewee — beyond a few phrases repeated with irritating inexorability, even in talks dated months apart.
Maybe U2 just has nothing to say. What is there to talk about anyhow? They don’t dress weird, fit into a trendy movement (although they’ve been bracketed with the Liverpudlian neo-psychedelians), carry on with celebs in public, do session work at the drop of a studio name or write songs that preach/provoke/scandalize. What does that leave but their music? And who writes about music anymore? [I’m waiting, Jim. -Ed.]
U2, however, is a brilliant rock band. But one caveat before we start. If you don’t have a bona fide interest in U2 already — or aren’t prepared to beg, borrow, or steal Boy or October to listen to before or while reading — turn the page. And go back to your Spandau/Adam/Stray Cats records, you ignorant git.
Am I lucky? I can’t speak to U2’s guitarist, “the Edge” Evans, who’s occupied with another writer. Instead I’m to chat with Hewson and drummer Larry Mullen at the band’s hotel suite near Central Park. (They’re in New York for gigs.) As it turns out, Mullen isn’t able or willing to rouse himself from his pre-noon slumber, and Hewson (clad only in a pair of trousers and wrinkled shirt he unbuttons as he ushers me into the suite) later admits he “wasn’t the full shilling” when I walked in.
I do hear some patented phraseology during our conversation, but from the start I feel I’m onto something a bit more tangible. In no time at all Hewson pulls himself out of his torpor and enthuses about working in the studio with Clash/Dictators/Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman. Sandy Pearlman?
“He saw us lots of times on the last tour. He loves what we’re doing. And he’s crazed; I love a person who yells ‘Wow! Yeah!’ in the studio. He’s got that excitement, that passion, and he’s a musicologist, if you will, besides that.”
Hewson also approves of Pearlman’s engineer, Cory Stasiak, who made his name tending the board for hard-rockers like Kiss. “He said to us that it’s not often he wants to be part of a band, but he has the records and wanted to work with this band.”
Hewson pauses to explain that U2 is only cutting one three-minute track, and the studio is a Pearlman haunt out on Long Island. But he cranks right up again:
“It’s ludicrous! We don’t know how it’s going to turn out; it’ll either be brilliant or an absolute failure. If I played it for you you’d say ‘What the hell is that?’ It’s sort of a psychotic rockabilly song, with a drum figure that runs from beginning to end.” (At the time U2 left the country the track was still unfinished, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of it.)
What’s the point of going into the studio without a master plan, even a tune, beforehand? “Most of the material from the band arrives out of improvisation. The whole second album is like that.”
Wait a minute, fella; don’t go “organic” on me! Hewson has a familiar story: kids in high school, fed up with “bands in satin trousers” who “take the money and run,” form a group amid the ferment of ’76 and aim to break down barriers and reaffirm that rock is “about sweat, about the real world,” not just big cars, cheap sex and drugs. Now begins U2’s own variation:
“We weren’t a punk band. We were loud and aggressive, so people said, ‘Yeah, a punk band,’ but we called ourselves U2 to take ourselves out of the usual category of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, even Led Zeppelin — so that people’d hear the name and say, ‘What sort of a band would that be, then?’” (Hewson’s said that before.)
Dublin’s not London, and U2 were younger than most bands (bassist Adam Clayton and Hewson were 16, the other two 15) — underage, even for the skimpy local bar circuit. They would up playing Saturday afternoons in a deserted tin-roofed parking lot in the center of town.
That caused enough stir for the local branch of CBS to give them a chance: U2-3, a three-track EP, was released on CBS in the Republic of Ireland only. The major labels in London sniffed the scent, and soon Island Records owner Chris Blackwell proclaimed U2 the label’s most significant signing since King Crimson. “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” came out in 1980 under the production imprint of Martin Hannett.
Hewson admits U2-3 was “pretty raw…but we had a melodic sense most of our contemporaries didn’t.” “11 O’Clock” reflected band and producer’s preoccupation with a “gritty” sound.
“It’s very much hallowed where we come from. People see it as an underground classic; they say ‘That was U2,’ not the albums. Hanett was the producer of the time, too, but he was becoming so ‘hip’ that it was a distraction.” Hewson doesn’t pan Hannett (whom he says reminds him of British TV sci-fi hero Dr. Who), but suggests Hannett’s rough approach didn’t jibe with U2’s changing conception of how they should sound.
“We wanted to separate ourselves from the groups that play ‘little music’ which has no heart or soul, no grandness of vision to it, and all sounds very small. In order to get the cimematic, big screen, Panavision sound” — oops, the quote-yourself syndrome again — “we chose Steve Lillywhite. We knew he had the technology for that.”
People who would hardly deem “11 O’Clock” worthy of a second listen found themselves attracted to Boy. The reaction to October was strong also:
“I have close friends who said, ‘Heard your new album; sorry, but I don’t like it,’ and then two weeks later they’re saying they love it and can’t listen to Boy. It seems to me that people who become involved with Boy find it hard to accept October, and people who didn’t like or didn’t hear Boy go nuts about October. I can’t figure it out.”
What about you, dear reader? Why do you like Boy and/or October?
First there are the melodies. Almost every one of them sounds fresh; some are almost puzzling in their originality. “We don’t have blues scales engraved on our brains, unlike a lot of bands,” Hewson says. “We studied under a Renaissance music expert when we were at school; a lot of ideas must have come from that interest.”
That doesn’t explain the whole of it, though. There’s U2’s sound, in which Edge’s guitar plays a large part. Evans uses riffs, patterns, arpeggios, harmonics, feedback—almost anything but standard rock rhythm scrubbing. Each song could be an extended guitar solo in and of itself. Yet Evans, like the rest of U2, has precious few rock records from which to study. (“Who has the money to buy records?” Hewson asks.)
Psychedelic? “We never knew from any psychedelic bands’ records.” Hewson attributes that tag to U2’s near-simultaneous emergence with Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes; all three bands toured the U.S. at the same time, and even played dates with one another. He will give credit where credit is due, however.
“When we started I looked at the bands in England and said, ‘I can’t relate to this,’ but the New York bands were a different story.” He cites Television, Patti Smith and Talking Heads as having struck a sympathetic vibration, but says he’s more interested now in catching up with the ’60s soul music (Motown, Stax) that was popular when U2 were still in knee pants.
Any effect Hewson’s soul-searching might have on his vocals will be intriguing to hear; his dramatic voice already possesses a sincerity few of his contemporaries can match without turning saccharine or sappy.
“When we started out I was the guitar player, along with the Edge — except I couldn’t play guitar. I still can’t” — although onstage he’ll strap one on for a few minutes of backup. “I was such a lousy guitar player that one day they broke it to me that maybe I should sing instead. I had tried before but I had no voice at all. I remember the day I found I could sing. I said, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’ “
The Clayton/Mullen rhythm section shouldn’t be overlooked; they contribute U2’s punch and power without necessarily resorting to super-fast tempos.
Bassist Clayton not only pairs his drive with Mullen’s but also uses his instrument as melodic coloring/counterpoint to Evans, especially on October.
There are other components to U2’s sound. On Boy it was glockenspiel, played by Evans and Hewson; on October, it was piano. “That was the Edge’s idea; he learned to play it for the album. Like the glockenspiel on Boy, it was the underlying instrumental coloring.” Hewson likes the “icy sound of the piano, especially the top end,” and prefers “natural” instruments to synthesizers.
How much does producer Steve Lillywhite have to do with this? Hewson asserts that Lillywhite’s talents, while not limited merely to engineering the widescreen sound, did not involve manipulation of U2. (The glockenspiel was Hewson’s idea.) Clever, yes; Lillywhite would have the band play all the way through a song, then pull instruments out of the mix to “create” quiet sections. He also helped U2 adjust their live music to the exigencies of recording.
U2 had written and performed two or three sets’ worth of material prior to Boy, but half of that album was brand new. “We kept shedding material, not because of its lack of worth but just because we keep writing all the time. ‘Out of Control’ was written on my 18th birthday, but ‘I Will Follow’ was written three weeks before we went into the studio.” The segued “An Cat Dubh”/“Into the Heart” was also new.
“Live, the songs evolve; they’re still evolving. In Dublin there’s a record with an early version of ‘Twilight’ on the B-side — it’s a demo version we cut in five minutes, literally — and the lyrics are totally different. If you put the two together they fit; one is the start and one is the finish. I switch lyrics, the band changes things — we go for a rawer, bigger sound.” Lillywhite helped refine that for its commitment to vinyl.
October was entirely different. “We’d finished Boy in September 1980; that was the end of that stage of U2. The second period began in October. We wanted to release the album this October. The record company would have preferred us to release the album in January, actually. We had to finish in August, since you need two months to get a record out.”
The main problem was that U2 wasn’t prepared. “We had three weeks to prepare to record that album, and we got only three or four songs out of it. ‘Fire’ had been recorded separately, as a single. We had ‘With a Shout,’ ‘Rejoice,’ aspects of ‘Gloria’ — we knew where we were going. But we had all these ideas coming out after all the touring we did; it was like an open valve. We allowed ourselves total freedom in the studio — not to be indulgent but to see what was really in the band. We’re not Fleetwood Mac; we don’t go into the studio and wait for the muse.”
There were other problems. Hewson’s briefcase with a year’s worth of lyrics and ideas was stolen while U2 was touring the U.S. “I had a choice: panic or meet the situation. Maybe that’s how I should work; every time I put pen to paper my head gets in the way anyhow.” Most of October’s lyrics were written in the studio.
“The pressure was enormous. Lillywhite himself has said it was the hardest record he has ever worked on in his life. I’d come in and he would quietly say, ‘Sing?’; I’d say, ‘No, it’s not right today.’ The pressure was so ridiculous that one day our manager asked Lillywhite if he’d dealt with another band that works like us. Lillywhite put his head on his hands and sighed.”
Hewson feels that U2’s risks have paid off. As mentioned before, though, many find October a more difficult album than Boy — not that Boy reveals itself fully in the first place. U2’s first album at least had four song lyrics printed on the inner sleeve; October has none. The band apparently doesn’t consider lyrics so much more important than music. Hewson has said he doesn’t usually try to explain his lyrics, but he made a go of some of October’s songs.
“We were all affected by travelling and being away from home, which was a recurrent theme on October. Like ‘Tomorrow’ — I never thought much about home until I was away from it.
“The others trust me not to sing something that’s not from the heart. That’s the difference between 99 bands and one band. I like to go to the heart of what I feel, writing lyrics on the microphone and piecing the logic together later. There is always a logic.”
“Gloria” sounds like the singer was discovering what he was thinking as he was saying it. “That’s exactly the way it was — a failure to express myself. That’s why it resorts to Latin: ‘in te domine.’” (Surprisingly, Hewson isn’t familiar with the Van Morrison/Them punk classic of the same name. Compare U2’s “I can’t find the door, the door is open, you’re standing there, you let me in,” to Morrison’s “down my street/knocks on my door/to my room” narrative.)
Hewson admits U2’s lyrics occasionally sound pretentious out of context. “That’s why October’s lyrics weren’t printed. But although you may not get into the individual words, they’re what gives it the drive. The sounds are of no use unless they’re driven with the passion of the lyrics; the mood of the song is what draws it out of the band.
“I’m more interested in creating an atmosphere, an environment, than I am in telling a story, like ‘Johnny meets Mary,’ etc. Because things take a while to come out of me, they also take a while to sink in. Part of the reason U2 sounds much better a year later than the first time you heard it is that it takes ages before you get a feel for what’s happening.”
Ah ha! Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to review a U2 record after only a listen or two — or why, aside from the difficulty of pigeonholing U2, Island/Warners has had problems pitching the band to American radio programmers.
Airplay or not, there’s something to be said for songs that allow for personal association and interpretations — that can be emotionally customized, in a way. “If we could come to some principle of what is important about U2, it’s that. It’s what separates us from all the thrashy bands. They may be brilliant, they may come up with great musical progressions, have great voices and be very talented — but is it you? Has it got soul to it?”