Boys to Men
Q Magazine by Phil Sutcliffe (1998-10-31)
Hanover Quay, site of U2’s inconspicuously housed studio, is not a salubrious part of Dublin. Neglected hulks rust at moribund moorings. A cement works powders deserted streets with grey. When Bono dropped by the corner bar, someone asked, “Didn’t you used to live on Cedarwood Road? Yeah, I used to burgle your house.”
Hardly the location anticipated for the musical base of Ireland’s four richest men under 40. However, David “Edge” Evans, Q’s host, seems perfectly at ease here. At least, the solitude seems to accord with the self contained nature of the least menacing man dressed in black from boots to beanie you ever met.
Retrospection’s comfy sofa beckons: discussion of U2’s new 1980-1990 Best Of (and bonus B-sides) compilation. He sets to. A genuine band project, the track listing of “tunes that captured the moment” was uncontroversial,
the target market “people who got into the band after Achtung Baby and don’t have the early albums”, all tracks remastered for added value.
He chunters cheerily until Q mentions their first album, Boy. Then he pauses and shakes his head: “You know, I cannot remember who we were then.”
I Will Follow – By the time they recorded Boy U2 had been all over Europe for a year with the songs. The outcome: “It was the most fun album we ever recorded. We’d become so tight we had time to try all sorts of strange and
wonderful things. I remember on I Wil1 Follow Bono did these mad, like, drum solos on the glockenspiel.” There again, the song turned out to be about the death of Bono’s mother, who had died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when he was 14. It had even been written in their rehearsal room at the gatehouse to Ballygriffin cemetary where Iris Hewson was buried.
“Going back through the early stuff, nothing really horrified me,” reflects Edge. “Particularly on Boy, I can hear a bit of the Banshees and The Buzzcocks and some hint of The Skids, as well as – ha ha – some wildly original ideas of our own… The shocking thing is that well before we had a right to, we had this belief that we would become a very successful band,” recalls Edge. “From the beginning Adam never doubted that we would make it big”.
October – Edge knocked up this solemn piece, full of what U2 called “ice notes”, on the piano in his parents’ living room. Although he thought of it as the soundtrack to an unmade movie, his bandmates fancied it. Which sounds chummy. But U2 made the October album amid the only crisis ever to threaten the band’s continued existence: the conflict with Shalom, the non-denominational Christian group which Edge, Bono and Larry Mullen had founded in their teens. Over the years it had grown. Zealots moved in and, in due course, challenged their faith. “These people said, ‘How can you believe in Christian principles and be in a rock’n‘roll band? They’re mutually exclusive.’ We really questioned ourselves – Are they right? Are we doing something that’s inconsistent?”
Eamon Dunphy’s 1987 book, Unforgettable Fire, recalls Edge and Bono walking along the beach at Portrane, Shalom’s prayer retreat where the singer was baptised in the sea. Edge tells Bono the band must end. Bono agrees. However, says Edge, “That’s just not true. What I told Bono was, ‘Look, we’ll have to make a decision here, we can’t stay in this position.’ We didn’t want to say goodbye to the Shalom group. But it had all gone wrong. We concluded U2 could deal with any moral conflicts and carry on.”
Trash Trampoline And The Party Girl – With two hours’ studio time left and a B-side imperative, Bono improvised the lyric. But it touched a raw nerve in Adam Clayton. The bassist was the only U2 member who had not joined
Shalom. For a while the band tour bus divided between the Bible readers at the back and the rock’n‘rollers at the front. Clayton took the song as a public dig. “Adam did feel vulnerable,” Edge acknowledges. “He asked Bono about the song directly and Bono said, ‘No, that’s not what’s going down.’ But I think Adam was still unsure. And maybe the Shalom issue did slip in even though Bono didn’t intend it.”
Sunday Bloody Sunday – Suddenly, U2 entered the political arena with a song which linked Ireland’s two Bloody Sundays, 1920 and 1971, with the crucifixion (“The real battle is begun/To claim the victory Jesus won/On a
Sunday, bloody Sunday”). The Edge reckons they wrote it naively, without considering the consequences. But it might have caused a more serious backlash if the guitarist had got his way. Unusually conceived the original
lyric as well as the music. It began, “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA.” He can smile about it now: “My words were pretty clumsy, a polemic. Bono shifted it to being much less political, more of a personal reflection.” After Noraid-supporting Irish-Americans misunderstood and began throwing money on the stage when U2 played the song, Bono responded with the introduction: “This is not a rebel song!” When they played it the day after the Enniskillen bombing in 1987, as immortalised by the Rattle And Hum movie, he added a raging “Fuck the revolution!” Sunday Bloody Sunday resulted in enduring opprobrium from Republicans, and prompted a denunciation from Gerry Adams. “Thankfully those days are long gone,” says Edge. “We’re optimistic about what’s been happening.”
Pride (In The Name Of Love) – After Sunday Bloody Sunday, political morality became a U2 staple, fitting their religious concerns. They dedicated Pride to Martin Luther King. “Because of the situation in our country non-violent struggle was such an inspiring concept. Even so, when Bono told me he wanted to write about King, at first I said, ‘Woah, that’s not what we’re about.’ Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there’s no argument. It just was.”
Bad – “It’s about a guy we knew who ended up in a bad way because of heroin addiction,” says Edge. “Bono knew the family, he’d talked to the brothers about it. It was new for him as a lyricist, writing in the first person from someone else’s point of view I don’t think there’s ever been a song about addiction that captures the feeling so vividly.” U2 wrote Bad from scratch in the studio at then new producer Brian Eno’s behest – the band’s response clear proof that both parties had come initial trepidation about working together. “We had wanted to work with him for quite a while,” says Edge. “But it was hard to persuade him. I think he was intimidated by the lack of irony in what we were doing. He’d come from Talking Heads, Rhode Island school of design, living in New York, and here was this Irish band hitting everything full on, completely earnest, hearts on sleeves, no irony at all.”
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – “We were listening to some gospel during the Joshua Tree sessions. I remember The Mighty Clouds and the Rev. Cleveland and the Staple Singers… The original was more loose,
almost Jamaican, Bono hit on the melody and I had the title in a notebook. At first, no-one took it that seriously because it sounded so unlike anything we’d ever done and it didn’t gel until the mix, but when it was finished we all realised we had something special. The reviewers didn’t like it, though. One American one said it was a pale imitation of the original form and that Foreigner song I Want To Know What Love Is was better.” Have U2 been influential? “Hmm, I do think we created some new musical styles and Bono some vocal styles that have now entered the language. I hear them coming back in other bands from time to time, yeah.”
The Sweetest Thing – Omitted from The Joshua Tree, for Bono The Sweetest Thing represented a new departure into the revelatory pangs of love. Next stop, lust and all kinds of perversity. Now it makes a double reappearance
on both Best Of and B-sides albums. “Bono wrote it as a birthday present for Ali (his wife),” says Edge. “When we recorded The Joshua Tree we liked it, but it was her song so it was different from the rest. Afterwards we realised it should have been on the album.”
Silver And Gold – Silver And Gold arose from humiliation. Bono visited The Rolling Stones at work in a New York Studio. The cool codgers fell into a blues jam and affably invited him to join in. But he couldn’t. He didn’t know the songs. Hot-cheeked, he went back to his hotel and wrote Silver And Gold. When he recorded it, Keith Richards and Ron Wood backed him on acoustics, the former using the handle of his switchblade as a slide. “I was so sick of white blues,” Edge laughs. “So we approached Silver And Gold with uncertainty and suspicion, but we found our own way into it.”
When Love Comes To Town – “Bono and I met B.B. (King) in Dublin,” Edge says. “He said, ‘Hey you guys should write me a song.’ We said, ‘Ah, yeah.’ I thought it was unlikely but a while later Bono said, Remember B.B.
King? Well I’ve done this song and it’s pretty good. We liked it so much we decided to use it on Rattle And Hum and ask B.B. if he’d join us.”
Peculiarly the ’80s precisely frame the first phase of U2’s musical life. “The Rattle And Hum movie had given us a bit of a fright. We started out with the idea of doing a small film and we’d become involved with Hollywood
studios, budgets and promotional campaigns. It was getting too big. We felt like caricatures of ourselves. There were some funny moments, though, the police escort through the streets of Barcelona before and after the
Spanish premiere being one. The motorbike cops were going so fast and obviously loving it, while our driver was in a sweat passing parked cars by inches. I looked at Bono and we both knew it had all gone a bit too far. So we
left the stage at The Point, Dublin, December 31,1989, and went off to consciously redress the balance.”
U2 were about to pass 30, collect $200 million, and perhaps belatedly, discover irony.