Rock and Roll Should Be This Big
NME Magazine by Stuart Bailie (1992-06-13)
As the Zoo TV tour continues to move in mysterious ways through Europe, U2 find themselves smack in the centre of many rock ‘n’ roll contradictions, struggling with the personal and the public, the flesh and the spirit, and the big bad wolf called Success. Stuart Bailie takes a sphincter-loosening God-trip in the back of a long black limo with Bono, and finds a man struck with the absurdity of it all.
FROM THE arms of America to the scabby old paps of Ma Europe, U2’s Zoo TV tour has grown into a thing of rich proportions; groovy, elevated, sad, but mostly just high on its own sense of the royal daftness of rock ‘n’ roll.
At the Frankfurt Festhalle, I watch Bono singing “Mysterious Ways” — with feeling — to an inflatable dolphin. Later, during an encore, when the air conditioning has packed in and he’s withering with exhaustion, the singer will lie on his back in his silvery duds and croon “My Way,” to the great amusement of his mates (the London show finishes with Bono wrapping a blindfold around a female fan, and reciting W.B. Yeat’s “He Wishes For the Cloth of Heaven” — the old charmer).
The TV images have grown more adventurous now; “Desire” is a mass of “cum shots” — pictures of actors’ faces taken from porno movies, interspersed with images of Gazza, Thatcher and Jimmy Swaggart. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is underlined by a flashback to the Joshua Tree video shoot — the film speeded up to give the players a silly, Charlie Chaplin quality. Bono points up to the image of his younger self, out there in the desert. “Hey you!” he shouts, “I remember you!”
And then comes the really unusual scene. U2 are playing “With or Without You” — two songs from the end — and manager Paul McGuinness asks me if I’ve ever been under the stage. I tell him that I have had that pleasure. “But have you been under the stage during the show? Come this way.”
So I walk past all the guitar racks and computers and stuff, and then I climb a few steps and stick my head above the parapet. Bono is a little way in front of me, and the scene out there — the fever, wailings and energized hormonal particles and stretchers and many thousands of German crazyheads (including members of Kraftwerk), is like nothing I’ve ever known; excellent in a sphincter-loosening, God-trip way. Wow.
“I like to come here at least once during every show,” says Paul, smiling. I’ll bet he does.
And yet 30 minutes later, I’m sitting on the plane with these same people, and they all seem pretty much unfazed by the job. Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton are getting dressed at the front (just before take-off Adam will tug open his dressing gown to flash his already famous appendage at some old friends). And then the Edge comes over, and they all start laughing about the evening’s mess-ups and comedy turns.
“You know it’s funny,” says the Edge, “you spend the whole time trying to get it right. And then when it’s right, you spend all your time trying to fuck it up again, so you can get back to the spirit. It’s so hard to put your finger on what gets you revved up, but if it gets too good, you end up falling asleep.”
They talk about the fun they’ve had with onstage phone calls; how Bono has ordered pizzas and phoned the speaking clock and such. But the late night calls to the White House were the best, they say, as the operator started to get unnerved by this regular, egomaniac hoaxter.
“After about the fourth call,” Larry remembers, “she started to smell a rat. There was this funny guy with a weird accent, who used to all at 10:30 every night, but there seemed to be a lot of people in the room with him. So by the end, she was going, ‘Who is this? What’s going on? Who are all those people with you?”
But altogether it’s a great liberating deal, the Edge feels. “The audience is a bit freaked out at first, and you can see their brains operating, and then they get to ‘One,’ and it sort of clicks with them. Up until then, you’re really wrong-footing the audience. We’re kinda enjoying it. It’s taking liberties, but it’s pretty cool.”
LATER, I talk to Adam about the grim side of the Achtung Baby experience, about the unhappy words and the tangled, claustrophobic shapes, and the way the guitar just starts howling in the middle of “Love is Blindness.” He tells me about some of the working titles for the record; Fear of Women, Adam (hence the nude shot), and even Man. But they were all rejected because people would say it was another Big Statement from U2.
“There was a lot of unhappiness for various reasons,” he reckons. “One of them, I think, being that we’d gone through our 20s in a bit of a whirlwind, and it was the first period of time when we’d actually spent time at home, being, I suppose, heads of our respective families. Plus, a kind of musical revolution had taken place, and we were excited by that.
“Trying to reconcile the fact that we had responsibilities, and then going to Berlin and trying to make a great rock ‘n’ roll record — something had to give somewhere along the way. Some people came under more pressure than others, so there was a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I hope it’s never that bad again, but if it is, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, and I’m sure we’d get through it.”
Larry talks about the old days, and while everyone is so positive about the fresh era, there is a tendency to dismiss their back pages, to say it’s all become redundant now. “I don’t like the idea of actually disregarding the past and saying that it wasn’t important, because that was important — that’s where we learnt.”
They mention Nine Inch Nails, Jesus and Mary Chain, Happy Mondays and Curve as acts they listened to as a prelude to recording Achtung Baby, involving visits to London to buy hard-to-find records and to check out some West London clubs. Adam spent a lot of time in New York in the summer of 1990, enjoying his anonymity there. “I realised that U2 wasn’t necessarily the biggest thing in the world.”
The Edge reminisces about his involvement with the soundtrack to the stage version of A Clockwork Orange, how he was sampling the Liturgy, Beethoven, Carmina Burana and choral stuff.
“We sampled the same Public Enemy record that Madonna got in trouble with on ‘Justify My Love.’ Myself and Bono used the same loop, but ours never got released. It was very funny, because we were in this taxi in New York, and ‘Justify My Love’ came on, and the two of us looked at each other and said, ‘F—-! Someone’s got the Clockwork Orange tape and they’re playing it on the radio!’ And then Madonna’s voice came on…”
I mention that after something like 15 years together, there’s still a great deal of civility and friendship in the U2 camp. When they were this far into their careers, the members of the Who wouldn’t even stay at the same hotels, they hated each other so much. Adam nods wisely. He looks like he’s got something important to say.
“Well…” he says, deadpan, “the band that prays together, stays together.”
BONO IS at the far end of the plane, holding an ice pack to his wrist — he banged his arm on the stage out of frustration during the gig. There was no air conditioning out there tonight, and he was wearing a silver suit. “I felt like a turkey in Bacofoil,” he moans, “I just couldn’t breathe.”
Bono points out an array of rock ‘n’ roll wounds — the three ligaments he lost in his shoulder during the Joshua Tree tour in America (“that happened during ‘Exit’ “). Then there’s the impressive slice out of his chin (“that was ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ “).
He tells me about the pains Larry gets in his hands — how Daniel Lanois says that Larry is the most powerful drummer he’s ever heard, but the doctor predicts that if he doesn’t ease up, he’ll be in awful trouble. And still Larry slams away. “Sometimes the songs bully you,” Bono explains, adding that we’d be better doing the interview when we arrive in London.
So it’s around two o’clock in the morning when I climb into an empty black limo with Bono, who seems a lot more composed. He’s changed his clothes and got his Fly shades on, and there’s some of that onstage drama and ambiguity with him again. As the car rumbles through a night full of rain to the city centre, I lean closer and ask him about this strange new show. And this is what he says:
“It’s hyperactive TV. We’ve mined the phrases from everywhere, from advertising, from the street, from slang, wherever we can find them. We found a great one in Italy, which was ‘Move close to her, and she vibrates.’ So we had this in Italian, and we thought it was pretty cool.”
What was that an advert for?
Guinness. Isn’t that something? You know while it’s settling, it kinda hums a bit? That’s how they sell sex in Europe, it’s extraordinary. They are advertisements for vaginas. You don’t even see what they’re selling — they use sex so much to sell.
I think I have a kind of ’80s sensibility that says this isn’t cool, that this is an abuse of women. But there’s a new breed of models and a new attitude out there, which is not at all offended by this. They’re playing a role, and if men are stupid enough to be suckered by it, they’re happy.
I’ve seen this, and I want to get it into the show. Have you been around Europe? Advertising has become a very combative art form. I mean Benetton, whatever you feel about those ads, it’s extraordinary what’s happening. I had a line in a song, I don’t think it ever got on the album, but it was about “staying in to watch the sneaker ad.” Some of the best moments on television are adverts.
I read an article by Bertolucci where he said he could never have imagined a more ephemeral era than this one, and yet he found himself attracted to it; he found himself interested in the surface of things, whether it’s women’s magazines, or TV ads. I think it’s the crux right now — this battle, or love affair, between commerce and art, and rock ‘n’ roll is right at the centre of it.”
You mentioned that the character in “Desire” is a heart-stealing preacher. How many characters are there on Achtung Baby?
As Edge says, I’m a nice bunch of guys.
Yet you also say that the record is “a unified point of view from start to finish.”
Well, in that they’re all love songs, even if they’re f—-ed up love songs. That’s the unified thing. But the characters and the emotions are not — they’re quite fractured. I think we’re supposed to choose between the spirit, when we’re…both.
Sam Shepard said something along the lines of “right smack dab in the centre of a contradiction, there is a place to be.” And I think rock ‘n’ roll has more contradictions than any other art form. Whether it’s between art and commerce, idealism and nihilism, it goes on and on — a fuzzbox versus a gospel choir. And the flesh versus the spirit is one of those contradictions.
We spent the ’80s trying to resolve those contradictions. I think in the ’90s we’re just being carried away on them. Sort of enjoying watching them as they fight it out. There’s an energy — maybe the very energy of rock ‘n’ roll is that, you know, one on the minus terminal, one hand on the plus, and it just goes through you.”
In William Blake’s mad poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he tried to reconcile the two worlds…
I know it. I’ve just written a song for our next record called “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” after reading Blake. But there are so many contradictions in rock ‘n’ roll; you’re making the most personal music, and yet it’s played through the biggest PA system you can find, and the loudest amplifiers, and it goes out on radio programmes around the world. It’s literally a public address system. It’s private and so public.
“I think that’s part of the energy, and I think that’s one of the things that we sussed — we copped earlier, before a lot of our contemporaries. They wanted to make it a private party, but we actually understood that rock ‘n’ roll, by definition, was to be amplified. And that the Big Music was music that fed on those contradictions. Though we copped that early on, it’s taken us until now to enjoy it.
Success to us was like the big bad wolf, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing this thing that I’d do. I had to do it, and I’d do it for free, and we just didn’t know what to do with it. And then in the end, we were getting a lot for it. So from where I was coming from, and the way I was brought up, I wasn’t quite prepared for it, and all the shit that comes with it. I would have been a socialist in the way that I was brought up, my father voted Labour, and…we turned success into the big bad wolf.
I think one of the reasons that we were so uptight in the ’80s — we were kind of staring down the ’80s and the whole Material Girl thing, greed-is-good and everything — and we were being photographed in this Amish-Shaker-Quaker kind of way, and just going the opposite way. And yet we were getting shitloads of dough for this, and it was kinda f—-ing us up a bit.
And I think that now we’ve realised that rock ‘n’ roll is, in a way, ridiculous — and that’s part of why we’re into it. That’s Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops when I was 13 and I was turned on by him, and I’m not gay. The power of rock ‘n’ roll is this thing that’s obscene, absurd, obsessive, and now we just kinda find ourselves laughing at it.
The character in the song “The Fly” seems to know your game and what skeletons are in your cupboard.
There’s a lot of those characters in Dublin, and I’m sure they’re in London and Manchester and Glasgow. And they’re sitting at the bar, and they know why the Gulf War was started, because really, you know, George Bush didn’t go to Israel on his holidays, the whole thing was a nixer he did for Shamir so that he could stay in his little holiday home in the Red Sea. You know those kind of guys who just make it up as they go along, and have these great conspiracy theories. But sometimes they’re right.
The way I saw “The Fly” was like an obscene phone call from Hell, but the guy likes it there. He’s like calling home, saying, I like it. It’s a deranged kind of character. We have all these kind of people that we are, and there’s some that you just don’t want to let out in public. He’s one of them.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, there’s a similar voice — it’s the primitive God, who represents “the infinite cynicism of adult life,” which he uses to corrupt the castaway schoolkids…
That book blew my mind. There’s a song on our first album, “Shadows and Tall Trees,” which is a chapter from Lord of the Flies. The whole thing of Boy was partly about that.
You used to have these two stage characters in the early days, The Boy and The Fool.
Well, that’s quite interesting, because in a way, people may find some of what we’re doing now a bit of a puzzle, but if you knew the group from playing the Dandelion Market in Dublin, and from the Boy sessions, you would actually see that we’ve played with that kind of alter ego before.
There was a lot of fun making the video for “The Fly” — it’s a shame they had to cut out a lot of it. But once you’ve put on the glasses, this thing just happens to you. We were in London and I walked out in the traffic — there’s no fear — and I climbed up on a police van and got into all sorts of trouble. I was speaking German — I bought a German newspaper — and I was walking down towards the Eros statue in Picadilly, just telling people shit in German. Until this German man stopped me and started to have a conversation with me. Which was a bit embarrassing, because I don’t speak the language.
There was a rockabilly band playing at the Eros statue, and I actually pushed my way through the crowd, and found myself grabbing the microphone, and wailing into the microphone that the CIA had put a machine in my brain. The great thing was that nobody batted an eyelid. They just threw some money at me, and thought it was part of the act. I mean, I feel a great freedom in what we’re doing now.
So where did those shades come from?
They were given to me by Fighting Fintan Fitzgerald. He’s the guy that kind of buys clothes for us. He found them in some secondhand store. I don’t know which came first, the song or the sunglasses.
When you sing “One,” you take the glasses off, and perform it quite straight. Is that a conscious thing?
I don’t know…it’s the paraphernalia of rock ‘n’ roll, that you spent so long avoiding, that I’m now enjoying playing with. It’s like rent-a-cliche; the bigger the cliche I’ll take it. I have to have shades, get me the most ridiculous. If we’re gonna have a limo, make it the longest, ugliest, son-of-a-bitch limo we can find. If we’re gonna have a plane, make it Kitsch Airways. If you thought we were over-the-top in the past, check this out.
You’ve been sharing the use of your private plane with Guns N’ Roses on this tour.
Well, you know how it is, you have to give these young bands a chance. It’s like, you want a go on my bicycle? No, I mean that guy Axl Rose has really got something. There’s something about him that rings true to me.
He came onstage with you in Vienna to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Was that rehearsed?
No, that just kinda happened. We used to do a version of the song, and they do a big number on it on their last record. So we just did an acoustic version and he came onstage and sang it. He’s got a very interesting set of pipes. I think he’s been through the mill, and he’s got a lot of spunk, and so do his band. I’m not familiar with the language of hard rock enough to know about everything they do, but a song like “November Rain” connects with me.
I heard that during the recording of Achtung Baby you were listening to My Bloody Valentine. Did you have tons to listen to?
Yeah, we had tons of records. I liked My Bloody Valentine very much. When we started out in ’79 and ’80, the press put this tag on us, “The New Psychedelic Revival,” you may remember this. They used to lump ourselves, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes into this. And I think that as well as writing songs, which at that stage we didn’t know very much about, we were into pure sound and sonics, and I think it’s that…it’s always been important to us to push out the sound barrier a bit, to find new sounds. What Edge is doing, he’s a one-off in this respect — he’s created his own sound, his own feeling.
I mean, if you stopped listening to records for songs or the style of a band, think about music as pure mood. A lot of music that’s going around today is not new in this respect. It’s a mood that you’ve heard before. It’s just dressed differently. But a band is as great as the amount of moods associated with it, that are its own. And My Bloody Valentine have a mood that belongs to them.
There are other groups around that are copyists — like the Japanese make copies of guitars or motorbikes. And sometimes those copies can be better, but they’re not an original of the species. And it’s very rare in rock ‘n’ roll — despite what you say every week, when you’ve got to get excited about it — it’s rare that a new mood comes along. It’s probably every five years. It’s sometimes a group that adds a new tone — a new colour in the spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll. My Bloody Valentine have one of those colours. Now, if they don’t develop those colours, they won’t be as interesting in the future. But they have one colour, and that’s one more than most people.
New bands like Kingmaker are saying they’ve got all the U2 albums. James from the Manic Street Preachers says he learned his first guitar solos off U2 records. A couple of years ago, people wouldn’t have admitted that…
They had ‘em, but they didn’t admit to it. I understand that people are right to be suspicious of groups this big. But in the end, rock ‘n’ roll should be this big. I am very sad when I think of groups that have fallen short of what they could have been, because they’re just happy to be, like, kings in their own head. I’m very sad, for instance, about the demise of the Smiths, because they don’t mean as much outside the U.K. as they should have.
Some people say, so what, but I don’t. I think the Kinks had this ambition where they wanted to take on the whole world, and they did so, and the Who and the Stones — this incredible thing when rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t afraid to take on big corporations and big businesses, the Mafia, stadiums, thugs — all this kind of thing. Even though we’ve been described as the biggest cult group in the world, I’m against that. I don’t like the idea of cult.
I think that the music that really turns me on is fearless music, music that just wants to crawl out of its own backwater and knock on the biggest, shiniest knocker it can find and just say, open your f—-ing door, I’m comin’ into your living room. Whether it’s Texas or Tokyo, or Madrid…I think that’s part of it.
And we knew fuck all about rock ‘n’ roll when we started out. We were from Dublin, and we were on our own trip anyway. People just looked at us and we’d the wrong kind of shoes and haircuts, and they didn’t see that actually behind the ugly face of music, there was an intelligence, and that we were actually creating a new mood in music and going into new terrain emotionally.
Joy Division was another band you were twinned with.
Yes. But they were an original of the species. When I first heard a Joy Division record, I thought Jim Morrison had come back from the dead and joined Kraftwerk. And I liked it.
If you listen to music and think, “Have I heard this mood before?” Look at a lot of records you like and ask yourself, do you like them because of what they are, or because they remind you of something. Are they great, or do they remind you of something that’s great.
The song “Until the End of the World” has the lyric “In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart.” When I hear that, I think of Judas betraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yeah. Well, I played Jesus for so long, I decided I needed a break! Judas, from whatever way you look at it, is a fascinating creature, because in one sense, by committing his crime, he introduced us to Grace. It’s kind of bizarre.
With Scorsese — we’ve always been interested by filmmakers — and Scorsese’s anger with Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ, isn’t exactly my own point of view, but I enjoyed it. It’s like Judas kinda had to do it.
Is the line in “The Fly,” “The universe exploding ‘cause of one man’s lie,” a reference to Original Sin?
We were going to call the album Adam, and that’s why we shot Adam in all his glory. I thought that would have been fun. I think what we were trying to do with “The Fly” is to jam a blues verse, however industrial and distorted, up against a gospel chorus, however kitsch. Because the gospel and the blues are again the two sides of the same coin.
The blues was generally, “Me and the Devil Blues” — having an argument with you. And the gospel is more affirmative. But they’re still centered around the same axis, and that’s interesting. I always believed that the blues were like the Psalms, where you had King David giving out to God — “Where were you when I needed you, my enemies have surrounded me, call yourself God? Where the f—- are you?” And I think that’s incredible, that dialogue.
I’m very interested in music that even attacks Christianity, because I think it’s more real, because at least it acknowledges the Third Dimension. At least it’s entering the realm of the spirit. I find the music that I’m least interested in ignores that element. The best stuff goes right through, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Patti Smith, to Dylan to Van Morrison to Einsturzende Neubauten…
“Acrobat” carries a dedication to Delmore Schwartz, the writer/teacher who had a big influence on Lou Reed. How does he interest you?
Well, he has this one book called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and it’s a book that was on my mind when I was writing the words for “Acrobat.” It’s hard to wrap the book up in a few lines, but Delmore Schwartz is a kind of a formalist, which is why Lou Reed is beyond all the wank that people write about him. He’s actually a very sharp writer. He’s very clean, and that comes from Delmore Schwartz, who taught him.
I’m the opposite; I’m in the mud as a writer, so I could do with a bit of Delmore Schwartz, and that’s why I enjoy him. I enjoyed his short stories. I enjoy short stories as a medium, whether it’s Raymond Carver, or whatever.
How did you feel when the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” came out?
There’s a lot of disco bands doing versions of our songs at the moment, which I think is very hip. Any band that has a song called “Shopping” is all right by me. But I would have to say if I was being a bitch that their music does have the personality of a Toyota commercial, musically speaking. I like some of the titles, and some of the words he writes. We were talking about Lou Reed — he’s kind of a Ladybird Lou Reed. But I have some respect for what they do. It’s just the music in the end. If you didn’t hear his voice, it could be anyone. That’s fine, but that is why, in the end, I don’t take it home.
There’s a story about you sending Dublin band Power of Dreams a B.B. King record and they sent you back a Dinosaur Jr. record.
What I did was I sent them an ice-cream cake and a lot of Smarties, and an Achtung Baby condom. He (Craig) had been giving out about B.B. King, and I just sent him a record because he obviously hadn’t heard B.B. King. I, on the other hand, had the Dinosaur Jr. record. That’s the difference.
All the Dublin bands seem to have to measure themselves up to U2. It’s like a ritual display of patricide when they start slagging you off.
God bless them. They have to put up with being called the new U2, and I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them objecting to having that hung around their necks. The only time criticism stings is when it’s from people who are very smart, or people who you respect. And that, unfortunately, isn’t as common as the other kind.
The critics were quite negative about the whole “raggle-taggle” music scene in Dublin a few years back. It was mostly your friends, and people you’d been hospitable to — Maria McKee, Hothouse Flowers, the Waterboys, the Black Velvet Band…
Mike Scott is an extraordinary songwriter and singer. He’s not a part, in my mind, of any trend. And the style fascists may decided if he’s in or out, but the truth is, in 20 years’ time, Mike Scott and the Waterboys will still be around, and a lot of the criticisms will have evaporated.
These are just handy bags that we put people in. The Hothouse Flowers have something very special, and Maria McKee is one of the most talented women I know. She’s one of the funniest women I know, and she can make a pub full of hardened criminals cry into their beer as she plays an out-of-tune piano — I’ve seen that happen. But you put them all in a bag, and even I would hate them — I’d be throwin’ stones at their windows, you know?
The Vegas element in the new live show seems to celebrate an image of the post-menopausal singer having a laugh with his old mates and fans. How do you see yourself drifting into old age?
Well, B.B. King and my father are the same age — they’re both 66 and they’re two of the coolest men I’ve ever met. When I get to that age, I want to be like that — I want to be a real motherf—-er, never apologising, never explaining. And I’m going to hit you with my stick.
NOW IT’S all done, and you think back over three months of bumming rides around this Zoo TV trip — from a hysterically fine night in Miami to the king-glory of Earl’s Court. About epiphanies in Charlotte, North Carolina and rich comedy in Frankfurt. And you wonder, what’s the ultimate flavour of all this? What are U2 doing right?
So you measure up the mangled emotions you’ve felt, and take stock of the important buzzwords in their camp — concepts and value systems like tacky, irresponsible, lazy and fun. And you recall the raps you had with them, about Heaven and Las Vegas, limos and Trabants, Fat Elvis and the Third Dimension. Still you’re perplexed as anything.
But then you quit this style of reckoning, and you suppose, well, what isn’t Zoo TV about? And then you get your insight — that in this ever-rolling shebang, not once did you feel there was a shrugging, flaky capacity with U2, any hint of a wet, nevermind cop-out. There’s no neutral on this machine. That’s why they’re good. And it’s something you feel glad about.