U2 On Track: A Book by Eoghan Lyng
Original Story by Harry Kantas (2020-11-17)
Sonicbond’s On Track series offers a song by song analysis of the work of major Rock bands. U2 On Track a new book by Eoghan Lyng is the latest addition to the series. Eoghan is an Irish music and film writer, and was kind enough to sit down with us for a quick chat before U2 On Track hits shelves everywhere!
Eoghan! Before we start, how are you? Hope you and yours are keeping safe these days.
Thank you for asking. Words fail me, so I’ll simply paraphrase John Lennon to describe the ominous situation: “Strange days indeed!”
I understand you live in Dublin. If I could have my way, we’d be having this conversation over a coffee, or a pint. But that won’t be happening for a while.
I’d buy the first round: I’m guessing you’re a Guinness drinker?
I am indeed, but a snobby one at that, once you have one at Mulligan’s, you don’t order one easily anywhere else..!
So, “U2 On Track”. What would be the one liner intro you would give your latest book?
Oh, I’m very flattered by “latest”. It’s my only book so far. But jokes aside, I’d describe it as a memento of four guys growing from a band of brothers to a collection of fathers. The only way I could tackle the book was to picture myself in the shoes of the writers as they committed their respective truths to tape. It’s not as ponderous as it sounds!
U2 themselves tend to (half) joke about there being too many U2 records out there, and does the world need another one. The same can be said about books about U2, what made you start writing one, and what do you find lacking out there, that you are hoping to contribute to?
I disagree with U2: they’ve only released fifteen albums in forty years. Paul McCartney has maintained an impossibly prolific standard that puts the Irish quartet to shame, not least with his ambient projects, operettes and film soundtracks. Anyone who reads the book will see how highly I regard Original Soundtracks I, and I ache for a day U2 opt to release another abstract work under a pseudonym of their choosing. Much of McCartney’s most exciting work (from Thrillington to The Fireman) were released under different monikers. I’m probably in a minority here, but my favourite U2 era is the more carefree nineties. They showcased a spontaneity that crackles with an electricity that could only come from a place of tremendous urgency. Readers may be surprised to see what little time I had for Boy, but how much I value Zooropa and Pop for their wackiness, weirdness and sophisticated production.
I’ve gone on a tangent, but I do feel the nineties era has been undervalued by everyone within the U2 orbit (not least the band themselves). Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. has been especially disparaging of that era, and has used the term “indulgent” to paint much of the work from that time. As the founder of U2, Larry’s more than entitled to his opinion, but it’s one I strongly disagree with. So, that was one of the aims of the book. I also wanted to use this as a platform to showcase the many jewels that preside on October and Songs of Innocence, two albums that are often unfairly dismissed for their supposed piety. One of the most extraordinary aspects U2 hold was the commitment they held to their spiritual crusade, and I think these best demonstrate the faith U2 (and especially Bono) chronicled on their illustrious forty year career.
How was the idea for this book born?
I’d long wanted to write a pop book, and fancied myself a James Bond writer. I pitched the idea to Sonicbond Publishing, but they’d already pencilled the idea into their calendars. They were open to other suggestions, so I thought I’d take a few days to consider what other avenues I could explore. While walking through the avenues that decorate Ballymun’s wide open spaces, I heard a U2 song playing from a nearby car radio. It might not have been an esoteric moment, but it was one that prompted me to pitch it the idea. Sonicbond were up for it, and I rapidly grew more and more excited for a book that I knew I could bring legitimacy to. As an Irish man obsessed with the immediacy of rock and fascinated with James Joyce’s command of language, I hold much more in common with Paul Hewson than I would with a sleuth birthed by the rigid frameworks Eton College provided him!
Did you grow up in Dublin? Were you a fan of U2’s early on? Are you approaching their albums from the perspective of a fan?
Strangely enough, no. I grew up in Waterford, although weekends and holidays were spent parading through the “Westh” of Ireland. Galway blood fills my veins (I’m ostensibly a “Waterford blow-in”), but I do have a strong affiliation to Cork, and moved there for University. My nineteen year old self (given his penchant for cigarettes, canopies and Genesis) would likely have dissuaded anyone from visiting Dublin, when “The Real Capital” was Cork. Like many others, Ulysses astonished me with the detail it divided between it’s leads and the city that led them on their Homeric journeys. Ulysses still remains my favourite novel, and it was a book I brought with me when I taught English in Spain and Italy.
When I accepted a job in Dublin back in 2019, I was blown away by the exquisite architecture that surrounds the city, and recognised how the citadels fuelled the creative muses that emanated from the pens Joyce and Bono held. I’ve loved the city ever since, and it helped reignite the love I’ve had for its greatest band. I was fifteen when No Line On The Horizon came out, and I couldn’t help but feel …underwhelmed by it. One of the challenges of the book was to disassociate my fanboy from the works, but whatever way I looked at it Horizon still strikes me as empty, vacuous and (often) desperate. But this distance helped me to recognise the value Rattle and Hum held. It’s not the indulgent work my teenage self coloured it as, but their salute to the American Homeland that excited their teenage selves in an Ireland divided by religion, rule and rain.
Did you use any other books as references, and if so, which ones?
Neil McCormick’s U2 by U2 proved an invaluable read, precisely because it is so honest. Coming directly from the mouths that birthed fifteen distinct musical tentpoles, the book exhibits four men expressing the furies, fantasies and phenomena each has brought with them on their voyage. From then on, I turned to magazine articles and interviews to channel what became my book. I greatly admire the books that complete the U2 canon (Bill Flanagan is a brilliant writer), but I didn’t turn to them too often for fear that they would influence my work. Rather, I turned to Beatle meisterwork Revolution In The Head as the standard I felt I needed to reach. It’s not my place to comment on whether or not I succeeded, but that was the benchmark I challenged myself to recognise as to what readers expected from a book. Liam Newton’s brilliant The Worst Band In The World was another book I turned to. The manner in which he wove the 10cc bandmates in and out of the collective narrative was one I find comparable to Mark Blake’s writings, and Sylvie Simmons. Daryl Easlea is another writer I’d concede my superior, but I tried to faithfully recreate the energy he brings to his writings on Genesis to the work I was writing on U2. Mindful of the audience I was writing for, I read many of the Sonicbond books that are available to us: every writer who has contributed to the Sonicbond canon has done their subject more than justice!
You already have some really good interviews under your belt: Producers for Simple Minds, XTC, and Kevin Haskins from Bauhaus to name a few. Do you have a favourite moment in your career so far?
Oh, thank you. New Sounds recently published an interview I conducted with XTC frontman Andy Partridge. Much like Bono and Bob Geldof, he’s an interviewers’ dream! No question is off limits, and he’s extraordinarily generous with his time. As a Beatle nut, meeting Pete Best was every bit a life highlight as it was a career highlight. The same could be said for the interview I did with Kevin Rowland (which can be read on Far Out) and director Franc Roddam (The Phacemag). (I was delighted to hear that Roddam rated Welsh legend Timothy Dalton as highly for his craft as I do.)
I’m enormously proud of an essay I wrote for We Are Cult about McCartney side project The Fireman, and producer extraordinaire Youth very politely indulged me with his time for this project. From a more “oirish” perspective, I was very lucky to get an interview with The Commitments writer Ian La Frenais. It’s my favourite rock movie, and La Frenais considers it the best movie he’s been involved with. No disagreements here!
Any interviews on your bucket list?
Lol Creme, because he’s the only member from the classic 10cc lineup that I have not yet interviewed. I’ve interviewed Graham Gouldman on two occasions, and recently spoke to drummer/director Kevin Godley about his new solo album. I made a bit of an idiot of myself when I complimented Godley for directing the “Lemon” video-it wasn’t his! He was cool about it, just as Eric Stewart kept his cool when we talked about the patchy Press to Play album. Stewart is openly critical about that album, but is justifiably proud of “Footprints”, a ballad that’s every bit as powerful as McCartney’s blissful “Another Day”. I have spoken to How To Dismantle…producer Chris Thomas, but this was for a piece about Badfinger (Culture Sonar). I’m aware that Brian Eno gives very few interviews, but I would jump at the chance to speak with him, Daniel Lanois and/or Steve Lillywhite. Naturally, I would love to speak with any of the U2 members. I was deeply moved by Adam Clayton’s appearance on Tommy Tiernan’s show in 2019, where he discussed everything from being an English child growing up in Catholic Dublin to the demons that sent him on dangerous flirtation with alcohol. U2 have always been honest in their outlook, and their interviews have also shown their characters at their most prescient.
Are you a U2 fan? Do you have a favourite lyric, song, record, tour?
I agree with The Edge when he describes All That You Can’t Leave Behind.as U2’s most complete work, but my favourite U2 album? Zooropa. It has its faults (which I go into in the book), but the production, polish and patio of bass patterns makes it an intriguing listen. They’ve washed themselves in the avant garde, and the album flows in a dazzling, kinetic direction that can only be described as cinematic. I won’t point to any lines in particular, but Bono’s ability to combine the real and the surreal on “Lemon” leaves me breathless. That it should be so personal only adds to the power.
Tour? I would go with the early noughties (i.e 2000-2002). Hungry to return to the rock format that had given them a wage and a platform, U2 now found themselves in an interesting precipice. They were seasoned enough to bring gravitas to their sound, but still young and virile enough to burst through the soundscapes with gusto. Bono never sounded better-either on stage or on record-than he did during the All That You Can’t …era.
I see you are also a contributor to Record Collector. What is the most prized item in your collection? Any U2 in there?
I’ve written a few live reviews for RC, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a contributor (Paul Lester is doing a superlative job with the magazine). It’s not in my nature to hold onto objects, but I do have a copy of Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatle Sessions, which isn’t as widely available today in the wake of The Beatles Anthology. I do have a cassette of The Joshua Tree, which was issued in the eighties.
What are your future plans? Will you be doing more of the “On Track” series of books, or will you be focusing on something different?
“..something different..”- I’d like to write something about the writer of “Something”. There’s enough books out on John Lennon, and authors Adrian Sinclair and Allan Kozinn are set to release a tome on McCartney. There is one book I’d like on Ringo Starr, but he has to be the one to write it. He had the hardest childhood, the toughest job in The Beatles (keeping a tight beat) and like Adam Clayton, had his battles with the bottle. If Ringo were to project that type of emotion onto page, I’d buy it in a heartbeat! George Harrison, like Bono, battled to keep himself walking down the spiritual lane, while writing for an industry that believed in no other scripture than the principles rock set for itself. More than that, Harrison personally set up Handmade Films, an industry that gifted the world such classics as The Long Good Friday and Withnail and I. His measurement of success had less to do with the dispersion of units, and more on the value of the work. And, like U2, there is great value to his work!
The book, U2 On Track, is available now although release dates may vary around the world.