"Maybe it's just the latitude and longitude of the places we're playing, but there has been an extraordinary amount of undergarments onstage."
-- Bono, 2001
Progress killed the radio stars
U2 remain the world's biggest rock band but Bono tells Andrew Murfett they just want to be back on the airwaves.
October 21, 2010
U2 want to get back on the radio. While the 5 million sales of their 12th album, last year's No Line on the Horizon, is nothing to sniff at, and the album earned the band their best reviews, it failed to generate what their luminous frontman Bono deems the key element of pop -- a hit single.
In December, his band will bring the ludicrously ambitious U2 360° Tour -- the largest rock show of all time -- to Australia.
The numbers behind the show are mind-boggling. The tour costs about $750,000 a day to run; its stage, which weighs 390 tonnes, requires two 50-tonne cranes, 180 trucks and six chartered cargo-only 747s to transport it.
Yet the show's aim -- to create an intimate relationship between the band and 70,000-90,000 people each night -- is regularly achieved.
U2 are not men to rest on their laurels. Even as they stand midway through a world tour that will undoubtedly become the highest-grossing to date when it concludes next year, they are looking forward.
They have spent much of this year working on an album produced by Danger Mouse, the alias for American production ace Brian Burton (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz).
Due early next year, it will be preceded by a single in December.
"We have about 12 songs with Danger Mouse," Bono says. "It's the album we'll likely put out next because it's just happening so easily."
The singer adds that, in a stream of creativity, U2 are working on two other projects.
The first is a club-inspired album with Black Eyed Peas rapper will.i.am, French DJ superstar David Guetta and Lady Gaga collaborator RedOne. Also, Bono and guitarist The Edge are attempting to sell their bandmates, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., the concept of a U2 album based on the 20 songs the two have written for a Spider-man musical that opens on Broadway next month.
"We're experimenting to discover different sides to us," Bono says. "And I think we're at one of those moments. We're fighting for relevance. Being successful is a lot easier than being relevant.
"We may be about to do our best-ever album or we may be about to be irrelevant."
He pauses to consider that rather weighty statement.
"That's how I woke up feeling this morning," he says.
Tellingly, for the first time in their career, the group have been channelling this productivity into their live show, regularly incorporating six unreleased tracks into the show's set list.
The show itself is a sight to behold. The much-talked-about "claw," the 50-metre-high, four-legged colossus that houses the circular stage, runway, speakers, lights and screen, makes the stadium feel smaller.
It succeeds, too, in amplifying the energy of the audience. The claw throws your perspective of the stadium. The sheer scale and proportion mean there is nothing between band and audience; they are surrounded.
It deftly crosses a line between rock show and football match.
Among the most satisfying moment is watching the entrance of these four best mates, whose friendship has survived more than 30 years playing together.
With the house lights on and soundtracked by David Bowie's "Space Oddity," the quartet walk unaccompanied through the crowd to reach the stage. It's a knowing nod of gratitude to fans, an unspoken acknowledgement that they have stuck tight for so long.
"It's well known that if the four members of U2 walk on stage, most people will get hairs standing on the back of their neck as an involuntary action," Bono says. "Less well known is that [it] happens to us as well. The four members of the band walking on mean the molecules start vibrating at a different rate. It's really bizarre."
We're standing in the bowels of Rome's Olympic Stadium. The band arrived at the venue three hours earlier, travelling in a presidential-style motorcade through the city -- think blaring sirens and police choppers -- after their tour plane landed late at Rome airport.
While not exactly lanky, in person the man born as Paul Hewson is not as short as many believe (178 centimetres, to be exact) and although the glasses remain on, his heavily freckled, wrinkle-free visage belies his 50 years.
The voice is raspy and although unfailingly polite, he cannot mask the nervous energy of a man minutes away from entertaining 80,000 Italians.
With Rome the band's final date until they reach Auckland on November 26 (and Australia on December 1), he is clearly relieved to complete a gruelling European tour.
"It's required a great concentration in energy to do these shows," he admits. "There was a feeling going into this tour that I would lose my physicality. But I don't think I did."
Yes, Bono does feel mortal, vulnerable. Usually, he quietly discloses, it's if somebody close to him passes away. So this was different.
His problems began in New York on May 11, the day after his 50th birthday. In training for 16 North American stadium gigs and a career-defining slot at Glastonbury, he slipped a disc in his back that punctured a ligament and broke into two pieces.
"I was walking around saying I could handle it but it turns out I was in grave danger," he says. "Those little bits that had broken off were starting to sever nerves in my spinal canal. I was losing the ability to walk."
He had been walking with a cane for several days before an MRI revealed the extent of the injury. He flew to Munich for emergency surgery, where his physician told him there was a chance his gait might be permanently affected. At the same time, the band's equipment was arriving in the U.S. for the tour. It quickly became clear Bono would be incapable of performing. The band's manager for the past three decades, Paul McGuinness, made the call.
The American dates, along with their precious Glastonbury slot, were to be cancelled.
"We tried to avoid the word 'cancelled'," McGuinness says. "It was postponed. And it was very worrying. There was partial paralysis of his right leg and considerable pain. I was quite nervous."
The delayed shows cost the tour about $15 million, half of which was covered by insurance.
"The tour had restarted, the trucks were in motion, there were hundreds of people around the world travelling," McGuinness says. "It was very stressful and expensive to halt it, send everybody back and wait to find out how long it would take for him to recover -- if, indeed, he would recover. We were concerned for our friend."
Remarkably, on August 6, after intensive rehabilitation, Bono was back on stage in Turin, Italy, and thinking about another 22 stadium dates over two months through Europe.
Each day on tour, Bono worked with a German physio he refers to as "Hitler's doctor," who would "beat the shit out of me for 45 minutes," and a Finnish practitioner, "the Finnish fondler," who would "work me and try and unbuckle my body."
On stage in Rome, there is little evidence of his injuries as he shadow-boxes and nimbly spider-dances through the show.
It concludes, after two encores, with a seven-minute album track from last year, "Moment of Surrender."
Despite the track's length and the fact it's a non-hit, few head for the exit. The audience waits patiently as the group depart the same way they entered, together alone, four teammates at the end of a gruelling match.
"Promoters say it's bizarre," Bono says. "It doesn't matter if it's Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones -- when the last song goes on, 20,000 leave. And 'Moment's not a song anyone knows, really. But it shows you something is going on. They want to see the four of us walking off together."
A week later, when Bono calls from his home on Killiney Bay, near Dublin, he confesses to some post-gig revelry.
"I did allow myself a bottle of champagne," he says. "I even punched some imaginary air."
We return to the matter of longevity and I suggest the audience's response to the band walking into the arena together could be as simple as celebrating the fact that staying together, be it personal or working or sporting relationships, is so unusual in 2010 that people want to see it up close.
"It's a strange thing to stick with the people you grew up with in your teens," he says.
"Not only am I in the band with my three best friends, I married a girl [wife Ali] from the same school who was in class with Edge and who was the only one smarter than him in their year."
McGuinness says: "In the early days it was all about survival. Getting a record deal was surprisingly difficult."
Bono, for his part, blames the band's slow start to an inconsistent live show.
"When we were trying to get a record deal, people were fired for suggesting us, because that'd bring over their boss and we would be so crap," he says. "Then the next day we'd be great. We didn't seem to have much control over the outcome. Now, we're more consistent."
This brings its own challenges. "What worries me about U2 now is that because the band are playing so well, we can make an average song sound great," Bono says.
Which is part of the reason they have stepped away from their so-called "dysfunctional family" of producers: Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and Daniel Lanois.
"Each night on this tour, we'd fly out of a show and go straight into the studio," Bono says of the Danger Mouse sessions. "Because you enter the studio with the roar of the crowd in your ears, you know what works. If you take musicians away from the stage too much, they become quite abstract in their heads. They start to use words like 'interesting.' But people don't want to see you do something interesting. They want something passionate or wild.
" 'Interesting' is the moment musicians scratch their chin. It ruins great and dramatic music. You listen to the Sex Pistols or Nirvana or the first MGMT album and you don't scratch your chin. You say, 'Wow, that's extraordinary'."
Some hard lessons have been learnt from No Line on the Horizon.
"It's a strong piece of work," he says. "It's original. But it feels like a bit of a commitment, that album. It's not light on its feet. [Horizon's first single] 'Get on Your Boots' is a big song every night. People go nuts. But it didn't sound like that on the radio.
"We didn't have a single on Horizon. Having preached a gospel of zero tolerance against progressive rock, I realised it's starting to happen to us. It's a dangerous disease."
This tour is about U2 creating intimacy on a grand scale, which seems impossible but happens every night. Next year, the band will likely fulfil their Glastonbury slot and close the 360° tour as the biggest to date.
Bono, though, has more immediate concerns. "The biggest challenge now will be getting a song on the radio. That's our drug of choice now. I don't know if we will achieve it. It takes a radio programmer saying, 'I want that feeling on my station.' And they may not. It will be very hard for U2 to dominate the radio now after No Line on the Horizon. But we're going to try."
U2 play Etihad Stadium with Jay-Z on December 1 and 3.
© The Age, 2010.