"Some people expect U2 to come on like a political band. . . . Other people see us as prophets. Some see us as pop stars. . . . And we're not any of those things. We're probably all of them. I don't know what we are."
U2's Art Designers Engage in Graphic Talk at Rock Hall
The Plain Dealer,
June 14, 2003
A funny thing happened to U2 a few years ago on its way to the south of France:
The Irish rock 'n' roll super stars nailed the cover for their last album, 2000's Grammy-winning All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Photographer Anton Corbijn snapped away when the band had a brief layover at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris. With luggage in hand, singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bass player Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen were just off a plane from their hometown of Dublin and waiting to board another flight.
"It wasn't staged at all," said Steve Averill, U2's longtime graphic designer and creative director of the Dublin-based design firm Four5One Creative. He'll be at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum today for U2 Fan Celebration Day.
Averill had a hand in designing the artwork for nearly all of U2's singles and albums, including All That You Can't Leave Behind. The latter album's mono chromatic image of U2 at the futuristic airport "fit the mood" of the band members, whose lives were in transit along with their music, Averill said.
"It was shot documentary-style as they moved along," he said.
A selection of pieces created for U2 by Four5One -- including album artwork, posters, tour program outtakes and T-shirt designs -- goes on view today at the rock hall as part of the exhibition In the Name of Love: Two Decades of U2, running through December.
Averill and Four5One staffers Shaughn McGrath and Killian Kavanagh will sign copies of the book Stealing Hearts at a Traveling Show: The Graphic Design of U2 at 3:30 p.m. in the museum store. They'll discuss their work with the band during a sold-out session at 7 p.m. in the rock hall's fourth-floor theater.
"It's very much a collaborative process," Averill said. "Working with U2 is a six-way discussion between the four band members, [band manager] Paul McGuinness and myself and the other designers.
"The work we do is very much in tune with U2's music and who they are as people."
Also on the agenda for U2 Fan Celebration Day are prize giveaways and performances by Exit, a U2 tribute band from Los Angeles. Fans can purchase U2 memorabilia and record messages to the group in a video confessional booth, too.
Averill used to front a band of his own, the Radiators from Space. He befriended Bono & Co. in the late '70s, back when they billed themselves as the Hype. In fact, it was Averill who suggested changing the group's name to U2.
"What impressed me about them was they had a conviction about what they wanted to do," Averill said.
One of his first assignments was designing the sleeve for the band's debut single, U2 Three. It's on display at the rock hall.
Averill is especially proud of his work on the group's War album, although the inner-sleeve photo -- a Corbijn portrait of U2 in a snow-covered field in Sweden -- turned out to be a tough sell. The band wasn't keen on it, but Averill would not be denied.
"I felt the shot really summed up the idea of war," he said. "They looked like Russian soldiers on the front...Eventually, they said, 'Well, if you really feel so passionately about it, we'll go with it.'
"One reason I like working with U2 is if you put up a convincing argument, they'll listen."
They can drive a designer crazy, too. The band's Pop album originally had numerous other working titles, including Miami and Discotheque, along with corresponding mock ups by Averill and his team.
Two weeks before the artwork was due, Bono told them that the band had settled on a new title: Pop. The designers scrambled to turn around a pop-art cover inspired by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, with a computer-generated twist.
Four5One is in the early stages of kicking around concepts for U2's next album, due in stores next year.
"We're really excited about it," Averill said. "We got to hear eight songs in the studio. They were very rocking, very guitar-oriented."
© 2003 The Plain Dealer.