"Maybe that is the step forward on this record, to be able to have the freedom to have humour sitting alongside songs that are deadly earnest, and the two actually balance out each other."
-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind
25 Years of War: An Interview with Carter Alan
March 01, 2008
Carter Alan is a DJ for the Boston-based radio station WZLX, and has written two books about U2, Outside Is America and The Road to Pop. As one of the key people behind U2's rise to fame in America, he talks to @U2 about his thoughts and experiences of the War album as we celebrate its 25th anniversary.
You're probably most well-known among U2 fans for being the man who first helped to break U2 in the USA by playing them on radio before they were famous. How exactly did you first discover them?
At the time (August 1980), I was doing a college radio show on the station WMBR 88.1 FM at M.I.T. plus working as a part-time DJ on WBCN-FM, Boston. I also worked for a record store called New England Music City, ordering import records and working the registers and floor. One day, a shipment of import albums and 45s (seems so ancient to talk about a 45 these days!) came in and my buddy and I took advantage of a slow day at the store to preview a few of the records on the store sound system. I remember Echo & the Bunnymen's "Rescue" being in the pile, plus two singles by a group named U2: "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "A Day Without Me."
We had no knowledge of the band or its origins, which says a lot because both of us were regular readers of NME and prided ourselves in knowing about the latest bands. The second 45 really impressed me -- the guitar work and band -- plus the middle break in "A Day Without Me" was similar in sound to a passage from the middle of Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times." I was intrigued that a "punk" band would have the desire and ability to even approach that comparison.
I bought the single and that week played it on both stations I worked at. Then I bought "11 O'Clock." When the import album showed up a couple weeks later -- I took it to WBCN and my music director was so impressed that we added it the playlist, and "I Will Follow" and "Out of Control" became the breakout hits. Three months later, WBCN did a co-promotion at the Paradise Theater with U2 and we met "the boys" (because they were!).
What were your initial thoughts on the War album when you first heard it?
When I first heard the War album I was immediately impressed, especially since October had been so untogether. Oh, there were some great moments on October -- "Tomorrow," "Gloria" -- but it really wasn't ever finished. In that regard, it shares some of the problems that cropped up in Pop years later. But to have War arrive in such a realized condition -- ideas fully formed and a concept developed, an album that cried for peace -- was just a joy. There was a professional pleasure in being able to play it on the air and also to enjoy it personally. Whereas October only held the ground that U2 had gained on Boy, (and almost lost it actually), War took U2 to the next level sonically and lyrically as well as in commercial success.
You've previously mentioned that your most memorable concert experience was seeing U2 perform at the Paradise Theatre in Boston in 1980. After having experienced the band at such an early stage in their career, did they strike as having changed much between then and the War years?
U2's earlier tours showed the band as a raw and somewhat unfocused entity onstage. The energy was mostly pouring out from beginning to end with some deliberate breaks ("October, "The Ocean"). Bono was all over the place and singing without much discipline. (To be honest, I was an Edge freak. I used to go to the shows, walk up to the stage and put my coat against Edge's monitor and stand there all night -- until they got into the theaters).
But by the War tour, Bono had begun to come into his own. There was a sense of balance between him and the band -- plus they had more organization with the backdrop, the white flags and Bono's stage show of carrying the flag about. During the tour, the balance would tip overboard a bit as Bono did more and more outrageous things, carrying that flag up balconies and lighting grids, but at first the War show was a U2 show with each member balanced in his part and knowing what to do and where to be throughout the set.
What are your thoughts on the War tour and the ideas that the band were promoting?
The idea of focusing attention on peace was honorable, needed and welcome. It still is today. As a Christian, I also believe any mention of core Christian values like brotherly love and responsibility towards your fellow passengers on planet Earth can only be a good thing, even if one doesn't share the faith. I was impressed that the band members wanted to go beyond just reaching for stardom to deliver a message.
When they eventually played Live Aid, their presence would make more sense than many of the artists who were there. Not to take anything away from people's contributions, but to make anyone with ears to hear aware of the problems and the need for love was right on U2's track. This is something they had begun on the War tour of 1983.
The two books you've written on U2 have mainly seemed to be concerned with the band's relationship with America. What do you think their relationship was with the country around the time of the War album? Do you think it's changed much since?
When the War tour began in America, most people were completely unaware of U2. Many of the small number of people that were fans knew of Bono, Edge and Larry's Christian beliefs, but beyond that there was no impression that this band would be committed to sending a message. They were (just) a very good band. It should also be said that at the time very few groups were sending out any political messages in their music and it was quite unfashionable.
When War appeared, it became immediately obvious that the members of U2 had matured and developed enough confidence to express their disgust at war and the need for peace. In that regard, the band has never turned back. They continue to express their innermost feelings in their art -- and in fact only continue to exist because they are still able to do that.
As someone working within the music industry, how do you feel that history has treated the War album?
History has treated the War album well because it is recognized as a point where music regained some sort of conscience after a few years of shallow dance-happy fascination. U2 played rock music that actually had a message and worked on a visceral as well as a mental level. In our culture it has left more of an impression because it achieved so much more than just a musical statement. Plus, the "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" singles and videos have maintained a steady popularity over the years and can be heard and seen (often with frightening frequency) on radio and TV. (I'm a DJ -- guilty as charged!)
Can you see any obvious signs of the War album's musical influence in the new bands you hear now?
I suppose -- but I haven't heard any particular group mining that musical sound effectively.
Do you think that the current music scene does much to espouse the kinds of themes that the album promoted?
U2's influence is much more noticeable in how many modern bands are unafraid to back causes, give light to injustices and do good charitable work through their songs and lyrics. There's no shortage of causes, is there?
Many thanks to Carter Alan for taking the time to speak to us.
© @U2/Fry, 2008.