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We want to be like Van Morrison and make records for a few friends; and we want to be like the Beatles and reach as many people as possible. -- Bono

A Feast for the Ears and a Riot for the Eyes

No more the lumbering rock beast. Adam Sweeting relishes the probing, turbulent new sound of U2
The Guardian
Last year's album Achtung Baby presented a U2 buffeted by psychic thunderstorms as they searched for a new identity for a new decade. "I'm ready now to take it to the street," Bono announced in the track "Zoo Station," and their Zoo TV tour is here to do just that. The two shows I saw in Milan's 10,000-seater Forum di Assago announced that this is a band with brains as well as soul.

Boosted by an impressive arsenal of mood-altering gadgetry, this U2 is a mixed-media mongrel which can spring nimbly from Cinerama-rock to folky strumalong, fronted by a bewildering variety of Bonos. He's the wracked balladeer of "One" or "Bad," the whimsical pop minstrel of "Angel ofHarlem" or Abba's "Dancing Queen," the Euro-funkster of "Even Better Than te Real Thing," or the robotic preacher of "Bullet te Blue Sky." For the encores, the pixie-like singer is reborn in a glittering silver suit and stetson, farcically admiring himself in a full-length mirror as he explores the misleading facades of "Desire."

The roots of the Zoo TV tour lie in the group's interest in what guitarist te Edge calls "the combination of high-tech and low-tech worlds." Brian Eno, the pioneer of subjecting pop music to multi-media treatments, gets a credit for "Video Staging Concept," while production designer Pete Williams propelled the project to fruition. Around Williams's control console, a squad of computer-operators and vision-mixers blend images from recorded and live video sources and feed them into the towering banks of onstage TV monitors. The group can call down a bombardment of audio-visual effects customised to the requirements of each song.

But in the same way that U2 pulled apart their approach to recording with Achtung Baby, Zoo TV might also have been conceived as an antidote to the lumbering rock beast some said U2 had become. In 1987, The Joshua Tree rocketed them to global pre-eminence. Then came Rattle and Hum (the film and the album), a lash-up of live tracks, throwaway pieces and a few new songs in which U2 dabbled with the roots of American music. It gave the impression they had awarded themselves premature elevation into rock 'n' roll nirvana.

"I think a lot of people who actually bought the Rattle and Hum album really liked it, as opposed to getting free copies to review," noted Edge, with a hint of asperity. "I still think it's good, but there was this false perception that we'd completely left planet earth, and we were comparing ourselves to Elvis Presley, Dylan and the Beatles, which was completely the opposite of our intention. It was really just a lot of goofing around and listening to a lot of music that we hadn't taken the time to listen to before. There was nothing heavy going on."

For whatever reasons, Achtung Baby and Zoo TV find U2 driving forward and leaving history to gather dust. In forcing themselves to dig deep into their collective resources, they've pulled off that rare achievement of becoming a giant international act which got better after it got bigger. Edge explains "we do take risks and we're not doing the usual things that most big bands do."

Zoo TV is a feast for the ears and a riot for the eyes. There are cuts of U2 promos, cross-shaped monitor stacks consumed by video-fires, and live shots of the band superimposed on the dancing-girl who twirls through "Mysterious Ways." Bono flicks a remote controller to flash up live-by-satellite wallfuls of CNN, MTV or Yogi Bear (in Italian, on this occasion). There's a show-stopping moment during "Pride," when multiple stills of Martin Luther King suddenly shimmer into life, and his words ring out: "We as a people will get to the promised land." Dangling above the musicians are half a dozen Trabant cars, refurbished in psychedelic colours, rewired with strobes, lasers and floodlights, and equipped to dip and swivel as required. Surreal video-fishtanks fill the stage in the gap before the encores.

"It's been a lot of fun putting this together, because we've never done anything like it before," explained Edge, after the first night in Milan. "It's a challenge. It could have gone horribly wrong, but thankfully it didn't. There was a bit of a panic when we had just one day to go and not a clue what set-order we were going to do, but on the first night it just came together in a really good way. It's been downhill ever since."

The production arrived in Europe following a thorough shaking-down around America. New images and ideas can be freely incorporated where necessary. "The Fly," for instance, is accompanied by a visual barrage of words and phrases which flash past at near-subliminal speed, but there are interchangeable language programmes to suit the location -- France, Germany, Italy or Spain. American reviewers thought they saw the phrases "Bomb Japan Now" and "Everyone's A Rapist," neither of which are actually included. "Some of the slips are very Freudian," said Edge.

Unlike productions by Madonna or Michael Jackson, which are locked into synchronised rhythm tracks or software programmes, Zoo TV can stretch to accommodate improvisation. For part of the set, the band relocate to a secondary stage built in the middle of the crowd, but what they play while they're there seems to be determined by how much champagne Bono has had. It might be "When Love Comes To Town," it might be the Beatles' "Dear Prudence." "It's all free-running stuff, with guys pressing buttons and pulling levers to keep it all in time," Edge added. "It's a real hands-on kind of a thing."

From the perspective of Achtung Baby, the band's career suddenly looks rather different. The epic, ringing sound which once defined U2 is packed into a late burst of "Where The Streets Have No Name," "Pride" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," while performances of the new material are probing, turbulent, and far from reassuring. This is the sound of a world in turmoil and emotions in shreds. Maybe the young U2 thought they had to get a message across, but a little more age has brought a great deal more irony. In becoming less serious, they have grown more profound.

U2 British dates: London Earl's Court, Sunday May 31; Birmingham NEC, June 1; Sheffield Arena, June 17; Glasgow SECC, June 18.

© The Guardian, 1992. All rights reserved.