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I'm happy to be unhappy. I'll always be a bit restless, I suppose. -- Bono

Achtung Stations (Part 2)

Uncut Magazine
On a symbolic level, U2's journey into the supernova of multimedia celebrity had melted their wings. In more human terms, the journey they began in Berlin three years before ended with bruised heart, battered band members and one almighty motherfucker of a hangover. But the Fly had been swatted. The karaoke Elvis had finally left the building.

A hard axe to follow - how our man learned to stop worrying and love U2

When Uncut writer Stephen Dalton was critical of U2's Zoo TV tour for a 1993 NME cover feature, Bono sent him an axe -- as in hatchet job. Reviewing the Zooropa stage show and album, he attacked the band for what he saw as their shameless attempt to acquire alt.rock cool and political credibility while their corporate lawyers shafted the penniless punk pranksters Negativland over a tiny stolen sample.

But as the decade wore on, with the Passengers project and the PopMart extravaganza, plus Bono's proactive stance on AIDS and Third World debt, Dalton was forced to reassess his opinion of the band. Still, when he revisited the scene of the crime for this special investigative report on U2's most fascinating period -- when they reinvented themselves spectacularly at the turn of the '90s for Achtung Baby and Zooropa/Zoo TV, and when Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. reached new creative heights and plumbed terrible personal depths -- he took his axe along, just in case...

Cyber class - The neuromance between U2 and William Gibson

One of the names most often dropped by Bono in the Achtung Baby and Zooropa period was William Gibson, the Vancouver-based pioneer of "cyberpunk" whose sci-fi novels anticipated the birth of the Internet, virtual reality and future-shock urban nightmares like The Matrix. It was Zoo TV set designer Mark Fisher who first brought Gibson and U2 together.

"I had never paid much attention to U2's earlier music," Gibson tells Uncut. "A generational thing, rather than not liking the music. So I was spared that meeting-the-Beatles thing, I thought they were extremely likeable and almost ridiculously sane, considering. Still do."

U2 even discussed flashing the entire text of Gibson's 1984 debut novel Neuromancer across the Zoo TV stage displays. "There was some talk about that, but I couldn't get my literary agent to go along with it," Gibson says. At the end of the Zoo TV tour, Gibson recorded a short bit in Dublin for an MTV "triple-cast" that was later abandoned. But, even today, he remains friendly with U2. "I've gone along and said hello at every Vancouver show since," he says, "and have gotten together with them twice in Dublin. I liked those albums a lot, and still do. The Chinese-Irish pop group in my novel Idoru is my U2 homage, so to speak."

Zoo World Order - How U2 got George Bush Sr. out of the White House

During their Zoo TV Outside Broadcast stadium tour of North America in late 1992, U2 entangled themselves in the presidential elections. The show took potshots at the incumbent with its doctored video loop of George Bush Sr. chanting Queen's "We Will Rock You," and with Bono's on-stage calls to the White House: "This is Elvis here..."

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, courted U2 with a late-August radio phone-in, and they finally bumped into each other in Chicago two weeks later, swapping guarded but friendly words. Bush tried to capitalise on the encounter with a campaign speech in Ohio on September 26. "I have nothing against U2," he smirked. "You may not know this, but they tried to call me at the White House every night during their concert. But the next time we face a foreign policy crisis, I will work with John Major and Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton can consult Boy George..."

The speech was ill-advised, and Clinton romped to victory two months later. In January 1993, a supergroup of U2 and R.E.M. members calling themselves Automatic Baby played for the new President at MTV's Inaugural Ball.

"It was humorous sacrilege" - Did the Pet Shop Boys invent the 'ironic' U2?

Seven months before the birth of Achtung Baby, in March 1991, the Pet Shop Boys released their Hi-NRG disco medley of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" and the easy-listening cheese-pop number "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." Intended as a mockery of U2's pompous '80s image, it seems the deadpan duo unwittingly predicted U2's high-camp '90s reinvention. Coincidence?

"This is quite a sensitive subject," PSBs' Neil Tennant tells Uncut. "I once saw an interview with Adam Clayton slagging us off because an NME journalist actually said that to them. I think they got the idea we'd said that, which we hadn't. We actually had the idea years before -- originally we were going to do it with Patsy Kensit. But in 1990, when we made that record, the idea of applying humour to U2 seemed intriguingly sacrilegious. So we did it as a piece of humorous sacrilege. But it's funny -- if we'd done it three or four years later it wouldn't have seemed humorously sacrilegious. By that time Bono had done MacPhisto and shown his humorous and ironic side, ha ha! No, I thought that show was great -- it was the first time I'd ever seen U2 and the MacPhisto bit was brilliant. I don't hate U2. In the '80s, big anthemic stadium rock just seemed like the enemy. Nowadays it's crap pop. There isn't that much anthemic stadium rock going around any more. But I've heard that's what the new U2 album sounds like, so maybe I'll be able to start hating U2 again..."

Every artist is a cannibal - U2 vs Negativland

In August 1991, a 12-inch bearing a "U2" logo appeared on U.S. indie label SST. Featuring a short, unauthorised sample of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," combined with an off-air rant about the band's name by the presenter Casey Kasem, it was an irreverent piece of pop satire from punk pranksters Negativland. Less than two weeks later a torrent of copyright infringement lawsuits from U2's label and publishers, Island and Warner-Chappell, hit SST and Negativland. Faced with heavy damages plus the cost of recalling singles and transferring copyright to Island, SST sued Negativland.

"We knew we were taking some sort of risk," admits Mark Hosler, a founder member of Negativland. "But our best guess was that we were so small we would be ignored, or get a nasty phone call." R.E.M.'s manager Bertis Downs had stumbled across Negativland's single at a store in Athens Georgia and sent it directly to U2's manager, Paul McGuinness. At the time U2 denied any direct involvement in the lawsuit, while Island simply contended they were guarding against fans mistaking the record for new U2 product.

"Certainly we liked the idea of making something that was confusing at the point of purchase," Hosler admits, "but we assumed music-buying public is intelligent and would figure out the prank aspect very quickly. Island assumed the average U2 fan was an idiot, I guess."

The magazine Mondo 2000 invited Negativland to conduct a 1992 phone interview with the Edge. After a discussion about U2's liberal attitude to sampling, they revealed their true identities. "The lawsuit was not our lawsuit," squirmed the guitarist. "We weren't in a position to tell Island Records what to do."

After losing $45,000 to SST, Negativland asked the Edge to loan them $20,000 to start their own label -- an official loan, with interest. "This is probably the most surreal interview I've ever had," the guitarist laughed. "I'll think about that request..."

Hosler concedes the Edge "seemed like a guy," but they never got the loan. They finally extracted a guarantee that Island would not sue if the record was reissued, but "only after four years of disingenuous bullshit." Negativland later chronicled the whole episode in their book, Fair Use.

Just months later, U2 became embroiled in a public spat with artist Jenny Holzer over Zoo TV stage slogans that looked uncannily like her own work. But then, as Bono sings on the Holzer-inspired "The Fly," "Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief."

© Uncut, 2004.