"Our music is not something to lie down to, to get out of to, to die to, to commit suicide to. It's not a soundtrack to a nervous breakdown."
March 01, 1998
From Zoo TV to PopMart, U2 think...big! As their tour hits Australia, we find Bono fantasizing about being a singer/songwriter and erm, killing people...
The end appears shockingly nigh. The door to the outside world slams shut with a resounding boom, leaving a dozen Australian media folk trapped in a tiny, white room. We eye each other nervously as a soft hissing sound pierces the silence. Nothing in here but...gas pipes! Of course! The press junket of a lifetime ingeniously twisted into the ultimate act of media manipulation! "Damn you to hell, MacPhisto!" I scream with my last poisonous breath. "You and your Satanic Pop irony!"
Except I don't really. After 30 seconds, another door sucks open with that ear-popping sensation one normally associates with descending aircraft. A pleasant lady on the other side of the airlock smiles and says "Welcome to PopMart."
It's a very, very weird place. After the endless rows of empty seats, the TV is the first thing you notice. It's f***ing huge. Millions of multi-coloured computer graphics race across it while below some workmen wrap a 35-foot mirrored football in lemon clothing and a team of roadies mill about soundchecking under a giant 115-foot golden arch.
Up close, the world's biggest TV looks and feels like a cheap radiator. Kind of. Bars of metal tubing are studded every six inches or so with a cluster of red, green, and blue diodes. We're encouraged to look closely and marvel as the guided tour files onto the PopMart stage.
A nice American man named Rocky (or Rusty or Randy) talks in mind-buggering statistics, as he points out various features of the beast being fine-tuned all around us. It takes two 747s to leap-frog the two stages from city to city, he says. There's 28 semi-trailers involved, a travelling crew of 100, plus 250 local bods, including 52 truck drivers...enormous video FX...hydraulic stairs on lemon...scenic beds...arch...nothing-to-do-with-McDonald's...wow, um...zzzzzzzz.
The final leg of the grand tour goes subterranean. Beneath the stage is a labyrinth studded with black-and-white TVs ready to monitor every sign made by the band. But as our King Roadie guide begins reeling out lines like "without the audience, there's no show," I suddenly remember it's time to go and eat.
The pressure chamber is vibrating with a whole different energy when I return. The band enters Perth's 20,000-seat Burswood Casino Dome from the rear, Bono following the others in his blue silk boxer's robe, arms aloft and a spring in his step. The screen ignites with PopMart graphics and the crowd goes mental.
What follows is a total headf***. This telly -- 150 by 50 feet, if it's an inch -- just looks amazing. So does the flashing arch centrepiece. And the band come back for the encore in a giant spinning lemon which glides halfway down the arena before splitting open and spitting out The World's Biggest Rock Band. Phwooaaaaarr!
But this stuff, you've probably read about. In terms of surprises, therefore, there's just one set-piece that resonates more grandly in this particular country than it could have anywhere else in the world.
"This is for Michael Hutchence," Bono says as the Edge fingers the exquisite intro to "One." The gesture is loudly appreciated. Warholesque images of various deceased icons flash on the screen, giving way to a giant red heart beating beneath the arch.
A multiple-image of Hutchence takes shape as the band segues into the slow, brooding "Wake Up Dead Man." Five minutes later, the house lights go up and the crowd mills out, quietly stunned. The tribute is not remarkable for its existence, but for its placing in the whole pixel-happy spectacle. If we were allowed to display our collective thoughts in 50-foot high letters, they might say something like this: "BUMMER."
"Sorry for keepin' ya," Larry Mullen announces. "It was Bono's fault." It's almost an hour after the main event when Mullen, the Edge and Adam Clayton file into a large office within the Dome complex to scattered applause from the media. Bono comes last, hood over his head, and a CD boombox perched on his shoulder.
"What track on the Propellerheads album is Shirley Bassey on?" he demands. He finds the appropriate spot and nearly falls over in ecstasy as "History Repeating" grinds in with maximum sex appeal. "Aaaaaaaaw, check it out! There she goes! Shirley! I'm in the mood, now..."
Not for long, he isn't. Naturally enough, he's asked about the decidedly downbeat conclusion to an otherwise upbeat affair...
"We had a picture of Michael and we put it through the Pop processing and Warholed it..." he sighs. "This is his country. This is his house and we can't help thinking about him when we're here."
Everyone relaxes as the inevitable rigours-of-the-road question rears its head. "The food is fine in this prison," Adam Clayton grins.
"We're actually spoilt-rotten rock stars and we don't have to do anything we don't want to," Bono reveals. "This tour is only a year long and we get to travel the world. And kill people.
"The advantage of being here at this point of this tour is we've figured out how to play the songs and I think it's the greatest show on earth. It's a rockin' band and it wasn't always that way. There were a few scary bits there early on." Before long, it becomes evident that the show we have just witnessed will be remembered with a similar degree of fright. Bono playfully describes the Perth audience as "Protestant" and then "stoned."
"When you've got a show like this, there is a danger that you're playing Las Vegas, next to a casino," Bono says. "I could've sworn I saw somebody way back with a chicken supper. That was very scary."
The casino connection clearly conjures unhappy memories of Vegas 10 months ago. It turns out the band expects a great deal more from their audience than brain-dead gamblers.
"Zoo TV was a show of great ideas and concepts and we had a blast playing with information overload," says the Edge, "but when we put this tour together, we really wanted the music to be the centrepiece.
"The tension between the size of the production and the fact that there's four guys onstage was always something we were interested in. On a good night the production just becomes a backdrop, and then some nights -- like the first night in Las Vegas -- we felt like we were struggling against it. But it's a fair fight."
"It's a hard call to turn a supermarket into a cathedral," Bono says, "but we're trying to find the spirit in the machine. We live in a neon time and we're trying to make it magical. And it's not trying to be smart-arse or ironic.
"The job of rock 'n' roll is to blow people's heads. Everyone else is into nostalgia. It's really peculiar to me, that at the fag end of the 20th century, you have all this obsession with the Sixties. Let's do something that's forward-looking and fresh! That's why we came up with this.
"We had in our heads was to make a big sci-fi gospel show. We wanted Martin Luther King in the building. Along with Elvis and anyone else we could find."
As the good book sayeth, however, it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a fat bastard to enter rock 'n' roll heaven. With minimal provocation, talk turns to money and it soon becomes clear that U2's next outing will be comparatively scaled down.
"I think it'll have to be," Bono sighs. "We can't afford to take this f***ing thing around. It's madness charging these prices for tickets. It's ridiculous and we're not making any money from this.
"One of the things we've learned from this tour is that the songs actually travel distances, faster than all the millions of diodes and pixels that we have on the big drive-in movie screen."
Ah, the final irony. It hits everyone in the room with like a gigantic olive falling off its stick from a great height.
"I'm so proud of this," Bono says, "but you have to be an engineer, an electrician, a computer scientist, a painter, a video editor, a songwriter, a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player and a singer to do this and maybe the next time I might just want to be a singer and a songwriter.
"Did I say singer-songwriter?" Bono asks his partners in futurist rock as the band shares a wee chuckle. "After all these years..."
© Melody Maker, 1998. All rights reserved.