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"It's a record about looking for some kind of transcendence as well as trash." — Bono, on Pop

U2's Big Image

On the eve of U2's Australian tour, KERRIE MURPHY goes backstage to find out the techstuff behind the show.
The Australian newspaper
How do you top your last tour if it involved live satellite crosses to Sarajevo, on-stage telephone calls to Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Edna Everage, and banks of televisions streaming messages like, "Nobody is promised a tomorrow"?

For U2 -- the Irish rock band that rose to fame in the 1980s with such hits as "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," only to reinvent themselves with a touch of electronica in the 1990s with tunes such as "Discotheque" -- the answer was obvious: the world's largest LED (light-emitting diode) screen and a 30m cocktail stick complete with a 3.5m olive on the end.

"When you start putting together a show like this, you can have as many wild ideas as you like. As you get nearer and nearer to the show, you start to focus on what is just possible," says Willie Williams, the designer of the set.

Despite a 30m golden arch, the aforementioned oversized novelty cocktail accessory and a large disco mirror ball in the shape of a lemon, the stage is dominated by the screen, a $US6 million ($8.4 million), 52m-by-19m piece that alternately displays videos of the band and images by pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring.

It's a far cry from the days when the biggest prop on the band's tour was a white flag, and something that's only recently become possible. "We started meeting almost exactly two years ago, and then took a year to design the set. In 1996 there was a technological breakthrough for LED," Williams tells Living IT from Rio de Janeiro.

Until this point LED screens, which generate images through clusters of pixels, had only used two LEDs, red and green, limiting the range of colours which could be displayed. "Now there's true red, green and blue. This sounds minor and dull, but it's a breakthrough because if you can make a picture with a LED screen, it's a lot less bulky than CRT [cathode ray tube -- used by TV sets and computer monitors]," says Williams.

"The really smart thing we did was decide that since most domestic television is of such low quality, rather than go for high-definition images, we took the basic idea of a video screen and separated the pixels. The screen is really around 20 per cent pixels, the rest is blank. The LEDs run at about 5 to 10 per cent of their capacity because they are so bright."

The pixels are grouped in clusters of about 25mm and are arranged on 2m-by-2m panels, which looks like an aluminium fence. The screen has 178 panels. The low-definition nature of the screen complements the content, he says.

"Roy Lichtenstein used series of dots to create his images -- this was the perfect delivery," explains Williams. The technology was so new that at one point it looked like making the start of the tour in 1997 rather anti-climactic. "The screen should have been finished in January for the April tour. The first concert was April 25, and the screen didn't arrive until a day or two before. Because you're so busy you don't have time to think of alternatives. There's no way you can have a plan B."

Mounting a tour of this magnitude is no mean feat, since the screen alone requires two trucks to transport. "We have 250 people on the road with us, and in each city we have the same again. There's over 70 trucks. It costs about $US250,000 a day to keep it rolling, whether we do a show or not," says Williams.

It also takes about 36 hours to set up the stage. The tour started in Las Vegas last April and has since covered North America, South America and Europe. It hits Australia next week.

This tour follows on from the extravagant 1992 Zoo TV tour, in which lead singer Bono appeared on stage in a gold suit, white make-up and horns, claiming to be "Mr Macphisto." Despite the continuing technology theme, this time the philosophy is quite different, says Williams, who also designed the previous tour.

"Zoo TV was very groundbreaking, technologically. Because of that I was not very interested in doing another video-based tour," he says. "The thing about Zoo TV that was really important for me at the time, is that everything should be real. The images on the screen [such as the Sarajevo cross] would have been a lot easier to fake, and they made life more difficult. Ninety-nine percent of your audience are seeing the show for the first time and there's only so much you can take in. If you did set things up, you could relax a little bit, so I was not as obsessed with concept purity."

This tour also leant itself more to U2's earlier tunes, such as "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the statements of which often seemed out of place compared with the post-modern slant of later albums such as Zooropa.

"When we put the show together I think [the band] assumed there was a lot of old stuff that wouldn't fit in. This show isn't intellectual, it's fairly straightforward putting the old stuff in. Putting the set list together there are certain responses where the songs fit, and it's not quite so structured as Zoo TV was. The old songs really seem to work.

"We're really just aiming more for emotions with these images; it's not remote and abstract like Zoo TV. This show is much more dance-oriented, and dancing is not an intellectual pastime."

So what lies in the future for U2's live performances? When ticket sales in North America were initially lower than expected, some saw the end for the band. However, it took in more money than any other tour in the first six months of last year and has sold out in cities across North America and Europe.

"The only limit is really financial," says Williams. "We've all got about 100 ideas a day, and if you really want to make things work, you can. It's been a strange year: everyone said it was the end of stadium events, that this was the last of the big shows. This tour has gone really well and as long as people want to see these things, we'll keep doing them."

Tickets to U2's PopMart tour start at $65. U2 will play in Perth on Tuesday, Melbourne next Saturday, Brisbane on February 25 and Sydney on February 27.

© The Australian, 1998. All rights reserved.