"Basically, I think we're all nutters, but somehow it works."
Band of Brothers
Rock hall exhibit has Irish rockers U2 covered from their 'uncool' beginnings to superstardom
February 07, 2003
It's a good thing the members of U2 became rock 'n' roll superstars, because drummer Larry Mullen Jr. might not have cut it as a fashion designer.
He created the first U2 T-shirt. But it didn't quite turn out right.
"The shirt was too small, so the actual U2 design is on the stomach, as opposed to the chest," Mullen said.
He modeled the logo after a U2 button designed by guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans and silk-screened the shirt in high school.
The primitive souvenir hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as part of In the Name of Love: Two Decades of U2, a major new exhibition. It opens Sunday.
Despite some early attempts at self-promotion, U2 didn't know beans about marketing or merchandise when the Irish quartet got its start in the '70s, Mullen said.
"We were the most uncool band ever," he said, checking in by phone last week from the Dublin recording studio where U2 is working on its next album.
"We had it all wrong," he said. "We went to London when bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were cool. They looked cool. They really worked on image.
"We were four guys from Dublin. The only thing we could agree on was making music. We were no good at anything else."
You could say they found their niche. Known for its socially conscious and spiritually uplifting anthems, U2 has sold 115 million albums worldwide.
The group's passion and "genuine" music make U2 an ideal subject for the rock hall's first large-scale installation devoted to a contemporary act, said chief curator Jim Henke. As Rolling Stone magazine's music editor in the '80s, he was one of the first American journalists to champion the band.
U2 is "very serious about rock 'n' roll," Henke said.
The U2 retrospective occupies the top three floors of the museum, replacing the popular John Lennon exhibit.
Two dozen U2 photographs by Anton Corbijn, the group's de facto visual biographer, fill the fourth floor. Those will come down in May to make room for artwork by Steve Averill, the band's longtime graphic designer.
The fifth floor is crammed with mementos, including press clips, posters, Mullen's first drum kit, one of the Edge's guitars and singer Bono's handwritten lyrics for "Bad," "Out of Control" and other tunes. Stage costumes, Adam Clayton's bright yellow bass from the PopMart tour and other artifacts from U2's most recent major roadshows are featured on the sixth floor.
Four outlandishly decorated Trabant automobiles from the Zoo TV tour have been suspended above the museum lobby since the rock hall opened in 1995. Band members expressed interest in lending more memorabilia during a 2001 visit to the museum, when they were in Cleveland for a concert at Gund Arena.
Many items in the exhibit came from Mullen, U2's designated pack rat.
"I started collecting bits and bobs right from the beginning, the first piece of press we ever got," he said. "We were advertised for some early shows in England as the U2s. Other promoters misread our handwritten notes and thought our name was Liz. So it was: WELCOME LIZ FROM DUBLIN."
It was actually Mullen who started the band. After he posted a musicians-wanted notice at Mount Temple High School in Dublin, the group held its first jam session at his house in 1976. Two years later, U2 won a St. Patrick's Day talent contest in Limerick, Ireland. The trophy is on view at the rock hall.
"It was a turning point," said Mullen, 41. "We grew up with the punk scene in Dublin, where everyone was crap. All of a sudden, we got into this competition and we won.
"But it was a double-edged sword. As uncool as we were, it made us even more uncool...We got the equivalent of $600 or $700, a trophy and our picture in the paper. It was all wrong. Bands like U2 weren't meant to win competitions. Bands like U2 were meant to struggle like the rest of 'em."
Along with rejection letters from two record companies, the exhibit includes a hastily scrawled note from the Edge to Mullen, circa 1982: We have already gone to practice...We really need to rehearse!!!
"We used to get together on Wednesday afternoons and on the weekends," Mullen said. "Those were good, fun days.
"I suppose the difference now is our instruments work and stay in tune. Back then, everything was out of tune and nothing worked."
Mullen said he was struck by the "naive" sound of the band's first album, Boy, when he revisited it a few years ago while putting together material for the U2 compilation The Best of 1980-1990. (A companion set, The Best of 1990-2000, was released in November.)
"None of us is a virtuoso," Mullen said. "There's no chance we would ever become session musicians. We find it difficult to play with other people [or] to play other people's songs, because we're so tuned in to each other.
"There's no doubt when the four of us get into a room, something happens...We never learned how to be musicians. We only learned how to work to gether.
"We don't seem to be able to get bored playing with each other, so to speak."
U2's first three albums -- Boy, October and War, all produced by Steve Lillywhite -- bring back mixed emotions for Mullen.
"People were starting to recognize the band, but it was a very odd time for me," he said. "I was 18 and I was starting to do all these things, making records and touring. The other guys got a lot more enjoyment out of it than I did at the time.
"I was the youngest...I was actually very scared, because I was out of my habitat."
The 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire gave U2 its first Top 40 hit in the United States, "Pride (In the Name of Love)." The album was the first in an ongoing series of collaborations between the band and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
At the rock hall, you can pore over meticulous production notes from the sessions for The Unforgettable Fire. Perhaps deep snare would apply best. Also deep bass, Eno wrote in his notes for "Pride."
Eno and Lanois "give U2 a dynamic we would not have been able to get otherwise," Mullen said. "Neither of those guys is particularly interested in rock 'n' roll. They're interested in different things.
"They taught us how to use the studio as an instrument."
From the outside looking in, the band turned a corner with the Grammy Award-winning 1987 album The Joshua Tree. From the inside looking out, it was "the point of no return," Mullen said.
"We were on the cover of Time magazine and we were playing stadiums," he recalled. "It was just mind-boggling.
"We'd always made quirky music. All of a sudden, 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,' which is a really odd little piece of music, is No. 1 on the charts.
'With or Without You' -- again, an odd, quirky piece of music -- is on American radio. It was quite extraordinary.
"The Joshua Tree was a crowning moment. We were it."
As U2's popularity soared, however, the group's grip on its own destiny began to slip. "You actually lose the run of yourself," Mullen said. "It was a little more than we could take...Rattle and Hum was one consequence."
The film Rattle and Hum brought the band to the big screen, to mixed reviews. The rock hall has the Stetson hat worn by Bono in the movie, along with various artifacts related to the film's accompanying double album of the same title.
"I'm proud of the record," Mullen said. "There's some great music on there."
The film was another matter.
"The real story of Rattle and Hum hasn't been told," Mullen said. "The truth is, the original idea was to make a small road movie.
"I don't know exactly what happened. But between starting to make the movie and its release, it went from being a road movie to being a Paramount blockbuster. We lost control.
"Do I wish we hadn't done it? I wish we had made a different movie, yeah."
Holed up in Berlin's Hansa Studios -- one of David Bowie's old haunts in the 1970s -- U2 set out to reinvent itself on its next album, 1991's Achtung Baby. At the behest of Bono and the Edge, the group updated its sound with electronic embellishments. Mullen and Clayton weren't gung-ho about the new direction, at least initially.
"We don't always agree on everything," Mullen said. "It was a tough time. We were in Berlin. It was cold, dark and depressing. We'd just come off Rattle and Hum, and everyone was feeling a little nervous.
"We all had different views and thoughts. In the end, we compromised."
The band then embarked on Zoo TV, a multimedia extravaganza represented at the rock hall by Bono's Fly and Mirrorball Man outfits, various set designs and other items.
"It was a lot of fun," Mullen said. "We were on the road 2 years. We'd done the Zooropa record in the middle of the tour. I was a basket case by the end. But myself and Edge were seriously considering starting off again.
"I remember Edge saying, 'Think we should just buy a tour bus and start all over again?' And I remember thinking, 'I could nearly do it.' "
As it turned out, U2 would make even zanier career moves in the '90s.
Pop delivered dance beats and an atypical-if-forced playfulness, although looming concert commitments left the band scrambling to get its work done in the studio.
"We missed all our deadlines and we ended up with an incomplete album," Mullen said. "A lot of those songs are great songs. When you hear them played live, they really take on a life of their own.
"But a lot of the songs weren't finished. It's our fault."
The subsequent PopMart tour pulled out all the stops in the razzle-dazzle department, with U2 dwarfed onstage by a giant arch and an immense video screen, among other toys. A miniature model of the set is displayed at the rock hall.
"It was, 'Let's be ironic,' " Mullen said. "Again, we were wrong-footed, through nobody's fault but our own. We went out believing, 'We can do this and everyone will understand.' Well, a lot of people didn't understand. They didn't get it.
"I don't think it takes away from the band. We played well. Those were good shows, bar a couple of bumpy ones at the start."
Conspicuous by its absence at the rock hall is the most infamous PopMart prop, a 40-foot lemon. It was too big to squeeze into the exhibit.
"It's probably just as well," Mullen said, laughing.
The group bounced back in 2000 with All That You Can't Leave Behind. The first single, "Beautiful Day," won three Grammys. At the awards ceremony, Bono declared U2 was applying for the job of "best band in the world."
The album "connected in a very strong way," Mullen said. "Over 20 years after our first record, we made a record that got very good reviews, very good public reaction."
In the wake of the arena-packing Elevation tour, the band performed at half-time during last year's Super Bowl. Bono wore a leather jacket lined with stars and stripes, now in the rock hall. As U2 played, the names of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks were scrolled on a giant screen.
"It was strange to be celebrated as the band that meant something to people, particularly after 9/11," Mullen said. "I came off the last tour feeling very grateful that people took what we did in the spirit in which it was intended.
"Every band wants their music to break through, to break down barriers...Every band wants to feel like their music is special."
Bono recently told MTV the group is working on "a guitar record," tentatively scheduled for release late this year or in early 2004.
"The guitar is dominating this week," Mullen said. "Who knows what will happen in a couple of weeks?
"We've got three or four ideas that are very guitar-heavy. We're just working through those to see which ones fly. In about three weeks, we're going to start working on some stuff that's more electronic-based, using keyboards and strings."
Mullen said he wanted to attend tomorrow's exhibit preview party at the rock hall. As of this week, however, it appeared the band's studio schedule would prevent him from coming to Cleveland.
Having U2 inducted into the rock hall would be "a huge honor," Mullen said. They'll be eligible in 2004, 25 years after the release of their first EP.
"I'm not quite looking forward to [induction] so soon because I can't believe it's been so long," Mullen said. "It's shocking."
"In the Name of Love" will be on view through September. Mullen hopes the exhibit provides some insights into the unique chemistry at the heart of U2.
"It's not about what age you are," he said. "It's not about how you look. It's about how committed you are, how prepared you are to...make great music.
"There's a lot more to it than sitting in a studio. It's about people working together, making music. That's a powerful image. And that's what the whole exhibition is about -- four individuals who made great music together. And we're still doing it."
© Plain Dealer, 2003.