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"I was surprised how much insincerity suited me. The second skin started to stick." — Bono, on his Fly/MacPhisto days

Blinded by the Light

Irish Times
With U2 on their way to Dublin, Brian Boyd intercepts the band as they open their European tour in Brussels and talks to manager Paul McGuinness. On the agenda: Crazy Frog, Coldplay, Clear Channel and Croke Park.

The greatest enemy of rock 'n' roll? There's a few contenders: Drinking your own bodyweight in Jack Daniels. Injecting heroin into your eyeball. Having an ego the size of Canada. Nasty record companies. The internet. Downloading. Limp Bizkit. Psycho-Christian family values advocates. The Man. Not being able to play any instrument. Not being able to mime playing any instrument. The lead singer being tone deaf. Nobody telling the lead singer he/she is tone deaf.

Some of the above qualify in the enemy stakes, but all have to bow down to the ultimate adversary and antagonist. The greatest enemy of rock 'n' roll is the banal meteorological phenomenon commonly known as daylight.

Let U2 manager Paul McGuinness talk you through it: "There are some things that should never be done in daylight. Rock 'n' roll is one of them. The aesthetic problem is enormously difficult. Over the years we've tried to address it, arguing that a rock show only looks good in darkness. I've travelled the world and have had rows and arguments with mayors and police chiefs about the daylight issue. All I hear back is excuses about curfews/sound disturbances/neighbours. Tonight's first show of the European tour Brussels, June 10th, started in daylight. In some of the cities we'll be playing, like Oslo, the show will have to be performed in near total daylight. We want as much darkness as we can get, but you know it's all about curfews/sound disturbances/neighbours. As a result, Vertigo in Europe is now a production that has had to be re-designed to look good in daylight."

After the indoor arena U.S. tour in April and May, there were just 10 days to reconfigure the travelling Vertigo roadshow for outdoor stadiums and pesky Northern European bright skies. "We're doing 114 shows this year, we've played 29 already," says McGuinness. "You're planning the second leg while you're still on the first leg. The differences can be huge -- indoor in the U.S. all the equipment hangs off the roof, outdoors there is nothing to hang it off. Luckily, we have the very best people in the world working for us. In rock 'n' roll touring and production terms, we are the world champions and have been for some time. Everyone wants to work for us; we have the pick of the best technicians in the world. They're very highly paid and most of them are Irish."

Two days before U2 attack Brussels's King Badouin Stadium, the crew are up all night (finishing at 6am) with their complex and taxing indoor-to-outdoor re-jig. Only judicious blasts of T. Rex keep them awake. The next night, U2 emerge in broad daylight to an empty 50,000-seat stadium to play a complete set behind closed doors. It's as surreal as it sounds.

Video projections are chopped and changed. Songs go stop/start/stop again and everyone trusts to the great Showbiz God known throughout the years as "It'll be alright on the night." After the run-through, the show's designer, Willie Williams, pulls Bono back for a last-minute video shoot to be hastily added to the next night's show. With the band playing "The Fly" and "Zoo Station" on this tour, Williams wants Bono to update the stage character of "The Fly."

Everything is so tight that a couple of brand new software updates to the video imagery computer have screwed everything up and "The Fly" images are jump-cutting all over the place. The problem is only solved when someone manages to write a new software update while the band are mid-way through the next night's live show. The update is eventually installed during the first encore and nobody notices a thing. On the fly, literally.

"The creative process on this tour is constant, and it is bewildering," says McGuinness. "It also bewilders me how this current set list doesn't include either of the two number one singles we had in the U.S. -- 'With or Without You' and 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.' And 'Bad' isn't in the set. There's three classic U2 songs. Sometimes I hold up my hand and say to them 'but what about 'Still Haven't Found?' "

9:15 p.m., June 10th. Showtime. An all-Irish supporting cast of the Thrills and Snow Patrol have carried out their opening-up duties and songs by the Clash and Morrissey (nice one, tour DJ) keep the crowd entertained as the band stroll nonchalantly to their immediate backstage area. Last song on the sound system is always Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" which leads into a disembodied voice repeating the word "Everyone" over and over again.

"I want to introduce someone to you. I want to introduce Larry Mullen Jr. to you...Adam Clayton to you...the Edge to you...Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce..." says Bono as he arrives at a place called "Vertigo." "Come on you little box of chocolates," he says to the Belgian audience and to acknowledge the still brilliant sunshine he segues from "Beautiful Day" into George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." "Running to Stand Still" is dedicated to Mary Robinson who is sitting up in the stands jigging along to Edge's guitar riffs. "A great Irishwoman. A tireless and extraordinary woman," says Bono.

During the show-stopping troika of "Pride"/"Where the Streets Have No Name"/"One," audience members are asked to text their names to pledge support to the Belgian branch of the Make Poverty History campaign. All who text their names, get their names flashed up on the massive video screen directly behind the band during the show. It's the Vertigo equivalent of Zoo TV's Confessional Box.

"With U2 now, there's an enormous repertoire," says McGuinness. "And there is this constant process of re-evaluating the music. The version of 'Elevation' they played on the first date in San Diego is now a different song on the first date in Europe. How a U2 song was played five, 10 or even 20 years ago has to be pretty rigorously re-examined every time you take it in front of the public." They opened in San Diego with 'City of Blinding Lights,' now they're opening with 'Vertigo.' " (They play "Vertigo" twice in Brussels. The last song on this tour is usually "40," but in Europe Bono is handing over the choice to Larry Mullen Jr., asking him if he wants to finish the set "with a punk rock song or a folk song." Tonight, Mullen goes for a nighttime reprise of the same song that opened the set in daylight. Oddly, the first line of "Vertigo" is "Lights go down, it's dark.")

"The funny thing about 'City of Blinding Lights' not opening the set now is that it is currently a hit all over Europe," says McGuinness. "It's the third single off the album and we were hoping to have our third number one single from...Atomic Bomb with it, but mid-week it looks like it's going to be at number two behind that f**kin' Crazy Frog thing. I can't believe Crazy Frog is stopping us having our third number one in a row. It's not going to break my heart, but I am annoyed."

Whatever about Crazy Frog, McGuinness is enthused by Coldplay's "we're gunning for U2" recent mission statement. "I'm delighted they are challenging us. It's great to have ambition and competition," he says. "All these wishy-washy bands who will not admit they are interested in success...we always were and we have more respect for bands who do admit to ambition. Always in U2, we were determined not to be that corny thing of the whinging, whining victims' artist. Get into it. Find out what is going on. Get the means to defend yourself. There's that hypocrisy there about majors vs. indies and that 'indie is hip' scene. We were with the greatest indie label of all time -- Island Records. We had 19 different licensees around the world. I had to go around the world to try and make the records successful. When Polygram bought Island in 1990, I was thrilled. I like big machines -- so long as I can get my hands on the controls.

"There's nothing philanthropic about a major label. There will always be an adversarial position there between band and company. With Principle management, and with U2, we were always clear we had to produce our own critical mass of organisational power to deal with Polygram and now their successor, Universal."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah" -- back in the stadium Bono has sung his last on the second "Vertigo" and even before the house lights come up, the band are safely back in their dressing room. Unlike their occasionally fraught beginning in San Diego where they locked themselves into their dressing room after the show, tonight band members mingle freely post-show.

The tour is being promoted by the U.S. enormo-corporation Clear Channel, a music industry company not without controversy. "Arthur Fogel, who runs Clear Channel Touring, is the best in the world," says McGuinness. "Whatever umbrella organisation employs him...that's where we would be. This has more to do with the individual that is Arthur and the ability of a corporation backing him to write a very large cheque, because underwriting a tour like this is something you can't do piecemeal. As far as I can see, there is no connection between Clear Channel Touring and Clear Channel Radio the division of Clear Channel that attracts most criticism -- their treatment of the Dixie Chicks etc. -- or at least I have not being able to discover a connection. I think if the touring Clear Channel people told the radio Clear Channel people that their touring band needed to get radio play, they would be told to fuck off. There is no evil empire, everyone wants a conspiracy -- it doesn't exist."

While the crew packs up the gear (all 200 of them plus plenty of local support at each venue) and moves on to Germany and then to the U.K., there is already giddy talk in the U2 camp about the homecoming Croke Park gigs on June 24th, 25th and 27th.

"Croke Park is one of the most magnificent stadiums I have ever seen," says McGuinness. "It's a big, big perfectly built state-of-the-art modern stadium, both for entertainment and sport. It's going to be such a blast playing to a quarter of a million people in our hometown."


Standing on the sound desk each and every night on the Vertigo tour and furiously scribbling away in a notepad is ex-Virgin Prune Gavin Friday.

Officially he goes under the title "Consultant" on the Vertigo tour, but if he had to re-write his laminate, he's prefer "Creative and Aesthetic Consultant." He's known the band since the days of "Lypton Village," where Bono, the Edge, Guggi, et al gave him the title of "being in charge of being in charge."

"I look at things from A to Z. It could be that the top end of the Edge's guitar is fucked because of the wind in the stadium or Adam's bass is too heavy when he moves to the B stage or perhaps someone needs a backlight. I'm devil's advocate too. The band, to be fair, are well open to debate. They care, really care about the performance. If anything, I join the debate and tighten it up.

"I suppose I represent the punter, and represent the aesthetic. But I can be...well, let's say Bono is a lot more diplomatic than me. I can go: 'I don't get it, prove it to me.' Your energy is sucked on this tour. You do two weeks and it's four weeks out of your life because you need two weeks to recover.

"Working with U2, you get a real sense of how much of a democracy they are, and a tough democracy at that. You will hear things like the Edge saying: 'I think you're talking bollocks'."

© Irish Times, 2005.