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Column: off the record ..., vol. 16-737

@U2, August 21, 2016
By: Sherry Lawrence


off the record, from @U2

“You’re the best thing about me, I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy.” – “The Best Thing” (Kygo/U2)

Today is Bono and Ali’s 34th wedding anniversary, and last night Norwegian DJ Kygo treated fans at the Cloud 9 Festival in Bergen, Norway, to his new collaboration with U2. “The Best Thing” is a catchy, infectious tune whose lyrics are filled with love and admiration for Bono’s muse since the Mount Temple Comprehensive days. It sounds like the bookend to “Every Breaking Wave,” and a follow-up to “Sweetest Thing.”

This is a very accessible, iHeartRadio-friendly track akin to recent David Guetta and Calvin Harris releases, and I believe DJ Kygo and U2 have a hit on their hands. From Nile Rodgers-inspired guitar riffs to a rhythm that can’t help but move your body, and lyrics that are an earworm that you can’t shake, it has all the elements of what is being played on commercial radio today. What “Beautiful Day” was for All That You Can’t Leave Behind, this is a great entry point for the new material for Songs Of Experience. Even if this is a one-off, clear-the-palate tune along the lines of “Invisible” and “Window In The Skies,” it signals a direction shift in band sound that has been hinted at through the past few months. The curtain’s been raised and I have to admit, I love it.

For the past 16 hours, U2 fans have been cautious about letting their enthusiasm for the new tune go viral. It would appear “The Best Thing” was the track being played at loud volume outside of Bono’s house in Eze a couple weeks ago, which an eager fan caught a bit of while walking along and uploaded. The record label’s reaction was swift, claiming copyright infringement and demanding that social media outlets remove the material and suspend accounts that had shared it.  I’m hopeful that we won’t see a repeat of this over the next few days because it was performed at a public music event and heard by tens of thousands.  As of 6pm EDT today, the RIAA has begun demanding videos of the live performance of "The Best Thing" be removed from YouTube. 

From a publicity standpoint, it’s a subversive way to test the waters before making a firm decision on which track to release first. U2 hasn’t had a good track record on first singles in the past (“Discotheque,” “Get On Your Boots”), so it makes sense to give it a try before making a commitment. If it is received well, then it was part of the plan all along. If not, then no harm, no foul -- just having a bit of fun. It is a really inexpensive way to do market research. See if it goes viral, poke around the message boards for core fan reaction, see if it gets picked up by music publications, etc. Beyonce set the standard when it comes to dropping new material -- just drop it and let the fan base take it from there. This is why I’m hopeful Universal/RIAA doesn’t come down hard on folks this time around -- everyone knew what people would do at a public music festival. After the harsh reaction a few weeks ago, U2 fans feel they are taking a gamble on jumping on the viral nature of the new material. That being said, it didn’t stop fans from doubling down on that gamble. 

It was fun to get caught up in the swarm of it all with an impromptu “emergency” Crystal Ballroom session, where many of us jumped on to enjoy the new tune.

As the lyric goes, “I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy.” So, if I get in trouble for having this go viral, at least I enjoyed doing it.

#U240 is much shorter than #LarryMullenBand40, but in reality the 40th anniversary U2 fans globally are celebrating isn’t U2. It’s The Larry Mullen Band’s. U2 was the third incarnation of the band Larry formed at his kitchen table. First there was Feedback, then The Hype. Ivan McCormick, Peter Martin and Edge’s brother Dik were part of that original band. I have to wonder how many of the articles that’ll be printed in the next few months celebrating 40 years of U2 will report that. U2 formally formed in March 1978. What we are all celebrating on September 25th is when The Larry Mullen Band was formed. I know it’s not a good PR spin, and the publicity machine will be in full gear to definitively state U2’s been around for 40 years, but there should be an asterisk next to it. So, don’t be surprised if you see me wearing a Larry Mullen Band shirt in Cleveland next month.

Speaking of Cleveland, I appreciate everyone’s patience while we iron out all of the final details for our event. This is a unique one where we have many people doing the planning, and not just myself. I’m happy to report we have secured a theater in Cleveland to show Rattle And Hum at 9:30 pm on Saturday, Sept. 24. We are ironing out the price and how tickets can be purchased. The #U240 weekend at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame will be jammed-packed with special exhibits, a U2 film festival and live podcasting, however we’re waiting on final approvals and licensing. Summer vacation schedules, political conventions and other factors have slowed the process down, but rest assured we will have a full weekend worth taking the flight for.  Thank you for your patience – this is a unique weekend and we’re thrilled to be a part of the festivities.

U2’s career and focus have been about looking ahead, but Songs Of Innocence allowed all involved to take a look back to life 40 years ago without apologizing for it. The staff here and at many fan sites globally are enjoying the opportunity to examine how U2 has left a mark on so many aspects of culture, politics, religion, and society in general. A few weeks ago, Tim Neufeld wrote the first of his four-part series “Have U2 Changed The World?” This is the side of U2 that I have been thinking about heavily over the past few months.

There are few current bands and solo artists with the voice or passion U2 has when it comes to global issues. The activism movement of the 1980s shaped Generation X’s world view and fight for social justice. As the band shifts focus to a younger audience, it’s a tougher message to resonate when it is coming from guys old enough to be your dad (and in some cases your grandfather). The way the band is approaching activism nowadays is much more refined and subtle, in my opinion. Granted, everyone should know about Bono’s work with (RED) and the One Campaign, but how many know about the multitude of ways U2 has been lending its talents to both as a band and individually? It’s a fine line tightrope U2 has been walking on for decades – you don’t want to oversaturate with activism messages, yet you have this “currency” (as Bono calls it) you can spend to get the word out to many.

The band used the concert stage during the Innocence + Experience Tour last year to raise the social justice issues they’ve been demanding change for since U2’s formation. However, there was a finesse about it. In the ‘80s, the messaging was direct and declarative: “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” or headlining a tour specific to one organization like Amnesty International. As complicated as the world issues were at the time, the yelling from behind the barricades was far more public and inviting for others to join in.

Stealing Conor McPherson and Bono’s rap from “Bullet The Blue Sky,” we’re on the other side of that barricade now. The world issues seem far more complicated than they were and the older, wiser U2 is taking a different approach. The message from the stage was far more subtle, allowing the video footage to tell the story instead of the lead singer. The message was to change hearts and minds instead of texting a phone number to an organization to add your name to a list.

I will be interested to see how aggressive the band will be with an activism message with Songs Of Experience and the tour that should follow its release. Seeing the images currently coming out of Aleppo, Syria, like the picture of Omran Daqneesh and reading articles like Nicholas Kristof’s “Do You Care More About A Dog Than A Refugee” in The New York Times, I believe there will be quite a bit more coming from U2 on this topic in the future. I would like to see a re-energized approach to engage the younger audience U2 is trying to court into activism in the same way the band approached it at the start of its career. This next generation needs to carry the torch, and U2 continues to be poised to deliver that message.

Beyond activism, U2 has supported hundreds of charities over the past 40 years, some publicly but mostly privately. This is a band that gives back in ways many won’t. Interestingly enough, that message gets lost a lot of the time because the band doesn’t make a big deal about it. The band has played benefit gigs from its beginning, so it was surprising to see the original backlash about the Salesforce Dreamfest benefit gig coming up Oct. 5. The band itself has not made a big deal about it. There is no information up on the band’s website, no tweets made, nothing on Facebook or Instagram – nothing. The promotion has come from Salesforce and picked up on by sites like ours.

At the time of the Salesforce announcement, it clearly stated “USFC benefit,” but the core U2 fan reaction was that U2 was now playing corporate gigs, the band has “sold out” – yadda yadda yadda -  because public tickets were not available for the function at the time. A few weeks later, public tickets for Salesforce’s Dreamfest “The Concert For Kids” became available starting at $1,000 each (because it’s a benefit) and the reaction from the U2 fan community was “Hey – U2’s playing a benefit concert! Did you know about it?” I cannot tell you how many emails, tweets and Facebook messages I’ve responded to stating, “Yes, that’s the Salesforce Dreamfest benefit gig. It was announced on July 7.”

Beyond that, I feel pretty certain that with the 100,000 people displaced due to flooding currently in Louisiana we’ll see Edge take a more public role with Music Rising again. The devastation in that region is heartbreaking, and I will not be surprised to see U2 offer help when the time is right to do so.

It’s incredible to see how much U2 has shaped through its art and activism over these decades, and I hope that we’ll still have at least a decade more of the band’s involvement. Their leadership on these issues and ability to mobilize millions certainly lends them the ability to make a greater difference. I’m glad Tim is doing the four-part series because it allows for greater discussion into this aspect of the band’s career.

While on the topic of activism and leadership, it was great to see “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda take on the issue of ticket bots. He wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times on this topic back in June. This week, Rolling Stone covered his press conference with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to create a federal bill banning ticket bots. The “Better Online Ticket Sales Act of 2016” (or BOTS Act) will place heavy fines on anyone using ticket bots to obtain tickets.

While this bill doesn’t go far enough to target the secondary ticket market, I hope it will make the playing field a bit fairer for those who want face-value tickets. Since science has proven that going to concerts leads to a happier life, I would like the journey to that concert to be a bit more happier too.

A die-hard U2 fan Mary Hogan is asking U2 fans to send picture postcards for her sixth grade classroom as part of a yearlong lesson on geography. She offers “Bono Bucks” to her students as a homework pass, carries around a Flat Bono (instead of Flat Stanley) and decorates the classroom in U2-inspired ways . If you’re interested in helping her by sending a postcard to her classroom, you can send them to:
Sagewood Middle School
c/o Mrs. Hogan
4725 Fox Sparrow Rd.
Parker, CO 80134

And finally, Patti Smith is the guest on the most recent American Masters bi-weekly podcast. She talks about how much jazz influenced her, which might sound familiar as Bono’s said similar things. It’s well worth the listen.

Have a great week! Back to that earworm…it really is the best thing this week.

©@U2/Lawrence, 2016  

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.

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