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"I hang out with every set. ... From the penthouse to the pavement but under the pavement." — Bono

Coming Up For Eire


The dichotomy that exists between Northern and Southern Ireland is a strange and jarring one. Traveling south from Belfast you can't but help noticing the hazy, subtle change of most aspects physical and spiritual which reveals itself in the transition from a louder, snarling land into an altogether more tranquil, withdrawn countryside. The landscape changes into a sprawling, glorious affair, the pubs (ah, the pubs!) are dimmer and follow their own sets of rules, the people look different and are less given to thinking out loud, the bulk and body of Ireland resting on its limbs like some proud and majestic creature, motionlessly purring across its space of time and violence. On the shiny wings of an Aer Lingus 737 tin can, I was last week reminded of the culture shock, floating with sidekick Slattery over the outskirts of Dublin town. Heathrow had taken its customary toll on us: loose-tongued security men had interrogated us, degraded us with a series of mind-games designed more to reassure the rest of the plane's passengers that they were conventional and safe compared to their hippy/punk long-haired/short-haired victims than to check that the aircraft was indeed secure. The launching pad of English flights was indeed all noise and frenzy compared to the blank solemnity of Dublin airport, and the gulf of lifestyle and atmosphere was once again brought to mind. We were in another country, another rock & roll space altogether...

The Austin A40 that pulled out of Dublin airport some minutes later confirmed the notion. The car was a miracle of mechanical endurance, a sort of pathetic progression from pony and trap, Ireland's bid to keep up with the modern world, and more to the point, as we later discovered, a bid to make big-city top-cats McCullough and Slattery feel uncomfortable.

"We wanted to see how you'd react," the machine's co-pilot, Bono, told me much later the following day. "We've had people from record companies who've come over from England and they've taken one look at this car and gone 'Whaat?' Don't worry though, you both passed the test."

Bono is the lead singer of U2, the most important band to emerge from Ireland since the Boomtown Rats and the main objective of this trip to Dublin in the summer of 1979. U2 are a very special band and part of a romance that flourished long distance between Dublin and myself ever since their first demo tape was brought to my attention earlier this year.

The tape, recorded in March, was a dazzling account of a band with quite amazing potential. Demos have an annoying habit of falling into narrow, obvious categories these days; for the most part they're fad-conscious or just plan incompetent. The U2 tape, however, was different. Here was a band that defied trends, blends or bombast, a band that revealed direction, assurety and downright arrogance, letting you know from the Mickey Mouse confines of a C-60 cassette that they had something vital to contribute to the rock & roll of '79.

The sound was roomy and sharp, the songs, like the opening "Another Time Another Place," reaching vast, breath-taking climaxes, the music dipping and soaring, taking its roots from everywhere you could imagine but defying direct bonds with past, present, or in the grandiose Bowiean sense, The Future. The Only Ones, Penetration, Banshees, Fall, all were there in the music somewhere but the essence was clearly a new (and when was the last time you heard a genuine new band?), significant name for the "now space," as it were, of rock & roll present tense.

In the ensuing spring months and into early summer, U2 retained a low profile, leading me to re-establish my ideas of that dichotomy between the British Northern Irish and Southern Irish music scenes wherein Dublin and Southern Ireland remained quietly uninvolved, content only to throw forth the odd Rats, Horslips, Planxty freak. Then word arrived from U2 to the effect that action was taking place between themselves and assorted mainland record companies, including CBS, and that other bands were now reaching stages of fruition (hard evidence including a remarkable tape from the Virgin Prunes) and could well require my attention.

In the midst of all this Paul McGuinness, manager of U2, had made a pointed remark over the phone: "All that's missing over here, really, is somebody with the entrepreneurial skills of a Good Vibes to set things going. There's certainly enough talent about."

As the A40 chugged its way into Dublin and U2 men Bono and Adam enthused over their own music and other bands from the city, what was happening became clear. In rock & roll terms, Dublin was a city that was growing up, like the U2 lyrics say "from a boy to a man..."

Later that night we arrived and I finally had the pleasure of catching the fabled U2 live. The venue was the Baggot Inn, which lives up to its sleazy name with a vengeance. "Tonight's something of a test night," Bono explained. "This is the first new wave type gig this place has put on and if it's a success then bands might be able to use it regularly."

Gigs are a scarce commodity in Dublin. In fact, there are none, save the odd fortunate one-nighter at one of the many "straighter" rock venues (ancient Skid Row and Horslips guitarists rool OK, y'understand), or the odd support slot at one of the city's two or three bigger, ballroom type venues (a band called DC Nien tonight having the unenviable task of warming up an AC/DC audience).

Bands, therefore, are hungry and they must search for gigs, as U2 have done. Their labour is not in vain, either, as the gig this night proves. The band give evidence to their burgeoning popularity in the city by cramming as many bodies into a scantily publicized Hope and Anchor-type gig as is physically (as opposed to legally) possible. Their set is quite brilliant. It's an often disarming experience travelling out of London and seeing relatively unknown bands capable of taking on the prima donnas of the Hammersmith Odeon, Marquee and Nashville and wiping the proverbial floor with them (re: Tours and Undertones in the past) and this was yet another such occasion. U2 are total, solid music, naturally intended for the head and for the feet, inculcating meaning and innovation, expressing enough power in communication to knock the unsuspecting listener on his back.

Guitarist David Edge is the most flamboyant player I've seen since Stuart Adamson of the Skids (a major influence, as they say), creating a sizable, unique niche of sound that spreads across U2's music with scintillating effect, joining together with Larry Mullen's drums and Adam Clayton's bass to form what the band constantly seek, namely a wide sound and a big impression.

Front man Bono is a new R&R performer. He takes the genre's tricks of the trade and tries them out on his audience, shifting their opinions and attitudes. In this sense U2 are unashamedly didactic; they attack their audience and hope maybe to leave them at the end of the night feeling shifted or moved in their attitudes. Bono, like the rest of U2 and the Virgin Prunes, studies mime in order "to use up every little ounce of space on stage." The effect is totally absorbing. You follow Bono with your eyes as he counts on his fingers or runs across stage or spontaneously mimes something that is impenetrable but opposite of the moody, fat rolling sound. At the Baggott the mic broke in front of him. Instead of panicking he used the fluke, calling a kid from the audience down front, thrusting the mic into his upheld right arm, as it were, as a mic stand throughout the song.

And the songs were splendid, inspired impressions of that big sound the band seek, from the Skidsian raunch of "Out of Control," and analytical power of "Twilight" and "Stories for Boys" to the speedy pop of "Boy/Girl," revealing an already established remarkable songwriting force.

Like the Fall or the Zoo bands or Swell Maps, U2 have thrown the new wave over their collective shoulders and are now stepping out in the direction of more vital and contemporary expression while instinctively still retaining the clipped muscularity of the '76 revolution.

In this small space I can be presenting you with a whisper of the U2 vibe. Suffice to say that a single should be available soon in Ireland on CBS with an album to follow (tentatively titled Boy) and all hell will break loose over the coming months about this marvelous, mystical band. It's just a thought, but somebody suggested that if the Boomtown Rats were the John the Baptists of Irish R & R, then U2 must be... 

© Sounds, 1979.