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"When I first met Anton [Corbijn] I had one request . . . make me look tall, skinny, intelligent, with a sense of humor. 'So you wanna look like me,' was his reply." — Bono

Kings of the Celtic Fringe


Bono Vox, a.k.a. Paul Houston [sic], the frontman and driving force behind U2 is huddled in the back of a small van, wrapped in a fur coat and speaking in low husky tones. He's complaining about the cynicism and elitism of new rock bands which is threatening to become just as stupid and stupefying as the industry it claims to be a barrier against -- the record business.

"It's the easiest thing in the world to be cynical, I can see it coming in myself sometimes and I have to stamp it out. You see it all the time."

Bono writes fluent prosaic lyrics and sings them in a strong resounding voice. You can hear this combination in great songs like "Tick Tock" [sic] and "I Will Follow," two of the most gallant and genuinely subversive new pop singles released last year. The latter is a whirl of reverberating guitars and a tale of determination through sorrow taken from Boy, U2's debut album, one of the finest debuts ever released.

During the past year Bono Vox has come out of Dublin and led U2 on an exhausting and exhaustive assault on the British concert circuit. The abandon and enthusiasm with which they thrust themselves into the attack was a logical extension of the "growing ethic" that surrounded the band with the imagery of the Boy album and has been fundamental to it members since they originally got together some four years ago.

Bono cares for the band passionately, thinks its role astutely and will talk long into the night about its beginnings, its first experiences and how all of this is going to affect their aims and plans.

"I distrust anything that's obvious, like someone saying, 'Let's be original.' So they hang bananas out of their ears or start using a xylophone. There's a million bands being original and playing concerts in caves. I think that's great, but change can come from something far more subtle.

"It's hard to explain but, well, we're all human beings and we all look different -- you look different from me, but you don't have to have a nose out to here to look different. Y'know what I mean?"

He draws his hand back from a point in midair and waits for my nod before continuing. He has a habit of illustrating his sentences in this way and his conversation is similarly animated with lively metaphors.

"So U2 play with bass, drums and guitars on stages and on records which go on radios, like anyone else involved in the music business. I see no real reason to say we're something else so we're going to play on a chandelier tonight and that makes us different. It doesn't mean you're different; it means you're trying to be different." We're traveling from Glasgow's Strathclyde University to a small ancient hotel in the city centre. U2 have just played one of those rare performances where the audience moves in empathy with the performer, gradually becoming enraptured and infatuated with the sways and currents running through the music. The songs are like a series of emotional landslides -- shifting from doubt to hope and from loss to discovery, rising to a peak with "Tick Tock" -- a dazzling if, by that stage, draining realisation.

Inside, the audience proves to be young and demanding, creating the sort of atmosphere that the group revel in. Enjoyment and acceptance comes as natural rather than a ritualistic process and somewhere near the end Bono thanks them for coming to see U2, not the image created by the music press. As he explains later, this wasn't a jibe, but merely an acknowledgement of the honesty created between the audience and the performer.

"I don't feel we've been hyped by the music press, because I happen to agree with the good things that they say about U2. The music press relationship with U2 has meant that people have come along expecting a lot and they've got a lot, sometimes maybe too much. It is a pressure.

"But if people come along expecting the world from U2 then they're gonna get it. I'm not scared we won't be able to give it to them."

We're seated in a tacky lounge bar, myself, Bono and guitarist the Edge. As Bono reels off the details of his early youth I have some trouble equating the brash extrovert and charismatic performer beside me with the maverick youth who grew up alienated and confused in Dublin during the '70s.

"The Virgin Prunes and U2 both came out of a place called Lipton [sic] Village. It's an imaginary place, something we developed in our imaginations to give us an alternative lifestyle as kids.

"We grew up studying people on street corners, we laughed at the way they talked and at the expressions they made. We mocked the adult world and agreed we'd never grow up because all we saw was silliness.

"I remember watching Top of the Pops and seeing this group called Middle of the Road singing 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.' I must have been about 11 at the time, and I thought, Wow! This is what pop music is all about. You just sing like that and you get paid for it."

Drifting through his teenage years Bono shunned the pubs frequented by his friends, remained largely unaffected by music and became, of all things, a keen, expert chess player.

"I found I was being pressured into organizing my thoughts and I wanted to be able to do that because I have a very competitive instinct. But I was going through a very problematic time, my mother had just died and I couldn't stand an educational system where IQ tests and value were based on being good at a very limited number of subjects.

"I couldn't put in the work because I was too erratic as a persona and so I found a game like chess suited me because I was able to put everything from my mind and work with something abstract."

When Bono found himself back in school after being chucked out of university for not having his native Gaelic language, he became very close friends with Adam Clayton, Larry and Dave (the Edge). They formed U2 and Bono discovered a way he could express his methods and thoughts.

"Our first concert was one of the greatest we ever played and it was two years before we played another one like it. I believe we built U2 around a spark, you've got to remember at that stage there was still the tradition of the musician, there was still the tradition of Ritchie Blackmore.

"We couldn't compete on that level and yet in 1978 we played this Guinness and Harp Talent Contest with all these professional bands and heavy rock bands. We came down and played after doing this thing called Paddy's Punk Party and I'd lost my voice. We were a shambles. But after that gig we had record contracts offered to us.

"I knew we had something. I knew the effect we had over the audience compared to the other bands with their tight music and their pompous playing. We made use of the fact that we were slightly fragile and when we recorded our early demos in a four track studio, we couldn't get a big sound out of it so we had to work on the fragile sound. Now that we are in bigger studios and we've got more experience we're plumping for bigger sound, but the important thing is we always worked around the spark.

"Whatever we were good at we worked around, not trying to be like anyone else just looking for what was best in ourselves.

"Adam used to pretend he could play bass. He came round and started using worlds like action and fret and he had us baffled. He had the only amplifier so we never argued with him. We thought this guy must be a musician, he knows what he's talking about and then one day we discovered he wasn't playing the right notes, that's what's wrong, y'know?

"We were stumbling in the dark, but with the spark and fanning it finding that the emotion we were generating was affecting people. I can cry when I'm singing, literally. I can get very, very into it."

U2 formed at the same time as the Radiators From Space and the Boomtown Rats. Unrecognized and ignored in those early days, there is something satisfactory and inevitable about them having reached a position where they can now produce music much more original, imaginative, and durable than those other two.

The irony is that U2 knew nothing about rock, rock culture or what was looming around the corner.

"I remember thinking the first day we went into rehearsal that a movement was going to emerge that would be a breakdown between the flower power and the boot boy. I didn't really know what I was saying because it turned out to be punk rock."

We're joined at our rickety little table by Adam Clayton, the group's bespectacled bass player with a seemingly misplaced shock of curly blonde thatch hanging down onto his forehead. He's the cigar smoking, brandy-drinking sophisticate of the group, with a certain Englishness to his manner and voice. He articulates what is perhaps the main motivation that drives U2.

"It's very much a complete thing. It wasn't sort of, 'Lets form a band and let's write great songs.' It was more to enjoy the whole experience of being a band of four people with the one cause; a cause you could develop and become emotionally involved in. It was much more the whole experience and it still is. Bands are very secular onto themselves. It's like an extension of a school gang."

They struggled through the cloistered Dublin scene as best they could, without becoming bogged down in the inevitable bitchiness and pettymindedness which surfaces in closely knit, inadequate provincial scenes. U2 left Ireland after a one-off deal with CBS enabled them to release the Irish chart topper, "Out of Control" (an alternative version was later to surface on Boy).

Their movement into the music industry wasn't naively hopeful. On a small score in Dublin they'd already experienced the strain that business and financial matters can put on a band. On the evening they left Ireland their publisher withdrew half the advance that had been promised to them. So U2 arrived in England, unsure if they'd be able to last the whole tour and tempted to accept the first record contract that came their way.

But they held out and finally got the deal they wanted with Island. Boy -- a collection of the best songs in the group's 40 song repertoire -- was released seven months later. Immediately they were accused of whimsicality, and pandering to adolescent sexuality (the Boy sleeve is a photo of a young boy with naked shoulders!!).

Such criticism undermines and misinterprets the album's value: it's a voyage from adolescence (which after all is the stage when Larry, Adam, Dave and Bono formed U2), into manhood, and the rich imagery presents a tussle between wonder, awareness, strength and acceptance.

Boy is the group's personality, produced by the chemical interaction between their characters and their musical styles.

"A band should have a personality of its own," says Bono, "and if a band's personality is dominated too much by one person then it's bad for the band. On another level, a band like Spandau Ballet is totally direct and pointed. That's so boring because you see it all in one go -- clothes, fashion, hair and that's it. There's nothing to discover, no mystique, no charm and no personality."

The difference between U2's personality and that of most other rock bands is that it is natural. They reflect on and revise orthodox rock techniques and presentation but totally relinquish its hopeless, heartless mythology. They own motives and desires always shine through, purposeful and resilient. As Bono explains, this isn't always to their advantage.

"Our biggest problem getting to a bigger audience is that we don't look a certain way, we don't fit into a little box. We're not a ska group or something easy to digest. But the fact that we're not easy to digest means we're a lump in the throat, and a lump in the throat has far more guts to it. I believe ultimately...I don't know what I believe ultimately, but I know it's good that we're not easily digested."

I catch U2 at a very interesting stage in their development, certainly the peak of their career so far. It's a crucial period for them as they have to grow up now and present the new face of U2 as it's developed over the past 18 months.

Bono describes how he sees this taking shape.

"We're a long term project, we're only getting used to our tools, working with people and the learning we've undergone. I see the next album as being about battle because I don't see life as being an easy road. I think it's a battle on many different levels, to express yourself, to keep your head above the waves when problems and trouble come. I think it's a battle not to conform to the music business when you're 19.

"Boy was a retrospective of U2 over two years -- the end of our adolescence. But now we've been to the ends of the earth, we've been throughout Europe and America and we've seen that all cities are the same when you eventually get down to their heart and soul.

"We've seen and learned a lot, it could either leave us cynical or with a determination and spirit not to fall or go under."

The pitfall that U2 must avoid -- and something that they've been guilty of in the past -- is to mistake pure musical clout for substance and vigour. Bono will admit that previously they have tried too hard, trying to throw themselves right into the audience's heart but succeeding only in flying off the handle. Now they seem to have found the right balance, although one can't help but be concerned when Bono wears leather trousers and the Edge engages in guitar talk with Stuart Adamson in Edinburgh the following night.

U2's music has taken shape, coaxed though not inspired by the Pistols, mingling the sense of space and drama brought to rock structures by Joy Division crystallising its essence -- determined sense of soul-searching -- alongside Dexy's Midnight Runners. Unlike the rest of those bands, U2 have lasted and remain hungry, vigilant and ebullient. They're raring to go, to tackle the idiocy and dogma that makes rock a routine more than a means of statement.

"I wouldn't say that we're bitter about rock 'n' roll; we didn't enter this in a naive way. There are a lot of untruths in rock 'n' roll, the word itself conjures up certain standards to conform to and certain morals. But it's all superfluous imagery, it doesn't actually exist. Girls don't run around trying to rape people, you can't get drunk every night and do loads of drugs."

Bono rightly believes that the flimsy situation which McLaren used to try and break open rock music with the Pistols has turned sour, but it can now be transformed into something much more real, something much more positive.

"There's a lot of Johnny Rotten's bastard children running in the streets. They've been sold into bondage and it frightens me to see them because they've been sold an image of violence and they've turned it into reality of violence."

The Edge, who's usually happy to let Bono do the explaining, is so exasperated he interrupts.

"It's incredible to see the followers of a band like Discharge are mostly 13 or 14. They've obviously never questioned the idea behind what they celebrate but just look on it as an image and wear it as a badge. Like you would support Chelsea or wear a Bay City Roller scarf.

"The basic feel I got from '76 was of loud electric guitars, of singers with a song who sung with everything they had and sweat a lot and the audience also sweat a lot. The two became very close because you got a buzz in your spine -- you felt that whatever he was singing about he meant it. I believe in what I sing and we play our hardest onstage. I think it's quite a simple thing but I believe that in itself s an embodiment of what '76 was all about." It's already been reported that U2 are all good Catholic Irish boys who don't smoke, drink or swear. Untrue! Two of them are Protestants and all (except Larry) imbibe alcohol during my stay, and profanities are muttered.

Bono is nonetheless a deeply committed Christian, although he doesn't go to church. ("I think the church is a big problem"), and feels that Christianity is grossly misinterpreted.

"It's not all of our beliefs and not everyone in the band believes in the same way. There are things I just don't want to talk about, I'll talk about them in music, the way I feel about things come out onstage. There are things that don't go well coming indirectly from other people."

It seemed relevant to ask what effect U2 wanted to have on the audience.

"Washed, I think, is a good word. It's like you go along to a film where you go through the emotions, you're brought up, you're brought down and you feel a sort of relief afterwards.

"If you look at what Adam and the Ants are trying to express, by using escapology rather than realism, it's dignity. He's using the imagery of a warrior to achieve it, but you might as well go to a drive-in-movie.

"I think people should have dignity in themselves. They're not numbers, but they're being bombarded by the TV and they feel very insecure in themselves and in looking in the mirror. If our music means anything on that level it's a celebration of just being me, of just being you."

U2 have in their stride a new way of looking at the ideals of rock music and a different way of using it. They're surging forward with one of the most strong-minded and radical sounds I've ever heard.

Wherever Bono Vox has chosen to put his heart and soul there can be no doubt that, for the time being, it couldn't be in a better place.

© NME, 1981. All rights reserved.