U2 Magazine, No. 11,
June 01, 1984
(Original publication unknown)
U2 have always been rock romantics. For years they have drawn on their inner selves for the idealism and energy that fueled their outward expressions. They felt they had to stand firm against their modern environment's attempts to invade and compromise their emotional worlds, resisting and sometimes ignoring those influences.
But with War, their third album, U2 realised that they could no longer play the role of wide-eyed innocents effectively, especially when their homeland of Ireland was exploding around them. War marks the point where U2 knew they had to start acknowledging their surroundings and begin reconciling them with their ideals. The results? Their polish has been roughed up. Their meat has been scraped to the bone. U2 rulebooks have been thrown out the window. And electricity flies off a vibrant album by a band that has been reborn.
This new outward approach has brought with it a flurry of activity and success. "New Year's Day" is U2's biggest single ever. War, on which they enlisted the aid of talents as diverse as Steve Lillywhite, Kid Creole's Coconuts and Kenny Fradley, is enjoying across-the-board airplay while it zips up the charts. In Paris, a video of "Two Hearts Beat As One" has just been completed, the same tune that master knob-twirler Francois Kevorkian is remixing for a 12" dance single. They played 36 dates in the U.K. and Europe in about as many days. There's talk in the European press that U2 is taking up where the Jam left off. And they're embarking on what promises to be a most rewarding tour of the U.S.
As people were lining up hours before U2 tickets would go on sale at the Orpheum box office (some had camped overnight), I was busy trying to track down U2's erstwhile vocalist, Bono. This task was made no easier when dates were continually being added to their tour of Europe. Nor by the fact that the band, understandably tired of being hounded by journalists, is now virtually off limits to interviewers.
And though I'm sure that U2 and their families are equally as tired of being inundated by a growing legion of fans, my inquiries were met with nothing less than total courtesy by those whose lives I interrupted frequently -- especially Bono's father. "U2 have, over the last few years, developed a party of people who maintain a vigilante-style watch on the band," commented Bono by phone from Dublin. "To me, to still be playing to the audience that bought our first record is an achievement, because even though the group has grown we haven't outgrown our audience, or vice versa. I've noticed that there are a lot more levels on which people are taken with the group now, and it's gone a little haywire." Backstage after their European shows, they'd meet an assortment of oddballs, professors, even people who were doing a thesis on the band and Edge's playing. "There's that extreme and then you have people that are into the band because they think Larry's fab or they like our denim jackets."
This difference of extremes in appeal is something that U2 has always wanted to achieve. But aren't they bothered by all the people tagging along now? "What meant more to me than the album going straight to Number One were the faces on the front rows at our concerts -- people who had been sleeping under hedges, in railway stations, people who had been traveling all over Europe to see us. But at the same time, to virtually be sharing hotel rooms with our audience really got in our hair. We'd arrive back from concerts and find people already in our rooms, sometimes already in our beds, and we'd have to ask them to leave. But ultimately our audience is not a 'pop' audience. The majority of them are not interested in what we had for breakfast."
Their recent successes have opened U2 up to more negative as well as positive reactions from fans and critics, but for U2 it's just another challenge. "Upward movement is essential for any artist. It provides the change and the challenge that keeps you from becoming stagnant. It also has a quickening effect on the adrenaline of the group and that has a productive effect on the music. I'm constantly thinking about possibilities for the next record. Nobody even wants to talk to us about making the next record, but I can't stop thinking or talking about it."
The strengths that U2 have had to develop in order to survive over the last year and branch out with War has made them a better, more resilient band. They claim, however, that most of the pressure to excel came from within the band. "We're pretty hard on ourselves, constantly examining. You might expect the pressure to come from record companies and management or media, but in fact we've learnt to cope with that quite well...It's the things you reject, not what you accept, that's important. You have to be your own editor...(On War) we had to keep throwing things out because we felt that we were in danger of parodying ourselves. There was this thing that had become 'U2's sound' and we felt that we must move on. I feel we did, and now we must consider far more radical steps. I'm very excited about War, it feels like our first record."
With the completion of War, U2 also feel that they've passed through one stage of their career. "With Boy, October and War, we feel that we've completed a three-album project, a trilogy of sorts. Everyone feels that a weight has been taken off our shoulders, that we've got something out of our system. It's like being in a new group again." As a writer, Bono has always been autobiographical, writing about the things that were going on inside his life. Feelings that others buried, he would try to draw out of himself. On Boy he explored the relation of love and sex to growing up. On October it was his Christian exhilaration that poured out. He revealed himself, he says, "despite the consequences of what would happen when people found out what was going on in my life.
"The sexual side of Boy was, in its time, quite revelatory. People can talk about sex on a bland level, or about S&M, leather gear and impulse sex. But that's actually very conservative, not at all radical. In 'Twilight,' a boy was being confronted by a man who was a homosexual, and I was trying to explain in the song that it wasn't how it was written in the book:
My body grows and grows. It frightens me you know A teacher told me why I laugh when old men cry
"Nobody realised that I was talking about menopause. It was a riddle. I can remember being told in school about the change in life and how distressing it can be for old men when they stop functioning. I can remember my nervous laugh...So on that side of Boy a lot of people didn't realise exactly how much of myself I was giving.
"On October I became more aware of the third part of myself -- the spiritual nature -- and I could have chosen to lock it away, and some would have preferred it that way, but I allowed it out. 'Gloria' is about trying to express such things, an insight into the moment when a song is written.
I try to sing this song I try to stand up but I can't find my feet I try to speak up
"It's about the failure of expressing yourself, which results in words that you can't find in English, so the Latin words came out." While some people were taken with the introspection of the first two U2 albums, others felt they were too impressionistic, even though Bono was trying to describe emotions that obviously don't translate well to rational terms. Some critics missed the point of the lyrics, but artists and writers were noticing and often praising them. Jackson Browne, of all people, cornered Bono last year to tell him how he related to the logic in the way the lyrics expressed inner emotions and the way the words were "splashed on the canvas." "A lot of our contemporaries were just throwing a lot of dark images together and pretending it was deep. But there was no real door open to the inside, to what was really happening."
Still, Bono felt the need for a change in his approach, realising that he finally had to start looking outside himself..."I had to face issues that for a long time I was frightened of facing...for instance the troubles at home in Ireland. Only after being away from home could I objectively see what exactly was going on." U2 woke up to a world in tumult -- the Falklands, Beirut, Poland, Cambodia and Central America -- and they responded with songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (Ulster), "Seconds" (the nuclear threat) and "New Year's Day" (Solidarity). "Sunday Bloody Sunday" became a nightmare for U2 because of the implications that the lyrics might have on their lives. They might, in reality, face a "brick through the window" and could be jeopardising the safety of their families. "If I spoke out against the men of violence, that could have had an effect on my real life. There were lines in the lyrics that could have resulted in a lot of trouble for the group, and they were omitted, because I cannot come to terms with the man of violence. What has happened in Ireland is sad and unjust, and there's no way the country should be divided in two. There's no way that can be justified. But I still don't think you can justify changing that by violence, become you become as guilty as the people you're fighting against."
About a year ago, Bono started getting interested in Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the idea of idea of passive resistance. "I realised that you can't be a passive pacifist, you must be an aggressive pacifist. I had to make a strong statement about what was happening, and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is that statement." War is not all conflict and violence. Love is still a central theme. 'New Year's Day' is really schizophrenic. It was sparked off by Lech Walesa and Solidarity, yet at the same time it's a love song. Love is always strongest when it's set against a struggle. And even in 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' there's a line 'Tonight we can be as one.' Rock 'n' roll can do in some practical ways what politicians can only do in theory. I really do believe that music has the power to break down barriers.
"But in America, music is completely sectionalised and compartmentalised -- adult contemporary, AOR, disco, R&B -- these are false divides. Music should break barriers. I was very excited, for instance, when I heard Joe Jackson was being played on black stations. We've got to achieve musical unity as well as political unity. There's a certain amount of justice to the success with War because when we saw U2 clone bands achieve success in America, we were quite bemused." So much energy went into trying to get "I Will Follow" played that every time a major station aired it, it was "hallelujah" and break out the champagne. "Despite the lack of airplay, spending time in America over the last three years has given us a base and foundation that a lot of other groups, the sort of whimsical new music, haven't got. There's a certain stability to feeling you've not just painted your face a certain way to go out into the streets and be a successful tart."
On War, U2 still call on some of the same inward-looking elements of the music that built this U.S. base for them, but now the material is double-edged. Now they have to relate their idealism to their new awareness of the stark realities of life. "War is about struggle on many different levels -- emotional, physical, political, mental, even struggles in the home. Like the child's face on the cover. You must ask yourself, 'Is he the refugee?' And what is he a refugee from? A broken home? When we talk about refugees, we're not just talking about Southeast Asia. We're talking about where I live and everyday things.
"War is also about love, about rape, about suicide. But most of all it's about surrender. It's called War but it's about the pain of surrender. Because the friction that we're talking about is basically the result of people's egos, and stepping on toes in order to succeed in all walks of life. The principle of surrender is stepping back, and I find that difficult, being sort of an ambitious person and having an ego. But I never want people to think of me as someone on a soapbox. I'm wary of people telling me what to do, so I never say 'you do this' or 'you do that.' I try not to point the finger because I usually associate myself with the accused."
If people think that Bono sets himself up as some sort of spokesman, he refers them to "Two Hearts Beat As One," a song where he also tries to explain the emotion of love. "It's explained in very straightforward terms:
I don't know how to say what's got to be said I don't know if it's black or white There's others see it red
"I'm saying that nothing's black and white, most things are grey, and that everyone sees things differently."
With Bono being an avid filmgoer, movies and documentary footage provided the inspiration for much of War. Two songs, "Red Light" and "Surrender," are based around New York experiences and some cityscapes from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. "These two songs are about a character who was steeped in herself, alone in the spotlight of her own tragedy, who eventually commits suicide. Some images from the start of Taxi Driver were my inspiration, so I was quite pleased to hear (through a friend) that Scorsese has complimented the LP. We drew some of the images for War out of the cinema and as a result, some of the songs, like 'Surrender,' sound very cinematic."
This cinematic tone has always been, to some degree, a part of U2's music. They view themselves as primary colours, applied in strokes to evoke images and patterns of light, distance, tone, texture and extra dimension. But by the end of their last American tour, U2 were leaning toward a rawer sound for War.
The contrast of this rawness set against U2's patented textures helps point out their desire for the best of both worlds -- childhood and maturity. While the issues and emotions examined on War are those of a young man, the music digs deeper into the primal stages of childhood. The drums sound like pots and pans that were recorded from across the room. The smoothness of Edge's electric echoes is overpowered by the insistence of bare acoustic guitars. And, like children, U2 are not in full control. Every little variation is something they're trying for the first time. But it's that excitement of discovery, that spanking new feel, that provides War's successes.
" 'Seconds' is totally bare. We had this journalist in and he heard 'Seconds' being made and he said, 'That's going to be great when it's finished.' The four members of the band were physically jumping on the mixing desk while the management held Steve Lillywhite down. It meant throwing the rulebook out the window, and I still don't think we did it enough. We're only beginning to break rules. It was especially important for the first few tracks that we got that starkness across. Some people heard the drums and said, 'Are you guys stark raving mad?' And we tried to be aggressive with the acoustic instruments as well. The rawness of 'Like a Song' works because of the contrast with 'Drowning Man,' which follows. You breathe a sigh of relief when everything dies down. Aggression is only aggression only in contrast with sensitivity. I hope the next record is even more radical."
© U2 Magazine, 1984. All rights reserved.