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Part of the strength of U2 is that we know that as individuals we don't amount to very much, but collectively we can actually make a difference. -- Adam

New 'Zooropa' Revue

Pulse! (Tower Records magazine)
"I think that identifying the right questions to ask is hard enough right now. It's a very uncertain time and that uncertainty can either get you down and make you really depressed or you can see it as the end of complacency and the opportunity for new ideas to come through. That's the way we're trying to think of it. Everybody is so screwed up and nobody seems to know where we're going or where we want to go. There is no vision."

The Edge gazes out from a balcony of Budapest's Nep Stadium across a park where two perfectly parallel rows of square concrete slabs stretch into the distance interspersed with statues of classic heroism. It's another monument to Eastern Europe's now-discredited communist empire that recalls nothing so much as the previous empire to dominate European landscape, Hitler's fascist regime. Behind us a disembodied wall of sound from within the stadium seeps through as a dull, echo-laden roar, punctuated by the whistles and applause from the Hungarian crowd waiting to celebrate a rock 'n' roll high mass with one of the most successful bands on the planet.

Not so long ago U2 was supplying answers rather than asking questions. Catapulted to mega-stardom by the band's appearance at Live Aid in 1985 (which was televised worldwide and boosted sales of The Unforgettable Fire by some eight million within a year), its profile reached messianic proportions during the latter '80s with The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum.

U2's grandiose pomp rock was matched only by Bono's pronouncements on world politics and any other topic that he was confronted with. The band was worthy but painfully so. And while the music never lost its potency, the delivery was so increasingly weighed down by anthemic bombast, flag-waving and, most seriously, a loss of humor. It looked as if the only way forward was into self-parody. The crunch, when it came, was mercifully behind closed doors at the Hansa Studios in Berlin as the band worked on the Achtung Baby album. What went down remains a matter of conjecture but the traumas seem to have been as much personal as musical. Bono recently hinted as much when he said, "We spent the '80s trying to figure out a way of dealing with money, stardom and all the bullshit. And in the '90s we realized it wasn't that important."

At the end of it all, the band emerged intact and the Achtung Baby album demonstrated the degree to which the band members had reinvented themselves both musically and stylistically. The trademark pageants were replaced by a darker, more abrasive techno-rock and Bono was clearly more interested in questions than answers.

Any suspicions that this was simply a momentary diversion were dispelled as the Zoo TV tour hits the road, a high-tech affair that lambasted audience members with TV images and slogans, confronting them with an exaggerated version of their daily TV diet. It started as an indoor show last summer, graduated to an outdoor American tour last fall and is now in its third incarnation, traveling around the stadiums of Europe. And conclusive proof that U2 has entered a whole new phase has been provided by the new Zooropa album, hustled together in a matter of weeks in Dublin while the band was supposed to be taking a break.

"In some ways it's the tour that became the album," says the Edge, who talks quietly but lucidly in a manner that needs no grand gestures to make the point. "Some of the ideas we started out with on Achtung Baby started to come into focus on the tour as we played around with the new stage set, the TV screens, the whole concept of a TV station on the road. We found out what it could do and then we started playing around with the imagery and the ideas that were in the airstream, gleaned from the world of advertising, CNN, MTV and so on. It struck a chord in us and the music that came out on Zooropa was very influenced by the tour. Normally it's the other way around; you put an album together and then you go off on the road and you're drawing from the album for your inspiration."

While U2 sets no advance expectations about what, if anything, it might release from its studio deliberations, the intention behind the recording was always clear. "One of the central ideas of Zooropa is that it is of the moment, it's catching the stuff that's in the ether at that time. We went into the recording studio with that in mind. And looking back now, I'm delighted that it became an album because it has captured the moment, for me at any rate. Of all our records it probably is the most vital and current. It's like a Polaroid of what was happening to us and what was happening around Europe at that time.

"And some of the ideas that we were playing with while we were recording seems to be catching up," he adds. "We started songs like 'Zooropa' itself which was dealing with the way Europe and the EC [Common Market] seems to be dissolving, and that process now seems to be accelerating.

"We also started playing around with ideas from the Leni Riefenstahl film footage of Nazi Germany that we used on Zoo TV, really trying to ask the question of ourselves I suppose, as well as everyone else in Europe: 'What do you want?' That seemed to be the question that kept coming back to us during the making of the album. Suddenly we were back on the road, touring in Germany, and the whole racist xenophobia issue exploded while we were there."

As fate would have it, U2 found itself playing at Berlin's Olympic Stadium, the infamous coliseum-type monument that Hitler built to stage the 1936 Olympic Games and then stormed out in fury after black American sprinter Jesse Owens upset the Aryan applecart. Bono's personal revenge on the place was to goosestep his way across the stage giving a Nazi salute, laughing in the face of fascism in the manner of Dadaists and Cabaret Voltaire during the '20s. "The atmosphere of that place is just incredibly strange and the opening of our show has film footage from those games," the Edge says. "It was a weird sensation. Things like that have convinced me that this album has captured something of now in a very real way."

The limited time U2 had to record Zooropa forced the band to work at a pace it hadn't encountered since the early days when money was tight and studio time precious. But the Edge believes that helped to get to the core of its material much faster. "We tend to work on pure inspiration and therefore our studio work tends to arrive in fits and starts. We can work for two weeks, ending up with very little that we are happy with. And then, suddenly, in three or four hours we can get a couple of songs that everyone's delighted with.

"It's not about the time spent in the studio, it's about getting to that place where ideas are flowing and inspiration is with us. I think I'm safe in saying that half the work on the Achtung Baby sessions was done in the last three weeks -- that was when all the songs were tied down and the finished lyrics and vocals were put in place. At the end of that session I said to the others, as a joke, that what we should do in the future is just decide how long we want to spend in the studio, set the release date and just go in. Ironically, that's almost what occurred on this record."

The effect of having a looming deadline even as the band members went into the studio concentrated their minds wonderfully. "When you're working on an album, options are not necessarily a blessing. In fact they can be a curse because you follow the ideas in different directions just to see what might happen, and in the end you land back at idea number one and you're no neared to finishing. With this record we were much more concentrated, much more focused. Because we had to be."

The irony is that the deadlines were self-imposed. Zooropa is not a contractual-obligation album. With Achtung Baby only a year and a half old, U2 is under no obligation to put out anything new for a couple of years. But the way the Zoo TV Tour developed had set the band's creative juices flowing. "We wanted to go into the studio, we wanted to release something because we had so much enthusiasm. Even if it had just been an EP we would have been happy," says the Edge. "Once we got into it, the project just grew and grew. And as we got a sense of the work taking shape we thought we were onto something special and we would always regret not following it to the end. If it had been just a four- or five-track EP then there would be a lot of things left out. For a while it didn't look like there was going to be enough time to finish before we went back out on the road but..."

The Edge trails off because his mind is already moving forward. "There was something about working this way which is...well, for me rock 'n' roll has always been guitar-based music. The primary colors in rock 'n' roll are drums, bass, guitar and vocals. That's always been what interested us. But we found ourselves getting to the point where we could no longer trust the sounds of those instruments in a straightforward manner. Those sounds seem to have been so over-used that we found ourselves searching for a new sonic vocabulary to try and get over this problem. We were in danger of losing faith.

"A big part of this process was almost dismantling our own sound, dismantling it and rebuilding it in a new way so that it could be fresh for us and act as a vehicle for getting these ideas across," he continues. "And what seemed to become more and more attractive to us during the sessions was a kind of roughness in the texture, of the way in which things can sit together; not the refined, glossy, sheen finish. For us -- and I don't think we are alone in this -- we are starting to feel that music has lost the personality of human beings and musicians. It's got so shiny that it's as if there's a surface of Formica over it. And it's something that doesn't let you in."

If the process of reinvention has rekindled U2's appetite, the tight deadline encouraged the band to act more on impulse. A prime example is the Edge's vocal contribution to "Numb," the closet U2 has come to releasing a single off the album (the record company describes it as a "featured track."), on which the Edge robotically intones a list of no-nos while Bono comes to his emotional rescue with a falsetto that owes as much to Curtis Mayfield as it does Mick Jagger. "I don't know whether on another session I would have done that vocal," the Edge admits. "I might have left it for Bono to try and get something together. The song started as a piece of music which didn't really have any lyrical or vocal idea of any kind. I was just fooling around and got the idea of this monotone rap. It was just an experiment that worked."

The same approach was applied to "Lemon" which combines two songs in one and falls somewhere beyond even the post-Achtung Baby U2 remit. "That started life as an improvisation during the European tour and we put it down as rough demo. We weren't sure which way it was going to go because we had two different vocal approaches toward it and we weren't sure which one to go with. It was Brian Eno who said, 'Why don't we try both? They're both good ideas and I don't see why you can't have the best of both worlds.' We were still at the experimental stage so Brian and I went down one day with some words that we knocked into shape and we did this kind of block vocal. I still think it's a very strange thing but somehow it worked; the two kinds connected and it was another of those moments where you try something and it hits."

The Edge's guitar sound has taken another step away from the chiming riffs that characterizes U2 through the '80s. While the traditional elements are neatly underplayed -- as in the sublime accompaniment to "The First Time" -- others blur less recognizably into the reconstructed soundscape. "A lot of guitars these days sound like keyboards," he explains. "It's fooled some people because there are things that are guitar, although they don't sound like they are because I'm getting more messy with my sounds, trying to push them to extremes.

"There were a few songs with what you might call more conventional guitar approaches but as time went on it became obvious that they were not part of this record," he continues. "We still have them and some of them are great songs. In fact, they are probably bigger songs than those that made the record. But we just knew they weren't right.

"I think that in this new era of U2, the songs that are the most abstract and disconnected from our own situation are the closest to revealing where we're at. The songs that seem to be more autobiographical I think are the ones that are more fictional. Which is the opposite of the way people have seen it."

One of these own-ups is the funky "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" -- ostensibly about addiction, another word for what the Edge calls dependency. "It's dependency on what? That's the question. It doesn't have to be illegal substances. You can be addicted to applause, you can be addicted to being on the road. I mean, being in U2 can be its own addiction. We have to recognize that. And there's a part of that in the lyrics. The image of Daddy is one of benevolence and in this song it's twisted around and become the thing that you're dependent on and that you look for support from."

While the free-range questing spirit in the studio contributes to the deliberate feeling of unease that underlies much of Zooropa, the album achieves an unlikely coherence from the final track, "The Wanderer," a gift-wrapped sermon from Johnny Cash. Typically, it came together spontaneously. "I'd got this rather odd keyboard arrangement together for a song called 'The Wanderer.' It was just a rough chord sequence and a title and that was it. Then Bono started singing on top of it and he was having a bit of trouble and it really wasn't happening, and he said, 'You know, I think Johnny Cash could really sing this' and somebody said, 'You know he's coming to town in a few days?' So Bono suggested that we should try and get him down and so we changed it around a little bit toward what we thought he could sing and Bono came up with a rough draft of the lyrics. We went to his show in Dublin and met him afterwards and asked if he'd like to come down to the studio, purely on a speculative basis. We didn't know if it was going to work and we told him so. But he came down and sang it and it was instantly 'Yes!' We knew it was going to happen. He sang it four or five times and we compiled the vocals from those takes. Brian Eno added a few little keyboard extras and Flood did a bit of work on it, and then we mixed it. It was as simple as that.

"I find that we are our most lucid when we're being spontaneous like that. There's something about working with a song when you're very conscious of it; you end up tampering with things and messing about too much. But when you just let go and it comes out the way that song did, it manages to put it across in a way that you'd never get if you labored over it."

While Zooropa is another major step in freeing U2 from what the band itself sees as the shackles of its past, its touring schedule has prevented it from working many of the songs into the set apart from "Numb," although the new attitude is clearly evident from the way the band has reworked songs like "Desire." "A lot of the things we did in the studio are particularly difficult to recreate. Now we're faced with the problem. Do we start from scratch -- This is the song, how are we going to play it live? -- or do we try and incorporate those sounds into the live arrangements. It's quite time-consuming to go through the songs in that way because some of them are quite complicated, and at the moment we really don't have any time for that so we are quite limited in what we can play off it. But we should be able to get a few more together before too long."

The Zooropa tour of Europe has built on last year's American tour, no mean feat when you consider that many of the venues do not have the technical facilities that American stadiums regard as standard. "You can't assume anything when you get to a new town," says the Edge. "You really have to make it happen each time. The first week was a bit scary because we literally didn't know whether we could cart all that equipment around and set up in time for the show. But there's a feeling of confidence in the camp now. We seem to be more sure of ourselves because of the new direction we're taking. I feel better about this tour than any we've done in the past, just in terms of giving people value for money and something to look at that makes sense in the context of the huge places we're playing.

"Rock 'n' roll can be really overshadowed by the scale of some of those venues. I've been to stadium shows and gone away thinking, 'Why did they do that? It just doesn't work.' But we've made it work by expanding almost everything about it. It's become more versatile and although the technology is more intricate, at the same time it gives us greater flexibility."

Nowhere is that flexibility better displayed than when the band fixes up a live satellite link to a friend in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, on the front line of a truly vile civil war that's happening less than a hundred miles away from the Budapest stadium the band is playing in. The friend, Bill, sitting in his bare apartment, tells how he buried three friends the previous day -- "two Serbs and one Muslim, as if it matters" -- and relays footage of a little girl singing "Let It Be" in a rubble-strewn street.

"We see the pictures but we don't know how to respond," Bono tells his friend, articulating the helplessness of the people of Europe and their politicians who are powerless to prevent the appalling slaughter and "ethnic cleansing" (the new buzzword for extermination) of innocent civilians on their doorsteps. Unlike the politicians, however, U2 have at least owned up.

© Pulse!, 1993. All Rights Reserved.