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"Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company." — Bono

Singing Words of Wisdom: U2 and The Beatles

@U2

They invaded America. Took on political causes. Got pulled off of rooftops in the middle of performances.

They even played an amazing gig at Red Rocks.

They're the Beatles...and U2.

If you're a music fan like me, you probably grow tired of the endless Beatles comparisons made whenever a band achieves marginal success. For years journalists have described countless bands as "the next Beatles" or "bigger than The Beatles." Only U2 truly comes close.

In fact, the more I learn about each group, the more I realize how identical their paths have been. To be fair, anyone looking hard enough could find similarities between any two bands. But in exploring the patterns of The Beatles and U2, the circumstances are more unique.

THE EARLY YEARS

The Beatles began as four teenage boys from Liverpool, England. John Lennon, a sarcastic-but-smart troublemaker, frequently liked to skip school because it bored him. Paul McCartney, an exemplary student, did well in classes and planned on eventually attending university, possibly to become a teacher. George Harrison, the youngest of the group, whose musical pursuits were supported by his family, was the most direct of the bunch -- and not a fan of conformity. He told biographer Hunter Davies about school "I hated being dictated to...I was just trying to be myself." And Richard Starkey, the eldest of the group, had played in more bands than the other three by the time he joined them. They liked to call each other by nicknames such as Macca (Paul), Lennie (John), Hazza (George), and Ringo (Richard).

John, Paul, George and Ringo had three band names. First, they were Johnny and the Moondogs, then The Silver Beetles and finally The Beatles. The manager that put them on the map, Brian Epstein, had never before managed a music group.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon lost their mothers unexpectedly when the band was just getting started. John's mother was killed in a car accident.

U2 started with four teenage boys living in Dublin, Ireland. Paul Hewson, a gregarious-but-intelligent kid, often skipped school because it didn't interest him. Dave Evans was a strong student who had plans for higher education if his music aspirations didn't materialize. Larry Mullen Jr., the baby of the group, took piano and drum lessons as a young man. His family nurtured his talent and he did well in the Artane Boys Band -- until they told him to cut his hair. He didn't care much for conformity. And Adam Clayton, the oldest member of the band, had a more mature knowledge of music -- impressing his mates with words like "gig." It was part of the culture in Dublin to call each other by nicknames like Bono (Paul) and The Edge (Dave).

Bono, the Edge, Larry and Adam had three band names. First, they were Feedback, then The Hype, and of course, U2. Their manager, Paul McGuinness, had never before managed a punk band.

Bono and Larry Mullen Jr. tragically lost their mothers in their teenage years. Larry's mother was killed in a car accident.

RELIGION

The Beatles began collectively searching for "the answer" in the late sixties when they followed the teachings of His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. All four band members, along with their wives and girlfriends, traveled to India and Wales for a three-week retreat to learn the technique of Transcendental Meditation. Although first praising the philosophy, the band soon lost interest and faith in the Maharishi. Ringo was the first to leave the retreat, claiming to dislike the food, then Paul, John and George followed. Upon returning to England, the band publicly acknowledged their "mistake" in belief. In 1989 Paul went as far as to say "I don"t like religion as such because there's always bloody wars with every bloody religion."

U2's baptism, of sorts, came much earlier. Bono, the Edge and Larry joined the Shalom Christian prayer group while the band was still growing its roots. Though Adam never became a member, the beliefs of the other three threatened to disband U2. Luckily, the young men chose the music over Shalom. At present all four men have mentioned having faith, but not in the extreme manner of their youth. In 2002, Edge said "I still have a spiritual life, but I'm not really a fan of religion per se."

THE FAMILY BUSINESS

In 1967, The Beatles launched a company called Apple Corps, Ltd., in an effort to give creative artists a chance to realize their dreams without having to endure corporate red tape. Though this altruistic venture found worthy musicians such as Billy Preston and James Taylor, the other branches of Apple (a clothing boutique, a division of electronics, etc.) failed miserably. Ultimately, the only portion of Apple that remains today is the publishing company.

In 1984, U2 started Mother Records, a record label meant to act as a stepping stone for up-and-coming musicians. Their aim was to establish a deal for a few singles from the artist that would in turn elevate them to a higher status where they could negotiate deals with larger labels. Although bands like the Hothouse Flowers and Cactus World News achieved great success from this venture, three managers and several years later, the label folded. All that remains today is the Mother Publishing Company.

LYRICS

Both bands have songs based on love, war, peace and faith. A fair argument could be made that scores of musicians also sing about these topics. It's the specific parallels that make the paths of U2 and The Beatles so fascinating.

For instance, it's not surprising that John Lennon and Bono both chose to write about the loss of their mothers. Their lyrics represent the necessity of not letting go.

In "Julia," John writes "Half of what I say is meaningless/But I say it just to reach you, Julia."

"I Will Follow" has Bono singing "If you walk away, walk away/I walkaway, walkaway..I will follow."

Civil rights were also a common thread. In "Blackbird," Paul McCartney sang about black women overcoming their obstacles to soar above their oppressors: "Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these sunken eyes and learn to see/All your Life/You were only waiting for this moment to be free."

In "Pride (In the Name of Love)," Bono remembers American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. "One man come in the name of love/One man come and go/One man come, he to justify/One man to overthrow."

Neither band shied away from letting politics enter their catalog either, always singing for the preservation of peace. In "Revolution," John Lennon claimed "But when you want money for people with minds that hate/All I can tell you is brother you have to wait."

In "Please," U2 condemns an unspecific political figure or social group: "So you never knew/That the heaven you keep, you stole/Please...please...please/Get up off your knees/Please-yeah...please...please.../Leave me out of this please."

And on the lighter side, both bands created anthems to celebrate a nice day. The Beatles with Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun": "Here comes the sun/Here comes the sun/And I say it's all right/Sun, sun, sun here it comes"; U2 with "Beautiful Day": "It's a beautiful day/Sky falls, you feel like it's a beautiful day/ Don't let it get away."

Coincidentally, even some titles are similar. The Beatles had "Within You and Without You," and U2 had a number one hit with "With or Without You." John Lennon's heartfelt ballad to his wife Yoko, "Dig a Pony," was first called "All I Want is You." One of Bono's most treasured songs to his beloved Ali is called "All I Want is You."

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

Paul McCartney has been married twice, producing four daughters and one son. John Lennon shared a birthday with his son Sean.

The Edge has been married twice, producing four daughters and one son. Bono shares a birthday with his daughter Jordan.

IMITATION IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF FLATTERY

At the end of the Let it Be documentary, The Beatles venture to the roof of the building for an impromptu performance, only to be dragged off by the police. When U2 filmed the video for "Where the Streets Have No Name" on a Los Angeles rooftop, it ended with the police unplugging their equipment.

Over the years, U2 have covered several Beatles songs including "Help!," "Helter Skelter," "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "In My Life." On their recent Elevation tour, the introduction to U2 taking the stage included The Beatles' version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." They even hired Chris Thomas, a former Beatles collaborator, to co-produce their upcoming album.

QUOTABLE FRONT MEN

Part of the appeal in both bands is undoubtedly the charisma of their members. All eight men displayed intelligence, quick wit and a knack for well-placed sarcasm every time they were put to the test. Their front men, who both have messiah comparisons under their belt, have been nothing short of a quote-collector's dream:

"Part of me suspects I'm a loser and part of me thinks I'm God Almighty." - John Lennon, 9/1980 in The Playboy Interviews

"It's a strange thing to need 20,000 people screaming your name to feel normal." - Bono, 9/2002 on The Oprah Winfrey Show

MEETING OF THE MINDS

So -- have the two superpowers ever met? Sadly, John Lennon never had the chance to know any members of U2 (although they were reportedly only a few miles away from the Dakota when he was killed in December of 1980).

George Harrison had unkind words for U2 in the late '90s, saying "Look at a group like U2. Bono and his band are so egocentric -- the more you jump around, the bigger your hat is, the more people listen to your music. The only important thing is to sell and make money. It's nothing to do with talent. Today there are groups who sell lots of records and then disappear. Will we remember U2 in 30 years? Or the Spice Girls? I doubt it."

Bono responded: "We were great fans of his but he didn't like U2 very much. I heard he was very bad-tempered -- I think it might have been more true to say he was the grumpy Beatle rather than the quiet one."

However, Paul McCartney said great things about U2 at the Super Bowl in 2002. Rumors go so far as to suggest that Bono attended the wedding of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills in the summer of 2002, so one could assume they're probably friends.

Not to be outdone, Edge recently collaborated with Lennon's widow Yoko Ono for an art show. Dangerously, he allegedly invited her back to the studio (wink).

AND IN THE END

What does all of this mean? Maybe it's just a clear documentation of amazing coincidences involving two phenomenal mainstream bands. Or maybe it's divine intervention.



© @U2/Kokkoris, 2004.