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The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt. -- Bono

The Return of Steve Lillywhite

Propaganda, Issue 5

Steve Lillywhite, more than anyone except the four members of the band, helped to create the U2 sound. He produced their first three records, Boy, October and War, and last December he got a phone call out of the blue, inviting him back to Dublin to remix a number of songs on the new record, The Joshua Tree.

Lillywhite describes himself unashamedly as "a fan of U2," quickly adding that he is a fan of every group he has ever worked with, "possibly excluding a single I did with Toyah!"

He would have been a fan of U2 anyway, regardless of having worked with them, because he loves Bono's voice so much: "Whenever I listen to tapes of bands who want to work with my the first things to listen for are the guy's voice and the songs."

Lillywhite's role on The Joshua Tree was one he was familiar with after producing three albums for the band. "The band called me just before Christmas," he explains, "and asked if I could go over to Ireland and finish off the album. Basically they were slowly running out of time -- actually they were quickly running out of time! -- and if the deadline they had given themselves to complete recording was not kept then the album wouldn't be released until midway through the year. If it wasn't out for March, then because of touring schedules, it would have to wait until October. That was the brief I was given."

For a short period at the turn of the year, Lillywhite was mixing some of the new songs in his old haunt at Windmill Lane Recording Studios, while Daniel Lanois continued finishing off the other songs at "Southfork" where the album had been recorded.

"It was a nice phone call to get," says Lillywhite. "I always liked the band, we'd kept in touch -- they came to my wedding -- and they're just the same as they always were."

Steve Lillywhite's earliest memories of U2, he explains, are of "four very young boys."

"It was the first time in my career that I had been five years older than any member of the band I was working with, but it was all such good fun in the early days," he recalls.

"That's not to say that it wasn't all a bit hectic. All of the U2 records tend to be a bit hectic towards the end, rushing to get it done in time. They always work slowly at the beginning and then suddenly realized, 'Hang on, we've got to get this record finished!' "

Before working with the fledgling U2 on their first album, Lillywhite, then 27, had worked with Peter Gabriel, XTC and the Psychedelic Furs, and had had in his own words, "quite a lot of hits." At the time he remembers that U2 were a bit of an unknown quantity -- he could have worked with a lot of better known names -- but there was never any doubt in his mind that working with U2 was an opportunity he wasn't going to pass up.

'If you can build a band up from the first to third albums it is quite a nice little progression. It was always clear in my mind that U2 were going to go all the way. There was no question of that."

But Lillywhite, who has since worked with Joan Armatrading, Simple Minds and the Rolling Stones (on their Dirty Work album), is confident that U2 still stand poised on the threshold of their early promise.

"They have still got their best to come. They have now started to write songs and The Joshua Tree is far more song-oriented. They spent four albums trying to write songs and now, on their fifth album, they are just beginning to get it together. By the sixth and seventh albums I think we'll see some classic songs coming from U2."

In contrast to the many other groups that Lillywhite has worked with, he reckons that two of the most significant factors in working with U2 is their determination to get it right.

"The great thing about U2 is the togetherness of the four people. Sometimes working with a band on their record I end up as a negotiator, as the decisive vote -- with the Rolling Stones I had to resolve certain things between certain members of the band.

"But even more than U2's unity as a group, I think they push themselves harder than any other group I've worked with. They push themselves to try and get it right, especially towards the end of a project. For them, if they haven't literally tried their utmost, done their absolute best, then it isn't good enough, which is a great way of working. As long as they give 100 percent of what they have then that is good enough. Whether it is good or bad, that almost doesn't matter as long as they have given their best."

Lillywhite has watched U2 develop as a group over eight years since working with them first in 1979, and inevitably he recognizes distinct changes in the members of the group and their approach.

"Obviously," he explains, "with success you get to earn a bit of money, but it doesn't affect their lifestyle. None of them drives a Rolls-Royce or anything like that, but they do drive cars that go, whereas before they used to have cars that didn't go!"

"They are different now," he continues. "They're more mature as people and Bono, for one, is definitely lighter. He's still intense now, he's a very serious man sometimes, but perhaps then he was a serious boy, and going from boy to man, it becomes possible to look at yourself and have a little giggle.

"Bono is singing much better. In recording, before he used to sing from his throat and now he sings from his belly. Consequently, the sound of his voice is bigger. He sings like a demon on this record.

"They are maturing in a great way and I see them becoming a very major force for a very long time.

"Another of the good things about the whole U2 set-up is that they have a lot of people working with them who were originally with them, from manager to sound guy, Joe O'Herlihy, who was mixing them in pub gigs in 1979 and is now mixing them in stadiums in 1987. It's like a big family, they look after their people well."


THE LILLYWHITE VERDICT ON THE U2 RECORD CATALOGUE:

BOY

"All through U2's recording career there's been this thing that records have never come up to U2 live but they have always been treated as a separate entity. Live, they can possibly sound a bit heavy with the limited format of instruments, and so in the early days they wanted to make it a bit more psychedelic, a bit more thematic and cinematic in the sound. Whereas on stage they were a lot more rough, up front, a lot more hard-hitting and had an aura around the sound with all the echoes. I don't know if that was good or bad, but it certainly meant that they didn't have immediate record success.

Although the critics liked Boy, I had lots of people coming up to me saying, 'I've seen the band live and it was brilliant but the record didn't quite come up to it.' If you see the band first and then listen to the record it can be a bit confusing. Like on this new album I can see the band playing some of the songs live and they'll have a lot more stomp to them whereas on the record they're not like that."

OCTOBER

"October was the most difficult of the three records I did with them basically because of the well-chronicled story of Bono losing his lyrics during the American tour. The fact that the first album had a bit of success in America meant that the band toured over there for a long time to do the groundwork. When they came back and it was time to do the second album, nothing was ready! The songs on the second album took a while to do, they were a little bit light on songs but listening to it, it's not quite as bad as I thought.

"With October I don't think the band went backwards in their popularity, but it wasn't really a leap forward. It's the one I listen to least and it was the most traumatic. Personally, like most producers, I don't listen to work that I have done, although I did actually sit back and listen to all the U2 records just to get back into the groove before going over to remix The Joshua Tree songs. I think Adam Clayton plays their albums more than anyone I know who plays records!"

WAR

"When it came time to do War I said to the band that it was time they worked with another producer and they agreed and I put forward a few names. They tried a few, but then I got a call from Bono to ask, 'What are you doing in September?'

"War was a pretty traumatic record too! It's again this thing of always finishing at the last possible moment. If there is half an hour where you could be doing something before the tapes have to leave before cutting, then the band would spend that half hour doing something with the tapes. But when it's all done and finished and they've given their everything and there's no possible moment left to do anything, then that's it. They're completely dedicated, working right up to the last possible moment.

"We wanted War to sound brash, not like the Clash, but with an aggression, which they actually moved on from that now, the brash drums and the very hard sounds. Now they like it a lot more warm."

THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE

"I went to see the band before they started recording it and they were lamenting the fact that they didn't have any songs. So I said, 'Play us what you've got.' They played 'Pride.' Me and McGuinness were standing there and I looked at him and said, 'You've got no problems.' It was a good album."

THE JOSHUA TREE

"There's virtually nothing I don't like on this album, which is very unusual for me. 'Still Haven't Found' is one of the best songs they've ever written. 'With or Without You' is a classic pop song and 'Red Hill Mining Town' is also great.

"Nowadays they are more likely to write a whole album of 'Pride's and the great songs. I think that probably on The Joshua Tree there's four or five of the great songs, which is more than they have had before. As they get older and write more songs you can imagine a U2 album full of nine or ten classic songs.

"This is very close to being an album of classic songs, but I think that within one or two albums they could have an album which might be one of the biggest-selling records of all time.

"This album will do well, it'll probably double their sales so far, but the next one will be brilliant!"


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