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Next time, we're going to make some changes in the way tickets are distributed. But you know what? We'll never get it right. There's always going to be scalpers, there's always going to be screw-ups. -- Larry, 2005

The World About Us - Part 1

Hot Press
On the release of The Joshua Tree, Niall Stokes and Bill Graham talk to Bono, Larry, Adam and the Edge about the making of U2's tour de force.

If you're a decade older than U2 and recall their earliest steps -- including that first chaotic demo session, a live half-hour take that was literally out of control, time and tune -- your emotions mix justified Irish pride with an almost absurd sense of deja vu. You pinch yourself very hard. Have the fresh-faced makers of Boy really matured into such influential men, rock potentates on a scale we humbly refused to dream of then?

U2 remain familiar figures on the Dublin landscape, etched in familiar cameos: Adam drinking across from you in a Dublin nightclub, Larry slipping into the shadows to view some unknown local band, the Edge shopping with his pregnant wife Aisling on the street opposite the Hot Press office, or Bono swopping tall tales with an elderly working-man in his local bar.

Unlike earlier generations of Irish artists, U2 have resolutely refused to decamp to London, Paris or New York. Perhaps that's why we have yet to fully come to terms with the special nature of U2's appeal -- or with the dawning realization that the torch has been passed to them as the lone remaining band of their generation to breathe new life into old rock ceremonies and revive abandoned dreams. It's much easier to call across the bar and ask Adam to pass the cigarettes. Once, writing about the United States, Bono was pained about being a "Stranger in a Strange Land" but by now U2 are familiar figures in the Promised Land. And this provides much of the focus for their new and sometimes tempestuous offering The Joshua Tree. While a song like "Red Hill Mining Town" is specifically about the trials and tribulations visited on working class people in the British miners' strike, the album as a whole represents the American side of U2's collective personality. And underpinning that musical emphasis, lyrically The Joshua Tree traverses an ethical and emotional journey across many different Americas.

Previous British rock tourists have made albums of their U.S. sketch-books but this one is different. There's an unmistakable Irish tinge on The Joshua Tree that frees it of the condescension and detachment which so often characterises the U.K. rock perspective on the United States and its people. The Irish don't view America like the Brits. For one, the continuous tide of emigration by generations of Irish has created its own intimacies.

Equally, a natural evolution can be traced between the still vibrant Irish folk tradition and the original musical sources back of country. Indeed U2's own early and enthusiastic courting of an American audience -- an attitude which contrasted sharply with the often defensive superiority of British bands of the same generation -- had its own natural cultural roots. At bottom is a feeling of empathy and respect -- not for American institutions but for the people of a vast and many-faceted continent.

This long-standing and mutual love affair has recently been shadowed by a new ambivalence on the Irish side. Remembering our centuries of suppression by Britain, we instinctively side with the underdog Nicaraguan government against the White House's destabilizing plans. In another small and vulnerable nation, Washington's Central American policies have touched a raw nerve. Released against the sordid backdrop of Irangate, The Joshua Tree is about articulating the sense of outrage which America's unique combination of arrogance and apathy inspires from an Irish pespective. But it is about more than that.

In a world where power is abused on a colossal scale and people are trampled into the dust without compunction by political and economic masters who have lost all sense of human dignity, U2 have sought and found the ultimate symbol of triumph over adversity. The Joshua Tree is about the belief that you cannot kill the human spirit. Arid it is about the final spark of optimism, that in spite of the arid wasteland of contemporary power politics, something beautiful and enduring can be forged out of human commitment and idealism in action.

The Joshua Tree is about refusing to lie down in the desert, to wait for the vultures to come and pick on our collective bones. It's about power in the darkness...Not surprisingly it stands out like a beacon against the backdrop of musical murk which characterises rock 'n' roll in the late Eighties.

In the restroom of U2's new rehearsal premises, an abandoned warehouse a mile from the band's Dublin Windmill Lane Studio headquarters, Larry Mullen patiently scans a tape to decipher the lyrics of a song U2 just might cover on their forthcoming world tour. His concentration isn't surprising but the object of his attention, Al Green's version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," is.

Certainly such a soulful choice might have been deemed uncharacteristic of U2 in the past -- but then, besides U2's artistic principles, they also have a mischievous habit of confounding expectations. After all, they've been boxed in before. In late '80 when U2 released their debut album, Boy, many [lumped] them in with Liverpool groups, the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen as part of that year's neo-psychedelic movement. Later, after their third album, War, they were slotted beside fellow Celts, Simple Minds, Big Country, the Alarm and the more willful Waterboys, as crusaders for an anthemic "Big Music." But by now, it's become transparent that U2 owe allegiance only to their own stylistic creed.

After War, they resolutely broke loose. Following the final Dublin date and triumphant homecoming of that album's tour, Bono spoke symbolically of "breaking up the band" and starting afresh to re-invent U2 with the same four members. They refused to record any Son of War-style sequel. The Stateside stadium pickings might have been tempting for an emergent group with an already intense following but U2 chose to enlist Brian Eno and his sorcerer's assistant, Daniel Lanois, to craft a new direction, the dreamscape that was The Unforgettable Fire. They weren't to be trapped as a guitar anthem band.

The Joshua Tree is a further shift in the pattern. Bono has jokingly cast himself as the "American" of U2 and the Edge as the "European" but, though such polarities may be artificial in such a tightly-knit group, this graphic album's musical and lyrical preoccupation with so many conflicting American ways contrasts vastly with its more impressionistic predecessor.

Thus, the immaculate conception of "People Get Ready" as a cover. It might not surface. At the end of a tiring rehearsal day, U2 were rather listlessly toying with the song but, nonetheless, its selection is an indicator of how they're finally closing in on soul. The Joshua Tree may contain its critiques of American policy but this Janus-faced album also draws on abiding American musics for its most positive values, as U2 display the abundant resources they have, by now, amassed.

It is also the U2 album to date that most palpably acknowledges that there was musical life before '76. Formed in the slip-stream of punk, U2's four members were like any independent teenagers of those years, fixated by the likes of Television, Patti Smith and the Ramones but distrusting such as the Rolling Stones as the play-things of an older generation. Yet Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are crucial to this story. The fathers proved they had much to teach their disputatious sons.

Bono calls it "The Night of the Long Knives." With his wife Ali, he'd spent a month in Ethiopia, both working as volunteers for World Vision on an educational relief project -- a visit he now only shyly and reluctantly discusses -- and he'd immediately travelled to New York to add his vocals to the Artists Against Apartheid Sun City record. Then Peter Wolf took him off to meet the Stones.

In a New York studio, Mick and Keith were casually running through some old blues standards for their personal entertainment and they inquired if Bono had any songs or party-pieces of his own. He didn't. Instead without the Edge, Larry or Adam to assist, he suddenly felt musically naked and embarrassed. But undeterred and inspired as if by an implicit challenge, he retired to his hotel bedroom for a sleepless night, writing the ghostly and chilling "Silver and Gold" in some seizure of spontaneous creative combustion.

The experience hastened a reassessment. To young blood groups of U2's generation, the blues pardonably meant long hair bar bands filling up the Dublin dates they hungered for. Bono doesn't hide the fact that U2 inherited a skewed tradition. Already interested in gospel, he knew he must now finally check the blues, dredging the record collection of artist friend Charlie Whisker (also, incidentally, the hearse-driver in the ominous stovepipe hat featured on the Clannad "In a Lifetime" video). Those new insights and the prodding of friends like T-Bone Burnett and newly arrived Dublin resident, Waterboy Mike Scott, hardened his and the other members' convictions about the inadequacies of U2's previous songs.

"The music had to serve the songs," the Edge says of their new strategy and though the guitarist was initially hesitant about Bono's latest enthusiasm, as if it might capsize the band, they righted the ship as the Edge sailed in with his own incandescent contributions, notably to "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Exit," that last track only routined and recorded on the final day of work on the album.

Of course, U2 weren't foolishly trying to recreate the doubtful glories of the British Blues Boom. Though there are hints in the guitar playing, in Bono's use of the harmonica and most obviously in "I Still Haven't Found," the new influences worked as a trace element, a presiding spirit beckoning them to simplify and focus their approach.

And though robust in spirit, The Joshua Tree doesn't shirk bleaker personal issues, partially reflecting a year when U2 shipped some heavy blows in Ireland. First and most crushingly Bono's PA, the personable New Zealand Maori, Greg Carroll, to whose memory the superb "One Tree Hill" is dedicated, died in a motor-bike accident when he crashed into an unlighted car. Then there was Self Aid, when U2 fell foul of our talent for selective criticism.

Every reputable Irish recording act still in business -- from Van Morrison, Bob Geldof and Rory Gallagher across to Paul Brady, De Danann, Moving Hearts and Christy Moore shared the bill on the day -- but it was U2 who were singled out for a personally abusive cover and editorial in In Dublin, which charged them with liberal hypocrisy. It was a grossly off balance and unfair attack, and it hurt, particularly since U2 had donated proceeds from their last Irish concert to the construction of the fledgling City Centre Arts building. U2 have made their commitment to their own environment manifest in very concrete, practical terms.

In the event what U2 delivered at Self Aid was the blackest and most ferocious set of their entire career, the highlight a sinister, gut-churning "Maggie's Farm" with a twist in its tail for the green tide of emigrants bound to work -- or to look for work -- in Maggie Thatcher's Britain. No longer could the band be put down, even by their most mean-spirited detractors, as purveyors of a soft-centred, blindly optimistic version of reality.

The controversy passed over like a summer squall. Besides, U2 lost no loyalty from their Irish legions. But it contains a paradox: that a band about to embark on the crusading Conspiracy of Hope tour, should be so suspected by anyone in their homeland. Now, Bono gets angry if he's called a liberal.

It's a mark of the change that's come over U2 these past two years. It's also a measure of their growing maturity and depth. The Joshua Tree is both their most ambitious album and their most troubled. With a new emphasis on the poetic power of language, U2 place less reliance on faith. They are less buoyant in their celebration. Rather with The Joshua Tree, they are asking questions of themselves and of their audience which might not have seemed within their scope until recently. There are no easy answers.

Hot Press: Can you explain the motivation behind the making of the album?

Edge: As with much U2 work, it's "reactionary" in a sense. Whereas War was a reaction to the weak, placid music, we saw everywhere, I think this was, in a funny way, our reaction to The Unforgettable Fire. We had experimented a lot in its making and done quite revolutionary things for us, like "Elvis Presley in America" and "4th Of July." We felt on this record that maybe, options were not such a good thing, that limitation might be very positive. So we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting-point. Let's actually write songs. We just wanted to leave the record less vague, openended, atmospheric and impressionistic. Make it more straightforward, focussed and concise.

Bono, before you went to New York for the Sun City sessions, had you any prior notion of what the new record would be like?

Bono: Before I went away the album I had in the back of my head is the album we've yet to make. It has been put aside for this. You see, I was starting to write songs and it was almost like I felt U2 can't do these songs. Like, U2 can't do blues or gospel. So I thought to myself, why can't U2 do these things? I started to see U2 in some strait-jacket we should break out from.

How did the other three respond to these new angles?

Bono: Adam has always been the roots man in the operation. On tour, it'll always be reggae, Aswad or Black Uhuru blasting out of his hotel room. Larry's more interested in the songs and simple structures. It's speak up or shut up. Write a song, three chords, say what you have to say. So he liked the directness of blues and something like "Trip Through Your Wires."

And the Edge?

Bono: (Pause) ... How can I put this?... (Further pause)... Early on, Edge was less taken with it but later, he really came through when he saw that the songs were good. Put it this way: Edge didn't own a copy of Blood on the Tracks. Edge's collection still started in '76 at the New Beginning. His interest was in European groups like Can and music back to Eno. So this was opening a new world or (laughs) a new can of worms. And yet the spontaneity of this new kind of music really excited him.

There's this idea of yourself as the American and him as the European.

Bono: Yeah and Ireland's right in the middle. There's a tension between the two but it's the right kind of tension. And it's funny because at the end of the record, I was arguing for the more atmospheric songs and he was going for the rock 'n' roll. We'd swopped places somewhere along the way, much to our amusement.

Edge: We approached arranging and producing each song like it was unique. We just hoped the album would have a sonic cohesiveness based on the idea that we were playing it. There was definitely a strong direction but equally we were prepared to sacrifice some continuity to get the rewards of following each song to a conclusion. I hate comparisons -- but like the Beatles at their height, in terms of unusual production techniques, we wanted to do what was right for the song.

Adam: I think we've come up songs where there was a whole process of music inspiring lyrics and lyrics then feeding back on the music and the whole thing becoming intense. And we found that because Bono had enough time to produce lyrics that really did work, it was much more satisfying.

Bono: I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my experience.

To what extent did writing a bleaker album reflect personal experiences?

Edge: Well, there's still hope...I think this record's bleak because that's what we're seeing but there's also that positive side to it.

Bono: You could say this is forbidden ground for U2 because we're the "optimistic" group. But to be an optimist, you mustn't be blind or deaf to the world around you. "Running to Stand Still" is based on a real story while "Exit," I don't even know what the act is in that song. Some see it as a murder, others a suicide -- and I don't mind. But the rhythm of the words is nearly as important in conveying the state of mind...If I can be objective and of course I can't, the album's real strength is that though you travel through deep tunnels and bleak landscapes, there's a joy at the heart of it.

How then did Greg Carroll's death affect you -- being confronted with something tragic, completely outside the band's control?

Adam: For me, it inspired the awareness that there are more important things than rock 'n' roll. That your family, your friends, and indeed, the other members of the band -- you don't know how much time you've got with them. I'd rather go home early than stay up all night mixing a track.

Bono: (Quietly) I feel the same.

Adam: For a long time, we did deny those simple things that give you pleasure, to keep the band going. Seeing your brothers, sisters, wives, children.

Bono: The emphasis among family and friends, when we had a number one record and were a big band, is how much you've got and I'm not talking about money. Not how much you've lost. The sense of loss came home through losing Greg Carroll. But the sense of loss has continued -- I feel it even now, having made a record and not seen friends and family for the last three months and now, not being able to see them again because of the tour and so on. Because U2 work on everything. Like Larry is working his butt off on the merchandising, making sure the T-shirts -- and this might sound insignificant -- are made out of cotton and at an affordable price. So we're sitting on all these things. For the first time, I'm beginning to see the value of being irresponsible, of not giving a shit. Because giving a shit costs a lot. That's serious.

To dwell on the positive side, how does somebody from New Zealand get involved with an Irish band?

Bono: To do him justice, you can't talk about him the way we felt. We met him in Auckland and there are five volcanic islands which make up Auckland and the tallest is One Tree Hill. And my first night in New Zealand, Greg took me to One Tree Hill. He'd worked around the music and media scene and Paul McGuinness thought this guy's so smart, we can't leave him here, let's take him with us to Australia. He'd been doing front of house for the promoter...Greg Carroll's funeral was beyond belief. He was buried in his tribal homeland as a Maori, by the chiefs and elders. And there was a three-day and three-night wake and your head could be completely turned around and ours were again and again.

Regarding two other tracks, "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- there was a time when U2 wouldn't have been remotely considered a dance band.

Edge: We never thought about that side. They used to say about U2 that we had an anti-dance stance, music to fall over to -- which I thought was funny. I remember in an American club on an early tour, Bono, after a few bevvies was persuaded to go on the floor and the DJ put on "Out of Control" and not only did everybody leave the floor but he couldn't dance to it either.

A track like "Bullet the Blue Sky" is of interest in the context of how heavy metal has become so stylised. Late Sixties hard rock was much freer. How do you think a contemporary HM fan would take it?

Edge: It's an idiom reminiscent of an earlier era of rock but I don't think it's metal. When Jimi Hendrix was playing, it meant so much more than the post-blues yawn when guitar players rehashed something that once potent and became a total cliche. My background is much more Tom Verlaine and John McGeoch but, in this case I thought there should be no limitations. I wasn't going to hem myself in because it might be controversial.

Bono, how have your attitudes to singing changed?

Bono: For those years when I didn't really know if there was a place in rock for U2, or whether I wanted a place in U2, I think I was quite uptight. Sometimes people saw in the songs a self righteousness because I was like the scared rat in the corner who attacks. As I worked out where we wanted to be, I loosened up and loosening up, discovered other voices. I became interested in singing -- whereas before if it was in tune and in the right time, that was enough. And this is the same guy who was thrown out of U2 in 1977 because he couldn't sing! I find it hard to listen to the first three records because of my singing.

There's now a greater sensuality, which relates to the maturing of U2.

Bono: Yeah, you just stretch it out and realise a whisper can be louder than a scream. You learn that there's a time for letting go and a time for holding back.

To what extent does that come from being more at home with yourself?

Bono: I suppose I'm happy to be unhappy. Anyone who really knows me knows that, as they say, I'm never going to be at peace with my pipe (laughs).

How does this process of personal maturation relate to the artistic vision of U2?

Bono: We grew in an odd way as people. From 18 or 19, we were pushing the van to Killarney and then on a bus in America and then it's a plane to Australia and Japan. And we were completely occupied with things spiritual. After Boy, the next two albums were almost made in our spare time. We weren't even sure we wanted to be in a band. So we were interested in growing on spiritual levels but actually quite retarded on other levels.

And even musically: our musical life began again with Unforgettable Fire. It wasn't even a priority. I think we must own up to that. For two years, we were writing songs and going to the studio for October and War but that wasn't where we were at. We came through that and we realised we are musicians and we want to be in this band, U2.

Edge: And after this album, I'm more interested in playing guitar than I have been for the last three years. I'm having to learn because I've forgotten how a bit, honestly.

On a personal level, do you get annoyed by the newspaper gossip that celebrity seems automatically to bring? The local papers seem to be searching for you in every nightclub in town.

Bono: My father, who I love very much, is one of these guys who believes what he reads. He'll say to me: I hear you were throwing your weight around in some record store when they hadn't what you wanted and you were telling them you were Bono and they'd better have it. And I was laughing, wondering where this one had come from. So I sort of told him off and said: "Da, you cannot believe what you read." Then one night we were talking and he said: "Yes, you can't believe what you read. I'll tell you a funny thing I read and even I didn't believe it. Apparently some fella's going around saying you own a hearse and you were driving around Donegal in it." (Laughs). Fact and fiction just get blurred in a city like this. (Bono does indeed own a hearse, which he drove in the Clannad video)

Adam: You just can't fight it. It just gets worse and it's going to happen much more in the next year or so.

Bono: I live in Bray but the people in Bray are protective about myself and Ali. They don't bother us. But we get hassled by people from abroad, calling to the house. Some of it is okay but it's also a place where, as Ali likes to put it, she lives also. She says: "I don't want you watching me put the washing on the line." I've got to back her up. I don't mind inviting people into the house but I've got to honour her. But we get some amazing things. I remember a whole party of French people who applauded me outside the door. I'd just got out of bed and (laughs) I said: "No thank you, I'm the wrong guy."

I don't know how this will sound -- but there was this one girl in the bushes. She was Italian, 18, very beautiful, sitting there in the flowers. And she said: "I just wanted to come to Dublin and meet U2 before I die." And I thought: "they always come up with a good angle but this really is a good one." I didn't know whether to laugh, just in case. So I talked to her, didn't take it too seriously and went off. But the next day, two BMWs came along and out came these Italian men in designer suits with flowers and flowers, presenting them to me because we had looked after this man's daughter who had some incurable illness. And that was almost shocking. How could I live up to that responsibility? God Almighty. I just can't come to terms with that. The bottom line is that music means a lot but what they haven't separated is the music from the musician. Because the musicians are only ordinary people. It's the music which is extraordinary if you like.

Adam: There's a weird process which I've just begun to understand. Particularly when you get the letters from 15-year-olds. And they're asking questions as if you're the second line of defence for their heads. They've become disillusioned with their parents and they think their teachers are assholes now.

Bono: And they haven't yet found out we're assholes (laughs).

But the pressure of celebrity -- is it more than you can cope with?

Bono: It's one of my feelings that if you're around Dublin long enough, people just won't even notice. I love this city. I love it and I hate it and I love it and and I hate it. What I hate is to see how much they have destroyed Dublin -- to see them pulling down the buildings. The closest I carne to throwing a large brick through the window in the last two years was outside the Royal Hibernian Way. I had to be dragged away. I mean, the rage I feel inside me when I see the pill-boxes they have planted outside Christchurch Cathedral. Well Larry just says to me: "Come on, when you're worried about the way a city looks like, you know you're okay." You know, there's a lot of people out there who can't afford to worry about what the city looks like.

At Live Aid, when Bono scrambled off the stage, you must have thought: jaysus, what's he up to?

Adam: If you don't like it, you put down your instruments and walk off stage. That's your choice (laughter).

Bono: Live Aid could've been a classic example of shooting ourselves in the foot. I was as high as a kite after Live Aid because, you know, Linda McCartney kissed me. And I was sharing a microphone with Paul McCartney! But when I got home and watched a video of Live Aid, I was so desperate and depressed. I really believed I had made a big mistake. I couldn't sleep. And I drove down the South East and I met a sculptor who was actually making a bronze piece which was meant to be the spirit of Live Aid, a naked figure and it was called The Leap. I talked with him and he said he'd called it The Leap because I had left the stage and this image connected with him. The figure wasn't me. It was meant to be the whole spirit of it. But I felt, if he understood what I was trying to do and he was a man in his late fifties, outside of rock 'n' roll...But there's no question about it, I'm not doing that again. And I still don't understand why I did it.

What were the emotions you felt when you were going on stage at Self Aid?

Bono: That's a bit of a can of worms, isn't it?

Adam: Humble, I guess.

Bono: There was a very interesting reaction afterwards. The people who believe in U2 are very ordinary people, working class people. The only flak we get for being in a privileged position is from the middle class. I felt how can I write a song about being unemployed when I am fully employed, how can I stand on stage at an unemployed benefit when I know U2 are not short of cash?

But one guy came up to me afterwards and said: "I'm really pissed off about what you said on stage." And I said what do you mean? And he said: "You said you don't know what it's like to be unemployed. We didn't want to hear that -- because we know you know what it's like, even if you don't." It was amazing, the last thing I expected to hear. And then I heard all these stories about people singing "Maggie's Farm" on the dole queue on the Monday morning, which I found funny. I don't know whether they were slagging us off or just enjoying the song.

There was a blackness to that performance which marked it out from the rest of your live work.

Bono: There's a side to U2 in Ireland, where the mammies and daddies are proud that U2 are an Irish group doing well in America -- like Barry McGuigan. And there is a sense too that maybe some politicians had pigeonholed us like (mimics rural hack's insincere sing-song accent), "there's U2 now, a good example of young people. Playing their music" -- when getting off their lazy backsides is what they really mean. And I just wanted to say: Look, Mister. Because I knew there'd be certain politicians watching the programme and I didn't want to let them off the book. Because the truth of it was that a lot of people were on the hook because of their policies. I just wanted to be that anger. I allowed that anger to be a part of the performance.

(Continued in Part 2)