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"We never suffered from that indie mentality of 'big is bad.' A lot of groups that could've gone on to make amazing music crumbled under some sort of inverse guilt or mistrust of success." — Edge

Tuning Into Zoo TV Station

Propaganda, Issue 16
On the last day of February, after five years, U2 finally returned to America and unveiled the strangest, funniest and most visually dramatic live show they have ever created. Propaganda was there as Zoo TV began to broadcast.

Saturday night, February 29th, Leap Day, the Civic Center, Lakeland, Florida, USA, and Zoo Television begins broadcasting as Bono, in Fly guise, wanders on stage to sing an unaccompanied chant to a deafening response from the audience.

Suddenly the opening bars of "Zoo Station" are clattering around the auditorium and, as if from nowhere, Adam, Larry and Edge are in position. Bono raps, "First night, first night, it's all right," and 8,000 fans -- who bought their tickets for the show within four minutes of them going on sale -- unsurprisingly affirm the sentiment by giving a passable impression of being 800,000 fans.

Now "The Fly" is pumping out of the sound system, putting the audience into sudden shock as they are bombarded with fast-moving, blink-and-you-miss-it graffiti philosophising from banks of TV screens surrounding the stage and from a massive central projection screen lowered down from the roof high above.

"We've got a TV station," says Bono, with remote control in hand. "Let's take a look at this shit." As he flicks through the channels we watch, bemused, politicians arguing, evangelists ranting, housewives extolling, chat show hosts rambling on into television eternity.

"You wanna watch this...?"

Clearly, it is a foolish question. The audience do not want to watch this. Perhaps, ever again.

"What is this shit?" asks the singer. "Let's go rock 'n' roll," and Edge strikes up the opening bars of "The Real Thing" as a clutch of, comical-looking Trabant cars hung playfully above the stage and focussed on the band below, burst into friendly, humorous light. As the song runs out, on the four huge vidi-walls embracing the stage, the singer is superimposed over preachers, congressman and, oh look, there's that Ronald Reagan.

"We got a satellite dish here," Bono explains. "We can beam this all over the world. But not tonight. This is a private party."

This, in fact, is a private party called Zoo TV, and after months of preparation and two weeks of rehearsals in unglamorous Lakeland, Florida, it has finally begun broadcasting.

Just four days before, on Tuesday night, it had not looked like the station might go on air quite as planned. Rehearsals were over early because Bono has left to go back to the hotel in Orlando, concerned that his voice is going. (This at the start of perhaps 18 months on the road.)

Still, he doesn't leave without making some U2 fans happy: 150 were rescued from their vigil outside in the sodden rain earlier in the evening with a surprise invitation to watch the band run through some of the new set. (In fact, they were so bowled over that most were struck dumb and barely moved a limb, completely overcome by the occasion.)

Meanwhile, Adam, Larry and Edge do not seem unduly concerned over Bono's vocal chords and the three carry on practising new songs as, all around them, the finishing touches are put to the striking new Zoo TV stage set, designed by Peter "Willie" Williams. It is a set dominated by the contrasting images of flying Trabant cars -- recently imported from East Germany and now gaudily customised in striking new colors -- and huge TV screens pockmarking the scene, themselves overshadowed by four huge walls of screens hugging the side and rear of the stage. U2-minus-singer rehearse on stage, high above them the painter Catherine Owens sits atop one Trabbie, which she has recently painted purple, carefully depicting a huge flower in yellow and orange on its underbelly.

At the centre of the hall is the audio-visual ground control, front seat driver Joe O'Herlihy on sound, back seat driver Peter Williams on lights -- and, this time, also conducting a whole new crew to his left, the operation centre of Zoo TV.

The production is virtually ready. That just leaves the product. Unfortunately, such is the nature of U2-world in 1992, that even though it may be three days to their first American tour in five years, everyone else in the world is bellowing deadlines and demands at them.

Wednesday morning belongs to a video crew, under the direction of New Yorker Mark Pellington, who has been invited to make a second video for the new single, "One." (The first version, directed by Anton Corbijn, is to be part of the MTV/Channel Four U2 documentary scheduled for airing later this year.) The members of the band spend the morning making moody faces into a camera while the soundtrack of the song plays in the background.

Over in the Civic Center, sitting in a Trabbie which has been lovingly recreated as a gigantic mirrorball, is the eccentric figure of B.P. Fallon, Zoo TV DJ. The car has been fitted out with everything a DJ needs and, just to give him the feel for the big nights ahead, B.P. is gently winched 50 feet into the air from whence he will conduct the pre-show proceedings.

There is precious little time in the afternoon for any real rehearsals -- the "One" video shoot inevitably runs well over time and, as yesterday's attempt failed, this afternoon the band need another shot at performing the same song live on stage to camera. This time the deadline belongs to the producer of Top of the Pops in England, who has left a precise gap of four minutes and forty seconds in the following evening's show, for Dreamchaser Productions to provide a film of the band performing the new single in rehearsals. This afternoon it cannot fail. It has to be satellited to London tonight.

After several takes, director Maurice Linnane editing live from Zoo TV ground control in the centre of the hall, everyone is happy. Another job done, but still no proper rehearsal. Oh, and plenty of ancillary problems to solve too. They've been on the road before and most of the usual problems can be anticipated and fixed up front -- but they've never taken a TV station with them, or for that matter, tried to talk to a man in space. Breaking for supper, Bono engages production designer Willie in conversation specifically to resolve some of these problems.

Will the remote device rigged to the satellite dish outside the venue actually work the satellite channels on the vidi-walls? He likes the idea of being able to change channels (the TV images are not pre-recorded, which would be easier) enough to decide to dispense with the guitar for that part of the show.

What about the flying? Bono wants to fly, notably in "Running to Stand Still." How will he hold his guitar? Is it safe? Is it silly? He'll try it tomorrow and decide then. And ringing the phone sex line, another idea to do during the show, in which the person answering would not realise that several thousand others are eavesdropping on the conversation. Practically it is possible, but it seems that a credit card payment needs to be made after connection, which could hold things up interminably, softening the punch in the joke. There would also be the small disadvantage of 8,000 people finding out Bono's credit card number and thus bankrupting him later that night. Deputy production manager Jake Kennedy has an idea -- maybe someone off stage could make the connection and then transfer to Bono live on stage. To be investigated.

Now, what about the Russian cosmonaut? Will he talk and how do we get him at the right time? A friendly expert has turned up with a small crew of boffins eager to pull off what would be an intriguing piece of history, and he reveals that there are only two possible times to call Sergei Krikalyov in any 24-hour period because of the orbit of his vessel, and as one is pre-show, it's settled on attempting to make contact at 9:10 -- when he's available for 10 minutes. The good news is that the expert's computer has already talked in computerese to the cosmonaut's computer and they are getting on famously. But will old Sergei take the call, will the technology work, is the first show the right time to take such a risk? Will the line be engaged? Will his wife be calling in? Will Mr. Yeltsin need a word?

Gradually, the problems are eliminated or at least simplified. Except for one, which everyone ignores for fear of the consequences. Will the Voice hold? Bono is candid about it.

"I can bluff all those things -- harness, phone, astronauts. I can bullshit with the best of them, but I can't bluff on my voice."

He goes back to the hotel early to rest it and, for the second successive night, the rest of the band rehearse without him, Edge taking on lead vocals. Will Edge have to take on lead vocals on the opening night?

Well, of course, you know he won't because, well, you would have heard by now, and anyway, from the front of this article Bono has been centre stage, without so much as a hint of vocal troubles to even the keenest observer. So back to the opening show, where the impossible happens again -- as it does all night long. Yes, the audience makes even more noise. With Adam's bass guitar rumbling sexily into action, shaking the walls of the venue as everyone recognises the opening bars of "Mysterious Ways," Edge turns up the wah-wah and -- is this a first? -- we're all dancing, really dancing, to a real U2 dance number.

"It's great fun to play that one on stage," remarks Edge later on, "because you can move to it."

Now Bono stalks the back of the stage to welcome those seated behind, who have yet to discover that the vidi-walls will soon rotate 180 degrees so that they too will experience Zoo TV in glorious Technicolour.

"You forget that the United States of America is so loud," says Bono, above the devout din. "We've had this satellite dish on all week and we've been playing with it like a toy. We got a message yesterday from a Russian cosmonaut in space. I presume he's not on the phone, is he?"

Bono turns stage left just in case someone from ground control Moscow has any up-to-the-minute news. There is none. No contact tonight. Maybe another time.

"This is for him," says Bono, undaunted. "It's called 'One.' "

And suddenly there are buffaloes, charging with a fearsome grace in slow-motion black and white, across the screen. "One love, you get to share it."

For "The End of the World," the screens disappear silently and the Trabbies lower moodily, comically, down over the performers, bathing the stage in a warm glow. Bono has walked out to the b-stage, a living room-sized raised platform just a short catwalk of 50 metres out into the audience, stage right. Most of the audience within reach have died and gone to heaven. "Wild Horses" is underway (Bono: "We're sticking the new songs on you tonight"), followed by "Arms Around the World," in which the singer, who had momentarily left the stage, reappears in a red sequined dinner jacket, tripping back up the catwalk, followed by Edge.

Suddenly, to everyone's astonishment, we have left behind the Achtung Baby and we are into "Angel of Harlem" with Larry too, emerging from behind the drum kit to wander up the catwalk, followed by Adam, dragging deeply on a cigarette as if he's out for an afternoon stroll in Dublin. Suddenly it's like a small club gig a dozen years ago with four young musicians running through an old blues number and...just a few thousand fans for company.

Another Trabant, the one doubling up as a mirrorball, hovers kindly above the b-stage, and Larry gives it a muscular spin as he heads back to his drum kit, at the same time switching on its underbelly lighting. It rotates mildly in the dark air above Bono as, appropriately enough, he breaks into an unexpected cover of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love." When the spotlights are fired on, the slowly spinning Trabant, refracting the light in a million psychedelic shards on everyone's faces, a huge spontaneous roar of approval and humour -- everyone gets the joke -- breaks from the audience. Manager Paul McGuinness, standing at the sound desk with Joe O'Herlihy, turns to the lighting desk to applaud Willie, hands raised above his head. Willie takes a bow.

It was not like this just two days ago. Thursday, tea time, and Adam is chatting to Regine Moylett, the band's press officer, and Paul Wasserman, veteran American press officer, who has worked with everyone. Wasserman is a little concerned that the press may take Zoo TV to be an elaborate front that the band have erected in order to hide their music behind it. He's obviously met a few journalists in his time and knows how they think. Everyone is hanging around while Bono rehearses some flying in a harness with an expert over the b-stage. When he is done, the band will be able to do a complete run through of the new show.

"We always start an hour after we plan to," muses Adam. "If we get through a set tonight it will be the first complete one."

But he was pleased with the way it went last night and he has a simple explanation. "We get a lot more done without Bono. A lot more. He'd start writing new songs before we've learnt the old ones."

The bass player is intrigued as to what the critics will make of the role of the flying Trabants. It could affect their long-term destination -- modern art museums if they're lucky, Hard Rock Cafes if they're not.

"My own connection with this is that the Cadillac is the traditional rock 'n' roll car and the Trabbie is like the Cadillac of Eastern Europe...well, nearly."

As for the show, he recognises that there is a long way to go in the next 48 hours if it is going to all come together.

"It's 90% there, but Bono has not worked out his guitar parts yet or how he's going to move from the stage to the b-stage. As for the flying -- it could be good, but it might not work."

Then he has to rush off to meet a Russian interpreter: "It's about communicating with our astronaut."

Edge wanders in with a coffee in hand, looking for all the world as if the tour is several months away: "It feels great to me, it feels like it's gonna happen."

Now Larry's drums can be heard hammering out across the auditorium. One band member on stage, three to go. By nine they are all there and the first full run-through of the new show takes place before a largely empty hall. Empty, except for key advisors like Brian Eno, who has just arrived from England to see the tour open and offer some objective artistic advice on the rehearsals, especially the visual element in which he has played a key role.

The trouble with being U2 in 1992 is that there are now too many good songs to play. As the piano chords of "Bad" emerges from the soundcheck of "Satellite of Love," the 8,000 voices, now pretending to be 8 million, go completely, stark-staring bonkers. Unfortunately there follows a brief chorus from "All I Want Is You" and then, in a shockingly theatrical splash of red light and a menacing call from the drums, we are into "Bullet the Blue Sky." Now the vidi-walls are a frightening mess of burning crosses and static interference, while the Trabants are low-slung, mean and sinister, hovering over the stage like the Devil's eyes, as Edge's filthy guitar completes this evil feel.

Next morning, Friday, long before the band arrive, Brian Eno is back in the dining room taking a late breakfast with Willie and Carol Dodds, entitled "Live Video Director" in the tour programme. They are discussing the previous evening's rehearsal and suggesting ways in which the look of the show can be improved.

Eno, credited for the "Video Staging Concept" in the tour book, is largely pleased. His main comment is that in one or two songs where the visuals may not be strong enough, the monitors should simply be turned off. Later in the day he expanded on his thoughts.

"One of the comments I had this morning after seeing last night's rehearsal was that it is important to use this material where it made sense and where it was effective, and not to use it at all otherwise.

"Where it is failing at the moment is when you can't quite see what the band are doing and the video isn't making a strong enough statement of any kind.

"U2 are a great live band," continues Eno. "If we don't have a really strong idea with the video and lights, then my view is don't do anything. That's fine, it's not a failure."

Meanwhile, outside the venue, the fans are arriving in bigger and bigger numbers, many secure with their tickets as Propaganda subscribers. The photographer Annie Leibowitz -- who made her reputation working with Rolling Stone magazine, but these days is more often shooting the cover of Vanity Fair -- has arrived to take snaps for three days. A second aerial has been erected next to the Zoo TV satellite, this one for direct contact with the Russian cosmonaut. Willie pronounces his verdict on last night's rehearsal: "Production one -- band nil."

As the lighting crew go into a "focus," Edge has arrived and is already earning his crust by giving the Dreamchaser film crew a guided tour -- with commentary -- of Zoo TV world, under the stage, on the stage and at the central control station by the lighting desk.

"After we did 'The Fly' video using text," he explains, "we said to Willie, 'Can we design something like a video piano, like an instrument that we could use live and use at our will, to play with, to mess with, so that we can change visuals for any given song on a different night...?'

"We [also] approached Brian because this is a world he has been working in for quite a while. He put a lot of ideas and images together. The next thing you know, we've ended up with our own TV station on the road."

He leads the camera crew across to "ground station" in the centre of the hall, pointing out the huge banks of monitors and television equipment. "This is a mixing desk for visuals. Just like we have one for sound, it's really what you have in a TV studio. We can transmit anything to our satellite and up to anywhere, and we can receive footage, everything from the weather satellite to programmes."

For different songs during the show, the band have commissioned video images for the monitors, work carried out by Eno, Williams and Pellington, the New York artist who worked on the "One" video. One clip, for example, features speeded-up Super-8 footage of the Joshua Tree photo shoot in the American desert.

"We wanted to create a multi-media show," explains Edge. "A new approach to the live situation, which we're having a lot of fun with."

One of the risks with such a miasma of competing sounds and images is that the audience might be left confused. Later, Adam explains that it is something they have thought of.

"They might end up confused, they might end up needing psychiatric help, but it's an experiment, and we won't know whether it has worked until we do the first show on Saturday. It's the element of risk about it that is so appealing to us. That's what makes it exciting."

He predicts that the televisual aspect of the show will become a staple of the way bands go out on the road in the '90s. "You can't ignore new technology, the vidi-wall will become an accepted part of rock and roll touring." But it is not TV just for the sake of technology, as Edge elaborates.

"We're trying to make a contrast with what's on TV, a lot of fun, completely different. It is U2 abusing the technology. And then as if to prove the point he adds, "We've also got these ridiculous antique Trabants which make such great light sources..."

Back at Lakeland on the opening night and Bono is singing "Running to Stand Still" -- with his feet firmly on the ground and no sign of a harness or any flying tricks in sight. One less thing to worry about. Running up and down the catwalk in harness and baseball cap, trying to avoid tripping on the rails of the moving camera, he cuts a bizarre, eccentric figure. As he breaks into singing "Alleluiah" repeatedly as a kind of vocal instrumental break towards the climax of the song, flares go off, and a purple haze of smoke rises all around him as, mouth organ whining, he wanders back to the stage in darkness, only Edge's eerie guitar for comfort. And suddenly, as the vidi-walls take on a warm red glow reminiscent of a scene in a film of just a few years back, we are in a place "Where the Streets Have No Name," and images of the band cavorting eccentrically across the screens in the black and white days of that Joshua Tree photo shoot. It is U2 taking the rise out of what they have become and where they have been, and the audience get the joke as "Pride" arrives with a huge image, first still, then moving -- preaching -- of Martin Luther King, hanging above the stage.

"I love this place, I love to be back in the U.S.," says Bono. "We love you, thanks for having us." Then he and they are gone, and the roof of the concert hall actually rises from its walls, hovering there for several minutes on the crescendo below. There are gold fish swimming in goldfish bowls on the vidi-walls, as if we are in someone's living room in Stoke-on-Thames or Cork. "Just a fish thing," explains the production designer mysteriously, with the confident air of a man having explained everything.

Twenty-seven hours before, on Friday afternoon, the band have turned up on the b-stage and are rehearsing "Angel of Harlem" while Annie Leibowitz takes pictures of them. An MTV crew are hanging around, waiting for a meeting which will never happen. (They don't know this. If they didn't, they wouldn't be waiting.) The rehearsal goes remarkably smoothly, some adjustments to the tuning of Zoo TV give the reception greater clarity. Bono is relaxed and enjoying himself during "Mysterious Ways," when a belly dancer appears on the stage, twirling and bending her way through the song to his complete surprise. He races over and finishes the song, dancing with her. Will she be around again? She isn't to make it to opening night, but, out of the blue, she reappears in Miami to the delight of the crowd.

Later after the rehearsal, with Larry and Adam gone for the night and Edge back on the stage practising, Bono decides he should meet some of the several hundred fans backstage, to the consternation but single-minded obedience of his security team. Chaos ensues, he is surrounded by the adoring mob, signing bits of paper, albums, old Rolling Stones, copies of Propaganda. If it all gets a little out of hand, ending in tears for some, tired after a day's wait, at least they got to see him close up.

For many, it is a chance to ask about the kind of songs the band have chosen to play or why others have been left out. Despite the tiredness, some nights during the band's two-week stay in Florida, the band members stayed talking to fans for an hour and a half.

It's time for an encore at Lakeland Civic Center on February 29th. The crowd aren't going anywhere until the band come back, and so they do, three recognisably at least, followed by an eccentric figure in a silver lam crooning suit straight out of Las Vegas, complete with a full-length mirror in which he kisses his image. "Desire" breaks out in the audience and on the stage, then "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)", followed by "With or Without You," as the sweet Trabbies swing low again, flooding the band with deep white light from somewhere in their back seats. The band leave the stage again, to general delirium.

Saturday morning. Showday. The big day has arrived. The crew check out of their hotel at 12 p.m. and board their various tour buses which will carry them between shows from here on. The band will soundcheck from 2:00 till 4:00. The Pixies, support for the tour, will soundcheck at 4:00. The doors will open at 6:30. The Pixies will perform at 8:00. U2 will switch on Zoo TV at 9:15. After what seems like an age, U2 re-emerge to the opening bars of "Love is Blindness," cue for Bono to reach for someone from the stalls to dance with him. (Strange song to close with? "I like that," says the singer later. "In the cinema they call this the denouement, the come-down.") In no time, the show is over and the come-down has worked -- remarkably, no one is singing "40." Zoo TV goes off air for the night, leaving a satiated audience with its images firmly fixed in their minds. They will be returning at a later date, if only for the audio version.

A couple of hours later, leaving the show in one of three huge, white, stretch limos, Bono tells an eager MTV reporter who wonders if all the fans understood Zoo TV that, "We're into Zoo TV and real U2 fans that have been around will be into it too." Discussion closed.

Well, not quite. Later he takes time to explain for Propaganda readers a little more about the Zoo TV concept. By now the first press reviews have appeared generally good, many actually seeing the joke themselves.

"A new agenda and a new sense of humor," observed the Chicago Tribune. "A sensual, eye-popping, campy and playful show adorned with unexpected European decadence and Vegas trash," said USA Today.

"They may still criticise us," says Bono, "but we're really running into the Nineties, not away from it." Any worries that the press might miss the point and suggest that the band were hiding behind technology, disguising themselves in Zoo TV out of insecurity in their new music, were unfounded. There are, of course, precedents for the press making a wholesale hash of interpreting what U2 are up to. Take their portrayal of the band as humourless and solemn for example, an analysis exploded by the new show if it ever needed exploding.

"It was a perception in the media, not amongst the fans," says Bono. "There's two worlds out there with U2: there's our own people, people into the band who know the songs on the album, and then the critics, many of whom only know one song on any album.

"I think now we are revealing a side of ourselves that was always there but the music didn't really allow us to reveal."

The reason? He writes words that fit the music, and the music the band were making -- for example, at the time of The Joshua Tree -- was not exactly a laugh a minute.

"The music tells you what to do. Music and the lyrics are usually in sync anyway, they just are. I don't know why, and I'm as much an influence on the music as anyone."

He is particularly pleased that the first night's audience got the joke, could see U2 playing tricks with their image, roared at the mirror-Trabant routine in "Satellite of Love," and screamed in delight at the speeded-up archive footage in "Streets."

If it's funny, it is also symbolic -- never more so then when Bono, as Seventies glam-rocker in silver suit, a Vegas-era Elvis, kisses his own image during the encore, telling him "You're beautiful." Just another rock and roll star, nothing more, nothing less.

"It doesn't really need to be said to our audience," he reflects. "Maybe just a few of them. In general people put too much faith in the rich, the famous, the politicians, and not enough faith in themselves."

The show, of course, must go on. In this case, on to Miami, which was always going to be touch and go. What took two weeks of preparation to get right for the opening night in Lakeland has to be repeated in two hours, including an overnight drive across Florida. Since mid-morning the crew have been working away for hours inside the huge 18,000 capacity venue. Some, like carpenter Adam "AJ' Rankin, who couldn't sleep on the drive after load-out in Lakeland, will have had no shuteye from Saturday morning to Monday morning.

Inside the arena scores of people are working flat out until the stage is built, the lighting rises into position, the Trabbies are hung, and the sound, light and video systems are carefully pieced together. Inevitably the day runs seriously late and a quiet air of unexpressed panic becomes apparent. The doors should have opened at 6 p.m. but are not until an hour later. The Pixies have long ago abandoned any ideas of a soundcheck. Lights are still being focused and vidi-walls erected. A massive crowd of people in the plaza outside the main entrance are deluging a solitary merchandising stand.

Setting up a TV station as well as a live show is clearly even more complicated and time-consuming than everyone predicted. Remarkably, after being five hours behind schedule in the afternoon, by show time they are only half an hour late.

"It's a very difficult show to put on," explains Edge. "In some ways almost impossible to set it up and perform in a day, which is what these kind of indoor tours are all about. Anyone taking it on would really need to have their act together." Which these people do, because just half an hour later than advertised, Zoo TV goes on air again and U2 put in another killer live performance.

© Propaganda, 1992. All rights reserved.