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"We're not very religious people, but we are believers. And we believe in God, but we find it very uncomfortable to see what religion has turned God into." — Edge

U Are There

Twenty-two years after U2's historic Red Rocks show, those who made it happen recall what it took
Rocky Mountain News
It was 8 p.m. June 5, 1983, and the biggest show in Denver that night was sold out and kicking off. That sell out was Neil Diamond's pop fest at McNichols Arena, part of his Heartlight tour, with the arena packed with 16,000 fans.

Seventeen miles away at Red Rocks, 4,400 soaked, shivering fans waited through the rain for a 19-song show that would go down as 84 of the most electric minutes in rock history and one of U2's defining moments.

U2 has had many peak moments in Denver -- it's not just our collective imagination. The band got a toehold in America because of the work of promoters Barry Fey and Chuck Morris, writer G. Brown and a variety of others.

The filming of U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky was a career highlight, so we found the people who made it happen (those who are still with us, anyway. The late Peter Peelgrane was the helicopter pilot who helped capture the stunning aerial shots of the fog-shrouded city and Red Rocks).

"It was a mini-Woodstock," Fey says now. "Everything went wrong and it turned out right. Had it been a nice 70- or 80-degree day, it probably would have just been another video. I really mean that - you had to have all those things working against you."

The buildup

Promoter Chuck Morris: "It started long before Red Rocks. (In 1981) we booked them at the Rainbow Music Hall for a $2 concert."

Rainbow manager David McKay: "There was a big business buzz about this band from Ireland called U2. Great bands were popping up all over the place, but there was an especially big buzz about U2."

Writer G. Brown: "There was no radio play. It was the Journey/Styx/arena rock zone. These (radio) guys were scared."

Feyline booker Pam Moore: "They were all superyoung. I think some of them were 16 or 18 years old."

Morris: "They murdered me. They murdered the audience. I actually woke up Frank Barcelona (a legendary booking agent inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year) at 2 o'clock New York time to tell him how great they were. He was so happy I called. He said it was the best wake-up call he ever had, because he really believed in the band."

Brown: "It was all just word of mouth. They could sell out the Rainbow. Some of the bigger acts that were getting radio airplay at the time couldn't sell out the Rainbow. That second one (they played the Rainbow March 28 and May 11 in 1981) is when Chuck took them up to see Red Rocks."

Morris: "The day of the Rainbow show, I took the band to Red Rocks in my Jeep. They'd heard about Red Rocks. I suggested we go up. It may have been the whole band, I can't remember."

Brown: "That's when they went up to the mountains and said 'We're going to play here.'"

Radio programmer Doug Clifton: "There'd been a lot of talk through the industry that Barry Fey was very excited about this band. That helped just within the industry. After seeing the performance, I was completely sold. They delivered everything I was expecting."

Moore: "I had mutual friends of Jonathan King, who was doing a show across America (for the BBC). He wanted to do a segment on Red Rocks and Denver and music in America. Barry was quoted on the BBC show saying, 'Yeah, U2 is going to be the next Who.' The band saw this show -- they just happened to be watching this episode on TV in the U.K. somewhere. That's what really solidified the relationship with Fey Concerts and Barry Fey."

Fey: "(King) was in town and said, 'Have you seen any new bands?' I said, 'I've been through a couple, but the big one is going to be U2.' He put that on the show and they saw that."

Morris: "About a year and a half later, I was going to London for a vacation. It was around the first week of December in '82. I called Paul (McGuinness, the band's manager) and said: 'Hey, I'm in London. I'd love to take the band out for dinner.'

"We flew to Dublin. Paul said, 'Edge wants to take you.' He gives me his home number. So I called The Edge, and his mother, in this thickest Irish accent, said, 'David, there's a gentleman on the phone.'

"The Edge said: 'Yeah, I just got a new car. I'll pick you up.' He pulled up in an old MGB. The top was all ripped -- the first car he ever owned. We went and had a great dinner."

Moore: "I have the deal sheet. I put the deal in. You wouldn't believe how low (the guarantee) was."

Bono: "We'd played in the U.S. three times up till that. It was the first concert where a record was doing quite well, a lot of people got behind us like G. Brown, a few people in radio got to us. It was the first tour we might have made some money."

U2 fan Manus Hand: "I'm a real Irish guy, so as soon as they told me it was an Irish band, I said, 'Yeah, I'll go.'"

The problems at Red Rocks

Brown: "I was much like anyone else in terms of waking up that day and going, 'This can't happen.' It wasn't an 'if.' It was a 'no way' kind of thing. It was just cold, drizzly, nasty, just a cold freakin' way-late spring drizzle and fog."

Hand: "I was living in Laramie. The day of the concert, we had to leave pretty darn early and the weather was like crap, but we weren't gonna miss it."

Bono: "We were going to invest in a film to record our victorious U.S. tour. We put the money into the project, and when we got to Denver the Red Rocks arena was in a cloud, a rainstorm. "

Hand: "We weren't even sure the concert would happen. We'd get out of our cars and walk to the amphitheater, but we'd be too cold so we'd go back and wait more in the car. We had the radio on. We weren't sure whether to leave or stay or what."

Morris: "Barry and I were flying back from the US Festival (a California rock festival) that day. Horrible weather. We were flying back at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and we saw snow in the mountains. It was scary.

Fey: "We're on the plane coming in and all of sudden snow is going sideways outside the window."

Morris: There was definitely talk about moving it indoors. But Paul McGuinness, God bless him, insisted on keeping it there. And he was absolutely right. We're doing it, come hell or high water."

Bono: "We had all the camera people over here. We'd paid all their wages, we'd paid their flights over. We had to go on with the concert. We heard that Barry Fey was coming into town ... very, very cross that this concert couldn't take place at Red Rocks. We had to explain to him there was no way we could afford for it NOT to take place."

Clifton: "It seemed like the weather was perfect for what they needed. It became special effects, provided by Mother Nature."

McKay: "It was a fairly tense night. Everyone was really questioning the decision to stay outdoors. Everybody agreed to it and committed to it, but it still was pretty dicey. When you get tons of electrical equipment out in the weather, there's always concerns.

Morris: "You had till about 1 o'clock to move a show, to move the sound and lights and stuff. If it got too bad, we'd have to stop the show and not have it at all. It looked real scary. It was rain mixed with snow. It had to be 30 degrees up there."

Moore: "People were squeegee-ing the ground to get the water away from the cables."

Fey: "Right now if you ask on the street, you'll find 30,000 people who say they were there."

Brown: "I just remember having to motivate myself. I was going to school in Boulder -- the make-up show was three blocks away -- why drive to Red Rocks? But I was motivated to go because they were going to film it. The amazing thing was that 4,000 to 5,000 kids had the same thought. (The fans) were the stars. All props to the band for delivering the performance of a lifetime, but the kids were the heroes. If it had been 200 people, it just wouldn't have mattered."

Fey: "After we landed, I run to a phone to see where the show has been moved to. I talked to the production manager: 'Where is it? Where's the show?' He starts stalling. He says, 'You'd better talk to Paul.' I say, 'Paul, what's been going on?' I said: 'How could you possibly play? It's in a cloud.' "

Brown: "Fey was the dissenter. He was the one trying to talk them into canceling, the one vocal naysayer. Everyone overrode it."

Fey: "So Bono gets on the phone. He says: 'Barry, we gotta play this. I'll go on the radio right now.' Bono says: 'We're going to play this tonight and we'll come back for all the people who had tickets who didn't go. Or who did go. We'll play Boulder tomorrow night for free.' "

Clifton: "Bono and Edge and Adam got on the phone to the radio stations to let them know. They were posting flash-flood warnings and severe -- weather warnings. They wanted to let people know that if you don't feel comfortable coming out for the show, we'll do a make-good show in Boulder."

Brown: "They had spent a lot of money, and they didn't have a lot of money to spend."

McGuinness: "(Fey) could tell we were unable to finance the film. I remember him coming up to me and saying, 'Do you want a partner?' I said, 'Well, I might.' He said, 'Well, I'm your partner.' I said, 'When should we negotiate this?' He just said: 'You tell me how much I have to put in and then you tell me how much I get. That's the negotiation.' And he was as good as his word. He came up with the money."

Fey: "We put up the money. Whatever they do, you get on the bus. It's nice to be right sometimes."

McGuinness: "(Fey's) reputation as one of the great concert promoters is well deserved. His reputation for being reckless is also very well deserved."

Morris: "They didn't have very much money. Barry put in some money. Larry Melnick, the business affairs guy for Feyline, helped get some investors in it. I was offered a piece, and of course, I took it."

Brown: "That was the sense of community here in Denver. They could come here, the fans would support him, and Chuck and Barry would help make it happen from the production costs."

Fey: "Island Records asked if they could have a piece. That's when it became a three-way partnership. U2 kept a third, Island kept a third, we kept a third."

Brown: "That's the first big video shoot up there, which we take for granted now. From a production standpoint it's hard enough to do a concert up there, much less to light the place, have remote soundtrucks, things of that nature. They'd flown in Steve Lilywhite to handle the sound mix."

Clifton: "When I look at that film, they shot it so you can't tell that there was only about one-third of the audience there."

McGuinness: "I'm happy to say the venture was very profitable. It was the easiest and cleanest film project that we've ever undertaken. And the only one to make money."

Before the show, Bono mingles with fans

Hand: "On one of our trips to the amphitheatre from the car is when Bono came out. He came out and was telling everyone -- there weren't that many of us, maybe 30 or 40 -- but he was extremely polite and wanted to thank us all for coming out and the plan was they were gonna do the show."

Wigler: He was just saying hi, greeting everyone, pouring a cup of coffee. He had a jacket and a hat on and nobody at first was aware of who it was."

Hand: "He said they were going to open it up to general seating -- doesn't matter what your ticket says, they want you up close. We were in the seventh row, right in the center. They had us get as close to the stage as possible to make it look crowded for the video."

The show

Fey's onstage introduction: "Bob Dylan did it. They called it 'Hard Rain' and made a movie. That's what you've got right here. So you'll all be part of history. Thank you, Denver, hold on and God bless you. Ladies and gentlemen! A warm Red Rocks welcome, please! From Dublin, Ireland, U2!! "

Photographer Greg Wigler: "For two songs, they were going to try to hold the crowd back. But as soon as they hit the first note of the first song, the crowd rushed up to the rail and I got pinned there. I had to have a security guard actually pull me out of a crowd. After about 20 minutes I realized I could get hurt here. The security literally lifted me out of the crowd."

Brown: "That stemmed from those Rainbow shows. They knew what they were going to get. They wouldn't have missed it. I don't think they could have pulled that show off anywhere else. They didn't have that kind of fan base."

Fey: "I had Neil Diamond in town that night at McNichols Arena. I was gonna do both shows -- Neil's a friend. I did the opening announcement for U2. I stood there and every number got stronger and stronger. I know that magic is an overused phrase, but if there was ever magic at a show, it was there."

Hand: "Because it was being shot for video, they kept leaving the stage so many times as if it was the end of the concert. After quite a few of these, we realized they wanted to be able when they were editing to decide which song is last. The whole band left like it was the end of the concert maybe 10 times."

Brown: "That was just a kinetic experience to watch the band take the inclement weather and turn it to their advantage, to make it part of the drama of the evening. I still get goose flesh thinking about it."

Wigler: "A number of people I talked to there felt like the Red Rocks show was a religious experience. Nobody was prepared for what the band did. It stunned everybody."

Fey: "I stood by the stage and didn't move. I couldn't move. It didn't even occur to me to go to Neil Diamond. It was the biggest show in town that night, but not as far as importance."

Clifton: "U2 and Bono in particular command your attention. I didn't notice the cameras at all. You were just caught up in the moment - plus the fact it was really cold."

McKay: "You felt like you were in Ireland in the moors. You couldn't have scripted a better set if you were making a movie. You couldn't have done it."

Brown: "The energy was just apparent after two songs. You weren't just gonna see them do American Bandstand -- 'everyone clap for the cameras and we'll see you tomorrow night.' Within the first two or three songs, it was 'Oh my God, these guys are here to kill.'"

Morris: "The weather itself created the most beautiful backdrop. Bono, of course, just took over. He took a bad thing and made it into the most beautiful night I've ever seen."

Brown: "The fans weren't just there to be on camera. They were there to see their favorite band. By the time Bono gets the flag out for Sunday Bloody Sunday, I remember thinking 'That's gonna look pretty good.'"

Bono: "If only eight people turned up, we were still going to play like our lives depended on it. I never could figure out why Barry Fey would try to stop us playing Red Rocks. I was very upset about it, it being our life savings and all that. We spoke to Barry about it afterward. We said, 'Why would you try to stop us from playing?' He said : 'You don't understand. It's raining on my audience.' I realized then that as loyal as Barry Fey is to the bands he promotes, he is even more loyal to the people of Denver. His audience."

Fey: "I don't remember that."

The guys

Brown: "They were kids. That's what's funny. Bono had big hair, just short of A Flock of Seagulls."

McKay: "They were just the nicest guys. Edge was certainly the quietest of them. But Bono was just so outgoing. He seemed genuinely happy at what he was doing and excited about it."

Brown: "Bono was my first encounter with the Irish gift of gab. He wouldn't shut up. It was unbelievable. As a writer you love people to open up and be voluble. The one time in my life it was just like 'Shut up. I've got enough. I've got to go write!'"

Morris: "They're really sweet guys and they really haven't changed. I know that's a cliché, but they haven't."

Fey: "The nicest bunch of guys you could ever want to meet."

Brown: "Good Irish lads."

The aftermath

Morris: "An unbelievably adverse condition turned out to create the most brilliant video and helped break the band."

Wigler: "After the show, backstage the band actually came out to meet with people. I talked with Adam Clayton for quite a while, just music and traveling. He's probably one of the gentlest, most sweet-spirited people I've ever met."

Fey: "After the show, we realized what we'd just seen. We must have sat there for a good two hours after the show. They didn't wanna let it go. It was one of those moment s you wanted to hold on to."

Clifton: "For me, there are only a couple of bands -- U2, probably Springsteen -- that, after a show is over, I find myself drained. That was one of the first times with U2 I felt that way."

Wigler: "A number of us ended up (at a restaurant) talking about it. Everyone was so wired up they couldn't go to sleep."

Brown: "That video got shown in Europe, which had ignored the band to that point. They concentrated on breaking in the s tates. They saw that video, and...the magnitude of the event was so great."

Clifton: "Everyone so much remembers that concert, but when you ask Bono about that show, it's like...'We do so many shows.' It didn't stand out for them nearly as much as it did for the people who saw the show. And they've never gone back."

The next night

Fey: "Boulder? Nothing remarkable. You can't duplicate it. It was a fine show, but..."

Wigler: "In Boulder there was a kid in a wheelchair. Bono locked onto the kid and for the next 20 or 30 minutes he sat on the picnic table and talked to that kid. Anytime anybody tried to approach them, Bono would just put up his hand and stop them. My respect for them went way up at that point."

© Rocky Mountain News, 2005.