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"I'm famous because I know Bono. That's pretty much it." — Adam

U2 Anew

With Achtung Baby and their Zoo TV tour, U2 have found a way to be the biggest band in the world...
Details magazine
With Achtung Baby and their Zoo TV tour, U2 have found a way to be the biggest band in the world and still have fun. Sean O'Hagan joins the party in L.A., London, and Berlin

Bono plants a wet kiss on my cheek. "Welcome to Madness Central," he says. "The key is to play it strictly for laughs." Before I can respond, he's gone, a passing blur in black leather, Cuban heels and wraparound shades. Large men with crackling walkie-talkies shadow him to U2's limo waiting outside of the Sunset Marquis. A collective beseeching cry erupts from the faithful Los Angelenos congregating on the opposite sidewalk, some of whom will keep vigil on this very spot for the next three days. Welcome to Madness Central indeed.

Despite their reputation or, perhaps, because of it, U2 have been trying to play it for laughs since the release of their seventh LP, Achtung Baby, almost a year ago. Bono in particular has enjoyed taking the low-brow road. Way back in March I met the group in a Russian restaurant in West London. The interview hadn't even begun, drinks had only just been ordered, a waitress had been hovering with a wine list, and suddenly we all noticed something very peculiar: Bono is taking all his clothes off. The white shirt went first, then his black suede boots, his socks, trousers, and briefs (black with white trim, possibly Calvin Klein, probably Marks & Spencer). "That's better," he sighed blissfully. "Now ask me a serious question -- if you dare."

Excuse me, but why have you taken your clothes off, Bono?

"For the same reason," interjected the Edge, U2's guitarist, answering on Bono's behalf, "that he's the lead singer. Because he's a rampant sex god with a huge ego."

"And a small willy," added bassist Adam Clayton, who was photographed nude for the cover of Achtung Baby (which was amended with an appropriately placed x for the album's American release).

Bono said nothing. No explanation was offered beyond a manic, mischievous grin which for the duration of the dinner and interview, was the only thing Bono wore.

"I did it," he confessed later, "to try and snip in the bud any possibility of another serious, in-depth U2 inquisition." It worked. The ensuing interview, oiled by copious amounts of ice-cold Russian vodka, was a raucous, but only fleetingly revealing, interlude.

That interview was a neat counterpoint to an altogether more intense one-on-one encounter I'd conducted with Bono in a Berlin hotel suite the previous week. Then, looking drained but happy, he'd confessed that Achtung Baby had endured a painful birth, having been recorded in an atmosphere marked by "an above-average degree of creative conflict."

The two extreme encounters suggest that at the time, U2, and Bono in particular, were understandably preoccupied with, and still uncertain about, their imminent Zoo TV world tour. If Achtung Baby was a fraught, but ultimately invigorating, creative re-invention, Zoo TV was to be the frontline offensive in U2's deconstruction of their own myth. A studio album was one thing, a high-tech arena tour with two million dollars' worth of state-of-the-art video and computer hardware was something else entirely. Especially when you're the world's biggest rock band unveiling a new sound, a new attitude, and a new live concept.

Before Zoo TV, U2 were a rock group that went onstage and performed. Period. After Zoo TV, U2 will never be the same again. "We had to get through to the MTV generation," Adam explains. "From here on in, U2 is an audio-visual idea."

I am summoned to Los Angeles to witness two Zoo TV shows at the Sports Arena and a third in San Diego. For the best part of the week, the Sunset Marquis becomes a magnet for the heaviest of Los Angeles' music-industry heavyweights and a flock of celebrity hipsters. Each morning, cellular phones and laptops clutter poolside breakfast tables as deals go down amid croissants, coffees, and wafts of acrid cigar smoke. By midday, more familiar faces start emerging. Sean Penn and Robin Wright are a regular fixture at the corner table furthest from the pool. Likewise, director Phil Joanou, the man behind State of Grace, Final Analysis, and U2's Rattle and Hum concert film.

Throughout the daylight hours, the band themselves keep a pretty low profile. Bono, in particular, looks pale and tired; he's been nursing a nasty flu virus that has been dogging him since day one of the tour. An autumn U.S. stadium tour has been planned, and the rest of the group's still-evolving tour schedule already stretches ahead well into 1993. "I wasn't looking forward to going on the road at all," the Edge confesses, "but I'm having a bloody good time. It's the other way round for Bono. He was itching to get on tour but now he'd feeling a bit the worse for wear. I'm just glad we've got this far. I think we've finally made it out to the other side."

The last two years have been a crucial time for U2, a time of deep reflection followed by metamorphosis. The Joshua Tree (1987) and Rattle and Hum (1988) are now viewed by the group as the final parts of U2's first stage of development. The Joshua Tree lifted them into megastardom, Rattle and Hum saw them attempting to fit into a rock 'n' roll lineage that stretched back to Elvis in Memphis -- they recorded some of the album's more primal songs in Sun Studios. "One of the hardest things about being in U2," Bono had mused back in London, "was not belonging to a tradition. In the past, we've gone looking for a tradition to fit into. I mean, we feel close to soul because of the spirituality and the sense of abandon; we feel close to rock 'n' roll because it can confront an issue head-on'; we even feel an empahty with folk music because it deals with timeless ideals, not juvenilia. But ultimately, the U2 reference points have never made sense. Now, we don't try to fit anymore. We don't even consider ourselves to be a rock 'n' roll band at all."

Nevertheless, U2 had become, for better or worse, the quintessential big rock band of the '80s. Alone among their early peers -- Big Country, the Waterboys, Simple Minds -- they turned the idea of Big Music into reality. Their elemental imagery, all desert skies and dark biblical resonances, reverberated through a chiming, almost architectural sound built on the spiraling guitar signatures of the Edge. Since the release of their 1980 debut, Boy, U2 have sold more than fifty million records worldwide. Nearly half of those sales have been in America. But, somewhere between the Joshua Tree tour and the Rattle and Hum film, doubt began tapping on their shoulders.

"The bigness of U2 had become a distraction," drummer Larry Mullen told me in Berlin. "It put us in a position where we really didn't have to do anything anymore. We were that successful. We could have either split up or poured all of our confusion into a different kind of music. Achtung Baby is the sound of a band fighting for its musical life." The normally reticent Adam Clayton seconded that emotion: "It was a bloody difficult album but a lot less difficult than the alternative. If we hadn't done something we were excited about and apprehensive about and challenged about, there would have been no real reason to carry one. We were at a watershed. If it hadn't been a great record by our standards, the life of the band would have been threatened."

From the start, the rumors and omens surrounding the as-yet-unreleased "difficult" U2 album didn't bode well. The word was that Achtung was a very difficult baby indeed, and that the band was even attempting to make a U2 dance album in Berlin. During the prerecording, disaster struck. Master tapes recorded in Hansa studios were stolen and a bootleg of these works-in-progress surfaced across Europe. It was comprised of various album-track demos and songs that may never see the light of day in any other form. At the time, Bono dismissed the bootleg as "gobbledygook," but now, in California, the Edge makes no bones about his lasting discomfort: "It was like being violated. People are listening to very private things, stolen things. Most of it is just mumbo-jumbo crap, but it's made significant by becoming a U2 artifact. Even U2 goofing around becomes an artifact!"

"We've always had this idea that what was special about U2 was the spirit, that you could tear away at the flesh of the group but the spirit would remain intact," elaborates Bono, warming to the subject of both the bootleg and the official LP. "With Achtung Baby, we wanted to see just how far we could go in defacing the idea of U2 that had grown around us and was perceived as the truth. Basically, the first single, 'The Fly,' was the sound of four guys chopping down the Joshua Tree."

Were the recording sessions as pressured as the rumors suggested? "I don't want to get into this too much," Bono recalls, "but there was a Greek chorus of people around the records all saying 'You can't do this.' Or, 'Why don't you write a song like that?' Or, 'What has rhythm got to do with U2 anyway?' It wasn't a big deal, but it was there. From people producing the record, from people in the band at times. I mean, there was no map and we were running with the new idea. I'm actually surprised it's done so well. To be honest, we were prepared for it not to do so well."

U2 began recording Achtung Baby in the wake of the Edge's break-up with his wife Aislinn. "You go through stuff with people," Bono explains, "and that must have been part of it. It's a dark album, but it's also funny. A big part of the record is acknowledging that it's healthy to be afraid of what you're attracted to. At one stage, we were going to call it Fear of Woman, y'know? But we wondered, would people get it?"

According to Bono, Achtung Baby is "a landscape of the heart: twelve version of one song, twelve takes on an obsession." His songwriting style has changed beyond recognition since the days when "anthem" was the word most often used to describe a U2 song. "I still love the Big Music," he says unapologetically. "The John Lennon idea of songs as placards still has a place in all this, but I did go through a bad period, looking back at songs I'd written that weren't really songs at all, just...spew! 'Bad' just spewed out of me and had one quick rewrite, but it's a great song that we still perform. Now, 'Elvis Presley and America,' from The Unforgettable Fire -- that's extreme spew. The outer limits of spew! The band still hassles me to write too quickly, but I'm thirty-one years old now. I have my pride. I just tell them to fuck off till I've finished." He smiles. "Simple, really."

He is, he claims, more satisfied with the songs on Achtung Baby than with any he has ever written. "The album is quite literally a journey into the unknown. I'd like to say that was by design but in fact it's by accident. In a way, the album starts with birth and ends with conception. That's the truth -- I wish I was joking."

But even after the album's release and unanimous critical acclaim (including rave reviews from the usually U2-hostile British music press), there were hassles. The third Achtung Baby single, "One," which was timed to coincide with the first round of American area shows, eventually became the subject of three separate video shoots by Anton Corbijn, Mark Pellington, and Phil Joanou. Corbijn's original, and superior, video featuring the band in full drag in an old Berlin brothel was pulled at the eleventh hour. It was deemed unsuitable for use with a single whose royalties were going to be donated to AIDS charities. At the time, Adam Clayton waxed philosophical about the mistake. "Aesthetically, I love the video. The problem is that the whole AIDS-awareness campaign is having difficulty getting across the everyday risk to everyone. So for use to make a statement on AIDS while dressed up in drag was narrowing down the perception of the disease as just a gay or cross-dressing thing. We realized that the video could have been perceived as very negative imagery." Since then, however, the Corbijn video has been put in regular rotation on MTV along with the other two.

The Zoo TV tour has also stirred up its share of controversy. The frenetic use of random and prerecorded video imagery matches the cut and thrust of the new U2 songs perfectly, producing, the Edge says, "a show undercut by irony." The price you pay for irony, of course, is the high risk of being misunderstood. In Atlanta, one journalist wrote a story suggesting that among Zoo TV's semisubliminal Jenny Holzer-type video slogans there lurked the message "BOMB JAPAN NOW." The band subsequently issued a statement to the contrary, patiently explaining that the words "bomb," "Japan," and "now" were indeed included in the bombardment of text but interspersed randomly. According to the Edge, an altogether more subtle autosuggestion lurks beneath the information overload.

"If there is a subtext, it's us making a comparison between information and truth. And how, maybe, the two aren't in sync at all," he muses. "But it's all unsaid, implicit. I feel a lot more comfortable with that approach, given that we've constantly been accused in the past of overstatement."

At the first L.A. show, the backstage hospitality suite customized with a fake Zoo TV satellite dish, massive video walls showing archive footage of exotic '50s belly dancers, Zoo TV dinners (self-service Mexican beans nestled inside a hollowed out television). In this film-set ambiance, Hollywood's finest have come out to play. I take in the scene: Sean Penn chews the fat with Dennis Hopper who, even in this dimly lit inner sanctum, never once takes his shades off. Robert De Niro is here, sporting a serious crew cut; Julia Roberts and Jason Patric chat with the Edge. There's Timothy Leary, looking slightly ridiculous in a customized denim waistcoat with illuminations stenciled on the back, and Billy Idol, reminiscing about dear old Blighty with Ringo Starr. And Springsteen and Perry Farrell. And Terence Trent D'Arby and L.L. Cool J. And Axl Rose. Axl, it seems, is a big U2 convert. He has turned up at various points along the tour; he has also sent champagne backstage and thinks "One" is just about the best rock song in years. Axl connects with the new U2. I'm not sure if this is deeply meaningful or deeply disturbing. I ask the Edge.

"I personally don't trust press profiles of people, so it's not big surprise to find out how different the guy we met was from The Demon With the Notorious Reputation. I was surprised that he liked the album and the show so much, though."

And what about the high celebrity turnout? "It's meaningless. I mean, we do happen to have a lot of real celebrity fans - Julia and Jason are very into what we're doing." (The Edge, incidentally, loaned Julia his country house in Ireland when she fled from the media attention that followed her split with Keifer Sutherland.) "Same with Sean, who is simply a real cool guy. For a lot of people, though, it's just the thing to be seen at this week, y'know? Most of them looked like they'd just walked into a nightclub -- that sense of everyone protecting their personal space, the whole standoffishness of it all. It may be coincidence, but the people whose work you respect tend to be dead cool. Jack Nicholson, for instance. There are others who are so freaked out by their own celebrity that it's sad. Rock 'n' roll paranoia times one hundred."

The two Los Angeles shows are among the best of the tour. The performance is structured to fracture the normal relationship between band and audience, the nonstop overload of sound and video images is undercut by the relative intimacy of the venues and a long stage ramp that stretches well into the crowd. At the end of that ramp, in the middle of the arena floor, a second, smaller stage allows the group to assemble for an unplugged interlude that features a stunning cover version of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love."

Back by the mixing desk, the sound and lighting crew are joined by a video team the controls tonight's broadcast. What the audience experiences, alongside a regular rock 'n' roll performance, is a futuristic and intensely personalized TV transmission from the planet Zoo. Outside every venue, a satellite dish scans the heavens, beaming back literally hundreds of random images onto the thirty-two screens that compose each of the four huge video walls. As a semiserious Adam Clayton gleefully puts it, "It's a total audience assault. You certainly wouldn't want to be doing the wrong drugs out there."

Throughout the tour, the state-of-the-art video hardware has been used to create some fine moments of improvised surrealism. In Boston, the satellite dish picked up a Saint Patrick's Day greeting someone had beamed into space and relayed it back to the ecstatic crowd. In Detroit, Bono flicked through the local cable channels until a commercial for a local pizza parlor caught his eye: hundreds of pizzas were duly ordered, delivered, and handed out to the crowd at the end of the show. In Los Angeles, halfway through the second show, Bono goes for the big one. He interrupts the concert to place a telephone call to the White House. Bono demands to "speak to George," In a hick American accent. He is duly information by an unruffled White House secretary that "Mr. Bush is unavailable at the moment."

Stranger still is the trashy cover version inserted after their regular, fairly reverent reading of "Satellite of Love." The evening before, I'd sat backstage with two of the women from the huge U2 management team. From our collective memory banks we dredged up the lyrics to Abba's "Dancing Queen." Tonight, the band unveil their version during the midshow acoustic interval, camping it up to the max. However silly it may seem, it is also a slice of post-modern pop par excellence, as serious and throwaway as anything since those far-off glam-trash days of Ziggy Stardust, or, deeper still, The Mothership Connection.

"Bowie and T. Rex and Roxy Music were all formative influence," Bono had told me during the Berlin video shoot earlier in the year. "And when you're reevaluating things, you tend to go back to scratch. See, 'authentic' is a word that's often applied to rock 'n' roll, and 'authentic' is a word I don't give a fuck about. What's authentic? Soul is much more than just authentic. If you ask me, Kraftwerk were one of the modern soul statements. That's more where I'm coming from at the moment."

This may seem strange coming from a group who, for most of the '80s at least, were regarded as one of the last cornerstones of rock authenticity. Indeed, for a long time U2 carried the torch for passion and idealism when all around them most British groups were insisting on irony as an end in itself. "For quite a while, we sort of defined ourselves in contrast to all that," the Edge explains. "All those early '80s British groups who only had irony, who hid behind a wink. That whole ting of clever-clever lyrics at the expense of soul. I've always preferred Van Morrison or Bob Marley, to be quite honest. But in retrospect, I think we followed that idea through to the end, and now it's time for a new attitude. I guess the big difference is now we've discovered that irony is not necessarily the enemy of the soul."

After the second L.A. show, the entire U2 entourage attends a show-biz party high up in the hills, drinking and dancing in the unlikely company of the now ubiquitous Axl Rose (and his ever-present giant of a minder), Bruce and Patti, a seriously dapper Terence Trent D'Arby (in frock coat and silver-topped cane), and sundry illustrious movers and shakes (and god-awful dancers) from the Bel Air business set. The following night, too, everyone sits around till dawn, then finishes up with breakfast at a local diner. When I stroll back to the hotel, I find Bono sitting across the road chatting to faithful fans who, apart from the duration of the two shows, had been waiting patiently across the street from the hotel.

The journey from Los Angeles to San Diego takes over four hours instead of the normal two, the freeway choked with traffic most of the way. Inside the band's coach -- the private Zoo TV jet remained grounded for this short hop -- things are unusually subdued. Bono is speaking in whispers to protect a nagging sore throat, the ever-present shades protecting his tired, dark-lined eyes. When we eventually arrive at the San Diego Sports Arena, there are maybe a thousand U2 fans congregated around the backstage driveway. Bon leaves the coach, sore throat momentarily forgotten, to greet them. Inside, things are running slightly late. By the time U2 finally take the stage, the audience is buzzing, of the edge. Madness Central.

Early in the set, Bono abruptly fractures the momentum, derailing the group halfway through "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?" by attempting an ultimately unsuccessful solo acoustic version of the song. Almost immediately, the band pull themselves out of cruising mode and into an altogether edgier place, rescuing a potentially average show. "We were dog-tired and needed a jolt like that to kick-start things," the Edge smiles ruefully, safely ensconced back on the bus. Bono, meanwhile, looks shattered and only emerges from the rear of the coach toward the end of the journey.

I sit and talk with the Edge about the strange energy of the night's performance. "It's funny, but even within the space of one song, you can feel the audience come and go. The only thing to do is kick into a heavier gear and go for it. Some of our best gigs have been ones that start off badly and then become manic and unpredictable. Heavy but cool is the key."

It could be the motto. U2 have finally learned how to be serious and hand loose. "We've learned a lot very late in the game," the Edge grins. "Technical stuff like song structure, even the basics of songwriting. But ultimately, all the technical stuff doesn't really diminish the huge emotional investment we need to continue. The essence of what we do has always been, and probably always will be, very daunting. It's always in the back of your mind that one day you might just draw a blank."

It's the theme that Adam Clayton touched on earlier in the week when he had mentioned "the real jeopardy involved in making each U2 album." I'd countered by asking him what he would do if U2 ceased to exist. "I really don't know what else I'd do, or could do. The band is the oldest relationship any of us has ever had with anyone other than our parents."

The last word, as ever goes to Bono: "All that shit about being the biggest, the best, the loudest is all meaningless. The biggest turnon about having shitloads of money is the ability to do what you like; you can afford independence that a lot of so-called indie bands can't. It's a question of making the leap and not believing in the hype that rock 'n' roll has become. It would be such a total cliche to roll over at this time. After the first ten years, the rock clich is to break up or repeat yourself ad nauseum. We've managed to avoid that, and we're nowhere near used up. In fact, we're only just getting into it."

© Details, 1992. All rights reserved.