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I guess I did my grieving for my father, keening, in front of 20,000 people singing U2 songs. They really carried me, those songs and my three mates.-- Bono, 2002

See Me, Feel Me

The Observer
For more than 25 years, U2 have pushed the boundaries of live performance in spectacular fashion. In an exclusive extract from the first authorised account of the band's touring history, Michael Bracewell explores the tensions between music, theatre and technology that produce such memorable and emotional shows.

1979, at the Dandelion Market beside Dublin's Gaiety Green flea market, an up-and-coming local band called U2 played an outdoor concert to a largely teenage audiencewho were unable to see them when they played at the neighbouring, licensed, McGonagle's club. And in this little scrap of history, perhaps, can be found the beginnings of U2's founding attitude towards live performance.

First, U2 are a band who pursue a particular, visceral intimacy with their audience. (Hence, you imagine, Bono's admiration for the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Morrissey.) Even 15 years after their Dandelion Market gig, when the group were touring the epic, multimedia presentations of Zoo TV to some of the biggest venues in the world, their entire performance would be geared towards creating a one-to-one bond with every individual in the audience. They don't want anyone excluded.

Second, they are a group for whom performance is always in some way political -- no matter to what extent they package those politics in extravagant display. So back in 1979, by playing the outdoor shows especially for their younger fans, U2 were also making a statement about access and exclusivity: that inherent in pop and rock, as the writer Dave Marsh has stated, is the drive to give a voice and a face to the dispossessed.

Third, U2 have pioneered live music as a spectacle. And within the spectacle of a U2 show is an accumulation of technical, aesthetic and theatrical devices, the combination of which might be seen as part ritual and part rally: a sensory bombardment of sound and image not only to heighten the drama and the meaning of the music, but also to enfold the audience within its world -- to appeal to both head and heart; to thrill, but encourage the questioning of why we are thrilled. And again, back in 1979, near a flea market in Dublin, what better way of prompting all these notions than by playing raw, punk-based rock -- as U2 were known for then -- not just in a smoke-filled club but right out there on the street?

When U2 emerged off the back of the British punk rock scene, they were part of a generation of groups who made confrontational and lyrically smart music. This was a generation which might be said to include, from Ireland, both Stiff Little Fingers and the Undertones. Raw-throated and guitar-driven, yet seeming to stem from a much older sensibility of Irish folk music, these were groups for whom songwriting was steeped in both the traditions of romance and the political conscience of social realism. While SLF were the more musically aggressive and the Undertones delivered a gorgeously contorted interpretation of the classic pop love song, it was U2 who seemed to possess an almost unlimited potential to work on a global scale within the medium of rock music.

In the late 1970s, the live music scene which had been created by punk was a complex network of clubs and halls -- many of which were little more than shabby local discos, handed over for the night to what the management would bill as "new wave" groups. Bands like Prag Vec, Reluctant Stereotypes or Clock DVA appeared to be on an endless tour of such venues; but for U2, one particular night, supported by the Blades at a club called the Baggot Inn, in Dublin, their performance caught the eye of a Sounds journalist who noted Bono's compelling style: "You follow Bono with your eyes as he counts on his fingers or runs across the stage or spontaneously mimes something that is impenetrable but opposite to the moody, fat rolling sound..." This was astute, for as U2 progressed from their punk beginnings to a broader, more monolithic concept of music, there would remain at the centre the vital tension between Bono's inherent theatricality and the urgent, galloping tempo of the music. In many ways, you could say that Bono's range and intensity as a performer is more than partially enabled by the sheer physicality of U2's brand of rock. For there is a particular dandyism to Bono's performance, the disquieting style of which would be perfectly framed by the astonishing, rococo postmodernism of their later multimedia shows -- Zoo TV and PopMart -- designed by Willie Williams.

On an evolutionary scale, the shows designed by Williams might be said to represent a highly developed form of rock theatre, calling on inspiration and influence from a range of media from fine art to advertising by way of cinema and opera. Previously, the big rock spectacular had been known more for its bombastic attempts at heroism than for any particular sense of finesse and self-awareness. But there had been honourable exceptions, which might be considered interesting precursors to U2's reinvention of the format.

While progressive rock music had foregrounded virtuosity, concept and structure -- for example, the live presentation of Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes, as a pseudo-classical piece in four distinct movements -- there was also an attendant exploration of both technological innovation and a kind of generative improvisation.

Pink Floyd, as early as the late 1960s, would showcase tracks such as "Interstellar Overdrive" as epic excursions into audiovisual theatre; and Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows with the Velvet Underground were volatile fusions of light show, music, projection and film -- "It's, uh, going to be very glamorous," as Warhol pronounced in a shy mumble.

Miming the interior world of a drug-induced trip, such shows were concerned with a disarrangement of the senses -- re-routing perceptions into new circuitry, the shifts in which would, presumably, be further unbalanced by drug use. There was a sense of ritual and ceremony in freak-outs such as 1967's 24-Hour Technicolour Dream, at north London's Alexandra Palace, which might be described as either a secular form of communion or a social form of theatre: audience participation was total, declaring unity with an entire culture of beliefs.

In the early 1970s, however, shows by Peter Gabriel's Genesis, Pink Floyd themselves and David Bowie would present a new, more structured interpretation of the genre. Genesis mined a peculiarly intense form of English fable, with Gabriel himself playing a range of startling characters on stage -- a Green Man of folklore, with foliage extrud ing from his head, or dressed in a woman's scarlet evening gown and wearing a fox-head mask. The rest of the group would make use of such intensely visual devices as dressing in white under ultra-violet lights -- the more to enhance Gabriel's extraordinary role as a performing vocalist.

Such concerts were dismissed from fashionability by punk's initial dependence on low-budget (or no-budget) DIY performances, but left a valid artistic and technological legacy which would be reclaimed by Talking Heads and the Pet Shop Boys as a valid contemporary art form. Importantly, the new generation of groups to work with the notion of live performances as spectacle -- at the forefront of which are U2 -- would become increasingly interested in making statements about popular culture itself.

In the late 1980s, U2 achieved global status through emotionally powerful, anthemic music. Songs such as "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" could unite huge audiences. As tracks they were heroic and monolithic; they articulated attitudes of defiance and prayer in a way which the mainstream of popular culture absorbed with ease. Moreover, U2's presentation of these songs would be raw and comparatively stripped down. They were concerned with an intense visual imagery -- from their choice of album and single sleeve images through the entire presentation of the group and their music.

A principal benefit of rock superstardom is that it grants you the financial leverage to maintain the full artistic control of your creativity. And as their audience continued, globally, to grow, so U2 advanced their revolutionary exploration of the possibilities of live music. This idea of turning live rock music into a new kind of spectacle can be seen in U2 shows such as Zoo TV (1993) and PopMart (1997). Even now, they are rather like watching a musical based on Marshall McLuhan's essays on the pleasures and perils of mass media. And yet they work first and foremost as pure entertainment. For rather than allowing their colossal scale to impose on the musicians, the very stage sets and their various electronic conceits become tools for the group to work with. In this manner, Willie Williams and the group create a live show which is in tune with U2's performance: the presentation of the music becomes a political commentary upon the music. And it is to this tension that Bono adds the further inflection of his own dramatic performance.

Bono has always played with the notion of character: he comes across as the cowboy or the devil or the boxing champ -- and all of these characters might be said to be comments on his role as an artist and a vocalist. It is a game with identity which has appealed to artists as different in style as Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Gavin Turk. It seems to replicate a comment by Marcel Proust, where he writes of "the many gentlemen of whom I am comprised." And Bono, through the medium of U2, can not only play the roles of those different gentlemen, but frame the performances within the most spectacular and self-analytical of settings.

As punk had laid waste to the idea of the big, spectacular rock show having any relevance to the modern world, so U2 would reinvent the genre as a richly ironic, politicised statement about the way we live now. Loosely, Zoo TV and PopMart could be said to articulate statements about the postmodern world -- describing that world back to itself as a perilous pleasuredome of seemingly infinite images and information, the accelerated accumulation of which might seem to threaten our perceptions, free will and fundamental human feelings. In this much, the U2 show is about acting out a passion play of good versus evil in a very blatant way. Why else might Bono, during Zoo TV, achieve such a bravura performance as the devil -- played, incidentally, not as a swaggeringly Satanic Mick Jagger, sinewy in black, but rather as a sentimental old impresario, virtually exhausted by the suffering he has given to the world.

Zoo TV started as an indoor arena tour in America and Europe, between February and June 1992. Willie then brought in the set design team of Mark Fisher and Jonathan Park to help him realise the big outdoor version, called Zoo TV Outside Broadcast in North America, which came to Europe as Zooropa, and subsequently went on to Australasia and Japan. The idea that the whole Zoo TV concept could be open to ongoing adjustment was central to its vision, and part of the agility of Zoo TV's concept lies in the production's awareness of itself, and the honed acuity of its dialogue with the audience. The various legs of the tour would alter the content -- with the Outside Broadcast leg opening with a manipulated clip of George Bush Senior talking about the bombing of Baghdad, and the indoor leg opening with the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

From the audience's point of view, the experience was all-engulfing, with each version appropriating a different mix of glamour, desire or politics. This was never less than radical for a stadium and arena rock concert medium. In one version, we are confronted with the monolithic structure of the stage: scaffolding and lights, banks of video walls, layers of amplifiers. Beneath this massed technology, the musicians' instruments and playing area appear tiny. Already, the production seems to be making a statement about the totalitarian status of the rock superstar: that here is a show of power by the music industry, every bit as calculated to impress and dazzle as any political rally.

As if on cue, the visual monitors snap into life and our first contact with the temper of all this technology is the image of a stern and defiant youth, drumming out a call to arms. While no emblems are in sight, this is clearly a Hitler youth -- made as inspiring and heroic as only the meticulously honed glamour of Nazi propaganda could achieve. And in this context, as the overture to a wildly anticipated show by one of the biggest groups in the world, there is a much broader point being made about the seductions of fascism. Presented with enough fanfare and pomp (the technology seems to be asking) will we allow ourselves to follow any party?

Just a few minutes into the spectacle, the capacity audience is being enfolded in a mixture of emotions. And again, right on cue, the questions begin to flash across the mon itors: What Do You Want? Here the visual reference seems to be to Barbara Kruger, the American artist whose work often takes the form of questions and statements and is largely concerned with issues of power and authority. As though to answer the question for us, the monitors begin to broadcast a dizzying bombardment of imagery -- notions of pleasure and satisfaction, excitement, desire and glamour. The effect is as though Stalin had run the world's biggest advertising agency (which, in effect, he did) and as such this entire audio-visual introduction becomes a political statement about the desire systems and vulnerability of the consumer in an age of rampant cultural materialism. It is almost asking of the audience, are you sure you want to support the economic system which is making even this concert -- your pleasure -- so desirable?

And this is a fairly loaded question for a group to ask of their audience. But Zoo TV, as a U2 show, maintains its questioning of perceptions and desires in the technological age. When Bono channel surfs television stations between two songs he is making the radical act of reducing the supposedly heightened atmosphere of a rock show to nothing more than seeing what's on TV -- an act which might remind you of the time when the avant-garde group Can would include in their stage sets an area for members of the band to stop playing and just watch TV or read a newspaper: at what point does banality become a part of spectacle? Acting out the role of the Satanic god of television, Bono comes across as part pantomime villain, and part messianic rock star. You feel that somewhere within his performance is an act of self-portraiture -- not least as he teasingly suggests to the audience that they may one day be as wealthy and as glamorous as him.

As filmed by David Mallet, U2's entrance to the PopMart concert -- scored to the gorgeous "Pop Music" by oddball electro-pop group M -- is a further ambiguous questioning of the status and power of the rock star. Flanked by dinner-suited, headset-wearing minders (who have become to the celebrity culture of the 21st century what the Swiss Guard were to the founding of the Vatican City), U2 are ushered along the front of the crowd in the vast Mexico City arena as though they were the super-heroic stars of a Worldwide Wrestling Federation contest.

Throughout this procession, Bono mimes the part of the shadow boxing champ. Dressed in a hooded gown, he makes his way to the main stage and its elevated catwalk. The stage itself resembles some mutated Japanese monster mall: its single golden arch appears to be making ironic reference to the globalised identity of McDonald's, while the rotating pop logo might well be the encoded insignia on a credit card. Elsewhere in the show, the backdrop projections featured the work of the veteran pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, whose renditions of comic-book explosions, lovers and cops became iconic pieces of American art.

But U2 have never lost sight of their origins as a raw-throated rock band. The extraordinary productions of their live performances are always, first and foremost, intended to heighten the experience of that music. With this in mind, the group's Elevation tour of 2001 might be seen as a kind of chamber piece in comparison to the grand opera of Zoo TV and PopMart. The Elevation concerts returned U2 to a more direct, unmediated relationship with their audience -- foregrounding the stripped down aesthetics of rock and roll, rather than using the potential of the rock concert as a means of broader theatre.

Elevation possessed the effective device of a heart-shaped stage, painted red, at the front of the crowd, within which the group could perform. The punning was simple and charming: U2 were playing from the heart. Backed by four video screens and utilising washes of coloured light, the visual impact was both incisive and intimate -- calling to mind, perhaps, the video installations of artists such as Bruce Nauman, Douglas Gordon and Bill Viola. And as U2's live performances had always touched on a secular notion of ritual or ceremony, their listing of the names of those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- notably when the group played the U.S. Superbowl half-time show in February 2002, to one of the biggest American TV audiences ever recorded -- was austere and intentionally "unstaged." In this it resembled the memorial to the war dead of Vietnam at Washington, in which the names of the dead are simply carved on reflective black stone.

As long ago as 1976, the critic and novelist Tom Wolfe was suggesting that the artisan workers in the pop cultural industries -- retail design, advertising, graphics, and commercial film making -- were perhaps more sophisticated as contemporary communicators than many of the fine artists who so often sourced ideas and images from their work. This was, and remains, a radical but plausible suggestion. Today there is a sense in which the design and production of a U2 show is better able to express the speed and strangeness of the modern world than the work of many contemporary visual artists. Indeed, the visual impact of Zoo TV, far from becoming a period piece of pop fashionability, now seems a prophetic vision of a world and a mass media increasingly obsessed with reality TV. Similarly, you could argue that the lighting designs for U2 shows are in fact more successful, as art, than the ponderous works by many contemporary video artists.

There is an argument that says we now live in a world of too much culture. Under such conditions, the awkwardness and jagged edges so necessary to genuine cultural progress become blunted and dull. And the confrontation of such excess, perhaps, is the ultimate message from the visual spectacle of U2's live performances: that in a world where rebellion itself is so often commodified by multinational corporations and communications networks, then the organic power of popular culture must derive from a conversation which anybody can join in with, as a democracy without frontiers and an art form free of the gallery.

U2 Show by Diana Scrimgeour is published by Orion on 14 October at 25.

U2's forthcoming studio album will be reviewed in the November issue of OMM.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2004.