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The good news from our point of view is that [Bono] prefers working on music more than anything else. And also he's unelectable. -- Edge

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When Love Comes to Town

Sunday Times
U2 has had 25 years, 11 albums and the title of "Greatest rock band in the world." No journalist can resist them or their frontman Bono. Stuart Clark doesn't even try.



"There were stories that Bono had been a bad boy, delaying the making of the record with his extra-curricular activities. Is it true that Eno threw a wobbly when Bono broke his 'no cellphones' rule to take a call from the Pope?"

Music mogul Paul McGuinness's house, just outside Annamoe in Ireland's Wicklow mountains, on a gorgeous autumn afternoon in November. Sunday lunch is over and some of the guests have begun to head back to the city. The rest are retiring to the sitting room for a preview of the new album from the world's biggest rock band.

Among them are two radio DJs, a USA Today journalist and Lori Earl from Interscope Records. Susan Hunter from Principle Management, Bono's wife, Ali Hewson, Mairin Sheehy from hotpress.com and McGuinness himself make up the rest of the party.

Oh, and there's your man. He's been entertaining the guests before and during dinner, trying -- where possible -- to throw his arms around the world. Sitting the lovely Mariella Frostrup of The Observer -- in Dublin to promote her new book -- on his knee, he regales the crowd with anecdotes. It's what comes naturally. But when all of that preamble is done, and the album is pressed into the CD player, well, the singer in the wraparound shades really comes into his own. It is one of Bono's most endearing qualities.

When a new U2 record is ready to roll, he is more than ready to roll with it. He exudes a level of passion and enthusiasm for what has just been created that's utterly and uniquely him.

"Already, 'Vertigo' is U2's biggest ever record on U.S. radio," he shouts over the huge opening riffs of the first single from the album. Even if you hadn't predicted it, there's no mistaking why. The chord changes, in what is also the opening track on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, are gloriously, triumphantly right.

"Here's the bit from 'Out of Control'," he signals. The noise needs no further elucidation. It's a monster of Zeppelin-esque proportions, shot through with U2 magic. As the playback progresses, Bono is like a man possessed. He takes you through the songs like an especially expressive conductor, in charge of a wild orchestra. "Now listen to this," he says. "Every album has to have an outlandish couplet and this is it..."

The original Dublin rocker's presence fills the room. And a song about "the mysterious distance between a man and a woman" becomes even more mysterious and beautiful in the re-telling. "It's a song for adults, for people who have been together for a long time and who are still together," he reflects.

There is an extent to which, as he conducts those privileged enough to be within listening distance through How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, he is like a barker from a carnival, drumming up business. Or a song and dance man, who knows that his livelihood depends on how people respond to his -- or rather to U2's -- latest creation.

There's another couplet that he wants to share with you. "Listen to this, wait, wait, listen to this," he says as the music builds. And then he sings along. Rising over the sound system, you hear that voice, deep in its power to move and to convince, singing the lyrics of one of his latest meisterworks, to a room of 10 people -- lyrics that will resonate soon for crowds of 60,000 and more...There is such conviction. There is such pride in the new work.

He stands up and paces the room. We're near the end of the album now. He spreads his arms and gesticulates. "Yahwey," he sings, at the top of his voice and from the bottom of his heart. It isn't so much the song that gives you a lift, but the melody and the way it rises and falls. "Yahwe-e-ey," he sings and that lift -- "Yahwe-e-ey" -- takes you higher. And higher. It fills you to the brim, Jim. This is the note it ends on, and everyone agrees that it's time to head back to Dublin.

"We're going to stop in the Roundwood Inn for a last drink," Bono announces. "Are you coming?" Trying to throw his arms around the world indeed...

Take Two

Forget the musical whys and socio-political wherefores. All you need to know for now about U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is that it sounded great last night when I was doing the hoovering. "If you can't hoover, iron or wash up to a record, it's not worth releasing," Bono says solemnly, as we sit down with a cup of coffee in the room beneath their main Hanover Quay studio.

Acoustically dampened floors or not, there's no mistaking the sound of Edge's guitar clanging around from elsewhere in the building, as he gets some extra practise in ahead of today's full band rehearsal. There's precisely a week to go until U2's 11th studio album makes it into the shops and their singer has the determined look of a man who's ready to leave the safety of the trenches and do battle.

"How we justify the life we've been given is to not make crap albums," Bono ruminates. "I always say you need 11 or 12 very good reasons to leave your friends and family and go on tour, and we have them on this album. As a band, you could trade off the older songs, and we can stand by so many of them -- but the real hit for me is discovering what we're still capable of."

On that score, the long-awaited and much anticipated How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb will leave no one in any doubt. U2 have mastered the art of delivering big songs like nobody else in the business. For confirmation, cop an earful of "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own," an emotionally charged response from Bono to the death in August 2003 of his father Bob, that's one of the album's stand-out cuts.

The pain and confusion are palpable as the bereaved son tells his Dad: "We fight all the time/You and I...that's alright/We're the same soul/I don't need...I don't need to hear you say/That if we weren't so alike/You'd like me a whole lot more."

Relationships with parents are often complex -- and sometimes difficult. Bono was close to his father at the end, but it wasn't always like that. And there was a distance there, it emerges, at least where U2's music was concerned. At what point did his Dad get to hear the band's previous albums and tell his son what he thought of them?

"He never talked about any of the music," is the almost whispered reply. "Oh, I do remember he liked "The Unforgettable Fire." Not the album but the song. He thought we were getting quite good around the time of Rattle and Hum -- 'When Love Comes to Town' was a bit of a favourite."

But just when they seemed to have gained a new fan, they lost him. "He didn't know where we were going in the '90s!" Bono says. That he might well have come around again to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb -- with its return to emotional directness and its hints of early records like Boy and The Unforgettable Fire -- is left unsaid.

Assembled over a marathon 18-month period -- "We spend a lot of time mixing the ink, and very little making the picture!" -- How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb's diverse, eight-man production team included Steve Lillywhite, Jacknife Lee, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. You might, as a result, expect an album that is wildly diverse in its styles and moods, but that's not the way it panned out.

In a sense, it's a tribute to just how strongly U2 imprint their own vision on a record, no matter who's taking charge of production.

Talking after the first few sessions, Bono had dubbed it "Edge's record." Is that the way it remained? "It started out as Edge's album, yes," he reflects, "but at some point Larry and Adam wrestled it off him and it's become very much a band record. But it was Edge's in the beginning -- and he finished strongly too. He has a lot of stamina (laughs)!"

There were stories that Bono had been a bad boy, delaying the making of the record with his extra-curricular activities, and getting up a few producers' noses in the process. Is it true that Eno threw a right wobbly when Bono broke his "no cellphones" rule to take a call from the Pope?

"Brian is a jealous guard of his own time, let alone the band's, and there was a lot of trouble about the time the Drop the Debt campaign was taking here," he admits.

"But our albums are better when my contribution to them is in concentrated doses. I like the creative pitch to be at a higher level than other people. But when it turns to plumbing, as we call it, or nuclear physics, I'm out of here. I don't feel as if I'm hyperactive or speeding -- it's everybody else that's going in slow motion! Edge's creative pulse is so Zen you can hardly hear it. He makes less noise than me and there's less damage to the people and buildings around him."

Another song on the album that stands out is the Noel Gallagher-inspired "One Step Closer," a haunting lyric about the inescapable nature of doubt. "He's on a pint of Guinness and a packet of crisps for coming up with the title," Bono laughs. "We were discussing my father's mixed feelings about his religion and his lack of surety about where he was going -- there was drink involved! -- and Noel said fairly earnestly, 'Well, he's one step closer to knowing, isn't he?' Referring to the fact, of course, that my Dad had recently passed away."

Good friends they may be, but Isuspect that Gallagher's going to give Bono a right earbashing for his "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are the Lennon-McCartney of politics" rhetoric at the British Labour Party conference in Brighton.

"He [Gallagher] had a soft spot for Tony early on! That's the quote that's been passed around, but what I actually said is, 'They are the Lennon-McCartney of geopolitics.' In terms of turning around the relationship between the developed world and Africa, they're right at the centre of that paradigm shift."

Faced with his evident command of the facts and figures, anyone who takes a sceptical view of Bono's pronouncements on this topic is going to find it a very difficult position to sustain.

"After Thatcher left, the U.K. was down where the Americans are now, at less than 0.2% GDP, in their contribution to the poorest of the poor," he expands. "When Blair leaves they'll be on their way to the commitment they've made for 2011, which is 0.7%. That's three times the amount of spending that happened under Maggie, so they deserved the compliment. It wasn't, however, meant as an endorsement of their war in Iraq or some other Labour Party policies that I mightn't like."

Given that it's the overriding issue of the day, and especially given U2's track record of dealing with human rights issues in general, it's surprising that nowhere on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is there any mention of the Iraq war or of the iniquities of U.S. foreign policy under the current administration.

"I very much sat down to address it, hence the title," Bono reflects. "It's worth reminding ourselves of those days after 9/11, and what they felt like. At no other point in history had there been a sense that people would commit that sort of mass murder as a terrorist act. You'd had mass murder before in Hiroshima as part of a fully declared war -- which I don't think is any excuse, by the way -- but no one knew whether we were going to wake up and a quarter of London would be gone.

"That's no excuse for prosecuting a war in Iraq, but it puts it all into context. Because -- apart from what happened in Madrid -- we haven't had that same level of atrocity in Europe. We may have forgotten the fear and paranoia that was going around at that time. Of course I was going to address this, and yet the opposite came out.

"I told Thom Yorke two years ago, 'I know what the album's about and what it's going to be called, which is How to Build an Atomic Bomb.' That was the original title because the toothpaste was out of the tube. There was an article in The Guardian with two college students discussing how easy it is to get your hands on this kind of weaponry."

Attention gained, as is his wont, Bono set about making himself an expert on the subject. "A private arms company in the U.S. has developed this GPS-guided system made out of papier-mâché and plastic, which, for less than a million dollars, can fly 2,500 miles with anything you want attached to it," he resumes.

"Somebody asked their CEO, 'Are you not worried about these getting into terrorist hands?' to which he replied, 'We've offered them to the Pentagon if they're prepared to buy in bulk, but the knowledge to make these things exists everywhere. We're just packaging it commercially'."

There is, nonetheless, nothing on the new record as virulently hostile to U.S. hegemony as "Bullet the Blue Sky." Is this down to Bono now having to do business with George W. Bush and his aides?

"It's a real question and one that I can honestly answer with a 'No.' As I was trying to say earlier, the songs that you want and the songs that you get are often very different. I don't really have much control over it -- and if there are lyrics that offend some of the people I work with, so be it. 'Crumbs From Your Table' is one of the most vicious songs ever. It's full of spleen about the church and its refusal to hear God's voice on the AIDS emergency.

"Whenever U2 gets specifically agitprop, the band here starts nodding off and Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois or Steve Lillywhite will start making people dance. 'Bullet the Blue Sky' is like U2 doing the Bad Seeds, it's Biblical -- much more so than it's a polemic. We didn't make those kind of anti-personnel type songs to suddenly stop. There are moments when I keep my opinions out of the press but not out of songs."

Politics and religion being almost inextricable in the current phase of global unrest -- its wonderfully inspiring melody notwithstanding -- naming "Yahweh" after the Hebrew word for "God" might well see Bono being accused of taking sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

"It just formed in my mouth, as a lot of U2 songs do," he explains. "There's the sound, and then trying to figure out what that sound is -- and it was this word 'Yahweh.' I played it to Jimmy Iovine of Interscope who loved it up until the point where I told him it's the unspeakable word for God. And he said: 'Call it 'Matzo Balls.' Call it 'Ali.' Call it anything but that!'

"To focus on your question, a delegation came to see me from the Middle East to talk about the fact that there's no peace movement there. They asked would I give them a hand, and I said, 'Look, I'm at the point where the world will find it projectile vomit-inducing if I attach my name to another worthy cause. There are also people in my own native country who'll take it as their cue to brick and bottle me off the stage'." So he took a rain check, more or less...

"The only idea I had," he continues, "and one they'll be pursuing, is a festival of Abraham, which will celebrate the three traditions that call Abraham their father. Out of that conversation there's another project -- to build a sort of cathedral of understanding in Europe, called the Eye of Abraham, where Jews, Muslims and Christians can watch each other worship. The two very inspirational people who are heading up the initiative were opposing negotiators during the Oslo Peace Accords, but are now friends.

"As it happens, I spent a year living in Israel during the '80s, and the only word for how the Arab population was treated there is 'apartheid.' The devil gets great value out of a family row where everybody's a little bit in the right," he reflects.

Ten years ago, sneering at U2 was almost a prerequisite of being in an indie band, whereas now you've got the likes of Interpol, the Killers and the Rapture proudly citing them as an influence. It's a reversal about which you can tell Bono is rather tickled.

"We were never going to hit it off with a bunch of middle-class kids who were lying to themselves about their ambition," he avers.

"We were a bunch of middle-class kids who weren't lying! The sound of wanting to get out of the ghetto, whatever ghetto that might be, is a very different one to the sound of wanting to stay in it. If you want a cottage industry, become a potter. We joined a rock 'n' roll band because we wanted to change the world and all that kind of megalomania.

"The same as the Beatles, the same as the Stones, the same as the Sex Pistols, the same as the Clash and -- I won't say Nirvana -- but the same as Kurt did. You could already see him thinking, 'Do I really have to play in a club all my life to be authentic? Can I have a glitter shirt? Tell you what, I'm going to put on some eye make-up today!' "

When U2 announced last month that they were putting their name to their own iPod, it immediately added $2 billion to the Apple share price.

It also sparked off a furious debate as to whether they're indulging in clever cross-promotion or succumbing to the sort of greed that Paul McGuinness was referring to in 1986 when he said: "Deep in my heart I'm ashamed that there are artists who can make rock 'n' roll and then sell it to Philip Morris or Nike."

So how does Bono respond to the charge that's been levelled in certain newspapers that the Apple deal represents some kind of sellout? If you want to get him going, just ask!

"Sellout? Try using that word on 50 Cent or Jay Z or Russell Simmons. This is such a white-bread concept. Selling out means doing something naff -- or that you don't believe in -- for money. It's embarrassing your fans for cash -- and I hope we never do that. How cool is the iPod? It's a beautiful piece of technology. How cool is the commercial we've made with Apple?

"There's part of me that likes a bit of a row," he adds mischievously. "I loved turning a TV ad into a video and waiting to see if it started a kerfuffle." Well, it has done. But, where accusations of selling out -- or indeed cashing in -- are involved, he's having none of it. "Never in the history of making music has there been a more independent group than U2," he says.

"There's never been a group that's had less interference from their record company. There's never been a group that has had more financial control over their destiny. We own our own master tapes. We own our copyrights. We are completely in charge of the way our albums look, of our marketing campaigns...we've been doing it since we were 19! That's what independence is."

A flustered-looking aide walks in and reminds him that three-quarters of the world's biggest rock group are waiting upstairs for their singer. "Have you got 15 minutes to spare?" Bono asks me. Might do.

"Come and have a listen to us rehearsing." I dutifully follow him into the studio where Edge, Larry and Adam are belting out an instrumental version of another How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb newie, "City of Blinding Lights." Without the rest of the gang missing a beat, their errant singer walks up to the microphone, clasps his hands behind his back and almost sighs the opening verse, "The more you see the less you know/The less you find out as you go/I knew much more then/than I do now."

I can tell you something for certain, delivered with even half this panache, it'll send shivers up hundreds of thousands of spines next year, when the band hit the road. Today, though, they've an audience of one who thinks he's died and gone to rock 'n' roll heaven. Up this close, U2 sound nothing short of phenomenal.

"How are we doing?" Bono shouts over. That job of best band in the world they're re-applying for? I think they've got it.



© Sunday Times, 2004.