What Makes U2 Run?
Love 'em or hate 'em, U2 have fashioned a charmed career unrivaled by any other rock band. After all these years -- and all that money -- why do they refuse to stand still?
The distinguished gentlemen of U2 are in a Dublin studio having their photograph taken for what must, to them, feel like the 342,675th time. But they go about the task gracefully, as they well know that this is part of their job, and in 2009, no job is to be taken for granted, even if it’s that of biggest band in the world. Especially if it’s that of biggest band in the world.
“Rock stars! Get your rock stars here!” the singer intones theatrically, as is his wont. “Soon-to-be- extinct species, get your rock stars…”
U2’s headquarters lie inside a drab warehouse on a narrow street along Dublin’s Hanover Quay basin, totally anonymous save for the thousands of U2-related graffiti scrawlings that span the block. Among the gems sprinkled amid the lyrics and doodles and marriage proposals: U2 ROCK, SEX PISTOLS ARE BETTER, THANKS FOR KEEPING ALIVE OUR DREAMS, BONO IS A FRAUD. And, of course, they’re all true. Because U2 didn’t become U2 without a fair helping of messy contradiction and unsolicited sloganeering.
The mere fact that an outfit of this stature has been able to operate freely in plain sight at this address for 15 years, without notable bother or visible security, probably says more about Dublin than it does about the import of the goings-on behind the double-wide steel doors. Because the band’s import — not as firebrands or as reliably bankable anthem-merchants, but as a cultural entity whose mere continued existence, much less relevance, belies history and common sense — can, at this late date, scarcely be overstated.
Upstairs in the modest reception area of “the studio,” as its owners simply call the compound, there are no distinguishing markers hinting at who those owners might be — no posters, photos, or platinum records. Just four plastic mailboxes mounted behind a desk, each labeled neatly and in need of emptying: BONO, EDGE, LARRY, ADAM.
For a group whose identity relies so heavily on an unlikely collusion of demagoguery and just-folksiness, and whose wealth and influence have long since passed wildest-dreams territory, the simple notion of why U2 must be an ongoing concern is one its members seem to have spent little energy deconstructing, or even questioning. To say it’s for the love of the music, while no doubt true, just feels too pat. Of every rock band ever to exist — music lovers all, presumably — not one has approached U2’s consistently upward 33-year career trajectory. (Yes, Mr. Martin, we see your hand — we’ll check back in 2031.) Credit the elusive alchemy of mass adoration, critical respect, and no one dying, all while the music industry collapses beneath its perch. The facts don’t lie: 145 million albums and counting sold worldwide, and a reported 12-year, $100 million touring and merchandising deal with Live Nation. What U2 have done, and what they continue to do at a surprisingly hungry pace, has left the realm of statistical anomaly and entered that of minor miracle.
“Fear of being crap is a great motivator,” says Bono, 48, holding court, as each member of U2 will, in the downstairs lounge, an unassuming room with mismatched sofas and a biography of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott on the coffee table. Glass doors open up on to the harbor, where an ancient, rusty tugboat sits anchored, scenery as cautionary metaphor. The easiest way to avoid being crap should be to not even tempt it, to settle into luxurious geezerdom, maybe reunite every decade or so for a tossed-off record and a behemoth tour to keep the tax-shelter estates in foie gras. “To miss realizing the potential of what a band like U2 can achieve in various different spheres, to me,” the singer says, “is betrayal.”
That this winning streak rests on the back of decidedly not-tossed-off 12th studio album No Line on the Horizon only underscores the creative restlessness not often seen in gazillionaire artists approaching 50.
Metal Machine Music it’s not, yet this is the least immediate or user-friendlyU2 album in a decade. If 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb deliberately (some might say too deliberately) shored up the base after the neither-here-nor-there clubland ditherings of the 1997 flop-by-U2-standards Pop (a mere 5.5 million units shifted), Horizon displays an eagerness to again show off the elasticity of the band as well as the brand. (“Moment of Surrender,” a soulful ballad that has “One”-like ubiquity in its DNA, clocks in at nearly eight minutes but was still considered as the lead single.) The record is the sound of a band with nothing to lose — or rather, with every opportunity to win back whatever it is they might lose if they’ve somehow misjudged. By now, even their missteps look like dance moves.
U2 started working with producer Rick Rubin in 2006, yielding a collaboration with Green Day (a cover of the Skids’ “The Saints Are Coming”) and a handful of songs in varying stages of completion. “Rick’s great contribution was suggesting that we don’t go near a recording studio until we have our songs figured out,” says guitarist the Edge, 47 — just “Edge” to his friends, thanks — in his standard uniform of T-shirt, hoodie, black knit hat. “We didn’t really get going with Rick, but those songs are still there.” Starting from scratch, U2 then reconnected with longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, but with a twist: This time, the two would come in as songwriting partners, collaborating from the outset in Dublin, Morocco, and France, creating a freewheeling atmosphere closer to the experimentation of 1991’s Achtung Baby than the more back-to-basics recent outings. “The essence of the album was very spontaneous,” Edge says. “You don’t want it to sound all fussed-with to the point where it’s impressive but ultimately doesn’t stand the test of time.”
Each band member gets excited when talking about these procedural distinctions, but what feels paradigm-shifting to them may register more subtly to someone who has not been in U2 for 30 years. They know, though, just how much they have to change their internal rules to keep the game interesting, and how much freedom is too much. To this end, Pop remains a watershed moment, a reminder that their machine does not run well in low gear. “The only time we ever took a year off was before that album,” Edge says. “I don’t regret the period, but there was a lesson to learn, that there’s value in maintaining what you do and not taking too long a break.”
“I’m happy we still don’t know how to do it,” says drummer Larry Mullen Jr., 47, sporting a black shirt, black jeans, black high-tops, and a face that barely seems to have aged since Live Aid. “The mistake is assuming you’re always going to be liked and that you have some talent that’s beyond the normal level. It’s just not true.”
If complacency has been the undoing of so many other artists, U2 have used their owntriumphs as motivation — Bono’s ever-increasing profile as statesman, activist, captain of industry, burgeoning Broadway-show tunesmith, op-ed columnist, and healer of the blind is as effective a dangling carrot as any commercial or critical benchmark. “The more successful various members become outside of U2, the higher the stakes,” Mullen says. “It’s important to me that my legacy not be as a great humanitarian.”
Bono is characteristically confident that Horizon feels like a challenge met: “Bruce Springsteen told us, ‘The hardest thing to do is surprise people.’ The album doesn’t sound like U2; it doesn’t sound like anyone else. Surely that’s evidence of life.”
In 2006, U2’s collective halo was tarnished when the band moved their publishing company to the Netherlands, thus avoiding a tax hike. But Ireland can’t hold a grudge against its favorite sons, even during an economic crisis.
“People complained at the time,” says Owen Durgan of the Ministry of Finance. “But we have companies moving here from the rest of the EU, so it all evens out. We wouldn’t make an issue of it.”
Thanks to rampant real estate development that revitalized the city starting in the ’90s, Dublin has been something of a canary in a coal mine with regard to the global financial meltdown — the credit crunch hit here early and hard. A project along Hanover Quay would have forced U2 to leave their longtime home, while plans were made for a gleaming, 400-foot-tall U2 Tower that would have provided swanky replacement digs; both projects have been delayed indefinitely.
It is very much in U2’s nature to view the crisis as another opportunity to establish themselves as vital, to remain the people’s champs. Where their last two tours were arena affairs engineered to reconnect the band with their audience and, to a certain degree, with each other, this summer’s in-the-round stadium outing will attempt to transpose that intimacy into a more affordable setting, without skimping on the LEDs. Bassist Adam Clayton, 49, who in his fitted shirt and slacks more closely resembles an art dealer than the band’s resident ex-hellion, sees music’s relationship to outside economic forces as a constantly mutating cycle.
“Think about the big bands, the big orchestras that used to tour,” he says. “Then the stock market crash came and they slimmed down to quartets, because that was cheaper.”
Initially, U2’s interest in business was a matter of self-preservation. “I always want to know the forces that are going to fuck with me,” Bono says. “I didn’t want to be someone who was given a little label to run. I wanted to be sitting at the table deciding the fate of my and other musicians’ lives.” Since then, it’s become an increasingly personal and politically driven pursuit for him; he teamed up with Grateful Dead advisor and entrepreneur Roger McNamee to form the venture-capital firm Elevation Partners. Bono bristles against the notion that he’s less audacious or credible an artist just because he has a rooting financial interest in, say, the new Palm Pre phone. To his mind, his musical and nonmusical ventures are part of the same body of work, and audiences have grown to understand that.
“People are smart; they’re also interested in commerce and other forces that shape the world. They don’t need the ‘let’s pretend’ game we used to play,” he says. When Bono latches on to an idea, which he does often and easily, he stands and paces. He started wearing sunglasses around 1992 to help get into character as a rock star, to create “a little bit of distance” as he says, and he’s barely taken them off since. When he does remove his custom Armani shades to lock eyes and make a point, the effect is not unlike John Belushi finally shedding his Ray-Bans to arch a brow at Carrie Fisher in The Blues Brothers. “One of the most misunderstood words in the lexicon of pop culture is authentic,” he continues. ” ‘Okay, somebody certainly can’t be ambitious for material things if he is to be an artist — let’s establish more ground rules!’ Being fucked-up on smack looked like authenticity to a lot of people, but guess what? It’s not. We’ve been through this bullshit so many times; it’s actually about coming to grips with your own ambition and ideas and being prepared to take shit for them.” Glasses back on. “I’ve proved I can take shit for what I believe in.”
So, with the benefit of diligent apprenticeship alongside the world’s brightest business minds and a most enviable Rolodex, what big ideas does the man who has successfully tackled niggling problems like global hunger and third-world debt cancellation have for saving the cratering music industry? The decision to liquidate $25 million worth of the band’s Live Nation stock last year nearly kneecapped the company, even as it put U2’s clout into dramatic relief. And the decision to release Horizon with a downloadable widget containing lush visuals, directed by longtime U2 photographer Anton Corbijn, is certainly a step toward reestablishing the album as a commodity worth buying and owning. But what about the big picture?
“I was watching as the business was heading towards the edge of the waterfall seven years ago, and I wanted to be part of the solution,” Bono says, grinning crookedly. “As it happens, that’s an ongoing search.”
Read the entire U2 cover story in the April issue of SPIN, on newsstands now!