31 years ago today, U2 released ‘The Fly’ as the first single from their acclaimed seventh studio album, Achtung Baby. To mark the occasion, we’re revisiting a classic feature by the late, great Bill Graham – who travelled to Zurich to catch the Zoo TV Tour, and interview The Edge about Achtung Baby and the extraordinary live show.
Originally published in Hot Press in 1992…
EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG
For once, the relentless hail of random words and slogans on the television screens pauses for about ten seconds and the maxim appears – “Everything You Know Is Wrong”. It’s as good a text as any for an exploration of this latest incarnation of U2.
The band are off, shattering preconceptions again. Sun Studios in Memphis is replaced by Hansa near the Berlin Wall; as backdrop, the vacant desert gives way to the urban hive, and right-on rock is reversed for a cacophonous futurist pop with all the glaring colours of lurid confusion. And so, dear friends, the fairytale concludes, with one transatlantic leap, our four Irish heroes are here.
(OR) NOT EVERYTHING YOU KNOW MAY STILL BE WRONG
I confess I flew to Zurich in some trepidation. I’m wary of some of the easy recent praise given U2 since it involves a dualism; an amputation of their past that separates them from the Good U2 of Achtung Baby and the Bad U2 of Rattle And Hum. Whereas I see continuities, this latest conventional line on the band seems to me to create gaping and false discontinuities.
Moreover, I wasn’t completely convinced by Achtung Baby – of course it was inevitable this restless band would change. Just as The Unforgettable Fire marked a necessary new departure after War, any follow-up to Rattle And Hum was destined to scuttle off elsewhere.
The clockwork orange rhythms of ‘The Fly’ flung down the gauntlet and ‘One’ , ‘So Cruel’ and ‘Love Is Blindness’ were all enthralling ballads but otherwise, I wondered if people were being seduced by the surface of the music with both ‘Better Than The Real Thing’ and ‘Acrobat’ especially weak tracks. And if Edge and especially Adam and Larry were in stunning form, outside the ballads and ‘The Fly’, I wasn’t always focussing on Bono.
Besides, I disliked all those favourable reviews that couldn’t refuse the temptation to damn Rattle And Hum yet again. Against the tide, I still champion that album whose new songs may have been overpowered by their context. Scattered around the album they got lost among the more controversial live material while the film set them up for charges of vainglory which again overwhelmed the songs. Furthermore, U2’s determination to mine the more traditional sources of rock and southern music set them apart from the new generation of bands and fans that would lead to the rise of Nirvana.
Just before Christmas, it’s early morning in Lillie’s Bordello in downtown Dublin, and I’m not entirely lucidly explaining some of these feelings to Bono. As usual, he’s fast enough to sense my reservations about Achtung Baby. Well, he said, or words to that effect, I suppose you’ve earned the right to be wrong.
We were in a group of partying friends so it was neither the time nor the place for more than a brief chat. More pertinently, U2’s publicity approach to Achtung Baby was out of character. This time, no post-match talks from U2 and Bono, normally the most voluble of interviewees. Instead co-producer, Brian Eno, volunteered to fill the breach with a lengthy feature in Rolling Stone to flag the album.
Gradually U2 have started to break their vows of media silence. But nothing formal, mind – no marathon summit meetings. Instead a few informal chats, playing their own spin-doctors with a few selected scribes. And this night in Zurich, I learn the reasons for their early reserve.
ZOO TV IS BORN
“The city conducts its own symphony” is an old Bono line but I can’t tell you much about Zurich since airport, hotel and venue are all confined to the same peripheral quarter of the city, apparently far from its centre. The Zurichers are Swiss-German, their city seems to shut down implacably after midnight and the guidebook in my hotel room tells me about Zurich’s reputation for shopping but nothing about James Joyce’s grave or his association with the city.
All this self-discipline must generate a counter-reaction. For a mile along the airport road – and this in an area that shows no other signs of poverty or urban decay – all the buildings are blotted with spray-canned graffiti, as if some rogue group can’t abide Swiss social hygiene.
Here in Zurich, the tour becomes a self-sealing capsule. There’s no socialising with the polite but distant Swiss. No hordes of fans roam the hotel grounds and business connections with the Swiss promoter and the local record company are reduced to a minimum so the Zoo TV tour falls back on its own company.
Six pm dinner time for the eighty members of the menagerie; green pea soup and lamb chops, trout almondine and beef stew with Guinness or stuffed aubergine for the vegetarians, as a Lou Reed tape hums in the background.
It’s far from plush. The Zurich venue is a sports hall with a comfy, lived-in air of slight dilapidation almost as if the National Stadium had been multiplied by six. We’re all cramped together round wooden tables as the band slips in for food. Bono sports a royal red velvet ensemble while Larry confirms the tour’s isolation by asking me the result of the Ireland/Albania match, a full 24 hours after its end. Then Adam sits opposite me, neatly picking the skin and the almonds off his trout.
As the conversation unwinds, I begin to appreciate the special gamble of this tour. Hitherto, U2 have been spartan about special effects believing style cramps spontaneity. Choreography, tape, lighting and other special effects cues generally enforce a totalitarian discipline on the music, making for a crushingly predictable show. A dozen dates into a global tour, those practices can draw all the enthusiasm from the performers.
Contrast U2 with Michael Jackson. His set is as tightly scheduled as a USAF bombing mission and permits no interference from mere humans. Of course, Jackson’s audiences aren’t disruptive but ponder his choices if he’d been confronted with the same extreme and potentially horrific scenario that faced Bono at U2’s last Croke Park concert when a fan climbed aloft the Cusack Stand. U2 could improvise and Bono talk him down, but not acts like Jackson. Their choice: either shut down the set or ignore him, the next dance routine is timed to start in 24 seconds precisely.
So U2 refused the static spectacle. Instead they preferred to court the danger of emotional overkill exactly because of Bono’s determination to connect with even the most remote corner of a 40,000 stadium crowd. Even so, rabble-rousing vs. totalitarian special effects is a false choice and Zoo TV is U2’s way of escaping it.
A strange if unacceptable fact: stadium and performance technology is rigid and backward; the flexibility of studio, video and club technology has always outstripped it. But towards the end of last year, U2 and their lighting designer, Pete “Willie” Williams suddenly found a set of genuinely interactive technologies that didn’t dehumanise performance. They grabbed it and Zoo TV was born.
It’s a key reason why U2 couldn’t talk with the release of Achtung Baby. The work was still in progress, this tour was never to be the standard album promo chore. Zoo TV would genuinely add to the mystery and meaning of Achtung Baby, but U2 just didn’t know how, or indeed, if their concepts would work. Interviews would have been a blather of promises as yet unfulfilled.
WARMING THE FRIDGES UP
The support policy also changes. Instead of the major-domo of the blues, BB King, U2 now enlist the Pixies in America and the mighty Fatima Mansions in Europe. That last choice might seem perverse but the original Microdisney once backed U2 at the TV club almost twelve years ago, just after the release of Boy, so old paths reunite and backstage in Zurich, Paul McGuinness drifts into the Mansions’ dressing room for a cordial chat.
Cathal Coughlan’s happy about their sound and general treatment but support bands can’t afford all the luxuries; the Mansions must drive through the night to Frankfurt, the next date. More worringly, the American wing of their record company don’t empathise with the sound and fury of Valhalla Avenue and Cathal hints there may be some harsh words ahead.
Out front in the Zurich Hallenstadion, I’m wondering how the Swiss will cope with the sulphuric acid of the Mansions. The Swiss aren’t peacocks: I lose count of the number of women clad in blue-denim jeans and black sweatshirts. What is this: a revival meeting of the 1979 Board of Works secretarial outing to Lisdoonvarna?
The first forty Mansions seconds are hilarious. They start with the first sleep, dulcet verse of ‘Angel’s Delight’ and the plastic lighters are already winking. Or at least they are until the Mansions switch to vicious grunge gear. Suddenly a Swiss audience thinks: must we suffer for U2’s art?
For the next three songs, they just gape at the Mansions’ blizzard of sonic punishment until the band land their lethal one-two combination of Scott Walker’s ‘Beyond The Moon’ and ‘Only Losers Take The Bus’. The Walker ballad prompts a partial reconciliation and I detect the first signs of movement as two guys near me briefly slam-dance to the psychotic disco robots-on-rockabilly of ‘Losers’.
Cathal’s piss, bile and vinegar is starting to crack the Swiss reserve and docility. He’s completely in charge, ducking, diving and weaving, floating like a butterfly and kicking like a mule on steroids – and the Swiss are starting to realise they’re in the ring with a true heavyweight. But somehow, I don’t know if they catch the heavy irony when he introduces ‘Viva Dead Ponies’ with the line “this song could be about supermarkets”.
For them, this could be a culture-specific song about a crumbling, tawdry England but the line “I have turned the fridges off” surely applies to any commercially regimented society and Cathal flings in a jibe about Swiss bank accounts. Then it’s ‘Blues For Ceaucescu’ and the riff that storms forever that nobody can oppose. If it wasn’t against the etiquette of these events, Fatima Mansions could easily have won an encore.
There’s hardly a pause until Zurich meets BP Fallon. After a mock Las Vegas announcement from the PA, the Beep saunters down the catwalk to a steel-grey Trabant that serves as his disc jockey hutch, enveloped in a boxer’s dressing gown with an image of Marilyn Monroe on its back, looking like he’s been taken by the spirit of Howard The Duck.
There’s much classic funk: Sly Stone, Public Enemy, James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ plus Bob Marley. Born in Germany, Beep works on Irish-Swiss relations with his schoolboy Deutsch and plays German versions of both The Beatles and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, also recorded in Hansa. There’s such a surge of identification that you suddenly learn just how the Bowie song has become a potent symbolic anthem of the newly united Europe.
EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING – TONIGHT
But all this is just antipasti. The first five songs of the Zoo TV set are truly awesome. U2 don’t so much use every trick in the book as invent a whole new style of rock performance art.
Bono slips on, all in black and those wraparound ‘Fly’ shades, looking like the ideal Italian Eurovision presenter for, let’s see, about 2012. But no Italian Eurovision presenter would start with a minute of sean-nós, let alone one that’s been brutalised by backward taping trickery.
So much for any notion of authenticity. U2 are killing naturalism, broadcasting chaos from their Zoo TV station. Through ‘Zoo Station’, ‘The Fly’ and ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, the assembled sets on the Philips vidiwall scatter out a jumble of disconnected words and crazy mottos like “Ambition Bites The Nails Of Success”, the quasi-Zoroastrian “The Universe Is Exploding Because Of One Man’s Lie” and crucially “Enjoy The Surface”. Bono does a mock goose-step and then at the end of ‘The Fly’ quips: “Some of this bullshit is real; some of it is expensive.”
This last is definitely true. The tour is budgeted only to break even in its first phase before it goes outdoors in America – and even then, the working personnel may double past 130. Even though Island has been taken over by Polygram and U2 are now Philips-related artists, the company hasn’t allowed them free or even cut-price of the Vidiwall, the catalytic converter of this show which was developed by another division of the company. Furthermore, U2 still don’t use corporate sponsors.
Like Coca-Cola. That hits me during ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, which suddenly jolts into focus. A throwaway on the album, it’s now another zone of turbulence and about three stones heavier than the album version. But then its themes are consonant with Zoo TV’s games in multiple perspective and Bono adds another layer of commentary as he stares into his own unsteady cam, projecting the hairs of his nostrils onto the video screens.
Then another coup with ‘Mysterious Ways’, which Edge opens on piano and their belly-dancer Christine flows down the stage, teasing both Bono and the guitarist. Images from Brian Eno of a blonde goddess (Marilyn Monroe) with taped lips revolve on the screens and Bono ends with a snatch from Donna Summer’s ‘Love To Love You, Baby’, a song he probably abhorred in his earnest youth.
Again, it’s interactive; a routine that can be changed every night. Or as Paul McGuinness has earlier told me, explaining U2’s previous suspicion about special effects: “We never wanted the script to dictate the music.”
Yet with so much sensory overload, you might start to wonder if U2 have entirely given up on meaning. Or ask the question whether Zoo TV is testimony to little more than the fact that touring rock musicians watch more bad late-night television than people in any other profession?
But then comes ‘One’. This is a song about the Irish. Bono announces: “We killed Joyce. You buried him,” and you can take your speculations where you want. A union of peace? Unity after the artistic and verbal disorder of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’? Or after a show so far dedicated to the temptations of the naked goddess of media chaos, Eris, with her 57 channels and nothing on but an Italian game show g-string, are U2 plunging back to the Godhead of communion?
I now know this much. I mislaid Bono on Achtung Baby. I’m rediscovering him on stage in Zurich tonight through a show that seems to intentionally and erratically bounce off the walls of a triangle whose three points seem to be media chaos, women and masculine belief.
Well, that’s my interpretation, what needs no mediation is Bono’s performance. Afterwards, one long time Bono-watcher working on the tour will remark: “He’s so much more relaxed in these smaller secondary venues when there’s no celebrity glad-handling or peer pressure,” and it tallies with my own experience over the years.
Of course, Bono began using props with the original ‘Boy’ character, feverishly smoking on a cigarette butt but now he’s like a kid with a case of dynamite cigars. But on this tour, the years of experience are showing. Like his hyper-sensitivity ability to search out any opportunity. Or his absolute instinct as how far he can bond and trust an audience. Because he’s been there so often, there’s no contemporary performer who knows so precisely where the edge of the cliff is.
So at one point, tonight, he’ll sway off the catwalk to be borne aloft on the arms of the fans. But now it’s a party-piece – no longer the frenetic, hungry and over-eager gesture it once could be. Bono’s great asset is that he’s dared to make more mistakes than 50 other frontmen have had ideas and now he’s reaping the harvest.
So after ‘One’, there’s another surprise not on my set list, ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’ changed into ‘It’s A Mystery’. Then he introduces ‘Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World’ as “an old Zurich drinking song” and a time-honoured Bono routine – inviting a girl from the audience up on stage with him – gets a new twist. He gives her his own hand-held camera and lets her direct the flow of U2 images onto the video screens while he mischievously sways in and out of the lens. Again Bono as game-show host; the only Irishman who could succeed Gay Byrne.
But now the show switches away from Achtung Baby. The band march down the catwalk for an acoustic busk of ‘Angel Of Harlem’ that segues into ‘Dancing Queen’. For a brief and light intermission, this theatrically thunderous show scales down to the size of a parlour as Bono takes their second cover, ‘Satellite Of Love’ in a plaintive falsetto and then follows ‘Bad’ with an acapella sample of ‘All I Want Is You’.
U2 relaunch themselves through ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ with Bono downing a lip-mike and a cap to look like a grizzled Vietnam vet pilot with sidelines in coke trafficking and Sandinista busting. I don’t believe they can renew the song but, here in Zurich, I get an entirely different European meaning to its last line “into the arms of America”.
It’s Greatest Hits time but U2 neither reprise them nor reject past meanings. ‘Running To Stand Still’ ends with Bono righteously howling “Halleluia” and they play the spotlights back on the audience for ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, where all the hand-clapping crowd participation is totally dependent on Larry‘s drums rampant.
Then ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love‚’ confirms the dramatic value of all this interactive technology as a heart-stopping segment of Martin Luther King’s epic Washington speech is spliced in. Then ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and somehow Bono shifts the mood of the song as if it’s now relaxed, friendly – perhaps even fatherly – advice…
The encores revert to the chaos comic-strip with Bono donning an absurd gold tinsel outfit for ‘Desire’. Above him, the Trabant lighting pods glint like they’re auditioning for Dr Who as benign evolutions of the Daleks and the song ends with Bono quoting from the concluding prophecy from the Discordian Gospel According to Bugs Bunny: “That’s all folks!”
Well not quite. There’s ‘With Or Without You‘ but there’s also ‘Ultraviolet (Light My Way)’ and a hushed ‘Love Is Blindness’ which really take you to the heart of the Zoo TV experience.
LOVE IS… BLINDNESS
‘Ultraviolet…’ has the ultimate interactive moment. Here Bono picks up the phone and rings the Swiss speaking clock, letting its tones echo through the song. In America, he’s been far more audacious, calling a local sexline and from Florida, the castaway Russian cosmonaut. Four times, his calls got blocked at the White House switchboard and once, he frivolously rang the nearest pizza parlour. The result: an uniformed delivery boy arrived with 100 pizzas and was directed to give them to the front rows.
Zoo TV at its most anarchic. The concept derives not only from the ‘Zoo Station’ song but also the madcap American morning Zoo radio shows, where anything can happen and usually does. But their fans and most Irish people already know U2’s sense of the ridiculous. London, Los Angeles and New York critics usually miss their mischief perhaps because those big city shows are usually the most stressful where U2 have most to prove.
They’ll even let others join the wind-up. Half-way through the show, there’s a spoof ‘commercial’ for their Greatest Hits, narrated with a suitably portentous ‘March Of Time’ newsreel voiceover by their production designer Pete Williams. Zurich is its debut but though the band knew Williams was planning the scam, they didn’t see or hear it beforehand.
That’s the spontaneous joy of the system, designed by Williams and American Carol Dodds, who oversees the live video mixing and television input. They first collaborated on Bowie’s ‘Sound And Vision’ tour but, later, Williams will admit that the pair tired of its rigid content after a fortnight on tour.
As Paul McGuinness claims, they’ve got the equivalent of a small TV station on tour and the system can patch into local channels to add more random images to the vidiwall mix. Backstage with Williams and Dodds, their enthusiasm is contagious as they prepare for the American outdoor leg of the tour. They now know the system works and integrates into U2’s performance but projecting in stadiums is the next challenge. Still both they and U2 recognise they’ve found a system with no limits plus a band with the self-confidence not to be intimidated by the pair’s ideas.
‘Zoo TV’ now has taken on a life of its own. Back in January, Dublin artist Cathy Owens got a call at her New York apartment to paint up four Trabants. A month’s work to pay her rent, she thought but now in late May, Cathy’s back here on the road in Zurich since U2 will not install 16 Trabants for the great American outdoors.
Her’s isn’t the only input besides Williams and Dodds. Video maker, Mark Pellington provided the opening verbal salvo while Brian Eno has many contributions. So if ‘Ultraviolet…’ has its silly phone-calls, Eno’s visuals provide the counterpoint – a woman desperately trying to communicate in sign language: Everything You Know Is Wrong: Zoo TV keeps exploding the chaos of communication.
So the closing song, ‘Love Is Blindness’ swims into view. The black and white images with their pinpoints of light could be the view from a plane, circling a small city at night but instead Williams took them from a star-map. They transmit a mood of forlorn distance and the Bono sings.
For ‘Love Is Blindness’ finally closes the circle. Between the record of Achtung Baby and this show there’s a maze of meanings but now that Zoo TV has played all the angles in the communications game, Bono centres his emotions and U2 make their final equation: love is a trust that must pass beyond all the confusion and misinformation of both perception and reason. All that’s left are the three blind virtues of hope, faith and charity.
The theme remains their original one, surrender – but now, at 30, it’s ceased to be an easy, lifetime bargain. U2 get caricatured as moralists but few hear how Rattle And Hum was riddled with doubt and contradiction or that its own desert imagery surrounded a protagonist with parched emotions searching for an oasis of love.
But who’s now singing ‘Love Is Blindness’ with such a swell of emotion? The earlier rag’n’bone man and gameshow host of the heart who’s also Elvis as the Anti-Christ of Las Vegas? Now U2 know how surrender can be the password for fraud, used by every tempting con-man as Bono plays with our bewilderment – as if the original Fool of ‘Boy’ has become the charlatan and trickster Zoo TV conducts a battle between relativism and the absolute of love. I suspect U2 don’t always know which wins.
Of course, Achtung Baby has been seen as a shift from America to Europe, from the world of Bob Dylan to that of David Bowie. After all, U2 grew up in the Seventies when Dylan and Bowie were supposedly at odds, Dylan apparently representing folkie roots and authenticity while Bowie was deemed the untrustworthy prankster of the pop surface.
Two clans, the orphaned children of Dylan and Bowie, may still so believe but U2 prove it a false antithesis. Bowie conducted his own spiritual struggles while Dylan’s songs, after his committed Christian phase, became a religious and mystical puzzle. U2 continue shedding off one more layer of skin but behind Zoo TV may hide its invisible director – who may or may not be pleased to meet you if you guess him – Dylan’s Jokerman from Infidels.
And behind him perhaps the original: Herman Melville’s Confidence Man. Zoo TV may thrillingly play all the marked cards like a crooked riverboat gambler dealing from the bottom of the deck but the themes of love, belief and surrender remain. Only what was once linear is now a kaleidoscope.
So Bono sings ‘Love Is Blindness’ and afterwards as the Swiss orderly depart, you can also take it as a final comment on the mutual dependency between band and audience. Has it all been per Dylan “just a series of dreams”?
One answer remains. Over the PA comes Elvis; he’s singing ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love’.
THE GOOD U2 AND THE BAD U2
Lying in a huge sofa in their Zurich hotel, the Edge is weary. Some European bug has taken its toll and he’s complaining of stomach cramps. Normally the most measured of U2 spokesmen, his condition hardly makes him animated.
Still, caution is the keynote to U2’s approach to Achtung Baby. They put it out and then played possum. Why?
“We’d learned our lesson,” he says. “I think we finally realised that just after finishing an album is completely the wrong time to talk about it. Because you’re so close to it and brutalised by the process that you’re completely unable to be objective or really discuss what you’re trying to do in any intelligent way.
“Looking back at some of the things we did around The Joshua Tree and even Rattle And Hum, they’re not really accurate. When you’re so close to something that’s so important, you very often come across as incredibly self-important and pretentious.”
So neither the Edge nor U2 are giving away any free manifestos with Achtung Baby. “I think it’s a great little record,” he says. “It’s got some great songs, it’s quite original sounding and I don’t get embarrassed when I hear it on the radio.
“But it’s just a record,” he adds. “It’s nice to be able to say that. I happen to think it’s a pretty good one but I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss or dissect albums in a very intellectual way.”
Or as the Rolling Stones once said, “It’s only rock’n’roll and I like it.” U2, it seems, have reached that inevitable rock Thirtysomething stage where they resist or deflect (mis)interpretation rather than aid wilder speculations about the significance or otherwise of their work. As against five years ago when they were meditating The Joshua Tree, the Edge now takes refuge in rock’s lighter side.
“We’re enjoying it more now,” he says as if the band have made a collective decision to shift the burden of expectations placed upon them. “I maybe see the value of rock’n’roll that it’s a complete bundle of contradictions. In some ways, it’s completely silly and ridiculous but it’s also an incredibly powerful medium at its best with the ability to touch people in a very profound way. I don’t think it can change the world but I don’t think I ever thought it could change the world.”
In the same philosophical spirit, he both defends Rattle And Hum and accepts the shortcomings of the promotional strategy around the film:
“It became a massive project which it really shouldn’t have been. The album and the movie was just us, enjoying being in America and exploring American music and messing around with it… but suddenly, it’s a big movie deal. Maybe it was ridiculous of us to assume that, at that point in time, we could do something that was less high profile and less of a mega thing.
“We had always thought of the record as a tying-up of loose ends for that Joshua Tree phase. For lyrical reasons as much as anything, since we’d started delving into those idioms. For Bono as a lyricist, it was a very rich heritage to draw from. He was reading a lot of American writers. His imagery was saturated by the south, the New Journalism and Flannery O’Connor so it seemed like a natural thing to take it a little further since we were spending so much time touring there. All the original songs were written on the road in America.”
Crucially, Achtung Baby stands in the same relationship to Rattle And Hum as The Unforgettable Fire to War, an earlier shift which was also hailed as a return to European form. It looks like they’ve been cast in a Jekyll and Hyde role, the Good U2 and the Bad U2. When can we expect the return of the Bad U2?
“I was just saying now that we’ve got all these great reviews again, I’m slightly depressed because all I’ve got to look forward to is the next backlash.”
KEEPING THE ZOO OPTIONS OPEN
But if the Edge is low-key about Achtung Baby, the album, he’s less so about the live performance. This is a show that works in new principles, ht open u a Pandora’s box of fresh possibilities for the band.
“I think when Bono’s lyrics were starting to come through,” Edge says, “we started to see we were entering quite different terrain. We were working on ‘The Fly’, ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘Until The End Of The World’ and the possibilities of performing these new songs started occurring to us and how we could push it in an entirely different direction. We touched on it in ‘The Fly’ video.’
We talk about the show’s flexibility. For instance, the songs still don’t have to have a predetermined length. “That,” says the Edge, “was one of the more important decisions we made early on, that we wouldn’t sacrifice flexibility, so we designed a system that is both extremely complicated and high-tech but also incredibly simple and hands-on, controlled by human beings… in that sense, it’s still a live performance.”
Even mistakes can be used. They need not be a blemish; the audience may not even notice. “Yes,” he says, “that’s happened a few times and it’s not a problem, just a different show.”
He smiles, recalling Bono’s calls in vain to the White House: “He actually got to know the girl on the switchboard but after the fourth time, she started to smell a rat. Like the same guy calling about the same time but there was always a big crowd in the room! She wasn’t quite sure what was going on but I think she knew she was the butt end of some joke…
“It’s fun to play around with these ideas of where we can take a U2 show. It‘s almost getting into a whole new way of playing concerts. For us, it’s thrilling, inspiring. We’re only at the beginning of this. I think we can go a lot further.”
U2 won’t be playing Ireland this year however. At present, their plans focus on a massive outdoor concert next summer that may well bypass the traditional venues of Slane and Thurles. That’s the word from the Edge’s mouth which surely should be taken as more reliable than recent Irish media speculation.
He argues the decision is consistent with Zoo TV tour policy. Its first leg has involved playing one or two nights in smaller American and European venues and after their last round of Irish Christmas/New Year dates, they don’t believe they can return to The Point.
“If we were to do two Point Depots,” he argues, “there would probably be only enough seats for our friends and family so it has to be a big event next time.
“It really comes down to the fact,” he continues, “that the last time we played the Point we did four nights – but even at that, we just weren’t supplying the demand. There was a lot of hassle about the tickets and a lot of people didn’t get to see the show and we made a decision then that the next time we played Ireland, we didn’t want to do that; we wanted to play a big show that gave everybody the opportunity to see us.”
But why wait to play Ireland next summer? The read from the U2 camp seems to involve two reasons. First, they wanted to keep their options open till they saw how the Zoo TV experiment worked. Even now, they still haven’t taken it outdoors…
Secondly, they weren’t fully confident about the available Irish outdoor venues. Given the visual spectacle of the Zoo TV experience, Slane presents problems since this can’t be a daylight concert. and anyone who attended last year’s Féile knows Thurles still has to shape up to meet the standards expected of U2 – though it’ll probably come closer this year.
Croke Park or Lansdowne Road might meet their specifications but U2 seem to be probing the possibility of another outdoor site that would require the support of local government, the army and Aer Lingus.
As the Edge says, for U2, Ireland is always going to be “a problem of scale”. And with the Zoo TV show – what scale!
Everything you believe may indeed not be true – but that much is!