We need to talk about Bono (and Edge, Adam and Larry) again
If I was still an U2 fan, I’d be in two minds after the band’s show at Glastonbury on Friday night. On the one hand, it was easily the best U2 show I’ve seen them do since the “Achtung Baby” …
If I was still an U2 fan, I’d be in two minds after the band’s show at Glastonbury on Friday night. On the one hand, it was easily the best U2 show I’ve seen them do since the “Achtung Baby” tour back in 1992, the last time U2 were impressive onstage. On the other hand, it bore absolutely no resemblance to the show the band are currently playing, as they continue to cart The Crab and that dog of a current album around big US sports arenas. There must have been thousands of U2 fans worldwide on Friday night muttering to themselves “plain to see that the feckers didn’t dare start this gig with four tracks from “No Tunes On the Horizon”.”
Let’s leave all the off-stage noises to the side for the moment. Let’s park such issues as tax, Edge’s planning problems, Adam’s decision to wear an onesie onstage, Larry Mullen’s sulky post-gig interview and Spider-Man. We’ll come back to them (well, maybe not Adam’s styling issues, which call out for Lola Cashman to be brought back into the fold) but for now, let’s stick with the music. The late, great Bill Graham, one of the finest music writers of all time, used to say that U2′s hometown gigs were always dogged by offstage drama with bishops demanding cheaper tickets and the like. Bill would probably chuckle at the notion that those offstage noises are now worldwide. It’s hard to do, but let’s have a look at Friday’s gig without the flotsam and jetsam of a very rich rock band. Can we do that for a few paragraphs?
Musically, this century has not been kind to U2. They started with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”, rehashed that template with “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” and produced the biggest musical flop of their career with “No Line On the Horizon”. Like so many heritage bands who’ve been on the game for decades, diminishing returns have set in. There are only a handful of songs from that trio of albums which casual fans will recognise. This seems to happen to many acts in similar situations. You’re just never as good as your greatest hits, which always came when you were hungry, eager, enthusiastic, angry, out to prove a point. Now that that race has been run and won, you’re a little reluctant to take chances, your responsibilities to the people who rely on you for a living take precedence over musical innovation, you take the easy options every time. You go on tour with a giant crab and let that become the wow factor. Everything else takes over. It’s like creative Viagra.
The current tour has been the band’s nadir. Even the most dogged U2 fan will agree that starting a set with a handful of songs from a flop current album is not a good way to go. Sure, you can fit more people into the field because of the design of the crab, but it’s not a great return when those fans are hearing tunes that they’ve already passed on. Leaving aside the fact that even a superstar band like U2 are subject to the vagaries of the record industry as it enters its wind-down stage, sales of the current album have not increased as a result of the tour. The album is just not good enough, which has been apparent to many since the get-go. Time to move on.
Which brings us to Michael Eavis’ farm in England’s West Country. U2 at Glastonbury was always going to be an event gig because of those offstage noises (Bono’s back, the Uncut UK protests, that sort of thing) but they made it more of an event by taking chances. Yes, U2 took chances by playing their greatest hits. No attempt at trying to sell this audience the “difficult” songs from the new album. No way of shoehorning the crab into the proceedings. No need to rely on the extra hands who are working this tour with the crab. Just the four musicians who appear in the photos (and a sneaky keyboard-player, by some accounts) and a bunch of songs which have weathered the years.
This is what U2 on tour should be about, you know. The hits, the songs people want to hear, the big tunes which have soundtracked so many formative and seminal moments for the band and their fanbase. Sure, throw in a few new songs here and there, but don’t make them the focus of the gig. Do a greatest hits tour and you wouldn’t be able to keep track of the zeroes from the gross. You’d need – gag coming up – a whole new range of Dutch tax shelters to deal with the income from this. It would be the kind of tour which could hole up in that casino in Two Mile Borris for yonks. Forget Celine Dion or Elton John or Barry Manolow in Las Vegas – U2′s Trip to Tipp would out-gross that in a heartbeat.
Maybe what we saw on Friday night was a dry-run for that tour, the next one? I’m sure there are members of the band and their team who would baulk at the idea of a greatest hits tour. They’re still relatively young men in rock’n'roll terms – especially when you’ve got seventysomethings like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon still on the road – and a greatest hits tour would be seen as an admission of defeat of sorts in some quarters.
But when the new material is just not up to the job, a different kind of tour would do more than bring in lots of ker-ching. It would remind the group of how they used to sound and work. It would strip away the distracting stage show, which have made going to see the band resemble a trip to Funderland. It might actually prod and poke them into making a decent record again. Of course, they’re still going to make records – that’s what bands do, after all. The problem is that, leaving aside the usual cast of cheerleaders and fanboys in the media and those diehard fans who refuse to recognise that their idols can occasionally fuck up, everyone knows that U2′s innings over the last 10 years has been appalling. They need to find their mojo again – or need to see if it can be found – and a greatest hits tour may be one way for them to do that. Or they could spend a summer doing the festival circuit and having the crack. U2 at Oxegen 2013? Stranger things have happened.
One thing that fascinates me about longstanding acts like U2 is the group psychology. They’ve been working with each other for the bones of 35 years with very few blips, which is quite an astonishing timespan for any four individuals. Sure, you could read a lot into Larry Mullen’s body language in the post-gig interview on the Beeb. We know from those interviews with the house-trained press that there have been occasional conflicts between the singer and the drummer about this and that. The tax thing has “stung” Bono, while the rest of the band just shrugged and got on with it. But the four individuals still walk out on that stage together and go to work. No subs, no changes in personnel, no new faces. 35 years of the drummer looking at the singer’s arse.
Those offstage noises are a distraction, but they can be dealt with. The tax thing? Bono knows his bible so he doesn’t need reminding of Matthew 22:21: “render therefore unto Michael Noonan the things which are Michael Noonan’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. As long as you give the detractors a stick to beat you with, they’ll happily make full use of it. Sure, it’s all above board and legal. Bono and U2 are paying their tax, albeit thanks to taking advantage of international tax laws and excellent advice from the people they pay handsomely to provide such excellent advice. But when you’re more than a singer in a rock’n'roll band, when you’re also strongarming governments to do their bit for the developing world and your pet projects, you need clean hands. It may have been a band decision, but there’s nothing to stop the singer, for instance, starting his own company, Not Paul Ltd, to invoice the band for his share of the Dutch cash and paying that tax in the country where he lives like the vast majority of his fellow citizens. We’re onto the realm of collective responsibility and all of that now, but the other lads aren’t the ones out there hectoring governments and who are getting hammered about hypocrisy.
As they travel to Florida for the next gig with the crab – and there are tickets on sale for all bar one of the remaining shows on this leg of the tour, live music stats fans – they can think back to Friday night. They’ve probably got quibbles about it that none of us have, but they’ve probably also got highlights from that performance which we didn’t spot either. What should be abundantly clear, though, is that it’s the first time that U2 have actually meant an iota to an audience beyond their loyal heartland in decades. It’s up to the band now to decide whether to retreat to the crab or start taking a few chances.