Adam Clayton on U2: the band, the business arrangement, the marriage

TV review: These are tough times for cultural programming and arts criticism, discovers the new series of The Works Presents - even Adam Clayton, GQ’s contributing arts editor, has to hold down two jobs

Arts critic  and musician Adam Clayton with arts critic and musician John Kelly

Arts critic and musician Adam Clayton with arts critic and musician John Kelly

 

These are tough times for arts programming and cultural journalism alike, occupying a space that seems to be forever shrinking or plunging into crude populism.

The new series of The Works Presents (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 11.10pm), RTÉ’s flagship television arts programme, tackles the problem head on, without shying away from harsher realities. It’s a rare show that can devote itself to a one-on-one interview with the contemporary arts critic of a print periodical, for instance. Still, it’s sobering to discover that even GQ Magazine’s contributing arts editor Adam Clayton, has to hold down two jobs to sustain this passion. (He is also the bass player with rock group, U2).

Articulate and immaculately well dressed with perfectly white spiked hair that both Samuel Beckett and any American senator would admire, Clayton is asked to address his night job first. Forty years is a long time to be in a band, host John Kelly puts to him. “It’s a long time in a band, it’s a long time in a business arrangement, it’s a long time in a marriage,” Clayton says, a frank and intriguing answer worth expanding. Perhaps he did – there’s a restlessness to the 30-minute format that suggests brisk editing, made giddier with intercutting clips and stills from a heaving U2 archive. At times it feels closer to a music video than an arts show.

Kelly walks that line himself, a DJ, presenter and author, but here he mainly indulges the curiosities of fandom. Clayton obliges with a familiar overview: depressed times, punk rock, school bands, shoddy amplifiers, better influences and lucky breaks. “Eventually I think we did lay out our stall as this mixture of expressing our adolescence, of owning up to being from the suburbs and admitting that there was a spiritual dimension to life.” Again, this is worth unpacking, especially the last part, given Clayton’s early scepticism against far more devout band members, but away we go.

Niggling away at the conscience of every muso is the suspicion that, given one lucky break, they too might now be the bass player in a world-conquering rock band. Kelly kicks the tyres of that fantasy a couple of times, when he suggests the necessary self-belief to be in U2 “was knocked out of us by each other” and, more touchingly, that the effectively simple bass line on With or Without You is “really one I could play”. Steady on now, John, it’s not as if Clayton could do your job.

The central thrust of Kelly’s interview, however, is that Clayton could do his job. Clayton’s own “road not taken” is studying at an art college, but Kelly argues that being in a world-famous band is really the next best thing, allowing access to international museums, curators and artists, presumably with fewer exams. A kaleidoscope of shots serve to convey this point – Warhol lithographs, Louvre fixtures, random galleries and U2 publicity photos – like footnotes to a midterm essay at the Art School of Rock.

Clayton is clearly culturally informed and attentive, in the way that many collectors are, but neither he nor The Works Presents make any claim towards being the new John Berger. It’s not quite a rock star interview – too many obvious avenues are left unexplored – but nor is it an arts interview: there’s no exploration of his criticism. (Clayton’s defence of the sculptor Allen Jones in GQ, often dismissed as a misogynist for his “fetish mannequins”, runs under the précis, “He is deeply thoughtful and clearly loves women.”)

Instead, we get moments of instructive philosophy that serve as mature reflections for an aging rock band. Borrowing a theory from John Currin, another artist famed for provocatively sexual themes, Clayton talks about youth and risk-taking: “The essence of what your art is.” Once artists becomes established, however, audiences don’t want the experiments – they want the hits. “Pop music is the sound of youth, the sound of trying, of bravado,” says Clayton, “When you get to the age of a band like U2, you can’t really do that. It’s got to be about ideas. And it’s a different kind of commitment.”

It always comes back to U2 – the band, the business, the marriage – and the show seems to luxuriate in that aura. So does Clayton. Much is made of his enviable anonymity, taking a tube to his own London concert, happy to go unnoticed, while still sharing the experience with 1.2m Instagram followers.

There’s more to life than U2, this friendly interview is trying to say, but it’s hard for anyone or any venture to stand apart from its phenomenon. You can’t live with or without them.

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