Life on the road with U2: ‘There were supermodels everywhere’
Music and creative consultant Suzanne Doyle talks U2, MTV, life on the road and bringing it all back home
Road warrior: Suzanne Doyle. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
When a phenomenon like U2 accelerates, it tends to carry others along with it as it steamrolls its way around the globe. While minding her own business and repeating her Leaving Cert in 1987, Suzanne Doyle was plucked from anonymity and taken on tour with the band, a role which kicked off a lifetime working in the music industry, often in the orbit of one of the biggest bands in the world. How she got there in the first place was luck, chance and a Geography teacher.
“One day I came home from school and my sister said ‘Mr Scully wants you to ring him’. So I rang and he says ‘I’ve heard of a temp job and I thought of you. I can’t tell you what it is, you have to say yes or no.’”
Doyle said yes and soon found herself going for an interview in her mother’s clothes for a job as as assistant to Ann Louise Kelly, who was running the day-to-day business in the U2 office for Principle Management and Paul McGuinness.
“I wasn’t really a fan,” remembers Doyle. “I was into Doris Day and Jessica Lange. I wanted to go to Hollywood and be an actress.”
U2 were about to embark on The Joshua Tree tour and release With Or Without You as a single.
“ I was given a notebook and a pen. I answered the phone, made the coffee, did the usual things. After a week, I adored it and felt like It was where I belonged.”
She never repeated her Leaving Cert after that. What followed was a few years of touring after Doyle has offered a tour assistant job. It started in a stadium in Rome and went all over, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US included.
She had scrupulously saved enough money to buy a house in Dalkey, but there was another life calling. At 21, she quit her cushy U2 job, which ended with a big goodbye party, and went off to pursue acting.
Doyle did a course in the Gaiety and it soon became apparent, she wasn’t going to get to Tinseltown.
“I was nervous, nail-biting, didn’t want anyone to look at me. I wasn’t going to be the blue-eyed Jessica Lange.”
She decamped to Australia with her boyfriend, but the country was in a recession and work was hard to come by. She contacted the only two bands she knew: Crowded House and INXS. The latter’s Chris Murphy had a record label RooArt to help indigenous Australian artists and Doyle started as an intern. Not long after she had traded the office for the road once more, except this time, life on the road wasn’t nearly as comfortable.
“Kim Frankovich who was brought in to run the label kept sending me on tour with these bands in little vans, “ remembers Doyle. “There was one band I worked with, called the Screaming Jets and their statement was “rock out with your cock out”. I’d go into a payphone and ring Kim and ask to go home. She’d just say no and put the phone down.”
Doyle acknowledges that she had been spoiled by the “posh and nice” U2 touring experience but she doesn’t regret downgrading to tours that more closely resembled the reality for the majority of bands.
“I was spoiled rotten with Principle. I would have been the most boring, safe person. Australia opened up my head, gave me new experiences. I love variety.”
Until the end of the world
Sydney felt far from home. With that, Paul McGuinness called again and Doyle had to consider her position.
“You watched the news to see what was going on, there were no emails, there were letters. My best friend’s dad died and it hit me, I actually missed home a bit.”
With that, she was back on the U2 Zoo TV tour as an assistant tour manager and band assistant.
“Put those two jobs together – I was the last one to bed and the first one up in the morning. It was the time there was supermodels everywhere, it was all satellite links from Sarajevo. It was bonkers, mad, brilliant, but it was a hardcore few years. At one point off tour, my mam found me sleepwalking hanging over the bannisters with an imaginary walkie-talkie directing people, so that was my mental state.”
Still in her mid-20s, Doyle has headhunted by MTV Europe to work in their talent artist relations department and moved to London.
“Anything MTV did back in the day had to go through that department, whether it was ad sales, marketing events or tour support. I repped great indie labels so I had One Little Indian, XL, Beggar’s Banquet, Jive – but you were competing with the majors at the time so every week we’d battle out the playlist, which was blood, sweat and lots of tears.”
Back to the band
In 1998, she was offered a promotion looking after UK and Ireland talent relations, but Paul McGuinness came looking for her once more. It all changed once again.
“I chose to come back to Ireland and I worked for U2 again for two more years. I met a fellah, found out I was pregnant and had my son (Ned is now 19). Six weeks later, I was made redundant and I was left in Dublin. I don’t think the Popmart tour was as profitable for them – it was a big production.”
Left caring for a newborn, she got a call from Bono and Ali Hewson who asked her to work with them on everything but U2 – their advocacy and charity work mainly. Doyle says her time working for the couple was inspirational but as one person looking after everything, she lacked support. She split up with Ned’s dad and her mum had a stroke.
“When I left, people asked me did you not regret it? I actually changed my life to have a life. I nearly crashed the car once going to the creche trying to get an email to the White House.”
What followed for Doyle has been 16 years of freelance work, most of it in music and media, working for South Wind Blows, producing a Kila DVD (her husband Lance Hogan was in the band) and worked with Kevin Godley’s tech startup Wholeworldband and last week, she was a judge on the Choice Music Prize – “the biggest honour”.
Perhaps her most challenging role since, was filling in on The Late Late Show booking the live acts for RTÉ.
“The Late Late is the flagship Irish show, it’s bigger than all of us. The first day I went in to the office, I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I was terrified. It’s so quiet, there’s no noise or music – I was terrified by programming the show. I was writing up my resignation letter before I’d even signed my contract.”
Doyle booked what was expected of her and then began to put her stamp on things bringing in more emerging and contemporary acts on the show including Villagers (“Conor said it was one of his favourite TV performances ever. I nearly burst into tears”), Wyvern Lingo, Jack O’Rourke and at short notice, Cork musician Paddy Dennehy and the Red Herring, who was caught on the hop.
“He was a teacher and he was like ‘I’m teaching, I’ll tell them I’m sick’. I said ‘No Paddy’, they’ll see you on The Late Late.’”
Doyle maintains that it’s an established fact that the majority of people switch off when the music act plays on the show, so she argues why not give that huge platform to an emerging act.
“I’ve seen the graph. When music comes on people switch over to Graham Norton, they go out to make tea or get a glass of wine. It doesn’t really matter who you put on, big or small, there’s a dip. My point is the goodwill and the vibe of that person’s tribe, will engage or tweet so they’ll get the flipside that the older generation won’t give them. If they’re going to turn off anyway, why not put more brave choices on the show? As a public broadcaster, I really believe it’s vital as there aren’t that many opportunities otherwise.”
Forging her own path
Having long left the orbit of U2, Doyle is forging her own path. She’s currently working with Finbar Furey, who she says has legendary status at age 70 but is more than what he’s given credit for.
“I would love to raise him where he should be and introduce him to a new audience. When himself and Christy Dignam performed on The Late Late for his birthday, 4.5 million people shared or watched the link to that song. People responded.”
Doyle never made it as an actress but she now has music in her soul despite the shakiness of the freelance life and the music industry, there’s no question she’s still thirsty for more.
“I don’t quite know how I’ve done 16 years freelancing. I didn’t think it’d be such hard work. I thought I’d get to the point where I would be a lady who lunches, who buys nice clothes and who goes on holidays. It’s really not like that, it’s a lot of hard work but it’s the most excited I’ve ever been about work.”