U2 at the BBC review: carefully preserved, they never get old, always the same

U2 try to seem humble in this interview featuring the modest travel habits of Everybono

In this clip from the documentary 'U2 at the BBC', host Cat Deeley joins the band on their South American tour. Video: BBC Music

 

The line of questioning during U2 at the BBC (BBC One, Tuesday, 9pm), an hour of live music shuffled into a cosy interview, hardly counts as a grilling.

Hosted by Cat Deeley, a friend of the band’s for 20 years, it prods the group on their origins, in answer to that ad to join the Larry Mullen Band; on the worst fight they ever had (Bono threw a drum kit at Larry); on delivering their second last album directly to people’s reluctant iTunes accounts (they’d do it again); and on how they came by their nicknames.

Much of this is already heavily varnished U2 lore, utterly familiar to anyone who has tuned in. Together with the presence of an orchestra and choir (“A little self-indulgent,” protests Bono, a man not known for his asceticism), this gives the broadcast a devotional quality, which seems entirely in tune with the religious undercurrents of the music and even the band’s sense of themselves.

“We’ve been playing to 70,000 people since our 20s,” says Edge, finding the rare intimacy of this Abbey Road audience more daunting. For such a band, the audience has always been a mass.

But the answers to a couple of questions are revealing nonetheless, as when Bono repeats the origin of his nickname, after the Bono Vox hearing aid shop, but misunderstands its meaning: “I think it means ‘Strong Voice’.” It’s an interesting misapprehension, because tonight Bono’s voice is not strong. In conversation, he is given to gravelly throat clearing, and in song he doesn’t find it easy to sustain his notes or hit the higher peaks. He may just have a cold, but voices change over the years, and if the new album is charged with vulnerability and mortality, that seems present in the performance.

“Absolutely brilliant,” fawns Deeley after Lights of Home, a new song that leaves little impression. “Take a breather.” At this rate, we get one song every 10 minutes, beginning with Beautiful Day, to which the string section supplies a light gloss.

The image of U2, which is getting harder to preserve, is that the biggest band in the world is almost parodoxically down to earth. (At the programme’s start, all but Bono enter Abbey Road by the tradesman entrance.)

That ruse is blown with another seemingly innocuous question: whether they pack their own suitcases. Bono attempts to deflect the implications of superstardom by claiming not to have a suitcase at all – like a normal person, perhaps? – speaking instead of “Sleeping on people’s couches, turning up in people’s houses.”

This absurd impression of humility, the modest travel habits of an Everybono, is hard to reconcile with his satisfaction, at the end of Stuck in a Moment, that “I thought I saw 100,000 people.” Although it is the subject of their best work, intimacy does not come naturally to U2, and to see the audience in Sao Paulo, to where Deeley is extravagantly whisked away with the band, you understand why.

“It’s never got old for us, it’s always the same,” Edge says of performing to stadiums, with a becoming command of paradox.

That may explain why, surprisingly, they play Beautiful Day again in its entirety, except now with different clunky lyrics. (I learned later that this is actually a new song called Get Out of your Own Way.) Or why they conclude with Love is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way, a numbingly insistent anthem.

That, I suspect, is a reflection of the U2 imperative, where the music is as carefully preserved as they are: never getting old, always the same.

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