Bono: ‘We pay a lot of tax. We’re very proud to pay a lot of tax’

You might think differently of the U2 frontman after his appearance on Desert Island Discs, on BBC Radio 4

Bono is often cited as among the most annoying rock stars of his generation—and it would seem the U2 frontman is in partial agreement. Or that, at least, is the impression the singer gives during a largely chummy, if at one point quite tense, appearance on Desert Island Discs today (BBC Radio 4, 11.15 am).

“I know there is a bit of an annoying gene in there,” he tells the programme’s host, Lauren Laverne. “I’m a bit of a squeaky wheel. When my instinct tells me to follow through with something I won’t let go… That version of Bono I could do without on an island.”

Happily, squeaky-wheel Bono is generally absent from a broadcast in which he nominates the records he would bring to a secluded atoll. Some of the picks feel obvious—Ice Cream Sundae by his son Elijah’s band, Inhaler, for instance. There are a few surprises, though: who knew that singing Peter Frampton’s Show Me the Way as a teenager would give Bono the confidence to go on and become an iconic frontman?

Nor does he confine himself to rock music. Alongside Bob Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand and Dead in the Water by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, he picks Abide with Me as performed by Emeli Sandé (with a Welsh choir blended in) and the prelude to act one from Verdi’s La Traviata (prompting an anecdote about his father meeting Princess Diana at a Pavarotti concert).

Generally laid-back—even discussing personal family matters—Bono grows tense just once. This is when Laverne quizzes him about U2′s financial arrangements and their entirely legal and above-board decision, in 2006, to move their tax affairs from Ireland to the Netherlands.

“At the root of this is a false idea that if you’re tough-minded in your activism you have to be somehow soft-headed in your business,” says Bono. “It would be immoral to be dismissive of those things. It’s the fiduciary duty of a public company, let alone a private company, to control costs. This is a bit of a gotcha situation for U2. There’s a lot of reasons to not like our band. This is not one of them. We pay a lot of tax. We’re very proud to pay a lot of tax. It’s, like, really? Why would we be the poster child for this? Is it to do with something else?”

Desert Island Discs is regarded as an institution in the UK, and Laverne is just the fifth host in its 80 years, having taken over from Kirsty Young in 2018. There have been criticisms of her presenting style as too lightweight. But, talking to Bono, she is both chatty and dogged. She brings up his toe-curling Ukraine “poem”, which went viral after he sent it to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, over St Patrick’s weekend.

“That was a bit silly,” he says, “I write limericks sometimes for the Paddy’s Day event [in Washington, DC]. It’s a funny limerick… The Ukrainians have a great sense of humour. They were fond of any way we were reaching out to them. I deserve a slap. Every singer in a rock band is going to step on somebody’s toes. It’s not like we don’t deserve some criticism. That poem business is ridiculous; it’s a limerick.”

Laverne loses her footing just once, when asking Bono about his upbringing as the son of a Church of Ireland mother and Catholic father. “Obviously sectarianism was a huge issue in Ireland at the time,” she says, painting with a brush so broad it’s a wonder she could fit it into the studio. Irish listeners will appreciate the irony of the BBC banging on about religiosity in Ireland given the airtime it recently devoted to the platinum jubilee of the supreme governor of the Church of England.

Without ever coming across as prurient, Laverne also peels back the layers of Bono’s complicated family life. Did you know that the singer has a half-brother of whose existence he became aware only years later? I didn’t, and it feels like a bombshell—especially as he recalled confronting his father about his dad’s affair with a family friend and the betrayal of Bono’s mother (who would die when the singer was just 14).

“I asked him did he love my mother,” Bono says. “And he said yes. I asked, ‘How can this happen?’ He said, ‘It can.’ I’m at peace with him.”

If anyone will have felt short-changed by the interview it is hardcore U2 fans. Bono talked vaguely about the group remaining very much a going concern and still feeling they have something to say.

But he didn’t reveal whether they are ready to return to the studio, much less tour again. For non-U2 diehards, however, this was a fascinating 45 minutes. By the end even those who regard Bono as one of the most irritating rock stars ever to don a pair of mirror shades may have had cause to revise their opinion.