30th Anniversary Retrospective: In a special interview, The Edge reminisces about the early days of Hotpress, explains Bill Graham’s role in U2’s development, and comes clean about what the band have been up to recently in Morocco.
It was bound to happen: U2 have lit out for Interzone. 15 years after shooting the ‘Mysterious Ways’ video in Fez, the third largest city in Morocco, the band have fetched up there again, conducting speculative songwriting sessions for their next album, with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno operating as collaborative players rather than producers.
The quartet have always set much store in the importance of location as a crucial influence on the recording of their music. Unforgettable Fire was hatched in the echoey halls and stairwells of Slane Castle. Achtung Baby took shape (or refused to take shape) in Hansa by the Wall in Berlin, the chilly Nazi ballroom that incubated albums by Iggy, Bowie, Nick Cave, the Gun Club and Depeche Mode. Pop, by contrast, was informed by the tropical humidity and hot colours of Miami.
So when The Edge downs tools in his Killiney home and interrupts a spot of recording for a hotpress 30th anniversary retrospective chat, he’s still buzzing from his sojourn to Morocco, a liminal space that for thousands of years has served as both port and portal, a haven for criminals, spies and all manner of outsider artists, including George Orwell, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles and William Burroughs.
Rolling Stone Brian Jones also made a pilgrimage there in 1968, and with the help of Brion Gysin recorded an album’s worth of music by the Master Musicians of Joujouka (described by Burroughs as “a thousand year old rock ‘n’ roll band”). The Stones themselves revisited there for ‘Continental Drift’ in 1989. More recently, the city has hosted the World Sacred Music Festival every year.
“It’s Africa, but it feels like a different part of Africa,” Edge says. “This is not a new culture, this is thousands of years old. In fact in Fez they have the oldest university in the world, established somewhere in the eighth century, which gives you some idea of how old that city is. And the way the architecture operates, everything is inside the city walls. The souk is kind of the market, but the Medina is full of little tiny streets just about wide enough for a donkey with a basket on its back, no way could you get a car down there. It’s a totally different scale and approach to building, which has been like that for over a thousand years. Depending on where you are, you could get lost for weeks.”
Which, presumably, was the very point of the expedition…
Peter Murphy: To begin at the beginning – can you remember when the first issue of hotpress appeared in 1977?
The Edge: Actually, I remember when it was given away free at Macroom, ’cos I happened to be there at the Rory Gallagher concert, it was handed around at the gig. I think Rory might have been on the cover, so at first it was like, “What’s this, is it some kind of promotional material?” And then I realised, “Oh God, it’s a new magazine, how cool.” I wish I’d kept my first copy, but I think it probably got lost on the way home.
Most of the influential music writers of the time, like Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray and Lester Bangs, were miles away in London and New York. Did it make much difference to have a local forum for writers to document what was going on in Ireland?
I think it made a huge difference in that it kind of legitimised the local scene. Seeing something in print is proof that you actually exist outside of your own head, that there is something you’re part of, something going on, subcultural as it might be. It was real. hotpress was very important in making it real, not just for us but a lot of bands that came out around that time looking for gigs and support slots from visiting bands, busy in rehearsal rooms across the city, working on songs, arguing about whether it’s cool to wear a skinny tie or what length your hair should be. I don’t know if it was coincidence, but hotpress arrived just in time to be the mouthpiece, the narrator I suppose, for the scene as it came together.
People think of 1977 as a sort of punk Year Zero, but there were still a real proliferation of California-style country rock bands and cocaine cowboys.
I think we would have seen things in fairly stark, monochrome terms. We were still quite affectionate about some of the bands from the previous generation, but this was Maoism, the cultural revolution. Anything that drew its influences from pre-’77 was operating in a completely different world to us. I didn’t throw out my Rory Gallagher or Horslips records by any means, I still listened to them and loved them, but we were drinking from a different water source, totally. The bands that we would have been in competition with, I suppose, or shared the same scene with, were DC Nien, The Prunes, The Atrix, Revolver. And I suppose The Radiators were the first local punk band, and their influences were even more interesting than a lot of the English punk bands in some ways, because they were drawing from Can and Iggy Pop and The Stooges and the MC5. People in journalism refer to those acts, but I think a lot of the bands from the UK were all trying to be the New York Dolls and the Rolling Stones mixed together, they weren’t really aware of the German thing.
The Radiators also had a literary sensibility, with songs like ‘Kitty Rickets’ and ‘Faithful Departed’ harking back to Joyce and Behan.
Yeah, for sure. There was sophisticated stuff going on. And like a lot of so-called provincial music, there was often a lot more to it than the music that was getting the big headlines in London.
U2’s relationship with hotpress journalists like Bill Graham and Neil McCormick seemed quite close and informal.
In those days particularly, we would kind of befriend all of the journalists who would cover the band, and often times we’d just meet them for coffee. Bill and Neil were mates in that sense, and some of the UK journalists, the early ones that covered the live shows. It was true of our fans as well. There were few enough of them, so we got to know them personally and on many occasions they slept on the floor of our rooms if they were on the road with us. Different times.
To what extent did you use Bill Graham as a sounding board?
Bill was very important to us from the beginning. The story is pretty well known that he recommended we talk to one Paul McGuinness, who was a friend of Bill’s. We’d meet him from time to time and play him some stuff, and in a very touching way he would mentor us, give us records to listen to that he felt were important for us to hear, stuff that maybe we hadn’t come across before. And I think he filled a certain kind of almost big brother role with the band, and we certainly appreciated all his advice and consideration.
A lot of his writings on the band took quite a contrary stance. When you were getting it in the neck over Rattle & Hum, he was still insistent about the possibilities of U2 and the blues. Conversely, when everyone was hailing Achtung Baby as a radical reinvention, he was by no means fully convinced.
Yeah, Bill certainly considered himself very discerning on every level with music. He wasn’t necessarily impressed with what he considered as the pose, or the way that music was sometimes put across. In fact, I remember at Dark Space, the 24-hour punk rock concert in The Project, I can’t remember the name of the band who were headlining, they were from the UK, but Bill was looking at this act with me and he just turned around and said, “This is just London fashion. There’s nothing in this. It’s just a higher developed sense of pose, that’s the only thing this has over what’s going on in Dublin.”
And he was right, there wasn’t much to it really. I mean, in those days stance was important, but Bill always wanted to see through that, to see what was actually going on. I think Achtung Baby is a great record, so he may not have given it its due at the time, but I think he was always a little wary of anything that was coming at him with a big backstory. He just wanted to know what was under the hood, he didn’t really care about the body, the shape.
Strangely enough, he seemed much more on board with the Zoo TV concept.
People might think that it was an aberration – I think it was probably a necessary thing to go through, but it was probably the extent of that particular pendulum swing. That was the question at the time: “Is there any way back from Zoo TV and Achtung Baby?” It’s a lot of people’s favourite U2 record. It might be my favourite U2 record. But you could say we’ve kinda come back from that brink and created a sort of middle ground of subject matter and theme. But it also gives us the license to go out there again if we want to.
On the Elevation and Vertigo tours you revisited songs from Boy: ‘An Cat Dubh’, ‘Electric Co’, ‘Out Of Control’, ‘I Will Follow’. Did the young U2 have anything to teach the older U2?
Well, I was amazed at how sophisticated some of that first record was musically. Of course in those days we wrote songs in a very organic way, music often first, then melodies and then lyrics. But we instinctively would reach for things we felt the music needed, key changes and strange modulations that we wouldn’t really have understood. But now, looking back, the sheer quantity of innovative ideas on that record is pretty amazing. We were actually quite taken aback when we looked at it afresh. Some of the songs have survived better than others, I’m not sure we’d want to put a whole set from Boy in our show, but there’s incredible vitality and life to those songs, and that counts for an awful lot.
One thing I think it did was capture a sense of the band as an intense, gangly adolescent. Even if parts of it are a bit fumbling and gauche, that’s probably the point.
Yeah, I think it was the Village Voice who said, “After this record this band should break up, because they’ll never ever do anything as interesting as this.” (Laughs) And for all the reasons you just said, everything about it was kind of searching, and missing the mark, spectacularly in some places, but it all kinda added up to the telling of a certain story, and it did that very eloquently.
I imagine you watched with some bemusement in recent years as bands like Interpol and Bloc Party and Arcade Fire mined that wintery early ‘80s European sound.
Yeah, it was amazing to realise two or three years ago that that particular moment in time when we were coming through had suddenly become the new zeitgeist for the rock ‘n’ roll alternative underground. It made me go back again and listen to Siouxsie & The Banshees, Joy Division and The Associates, and I can see the appeal. The blues was so overused and trodden into the ground as a form, and these were chords and progressions and melodic ideas that were devoid of any of that influence. In a sense, if you were to say what that movement was about, it’s like rock ‘n’ roll without the blues, without the American influence. I think the German scene was probably a huge influence on us second hand, ’cos we would have been listening to Eno and Magazine and groups that were listening to Can and Neu.
Location has always been crucial to U2 records. You were in Fez for a couple of weeks recently.
Yeah, we just got back.
Is this your latest psycho-geographical adventure, trying to channel the atmosphere of a place into the music?
I think it is. It was one of those ideas that wouldn’t go away. Bono suggested it a good while ago. He throws out ideas a lot, and a lot of them do not necessarily get met with the greatest enthusiasm. I would probably be the one most ready to go for it, Adam is fairly easygoing, Larry is hard to persuade a lot of times. In this case, to everyone’s amazement, Larry pretty early on went, “I think there’s something to this; it sounds like a good idea.”
So we talked to Brian Eno and Danny Lanois about possibly coming and writing with us, which is a new thing, and also to our amazement they both said, “Yeah, great, love to.” So we set off to Morocco and set up in a small Riad, which is like a hotel built around a central courtyard, and spent a couple of amazing weeks working with Brian and Danny.
We were there during a festival of sacred music in Fez, so we saw some amazing artists. It’s all stuff that just takes you out of your comfort zone, and we seem to thrive in that situation, where expectations are really disregarded and you’re there to explore and discover new things.
Can you describe some of the music you heard there?
Because North African music didn’t end up going to America, it’s actually like this twist on African music. The music that went to America was from West Africa, Mali and places like that, you can still go there and hear the roots of the blues and other R&B sounds, the Chuck Berry guitar thing, that’s still alive and kicking, it originated from there.
So when you go to Morocco, it’s a whole different set of beats and rhythms and ideas. I mean, they could really lay claim to the whole trance music phenomenon. That’s been going on there for centuries, the drumming and the groove would keep going, sending everyone into a kind of trance state. And for musicians like ourselves, whose exposure is to mostly UK and American music, it is incredibly inspiring to hear this totally fresh and different set of roots and influences. And there’s huge variety as well, it’s not like it’s just one thing, there’s all kinds of different folk musics, but they’re all incredibly rhythmic and they all have their very distinctive beats and sounds. So there’s a lot for us there really, it’s a very rich culture.
I imagine being in an alien environment also reinforces the group mind.
As Danny would say, anywhere that takes us away from home is a good thing as far as he’s concerned, because the distractions of being in Dublin are a problem if you’re trying to really concentrate on something.
How different is it having Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois contribute as musicians?
Well, they’ve always chipped in on the playing front, so in that sense it’s not so radical, but I think having it being a joint project has changed the emphasis slightly, and I have to say the chemistry that operates between the six of us is extraordinary. It’s the four, it’s the U2 thing, but it’s given another twist with Brian and Danny.
Are these songwriting sessions for a U2 album or an extra-curricular endeavour?
It’s a U2 project, and one of the luxuries we’ve afforded ourselves is not to have to think about exactly what it will be or how it’ll be finished or when it’ll be released. Right now, we’re so enjoying the idea of making music for the sake of making music that we want to keep that going as long as is financially possible. And of course, at some point we’ll have to sit down and say, “Well, what have we got; is this one record, two records? Or is it a 12 inch single?” (Laughs). Then take it from there.