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U2 - POLL WINNERS SPEAK OUT
Niall Stokes talks to Bono and The Edge about their 1982 Hot Press Poll victory.
Niall Stokes, 05 Mar 1982
With another sweeping Hot Press Readers' Poll victory under their
collective belt, the inevitable conclusion is that the U-2 star is still unfalteringly in the ascendant.
Their achievement in taking the overall Best Polling Act category, ahead of Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Altered Images, Human League and Paul Brady, as well as dominating the Irish section of the poll follows hard on an impressively improved showing in the NME poll, a highly successful sell-out Irish tour which took them up the scale to the 5,000-capacity RDS Main Hall in Dublin, and an equally celebratory brace of London gigs just prior to Christmas. It all adds up to a remarkable show of strength, carried all the more effectively because of the band's still-explosive sense of enthusiasm and commitment.
But while the band in building their audience, are making the kind of strides necessary to keep the enterprise creatively as well as financially buoyant, there have been some worrying developments over the past year. Even in this, the issue of Hot Press which celebrates a new and comprehensive triumph for the band, in terms of audience commitment, the letters page sees a hitherto unprecedented wave of disillusionment with them.
In a sense this is predictable - most bands find that achieving mass support means losing some of those who championed them through the early stages. But then U-2 have always been exceptional in their ability to break with the stereotypes. Their commitment is such that you feel they must want to transcend the inevitable, to find the key to the mystery of how not to alienate those who initially put their faith in the band, while attracting new support all the time.
On an entirely different level, there has been some disquiet following the band's lack of major singles success in Britain in 1981. Steering a tight course, the acceleration provided by a hit single can make the vital difference to ongoing record company commitment, or lack thereof. There is a need for record companies, to have some tangible verification of their belief in the commercial potential, even of bands signed essentially on the basis of musical credibility. Both "Fire" and "Gloria" looked set for lift-off but it didn't happen; executives at Island must have been perplexed, if not downright upset - all the more so because the company so obviously believes in the band.
How important these issues are is a matter for interpretation. Crucially, it depends on the attitude of the band. Anyone who knows U-2, anyone who's been touched by their music, anyone who's been fired by their magic should anticipate one thing: they are not complacent.
Currently back in the U.S. of A., at the start of a strenuous six-week stint there, Bono is characteristically UP, when the poll news is delivered. "The sun is shining, The Edge is shining - we're all feeling very good", he says, reflecting on his exuberant torrent of words. "When I'm not feeling so good. I don't talk so fast".
But there is no sense, right now, of Bono being carried forward on a wave of undiluted optimism. Neither he nor his fellow U-2-ers are likely to shrink from the implications of their evolving status. And though their recent Irish tour and most specifically the Dublin RDS gig represented a pinnacle of achievement for them, they're quite prepared to question the scale which was involved.
"What we did was quite ambitious", the Edge says unassumingly about the RDS gig. "We haven't ever played a venue that size in our own right before. There was a feeling that maybe the occasion became larger than us - I think that it might have been better to play some small venues as well.
"But I'd still stand by those gigs", he adds, a theme taken up by Bono: "The concert in the RDS was the most successful concert ever of its size I've been at in Dublin. There was such an atmosphere of celebration, right from the front rows to the back. That kind of feeling between the band and the audience leaves me breathless".
There were aspects of the experience about which he feels apprehensive - the fact that some people were hurt for one, though it was, he emphasises, a peaceful concert. Then there was an incident in Cork, where a group of about fifty or sixty people came autograph hunting.
"They didn't want to talk", he says and his voice registers bewilderment, "they wanted bits of me. They wanted me to write my name down on scraps of paper. Incidents like that did make me think about the whole thing - we're not into that gladiators, dinosaur rock thing.
"I'm asking a lot of questions about it but what I do believe is that the band is a great live act and we're going to continue to be a great live act".
Some of the disillusionment among "established" U-2 fans relates to the fact that a portion of their expanded audience responds to the band with imaginary-guitar poses - a tradition associated with the dinosaur bands U-2's vibrancy rejects. It's a spurious excuse for disaffection and Bono says as much.
"I don't look down on that", he asserts, "I don't care what people are, whether they've long hair, short hair or they're skinheads - if someone is being excited by the music, then I'm happy. I don't care for cliches myself, or stock responses, but people get a chance to let go at our gigs and they do. As long as it's not violent or too alcoholic - and by that I don't mean being drunk, but becoming senseless - if people express themselves, then that's good. And if elitist followers are put off by that, then that's up to them.
"What I'd like to get across, without sounding trite, is that our belief in the people who come to see us is very strong. That's what's important about our relationship with our audience".
And what their success in Readers' Polls, and suchlike, generates is a feeling that "it's nice to have some of that belief back - we'd just like to say ... thank you!" And he sounds so wide-eyed that there's no way you could treat his guilelessness sceptically.
"I do feel that this is the end of a certain era", he adds seriously. "We are re-evaluating our position, both from a live and a recording point of view. We've just cancelled a planned tour of Australia, Japan and India because we want to spend more time at home.
"The band just loves Dublin and being there", he says outlining tentative plans which, if realised, might set the scene in their hometown alight.
The Edge is philosophical about the response to "October", which he describes as "very varied". "A lot of people who liked "Boy" were disappointed by it", he comments, "while people who didn't like "Boy" preferred "October". What the responses to the album indicate is that you can't come to terms with our music in one or two listens.
"I like it more now than I did at first", he adds, a feeling which is at odds with so many musicians' experience of their own work - the more they hear it, the more it grates. " It's like with " 11 O'Clock" - that didn't get a great reaction when it was released but it came through two years or a year later to be voted Best Single on Dave Fanning's rock show. I think "October will prove to be a very important album for the band".
Their new single, recorded a couple of weeks back in Dublin's fine Windmill Studios, he describes as a 'Short, sharp song".
"It's not a pop single as such", he adds, "but it is quite accessible. It's a single type of song, which is unusual for us - we've never really released a single as such - they've essentially been tracks from albums".
Hence their lack of smash hit singles is seen as basically irrelevant. In an era where most bands concentrate on singles, often to the detriment of their album output, U2 see themselves as an album band.
"I've always thought of it in those terms", the Edge comments, "and Island have also. This is a long-term project. Even now they're delighted with progress - when we signed, they said that it might be the third album before things started happening" - a projection which can hardly be put down as overly optimistic, given their rate of progress so far.
"We never did want to be a band hoping for the next single to be a hit", he says, emphasising how easy it is to fall from grace in a fickle market. "Albums and live tours are our strength and the singles are essentially a promotional device for them".
On their evolving relationship with their audience he adds, "We aren't the sort of band you can make your mind up about and still be right in a year's time. It's more like a process of continual assessment. We're going to change and we're going to keep on changing. We're not restricting ourselves. But audiences are into that. Audiences are into progression".
If there is a theme in this short conversation, it's that faith - the credence which U-2 invest, some might say naively, in the quality of the ordinary people - the mass of ordinary people - who now form their audience. But in this attitude they are being entirely consistent. What has fired, and inspired their music from the word go, is an unshaking optimism, which flies in the face of so many signposts to the times, and which allows them to transcend even their own doubts, as well as the extraneous hostile forces which might have grounded their soaring vision.
What is important about this optimism is that it acts as a direct challenge to the essential bleakness imposed by those who offer youthful energy nothing more than the same old story. There is something to celebrate in the fact that where Irish youth lacked a voice for long, now there is not just one but many through which their cultural aspirations are being expressed.
U-2's power lies in their ability to capture musically the teeming rush of youthful experience. It's a power that won't be denied, that won't be perverted easily.
What those who feel that U-2 have gone too far up the ladder must remember is that they care passionately about keeping their achievement in perspective, that they are committed to its personal, human scale.
Our trust in them thus far has scarcely been misplaced. Now is not the time for faint hearts.
Vol 6 No. 5 February 19th, 1982.