not a member? click here to sign up
Welcome to the epicentre
Last night began a momentous chapter for the world’s biggest band. For U2, it was the first live airing and radio/internet broadcast of material from their eleventh studio album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. For those in attendance, it was an opportunity as rare as they come. The location: Dublin, Ireland. More specifically, at the album’s birthplace, in their Hanover Quay studios. Hot Press editor Niall Stokes was in attendance to feel the impact and capture the aftershock. [photos by John Dardis, courtesy of U2]
Niall Stokes, 17 Nov 2004
The word had been out for a few days: U2 were doing a gig for the BBC in downtown Dublin. A live slot on the Zane Lowe show, it was happening at the band’s Hanover Quay studios at 8 o’clock, or thereabouts, on the evening of Tuesday, November 16. It was the hottest ticket in town – but then it usually is with the biggest band in the world on their home turf.
The invitation specified to congregate in Harry Crosbie’s house by the river, two doors down from the studio, approximately an hour and a half in advance. Tom Dunne was there. Dave Fanning arrived late. Regine Moylett, the band’s UK PR guru was in town with journalists from NME and The Sun in tow. Brian Boyd from the Irish Times and Eddie Rowley added weight to the media presence. Rita Crosbie greeted people at the front door. From the U2 camp, manager Paul McGuinness, Principle Management MD Stephen Matthews and his assistant Candida Bottaci were busy orchestrating proceedings. A sizeable crew from the BBC was in attendance, including Jo Whiley, who looked resplendent in black.
You could feel the sense of anticipation building in the room. Stephen Matthews buzzed around making sure that everything was going to plan in the studio. The band’s Irish press officer Lindsay Holmes looked at her watch nervously. Even Paul McGuinness, a veteran of so many U2 special occasions, reflected a feeling of mounting anxiety. “This is the first time that any of these songs are being played live,” he said - that the band might just fuck them up, was left unsaid.
The word came down from above that we were on - well, the band were. The entourage piled out onto Hanover Quay, where fans had gathered in numbers, and slipped through a garage door into a holding area underneath the studio. After a short delay, the go-ahead given, we were directed up a winding staircase to higher ground. “You’re not allowed to look up Jo Whiley’s skirt,” a voice boomed. Not that we’d have dreamed of it...
Edge, guitar in hand, was at his amp, stealing a final few seconds’ preparation. Adam was plucking at the bass. And then they disappeared together into the back room at the far end of the small space. TV cameras moved through the room, picking up the atmosphere, under the watchful eye of the familiar Ned O’Hanlon, director of much of U2’s video, DVD and broadcast output. The sweat began to stream down expectant faces under the hot studio lights. And then they emerged to a round of applause – Larry, Adam, Edge and Bono.
“Broadcasting from Dublin, bubblin’, one, one, one, one,” or words to similar effect. In that unmistakable voice. And then a catch-cry that will become inescapable over the coming months: “Unos, Dos, Tres, Catorce!!!!!” and we were into ‘Vertigo’, a veritable rock’n’roll monster that has already reached number one in five countries, including the UK, as well as officially becoming the most played U2 song ever on American radio.
From where we were located, you could see only the back of Larry’s head, as he laid down the beat with relentless insistence. Adam Clayton had a look of intense concentration. The Edge, around whom so much of what the U2 orchestra achieves, played like a maestro. Facing Larry, and the privileged audience of thirty or so at the same time, Bono was beginning to come into his own. Jo Whiley leant over the barrier at the front like a gorgeous schoolgirl with a crush on the singer. Harry Crosbie pushed his way to the foreground to get the best possible view. Brian Boyd made furious notes. Beside me, Tom Dunne lapped it up – this was no place for looking cool.
‘All Because Of You’ was next and there were a few anxious glances between band members as the adrenalin dipped. But they held firm and the audience went with them, building to an intense climax.
And then came the moment of truth. Edge strummed restlessly among the high notes and Bono talked himself into the zone. “That you should be listening in cars and trains and cities all over...” he said – he didn’t have to specify where or finish the sentence – is a wonderful and a humbling thing!
It was one of those moments when the electric current that links us everywhere, however tenuously, becomes palpable. All over Britain, people were glued to their radio sets – and from the vantage point of a studio in Dublin you could see them in your mind’s eye and feel the connection made across thousands of miles and into the deepest recesses of houses and bedrooms by the music.
Bono told the story of Christopher Nolan - who developed cerebral palsy as a result of lack of oxygen at birth and couldn’t move a limb as a result - arriving in Mount Temple School, where U2 originally came together, and the difficulties and challenges he faced. He talked about the belief Christopher’s mother had in him and in his potential. He talked about the breakthrough that led to the unicorn-like device that was attached to Christopher’s head – and how, given a way of using a typewriter, Christopher Nolan had begun to work furiously.
“It turned out that he had all these poems in his head,” Bono said. “His first book was called Damburst of Dreams and it only ever happened because of the look in his eye and the faith someone had in him...”
And they did the beautiful ‘Miracle Drug’, a tribute to Christopher, Bono digging in, getting to the heart of the song and Edge playing the plaintive bits on slide to perfection. The applause in the room was stronger this time, and more heartfelt. This was a huge performance.
Bono talked about his father Bob, and his love of opera. ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’ was written for him, he explained – but there are times that a song turns on itself and becomes something else. And then he sang it...
One of the most immediately memorable tracks on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It...’ is vintage U2. Tonight, Adam and Larry built the foundations. Edge’s guitar was insistent and hypnotic. And over the top, Bono delivered a wonderful vocal, switching effortlessly from a conversational tone to ‘Fool To Cry’ falsetto. A song with a powerful emotional jab-jab-jab, U2 executed it brilliantly, underlining exactly why they are pre-eminent among rock’n’roll bands; they have the melodies and the hooks to match the lyrical depth and integrity of the songs.
Bono complimented the people who had gathered outside – and a cheer rose up from below, who tuned in via speakers beamed onto the street.
‘Beautiful Day’ was the home run. Glorious, powerful, surging, anthemic - it is one of the great pop songs of the past five years and here it was delivered with a sense of final, climactic abandon. The show was over, the day nearly done. It had been a good one. Now, as Bono said, it was going to be quite a night. Hold me, touch me, take me to the higher ground...
On the first floor of the studio in Hanover Quay, we were already there...
Afterwards, to come back down, the band join the wider gang across in Harry Crosbie’s house for a few drinks.
“Was that OK?” Bono asked Jo Whiley. “We were a bit nervous. We fucked it up a couple of times, but I think we got away with it.” She gives him a kiss, the mutual affection evident in the hug they share before she offers to go get him a drink.
Bono’s in expansive mood, telling yarns about bumping into an Irish guy in an Amsterdam brothel (it’s a complicated story!), and talking about the Dutch painter and singer Herman Brood and Philip Lynott – both heroin addicts.
“Do you know why I hate indie snobbery so much?” he asks. “Because I had it!” And he talks about how much he regrets the fact that he didn’t respond as well as he might have done to Philo, when they lived a couple of doors from one another in Howth in the early ‘80s.
“He’d say, ‘Hey, Bono, do you want to come to dinner?’ and I’d say noooo thanks,” he recalls. It was the aura of heroin addiction, and the suggestion of neglect, which went with it that freaked Bono. It’s an aspect of rock’n’roll he could never relate to.
“Nobody falls harder than our heroes,” he says, “and he had been my hero. I just couldn’t stand to see him that way. But what I’d give to have that dinner with him now.”
Across the other side of the room, Edge is beaming – clearly satisfied that a good night’s work has been done. I compliment him on his slide playing. “We’ve had to invent a new thing,” he tells me, “so I can switch from normal chords to playing slide in the middle of a song. It’s tiny, and fits on the tip of the finger. I’ll show you.”
Someone observes that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is an album with a lot of big songs on it.
“We wanted to deliver as many songs as possible that could be played on the radio,” Edge says. “We haven’t always done that. Even the last album, despite what people might think, didn’t have a lot of stuff that was really radio friendly.”
Bono has been grabbed by the NME and agrees to deliver some words of wisdom into a cassette recorder. He is the centre of attention, even as the room begins to empty.
“I just want to say thanks to everyone for coming,” Harry Crosbie announces with a grin. “We don’t mind doing this for our neighbours but now we want to go somewhere else, so we’d appreciate it if everyone could Eff Off out of here.”
Bono’s voice pipes up. “I just want to say thanks to Harry for having us,” he improvises. “We try to be good neighbours and not make too much noise – but I’ll tell you one thing, we don’t make nearly as much noise as Harry and Rita!”
Cue raucous laughter. I guess it really is time to go.
Outside the fans are still waiting. A few steps along Hanover Quay, the canal opens out and you can see across the width of it to the Ringsend side. There, the new high rise apartment blocks light up the night sky, a vista we’d scarcely have dared to dream about even fifteen years ago. There is a gorgeous atmosphere here - here and now, in this city, this city of blinding light.
But no light burns brighter than that of U2. Earlier, towards the end of ‘Beautiful Day’, to mark the occasion, Bono had changed the lyrics of the song to embrace people throughout Britain – linking London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow before switching back across the Irish Sea to Belfast and Derry.
And then he brought the song back to the Phoenix Park – to the city of Dublin. The music beamed out – and ten million people all over Britain listened.
Sometimes it’s hard to take it all in.