- 02 Nov 18
These are hard times in a hundred thousand ways, in which we look for music that inspires and heals. There might just be some of that in the ether, as U2 make their way back to the city of their birth...
Was life always as bad as this? It is a question that young people may well be asking themselves on a daily basis right now, and with some justification. This is a febrile time. There is so much that is wrong in the world. And trying to fix it – any of it, that is – seems utterly beyond the capability of ordinary people, everywhere across the globe. We look to America and observe the monstrousness of the Trump presidency, a regime that is steeped in racism, misogyny, ignorance, corruption and hypocrisy. Or turn to Britain and witness a bunch of clownish Tory snobs putting the prosperity of Britain, and the future of their children, and their grandchildren, at risk for an ideology that is bereft of a single redeeming quality. We think of the Middle East and parts of North Africa and wonder how any place can be so woefully stuck in a culture of brute hostility, violence, prejudice and hatred: hatred of women, of different branches of the same religious traditions, of neighbouring States, of innocent children even.
And then the mind drifts to Russia and the stinking, racist autocracy presided over by Vladimir Putin; to the ex-communist, east European countries that increasingly seem to hark back to the bleak totalitarian simplicities of their servile past; to the sprawling dictatorship of China; and to the crumbling, mostly failed democracies of so many parts of Africa and of South America. “How much worse can it be?” a voice in the background asks. It is a fair question. Even the countries until recently seen as reliable bulwarks of liberal democracy in Europe – Germany, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands, among them – have shifted to a more clenched, tribal position, where tolerance of the ‘other’ is in danger of becoming a forgotten virtue.
Here in Ireland, we have gone against the general grain in recent times, successfully throwing off the shackles of the old conservatism that had held us in its grisly, vice-like grip since the foundation of the State. We have embraced, or seem to have, a new climate of openness, generosity and mutual respect. But the euphoria, rightly felt as a result of the groundswell of liberalism and idealism among young political activists, which led to the success of the Same Sex Marriage Referendum, and the vote to Repeal the 8th, has been undermined to an extent at least by the fault-lines that have emerged here socially and economically in the wake of the economic crash, and the resulting penal sentence of ‘austerity’ that was imposed on Ireland and its people.
There is a brutal housing crisis here. Young people find it almost impossible to afford the rents being demanded by private landlords. A widespread feeling of disenchantment is palpable as a result. And in the wider world, the engine of climate change is beginning to throw the earth itself out of kilter. Things may be about to get a whole lot worse. So is there any hope for us at all? No glib answer will suffice in response to that question. Things need to change here in Ireland and elsewhere: that much is undeniable. But if the pace of change is not sufficient, or the measures introduced are less than effective, then there is no knowing just how the mood might turn – and where the inevitable, ensuing clashes might take us…
DICTATORSHIPS WERE ROUTED
Then again, we need to keep things in perspective. Fools, the architects of Brexit chief among them, may be re-opening old tribal fissures, and in the process displaying a wanton disregard for the lessons of history. But the truth is that the 20th century is not a place to which sensible people would ever want to return. There were two world wars, which between them lasted over ten years, and which utterly devastated vast swathes of Europe, Russia and Asia. The first World War killed 20 million people, 10 million civilians among them. That number was tripled in the Second World War, with 3% of the entire population of the world at that time being wiped out.
Among the 60 million who died in that dire conflict, many were exterminated with extreme prejudice. An estimated six million Jews were butchered in the holocaust. Up to 50% of the entire Roma population were treated with equal savagery, with some estimates putting the death toll among the Romani at 1.5 million. Homosexuals too were hunted down, terrorised and slaughtered. The Nazis and their cohorts in the Axis powers were guilty of levels of depravity, violence and murderousness that still defy human understanding. But, while their cause was undoubtedly just, the Allied powers too were responsible for atrocities that would scar those who carried them out deeply – never mind the impact on those who witnessed the wretched butchery of war close-up.
The post-war period was, of course, the era of totalitarianism in the huge territories that were subsumed into the USSR after World War II, and controlled from Russia’s power base in Moscow. China too was in the purgative totalitarian grip of Chairman Mao. The USA fought the Korean war and then the Vietnam war, in which as many as 2.5 million people died and appalling atrocities were committed. A further 3 million Vietnamese, according to some estimates, suffered severe illnesses, following exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used by the US military – which resulted in as many as 1 million Vietnamese being disabled. Now may not be as bad as it often seems.
Back in the US and Europe, during the 1970s, there was widespread, ongoing political conflict arising from the brutally conservative economic policies of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher. Only in Japan, parts of Europe and pockets of Africa did things get obviously better. This was the era when the great European project took shape, and progressive policies, designed to enshrine human rights and increase participation, co-operation and democratic accountability were advanced as the EU grew from its roots as the Common Market to the status of a union of 28 (soon to be 27) countries. Along the road, dictatorships were finally routed in Spain and in Portugal. Totalitarianism was defeated across Eastern Europe. And, eventually, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of the Russian army, and its agents, Germany was re-united.
CONFIDENCE OF YOUTH
In Ireland, meanwhile, the lingering after-effects of the bloody rule of the British empire were still being felt. When Hot Press was launched in 1977, and U2 were about to start gigging in earnest, this was a deeply fractured island, in which gruesome atrocities were a matter of routine, paramilitary violence was a fact of everyday life – especially north of the border, where it was too often matched by State violence – and there was no knowing when the next grotesque outrage might occur, nor who would be sucked into it.
The spirit of punk rock, which took hold in the UK first, and then here, in 1977, was partly an antidote to all of that. It was noisy, challenging and entertaining. But it was also frequently shabbily aggressive, unpleasant and a platform for all manner of stupidity and vindictiveness. Violence at rock ’n’ roll gigs was much more commonplace then than in recent years.
A young man was stabbed and died at a punk gig in UCD that featured The Undertones and The Radiators From Space, amongst others. Rival gangs roamed the streets of Cabra, engaging in running battles, when The Jam came to town. And U2 were frequently targeted at their shows by a coterie of knuckle-dragging thugs who styled themselves as The Black Catholics. Even at a gig in faraway Ballina they were attacked. Hot Press carried a report on that particular contretemps that reads hilariously now, but felt far from it at the time. A chair was smashed over Bono’s back. It was extremely nasty and dangerous, the only upside being that no one was badly injured.
There was a thoroughly noxious, sectarian aspect to the way in which the band were denigrated on their home turf at the time, a process that was inflamed by the fanzine Heat. They were spoken of sneakily in certain circles as ‘Protestant boys’, as if that might in some way legitimately disqualify them from participating in the rituals of rock ’n’ roll. Hatred was stirred up against the band for no better reason than that they were seen as ‘posh’. If you had a functioning brain at all, you could see that this was risible, prejudiced, bullshit. But people who should have known far better participated in fomenting what was a shamefu, malignant campaign. A less resilient outfit might have been permanently scarred by it, or have given up the ghost entirely.
U2 didn’t. They were always more than just a rock band. They were driven by a belief that they had something potentially powerful to say. That they had strength of character. That they had a sense of destiny too. That they were on a mission. And no bunch of ignorant bruisers or bullies was going to dissuade them.
Where exactly it was all going was, of course, far from clear at the time. But a belief in the importance of following their instincts and just doing it was shared from the start by the four members of U2. It was, in part at least, what attracted the Hot Press writer, the late Bill Graham, and all the rest of us too, to the band. Their restless energy, singular focus and reserves of determination marked them out as exceptional. But they had also begun to fashion a distinctive sound, which made their live gigs special.
I have seen every incarnation of U2. From the outset, one of their great qualities as a live act was that they were willing to take risks. To fail gloriously was far preferable to settling for mediocrity. That made their performances even more magnetic. In the early days, Bono wore make-up. He adopted a theatrical stance. U2 were influenced by punk rock outfits like The Ramones and The Clash, but they also looked back enviously to Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Marc Bolan.
They studied voice projection and body movement under Mannix Flynn. They understood better than most that rock ’n’ roll is also a form of theatre and they learned the importance of owning the stage and the space around it. Their theatrical leanings – which would finally come good again in the Achtung Baby era of masks, characters, smoke and mirrors – were there from the outset. But punk shut that down, temporarily at least. They became more direct. What they had to say became increasingly urgent.
The journey from ‘I Will Follow’ to ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was a difficult and painful one. But it was one on which all Irish people had, in different ways, embarked. There were extraordinary U2 live shows and tours at every stage of their development, but they seemed, almost inevitably, to become the best version of themselves when they played in Dublin, or in Ireland.
Their gig in the Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1983, which brought the War Tour to an end, was one of the most extraordinary live shows ever witnessed here. U2 were at the height of their early powers. They retained the bustling, declamatory, ringing confidence of youth. On the surface at least, nothing could shake their powerful sense of conviction. Edge’s guitar was a clarion call. Adam and Larry knew the U2 grooves inside out. Upfront, Bono had developed as a singer. But he was a ringmaster too, who knew how to take things onto a higher plain, to lift spirits and win hearts. U2 were monumental that day.
The scary thing is that they were only starting. They would get better. And they did.
LIFE AND DEATH ISSUES
U2 found another gear again for The Unforgettable Fire tour. They raised the flag for agitation with A Conspiracy of Hope. But The Joshua Tree Tour surely aced all of that. It was driven by a huge record, freighted with hits, and big songs that were masterfully delivered live.
Every step of the way since that landmark tour, the band have felt the pressure always to do better. That is what makes their live shows so visceral and exciting. They are never satisfied. Never done. They have invested hugely in the ideas and the technology. And they have pushed the outside of the envelope in terms of production and presentation. This issue of Hot Press is dedicated to that enduring quest for live magic.
Achtung Baby and Zoo TV took them into outer space and most people applauded wildly. But there were those who felt that they had lost their way on the Pop album and the subsequent PopMart tour. I didn’t agree, but I could understand why there were rumours that they had lost their shirts too. Carting that big lemon around was expensive! By All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the Elevation Tour, they were back in a more familiar groove, leaving the self-conscious deconstructions of the dance-era U2 behind. That tour peaked with their emotionally charged shows in Slane Castle at the end of the European run. Those gigs will live forever in the memories of everyone who attended.
U2 360° set new standards again in terms of staging. I loved the No Line On The Horizon album and its standout track, ‘Moment of Surrender’. That view wasn’t as widely shared as the band might have wished, but the accompanying tour – with the stage structure they nicknamed The Claw – was a runaway success. Far from signalling their demise, that phase instead posed the question: where the hell do we go from here?
Indoors was the answer, with the first leg of the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE extravaganza. That this entire construct was delayed and partially derailed by accidents, illness and other twists of fate is well documented. But U2 have survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and – on the cusp of a return to Ireland for shows in Belfast and Dublin – they are in flying form.
That what U2 do, and say, and play, still matters enormously to a huge number of people both here in Ireland and across the world, is testament to their extraordinary staying power. But it is about more than that too. In a world where it really does make perfect sense to ask afresh “Was life always as bad as this?”, we need artists who refuse to avoid the big questions. We need art that digs deeper and aims higher than anyone ever thought rock ’n’ roll could or should when The Beatles sang the immortal line “Last night I said these words to my girl…”
We need art that grapples with life and death issues. With politics and power. With youth and experience. With primal urges and the pursuit of wisdom. With the stuff that makes us human. And that makes us alive at least to the possibility that we can, individually and collectively, do better. There are many challenges up ahead for two-legged creatures. Let us hope that we are up to them. There is a light. Don’t let it go out.