- 01 May 01
Bill Graham follows U2 and "The Unforgettable Fire" from Slane, Co. Meath to the concert halls of Europe.
Brian's the scissors man. He's the man to make the cut". Slane Castle. last May. Over dinner, Bono is whispering confidentially into my taperecorder after a day's recording there.
The setting is unique, without any of the cramped antiseptic conditions that generally accompany recording. Outside, it's a gloomy, drizzly day but inside as the Edge experiments on some screaming overclubs, U-2 and family are clustered around a roaring heartening fire.
Bono divides his attention between the Edge's activities and his pocket chessboard. The guitarist's wife, Aisling, swollen with the daughter, Holly she'll soon bear, reclines on the couch. Bearing a white U-2 banner, a group of fans from the village gape through windows till they're shooed away. The Edge plays a particularly scalding break and receives the producer's opinion. "That's the least Protestant solo you've ever played" says Brian Eno.
Slane has been turned upside town for U-2's stay. Equipment boxes are scattered everywhere and taped powerlines stretch through the hall to the generator. Essentially the band are using two rooms, the drawingroom where the mobile recording console is located and the library, with its perfect acoustics designed for chamber-music recitals, for the instrumental recording itself.
The old moulds are being most deliberately broken. Nobody really knows where this album's bound but U-2 are convinced they must head toward a new and foreign destination. They have no intention of making "Son Of War".
This departure is no sudden, panicky shift of direction. Nine months earlier just after U-2 have triumphantly left the Phoenix Park stage. Bono buttonholes me and gives the news that it is the end of an era. Resurrection and reincarnation are now the band's aim. U-2 are dead: long live U-2!
The move to Slane is no surprise. The band have become dissatisfied with how recording studios can deaden and depersonalise a band's sound and through the Spring, they have been searching for an alternative venue. Tour manager Dennis Sheehan checks numerous locations and finds Slane has the ideal amenities: perfect acoustics, bed, board, and a restaurant below, a location far enough to remove but not isolate them from Dublin, a setting in historic Meath beside the Boyne to stimulate the imagination and an amenable proprietor in Lord Henry Mountcharles.
Meanwhile the band are discovering that the outlines of the new album are already contrasting with "War". "The material was European rather than American", The Edge will later comment, the band concluding that its character will not suit the crisp production style of Jimmy lovine who has just overseen "Under A Blood Red Sky". They toy with the notion of giving an invitation to Conny Plank but then seek out and win over Brian Eno who brings with him his Canadian engineer and collaborator, Daniel Lanois. Now all the parts are in place.
Yet this pre-production work wasn't accomplished without some stress. Even Island boss, Chris Blackwell a man who normally appreciates when his acts must follow their hunch, was worried by the choice of Eno.
Bono recalls an early Dublin meeting with Blackwell: "We said to him "If you're over here because you're concerned about a group that you are a fan of, well then we appreciate that concern and we'll talk to you. But if you're over here guarding your investment, then maybe you should leave now". And he said "No"... and he ended up leaving as a fan and with a better idea of what we were trying to do".
For myriad reasons, U-2 must make this break. Even should the album be a comparative commercial failure, indeed even should it be some artistic mish-mash, it is a necessary exercise.
For even though it will be their fifth album and their first under a new Island contract, U-2 are still a young group and one at a hazardous crossroads. If they churn out xeroxes of "War", they may satisfy the powerbrokers of the American music business but they will be vampirized, a band with its creative blood sucked dry, increasingly dispirited and likely headed for a rancorous split in the medium-term. Alternatively they can renew themselves, using all the ideas and experiences accumulated through their career, to chart a new course that will sustain U-2 for the remainder of the decade.
There is another paradoxical reason why they must switch now. A change delayed may be too late. It is exactly at the first peak of their appeal that a band can most easily strike out and acclimatise their audience to their new desires. In a year or more, U-2 might be typecast and trapped by a trademark sound, paralysed by their audience's demand for more of the same. It is the select few who strike out and win; U-2 wish to join that breed.
Which is why Brian Eno sits in the drawing-room of Slane Castle, sipping his peppermint tea, gazing at the arcane symbols on his strategy blackboards that record the progress of each track while Danny Lanois smilingly coaxes The Edge to further pyrotechnics in the library.
Relaying the resigning behind U-2's new policy, Bono reminds of the band's beginnings: "It's probably regression rather than progression in some ways because it's what we started out doing. We started out as a group innovation in the three-piece format. I don't want to sound pompous but that's how we started, we wrestled with that. Whereas "War" was a deliberate stripping-down into the three-piece format".
At last, my tape is stored away. Bono changes his guise, leading the company assembled at the dinner table through a massed chorus of "Come Back Ronald Regan To Ballyporeen". All bands have their rituals to release the pressure. At Slane, this comic anthem is U2's way.
Of course, it took longer than planned. The original scheme was to cut the fundamental tracks at Slane and then just add decorative overdubs at Windmill before mixing there. But U-2 were still sculpting in September.
The Edge can now reflect on the reasons: "When you switch to a new location, it tends to take a couple of weeks to get in to the momentum of the new creative surrounding. We recorded a lot of stuff in Slane which we had to re-evaluate and in some cases rerecord. We had to find out whether we had what we thought we had and in some cases we didn't and that was sad. In some cases, we had done great work - far better than we had thought - and that was rewarding. So I suppose it was just the fact that we did record in two halves".
Obsessively perfectionist, U-2 might still be ensconced in Windmill if Eno hadn't had to depart for his own projects or if the group hadn't been contracted to their first Australian tour in October.
But the delay primed them for a hectic schedule. In barely a fortnight, the band posed for Anton Corbijn's cover photos, shot the video for " Pride", rehearsed their new set and spoke to the teams of European and
Australian press who were being couriered through Windmill. Other minor business matters competed for their attention. As the promotional machine was wound up for "Unforgettable Fire-, the sense of strain was not always faint.
But it was more than tempered by a sense of achievement. A moody almost mystical album that contrasts with the muscular exhortations of "War", "Unforgettable Fire" met their own expectations.
The alliance with Eno and Lanois had worked. Only one track, "Indian Summer Sky" with its hints of Eno's former clients, David Bowie and Talking Heads, finds U2 overly-subjected to outside forces.
Brian had correctly identified U-2's "abundance of lyrical soul". Before on "October", both their most misjudged and unfinished album, those moods are fitfully sketched. On the title track, they distilled that spirit but on "Tomorrow", they let a philistine guitar depth-charge the yearning conveyed by Vinnie Kilduff' s pipes and Bono's vocal. Such inexperienced errors are avoided on "Fire".
The record takes U-2 into their own modern mystic, besides confirming Eno's view that there are "4 or 5 U-2’s on it." "MLK" is their lullaby, "Bad" calls on both Van Morrison and the Velvet Underground - an apparently odd couple 'till U-2 made the match - while "Elvis Presley In America" ("it's like watching a dress rehearsal from off-stage," says The Edge) catches Bono improvising to a slowed-down track.
(An aural hint. That cut bears inspection at 45rpm. It may chipmunk the singer but the test does give an approximation of the original instrumental track).
But it is both the title track and "A Sort of Homecoming" that should deflect any charge that their Christian ties have stifled the sweep of U-2's romantic imagination.
Or censored the sources from which they derive inspiration. Three years back on their first American "Boy" tour, a friend lent Bono a "Penguin Modern Poets" copy of the poetry of Paul Celan, a Roumanian born but German-speaking Jew who in 1970 committed suicide in Paris, tortured by the mutilating memories of the deaths of his family in Auschwitz. A member of no sect, perhaps that impossible but profound contradiction of our culture, an agnostic desperate for mystic belief, Celan may have been the foremost European spiritual poet of the century. Among his lines was this maxim: "Poetry is a sort of homecoming".
Which isn't to claim that Celan permeates all the album but it does show the error of rigidly defining U2 True believers may hold firmly to the distinctions but there is a slim line between the saint, the seer and the holy sinner. "Fire"'s true worth is that U-2 are finally adultly communicating across those barriers, unreeling a thread to the unconverted and pressing beyond the arid formalities of institutionalised practice. On "Homecoming", they start to find the tongue of charged archetypes. "Once more in the name of love", U-2 herald the law that must bind all, believers or not.
They should not be trivially tagged. Nor Bono either. To the unsympathetic, he can seem a yappy man but that misleading view forgets his attentiveness, his ability to trap and store ideas 'till they have fertilised in his mind. You do not perform so regularly to so many with such accurate intensity, unless you possess and develop acutely-tuned instincts.
Thus the other side of U-2. In the studio, they had switched. Could that change be transferred to stage? One journeyed to Europe to discover the answer.
If they order things differently in France, it is not to the benefit of live rock 'n' roll. Successive French governments may be proud of their cultural policies but you can't boogie in the Pompidou Centre. Lacking suitable venues, U-2 have joined the circus, playing a succession of tents through France.
Even Paris is deprived so on a murky, rainy evening, I'm driven to the Escape Baclard where a huge tent has squatter's rights in a dilapidated space that will ultimately be invaded by the re-developers. Outside, chestnut sellers ply their trade. A few exotic hippies, specimens who seem to have only been preserved on the Continent (and in West Cork - Ed) are sighted. For a second. I think I'm back in '74, fully expecting Donovan, Arthur Brown and Manfred Marin's Earth Band to pop up as support.
These longhair diehards are the only splash of rock fashion. The French aren't tribal about their music as they believe rock regalia spoils their own chic gear. Merchandisers do little business here so there's an absence of badges or tee-shirts to check the loyalties of the U-2 audience.
There must be 8,000 on the premises but conditions are far from ideal. Inside I immediately feel droplets of condensation from the tent's roof on my shoulder. Though I don't yet know it, this has been a frustrating day for band and crew. At the sound check, rain had been seeping through gaps in the canopy. This is one gig to be played on a wing and a prayer.
Past nine and the taped strains of "4th Of July" announce U-2's arrival. I see a set most unlike the one they displayed at the Phoenix Park. Much is intended but some is improvised. In this Parisian super-marquee, U-2 have to bluff like they're playing a summer festival in Ballina.
They start with " 11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "I Will Follow", then move to a brace from the new album, "Wire" and the soothing ceremonial of "MLK". But on "Unforgettable Fire" they meet the first trip-wire as the Edge's keyboards pack up. -Unforgettable Fire' with the forgetful keyboards". Bono jests afterwards.
They just manage to cover their retreat but Bono is now clearly discontented, complaining about the closed tent-flaps that increase the heat and condensation. Michael Deeny, former Horslips manager with a business foothold in France who's co-promoting these French dates. demurs. "I've already ordered them all open", he claims not without some taint of exasperation.
Bono's too sharp not to involve the audience. " I don't mind if it rains on me but the sun is coming out for us" he shouts. The French cheer and "Two Hearts Beat As One" is closed with a quote from Ann Peebles' "I Can Stand The Rain".
So far - with the pardonable exception of "Unforgettable Fire" - it's been a strong show, U-2 cruising at the high performance altitudes to which they're accustomed but now on "Electric Co." Bono chucks in his stick of gelignite and hi-jacks the show.
This coup de theatre is wholly unexpected. Suddenly Bono bursts out "Jesus (pronounced in the Spanish style) where did it go when you don't know?" searing down to a new layer of meaning in the song.
Later backstage I will get the complete story of a friend incarcerated in a mental hospital who thought himself Jesus and was subjected to Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). "The doctors can sometimes produce an effect but they don't know the cause. ECT, it's nothing more than witchcraft", he'll complain.
Thus " I -2-3, Electric Co." And as he acts out the ECT experience, complete with head-jerking machine, I'm rivetted and startled by this gamble, this raw uncovering of emotional nakedness, far from rock's usual overrehearsed gambits, that propels the show to a higher plane. It is the one jagged outcrop of the night.
Michael Deeny returns and good-naturedly recants: "He was right. All the flaps weren't opened. When you give the French an order, they form a committee and think about it. I had to do it myself".
By now, the condensation has forced the crew to put plastic coverings over both the sound and light desks. God knows what it’s like on stage but the only signs of distress are the keyboards clanking in the upper registers of "October", and the number of guitars the Edge keeps swopping. Through it all, Adam Clayton keeps beaming benevolently.
This is a different show. Bono abstains from mountaineering over the amps and sprinting round the stage.
"Banging the door down, that’s the image I used to Dave McCullough five years ago but it was like we’d smashed the door down and it was open and we were still banging away", Bono had reflected on their live shows, pre-"Unforgettable Fire".
"And I was the culprit. There was this complete overdose in America in front of 12,000 people at the Los Angeles Sports Arena when I jumped off a balcony. It was disgraceful. I went into the audience with the white flag and it was a manic audience that ripped me and the flag apart.
"I ended up attacking this guy, flooring this guy in the audience. I was about 20 feet from the stage, right up in the balcony and I was in a fracas with a member of my own audience. I mean it’s a white flag and I’m going … phootf … completely with the adrenalin. Then I went down and I said "Look, I’m going over the balcony" and I did. It was 20 feet below.
"And there was this writer and he said – I can’t remember the actual phrase – he’d never seen such an act and he didn’t know if he wanted to see it again. As much as he was in awe of the performance, he thought it was frightening in it s implications. Back in the dressing room, the band said "we’ve got to stop it". And then next time, walking on stage and walking on the balcony again, really hoping to fall, hoping that I’d end the tour.
"I think it was all down to lack of confidence in the music as the expression as opposed to the act as the expression."
Later The Edge would elaborate: "that wasn’t a turning-point, so much as one of the instances that led us to the conclusion that this was an avenue we should abandon as soon as possible. I didn't think it was us. I didn't think it really reflected what we were about. I felt it undermined the dignity and nobility of the music. There's a sort of special feeling and mood to it, a subtle thing and what was going down in some of the shows was melodramatic and bombastic.
"I think it was the result of the intense emotional trauma of being on stage and seeing an audience of that size and trying to present what you do. It's very hard and not something I will ever understand. For Bono, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. He doesn't have an instrument, he's out there ..."
His instrument is his instinct?
"It's 'something to hide behind as well, sometimes (smiles) ... it's technique, it's something to do. He couldn't help himself in a lot of cases and I think he works best when he's in control. When he loses it, I don't think it's in the spirit of what we're doing anymore".
Now U-2 use their music to make the hall smaller. For all the praise lavished on their live show, the word "party" has been rarely used, yet tonight it's in the frame of reference. Without depreciating the force of the music, U-2 are putting on a much friendlier performance than any I've seen.
There's new security. Now they aren't afraid to show their humour as at the encore "Party Girl" when Bono introduces the Edge as Jimi Hendrix and his guitar packs up again. "He wants a new guitar for Christmas" Bono quips mischievously to a Parisian crowd long since converted. The U-2 busking team doesn't miss a trick.
Later Bono will reflect on a night when rain and condensation were always threatening. "If... had to cope with this, they would have collapsed" he says, identifying a band born not a million miles from Liverpool. Instead this date has blooded the tour as they've bluffed, busked, pulled rabbits out of the hat and used all the experience that comes courtesy of an early apprenticeship amid Kiltimagh productions.
Backstage the court gathers, evidence that a band which can rouse these Parisians is now going global. The band are highly satisfied by their Houdini act and Bono's sufficiently relaxed to affectionately recall an earlier night in the tour when after a lacklustre show, Adam had read him the riot act, reminding him that, "you, Bono are responsible for the morale of this band".
The band submit to protocol, gain the praises of Jean Paul Goude, former partner of Grace Jones whom Chris Blackwell thinks might embellish their stage design and then politely disengage themselves for a meal at a club. The days of self-protection are past. Though U-2 may not follow the Motorhead Guide To Road Etiquette, the days when socialising was limited to Adam Clayton and manager Paul McGuinness are behind them. Now Bono admits he needs these hours to let his batteries run down.
So at the restaurant table, Bono and the Edge sit, joke, discuss Bruce Springsteen and allied topics and listen while Michael Deeny regales us with stories from his back pages. The night before, the pair had ventured into the might-club connected to the restaurant and witnessed the Monaco princesses, France’s only royalty, surrounded by their nightlife court. All they can talk of is the transparency of it all.
They depart. I wander into the club and find the pair have marked my cards: Paris night-life is not what it’s cracked up to be. Though the music’s good, the Parisians’ notion of dancing is to vaguely flap their arms while tepidly cruising around the floor. Nothing down there for dancing, I hope the princesses have it up there for thinking. Ah well, to bed. The next stop is Brussels.
And the Vost National. Now the tour returns to conventional halls and this ideal Brussels venue, a round amphitheatre that allows maximum communication between group and the 8,500 attendance. As the Alarm finish, the anticipation is palpable. Besides the Belgians, there’s a German contingent plus coachloads of English followers who’ve crossed the Channel for their Saturday night out with U-2.
The yeast in the loaf, the English intensify the atmosphere. With no technical restrictions in the first decent hall of the tour, U-2 are primed for a concert that wends with their traditional celebration of a special night , the uncorking of a champagne during "Party Girl:. By the closing "40", Bono’s ad-libbing through "Knocking On Heaven’s Door" completing a set that flowed with effortless fervour. Any melodrama has been foresworn as absolutely unnecessary.
Well not entirely, Bono retains part of the head-snapping E.C.T. mime through "Electric Co." And on "Sunday Bloody Sunday" through he gathers and Irish tricoulour around him, he makes is abundantly clear it should never be a symbol of aggression.
U-2 also dispel doubts I’ve carried from Paris. There due to the technical gremlins, I didn’t learn if they could translate the mew orchestral track live. But here both "A Sort of Homecoming" and "Unforgettable Fire" work and when the cigarette-lighters make a luminous necklace ‘round the hall during "MLK" I know the new material has been approved.
There may be a further reason for tonight’s quality. Alison and Aisling, respectively Bono and the Edge’s wives, have flown over with Sheila, Adam’s gril-friend, so it’s a contented family gathering that later sits down to the small dinner party hosted by Ariola, the record company who distribute Island through the Benelux nations.
I'm seated opposite Larry Mullen. The member who evades the publicity machine, Larry's the one who most regularly and informally slopes off to Dublin gigs, anything from AC/DC to an aspiring local pub band. He also monitors the affairs of their fan club and before our meal, he's been gently confiding in a group of Belgian fans gathered in the hotel lobby.
He's proud of the band's new musical accomplishments. As the Edge relates: "I think the experience of working with Brian and Danny was a revelation to him. Instead of his goal being technique and pure drumming ability, I think he's now far more aware of new approaches, new set-ups to drumming. He's got a very unique combination of drums now with a few different snares and timbales right in there with his main kit".
As U-2's man in the street, Larry's well-equipped to counter the flak U-2 now sometimes receive from their juniors in Dublin: "Everybody's got their own tastes so I can't expect everyone to like the band. But I'd hope they'd respect our achievement".
Yet if Larry Mullen has the lowest profile in Europe and America, in Japan and Australia he was the teenybopper's choice. Apparently at one Australian concert, the girls were almost scrambling past Bono to get their hands on the blond drummer.
Tonight, moreover, is the rhythm section's night since they walk off with the two gold discs presented by Ariola. Adam makes a brief speech and takes the Michael, pretending he'll melt down the disc towards the cost of a new car. We leave with another Irish joke. Signing the guest-book, we note an earlier Irish entrant, Chris De Burgh. "Slainte", he's written, "that means Guinness tastes different in Ireland".
Perhaps he suffered some European ailment. Throughout the tour U-2, bar Adam who figures alcohol kills the bugs, have been suffering minor tummy troubles and since Paris, the Edge has been fighting a cold. His voice is firm but both the flu and antibiotics have weakened him.
It's a less lively crew that drive to the second night's show and when Bono introduces the Edge for his vocal showcase on "Seconds" he says he's "someone we had to take here tonight on a stretcher. Will you welcome a very sick man?"
The crowd is satisfied by a solid show. U-2 maintain a high average beneath which they don't fall but, after the Edge has been sped back to his doctor and bed, both Adam and Bono are highly self-critical.
They need no prompting from mise. Adam complains that it was very "kick-ass" and wants no arena Americanisms creeping into the set - whereas Bono thinks that "Paris was internal from the heart, last night was internal and external, both band and fans but tonight was external only, just the fans".
And in the hall's kitchen, he talks about how he's forging a new stage method, how he's constantly seeking new tricks and how sometime soon, he'd like to talk more to the audience.
Yet their fans don't nit-pick. Two hours later, I sip a beer in an empty Brussels disco before suddenly there arrives a sprinkling of U-2 followers. complete with identifying tee-shirts and jackets. The disc-jockey plays 5 successive U-2 tracks and they're dancing in seventh heaven. "Unforgettable Fire" is number one in Belgium. Obviously these Lowlanders believe they've got a fine bargain.
There are no troughs in Rotterdam. My first experience of Holland and the Dutch civic sense is admirable. Bombed because of its docks to rubble in the Second World War, Rotterdam had to be rebuilt. But its citizens made few of the errors that ravage Dublin. Between its trams and cycle-lanes, Rotterdam is a pedestrian's paradise.
There's also character in the faces on the streets. In Paris along the Champs D'Elysee, the women are so chicly made-up and armoured in fashion, that they seem to have mislaid their spirit. But the Dutch women's faces are alive and individual.
An independent nation, these Dutch. In Cromwell's time their ships raided the Thames and comprehensively embarrassed the British Navy in a war the English never mention. Musically they set the standards of Europe. With their peculiar combination of good taste and bloody-mindedness, the Dutch made Randy Newman a pop star and on morning radio, I hear Roxy Music, the Icicle Works, a smattering of tasty soul including Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me" and of course, "Unforgettable Fire". It goes without saying that the Dutch were the first continentals to support U-2.
Bono has his line: "The city conducts its own symphony- and the Dutch, a robust but not macho race, seem to have an enviable set of priorities. After the second Brussels date, U-2 are already highly motivated but as we travel to the Ahoy venue for the sound-check, all omens seem positive.
The sound-check is more Feedback's Greatest Hits than U-2. The Mount Temple School and Marching Band have, after years of perseverance, finally mastered the covers they used to dismember in their teenage guise and they ricochet through versions of Neil Young's "Southern Man" and "Hurricane" and Led Zep's "Rock 'n' roll". Then the instrumentalists fine-tune while Bono wanders across to Cathy, one of their most devoted fans.
An American based in London, Cathy's already been to Paris. She even saved up to follow U-2 'round Australia. The group now ensure she always gets a backstage pass.
Bono stays on: he wants to view the Alarm. Back in the hotel. Adam plays me a few rough sketches for future songs. Paris had its benefits; both were concocted at the sound-check there.
The first seems a rather stiff funk work-out but the second has real potential with Adam initiating an African pattern that also has a touch of the Irish jaunting cars, as Larry settles behind him. "The Edge may have a synth but he never gets a typical synth sound" he cautions me before the keyboards lock in with textures closer to a hybrid of electric piano and bubbling steel drums. Bono contributes a vocal drone and I concur with Adam when he says "that's one for the library".
The approach may seem haphazard but it can unearth gold dust. For instance, they discovered the essence of "Pride" in ten minutes at a Hawaii sound-check. "Perhaps Island should send us there more often" Adam remarks with relish.
As the Edge comments: "Many other groups, certainly the older ones, tend to start with a chord sequence, melody or even a lyric whereas we tend to sculpt in mood. It might be just a four-bar section. Adam might have a chord sequence and Larry suddenly plays a particularly unusual drumline and we go "Yeah, hang on, there's something different here.
"So I start working on the guitar and there's this overall vision of where this piece might end up. It's not that we would sit down and actually say 'right, this is the chord sequence, this is the guitar or vocal melody, now we have to figure out what the drums and bass will play'. It's a much more instinctive way. It could come from any source in the band, it could even be a mistake. I think Eno works a lot like that, from improvisations".
Yet more conventional methods can also be applied. The Edge explains that "Unforgettable Fire" was formed from "a soundtrack piece I'd been messing around with on the piano at home. It wasn't designed for any particular purpose. I thought it worked well as a film soundtrack, it was a beautiful piece of music but i couldn't see how one would approach it lyrically or vocally.
"I was knocking around for quite a while and myself and Bono were out in his house doing work on material for the record and I found this cassette of the piano piece and we decided to mess around with it. I had the DX 7 keyboard and worked on a treatment and suddenly, there was this very tangible identity. Within about an hour, we'd written a verse section with Bono playing bass and we virtually wrote the song there. Obviously it changed with drums and bass and in the studio, we worked on orchestration - but it was that first 20 minutes in Bono's house that counted. But it was the mood we were always in touch with, not necessarily the chords or the melody".
We drive to the hall and Adam is chided by the Edge for throwing away his spare but unusable continental coins. The exchange prompts a reminiscence from the bassist: " I remember at the start when we used to call around to Paul's home and we didn't have the money for the bus fare back. He used to have this drawer for spare change and we used to raid it. I don't think he quite liked it then".
At the hall, Barry DevIin who's directing a tour video, ambles around, lauding the crew, particularly Steve, their daredevil American rigger. His praise is well merited. The crew deserve their own paragraph. With English and Americans added to the Irish core who've been with U-2 since the start, they personify one of Graham's immutable laws of rock 'n' roll: "A band is only as good as its crew".
In my memory, these two Rotterdam dates blend into one, though the second is slightly superior to the first. By now, I'm discovering how "Bad" has grown on me, relishing the Edge's guitar bursts on "Electric Co." and "New Year's Day" and gleefully awaiting Bono's latest stage trick.
First night, he pretends to love the microphone on "11 O'Clock", lets it fall and spontaneously kisses roadie Greg when he recovers it. Then on "Gloria" he invites a girl up from the crowd, jokes, "I can't dance like I used to" and then sweeps her over his shoulder, Tarzan-style from the stage.
Second night, there's a scent of the old Bono, a tremor of fear as he goes off the stage, up onto the cyclepath that divides the audience. The element of risk remains but "Two Hearts Beat As One" caps it.
He's given both a Union Jack and a Tricolour and wraps the English flag around him in a signal of detente. There's the faintest hiss, an understandable desire to support the Irish underdog but Bono won't be mistaken. He flings both flags away. "I get tired with all these flags, Union Jack and Green, White and Orange, Stars and Stripes and Hammer and Sickle".
Such moments kill any staleness in the set, prevent it from congealing into formality. Every night, U-2 have to clean the mirror, prevent the spectacle from taking them over. It's only one facet their critics miss. So many people stick themselves in so many reality-tunnels when they view this band.
U-2 are a rather more complex and paradoxical entity than their detractors realise. They see only America, Christianity, success and arena rock, account the band a perfect post-punk package for Reaganland and don't peer further.
They disregard U-2's control. They miss the fact that U-2 are among the elect who have achieved the oft-expressed but rarely accomplished aim of making the business work for them. While the ABC's and Heaven 17's were poring over their press-releases, U-2 were getting up early in the morning.
But bands must not only harness the business, they must also never be suffocated by their audience. With "Unforgettable Fire", U-2 have escaped the demands for bludgeoning guitar heroism and unlocked the door to further development. That too takes control.
U-2 are now dealing with the hardest music spheres beyond rock 'n' roll's earthly, secular, social, physical functions. The seventies got it badly wrong (there are still creatures who believe the Moody Blues introduced "The Cosmic Rock Revolution") and the mass-marketing of hippie mysticism and spurious cult - God wasn't just an astronaut, he was the conductor on the 15A - was a blight on the era whose soundtrack was often vacuous mood music imprisoned by outmoded Victorian aesthetics.
There must be a music of the spirit that doesn't repeat those errors, that seeks the kernel not the shell. This, I suspect is U-2's future task.
But U2's Christianity is at the heart of their paradox. Exactly because it is unapologetic, the band's critics get blinded by the glare and take it for granted. There is some case to be made that "War"'s clanging hard rock attack sometimes led to undue pulpit-thumping. Equally some may discern that their beliefs performed the useful early function of steering them away from the reefs of rockbiz corruption - but that still doesn't take us to the heart of the matter.
Oddly, blacks be they still soul or reggae artists, are permitted Christian values but white rockers only gain tolerance and/or bemused credit if they're Buddhists, scientologists or members of some other fashionably arcane sect. Their critics never endow U2's Christianity with any rock 'n' roll magic.
Yet it means U-2 enter rock from an odd and creatively stimulating angle particularly now they have the maturity and the experience that admits a growing sense of moral complications. What should never be forgotten is that U-2 are far beyond the shadow-play of formal belief.
Further, somebody has to court the Americans in their arenas. Now that the USA has opted for a further spell of Reagan illusion, bands like U-2 may give some small but not trivial aid in building a bridge back to reality.
The challenge of the arenas can't be refused. Hell, we are talking about "popular music" here and alongside any "War On Pop" must also be an equal assault on encrusted ideas of "anti-pop".
U-2 confuse on two counts. Patently they can't be numbered among the fashion serfs beholden to their feudal lords but neither do they involve themselves with any current modish fastidiousness, the amateur indie ethic, the refusal to compete that leads to so many downcast, under-invested acts. Somebody has to meet the challenge with all possible positive force, crank up the machine and see if music can still move crowds of 8,000 with the least compromise. Few better men than U-2 for the job.
One final Rotterdam memory. "Party Girl" finds the imp in Bono spraying the Edge with champagne, both collapsing in mirth and barely holding the song together. But the bubbly's really for Larry, 23 today on Halloween.
The man who pinned the notice to the school board is symmetrically last to leave the stage, pounding out his piece as the chant of "40" reverberates around the hall. Clannad's "Harry's Game" completes the closing ritual, the acknowledgement that as long as U-2 hold to the purity of Irish melody, they can evade the hollowness of a new pomp-rock.
Let Paul Celan have the last line: "There are still songs to be sung on the other side of humankind".
Vol 8 No 23. November 30th, 1984.