- 21 Jun 05
Steve Lillywhite, who produced U2's first three albums – and has featured on the production team of almost all of their records – looks back over the band's career and recalls the highs... and the lows
"My first U2 experience was hearing U23, the release on CBS in Ireland. Someone in Island Records sent it to me to see if I might be interested in doing their first album.
At the time I suppose I was one of the bright young producers, I’d done various post-punk bands and so I was an obvious candidate – although I heard that the reason I got the job was basically because Martin Hannett, who’d produced ‘11 O’ Clock Tick Tock’, decided not to carry on his relationship with them because Ian Curtis had committed suicide. That’s how the history books go, although I subsequently read that Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, and I’m sure I recorded Boy at the end of 1979 so there’s something a bit strange there! But Mr Hannett was not a well man. We’ve all had our moments, but he was well known as being quite a crazy guy, as a lot of producers are because that’s often how they get all their greatness.
But I remember thinking, ‘This is good, I should go and see them live’. I flew over to Cork and I was told I’d be met by a Mr McGuinness. I thought with the name McGuinness it would be someone with straw in his hair picking me up on a tractor. I mean, no offence, but Ireland in the late '70s was a very different place to Ireland now. So it was quite a shock when this guy said, (affects posh Anglo-Irish accent) ‘Hello Steve. Paul McGuinness here’. And he subsequently drove me about an hour to the gig from the airport, playing me constant U2 music, saying, ‘Isn’t that good?’ And it was quite obvious that it was good but not great; these were very rough recordings to be honest. And then it was one of those gigs where all the boys stood on one side of the room and all the girls stood on the other side. It was a great gig though. And I remember we went out for a drink afterwards and they were drinking red lemonade shandy. Now they drink the best champagne and stuff!
So we decided we would do a single. We did ‘A Day Without Me’ which I actually bought yesterday, ’cos I’ve been watching some of their gigs recently and they’re doing songs off the first album, of which I don’t have a copy, so I bought it on i-Tunes. On this tour they’re playing ‘Into The Heart’ and ‘An Cat Dubh’ and they sound more current now than they did ten years ago in a strange way.
I sat down and listened to Boy for the first time in 25 years yesterday, quite randomly, before I knew I'd be taking a look back over their career for hotpress. Some of it, I thought, was pretty good. Some of it was a little bit questionable, but all in all, it was not a bad debut album. You can tell Bono’s that little bit self-conscious.
Anyway, everyone seemed to like ‘A Day Without Me’ – it wasn’t a hit, but we decided to go and do the album. And in those days, you knocked off an album pretty quick. It was about a month if not less. I’d be in the studio and all these strange people would come in, Gavin and Guggi, and because Bono didn’t really have the social graces then, nobody was ever introduced to anyone – so there were all these dark characters around. Funnily enough, it was only in the last couple of months, when I was out helping them with preparing for the current tour that, for the first time I wasn’t scared of Gavin Friday! I mean he’s a sweetheart, but if you don’t know him… for 25 years, I’d been intimidated by him in a strange way. It was only when we were working together, helping the band get the set list and the tour organised that I realised he’s a lovely man.
October was difficult. I’ve said this before, but I had these rules at the time that I would never do more than one album with an artist because I felt that it’s good for them to work with different people. But they said, ‘No Steve, we like what you did, we want you back on this one’. And then of course October was a bit more difficult because there were sketches and ideas, but they hadn’t played any of these songs live and it just didn’t quite go off the way it should have done. And there were things in the studio which in retrospect I don't think worked… I changed the drum sound; on the first album I recorded the drums out by the hallway in the original Windmill Lane studios for a big ambient sound. Second album I brought them into the studio. So that was one of the things that didn’t work so well.
Then after October had dipped and was deemed not quite as successful as the first one, I said, ‘Look, you really do need a different producer now’ and they went off and tried stuff with various other people. But then I got a phone call saying, ‘Steve, would you like to do this next one?’ and I said yeah. (After) each album, I gave them the opportunity to go away and work with someone else.
Making the War album was a very different kind of experience. I remember Bono being in the studio and just shouting at Edge: ‘Don’t be The Edge. Be Mick Jones!’ Trying to get elements of what The Clash had. But you know what – it was what the Americans wanted. It wasn’t made for America specifically, but it really did work there. ‘New Year’s Day’ was the record that they all wanted to play. When you make a record, certainly in those days, we found it very difficult to know what was going to be a radio song and what wasn’t. I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Surrender’. But now ‘Surrender’ is not anywhere near the set list, it's been forgotten. We spent days on that slide part… Edge was not so good on the slide in those days! We used Kid Creole & the Coconuts on that album, they were in town that day and we got them in to do backing vocals.
So that was great, but they really needed to change after that. I remember being in Dublin before the Unforgettable Fire sessions. I went out to Slane Castle where they were rehearsing and said, ‘What have you got?’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ve only got one song.’ I said, ‘Let’s hear that one’ and they played ‘Pride’. Really, they had one song going into that album; all the rest was sort of muddled together as they were doing it. But what a great record. And ‘Pride’ is a spectacular song.
For the next three albums that I was involved in, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, my role in all those three albums was as fixer. They basically extend the production team, so it starts out with, say, Danny (Lanois) and Brian (Eno) and then I come in and I have my own room. Which is a great job – I love it because I don’t have to spend the full 18 months, although they can be good fun as well.
Do they burn people out? I think so, yeah. They certainly burned Flood out on Pop. I mean, he will admit that, he’s back to form now, he’s fantastic, but I think at the end of Pop everyone was burnt.
But this new album was slightly different because, in football terms, they felt they needed to switch things around for the second half. I came in and listened to a lot of the songs and I said, ‘It would be great if you could give us some more options. Why don’t you go away and write a couple more songs?’ Which, to be honest, to say that to U2, it’s a big thing to say, because they had their songs for the album. But I dunno, I just felt that some of them weren’t… it all sounded very good and worthy, and for anyone else it would’ve been a good record, but for U2, they have to have magic, and it didn’t feel so magical. But after that came ‘Miracle Drug’, ‘A Man And A Woman’, ‘Vertigo’, most of ‘All Because Of You’ as well. ‘Original Of The Species’ was pretty much as it was, but that song had been incubating for a long time – it had been around since the last album. In fact ‘Love And Peace (Or Else)’, I think Flood originally worked on that on the Pop album. Wait ’til you see that live – that song’s just turned into a monster. It used to tear me apart, certainly after October, it was like, ‘Oh god, why don’t you play one or two of these songs live – and then when we get to record them, we’ll sort of know how they go!’ Ever since the first album, they’ve never played anything live before recording it. Which can make things extremely difficult.
I think they wanted How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb to be an album of songs rather than sonic landscapes. They never knew how to write songs in the early days, they sort of stumbled upon them. Now they've decided, ‘Hey, we're quite good at this!’ It takes time, but they have belief in their songwriting now. I think after Pop they thought, ‘What are our strengths? We’re a four piece band, let’s see how far we can take this.' Well, they seem to be doing pretty good.
In conversation with Peter Murphy.