- 29 Sep 16
It is just over 40 years, since Larry Mullen put the note on the noticeboard in Mount Temple Comprehensive, which led to the formation of U2. As various contributions to this special issue of Hot Press confirm, that gesture changed the world for millions of people all over the globe. But that they are still together is perhaps the band’s greatest achievement...
Blame Larry Mullen. He was the one who had the gumption to try and get something going. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of bands were formed through the classified ad pages of Hot Press. But the first issue of the magazine was almost a year into the future when Larry put the equivalent of a Musicians Wanted ad up on the noticeboard in Mount Temple Comprehensive school, on the Malahide Road.
If we had been around, or everything had been time-shifted a year into the future, would Larry have reached out to a different community entirely? He might well have. But then there are so many might-not-have-beens in this story.
It is strange to think of the dynamic of the school yard, and to recognise how badly awry the whole adventure might have gone. Still 14 at the time, Larry was a mere stripling. A bunch of older bucks answered the ad, as well as a couple of his peers. And somehow, that first rehearsal came together, with no one quite knowing what was supposed to happen.
That’s the way with a lot of musicians and bands, as they coalesce into something that will, hopefully, ultimately be recognisable as a unit. Everyone is feeling one another out for the first while. But here, the probability of things going haywire was unusually high. Not least because some of those who made the trek to Larry’s family home in Artane had what might be described as big personalities. And they were older.
Teenagehood is a strange time. Guys lock horns and push one another around without ever really knowing what they are doing. Bigger boys can either take younger kids under their wing or bully them mercilessly. So how was this particular musical gang-bang going to shake out? It was unpredictable to say the least.
Larry had the advantage that he was the possessor of a fine kit of drums. And he could play. But the way everyone reports it, from the outset, Bono took centre-stage. He may have been a mixed-up, shook-up guy, trying to make his way in the world in circumstances that were extraordinarily difficult, following the tragic loss of his mother Iris to a cerebral aneurysm just two years previously. But he was no shrinking violet: on that much, all of the participants agree. If anything, the pain and the confusion that he was wrestling with gave him a bigger voice. There was a need in him, that wasn’t going to be easily assuaged. But instinctively he must have known that being in a band would help. As it did.
In the weeks that followed the first rehearsal, some of the young guys were given a polite heave-ho: Peter Martin was followed out the door by Ivan McCormick. That process of attrition was inevitable.
There was only one drummer at the rehearsal and so – for now at least! – Larry’s place was secure. And competition for the role of bass player is never as intense as that for lead guitarist or singer. Adam Clayton also had the lingo. And the confidence. He carried himself with more authority than he actually possessed – which is a huge asset when everyone else is merely trying to find a voice. He was a stayer.
Guitarists, however, are a dime a dozen. With Bono in the room, Ivan was never going to be the lead singer either. And Dave Evans exuded the quiet presence that would attend almost everything he did in the future. Three guitarists was too many. Ivan had to go.
But it wasn’t a case of the older guys muscling in and taking over: when it came to the crunch, it was Dave – the younger of the two Evans brothers in that first incarnation of the band as Feedback – who held onto the lead guitarist role. The cards finally fell into place when – in what was a choreographed move – Dick left the stage during a gig, never to return. Heart, diamond, club, spade. It was a four-piece then.
How many times over those first couple of years did it almost fall apart? There are photo shoots of U2 for which Bono’s mate Guggi, who formed The Virgin Prunes with Gavin Friday, had to stand in for an absent Larry, who was detained in school. Larry’s father famously used to pick him up from band activities, pointing to his watch. He was doing what any good parent would want to do: trying to guide his child through school, while also allowing him to follow the dream that he might one day make it as a musician. But it wasn’t easy – either for him or for Larry.
Most likely the other members of U2 were bitten by frustration: how can you get real momentum going when one of the band has to be tucked up in bed by 11pm? But they chewed their tongues. During the process of trial and error, as they started to uncover a sense of what the band might actually be, there have to have been moments of doubt. Was Dave ever going to be able to play a guitar solo, for God’s sake? Would Adam be good enough to make it as a bass player? And, anyway, when was Bono going to actually learn to sing? (And while he was learning, wouldn’t it be better to stop him making that godawful rocket on the guitar?).
Every young band is assailed by those kind of qualms. But there was something going on here that was different. As their musical muscles grew, they hung together as a unit, while bands all around them were falling apart, changing members and morphing into something different than when they started. It is as if, with Adam, Bono, Edge and Larry, the collective instinct was there from the outset that the whole was – or at least could in time be – greater than the sum of the parts.
It was also about loyalty to one another. U2 were given a hard time by a coterie on the Dublin rock scene at the time. They were treated as impostors, posh middle class boys who were in some way faking it by trying to be some sort of punk rock band. That only made them stronger.
It was all bullshit. Inevitably, these judgements were most often made by well-to-do middle class boys who were themselves faking it. One conclusion you might have come to is that faking it is part of what young men and women do until they discover who they really are – if indeed they ever get there.
The truth, however, is that U2 weren’t. As a troupe, they were then – and have remained – remarkably true to their origins, as a group of suburban semi-outsiders, who wanted to be rock stars but were also, from the start, about something potentially deeper and more lasting. They might not have used the word at the time, or even yet had a jigsaw that they were striving to complete in their collective mind’s eye, but what the insightful intuited was that they wanted to create art.
They wanted to write the songs, and to make the noise, that would reflect the particular circumstances from which they had sprung, as a bunch of confused but clearly decent, intelligent and ambitious young Dublin teenagers. They wanted to make a difference.
In many ways you can argue that they got lucky, finding one another in the way that they did: that much is undeniable. And they got lucky in other ways too: connecting with Steve Averil of The Radiators From Space, who suggested their name and did their artwork; befriending Bill Graham of Hot Press, who acted as their champion and connected them with Paul McGuinness, who took up the managerial reins; being spotted by the Island Records press officer, Rob Partridge, who was a big fan and a good friend of Hot Press and read our glowing reports on the band, as they emerged bright-eyed and bushy tailed into the limelight.
And, of course, in countless other ways too. But all of these things happened at least in part because they put the effort in, got on the phone, hassled, harried and worked. And worked. And worked some more. Which added to their collective strength of purpose. Which gave them the energy to work even harder.
How often, you have to ask, does it happen that four young men can effectively get married to one another at the age of fourteen or fifteen and remain together for all of forty years, still bound together as a unit, in the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of the bonds of matrimony. They have lived together, loved one another, got fed up, fallen out and re-energised the mothership on a dozen occasions and more over the years. But, in the heat of battle, they have consistently stood four-square and fought shoulder to shoulder when it mattered most – showing commitment to one another and to the idea of the band, secure in the belief that the whole of what we know as U2 really is greater than the sum of its parts.
There have been so many remarkable achievements in the life and the career of U2, both as a band and as individuals. And they have indeed made a difference – a huge one, as it happens – to everything that has taken place here in Ireland in the intervening years. But their very longevity is perhaps their greatest achievement – that, and the commitment which, for the four members of the band, goes with it, that they will press forward only on the understanding that they are resolved to do even better next time: that they will always strive to make the best U2 record ever, and to dream up a live show that, in the same way, surpasses all of those they have done before.
They have set the bar high. If Songs of Experience is the next leap into the unknown, bring it on. The only question is: will the accompanying live show be as good as those Jingle Balls gigs in McGonagles back in 1979? We will see. We will surely see.