U2 in 1981: ‘Up on your feet! This is not Woodstock...’
As revellers thronged to the first Slane, it was far from a perfect day for Bono from Ballymun, writes Damian Corless
IT was 1981. The summer soundtrack was ‘Stars On 45’, featuring Beatles songs mushed in a blender and blared out at ear-splitting volume by the new super-pirate Radio Nova.
Every second car windscreen had a sticker boasting ‘I Shot JR’, and Bono was buzzing around his native Glasnevin doing his usual impression of a young man in a great hurry.
This time, however, he really was in a great hurry. In a few hours’ time he was due on stage 20 miles up the road at Slane Castle for the biggest gig of U2's young lives, but before he could go he had to get rid of his batch of complimentary tickets for the show.
It being the first concert ever staged in the sleepy Boyne backwater, everyone was making it up as they went along.
That included the promoters who were banking on homecomers Thin Lizzy to draw 20,000, and were tickled ever deeper shades of pink as that projected turnout looked like doubling.
Amid all the first night nerves, U2 didn't get their freebie tickets until the last minute. This led to the spectacle that Saturday morning of Bono
kerb-crawling the locality in his weather-beaten Fiat 127, hailing down friends and neighbours to ask if they'd like tickets for the show.
It was a mixed bag of a line-up. Thin Lizzy were the headliners, but they were on the slippery downslope. Hazel O'Connor was top of the pops with the stopwatch ticking down on her 15 minutes of fame.
Sandwiched inbetween, U2 were a work in progress, but with a lustful eye on the future. They were still a long, long way from arriving in that cheery place where everyone knows your name, but at least they'd finally made it past the point where tour promoters abroad were billing them as The U2s, V2 or even VR.
They'd released an album, ‘Boy’, that had crept stealthily up the Billboard Hot 100, and they arrived in Slane hot off a small but perfectly formed American tour.
They opened with a rousing new song ‘With A Shout’, and as the crowd surged forward it really did seem that everyone in the singer's neighbourhood had made the day trip. But Glasnevin was just a pocket of Dublin and Dublin just a pocket of Ireland and it quickly became clear that the vast majority there were Lizzy fans keeping their powder dry for the main attraction.
Testing his growing powers as a Pied Piper, the singer tried to rouse the serried ranks of swiggers, smokers and snoggers on the surrounding hilltop, chiding them: “Up on your feet! This is not Woodstock.”
No, it wasn't Woodstock. It was Ireland on a woozy summer's day and they weren't going to disturb themselves for some cocky upstart.
Whatever about the audience, it quickly became evident that this would be no picnic for U2. They'd picked a bad day to be a work in progress. In the studio, they'd succumbed to the dreaded “difficult second album syndrome” trying to finish their new record ‘October’.
Bono's lyrics had been stolen so the new songs they premiered at Slane were belted out on a wing and a prayer with makey-uppy words. Not that that mattered too much since most of Bono's vocals were scattered to the squalling winds. Add in that The Edge's guitars were wrongly tuned and it was just one of those
When some louts started hurling bottles, Bono's frustration seemed to spill over, although he directed his ire rather oddly at “a special sort of people – they're called reporters”.
He fumed: “They find somebody like that guy over there who's throwing the bottles in the air, and then they take a photograph of him and print the photograph. And then you all are throwing the bottles. Do you see what I mean?”
U2's first Slane wasn't the shining triumph they'd hoped for. Their best success at whipping up some audience participation came when they persuaded the crowd to join in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ for The Edge's sweetheart Aisling.
When it was done they'd scraped a pass mark for effort, but in
the greater scheme of things it was another rung safely negotiated on the ladder to the top.
Three years later, U2 had scaled that ladder to dizzying heights. America was teetering before them, ready to topple given just one more tiny tip. Instead, in the summer of 1984 they were holed up in Slane Castle with visionary producer Brian Eno, intent on finding their European voice on the album they'd call ‘The Unforgettable Fire’.
In mystical tones, Bono likened the acoustics in the castle's stately rooms to those of a cathedral. He pronounced himself pleased at having finally found “a room that has life in itself, a living room”.
IF it seemed that U2 had temporarily turned their gaze from America, America came calling on them at Slane in the guise of Bob Dylan, who played Slane in
Backstage, armed with a tape recorder, Bono conducted an interview with Dylan that wouldn't have been out of place in ‘Spinal Tap’. After Bono informed Dylan that The Clancy Brothers were “like punk rock”, Bob expressed his admiration for the Irish band “Plankton”.
“Planxty,” Bono corrected him politely. A few sentences later Dylan showed that he'd been paying attention a little, but not a lot, when he asked Bono: “You know Planxty?”
The encounter climaxed with Dylan leading an impromptu singsong of Brendan Behan's ‘The Auld Triangle’, which is as good a place to leave it as
When U2 finally returned to play Slane in 2001, both the band and the summer fixture had grown almost beyond recognition.
Slane had blossomed into one of the prestige pitstops on the world touring circuit, a tourist attraction in itself, drawing huge crowds from home and abroad to eyeball stellar names, including The Stones, Oasis, REM, Springsteen, Bowie and Queen.
And U2 had long since joined that stellar pantheon, both in terms of fame and of corporate scale.
For the duration of their first Slane performance, they were locked in a battle with the elements, with their equipment and with an indifferent crowd.
When their 200-strong army of technicians, flunkies and caterers set up camp by the Boyne in 2001 for the Slane leg of the Elevation tour, U2 were locked in an ongoing battle with The Rolling Stones for the bragging rights as to who could mount the biggest moneyspinning trek of all time.
U2 leapfrogged The Stones that year with Elevation, and were leapfrogged in 2006 by The Stones' Better Bang excursion, and this year U2 regained first place with their current tour.
Slane 2001 was a bittersweet experience for U2. Bono's father Bob died days before the first of the two shows, bringing a tinge of melancholy to the event.
The second show some days later was the sight and sound of one nation under a groove.
First the multitudes watched on giant screens as the Republic of Ireland football team beat the Dutch to qualify for the 2002 World Cup Finals, and from there, incredibly, the day got even better.
Just a perfect day.