Wednesday 20 March 2019

Achtung baby: How long can U2 play on?

The band were forced to abandon a concert last Saturday after Bono lost his voice, and it's not the first health setback for Ireland's biggest rock export. Music critic John Meagher considers what distance U2 have yet to run

Rock on: U2 open European leg of their Experience + Innocence world tour in Berlin
Rock on: U2 open European leg of their Experience + Innocence world tour in Berlin
The Edge and Bono on the Croke Park stage last year
Bono blasts out a song in Punchestown in1982 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection).

Berlin holds a very special place in U2's collective heart. It was in this city - then undergoing enormous change - that the band recorded their finest album, 1991's Achtung Baby. Berlin had proved to be hugely inspiring in helping them reinvent their sound spectacularly and the album they fashioned in the famed Hansa studio was, as Bono memorably put it, the sound of "four men chopping down The Joshua Tree".

Long-term fans were not surprised when they chose to open the European leg of their Experience + Innocence world tour there, and the vast Mercedes-Benz Arena was the venue. They had played three triumphant nights there in support of the Songs of Innocence album in 2015 and the opening night, last Friday, was hailed as another audio-visual tour de force.

But the second night, on Saturday, proved to be very different. The band were getting into their stride, five songs in, when Bono found that he had lost his voice. He had managed to complete one of their biggest anthems, 'Beautiful Day', and then he simply couldn't go on. Fan footage from the night showed him to be visibly distressed as he realised that the unthinkable was about to happen - they were going to have to postpone the show.

It's impossible to know what was going through the Dubliner's head as he made his apologies to the 17,000 sell-out audience, but part of him must have experienced a crushing dread that the rest of the tour might be in jeopardy.

The Edge and Bono on the Croke Park stage last year
The Edge and Bono on the Croke Park stage last year

A new Berlin date - for a couple of days after was set to be the final show of the tour, in Dublin - was hastily set and Bono received urgent medical attention. His fears were allayed when the doctor suggested that the tour could recommence in Cologne on Tuesday night and that the loss of voice he experienced had merely been temporary. It was later suggested by some that his tribulations may have been caused by the smoke machines that are being used on this tour.

Three days later, U2 got through a full set in Cologne, much to the relief of their fans and the band themselves. And there were no problems on Wednesday, when they played a second show at Cologne's Lanxess Arena.

But Bono's trouble last weekend poses a series of intriguing questions. To paraphrase one of their songs, what distance does U2 have left to run? For how much longer can a band, who began life when all four were at school in north Dublin in 1976, continue to play big-budget, globe-trotting tours? And would they continue as an entity if one or more members decide to quit?

All four are in their late 50s - the youngest, Larry Mullen, is 56 - and they have toured relentlessly since the late 1970s when they were cutting their teeth in long-gone Dublin venues like the Magnet and McGonagles.

On the North American leg of the tour, which kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 2 and concluded in an offbeat location, Uncasville, Utah, on July 3, U2 played 28 shows - an average of one every other night and quite full-on when one considers the sheer physicality of this latest stage show and the large amount of travelling involved.

Last year, they played 51 dates between May and October on their stadium tour in honour of The Joshua Tree's 30th anniversary: the tour called to Europe, North America and South America and was seen as a return to U2's stadium-baiting best.

Bono blasts out a song in Punchestown in1982 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection).
Bono blasts out a song in Punchestown in1982 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection).

Anyone who attended the Croke Park show would have had little doubt about the strenuous nature of the performance - Bono must have clocked up several miles that night prowling the enormous stage and the runway to the secondary stage in the heart of the mosh-pit.

Last year, I interviewed Danny O'Donoghue, frontman of The Script, and he said he had a new-found respect for rockers like Bono when it came to commanding huge audiences. "It was both amazing and completely draining," he told me, speaking of the band's show in Croke Park some years before. "You don't quite realise it until you're playing shows that big, but there's a huge amount of stamina involved." At 37, O'Donoghue is 21 years younger than Bono.

But anyone who saw the Rolling Stones command the Croke Park audience this May might suggest the U2 boys still have plenty of years on their side. In what was one of the best of 2018's big-name artist shows, the veteran band rolled back the years spectacularly and Mick Jagger - a sprightly 75 year old - was energetic and tirelessly engaging for the two-and-a-half hour duration of the set. He looked fit as a fiddle and would probably be still able to fit into the skinny trousers he first sported in the Swinging Sixties.

U2 will be keen to avoid bodily mishaps that can affect anyone, but are more pressing as we get older. And Bono has had his fair share of woes. In 2014 he suffered a bad fall while cycling in New York's Central Park that necessitated five hours of surgery. He damaged his arm so badly he feared he would never be able to play guitar again. As someone who rarely plays guitar in a live setting, it wouldn't have been catastrophic but reduced mobility would have meant, by his standards, a subdued performance.

And last year, when talking about latest album Songs of Experience, Bono said the album had been partly inspired by an unspecified near-death experience. "Lots of us have a brush with mortality, it was an arresting experience," he wrote in the album's liner notes. "I won't dwell in it or on it. I don't want to name it. But these songs have that impetus behind them and it would feel dishonest not to admit the turbulence I was feeling at the time of writing."

The Edge has also had the odd close shave. He fell off the stage in poor light early on in the Innocence + Experience tour in 2015, but was able to resume the show without too much difficulty. He was lucky. That five-foot drop could have had much unhappier consequences - even something as simple as a broken ankle, for instance, could have ruled him out for weeks - and the prospect of a guitarist as expressive as the Edge sitting down while playing the riff for 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is unlikely to fill fans with glee.

Whatever about physical mishaps, serious voice issues for Bono would be very damaging for U2 Inc. This week, Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters frontman and ex-Nirvana drummer, was forced to cancel shows after damaging his voice and, three years ago, the huge-selling Adele feared she would never sing again after discovering she had damaged her vocal chords. She had to rest her singing voice for six months.

Cathy Vard is one of the country's leading singing coaches and while she says she does not know the detail of Bono's vocal condition, she says a loss of voice is something that keeps all singers awake at night. "It happened to me, and it's a really hard thing to accept," she says. "There are all sorts of reasons it can happen, and it can vary from losing your voice for a night to months at a time.

"Stress plays a big part and I always say to singers that the more comfortable they are the less likely it will happen. It's also important to warm up - sometimes people forget about it. But you wouldn't run a race, without doing stretches and warming up first."

Bono has not publicly been forced to halt a show due to voice issues before. In fact, it is thought that U2 have never previously had to abandon a performance in the course of their long career. The band have long been celebrated for their professionalism and having to bring the curtain down early will have hurt them. "So serious and relieved that anything serious has been ruled out," Bono said in a statement on Monday. "My relief is tempered by the knowledge that the Berlin audience were so inconvenienced. There was an amazing atmosphere in the house, it was going to be one of those unforgettable nights..."

One aspect that has characterised the U2 story from the off is how steadfast the line-up has been. Many high-profile bands of their longevity have chopped and changed when it's come to personnel, but U2 have always been a quartet and each member has played the same instrument, or instruments, from the days when the were known as Feedback and then the Hype, before settling on U2.

And, unlike many of their peers, the band's royalty cheques are split in four equal parts. That's been sacrosanct from the start. In fact, they used to split everything five ways with Paul McGuinness, who was their manager from 1978, after first witnessing them perform at Dublin's Project Arts Centre, to 2013 when he and the band amicably parted company. He said he was stepping off the merry-go-round as he was "approaching the musically relevant age of 64" - a reference to the Beatles song. They subsequently appointed Madonna's manager, Guy Oseary, to the role.

"They have an incredible rapport with each other," says one figure who used to work with Principle, McGuinness's management company. "There are friendships that go beyond the norm, but then that's not surprising because they've known each other since school, they've grown up together and they've had their ups and downs together. I've always felt that they view each other as equals - Bono, for instance, does not believe he is more important than Larry because he writes the songs and fronts the band. When you have that sort of mutual respect in a group, there's less likelihood of them drifting apart."

She believes U2 will continue as a force, unless ill-health gets in the way. "They've never been interested in simply going through the motions and playing the back catalogue. They're driven by the idea that their next album could be their best. If you look at the Joshua Tree gigs last year you'll remember that they tended to finish with a brand new song ['The Little Things That Give You Away'] - that's their way of showing that they're always looking to the new chapter."

Another insider who has known the band since their infancy believes they have taken stock of their increasing years and are playing fewer shows. "There aren't quite as many dates per annum now as there was on the Zoo TV and Popmart tours. Even bringing this tour and the Innocence + Experience one indoors has probably made it a bit more manageable for them. I think around the time of the 'Claw tour' [the 360 Tour, from 2009 to 2011, which featured a giant claw-type stage] they were realising that tours on that scale carry a lot of headaches and stress."

He does not believe U2 could carry on without Bono or the Edge "because both are so fundamental to the sound of the band", but says the group could "conceivably" continue without Mullen or Adam Clayton. "With the greatest of respect to those two wonderful musicians, they're not as central to U2 as Bono and the Edge are, especially Bono. Who could sing like he does or boss a stage like he does or talk about the political and personal like he does? And the Edge is such an innovative guitarist. But I don't think they'd want to continue as U2 if any member stepped away, unless that person made it very clear that he wanted them to continue."

There is only one occasion in which U2 played without all four members. That was in November 1993, when Adam Clayton missed a show at Sydney due to a hangover. His embarrassment was compounded by the fact that that was the night that the band had booked a film crew to shoot the concert for a video release. The movie was released anyway and Clayton's place was taken by his bass technician.

He subsequently highlighted that moment as the one which made him put a lid on his drinking and he has been alcohol-free since.

Meanwhile, vocal-issues excepted, the U2 juggernaut continues tonight when they play the first of three nights in Paris. Four Dublin shows at the 3Arena will take place from November 5 - all tickets for the hometown shows sold out in under five minutes.

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