As McGuinness clears his desk, U2 will never be the same again
FOR the first time since 1978, U2 will this morning wake up with the knowledge that Paul McGuinness is not fighting their corner. As U2's "fifth Beatle" exits, what does the future hold for Bono and Co?
In the short term, the band will have scant opportunity for introspection. They are in the middle of recording their 13th album and, given the relative underperformance of its 2009 predecessor 'No Line On The Horizon', they will be eager not to be distracted by the curious timing of McGuinness's announcement.
After that, well, who is to say? There is little doubt that, as musicians, U2 long ago reached a plateau. Released to some of the most humdrum reviews of their career 'No Line On The Horizon' was, by intergalactic rock icon standards, almost a flop selling "just" four million copies. Worse yet, lead single 'Get On Your Boots' was widely deemed an embarrassment, the sound of four middle-aged guys trying to channel pop star loucheness and embarrassing themselves in the process.
They are, increasingly, out of step with the musical topography, a goliath in a kingdom of pygmies. Contemporaries REM petered out in 2011 and younger arena acts such as Coldplay are taking ever lengthier breaks between LPs. In a world of on-demand record streaming and a million genres, stadium rock is an old-man's gig and U2's desire to be the pre-eminent brand in town has an antediluvian ring.
Speculation about U2's future has swirled for decades (they nearly broke up in the early 80s when tensions about the Christian beliefs of Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen became an issue). However, in 2011 Bono indicated that, after half a lifetime, yanking the plug on the project wasn't something any of the group could bring themselves to contemplate. U2 wasn't a job, he suggested. The band was encoded in their DNA.
A great deal will probably hinge on the new LP, recorded in New York with producer Danger Mouse and pencilled for release in April (following a "big reveal" at the Superbowl).
Speaking to the Irish Independent in 2009, their regular studio collaborator Steve Lilywhite said the final months before a new U2 album were inevitably a period of chaos and anxiety. With the clock ticking, it isn't unthinkable that U2 are for the moment simply too distracted to fret about the impact of the resignation.
"Every record they start, they begin thinking they are the world's worst band," Lilywhite told me "They have to go and make themselves the world's best band. It takes a long time to go from the worst to the best within the writing of an album.
"It's always the case with U2 that they procrastinate and procrastinate until the final deadline comes up. Then they sort of spring to the finish. There are lot of late nights, a lot of madness. That's why, no matter that the album took a while to make, your first thought on hearing it is: 'wow, that's a really fresh sound'."
As McGuinness clears out his desk, it is clear that U2 will never be the same again. However, we should not underestimate the enormous responsibility the band shoulders: to themselves, to their music, their fans, and also to Ireland.
Speaking ahead of the release of 'No Line On the Horizon', McGuinness himself put it succinctly. "They have enormous creative ambition. And people in Ireland expect it of them. They are like the football team we send out to win the World Cup every four years. It's been going on for so long now, people expect it. And U2 are aware of that."