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Sunday 21 January 2018

Brash and shouty: My first thoughts on U2

Ireland was stuck in a moment until U2 came along, but not everyone saw their potential. Including Frank Coughlan

Bono and his wife Ali Hewson arrive at Cork Airport prior to U2’s 1987 Joshua Tree tour show at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. NPA/Irish Independent archives
Bono and his wife Ali Hewson arrive at Cork Airport prior to U2’s 1987 Joshua Tree tour show at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. NPA/Irish Independent archives

Frank Coughlan

I can still see it. A perfect summer's night. The reflected sun twinkling in the windows of the big houses in Tivoli and Montenotte on the far side of the Lee. Bono belting out 'With or Without You' with that trademark swagger.

It was August, 1987, The Joshua Tree was the album of the year and U2 were nailing down a reputation as the biggest band on the planet. Certainly the coolest and most relevant. And there I was in my home town, a mile or so from where I grew up, listening to them give the performance of a lifetime on a GAA pitch more accustomed to manly gaels whipping up a very different sort of frenzy.

By the time they reached Cork that evening, The Joshua Tree was on its way to becoming the fastest selling album in British history and topping the charts in 20 countries. I sensed I was witnessing something special, that it was a great night to be alive. Hardly expected, however, to be writing about it 30 years later.

But if I have contrived to set myself up as a cult worshipper who can trace his U2 gene pool back to the early days, that would be fake news.

Let me rewind my Sony Walkman to 1978, the best part of a decade earlier.

I was a young journalist working in the then Cork Examiner, single, free and with money to squander with purpose. I spent it, like most young fellas did in their early twenties, on creating bespoke hangovers. The rest was dispensed on disastrous dates, albums and gigs.

The legendary Sir Henry's and The Arc were regular haunts but we listened to bands wherever we found them. We had grown up with Rory Gallagher and our version of the Christian calendar was built around his homecoming Christmas gigs where he rose and played to many.

But we had local bands with great names like Sleepy Hollow, proper rockers who straddled the entire decade. They were all about long hair and indulgent solos especially composed for air guitarists. We loved them simply because they were ours.

Horslips, Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown Rats all pulled at our allegiances at different times and I saw them multiple times in places like the Savoy and the City Hall. I vividly recall coming across Bob Geldof for the first time in a pokey dive on McCurtain Street. He was electrifying.

It would have early 1978 or so when a best mate told me, over a lazy afternoon pint in Counihan's, that there was this band I just had to catch. He had seen them do a short set in the The Arc and they were coming back to headline. I mustn't miss them, he insisted. U2 were the next big thing. The biggest big thing. Sensational.

Dan had a smart ear and I valued his opinion, but he was given to hyperbole too. It sounded to me like he was talking up another garage band from Dublin with a borrowed van, a road map and three chords. Include me out, I told him. Life's too short.

It wasn't much later that I stumbled upon them on RTÉ's afternoon show Youngline and I wasn't impressed. I remember too their first appearance on The Late Late Show perhaps a little over a year later, around the time of their first album Boy. Bono seemed shouty rather than charismatic and it was all a bit anemic.

But what I disliked most I think was the sort of brashness and attitude that they brought to these television vignettes. Geldof was a cocky sod too, of course, but he carried it off with a twinkle in his eye and a sort of slouchy pop bravado. And Phil Lynott delivered hard, macho, leathered-up rock that was healthy, hedonistic fun.

From where I was sitting, these U2 guys seemed deadly earnest. It looked like this was rock as distilled careerism and their grandiose ambition was, clearly and unambiguously, to conquer the world.

To me, a child of a provincial city in a second world country that was culturally insular and economically stagnant, these lads didn't seem to know their place. Crack the UK, perhaps, and get a few shots at Top of the Pops but to imagine an Irish band being the best on the planet was both naïve and arrogant, not to mention bonkers.

They didn't know their place. Simple as.

But time passed. It didn't take too many listens of War, their third album, for me to realise that these Dublin northsiders were special with the capacity to be extraordinary. The world and its hip granny knew that, by the time they pitched up on the banks of the Lee that hot August night, even extraordinary didn't do it justice.

Not that the imminent 1980s didn't turn out to be miserable on other fronts. We endured our first civil war over abortion, had the Anne Lovett and Kerry Babies scandals, mass emigration and CJ Haughey's GUBU politics. But something was stirring and what one historian described as 'Ireland's long 19th century' was coming to an end.

U2 played more than a small part in that. They were cultural explorers for a country that had been stuck in a moment for too long. For that I'm ever grateful… and eternally sorry for having missed them that night in The Arc.

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