Chris Wasser: How U2 have remained relevant and avoided becoming their own tribute act
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me. That was the first U2 single I ever bought. They’d released it in the summer of 1995, for the Batman Forever soundtrack. Val Kilmer’s caped crusader was on the tape cover. He looked moody. The tune was moodier. I was just seven years old at the time. I thought it was deadly. Twenty-two years down the road, and I stand by my review.
That was the first time I’d contributed to the U2 piggy bank — and with my own pocket money, to boot. I’d heard their earlier stuff on the wireless — the big stuff. The stadium stuff. It was grand. But I hadn’t been around to soak it all up. The U2 I grew up with was a very different beast. This was the U2 that gave us giant lemons, giant sunglasses and giant Discotheque. This was Bono and the lads at their most bizarre — their most ‘experimental’. This was much more exciting than cowboy hats and afternoon rooftop gigs in downtown Los Angeles.
I’d marvelled at some of the videos from the Zooropa era (the Numb promo clip was especially weird). I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back, they had probably flown too close to the sun. They knew that. Why else would they have disappeared and returned with Beautiful Day? That was the next U2. But the electro-pop, comic-book 90s version of U2 — now that was my jam. That was my first proper taste.
I mention this because everyone has a U2 moment. Everyone in Ireland, at least. Everyone has a favourite U2 song. Everyone has a favourite U2 member. Everyone has a reason for disliking Bono.
Tonight, Bono and the boys will bring their 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree tour to Croke Park. Tickets are sold out. The excitement is palpable. This always happens when U2 come home. Of course, they now join an elite group of artists that hit the road in celebration of (one of) their most cherished records. You know the deal: they play the album from start to finish, they tack on a few extra hits at the end, etc, etc. Bruce Springsteen did it. Suede did it. It’s the done thing, basically. It’s also a handy way to pass the time, when you’re in between records.
But, then, The Joshua Tree is a special album. With or Without You, Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For — they’re all in there.
Released all the way back in March 1987, The Joshua Tree was ginormous. Critics adored it. The album topped the charts in more than 20 countries, selling 25 million copies worldwide. It made them superstars.
The Croker gig will be emotional. There will be tears. There will be declarations of love. There will be big screens. There will be magic. You know how these things go.
But are Bono and the lads still relevant?
Well, yeah. Sort of.
When U2 sold out another Croker gig, they were relevant. When U2 hijacked your iTunes account for 2014’s Songs of Innocence album, they were relevant. When U2 showed up on Kendrick Lamar’s album, Damn, back in April, they were relevant. There’s not a band in the world like U2. They’ve been going for 40 years. They still release new music. They have never rested on their laurels.
There are a couple of other ‘rock’ outfits that continue to operate in such a way, on such a large stage. The Red Hot Chili Peppers spring to mind. But the world doesn’t need another Chili Peppers album. They’re past it. They’ve lost interest. Likewise, the Rolling Stones have become a museum act. They don’t appear to like each other. They haven’t produced a decent tune in decades. We could go on. But U2 are… well, they’re different. They’ve never lost interest.
In continuing to push themselves artistically, Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam have — just about — managed to avoid becoming their own tribute act. Think about it — there are few from their era that survived. Some of them should have given up ages ago. The great R.E.M. eventually threw in the towel. Simple Minds have gone acoustic. Nobody, it seems, wants to be the one to tell Duran Duran to stop. Nobody knows what’s going on with Spandau Ballet.
The difference with U2 — born in the 70s, powered by the 80s and tested in the 90s — is that they never did sound like a band from one particular era. They’ve always sounded like, well, U2. It’s been easier for them to adjust. Easier to move with the times. Easy to go too far (as they did on 1997’s Pop). They are Ireland’s most famous exports. They have never settled for second-best. They are a proper success story.
But why do we, the Irish, have such a problem with them?
Honestly, we give out about them all the time, more so than any other country in the world. A recent Guardian article attempted to get to the bottom of this mystery. Everyone has their reasons. Usually, it has something to do with Bono. The self-righteousness. The pontificating. The tax thing. The sunglasses. The tax thing. The politician buddies. The tax thing.
Call it begrudgery, call it what you like: there’s just something about him — not them — that doesn’t sit right. Heck, I’ve loved them — not him — since I bought that Batman tape, and still, I’ll be the first to admit that Bono is a complete wreck-the-head. Why? The self-righteousness. The pontificating. The tax thing. But I still listen to him sing. Why? Easy. I dig me choons. I dig me rock ‘n’ roll. I dig U2.
Where do they go next? That’s the big one.
When U2 first travelled to America in the 80s, they got a little too cosy. When they mixed things up for Achtung Baby and beyond, they got trapped inside a giant lemon. But they always kept pushing. They always set about reapplying for the title of world’s greatest band. Now, as they look to the future, they find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Fans have responded well to the Joshua Tree jaunt, but what happens after they play their ‘final’ show?
Do they go full-on Bon Jovi, ie. stick with the formula and keep on keeping on for another decade? Or, do they go back to the start? Mix things up. Change the record. Hire Calvin Harris. Make a pop record again. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
Remember this: it’s barely two years since they last toured a new record, and since they last played in Dublin.
In November 2015, after 25 years outdoors, they finally put a roof over the U2 live extravaganza. They called it a “family get-together”. They brought their special-effects team. They brought a career-spanning catalogue, not to mention a bag of ace new songs.
They brought their A-game. It sounded like a rock concert; it looked like a hi-tech musical. It was a spectacular homecoming — and nobody expected it.
What we’re saying is that they still have it. They can still produce the goods. And, a new album is, reportedly, just around the corner. So, enjoy tomorrow night’s trip down memory lane — it should be a blast. But it’s the next phase in their career — now that’s the part I’m really looking forward to.