Tony Clayton-Lea: 'From there to here - but what next for U2?'
A 30th anniversary bash for 'Achtung Baby' may be on the horizon, but U2 may then need to go away to dream it all up again, writes Tony Clayton-Lea
Just after Christmas 1989, in what was originally conceived to be the final part of The Lovetown Tour, U2 commenced a four-night run at The Point (now 3Arena), Dublin. The first gig was St Stephen's Day, the closing show on New Year's Eve. The band would subsequently play four concerts in early January at Rotterdam's Ahoy arena (these were replacement gigs when those originally planned for Amsterdam were cancelled due to problems with Bono's voice).
The Lovetown Tour (so named after the song 'When Love Comes to Town') was, in essence, the promotional jaunt for the band's sixth album, Rattle and Hum, which had been released in October 1988. Following the international triumph of 1986's The Joshua Tree - the album that elevated U2 from a moderately successful rock act to global superstars - Rattle and Hum was viewed by critics as the band's first major mistake, and by fans as a continuation of U2's continuing fascination with America.
From the point of Rattle and Hum's release to the winding down of The Lovetown Tour, however, you could sense the album was, if anything, a transitional glitch. Bono's schtick, enhanced by his tasselled waistcoat and his Americanised accent, were becoming - much like the Preacher Man hat he wore on stage each night - tattered and tired. Something had to change, a new chapter had to be opened. Which is why, at the December 30 concert at The Point, it was with more than interest that the audience (which included this writer) heard Bono say the following words at the end of the concert: "I was explaining to people the other night, but I might've got it a bit wrong - this is just the end of something for U2… It's no big deal, it's just - we have to go away and... and dream it all up again." A few thousand U2 fans left The Point that night wondering what it all meant. Was Bono saying something just for the sake of it, or was the enigmatic statement an indication of something more serious? What, you wondered, would come next?
U2 have a way of writing chapters of their lives and then moving on, as one phase of an idea or notion comes to its natural end and something new and invigorating takes its place. With Achtung Baby (released in 1991) and its accompanying Zoo TV Tour, to say U2 ripped up the rulebook, or dreamed it all up again, is a serious understatement. As a re-evaluation of their music, as a reinvention of their intent, the transition from Rattle and Hum to Achtung Baby can now be seen as one of the rock music's most accomplished magic tricks.
It was also something else, of course, something more realistic than magic and more substantial than a clever hoax. What Achtung Baby ultimately presented - aside from a new slew of some terrific recalibrated songs, and with Zoo TV Tour, a stage presentation that forever altered arena rock music productions - was a thinking band in charge of its future. That the collective mindset may have encountered a few more mistakes along the way (notably, 1997's Pop and its associated PopMart Tour) to where they're at now isn't in doubt. What is definite, however, is that at any given time, U2 know where they're at and what's coming down the line. Because of their scale and status, because of the structures they have allowed, organically or not, to be built around them, U2 have to strategise.
One could contend that U2 have once again come to the end of a chapter. Despite the unparalleled scope and achievements of 2009-2011's 360° Tour (staged for 2009's No Line on the Horizon album, the least charismatic and most forgettable of their career), there was a distinct sense of nowhere else to look except backwards. But how, and in what way?
At the end of the 360° Tour, it seemed implausible, to say the least, that U2 would ever think to play smaller venues in the way other bands of similar stature had done (such as REM, who over five nights in 2007, in Dublin's Olympia Theatre, 'live' rehearsed their 2008 album Accelerate). Even if U2 had the will (and if they genuinely had we reckon it would have happened by now) it would undoubtedly be overturned by logistics and bean counters. Similarly, divesting themselves of an ever-increasing dependency on extravagant (and often impressively eye-popping) stage productions seemed unlikely if not unthinkable. To their credit, however, U2 looked back in the only sure way they could: through their songs.
Irrespective of what anyone thinks of the merits of the band's twinned albums, 2014's Songs of Innocence and 2017's Songs of Experience, no one can take away from them the creative resolve of using their past in order to make sense of their present. It is, of course, an imaginative trope that runs through all manner of artistic endeavours, yet there has surely never been as commercially successful a rock band that has undertaken such a deeply expressed and personalised trip down memory lane.
It's worth remembering that it took over five years from the release of No Line on the Horizon to the arrival of Songs of Innocence - the longest gap between their albums. In order for the theme of childhood memories to take coherent shape, various recordings with multiple producers were scrapped. While the notion was admirable, however, the results were mixed. The most personal album U2 had released to date didn't necessarily hit all the marks. Last year's themed follow-up, Songs of Experience, referenced a different kind of personalised philosophy, with Bono rewriting lyrics to some songs following, at the end of 2016, what he has enigmatically (unusually so) referred to as "a brush with mortality".
And yet, in the same way that U2's debut album (1980's Boy) told distinctive stories of transitioning from teenager to adulthood, of youthful ambition to intimations of mortality, so the tracks on Songs of Experience reference the values of family and love (and intimations of mortality) from the combined perspective of the same band 40 years later. The album unquestionably acts as the end of yet another chapter, but with some inevitability it also - for now, at least - completes the backstory of U2. Which begs the question: what comes next?
The devil, as they say, is in the details, yet there's one particular devil that is more articulate than others - MacPhisto, an onstage alter-ego of Bono's that emerged in the wake of the release of Achtung Baby and its accompanying Zoo TV Tour. Back in 1993, MacPhisto (a blend of elderly washed-up British comedian and roguish, contemporary satirist) was gifted to Bono by former Virgin Prunes frontman and long-standing friend, Gavin Friday. The character of MacPhisto disappeared when the Zoo TV Tour ended, but he makes a return (via augmented reality) in the band's Experience + Innocence shows.
Which begs another question: when the tour concludes on November 13 in Berlin (a rearranged show following the abandonment of U2's second gig in the city on September 1 due to problems with Bono's voice), will MacPhisto once again be decommissioned? Or is the character's reappearance on this tour a teaser for what the band is planning, strategising next?
It might be a couple of years before U2 head out on tour again. The rigours of the road, as well as an increasing age profile (each member is in their late 50s), may well prove to be factors that could defer their return. Another factor to note is that U2's 12-year contract with Live Nation expires in 2021 (although there are whispers on various U2-related grapevines that they have already signed on with LN for another 10 years), so who knows?
What is more reliable is this: bringing The Joshua Tree out on a 30th anniversary tour last year gave U2 room to manoeuvre and time to think, so a 30th birthday bash for Achtung Baby could act as the same between now and the release of their next studio album.
Creatively and thematically, the Innocence and Experience albums are inward-looking, stimulating and occasionally sombre, poignant works. Perhaps the 30th-anniversary tour of Achtung Baby could see U2 throw their toys out of the pram again, and prove once and for all that you're never too old to have a happy childhood.
U2's 'Experience + Innocence' tour continues at Dublin's 3Arena, November 5/6, and November 9/10. All shows are sold out