U2 on a high with a little help from their friends
In the music business, staying close to the top of your game for three decades is no mean feat. U2 - whose Joshua Tree tour comes to Dublin today - have managed it through natural talent, but also by shifting direction and cultivating key relationships
It started with very little except four young men in search of - as one of these young men would later proclaim - "three chords and the truth". It arrives in Dublin this evening as (so far) the year's highest grossing rock music tour.
'It' is The Joshua Tree, and when U2 visited Croke Park 30 years ago (for two shows on June 27/28), plugging an album that would unwittingly set them up as rock music's 'hottest ticket', there was surely no one in attendance that could have envisaged a 30th anniversary show for the same album at the same venue.
And yet here we are. According to Billboard, the US-based music industry 'Bible', the overall gross for The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 has reached $123.7 million from 1,043,414 sold tickets at 20 concerts. U2 return to North America in September, and play out the final leg of the tour in Brazil on October 22, so there is still a hefty amount of money to be added to the definitive tally.
Back in 1987, money was something U2 didn't have much of. The band arrived at Croke Park with a back catalogue of four studio albums (Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire) that had increased their profile to a reasonable degree, but which hadn't made them anywhere close to even a tidy sum.
When The Joshua Tree album was released in March '87, expectations were, inevitably, high, but no one predicted the record to grip the public so tightly and with such depth of feeling. By the time U2 returned home for those two Croke Park shows in June, there was no point avoiding what was going to happen - their lives would irreversibly change.
In the hefty coffee table book, U2 By U2 (published in 2006), Bono recalls a visit to Las Vegas in the summer of '87, when they were in the city to film the video for 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. Guest tickets to a boxing match between Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard at Caesar's Palace were trumped by an invite from Frank Sinatra to a charity concert he was giving, and after the show to join him in his dressing room. "We went to that gig," remembers Bono, "feeling like U2, Dublin, Ireland, and left feeling like the number one group on the planet."
For 30 years, that "number one group on the planet" quote has followed U2 around - sometimes cautiously, sometimes pragmatically, sometimes cynically, but always with a degree of truth. In line with this, one of the questions you might feel inclined to ask yourself is how exactly have they managed to stay on top, or as close to the top for three decades without falling prey to the associated pitfalls of such incredible success? There are many factors, of course, but perhaps it's best to define their durational achievements in terms of music industry shrewdness and the long-established close friends they look to for counsel.
From the very beginning of the band's career, the intrigues of the music industry were deftly negotiated by (now former) manager, Paul McGuinness. Once dubbed the band's 'fifth member', when McGuinness - as hard-nosed and business-oriented a music manager as there has ever been, albeit one who knows the delicate dissimilarities between Chateau Lafite and Cheval Blanc - wasn't making ground-breaking deals for the band, he was perceptively applying the business stratagem of hiring the smartest people he could find. He would then gather everyone together for brainstorming sessions, from which ideas - some outlandish, some with germs of brilliance - were realised.
A case in point is how the '80s ended for U2, how the '90s started, and how the next 25 years continued. Still in thrall to America, the follow-up to The Joshua Tree didn't fly so well. Despite sales of 14 million (which would be regarded these days as a stellar success), Rattle and Hum was viewed as a failure. The album's Lovetown Tour didn't even play in the US, such was the mixed critical reaction, and when U2 visited Dublin's Point Depot in December 1989, they ended their third show (of four - December 26/27/30/31) with Bono saying "we have to go away and just dream it all up again." Cue the calculated shifts of musical directions and themes.
This is, effectively, what U2 has been doing for the past 25 years. If you're a discerning fan (mea culpa), it's fair to say that while creative missteps along the way have been few and far between, the band has yet to release an album that comes close to the cohesiveness and occasional majesty of The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind. A rare business mistake occurred when McGuinness booked a stadium tour for 1997's Pop album before it had been completed, causing Bono to call it "the worst decision U2 ever made." Interestingly, for that same Pop tour, McGuinness created what he termed a new business model for touring, wherein U2 "would sell the whole tour to a single promoter in an arrangement where we shared the profits of the tour, but they would underwrite costs and put up a guarantee."
By such sharp acumen have U2 continued to further their longevity. What people often overlook, however, is how crucial are their close-knit team of friends and collaborators. If the definition of a fool is having no one around you that will call out your nonsense, then U2 have perfected the significance of personal friendships by keeping their best mates close to their hearts and their enemies lower down.
Of course, the question many people ask as U2 pack up and move on is 'what comes next?'. No one bar the truly blinkered fan is looking forward to the 30th anniversary of Rattle and Hum (coming your way next year, along with the accompanying tour for this year's forthcoming Songs Of Experience album). Arriving in 2021, however, is the 30th anniversary of Achtung Baby, the album that U2 conjured up after Rattle and Hum. To say that it completely recalibrated the band and copper-fastened their appeal even further is underselling its durability. Accompanying the album, however, was the Zoo TV tour, an eye-popping pageant that kickstarted the band's apparently ever-ambitious stage production designs (which in turn acted as a game changer for every subsequent tour by a major music act).
Tonight's show at Croke Park revisits and contextualises The Joshua Tree album with more cinematically compelling visual delights than U2, or anyone else for that matter, could ever have imagined 30 years ago. Revisiting Achtung Baby in four years' time - when each member will be in their early 60s - with a similar mindset is surely something that even U2 couldn't dream up again.
Top six songs on 'The Joshua Tree'
With Or Without You: Inter-relationship struggles lay at the heart of a song that was abandoned in its early demo stages, but subsequently rescued and rearranged by U2's long standing friend, Gavin Friday.
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For: Focused around spiritual doubt, with a title loosely influenced by a Bob Dylan lyric (from his song, 'Idiot Wind'), this is U2 in peak anthemic form.
Where The Streets Have No Name: The U2 song that raises the roof in whatever venue it's played in - no wonder that it has remained a crucial staple of their live shows for 30 years.
Running To Stand Still: With a Dublin context of heroin addiction, U2 address social issues in a song that remains one of their most emotive, poignant and subtle ballads.
One Tree Hill: Written for Greg Carroll, a friend and U2 roadie, who was killed in a motorbike accident in Dublin in 1986. As spiritually redolent a song as U2 has ever written.
Red Hill Mining Town: U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr has correctly described this gem - which features a rarely bettered vocal from Bono - as one of the band's "lost songs".