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Thursday 23 November 2017

U2: Still rattled or humming?

They opened their world tour in Vancouver this week, but only time will tell if U2's legion of fans have come to terms with that controversial Apple giveaway

Divide and conqure: Bono in action as U2 kick off their Innocence and Experience tour. Photo: Jonathan Hayward
Divide and conqure: Bono in action as U2 kick off their Innocence and Experience tour. Photo: Jonathan Hayward

Neil McCormick

When it finally rolled to a halt in July 2011, U2's 360 Tour was a record-breaking success, the highest grossing and most attended tour in rock history (7.2 million tickets sold; $726m generated in sales).

Their two-year stadium tour ­featured a giant 50-metre alien claw, which communicated by satellite with the orbiting International Space Station.

This time around, things are not quite so grandiose. Moving indoors to arenas, the opening number is illuminated by a single swinging light bulb. It's a stripped-back concept that could be interpreted as a humble acknowledgement of U2's recent setbacks.

Having spent three years making Songs of Innocence, an album they were extremely proud of, last year they struck a controversial deal with Apple. The deal ensured that the album was inserted into every iTunes collection, a move that grabbed all the wrong headlines.

There was something about this conglomeration of forces - an omnipresent technology company and a grandstanding band - that stuck in many people's craws.

What somehow got lost in the brouhaha was that Songs of Innocence was crammed with big, accessible, commercial songs welding U2's rock power to modern pop aesthetics.

In an era of declining sales, Songs of Innocence has been downloaded over 26 million times and listened to by over 80 million iTunes users. Yet it was all for free, and it is not clear that the music has gained any genuine cultural penetration. YouTube views of promo tracks 'The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)' and 'Every Breaking Wave' tailed off around the two-and-a-half million mark.

To put that in perspective, the top 10 pop videos of 2014 each scored over 450 million views (Katy Perry's 'Dark Horse' was viewed almost a billion times).

So the big question that U2's new shows will hope to answer is whether anyone is still paying attention. Of the 1.2 million tickets available for the 68 shows on the Innocence & Experience Tour, 98pc have sold out. But there was never much doubt that people would still want to see one of the most celebrated bands of our times.

Yet no phrase is guaranteed to strike more despair into audiences of a certain vintage than "here's one from the new album". Unlike many other so called "heritage" acts such as The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, U2 have steadfastly refused to surrender to the creative dead end of the greatest hits set. This whole campaign can be viewed as a calculated gamble that U2 can still interest new audiences in where they are going and not just where they have been.

By moving out of stadiums, they could be said to be testing audience's receptivity in a more intimate environment, although any notions of intimacy in arenas are surely relative.

In what has been described as a triple platform, a large and small stage are separated by a long walkway stretching the full length of the arena floor and wide enough to function as a stage in its own right, bringing the band into constant mobile proximity to the audience.

Presumably reflecting the title, Innocence & Experience, it's a show of two halves. The first half draws heavily on Songs of Innocence, a lyrically autobiographical album that explored the band's memories of their early years in a divided Ireland.

In a recent radio interview, Bono claimed the plan was to create a "mind mess, to divide our audiences and cause some mayhem". He told the New York Times that he hoped people would walk out in the intermission needing counselling, and wondering, "Where did the fun go?"

The second half of the concert (Songs of Experience?) is intended to break down the divide and create a mood of unity and redemption. "When we undo that division we've got to really glue them together," according to Bono. Time for the greatest hits perhaps.

At the moment, it all sounds a bit conceptual, with shades of Pink Floyd's The Wall. But really this is just a framework for a particularly driven band to perform music that matters to them. As every fan knows, U2's bond with their audience is extraordinary, and the real narrative of any U2 show is shaped by that interaction.

"There's a unity of purpose at the end of a U2 show that's amazing," as Bono observed during a recently broadcast radio interview with the late Tony Fenton. "U2 makes you feel good about the person standing next to you."

Whatever the stage design or the set list, the goal is transcendence.

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