Tuesday 20 August 2019

U2: The ground beneath their feet

U2's current tour has wowed critics. Next week they touch down in Belfast in advance of the most eagerly awaited shows of all - in the town that shaped them. Our music correspondent maps a route through the Dublin of their youth, tracing the footsteps of a driven Northside garage band that transformed itself into world-beaters

Spectacle: Bono on stage at Croke Park in 2005 as part of U2's Vertigo tour.
Spectacle: Bono on stage at Croke Park in 2005 as part of U2's Vertigo tour.
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the evening of Friday, May 17, 1974, three terrorist bombs ripped through the heart of Dublin, killing 27 people including an unborn child. It was one of the most seismic events Ireland experienced in the 1970s, bringing The Troubles to the capital like never before or since.

For Bono - then 14-year-old Paul Hewson - the bombs in Parnell Street, Talbot Street and South Leinster Street would mark the end of innocence and something of a close shave, because he frequently visited a Talbot Street record shop after school on Fridays. Forty years later, on the Songs of Innocence album, the U2 man would deliver the impassioned 'Raised by Wolves' to capture the horror of that fateful summer day.

The band's 13th album, and first for five years, is stuffed with memories of the Dublin the quartet knew as children in the early 1970s and as fledgling musicians in the latter part of that decade. And when they play the first of four sold-out Dublin shows on Monday week, the songs are likely to have a very special resonance in their own backyard.

'Cedarwood Road' is about the street in the Northside district of Glasnevin where Bono grew up. Number 10 has been in different hands since 1986, but U2 fans continue to call out to the modest suburban home to take pictures and selfies. "A nice street full of nice families - people who shaped my world view," he wrote in the album liner notes. "But there was a lot of violence near by in my teenage years," Bono noted in the album liner notes. "Skinheads and boot boys, blades and knuckledusters. Teenage parties where boys would turn up with hammers and saws… and I remember a lot of 'hidings'. I remember taking them and I remember giving them."

'Iris (Hold Me Close)' - the album's emotional centrepiece - is about his mother who died from a brain aneurysm in 1974, just four months after the terrorist atrocity, and days after she had attended the funeral of her own father. The line "Iris playing on the strand/ she buries the boy beneath the sand" alludes to the childhood excursions the family took to Dollymount Strand. Happier times.

'The Miracle of Joey Ramone' is inspired by a Ramones concert in the long-closed State Cinema in Phibsboro that Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr had managed to sneak into thanks to a pried side door, courtesy of Derek 'Guggi' Rowen, a friend then and now.

A song on the 'deluxe' version of the album, 'The Crystal Ballroom' is inspired by the dance hall of the same name on South Anne Street, just off Grafton Street. The venue - where Iris and Bob Hewson used to go dancing - is long gone, and so is the establishment that succeeded it, McGonagles, an important landmark in the annals of Irish rock and a place where the embryonic U2 regularly played.

A sense of how much Dublin has changed since 1976, when the band first got together at their liberal multi-denominational school, Mount Temple Comprehensive on the Malahide Road, can be appreciated when considering the fate of some of the buildings that helped shape the group's formative years.

The Baggot Inn, where they played six successive weekends in 1978 with another great Dublin band of the time, The Blades, is now a "Mexican-styled party cavern" called Xico and looks nothing like the venue of old.

The aforementioned McGonagles was levelled more than a decade ago and the men's designer store, Hackett London, stands in its place today. Another venue they frequently played, The Magnet on Pearse Street, is now a Spar.

The Dandelion Market has been consigned to history too: Stephen's Green Shopping Centre has occupied that space since 1988 and there's every chance that many U2 fans below the age of 40 might be oblivious to the importance of a vanished ramshackle market in helping to improve the band's live sound.

Perhaps the most significant change of all can be seen around the Grand Canal Dock area, just south of the Liffey. In the late 70s/early 80s, it was on its knees - a veritable wasteland where the once thriving gasworks had stood. Post-punk bands of the time were fond of posing in moody black and white photographs in such bleak backdrops and U2 were no different. There are copious shots of them framed against broken down machinery, industrial buildings in danger of falling down and the gigantic Gasometer, which towered over Dublin's docklands for almost 60 years until its demise in 1993.

Today, this is the striking landscape of the five-star Marker Hotel and eye-wateringly expensive glass-fronted apartment buildings and the arresting sights of Facebook's office and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the latter designed by the 'starchitect' Daniel Libeskind.

One need only look at the wraparound cover of 1981's October, their second album, to see how Dublin has changed. Photographed close to where their Hanover Quay studio stands today, the backdrop is low-lying and pock-marked by dereliction. Today, besides the Marker and its neighbours, the shot would include a pair of tall residential buildings and Google's 15-storey HQ.

The greatest loss for U2 obsessives is that of the Windmill Lane studio just off Sir John Rogerson's Quay a little way down the river. It was here that large swathes of The Joshua Tree and other albums were recorded. The actual studio had long ago moved to a premises in Ringsend but the exterior - featuring brightly coloured graffiti in honour of the band - was demolished earlier this year. A six-floor office building will soon take its place in this part of revitalised Dublin where real estate is at a premium. Part of the 'U2 wall' has been saved and moved to the Irish Rock 'n' Roll Museum Experience in Temple Bar and there are plans to sell off the bricks for charity.

Other physical remnants of U2's past remain, albeit in gentrified, modernised form. The Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar's East Essex Street still stands, although its façade bears little similarity to the Project of old. It was here where future manager Paul McGuinness first saw them play and was convinced enough by what he saw to take them on.

It stands across the cobbled street from the Clarence Hotel, which Bono and The Edge have owned since 1992. It's said they had particular affection for an establishment that used to be frequented by country priests because it was one of the few places in the city centre that would serve them alcohol when they were still in their teens. They were filmed playing the roof of their hotel in 2000 for a special Top of the Pops performance of back-to-basics single 'Beautiful Day'.

Another venue that's bound up with the U2 story is the City Arts Centre on the corner of City Quay and Moss Street, just south of the Talbot Memorial Bridge. Growing out of the Grapevine Arts Centre, which had previously been housed in a number of city centre buildings, it promised to be the most progressive arts amenity in the country and U2 provided fully equipped rehearsal spaces for unsigned bands in the basement. But it didn't work out and has long been a derelict eyesore.

The band were the biggest on the planet by the time the Point Depot opened its doors in 1988 and they would immortalise the venue in film thanks to footage shot there for their veritable road movie Rattle and Hum. The following year, in December, U2 would play a series of Point shows as part of their Lovetown Tour, and Bono delivered his celebrated line about the quartet having to go away and "dream it all up again". They decamped to Berlin and to the Hansa Studio made famous by David Bowie, yet much of Achtung Baby was recorded in Dublin.

The Point was transformed into the far bigger O2 (now 3Arena) in 2008, although the listed structure - a former rail depot dating from 1878 - has been carefully incorporated into its latest incarnation. It's here, on Monday week, that U2 will begin a four-night stand - marking their first indoor shows in Dublin for nearly 26 years.

Such has been the scale of the band's popularity that every hometown concert since Zoo TV in 1992 has taken place in either Lansdowne Road or Croke Park. The former, now the Aviva Stadium, is unrecognisable from the last time they were there, on the Popmart tour of 1997, and for its part, Croke Park - which hosted them in 2005 and 2010 - has been comprehensively transformed since the huge shows they played there in 1985 (in support of The Unforgettable Fire) and 1987 for the Joshua Tree tour.

That first Croke Park show came just five years into their recording career, but they had already outgrown large outdoor concerts such as the one they played at the now defunct Phoenix Park Racecourse in 1983. "The Jacks are back," Bono announced to the Croke Park crowd on taking the stage, "and what an All-Ireland we have for you tonight."

Although their music was tackling some big themes in the mid-1980s, the pull of home continued to exert its influence. 'Bad' was inspired by the heroin-struggles of their's friend Andy Rowen who, Bono recalls, ended up being locked in his father's van in the wake of the Dublin bombings of 1974 as his dad rushed to help victims scattered on the street. Rowen escaped his demons and it's his brother, Peter, who features on the covers of both Boy and War.

Meanwhile, 'Running to Stand Still' from the 25-million selling Joshua Tree, also concerned the horrors of drug addiction - a scourge of impoverished Dublin at the time, especially in disadvantaged areas like Ballymun.

"I see seven towers," Bono sung of the Ballymun flat complexes, "but I see only one way out." The Ballymun of today has shed its towers and its regeneration is largely hailed as a success.

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But no area of Dublin has been regenerated as spectacularly as the Grand Canal Dock area, so much so that their Hanover Quay studio in an old warehouse adjoining the home of their friend, the developer Harry Crosbie, looks decidedly out of place. Earlier this year, there was controversy about the low price (€450,000) the band paid the Dublin Docklands Development Authority for the studio, but the state body insisted that no secret deal had been agreed.

U2 have recorded all of their albums, at least in part, at this studio for the past 20 years.

Now that ambitious Celtic Tiger plans to house their studio in the penthouse of a Norman Foster-designed skyscraper on Britain Quay have bitten the dust, it's likely the four piece will continue to call Hanover Quay their recording home for quite some time to come.

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