U2 must get back their roots and renew their bonds with Ireland
Worrying cracks are on the horizon as the world's biggest band resort to playing songs decades old, writes Brendan O'Connor
It may seem strange to talk about U2 as a band in crisis right now. They performed a reasonably successful headlining slot at the Glastonbury festival last weekend and after a difficult gestation Bono and The Edge's Spider-Man musical has finally opened properly, taking $1.7m (e1.2m) in its first week, making it the third biggest musical on Broadway right now.
The $75m (e52m) show apparently only needed to take $1.2m at the box office in its opening week to prove 'viable', so it is clearly more than viable. This month the band will finish up the $700m (e480m)-grossing 360 tour, the most successful rock 'n' roll tour in history. So indeed, one might ask, crisis, what crisis?
But it is important to remember that behind all the tours and the money and the success, U2 are fundamentally, still, an artistic endeavour, and it is also a popularity game, and on those two fronts there have been worrying cracks in the biggest band in the world over the past couple of years.
U2 began their Glastonbury set last weekend with five songs from Achtung Baby, songs that are 20 years old this year. Among the other highlights of the set were a clutch of songs from The Joshua Tree, an album that will be 25 years old next year. It was the 20-year-old and more material -- songs like 'One' and 'Where the Streets Have No Name' that provided most of the band's 'moments' during their Glasto gig.
Indeed, three-quarters of the songs the band played at Glastonbury were two decades or more old, with only five songs from the last 20 years featuring, and only two from their latest album.
One might be tempted to think that the band had deferred to the occasion to play a greatest hits set, given that it wasn't primarily their crowd and it wasn't primarily their stage. Larry Mullen went on UK radio a few days before Glastonbury to point out that the band had a lot to prove there because they would be out of their comfort zone. Indeed, Mullen, often characterised by Bono as the one who likes to say 'no' in U2, has gone on record as wondering why the band would, for less money than they make on their own gigs, play to a crowd that wasn't theirs, with a stage and production crew that isn't their own dedicated set-up.
Bono admitted after the show that he had been very nervous, and indeed it showed a bit on the night. But, in fact, falling back on a greatest hits set was not a sop to Glastonbury, where everyone favours a sing-along. U2 resumed the US leg of their tour a couple of nights after Glastonbury by delivering much the same set in Detroit.
None of this might be of any consequence were it not for the fact that U2 defiantly didn't do a mere greatest hits set in the early stages of the 360 tour. They had an album to sell, a new album, and they wanted to play it for people. And you always suspected in recent years that it was important to U2 to play new music when on tour.
This was what made them different from dinosaurs like the Rolling Stones, who have essentially become cabaret artists in the latter part of their career, not troubling fans with much new music, eventually not even bothering with new albums to go with tours.
But it is important for U2, for their egos if nothing else, to be current, not just some has-beens churning out a comforting set of old favourites. So despite a relatively lukewarm reaction from fans to their last album No Line on the Horizon, U2 had been defiantly beginning every show of this tour with four songs from the new album back to back, and they had been playing seven of the new tracks in all. Now, by the end of the tour, they are playing just three tracks from the 'new' album most nights, and they are opening most nights no longer with four new songs from No Line on the Horizon but with four 20-year-old songs from Achtung Baby.
Indeed, recently, The Edge has been reminiscing about the Achtung Baby years, talking about how he's "blown away by how productive and creative that period was". And it was. Between 1987 and 1993, U2 saw the incredible success of The Joshua Tree, followed by the related, underrated journey into America that was Rattle and Hum, then the startling reinvention and return to European values that was Achtung Baby, followed by its related, underrated little brother Zooropa.
Bono and Co have been touchy about the reception accorded No Line on the Horizon. While it is claimed the album sold five million copies, this is not a juggernaut by U2 standards. The band have variously pointed at the relatively experimental nature of the music, the fact that the lead-off single Get on Your Boots failed to set the world on fire, and, of course, the changing nature of the way music is bought and consumed.
Whatever the reasons for No Line's failure to set the world on fire, U2's next album is one of the most critical in the band's history. The next album will decide whether U2 are still a viable, evolving relevant band, or whether they are destined to go the route of the Rolling Stones and becoming a touring stadium cabaret show, trading on old glories.
The importance of the next album might explain why it has now been pushed out until the latter part of next year, and why so much work and thought is going into getting it right. Since No Line on the Horizon there have been four notional U2 albums partly recorded. Songs of Ascent, which was meant to be a more laid-back companion piece to No Line..., was supposed to come out by the end of 2009. Perhaps the idea was that it would be a Zooropa to No Line...'s Achtung Baby. Despite there being an opening single chosen and announced, that album never came out.
The band was also said to be thinking of looking again at the sessions they had done with Rick Rubin, the former metal and hip hop producer who in recent years made his name by creatively and commercially revitalising artists like Neil Diamond, and most famously Johnny Cash, back to their bare essentials. These sessions yielded a throwaway Skids cover with Green Day called The Saints Are Coming and also Window in the Skies, the latter of which seemed to have pointed to a viable direction for a group of musicians now all the wrong side of 50. Encapsulating everything from classic rock to Motown to a gospel/soul flavour, Windows in the Skies saw Rubin releasing the essence of U2, paradoxically by building a Phil Spector-style wall of sound around them.
But Rubin had apparently eschewed U2's more studio-based, emergent way of writing songs, insisting instead that the band bring finished songs to the studio. This is said to be why U2 went back to their friends and long-time producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to make what would become No Line.... Indeed Eno and Lanois were credited as writers for the first time on the last album, even though they had always had huge input into the creation of songs in the studio.
There are two other unfinished U2 projects floating around -- a clubby, dancey record, made with Lady Gaga producer RedOne, and a more traditional U2 album which was being recorded with probably the best and hippest producer working in music right now, Dangermouse. Adam Clayton appeared to rule out any release for the clubby material recently, saying U2 needed to focus now on what they do best, and that the Dangermouse album came closest to that.
But it's not just creative indecision and perfectionism that has led to a new U2 album getting kicked further and further down the road. Bono, of course, had well publicised problems with his back in the middle of the current tour and he and The Edge have also spent a lot of time and energy tweaking and trying to save the accident prone and much maligned Spider-Man musical.
With Spider-Man now apparently up and running and the tour set to end this month, Bono says he is excited about getting back to work on new songs. Adam Clayton's recent comments on why this didn't happen sooner are telling.
"We had to have a meeting and look at the schedule to see if we could pick up any extra time to work on it and we just realised we couldn't. To be honest, everyone was a bit gutted. But it was the only sensible decision."
It almost conjures up images of the partners in an architecture firm meeting to talk about the viability of taking on a new project.
U2 have overcome crises before; the band, and/or the individuals in it have been threatened by everything from booze to religion to the sudden worldwide success that came in the wake of The Joshua Tree. But it never split the band up and they always got back on track. One would hope that they are smart enough to come through this crisis too.
I believe that part of what is missing for U2 right now is the anchor that this country has always provided for them. U2's relationship with Ireland has always been, if you will, their primary relationship, the backbone and the model for their relationships with their worldwide publics. It has always been the deep roots they have kept in this country, and the reality that they encounter from people here, that has fed them, kept them grounded and informed the spirit of their music. Even the Irish landscape and climate has permeated U2's music, certainly since The Unforgettable Fire. Ireland is, if you will, the terroir from which U2 grow. Ireland nurtures them. While they can hobnob with world leaders and knock around the south of France with the Hollywood crowd, the connection to Ireland has always been what has sustained them and made them different to, and more real then, other superstars.
That relationship is flawed right now and it is more than about the tax issue, which, in reality, is not as much an issue as people think. The real problem with U2's relationship with Ireland is that they have not seemed to be present during perhaps the most difficult times this country has seen in their lifetime. Scratch the surface in Ireland and there is a slight sense of betrayal about U2. There is a perception in Ireland that Bono has been a great man at trying to solve other people's problems, but that he has been very quiet about the problems of the country that spawned him. Of course, the band being seen not to pay much tax here doesn't help that perception.
One key to the cracks in U2's umbilical relationship with Ireland could be the band's own slight discomfort with Ireland's attitude to wealthy people right now. Irish begrudgery has always been a theme of Bono's, and at the outset of this current tour Larry Mullen spoke explicitly about how Ireland now seemed to believe it was a crime to be rich.
U2 were also connected with the developer classes in this country and are known to socialise with the likes of Johnny Ronan and to do business with Paddy McKillen. McKillen is, of course, involved in the Clarence Hotel with Bono and The Edge, and he is also a player in The Edge's proposed Malibu development. Indeed on the liner notes for No Line on the Horizon, Bono personally thanks Bernard McNamara, Johnny Ronan, Sean Mulryan and Derek Quinlan, in the context of them being supporters of the ONE foundation.
So then, there is awkwardness and slight bad feeling on both sides of the relationship between U2 and the motherland. But U2 are probably smart enough to recognise that the first step in rebuilding U2 as a creative entity and as the most popular band in the world is to revitalise their relationship with their own people, to water their roots. Now that they have time on their hands, don't be surprised if you see them around Ireland a lot, getting back to first principles and rebuilding that primary relationship. They have always cared, perhaps more than they should, what people here think and say about them, and they will want to make it right.
It would be no surprise either if the relationships within U2 might need work at this point. Larry Mullen, while being in many ways the closest one in the band to Bono, has been quite outspoken in his criticism of Bono's extra-curricular activities, and the idea that a Broadway musical, of all things, might have been the latest hobby
to take Bono and The Edge's focus off the band that Larry formed, can't sit well with him. Indeed, while Bono admits Spider-Man hindered work on the new album, he adds, with a laugh: "But we don't tell Larry or Adam that."
The question then is if U2 can stay relevant for the next phase of their career, and forge uncharted territory by heading towards 60 as an evolving rock band, or whether they now become highly paid cabaret stars. The answer, funnily enough, could lie in that purple patch the band have been revisiting of late. The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum actually represented, as BB King kind of pointed out at the time, young men making music that sounded like it was made by much older men. The country-rock/blues/gospel seam that the band mined so successfully back then, could be the way forward for them now 25 years later. Better that than trying to make dance music records when you're 50.
Of course, in many ways, not having to produce new albums but being able to play massive tours and sell loads of merchandise is the ideal business model in today's music industry. Playing live is where the money is now and fewer and fewer people are prepared to pay for recorded music anymore. But it comes back to ego, call it pride. U2 need to be making new music, they need to be relevant. Because maybe when they stop doing that, they know they will officially start getting old.
And if U2 get old, in a way, we all do.