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U2 Interviews

Dazed and Confused (part I)
May 1997

Bono is animated as he talks me through the PopMart stage show. They have the largest video screen in the world, mirrorballs the size of small planets, one half of a five-storey McDonald's logo, a swizzle stick and olive that could be mistaken for the Seattle Space Needle. And, finally, the lemon; for this is no ordinary lemon.

Once U2 step inside, this giant mirror-plated lemon is going to carry them into the middle of the stadium and onto the B stage, where a hatch will open and, in true Kiss meets Close Encounters Of The Third Kind style, the backlit foursome will descend one by one. "It's totally brazen: it's beyond Spinal Tap," enthuses Bono, "but it's meaningless at the moment. We still have to find some truth among all this trash." Later I ask The Edge if he is looking forward to the lemon experience: "I'm not sure," he says: "i'm waiting for when it doesn't open in front of 50,000 people, and we're stuck inside playing to ourselves!"

Where once the idea of U2 being considered cool would have been unimaginable, a huge stadium-sized contradiction in terms, they now occupy a place that is beyond cool. The are an anomaly, an exception to the rule, a band who have manoeuvred themselves into a position where they can get away with almost anything they want. It's taken them 19-odd years, but U2 finally understand that at the top of planet rock it's not only what you are that matters, it's what people think you are that counts. At the press conference Bono told the world's media that, "No matter how much we wrap it up in tinsel and television, I'm still the geezer with the white flag. We've got the same ideals as ever: we just look like we don't."

U2's public image has been cartooned and stereotyped as many things; postmodernists-by-numbers, righteous rockers, humourless do-gooders the Most Pretentious Band in The Universe. The English press have loved to hate the world's biggest rock band.

We expect our rock'n'roll stars to be decadent, louche, carefree, cocaine hoovering, supermodel-shagging, arrogant fuckwits. We expect them to burn brightly and go out with a bang like technicolor fireworks. We don't expect them to be the kind of bands our parents would enjoy meeting and we certainly don't expect them to grow to be as big as U2 and stay there for quite as long. That's what is so unique about U2; they've managed to rewrite the Image Rule Book Of Rock and now Pop, at the time of writing, their 11th album (not counting the ill-conceived Passengers) is number one in 25 countries: the fastest selling U2 album in the history of the band. Not bad work if you can get it.

If Zooropa was the postscript to Achtung Baby, and if Passengers is a postcard on the sly, then Pop is U2's first detailed correspondence. All the big issues; god, sex, love, faith, desire and family are epigrammatically posted. It's stuffed full of contradictions, making it the most individual, international and schizophrenic U2 album to date. Songs dealing with the peace process ("Please") and the continued presence of the British Army in Ireland ("Staring at the Sun") sit next to irreverent, quizzical songs like "Playboy Mansion". It's a bricolage of effects: The Edge goes from sounding like a Formula One car over the chemical beats in "Mofo" to Dr Who's title sequence synth in the elegantly sweeping "Gone". Bono plays hopscotch with vocal effects ("Wake Up, Dead Man") while Larry snaps melodic beats and Adam moves in mysterious ways from dub to funk bass lines and back again. Flood's underwater production , with the aid of Steve Osborne and Howie B's "space between the notes"; his loop-da-loop musical headstands have brought a sense of 'magic' and fun to U2's studied, sleight-of-hand. The paradox is how an album title that conjures everything that is supposed to be fast, superficial, voyeristic and commodified in our culture has ended up containing songs of such poignant faith and curiosity. Although their crusading days are over, U2 just can't shake off their quest to make some sense from all the madness.

The remarkable revolution of U2 is not purely a musical story. As a business, they share equally all royalties. Where for many bands the songwriter's and lyricist's share is disproportionately larger than that of the other members, U2's egalitarian approach has eliminated the discrepancies and resentment that often leads to internal financial rumblings. Paul McGuinness, their manager from the start is also on an equal share, a testament to his inspirational and unique role within the band structure that has often led to U2 being described as a 'gang of four and a corporation of five'. This approach has also been extended to their creative decision making where everything from the mundane to the extraordinary has to be OK'd by all of the gang.

Larry Mullen told me that one of the biggest public misconceptions about U2 is that they are four men who eat, sleep, drink and do everything together, that they think the same and there is no individuality. We like to deconstruct the popular myths and present U2 to you as four individuals, whose idiosyncratic tastes and opinions, not only their similarities make up the collective whole. Each of the following interviews was conducted separately, without any of the other band members present.

Back to the drawing board and 36 year old Paul 'Bono' Hewson is just completing a giant marker-pen caricature of himself sitting on a space rocket shaped penis. He's riding the phallus like a rodeo king, in the style of the cartoon on the back of The Ramones' Rocket to Russia sleeve. He grins mischievously and offers me a seat. He is engaging, making direct eye contact when he talks. Off the record he's funny and animated, once the tape is rolling, he's self effacing and concentrated. He takes every question seriously. In a world where anything Bono says can potentially become a tabloid headline, it seems that anything Bono is saying is now being carefully considered and mentally edited.

Dazed and Confused part II

U2 Interviews overview