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U2 Interviews

NME Interview with The Edge
© NME magazine, October 31, 1998

Remember the white flags? 'Three chords and the truth' ring a bell? Yup, we're talking U2 during the '80s as commemorated by a new 'Best Of...'. Resident guitar god, The Edge takes us back to when the streets had no name.

His mates called him The Edge because of the shape of his chin. Hey, it could have been worse.

For a while, Larry Mullen answered to the gang name of Jam Jar. And then there was the singer of the band, Paul Hewson. He copped a series of titles. One of them was: teinrigvanhewsonolegbangbangbangbang. And then it was changed to something a bit more succinct; plain old Bono Vox O'Connell Street. The latter, you may know, was a hearing aid shop on Dublin's main drag. A funny name alright, but the spirit behind the identity change was a bit cruel.

"It was people having a go at each other," Edge laughs. "It was a slag. They called him Bono because he looked like the name Bono. A little stocky man, you know."

This odd, teenage society of northside Dubliners called themselves Lypton Village. Some of the codes, rituals and creative principles of that era have lasted over 20 years now, helping U2 to sell 71 million records en route. And while the Village's art wing, the guys who performed as the Virgin Prunes, may have been less successful, their ideas about theatre and subversion
have resurfaced on the Zoo TV and PopMart tours.

All this is relevant again because U2 are fixing to release a compilation, 'The Best Of And B-Sides Of 1980-1990'. It's trailed by their feel-good single 'Sweetest Thing', a cast-off from '87 that's been revamped and redirected towards the top end of the charts. It allows us to look again at a full-on career that's outlasted most of their critics and peers.

That's why we're munching sandwiches with Edge (pre-Village name: Dave Evans, arguably Welsh) in a newfangled Dublin bar. We're talking over the career spins, the fashion mistakes and the mind-shagging, incremental rise that saw U2 crowned as Rolling Stone magazine's 'Band Of The '80s'.

Edge is mentally flicking over some of the key moments. He's cringing at the memory of the enormous Live Aid bash of '85, when the band hit Wembley in the afternoon, straight into a ropy sound mix. But that didn't stop Bono from leaping into the crowd, meeting the people, causing much embarrassment to the other three. Afterwards, positive reactions to the show threw that band into an unrealised orbit, but that's not how it seemed at the time.

"We were all quite depressed when we walked offstage," Edge recalls. "We were thinking, 'Oh well, we blew that one. But it was for a good cause'. I was amazed when people went on about the performance."

He's thinking about better times, about finishing off 'The Joshua Tree' in readiness for the '87 world-domination trip. It felt like an era of the band's work, which began with 'The Unforgettable Fire', was ripening. The producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, played an important role in finding the ambient key to that record, and Edge is glad that the partnership has been re-established for the brand new work.

"We're writing and improvising in the studio and really enjoying it. We're hoping that we're not gonna spend a lot of time on this album, that we can maybe be finished at some point next year. I think this is going to be an optimistic record."

We talk about the band's spiritual interests in the early days, when they shared in the charismatic Christian group called Shalom. Adam Clayton, the only non-believer, used to joke about it. "The band that prays together, stays together," he'd say. But Edge maintains that the core values remain.

"I would say that through the likes of 'Achtung Baby' and 'Zoo TV', people might have been thinking, 'Wow, U2 have ticked the other rock'n'roll box this time'. But no, we've held on to the same spiritual beliefs that we've had since we were 18 years old."

The fact that Bono isn't promoting the retrospective collection might suggest that he doesn't care for the idea. Edge insists that there hasn't been any terrible falling-out over the release.

"It's hard to talk about work that's now over ten years old. I guess he felt that he didn't really have an awful lot that he wanted to say about it all. But he's doing a radio thing, so it's not heavy, like a mega silence. It seemed like there wasn't much point in Bono going out and talking up this record, to be honest."

The band's first decade in public finished with 'Rattle And Hum', essentially a film soundtrack and tour diary that was badly hyped and damaged the group's standing for a time. One of the lines that sticks out from that period was Bono's ad-lib about "three chords and the truth". It was sincerely taken to extremes.

Ten years on, past the irony age, when bands such as the Manics are reintroducing that challenge of truth to the rock agenda, the Bono line still jars. Edge's answer is revealing. It's an eloquent defence of U2's glory-or-bust style, and a good place to start us on our trip through the band's back catalogue.

"That line about the truth may come over as being trite," he reasons, in his quiet, precise voice. "But what I think Bono meant was that when it comes to writing songs, that work that really seems to have strength is the work that you don't really write at all, that just arrives. It has a kind of authority of being unadulterated, unedited, just whatever is coming out of you that day, that minute.

"I suppose that's what he means by the truth. I don't think he means profound wisdom. In our experience, whenever we've worked and worked on songs, it sounds as if our hands were all over them. I guess it's about not being self-conscious, about allowing your real feelings and ideas to come through, but at the time, Bono's line seemed like it meant something quite different. Attempting to be profound is one way of making sure that you're not gonna be, and we also learnt that early on."

Here then, is the NME/Edge guide to the band's '80s albums, excluding a few live releases.

ALBUM: 'Boy' (1980)
STAND-OUT TRACK: 'I Will Follow'
MUSICAL FEATURE: Edge's pinging harmonics instead of the customary power chords.

FASHION STATEMENT: Bono boots; the singer's Cuban-heeled footwear, possibly worn to compensate for his lack of height.

In terms of 'Boy' and that ear, how much of it was art and how much was a matter of you winging it?

"I think we had great instincts and a lot of great ideas, but our ability to realise them was always what was lacking. And in the post-punk ethos, we were just a bunch of kids who decided to become a group. The ideas were always well-formed, if badly executed."

On songs like 'I Will Follow', Bono was dealing with his mother's death. Was that difficult, to hear him working out his trauma through the music?

"I don't think any of us questioned that because a lot of the lyrics only sort of came into focus when we recorded the songs. Bono would just improvise lyrics, but when we recorded the album, we started to think a little bit more about some of the themes.

"It was quite a bit afterwards that I started to realise what Bono had actually been writing about. We didn't really talk about that sort of stuff much in those days."

At the stage the band attracted a sizeable gay following, wrongly prompted by the band's artwork and by song titles like 'Stories For Boys'.

"I think that came out of the import of the 'Boy' sleeve or whatever. I think in San Francisco we got a really great review from a couple of gay magazines and that sort of started a little buzz going in San Francisco and that translated into the New York scene.

"We kind of found out about it later on and by then we'd met some of the people in the gay scene and they were friends of ours. So, we found out about it rather than just turning up and discovering we had a gay audience."

ALBUM: 'October' (1981)
MUSICAL FEATURE: Adam's slap-bass solo in the middle of 'Gloria'. The album's backing vocals are by Kid Creole's Coconuts.
FASHION STATEMENT: The Adam Clayton hair explosion.

Didn't Bono lose his lyrics before recording this album?

"Yeah, so we were really up against it. And 'October' is this frantic sound of four guys trying to really wrestle something out of a desperate situation. And in the middle there's the track 'October', this piece that seems to be at odds with everything else.

"That was a hard record to make. It's the classic sucker-punch. You have six years to write your first album and six weeks to write your second one. Bono was writing the lyrics upstairs while we were recording the music downstairs."

At the time of 'October' weren't the band members living in a caravan with the Shalom spiritual community?

"We weren't living there, but we would head down there for a weekend or just hang out. That was a very strange place and a very strange time."

And you were fasting at this stage?

"We were exploring all sorts of things, and we were reading the Bible and praying. I remember, at least on one occasion, fasting. It's like, one of the principles of early Christianity. I couldn't say that I saw it as that important, even then."

ALBUM: 'War' (1983)
STAND-OUT TRACK: 'New Year's Day'
MUSICAL FEATURE: The powering, martial drumbeat of Larry Mullen.
FASHION STATEMENT: The white flag.

Is it true that the single 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' on 'War', originally began with the line, "Don't talk to me about the rights of the IRA"?

"Yeah, that was the only lyric I had before the other guys got back. I had an idea for this song and I put down a four-track version. We talked about the lyric and everyone thought we were walking into a minefield. Bono rewrote the lyric and it became less of a polemic. It was how we felt about what was going on in the North."

ALBUM: 'The Unforgettable Fire' (1984)
MUSICAL FEATURE: Vaporous, ambient textures, and Bono's Joycean lyrics.
FASHION STATEMENT: The Larry Mullen flat-top.

You once called 1984's 'Pride (In The Name Of Love)' "the only successful pop song" you've ever written. Do you still agree with that?

"Well, I don't think it's true now, but maybe then it was. I think it still is a great pop song. It's an idea that just connects and says something. And I guess it's really direct as well."

Did Brian Eno put any of his famous 'oblique strategies' to work at this time?

"He never really brought out the cue cards, y'know? But he's always got some sort of idea about how we should work. That's a big part of what he does. At the time, early sampling was what we were playing around with."

Is it true that you recorded this album naked?

"Ah, yeah. But only for a day. I remember there was gaffer tape involved which was fine during the day but pulling it off was very painful. You'll do anything in the studio to stop from getting bored."

ALBUM: 'The Joshua Tree' (1987)
STAND-OUT TRACK: 'Where The Streets Have No Name'
MUSICAL FEATURE: The studio as an instrument, man.
FASHION STATEMENT: The Shaker-Quaker-Undertaker look.

The Rolling Stone review of this album predicted that it would probably shift three million copies. Eventually, it sold over 14 million.

"I remember thinking to myself at the end that we'd actually made a special record. But I thought it was very much just a record, I didn't think that it had many singles on it. So that was a surprise."

There was a lot of trouble over the fading, twisted intro to 'Where The Streets Have No Name', wasn't there?

"Brian Eno wasn't a man who was used to being in a studio for a long time. He really hated it when we would get stuck on one song for a long time and I think '...Streets...' took a long time to get right. That song was a real breakthrough because it was so different for us.

"At one point Brian got so tired of waiting around for it to be finished that he tried to erase the multi-track! He almost had to be restrained, forcibly, by the tape op."

You must remember the context of this album. It was the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

"It was the era of the Material Girl, y'know? All that was what was going on, so our record was really out of step. It really was like nothing else going on elsewhere."

ALBUM: 'Rattle And Hum' (1988)
STAND-OUT TRACK: 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' with the New Voices Of Freedom choir.
MUSICAL FEATURE: Famous mates.
FASHION STATEMENT: The Sandymount Cowboy vibe. Navajo waistcoats a specialty.

What's the feeling on 'Rattle And Hum'?

"I think everything would have been fine if we'd stuck to the original idea, which was a small movie. It was gonna be a sort of scrapbook of ideas, moments, some new songs with a lot of live versions from 'The Joshua Tree' tour. But then the movie became such a big deal.

"The only thing I regret would be some of the cover versions. Like we did 'All Along The Watchtower' which is just a throwaway thing we did at a free open-air gig in San Francisco which we just happened to record and then put on the album. It was too important a song to throw together just a piecemeal
arrangement of it."

And there was Bono's intro to 'Helter Skelter', talking about stealing The Beatles' song back from Charles Manson.

"That was fine on the night, but you really had to be there. Y'know, it was that whole thing. Sun Studios was a blast. If you're in a rock'n'roll band, that's the kinda shit that you should do. It was just a great thing for us and we enjoyed it. We were blown away by BB King as a singer, I mean obviously his guitar playing is incredible, but it was the singing that blew us away."

So if U2 were hailed as the Band Of The '80s, does that gut you hungry to be remembered as the Band Of The '90s as well? Is the ambition still there?

"Absolutely. Just to be creatively alive. I think we have done great stuff in the '90s. The album I'm most proud of is 'Achtung Baby'. But once we've finished an album, then it's on its own. You lose it and you have to let it go. Once we're happy with our work ourselves, I don't think anyone's that worried about how we're remembered in the '90s."

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