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U2 Interviews

Portraits of a Artist as a Young Man
© Guitar World, January 1999 by Bert Van De Kamp / IFA

The Edge relives the early years of one of the world's greatest rock bands, as documented on U2's Best of 1980-1990

Bono is in Paris working on some lyrics. Bassist Adam Clayton might be in London. Drummer Larry Mullen is off in parts unknown. And U2' guitarist, The Edge, sits comfortably on a sofa at the band's Hannover Quay studio, a few miles outside the center of Dublin. He seems completely relaxed. "Yes, we're all in good shape," he says. "Isn't it great?"

This has been an anniversary year for U2, for it was in March 1978 that the band, formerly known as Feedback and the Hype, entered a talent contest as U2, a name suggested to them by a friend. Back then, they were simply four Irish lads struggling to create a new sound. 20 years and over 75 million
albums later, there's no denying that U2 have accomplished that many times over. In fact, creating new sounds has always been, and continues to be, one of the band's ongoing concerns.

From the echo-laden, arena rock of 1983's War to the introspective, ambient textures of 1987's The Joshua Tree to the band's most recent flirtations with techno and dance music, U2 has taken perverse delight in their uncanny ability to sonically shape-shift.

Considering their mercurial nature, it comes as no surprise that the band's first greatest-hits compilation covers only the first half of their career. It's a clear message that says quite correctly, that the U2 of the Eighties has little in common with the U2 of the Nineties.

The Best of 1980-1990 documents the band's early, heroic phase. Full of youthful idealism and unabashed romanticism, the album features 14 of the band's loftiest moments, including the Martin Luther King tribute "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the celestial "With or Without You" and the anti-war anthem "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

In addition, the set also includes a new U2 single called "Sweetest Thing." Originally intended to be on The Joshua Tree, the track was not finished in time, and an incomplete version subsequently appeared as a B-side to "Where the Streets Have No Name." In a fit of inspiration, U2 recently returned to the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite and properly polished the slightly cuffed-up gem.

"We resisted putting a retrospective out for a long, long time," says The Edge. "We could have done one over the years, many times. I guess, in the last few years, we started thinking about it because we began to sense that a lot of people out there who liked our work in the Nineties may not be familiar with our earlier songs. Also, compilations mean something different now than they did 10 years ago. I'm buying them now myself, and enjoying them, whereas I never would have in the past.

Rather than trying to do a complete best-of, which struck them as a bit premature, U2 decided, instead, to focus on the first 10 years of their career. "That's a period of work which we can see with a better perspective," continues the guitarist. "The dust has settled. We can start to see which tunes have dated
well and which ones haven't. Then when we started to look what to put on it, we got quite excited about what it could turn into. It's a really great record."

Does this mean that it will take another decade before The Best of 1991-2000 sees the light of day? "Probably not," continues the guitarist. "I see that as a bit of housekeeping at the end of the millennium – ending the two decades with those two records. I would feel good about that."

GUITAR WORLD: Did the band have a defined vision from the beginning?

THE EDGE: No. At first we weren't very ambitious about what we played; the idea of playing at all was enough. We'd play anything – we hardly knew what was going on. Those were the days before MTV. The only shows we could pick up from the BBC were Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Everyone who was interested in music watched those shows That was what you talked about with your mates when you were talking about music.

Then, in the late Seventies, the Jam were on Top of the Pops and, a few weeks later, the Sex Pistols, and suddenly everything changed. We saw that kids like ourselves were on television, playing songs that were really kind of simple. That sent our imagination into orbit. Right after that we started writing our own songs. I don't think we ever thought that we could write songs or that we could take it
seriously until that moment.

GW: When did you start to become ambitious?

THE EDGE: The one member of the band who believed we could get somewhere was Adam. He was always talking in terms of record deals, making albums and being on the road. To us that was a joke, but by 1980 we all recognized there was something happening. We didn't understand it for a while.
You can call it chemistry, because there is no way to describe what it is when a particular group of musicians is playing together and you get the feeling that there is something special there. There was some kind of spark present when the four of us played together.

I think we did a lot of touring at that time, after we really started to take it seriously. We played all the time, wherever we could, in this country, in England, up and down the M1 [highway] in a transit van. When we came to make our first record, a lot of the material had been tested a lot before live crowds. So we pulled these songs apart and put them back together again. We knew what was strong about them. Therefore that first album, Boy (1980), was the easiest for us to record.

GW: Then, one night, Bruce Springsteen came to see you…

THE EDGE: Yeah. He came down with the Who's Pete Townshend, and later again on his own. I think it was a good show, but I remember Townshend being particularly complimentary, which blew my mind. Here was a guy – two, actually – who were among the greats, and they liked what we were doing. It was such affirmation.

Because at that point the music media were starting to get a bit frosty toward us. Early on, they had been very supportive, because, I guess, we were such a novelty: an idealistic post-punk group coming out of Dublin.

GW: What made U2 special was that you appropriated the energy of punk but not its negative attitude. You didn't dress up as punks and seemed to project the message that it was cool to be un-cool.

THE EDGE: That was particular to Dublin. We had seen those TV shows and read all the British music magazines, but by the time punk got to Ireland, a lot of the context had been removed. We didn't really know anything about British art and the fashion scene that inspired punk music. What we got was the energy, the aggression and the vitality of the music – plus this concept that you could do it, that there was nothing to stop you from doing it. The music we were making seemed to come out of this Irish thing. We felt like outsiders, but that didn't bother us. We were not part of any scene. We were very much on our own from day one.

GW: Were you surprised at the sound the four of you produced?

THE EDGE: At times we were surprised by the music that we would make. I can remember how, after recording our first album, we were listening to it, really loving it and being proud of it, but also thinking, Where did that come from? I didn't know how it had happened. That was a funny feeling. Some of it seemed like magic. It just kind of came together. We operated a lot on instinct and everything happened really fast. There was a certain kind of freshness. A song like "I Will Follow," from that first album, still stands up as a great song. It still sounds wild to me.

GW: It is no surprise, therefore, that "I Will Follow" is among the tracks selected to represent the first 10 years of U2's existence on the new compilation. Did you pick the tracks for the album yourselves?

THE EDGE: Yeah. We looked at a few other possibilities. I was interested in putting on "Running to Stand Still," but in the end the question we asked ourselves was: What are the songs that were the strongest and the clearest little Polaroids of that time? They're mostly singles, with the exception of "Sweetest Thing" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" – that was only released as a single in Holland.

GW: Why didn't you run the songs in chronological order?

THE EDGE: Rather than it being a piece of history, we wanted it to be like just a great record. We tried various running orders and decided on this one.

GW: Like the set list of a gig?

THE EDGE: Yeah. But it was more difficult than that. Songs from different eras sounded very strange together. For example, we discovered that placing something from The Unforgettable Fire (1984) next to something from Rattle and Hum (1988) sounded very bizarre.

GW: Did you feel tempted to start remixing some of the tracks?

THE EDGE: At times we did. We did re-EQ a lot of them, which is almost like remixing, because it can change the sound. That was a delicate thing. I took charge of that. I didn't want to change the spirit of the original release but to bring the fidelity up a few grades to make it a bit more contemporary. You have to remember that those recordings weren't made for CD. As much as I love vinyl, it always presented some problems in recreating really low frequency sounds. I remember when we used to master our vinyl records there was always this compromise, but now with the CD we can recreate them as they originally were mixed.

GW: You only included one track from your second album – the title song from 1981's October. And it's a hidden track, at that. Why?

THE EDGE: We wanted something from the second album and thought of putting "Gloria" on. But when we listened to it, we decided it sounded dated compared to the other tracks. I realize it's some people's favorite U2 song, but going down that road you have to follow your own instincts. These are our favorites, really.

GW: There is one live favorite missing. Why did you leave out "40"?

THE EDGE: Hmmm. One for the boxed set. [laughs] Yeah, that is a great tune. I wonder why we didn't put that one on. Maybe because it had become a bigger live tune than it was on the album. We didn't put "Bullet the Blue Sky" on because we thought the live version was more extraordinary than the album
version and was already on Rattle and Hum. We also thought about "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" [the band's first single] at one point, but it didn't quite make it.

GW: In hindsight, what do you think of the October album?

THE EDGE: Some of it is excruciatingly embarrassing, because of the actual youth of the band. We were so young. It comes over so clearly how inexperienced we were. But there are some incredible ideas on that record, and I'm more amazed at the quality of these idea, in the end, than embarrassed
by how young we sound. "October" itself was a really great little piece. I wrote that initially as a soundtrack piece, but everyone really liked it and Bono came up with this great lyric idea, so it made more sense. But it doesn't sound like anything else on the album or any other album at the time. Maybe that's why it has aged so well.

GW: Your unique guitar sound has always had this element of Celtic music about it.

THE EDGE: Yes, but it was not planned. We just got swept up by this wave of what you might call punk, or D.I.Y., enthusiasm: Do it yourself, you can do it. Part of that was this concept that it should be "you." So we were determined not to fall in with the same musical styles that so many groups that were playing
around bars in Dublin were in, which was mostly the blues. So, for a guitar player, it was: Don't play the blues, find other things Since we were a three-piece, I found that I could play this drone by finding a string that I could use and play against. Playing melodies over one continuous tone through the song was like a real unusual style that I hadn't heard before and that became us. The Celtic aspect must have been in the back of my mind, because the drone thing is a very Irish thing to do. You find it in the Uilleann pipes in particular. I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but it must have been there as an

GW: The third album, War (1983), sounded like a new start for the band.

THE EDGE: We knew when were getting into the War album that we wanted something really hard-hitting. It was a conscious thing.

GW: For an Irish band to chose a title like War really did mean something.

THE EDGE: It was a big word to use and we knew it at the time. I guess that album wrapped up all our beliefs and confusion in one package. A lot of political feelings, the anger about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Plus the spiritual side of what we were doing was also in flux – we were rejecting conventional religion at that point, because it just wasn't for us. We realized that sectarianism was just another form of tribalism, just an excuse that people were using for killing one another. It had become an ugly thing. We saw a struggle on every front, and that word "war" – as big as it was – encompassed where we were at in our own struggle to try and figure out what was right and where we were going. It was the right word to make sense of a country going through a very hard time, politically, spiritually, in every sense. That album had "Sunday Bloody Sunday" on it, which was our kind of statement on the North. We wrote that song without ever considering how serious an issue it was to everyone else and how outrageous it was for a rock and roll band to write about. To us it was the most natural thing. We never held back on anything. Everything that we were gong through went into our music. In a way, probably the only way we could articulate some of the tings that we were feeling was through our music. We were really clear that violent struggle was never going to work. We were very angry about the fact that people were still dying in what we saw as a vain, stupid war in Northern Ireland. So our stance was completely anti-war.

GW: How does The Unforgettable Fire (1984) rate now as an album?

THE EDGE: I really like it now – but for reasons different from when we recorded it. It was a real important record, and I think it was quite influential. A lot of bands have taken sounds and ideas from The Unforgettable Fire. It was quite innovative, I think.

We consciously went into the record trying to do something new, and [producers] Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were also in a phase of real experimentation. They had been working with avant garde musicians like Harold Budd at the time, and were in the process of inventing what we now call ambient music.

We talked a lot about using some of the ideas they were developing and applying them to rock. We really wanted to explore using room ambience, the sound of a room and of musicians playing together in a room, instead of using an artificial sense of space, which was a very common thing earlier in the Eighties. We wanted to try and record in a more naturalistic way, so that you could get the impression of a space, giving the recording a real sense of dimension. Eno was interested in these ideas, so we did do a lot of playing together in a room and recorded it. You can hear it on some of the tracks. It's got
a real sound!

GW: Did this method of recording naturally evolve into the way you recorded the next album, 1987's The Joshua Tree?

THE EDGE: Yes, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree are connected, both sonically and thematically.

GW: When The Unforgettable Fire came out, many of the critics aimed their fire at the experimental tracks that were on side two. So when The Joshua Tree came out it appeared as though you wanted to say: Okay, you want more songs? Here's an album full of just great songs.

THE EDGE: I can't remember the reviews really affecting us that much, but I know that for ourselves – particularly Bono – we were frustrated that some of the songs on The Unforgettable Fire were left in a semi-raw state. I know, for instance, that Bono would have loved the opportunity to finish "Elvis Presley in America," and to really develop the lyrics and the melodies, to discipline that piece into a cohesive song. And I know that, on "Bad," there are lines in the lyric that he would have liked to be able to rewrite.

Personally, I love both songs, especially the lyrics in "Bad." I think they're among his best. We were forced to rush through some of the final tunes on that record, which, in retrospective, I don't think was necessarily a bad thing. I think you always have to speed up the process toward the end, just to get it finished. That's natural. I don't think it was to the detriment of the album. With The Joshua Tree we probably did a bit more work before starting the record, and we had a real idea for it. We really set out to make a particular record, which helped, and that's why it has a sense of something more fully rounded.

GW: By that time, Brian Eno had become almost like a fifth band member?

THE EDGE: In the studio, yes. When it came to working in the studio with Brian, and Danny Lanois as well, there were no lines of demarcation. He would throw keyboard parts into the songs. Danny would pick up an acoustic guitar or a bass, or shakers or tambourines, whatever, and play along. We were
functioning like a six-piece for a lot of that record, but still we had our sound together before we went into the studio. We had "Bullet the Blue Sky" pretty much written, "Red Hill Mining Town" and most of "With or Without You." We wrote "Running to Stand Still" while recording the album, as well as "I Still
Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "One Tree Hill."

We wrote "Where the Streets Have No Name" during a break. We were missing a tune, and I knew it, I sensed it. So everyone went on holiday and I stayed behind and came up with the music to "Where the Streets Have No Name." I remember thinking to myself, there are no songs on this record that we're gonna play live. So I set down to write a live song, and that's what I came up with.

GW: The Joshua Tree sold 15 million albums, making it your most successful album to date. At the time, the critics were divided about its merits. U2 fans would suggest that certain critics would rather champion young and struggling bands than stand behind hugely successful ones.

THE EDGE: We had to endure a certain kind of cynicism that pervaded the media in the U.K. It all started with the punk ethos, which itself had been created by the media. This ethos really influenced everyone's attitude to music, to the extent that, in Britain, if you were successful you were irrelevant immediately. I think our becoming successful in America was, in particular, deemed a cardinal sin by the media in Britain. We had sold out, and as such were beyond respect. That was the way it was. Since we've always perceived ourselves as outsiders, this business didn't bother us, but I think that attitude broke up a lot of really amazing English groups. The only time that they revised this concept was when Oasis came around. That's when the British rock and roll media stopped eating its young, which they had been doing since the late Seventies. The Clash broke up because of this, so did the Smiths, and so did many other talented groups that couldn't deal with the pressure created by the charge that they'd "sold out." It's this zealot mentality which promotes the idea that when something stops being exclusive and underground and starts being popular, it suddenly turns into the enemy. I think it's just bogus, really bogus, and I think many people have actually realized this.

GW: Rattle and Hum (1988), both the album and the movie, did not receive a particularly favorable reception by the media. On the surface it was sort of a diary of U2's pilgrimage through the American South in search of the roots of rock and roll.

THE EDGE: When the band first started, we made a conscious decision to reject American roots music. We had said to ourselves, "We're not buying into it. It's not for us."

But around the mid-Eighties, we started getting interested in gospel music, which we'd explored on The Joshua Tree with songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." We were listening to Mahalia Jackson and the Mighty Clouds of Joy at the time, and when we went to America we started to hear the real thing: real blues, real great country, real gospel. It was actually forcing us to re-examine our attitude toward the American roots world we'd rejected previously, and in the process of that, I guess, we got inspired and found ourselves starting to write songs in that style. It really was a change for us.

GW: I read somewhere that your manager feels that the album and the film Rattle and Hum were a mistake, perhaps because they didn't do as well as he'd anticipated.

THE EDGE: The mistake was not the album. The mistake was allowing the movie to become a much bigger thing than it should have been. Our original idea was to create a small movie that would be released in small cinemas around the world. Something that would be more for our fans than for the mass market.

What happened was that, at some point, we allowed the movie to change from being a small-budget film that we controlled into a major Hollywood film that was distributed through Paramount and released in hundreds of cinemas across America. To be honest, I cannot remember how it escalated. I can only remember that it wasn't my idea. In any case, a huge promotional budget was put together, and I remember seeing a six-foot poster of my face, for which someone airbrushed my stubble to make it look more perfect. Then I realized, Oh my god, something's gone wrong, this is not what we're about, this is not where we ever wanted to go. So we had to endure the backlash of there being too much U2 everywhere. It wasn't a plan. It was simply that we weren't paying attention and suddenly this is where we ended up.

GW: Did you lose a lot of money on that?

THE EDGE: We paid for everything for the first four or five months, and spent probably a million-and-a-half dollars of our own money before we started to find partners to do the film with. I think Paramount covered most of the costs, but we still ended up losing a few hundred thousand dollars. We certainly never got anything out of it. And it took us a lot of work. Bono and I, particularly, set in with [director] Phil Joanou for many weeks and edited a lot of that. It really messed us up.

GW: Let's go back to 1985 and your appearance at Live Aid, which turned a lot of young people on to U2. Some people, however, criticized you – and Bono's antics, particularly his forays into the audience – and perceived your presence as some sort of cynical career move.

THE EDGE: The funny thing about that is, when we came off stage we were convinced that we had performed terribly. We were really depressed. The idea that we'd actually experienced a mutual epiphany of some kind with the audience at Live Aid was so far from our minds. We thought the exact opposite, that we'd played quite poorly. Bono had gone into the crowd, as he'd done so many times before, but on this occasion he felt it had been kind of clumsy and that generally the whole thing hadn't lifted up.

I still meet people who talk about that show and how important it was. It's amazing that, at the time, those were not our thoughts or intentions at all.

GW: In your history we see the story of a band working almost continually to re-invent itself. Is this what has kept you going?

THE EDGE: I think we get bored quickly, and there is a hunger in the band to keep finding new things to turn us on, to inspire us. We're hungry for new ideas, whatever's going on out there. We're aware that rock and roll has always been developing and changing. It's not a static form, it never has been.

The truth is that the original idea that was called rock and roll was over by '58. It had come and gone in America. The only reason that there is still something that we call rock and roll is that it got picked up in England by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks and all those other English groups, and when they went back to America with it, suddenly you got this mad cross-reference thing and it really took off again.

So there has been a constant exchange and flow and development of ideas, and we are really into that aspect of it. We're always open to things that are interesting and new.

GW: So it's true that you steal ideas from the underground?

THE EDGE: I guess so, but we've always done so. For a long time we were the biggest cult group in the world. We feel a little uneasy being considered mainstream. We have no problem with the idea of commercial success, but more with what this implies: doing things that are safe and accessible to the bulk of music buyers. We always wanted to write good songs and make quality records. We're not in any way conservative in terms of our interests in music. The interest in dance music is quite consistent with other things that we've been inspired by in the past.

GW: This is a shared interest within the group?

THE EDGE: Yeah. I guess some more than others. Larry represents more…the old style. Larry is no-nonsense. It's not that he wouldn't like new ideas, but he wouldn't be into the self indulgence of a lot of new experimental music. He would be like, "Where's the tune?" And he doesn't like being replaced by a computer. He knows he won't be, so he's quite secure in that sense. He's not so easily turned on to new things. They have to really move him before he's going to accept them.

I think dance music is in a bit of a crisis at the moment, because there's been no real standout artists since the first wave, which was Underworld, the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers. There's been nobody to push it up another revel. It's splintering again. Maybe that's okay. Maybe that's the nature of dance music, as long as it doesn't become a standard form.

GW: Quite a few bands over the years have, to call a spade a spade, ripped you off. Some of them have not only gotten away with it but have created a masterpiece of their own in the process. I'm talking, of course, about Radiohead.

THE EDGE: I like Radiohead, and OK Computer is a great record. They're a great band. As a group, they are so much greater than the sum of their parts. That's the sign of a great band. We met them just before that album came out, and I noticed they really got something. And Thom Yorke's a great singer. They could do with a couple of tunes that are a little bit more uplifting. What they do, they do well.

GW: Are you working on a new studio album?

THE EDGE: We're starting to put some songs together for it. We're excited. Realistically, I think it's gonna be released no sooner than the end of next year.

GW: Just before the millennium.

THE EDGE: I hope so. We're gonna work with Brian and Danny again.

GW: And then, when the year 2000 comes, every one of us has to re-invent him or herself.

THE EDGE: It's true. [laughs]

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