by Tony Bowden and Jennifer Stewart
U2 play five nights to capacity crowds in Dublin, their first gigs in Ireland for over two years. Amidst rumours of the band splitting up Bono announces to the crowds, 'We've got to go away for a while and dream this whole thing up all over again.'
After a silence of almost two years the pure noise of The Fly grates its way across the airwaves. U2 were back with a new sound and a new image. But do they have a new set of beliefs? SIDES investigates ....
These days bringing U2 into a conversation with a group of Christians can be a dangerous occupation. Once up held as the prime examples of Christians in the music business, many people now view the band as arrogant and egotistical, having long since abandoned their early religious fervour. In fact, many churches will point to U2 as evidence of the fact that the music industry is too full of corruption and depravity for even the most committed believers to hold out against, almost as mothers used to frighten their children into good behaviour with stories of the hobgoblins that awaited the ill-behaved child! Viewing U2 on the surface this can be understandable, but a deeper look at what the band are doing portrays a very different story.
Without a doubt U2 have changed a lot since their early albums. Many believe that U2 no longer possess the Christian beliefs which so obviously underpinned these albums, and in many respects amidst the images which U2 have created their beliefs can be difficult to unearth. Often such use of artistic subterfuge is deeply frowned upon by Christian fundamentalists who argue that the gospel message should be perfectly clear; however, this is ignoring the fact that much of the Bible is itself written in artistic prose, rich in hidden meanings and multi-faceted nuances, whilst several books merely contain poetry - the most artistic of all writing forms. Jesus himself taught in parables, using the images of the day to bring across truths about God, and most of the time leaving the people scratching their heads and wondering what he meant.
We cannot know exactly what U2 dreamed of during their two year break, but anyone who knows something of the very early days of U2's career may have some ideas. Before they recorded their first album U2's live gigs were characterised by the two personas which Bono would play - the Boy and the Fool. When it came to recording, however, the Boy became the primary character, and the Fool faded into insignificance. Over the next ten years the Boy grew into a Man, and U2's punk beginnings became everything punk had rebelled against. U2 were the epitome of stadium rock giants, spearheading the social conscience in Rock music. They had taken this path as far as they could, reached the biggest audiences imaginable and needed to totally rethink what they were attempting to achieve as a band. With the realisation that Stadium Rock could never be personal or subtle, U2 were faced with a choice - return to playing smaller intimate venues, or redefine the framework entirely. Their popularity made the first total
In the Zooropa tour U2 are using the most up-to-date imagery and technology they can to bring across their message, whilst at the same time mocking the hype of today's society through their satire, even constructing an entire song, Zooropa, out of the slogans of the consumer culture. ZOO TV takes this to a level never seen before, becoming both a monument and a mockery of the post-modern society. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the old world order was crumbling, and the East was hungrily clutching on to everything the West could offer. But U2 were quick to warn of the dangers, and point out the confusion of Western society.
Whilst many other stars have burnt themselves out with the 'rock-and-roll life-style', U2 have managed to cope with the pressures of success fairly well. The band have talked of how the pressure of their lifestyle was getting to them, and, if they had kept on the way they were going, they may indeed have burnt out. However, the realisation of the absurdity of rock 'n' roll has deflated this. The band had been so intense that the only way out was to go totally over the top. Whereas they had previously spent so long avoiding the paraphernalia of being rock 'n' roll stars, now they are having fun playing with it, exploding all the clichs.
Bono has always been fascinated with the dark side of life. Exit, for example, is so dark that Bono has difficulty singing it live as it makes him feel so evil. But even Exit sounds happy beside some of the songs off Achtung Baby. Written and recorded during the Edge's painful separation from his wife the darkness was never so apparent, in either the lyrics or the music, with the Edge's exposing his pain so eloquently in the guitar work on Love is Blindness. The dark side of religion is also explored. Until the End of the World, from Achtung Baby, describes a conversation between Jesus and Judas: 'In the garden I was playing the tart, I kissed your lips and broke your heart', and Judas' remorse : 'waves of regret, waves of joy, I reached out for the one I tried to destroy'. Bono describes Judas as 'a fascinating creature , because in one sense, by committing his crime he introduced us to Grace.' Bono's attempt to grasp Judas' feelings show deep thought at a level which most Christians have not experienced and cannot understand, who condemn him for his supposed loss of faith.
In U2's recent work the darkness has found a new escape route. Realising the dangers inherent in either denying the shadow or dwelling on it, U2 have begun to play with it - inflating it till it explodes. By opening it to scorn U2 are neither denying its existence nor allowing it to take control.
Bono's 'Satan' persona, Macphisto, has probably raised more Christian hackles than anything else U2 have ever done, with most Christians failing to understand what Bono is up to. In an interview with a prominent Irish paper earlier this year Bono commented that the whole concept of the Macphisto character was one of mockery - taking his idea from the adage 'mock the devil and he will flee from you.' Such irony and tongue-in-cheek humour is common throughout the work of the band and is a very effective way of bringing people to think about the good and evil in the world. Bono mocks to make his point - and this point is transferred to thousands of people with an effectiveness that preachers can only dream about.
The Church has never coped well with its artists and U2 are no exception. They have refused to play by anyone else's rules, and have frequently overstepped the tight boundaries of 'permissible behaviour' drawn up by the church. As a result the church has often viewed them with suspicion. Even one of their most explicit songs of Christian faith and longing for a better world, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" was taken by many Christians as evidence that U2 had lost their faith.
The tendency for the Church to look for perfection in its heroes has placed an overwhelming pressure on U2. They are expected to have all the answers with no sign of doubt, and the church embraces them warmly when they express their faith clearly. However when they have expressed doubts or confusion the church has been just as quick to point the finger and disown them.
The offspring of a mixed marriage, Bono has claimed that he feels equally at home in both Catholic and Protestant churches. However the way in which the Church has often treated U2 has meant that he has come to feel equally not at home in either. As he sings in Acrobat, "I'd break bread and wine, if there was a church I could receive in." In his experience the church is too constricting and stifling. It has constructed a set of rules and beliefs to which he is expected to adhere. However Bono describes his faith in terms of John 3:8 - no-one knows where it's coming from or where it's going to, it's like the wind. "I've always felt that way about my faith. That's why on the new album I say 'I've got no religion', because I believe that religion is the enemy of God, because it denies the spontaneity and the almost anarchistic nature of the Spirit."
He sees no reason why all of his songs have to be full of happiness and joy and is fascinated by the connection between the Blues and Gospel Music. He describes the Psalms as the Blues of the Bible, with David giving off to God, "where were you when I needed you?"
The church has often failed to understand art or rock music, and often looks with suspicion on anything which it does not understand. Everyone's faith and spirituality must be worked out in the context in which they find themselves, and although few within the church have any idea of where U2 "are", many are quick to point out where they think they should be.
We need to stop looking for perfection from those in a position of power. They are as much real people as the rest of us - open to doubts, depression, confusion and fear. We must not expect people to hide these emotions, but must allow people the freedom to be honest in their art. To do otherwise is a denial of the realities of life. God does not solve or remove all our problems, but can help us through them. U2 have never merely painted a black picture of the world, but have stressed a salvation encompassing this.
Perhaps we need to look more closely at what U2 are saying and doing, and the effect that they might be having. Then perhaps we could weep with them at the state of the world, and rejoice with them in the redemption offered. Perhaps they can give us a clearer indication of what the world is really like than we hear in sermon after sermon, Sunday after Sunday.
On the Zooropa tour, Bono was infamous for phoning people from the stage to pester them. At Greenbelt '93, Pete Williams, one of the co-ordinators of the ZOO TV project, phoned Bono live from the mainstage! After convincing the stunned Dubliner that the call was genuine, Willie asked Bono if he had anything he wanted to say to the people of Greenbelt - the biggest Christian festival in the British Isles. Bono paused and replied "Everything you know is right." And the crowd erupted.
This article originally appeared at QUB ( http://www.qub.ac.uk/ )