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The Guardian, February 14, 1997


Last November, out on the highway, U2 got mugged. It was on the information super- highway, of course, and there was no violence involved - just an intricate hack into their studio computers in Dublin which resulted in 30-second snatches of two unfinished songs from their new album being posted on the Internet, played by a US radio station, and then bootlegged on CDs which sold for £6 each.

There was a lot of bluster at the time, but in the end it did the group no harm: the finished version of Discotheque, one of the songs stolen, has just gone straight in at number one. Although the charts have been remarkably soft so far in 1997, with singles shooting to the top only to disappear a week later, this is only U2's third number one single and last week their record company, Island, sent 300,000 records - their biggest shipment ever - out into the shops to satisfy demand. Like the cyberspace robber, it's a clear indication of the excitement surrounding the band's eagerly awaited new album, Pop, a record which has been rumoured to be trip-hop, techno, even trance - but definitely moving in a new direction.

Pop had originally been scheduled for completion last September; but is now due in the shops on March 3. For a band as big as U2, this delay means more than disappointing the fans: when it was announced that the album wouldn't, after all, be ready for the lucrative pre-Christmas trading period, Island warned that it would be trading at a loss that quarter without the £30 million or so in sales the album was expected to generate, and shares in parent company Polygram fell as a result.

But for U2, this was important for other reasons. It was their first for almost a decade without Brian Eno as producer, a partnership that perhaps went as far it could go with Original Soundtracks Volume 1, an album released in 1995 under the alias Passengers and featuring U2 and Eno alongside Pavarotti and dance producer, DJ Howie B. Most of the band defend the project, but interviewed in Q magazine this month, drummer Larry Mullen made no attempt to conceal his dislike: "For me at least, there's a thin line between making interesting music and being self-indulgent. We crossed that line several times on Passengers. Mine is that it's a lot of very very bad, self-indulgent music".

This, and the current vitality of dance music, explains the new direction. Despite the sales approaching 70 million records, U2 have never been afraid to experiment. When they set out in 1978, their ambitions were unfashionably grand for a group influenced by the energy of punk. They wanted, from the start, to be one of the biggest bands in the world, and they succeeded. Their strategy of almost constant, gruelling touring of the US finally paid off when their album The Joshua Tree broke through there in 1987, eventually going on to sell 15 million copies world-wide. But by 1988, and the Rattle and Hum album, what had once sounded grand and swaggering had begun to sound pompous, and they were teetering on the edge of self-parody. They could easily have fallen victim to what is known as Simple Minds Syndrome, a disease whereby music echoes emptily around stadiums and causes those playing it to stagnate into huge, immovable fossils. But instead U2 imploded, introducing synthesisers and new technology into what had previously been a very orthodox guitar-led rock sound and triumphantly reinventing themselves with 1991's Achtung Baby.

Some tracks from this album were given to DJ Paul Oakenfold and his studio partner Steve Osborne to remix, making U2 one of the first big rock acts to dabble in the emerging club culture, and by 1993 they even had Oakenfold touring with them for nine months, warming up the stadiums instead of a support act. Which is why the rumours of a dance album were so readily believed, especially when Bjork/Madonna producer Nellee Hooper was brought in for a while. Eventually, however, U2 settled with the chaotic-sounding combination of Howie B and their regular engineer/co-producer Flood in the studio, plus Mark "Spike" Stent and Steve Osborne helping out on mixes.

"The basic premise was that they wanted to move on, that they couldn't repeat themselves," Flood told Music Week. "They wanted to bring in elements from the dance world and integrate them, not necessarily with the aim of turning it into a danceable album, but to synthesise a new sound. That's why different people came in; they wanted to experiment with different influences." "I began just playing tunes, old school hip-hop, that sort of thing and we talked," says Howie B. "Then we were jamming together in the studio. I was putting together beats and loops, digging out samples. It went off at magic tangents, and that was the best thing about it. Half the time I didn't have a clue what was going on. As long as you were able to react to what was happening and were honest, it was really exciting."

The result is not so much a dance album as an album influenced by the way dance records are put together. There are samples, sequencers and dense, layered textures, tunes built from samples and breakbeats, but there are also real drums, loud guitars and tracks that are far closer to Velvet Underground than The Prodigy. "You don't learn by drawing a line and saying these are the limits of rock'n'roll, or these are the size of the buildings you should play," Bono has said about the album. "Success is one thing in pop music, but staying relevant is a bigger challenge."

Ten years ago, U2 had no serious competition from their peers - no one really expected the likes of The Jesus And Mary Chain to go global. Now few doubt that groups like Oasis and Radiohead could, very soon, be packing in stadiums across America if they spend enough time there and work at it. And it is becoming ever more difficult for rock music to sound new. The weight of its history is pressing it flat, and with reissued CDs available in every record shop, the current generation is more aware of its legacy - which is why so much of the music they make verges on pastiche. With a group like Oasis, their youth, their attitude is what makes their retrospection seem fresh and exciting. But for groups like U2 and REM - men who are now in their mid-to-late thirties - it is more of a problem. Rock'n'Roll is still primarily an adolescent form, and both groups are struggling in their different ways to continue making music that is fresh without becoming parodies of their younger selves - like the Rolling Stones.

In Q, Bono admits that there was a ban on playing Beatles records in the studio during the making of the album, and that its title, Pop, is "a way of dodging the 'O' word, ie Oasis. Y'Know, what is rock music now ? What is it ? Because there once was a time when people hadn't heard the sound of an electric guitar overloading through a little printed circuit going into an amp. When people heard Hendrix, that was fresh. We're doing the same through sampling, just different little printed circuits. Using the technology, abusing the technology. It's the William Burrough's thing, that you cut up the past to form the future. There's a difference between liking something because it reminds you of something that was great. That karaoke aspect of where rock'n'roll is now."

Perhaps the most pertinent thing to be said about U2 is summed up in the final sentences of the potted biography they send out to the press. It reads, simply, "No one has ever left U2; no member has ever joined. The band remains in Dublin, Ireland where they grew up and met." U2 were school friends when they decided to form a band in 1978; almost 20 years later, they are still friends. There have been crises, of course, times when they looked like falling apart, but some of their best work (Achtung Baby, for instance), came out of these periods.

The band will not discuss their finances (such figures, their manager told me when I asked about the profits likely to be generated by their upcoming tour, "always look vulgar written down"), but are said to be worth something like £75 million each. They live in Ireland, away from the intrusions of the British tabloids. They don't welcome Hello! into their homes. They don't flaunt their wealth, their cars, their art collections, but nor do they sit around wringing their hands, complaining of Paradise Syndrome and whinging. Writing in his diary of 1995, A Year With Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno records warm, friendly dinner parties, late-night drinking sessions and people who seemed to be living proper, enjoyable lives without too much angst. In one entry he notes, "Fascinating to see that, after all this time, there is still such courtesy, understanding and love between them."

Their manager, Paul McGuinness, says the band have survived when many of their peers - The Pretenders, The Police - have fallen by the wayside because they are first and foremost friends, because they have managed to keep moving creatively, but most of all because they are "obsessively - sometimes annoyingly - democratic". All royalties are split between them five ways (McGuinness getting one share) , so there have never been the same conflicts about money and songwriting credits that tear many bands apart. All decisions are unanimous. Which is why, without someone like Eno to adjudicate, Pop perhaps took so long to finish.

Apart from a brief period when bassist Adam Clayton was engaged to Naomi Campbell, the band managed to supply the tabloids with remarkably little entertainment over the years. Clayton's relationship with the model was called off after he was reported to have gone on a bender in a London hotel, phoning out for prostitutes to party with him. In December 1993, he failed to turn up to a concert in Australia after unspecified "over- indulgence", and was replaced on stage by a roadie - the only time another musician has appeared on stage with the band. But even this, in the end, was undramatic. The band closed ranks, and rallied round in support. Clayton is now clean, sober, and not at all inclined to do the obligatory round of hand-wringing, confessional interviews now expected of celebrities in such circumstances. It is, he has said firmly, a personal matter.

If the press find reason to attack U2 at all, it is for being pompous, earnest or self- righteous, but even here they seem to have it wrong. Reviews of Pop will be mixed: sections of the rock press will resent the intrusion of dance music's technology, club culture will meanwhile complain of bandwagon-jumping and declare that it doesn't go far enough. In the end, neither will really matter. At a press conference in a K-Mart store in New York last Wednesday, U2 announced their Disco-Mart tour, playing 100 or so dates to an estimated five million people and selling their album to the world. Staging promises to be even more spectacular than the Zoo TV tour, with a screen half the size of a football pitch flashing images at the crowd, a 70-foot olive on a stick conveying the disco theme and the band arriving on stage inside a giant mirrorball. The circus will kick off in the US in spring, come to the UK at the end of summer, with dates at Wembley (August 22), Leeds (August 28), and Edinburgh (September 2), and will travel to places off the current world tour circuit like South Africa and Estonia. And despite speculation about involvement by Apple or Microsoft, once again there will not be a sponsor. "Sponsors," comments Paul McGuinness wryly, "tend to be rather needy." Fans used to paying £20 or more to watch their idols dancing around a giant soft drink or beer bottle on stage will tend to agree.

And Pop will sound good in stadiums. It isn't a trip-hop album, or a techno album. You can't dance to it, as the band proved themselves in their rather naff Village People parody video. What U2 have managed to do is something far more interesting. They've made a modern, relevant album that also sounds unmistakably like it was made by U2. "As Bob Dylan said, 'He not busy being born is busy dying,' and I think the death starts in your record collection," explains Bono. "I like to feel alive. I think I'm awake, and this is the noise that keeps me alive".

Copyright © 1997 The Guardian. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on February 14, 1997 7:48 PM.

Searching For A Sound To Bridge The Decades was the previous entry in this blog.

"Shop Till You Pop" is the next entry in this blog.

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