Singular appeal, clout make U2 No. 1

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by Larry Rodgers, The Arizona Republic

When Ireland's U2 won four Grammy Awards in 2001, singer Bono remarked that the group had earned the job title of "best band in the world."

Critics sniped at his lack of modesty (a trait Bono acknowledges), but it was hard to argue that U2 was not the best and biggest band in the world after it won nods for record of the year and best rock album two decades after its founding.

Since then, U2 has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, piled on eight more Grammys (for a total of 22) and sold millions of albums and concert tickets.

But as U2's 360° Tour prepares to land in Glendale on Tuesday, has the time come for the 30-year-old quartet to pass the "best and biggest band" torch to a younger act such as Green Day, Coldplay or Radiohead?

Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. all are nearing 50. Their latest album received mixed reviews, and its new singles no longer are a must-play on modern-rock radio.

And some critics say U2 is in danger of becoming a younger version of the Rolling Stones, kings of the lucrative nostalgia tour.

"It seems like U2 is just trying to be the biggest. The stage show that they have now is pretty far from their roots. It seems like a product," says Jeff Bucki, 33, a self-described music geek who works for Travers Collins & Co., a Buffalo, N.Y., marketing and public-relations firm.

Differing yardsticks

A band's power, relevance and influence can be measured in divergent ways.

CD and ticket sales, chart positions and awards provide data that can be easily compared, and U2's record on those counts has been mixed. But social impact, longevity, multigenerational appeal and critics' and fans' opinions also are important factors.

The release of this year's "No Line on the Horizon" inflicted a few chinks in U2's "best band" armor.

Several critics called the CD overproduced and uneven, with no song on a par with such classics as "With or Without You," "(Pride) In the Name of Love" or "One," and the charts seemed to bear them out.

The lead single, the flashy "Get on Your Boots," got into the top 40 of Billboard magazine's Hot 100 list and hit No. 5 on the alternative-rock chart. Two other singles also failed to reach No. 1.

"They're really not the type of band that is going to get pop airplay anymore," says Silvio Pietroluongo, director of charts for Billboard.

"That's a current-driven world. They don't always take to the older, longtime artists."

"No Line on the Horizon" struggled to top 1 million in sales in North America, according to Nielsen SoundScan, disappointing for a band that topped 3 million last time out, with 2004's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," and 4 million with 2000's "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

In comparison, Coldplay has sold 2.5 million copies of its latest CD, "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends," and Green Day's "American Idiot" has sold 5 million in North America since 2004.

Even U2's pro-environment and social-activist images have taken hits.

The 360° Tour's stage towers 90 feet, has a 54-ton video screen and requires an army of semitrucks for transport. The group will log 70,000 miles of air travel, according to one estimate.

Former Talking Heads leader David Byrne blogged, "It sure looks like, well, overkill, and just a wee bit out of balance, given all the starving people in Africa."

U2 and tour promoter Live Nation had hired two companies to help reduce the tour's carbon footprint before Byrne complained, but critics still target U2's "bigger is better" approach.

Despite the concerns about CD sales, radio play and carbon footprints, some pretty impressive numbers support the case for U2 to hold onto the title of the best and biggest band in rock.

Ticket to success

No other act can match the number of fans U2 routinely draws. More than 2.5 million tickets have been sold for the 360° Tour, which continues into 2010.

Last month, two U2 shows at New Jersey's Giants Stadium each drew more than 80,000 fans (including such rock royalty as Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen).

U2's ability to draw giant crowds from New York to London to Amsterdam to Moscow underscores the group's global reach, matched only by Madonna, the Stones, Paul McCartney and a handful of other artists.

"Yes, they are still the biggest band. There is no getting around the fact that there are still millions of people out there willing to spend a couple hundred bucks to see them," says David Eichler of Phoenix's David and Sam PR firm.

Eichler, 42, who has traveled to several cities nationwide to see U2 perform through the years, says the band has kept his interest since his days in junior high school.

The band has outearned Madonna and the Stones since 2005, with a staggering take of $629 million, and Billboard Boxscore analysts expect the 360° Tour to be the highest-grossing rock outing ever.

Dodging dinosaurs

Despite the comparisons to the Stones, U2 has resisted the temptation to cash in solely on nostalgia.

New music by the Stones has been ignored by radio stations, and the band's concerts consist overwhelmingly of songs recorded decades ago.

U2 scored a No. 1 hit as recently as 2004, with the dance-inducing single "Vertigo," and all but one of its past six studio albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

The band is playing several songs from its new album on the 360° Tour, accompanied by footage of recent world events and a song intro by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu.

The use of fresh material in concert helps the group continue to draw fans in their teens and 20s, and its messages of community and hope for mankind touch listeners of myriad backgrounds.

Combine U2's ability to continually evolve musically with its diverse fan base and you have another argument for best-band status.

Ray Manzarek, co-founder of the Doors, see parallels between the upbeat and hopeful approach that appeals to so many U2 fans and the music of his heyday, the '60s.

"They are plugged into the universal energy of the cosmos," Manzarek says. "It translates to all ages, races and sexes. They are one with the planet on both a spiritual and sociological level."

Rising country star Dierks Bentley, whose audience leans toward teens and 20-somethings, says the several U2 concerts he has attended felt more like "an experience" than a show.

"I think they're the biggest and the best rock band of all time," Bentley says. "I know there are a lot of Beatles fans who might disagree.

"U2 is able to continue to make old songs new and relevant. A song like (1983's) 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' at a time when we've been fighting a war for eight years . . . still has meaning today."

Active approach

The time that Bono spends onstage promoting peace and tolerance and talking about such issues as poverty in Africa and the jailing of political dissidents underscores U2's impact beyond the recording studio.

Bono, who has lobbied Congress on Capitol Hill, coordinated charity work with Bill Gates, met with world leaders and created two foundations, has said that U2 has given him a soapbox to speak to millions.

Bono's DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) is seeking financial relief for Africa, and his One Campaign pushes grassroots initiatives to fight poverty worldwide. Bono was given the Man of Peace Award in December at a Paris gathering of Nobel Peace laureates.

Scores of other rock acts, from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to Neil Young to Coldplay, have spoken in favor of and raised money for various causes, but none has Bono's direct access to world leaders ranging from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to George W. Bush to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Pope Benedict XVI.

"I have lived and taught in Africa as a Fulbright Scholar and would testify that Bono is a positive force," says Bruce L. Edwards, a professor of African studies and English at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

"Is U2 a rock band with a cause or a cause that happens to be a musical outlet? In U2's case, I would say there is no separation at this point in their evolution."

Author Stephen Catanzarite, who wrote a book about U2's "Achtung Baby" album for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, is impressed by the subjects tackled by U2.

"(U2) is a band that continues to take on the 'big issues' (God and man, love and hate, life and death, war and peace) in its music, and people around the world still pay attention," Catanzarite says.

That willingness to move beyond the basic themes of rock (romantic love and rebellion) to comment on social issues and work toward making the world a better place elevates U2 above its contemporaries in the eyes of Edwards, Catanzarite and millions of fans.

Balancing act

Rock critic and author Robert Hilburn, who has interviewed Bono many times for the Los Angeles Times since the band's inception, thinks the singer's drive to connect with an ever-growing global audience - and, in the process, fund his causes - lies in a sense of social responsibility.

"Bono has taken the music and said, 'I don't care if there is a backlash because I talked to (George W.) Bush or if people don't like me because I talked to (Bill) Clinton. I'm trying to help people in the world. People might think I'm pompous or pretentious, but if I don't use my power, I'm failing, because I'm not living up to my responsibilities as a person, as a citizen, as a human being.' "

In his new memoir, "Cornflakes With John Lennon or Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life," Hilburn places U2 in the rarefied company of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon, icons whom he considers to be the best and most influential in rock.

That level of influence - on fans' emotions as well as pushing them to care about world issues - is a key area where U2 still outdistances younger bands, including Green Day and Coldplay, vying for the best-band title.

Green Day and Coldplay sell millions of CDs and are capable of filling stadiums in some cities (though not everywhere they go, like U2 is), but their ability to inspire and influence fans is tied more to catchy songs and enjoyable stage shows.

The anthems of U2's show, combined with Bono's preaching, have spawned a cheerleading section that blurs international boundaries and gives the band gravitas.

Eichler at David and Sam doubts that any younger contender to U2 will be able to dominate the world's increasingly splintered musical landscape, a key requirement for being considered the best and biggest band.

"MTV unified music for a long time, but MTV doesn't play music anymore," he says.

"There are 300 TV channels, and satellite radio gives us another 200 stations. There just isn't the opportunity for somebody to connect on that wide a level anymore."

Reach the reporter at larry.rodgersarizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8043.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 17, 2009 8:37 AM.

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