Glastonbury 2011: Isn't it time we learned to cherish U2?

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U2's performance at the Glastonbury Festival attracted protesters, but Bono and co proved they are the world's top rock stars - and we should learn to cherish them, says William Langley

By William Langley, The Telegraph

Grit your teeth and face the unpalatable truth. It's time to start being nice about U2 again. When a band has been this uncool for this long, the least it deserves is a reappraisal, and on Friday night at Glastonbury, the veteran Irish rock outfit gave a quality performance. It was big, safe and polished. Which is part of the problem.

A stiffer element at the festival holds that Glastonbury is the wrong place for global megabands and the big production efforts that go into them. So, last year, when U2 were forced to pull out following a back injury to their 51-year-old frontman Bono, a quiet ripple of satisfaction ran around the soggy extremities of Worthy Farm. It lasted only until the singer, happily repaired by a team of top German surgeons, announced the band's plans to have another go.

By the standards of the pop world, this looked suspiciously like an honourable course of action. Bono and his men are currently on a tour of the US, and to reach deepest Somerset they had to fly in from Baltimore and straight back out again to Michigan. But instead of showing gratitude, many among the plastic poncho-clad crusties were still complaining about things like the group's "brand image" as the rockers arrived on stage.

Admittedly, it takes a lot of effort for a band to look this cheesy. Mildly unsteady on stacked heels, Bono was squeezed into a leather suit and he blinked through the blinding rain from behind his trademark sunglasses. Lead guitarist The Edge wore a drooping head-mic under his beanie hat, while bassist Adam Clayton favoured beige slacks and a matching cotton shirt that suggested he'd been interrupted while mowing the lawn.

It got worse. Bono mumbled something pretentious about ley lines - a sop to the festival's mystical provenance. Then protesters inflated a giant balloon with a message demanding that the group - whose sophisticated financial arrangements have drawn critical comment - should pay more tax in Ireland.

Then it got a lot better. Glasto might have hoped it would hear something just a teensy bit different, but instead it got a greatest hits compilation that began with Even Better than the Real Thing, ended with an encore that included With or Without You, and demonstrated why U2 remain, after more than 25 years at the top, the world's finest rock act.

Not that everything rolls along sweetly for this grizzled bunch of one-time Dublin schoolmates. A series of setbacks has dogged them over the past year - none more so than their ill-fated involvement in the Broadway musical Spider-Man, described by one New York critic as "the most cursed theatrical work in the whole of Western civilisation".

After months of delays, caused by sets collapsing, actors fleeing, investors getting cold feet and the director being fired, the $65 million production - the most expensive in theatre history - finally opened last week with songs by Bono and The Edge. "The score sounds like a double album of B-sides," complained the Wall Street Journal. "Not only are the songs forgettable... all they do is get louder." The New York Times observed that the endless production hold-ups had resulted only in the show rising from "jaw-dropping badness to mere mediocrity".

Then there was the unfortunate episode of The Edge's proposed housing development in California. The 50-year-old guitarist - real name David Evans - had planned to build a cluster of ''eco-mansions'' on his estate overlooking Malibu beach, only to be accused by the locals of wrecking their landscape.

One of his neighbours, Scott Wilder, told LA Weekly that the rocker's lifestyle was hard to endure. "There was one occasion," he said, "when his enormous tour bus stopped dead in the road to my house, blocking it. I asked the driver to move, but he said he didn't want to interrupt The Edge and Axl Rose [the lead singer of Guns N' Roses], who were having a discussion at the back of the bus."

Then there's the poverty business. "There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat," Paul Theroux once wrote, "but I can't think of one at the moment." A new book about the band includes a recollection from Microsoft founder Bill Gates: "It was late, we'd had a few drinks and Bono was all fired up over a scheme to get companies to tackle global poverty and disease. He kept dialling the numbers of top executives and thrusting his cell phone at me to hear their sleepy yet enthusiastic replies."

At least Bono seems reconciled to the ridicule. "The only thing worse than a rock star," he once said, "is a rock star who cares. I've seen great minds and prolific imaginations disappear up their own backsides, strung out on their own self-importance."

Still, the band rolls on, the money rolls in, and most of Africa remains as big a mess as it ever was. U2 haven't been fashionable since the 1980s, but they know their stuff and perform it better than ever. Formed in the days of post-punk, the band's core sound was one of romantic and spiritual yearning, drawn from the streets of working-class Dublin, and once it reached stadium-filling status it stayed there.

Not that things weren't a struggle in the early years. Jools Holland, then with Squeeze, remembers sharing a bill with Bono and co at the Hope and Anchor in Islington. "There was, literally, a bloke and his dog in there," says Holland. "The bloke left. Then the dog left. So the only audience for us was U2, and the only audience for U2 was us."

Glastonbury was fortunate to see the best of them. Even if some in the crowd would have preferred not to see them at all.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2011

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on June 25, 2011 10:50 PM.

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