U2's success moves in mysterious ways

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By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If the music industry were a game, U2 would have a royal flush, own Boardwalk and Park Place and -- if you'll pardon the militaristic imagery -- would be sinking everyone else's battleships.

Thirty-five years after forming in Dublin, U2, which plays the penultimate show on its 360° World Tour at Heinz Field Tuesday, can make a case for being the most popular, most universally loved band in the world.

It has sold more than 150 million albums (seventh all time among rock bands) and has won more Grammy awards than any other band (22), and this year 360 surpassed the Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang tour as the highest-grossing concert tour of all time.

On top of that, as pop music's leading activist and ambassador, frontman Bono almost certainly has a handful of world leaders on his speed dial.

Which brings us to a simple question: Why U2?

When we first started hearing "I Will Follow" on college radio in the fall of 1980, U2 was just another good band among scores of others in the post-punk renaissance.

In the wake of the revolution spawned by the Sex Pistols and Clash in England, and the Ramones, Talking Heads, etc., in New York, there was an explosion of great bands on college radio.

Sharing the playlist with U2 in 1980 were the likes of Joy Division, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Psychedelic Furs, the English Beat, Echo and the Bunnymen, X, The Pretenders, The Police, The Jam, Gang of Four, Squeeze. They all sprouted as an alternative to such established artists as the Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith, not to mention that wave of "corporate rock" bands such as Boston and Journey.

U2 arrived with an air of grandiosity and a guitar sound, loaded with echo and delay, that The Edge borrowed somewhat from Keith Levene, of Johnny Rotten's post-Pistols band Public Image Limited.

"Their youth, their serious air and their guitar sound are setting a small world on fire, and I fear the worst," wrote Robert Christgau, the dean of rock critics, going on to call them lyrically "bubble-headed."

Played The Decade in '81

When U2 hit the shores of the Monongahela for the first time in April 1981, it played the late legendary rock club The Decade in Oakland. Karl Mullen, who fronted the opening band Carsickness, once told the PG that he thought they were "dreadful," playing "I Will Follow" multiple times and pulling off some corny stunt where they bummed a lighter and turned the lights down for one of their moodier songs.

Niall Stokes, the editor of Hot Press since 1977, saw it differently. The Irish music magazine saw the greatness in U2 from day one and even played a role in connecting the band with its longtime manager, Paul McGuinness.

"U2 were different on so many levels to their contemporaries in Ireland and in Britain," Mr. Stokes says. "They were only taking their baby steps as a band the first time I saw them, but even then they stood out. There was an intensity about them that was special. They had a very distinctive sound that owed little or nothing to the prevailing musical fashions. There was clearly a poetic instinct at work in the songs. And they were willing to take risks, bringing a theatrical flair to their live shows."

He adds that the band was "hugely ambitious" and "serious about what they were doing." Unlike most rockers of that or any era, three of them were devout Christians who almost gave up the band over the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. There were no drug parties or TVs flying through windows.

"We had a big party planned after," Mr. Mullen recalled, "and we had about 10 kegs of beer, and they wouldn't come. They were into, like, drinking milk and going to bed early."

Perhaps that's what allowed U2 to play upward of 70 shows in North America alone on its early tours.

"A lot of the British bands at the time were especially ignorant and condescending in their attitude to America -- and got short shrift there as a result," Mr. Stokes says. "U2 -- and this is also something that distinguishes them as individuals and as an organization -- were far more intelligent, recognizing from the outset that the United States is a huge and complex place where they would have to spend time touring, building up a fan base, and winning hearts and minds in the media and especially on radio, if they were going to succeed."

By the time U2 returned to Pittsburgh in May 1983 (to the Fulton Theater, now the Byham), the foursome had taken a huge step toward full-on epic rock heroics. Following the wispy sophomore record, "October," U2 had released the fiercely pacifist "War," which found Bono sporting a glorious mullet and marching around on stage waving a white flag on "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

It was a striking, iconic moment -- until you saw it a million times on MTV, courtesy of that "Live at Red Rocks" video.

A different sound

Right at the point where Bono and company were approaching self-parody, U2 displayed an instinct for survival and self-awareness that has served the band to this day. Concerned that it had become too "shrill" and "sloganeering," U2 summoned production wizards Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to help them craft a more textured and ambient sound for 1984's "The Unforgettable Fire."

Paul Cramer, a deejay who was spinning U2 on the local alternative station WXXP in the mid-'80s, says, "Like all bands and singers that last, they changed with the changing times, adapting other styles and mixing it with their own."

"They had something to say and went about saying it with conviction," Mr. Stokes says. "They were also good listeners. Where so many bands in the late '70s and early '80s were arrogant and aggressive in their stance, U2 were open, curious and anxious to learn from people of greater experience."

Coinciding with "The Unforgettable Fire" campaign was a graduation to arenas (Civic Arena in April '85) and a positively show-stealing performance at Live Aid that had Bono climbing off the stage and mixing it up with fans. At the time, you just didn't see a whole lot of that. Bono's work with Band Aid and his exploratory trip to Ethiopia would launch his decades-long commitment to humanitarian causes in Africa and Central America, adding weight to U2's image on and off the stage.

Despite a new wave of bands on the scene -- from R.E.M. to the Smiths to The Replacements -- U2 was only just warming up, preparing to drop its 800-pound gorilla, 1987's "The Joshua Tree." It sold a whopping 25 million copies, won the Album of the Year Grammy, gave U2 its first No. 1 single ("With or Without You") and placed No. 26 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

"While many of these songs are about spiritual quests -- 'Where the Streets Have No Name,' 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' -- U2 fortify the solemnity with the outright joys of rock & roll," the magazine wrote.

They were fortifying that solemnity in football stadiums in the fall of 1987 (Three Rivers Stadium in October). As Scott Blasey of Pittsburgh band The Clarks says, "They were the band that bridged the gap between classic rock and alternative rock."

Another change in the music

The band cemented that bridge with "The Joshua Tree" and subsequent live album/film project "Rattle and Hum." But, again, those two efforts were so prevalent for so long that U2 burnout was setting in again. Toward the end of the Lovetown Tour in 1989-90, Bono even said from the stage "we have to go away and ... dream it all up again."

With alternative rock shifting toward more metallic or industrial bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction, U2 adapted again with the more abrasive, less earnest "Achtung Baby" and the post-modern Zoo TV Tour.

By this point, most of U2's 1980 counterparts had either broken up or faded away, but the Dubliners, with their original lineup intact, were still armed to take on the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams of the world -- in leather and glam, rather than flannel.

As the '90s wore on, U2 upped its electronica quotient, to a fault on "Pop" and the kitschy PopMart Tour, one of the band's rare missteps. The one benefit of taking a risk and misfiring is that you can push the perennial "return to form" button, which U2 did in 2000 with "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (led by joyous anthem "Beautiful Day") and its stripped-down Elevation tour, which would also rock the Super Bowl halftime.

While people aren't looking to U2 for game-changing innovation, its new-millennium efforts (including "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and "No Line on the Horizon") have been the sound of a sure-footed veteran band comfortable in its own skin. And, of course, the albums go right to the top of the charts -- an extraordinary feat for a rock band made up of guys in their 50s.

Whether they sold 10 copies or 10 million, it wouldn't matter that much, because, when it comes to being a concert band, the 2005 Rock and Rock Hall of Famers share that stratosphere with the Stones and Springsteens (and Taylor Swifts) of the world.

The 360 tour, which began in 2009, is the highest-grossing tour in history, expected to hit more than $700 million and play to more than 6.6 million fans.

As Mr. Stokes notes, the band's initial commitment to building a concert audience "has repaid itself a hundred-fold. Having forged a bond with them, the people who fell in love with the young, idealistic, exploratory band on those first tentative steps in the U.S. have stuck with them with incredible loyalty."

When it comes to U2, loyalty seems to be intrinsic.

"I was certainly aware of their loyalty within their operation and, for that matter, loyalty to the people around them," producer Lanois told the PG last month. "So, even though I never forecast what they might be doing, I certainly thought they were a group that would stick together as comrades."

The Clarks, one of Pittsburgh's most popular bands, started out playing covers of U2 songs, among other bands from that era. Guitarist Rob James says he bought "Boy" when it came out, when a lot of his other friends were still listening to Kiss.

He recalls that he wasn't sure what he was listening to at first, but he knew he liked it and what he recognized in U2 was "utter dedication and drive -- in a spiritual way. There was something really different and powerful about what they were doing. They had something that was motivating them beyond fame and fortune and things like that. When you have that kind of motivation, you tend to focus on the things that inspire you, instead of getting caught up in that area where commercialism meets art."

Scott Mervis: [email protected]; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg; blog: www.post-gazette.com/popnoise.

Copyright © 1997 - 2011 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on July 24, 2011 9:53 AM.

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