MUSIC

From street punks to rock idealists

NICHOLAS JENNINGS November 2 1987
MUSIC

From street punks to rock idealists

NICHOLAS JENNINGS November 2 1987

From street punks to rock idealists

MUSIC

He resembles a wounded hero in a revolutionary war. Dressed in a waistcoat and laced knee-high leather boots, the ponytailed singer marches around the stage to a steady drumbeat with one arm in a sling—the result of a fall. While his compatriots keep the tempo, he asks for a volunteer from the audience to join them on guitar, quickly enlisting an eager young man in the front row. With that grand gesture, Bono—lead singer of the band called U2—has won another battle for rock ’n’ roll hearts and minds.

It is every rock fan’s fantasy to perform with his musical heroes—and members of Ireland’s U2 are contemporary heroes of epic proportions. Their concerts are legendary displays of passionate pacifism and militant conviction. Their songs are stirring anthems that promote global peace. The band that began as a quartet of Dublin street punks is now the transatlantic answer to Bruce Springsteen, waving idealism’s banner at the front ranks of rock. Critics now compare U2 with the giants: Robert Hilburn of The Los Angeles Times has likened the band to The Rolling Stones at their peak, and he adds, “U2 is now the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.” But that success causes even some of the group’s most loyal fans to express concern over whether U2 can walk the fine line between morality and stardom.

The group’s rise has been sudden and dramatic. Its fifth album, The Joshua Tree, was released last March. Since then U2 has shot from cult status to pop music’s stratosphere. For much of 1987 the album occupied the No. 1 spot on international record charts. This week, as domestic sales passed the coveted one-million mark, Canada outstripped both the United States and Ireland, with the highest concentration of U2 record buyers in the world. Meanwhile, the group has gone from playing modest 6,000-seat arenas to vast 60,000-seat stadiums— usually filled to capacity. Concerts in Montreal and Toronto last month sold out as fast as computers could handle orders. And tickets for the group’s Nov. 12 show at Vancouver’s B.C. Place were gone in less than three hours.

The group’s Canadian followers, like their global counterparts, share a devotion that borders on religious fervor. That matches the band’s own brand of spiritual, socially committed rock ’n’ roll. Heirs to Ireland’s violent history and passionate culture, U2 has forged its own

fiery blend of stirring Celtic-flavored vocals, ringing guitars and thundering drums. Three of the four members—the charismatic Bono, 27, (real name: Paul Hewson), wiry guitarist David Evans, 26, better known as the Edge, and drummer

Larry Mullen Jr., 26—are self-proclaimed Christians. All—including gregarious bassist Adam Clayton, 27—are resolute pacifists who refuse to take sides in the Irish civil war.

Instead, U2 carries its message of peace and personal salvation into rock arenas and makes high-profile appearances at political benefits. Yet stardom-even that based on an image of

integrity—invariably forces artists to make sacrifices. Now, U2 cannot afford to meet its fans after concerts. In an interview with Maclean's, Clayton said: “Being constantly pursued has become pretty hard to deal with. Pri-

vacy is now almost impossible.” Added the Edge (Evans): “We’re still figuring out how to cope with stardom. But, ultimately, it’s out of our control.” Superstardom creates its own scale: organizers of the current tour have scheduled stops only in the biggest centres, bypassing fans in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Halifax and other cities. Peter Axnick, a 17-year-old Dartmouth,

N.S., high-school student, has collected more than 5,000 names on a petition, trying to persuade the band to play in Halifax—so far without success. Next week an estimated 1,000 Winnipeg fans will travel 700 km to Minneapolis, Minn., to see the group perform. Bono acknowledged the problem last month during the group’s Toronto concert, telling 60,000 fans who braved nearfreezing temperatures at Exhibition Stadium: “We made a big mistake playing only three dates in Canada.”

Members of U2 also acknowledge that playing in cavernous stadiums risks one of the very qualities —an intimate connection with the audience— that sets them apart. So far, few critics have detected problems. The Montreal Gazette’s John Griffin described the group’s show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium as “a performance of messianic proportions that was easily a match for the Big O’s daunting dimensions.” But the Edge continues to voice concern:

“We’re kind of forced to do stadiums now. As for how you communicate songs in a big space, we’re still answering that.”

Fame has also begun to change the the group’s internal dynamics. Bono now rarely makes himself available for interviews, saying that too much singular attention could threaten a supposedly democratic collective. And he has renounced stage gestures that were misinterpreted by audiences. In past concerts, Bono waved a giant white banner as a statement against violence and nationalism. But crowds soon began flagwaving back, in some cases using Irish flags—demonstrations of the very nationalism to which the band objects.

There is also the issue of how U2’s phenomenal success this year will affect a band that disdains commercialism. Historically, high-rolling rock ’n’ roll has exacted a heavy toll on performers: pressured to churn out more hits, bands often crumble amid an indulgence of sex and drugs, and squabble over creative formulas and money. As the Edge himself once said, “The biggest threat to this band, or any other band, is financial success.” Still, U2 is very much a commercial success. A recent issue of Forbes magazine estimated the group’s

1987 gross income at $38 million and listed U2 as the 11th highest-earning artist in show business.

A decade ago the prospect of making that kind of money from music looked remote to Mullen, then a Dublin highschool student. Still, he hopefully posted a note on his school’s bulletin board inviting would-be musicians to form a band. What his recruits—Hewson, Evans and Clayton—lacked in musical skill, they compensated for with raw energy.

By the time U2 released its third al-

bum, War, in 1983, the band had established its swirling, emotional style— and its role as restorers of rock’s social conscience. Two early hits were New Year’s Day, dedicated to Poland’s Solidarity labor movement, and the 1985 song Pride (In the Name of Love), a tribute to slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Veterans of the 1985 Live Aid benefit for African famine relief, the four musicians were also prime movers in last year’s Conspiracy of Hope tour for Amnesty International, the human rights organization that U2 also promotes on its album jackets.

Topical issues dominate The Joshua Tree, including U.S. foreign policy in Central America. On the song Bullet the Blue Sky, Bono’s anguished vocals describe an attack on peasants that he later blames on the United States: “From the firefly, a red orange glow/ See the face of fear running scared in the valley below.” Said the Edge: “America is the battleground now. It’s all the best and all the worst.”

But despite its laudatory reviews, some cracks are beginning to appear in the group’s pedestal. U2’s deadly earnest image led John Rockwell, respect-

ed music critic of The New York Times, to criticize “the pervasively depressed tone” of The Joshua Tree. And established rock artists who know the toll of stardom have voiced concern for the band. Pete Townshend, former leader of The Who, recently told Rolling Stone: “I want them to be enormous. They can bring a unique view to the world. People are falling in love with U2. And you can’t control love.”

Stardom may indeed prove to be the band’s undoing. But close associates say they are trying to chart their own course. Said one of U2’s producers, Canadian Daniel Lanois: “They’re smart enough to jump out of the big-business game if it becomes a threat to creativity.” Springsteen advised them to spend only what they need and ignore the rest. And the band has negotiated an enviable contract with Island Records that gives it complete artistic control and 100-per-cent ownership of song publishing.

Ultimately, the biggest issue facing U2 is whether a young, idealistic band can keep on its own creative and ethical track. But the Edge, like other members of the group, remains confident. Commenting on U2’s recent hit single, he said, ‘7 Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For sounds like a song of defeat, but it’s about hope and belief. God forbid if we ever found what we were looking for. What a horrible experience that would be.”

NICHOLAS JENNINGS in Toronto