U2: Stage And Studio
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MUSICIAN // May 1983

U2

Musician, May 01, 1983

Fred Schruers

Stumpy, princely Bono Vox drives along Dublin Bay, left arm grasping the wheel of his Humber sedan while he uses the right -- temporarily game from a muscle pull he suffered pressing the flesh with a frenzied crowd of punters near the close of a show last week -- to sketch illustrations in the air. He's describing U2's most perilous day onstage, playing before thousands of boozing poor people at Dublin's Inner City Festival. "This was in the open air place called Sheriff Street, where they don't let the police come around -- the kids are on the roofs of these high-rise projects with crossbows. Our tour manager had told us, 'I'm advising you not to play; I'm advising the crew not to go.' They were dismantling our equipment truck before we stopped it."

U2 and their crew voted, keeping in mind Bono's admonition that canceling, with the crowd already gathered, could mean a hellish riot. They decided to go on, even after an inebriated local woman walked off a rooftop and was carted away. They set to playing, winning hearts and minds by degrees as the locals clambered on and around the stage. Finally, "This guy who looked six feet wide, a docker, just walked onstage and stood in front of me. 'Let's twist again like we did last summer,' he said. 'Play it.'

"The whole crowd quieted -- this was the confrontation: were we chicken or not? I must admit, I was chicken. I just stopped the show and started to sing, no accompaniment, 'Let's twist again like we did last summer...' And I looked at the crowd, and all the kids, the mothers, fathers, the wine and whiskey bottles in their hands, started singing and dancing. And the guy smiled."

This is Bono's favorite kind of tale. He likes the smaller victories. The time the band wasn't "bottled" off the stage in Arizona, despite the promoter's warning that the kids there didn’t like opening acts. The 1976 showcase gig at the Hope & Anchor pub in London when the Edge went offstage to fix a broken string and the rest of the band, fed up with the record biz crowd, followed him off and sat down. The overzealous moment in Birmingham when Bono, the Edge and bassist Adam Clayton simultaneously jumped into the crowd, guitar chords popping out of the amps…

Their preferred turf, in Dublin, is the dockside poet's walk known as Lazy Acre. For their "Gloria" video, the band set up on a barge moored in the middle of a dogleg inlet called the Grand Canal, safely across from a cheering crowd of kids and only a stone's throw from home base, Windmill Lane Studios. There, inside of what looks like a drab stone warehouse, is a state-of-the-art audio/video facility. We rattle past the studio, past the Dockers pub where the band often huddles in the "cozy" (refuge for drinking men's wives in unemancipated days) to pull on jars of creamy Guinness stout.

Winter days tend to be mild here, and even as chilling buffets of wind send the seagulls pinwheeling off course in their glidepaths along the River Liffey, the scattered palm trees rising out of the loamy grass along the roadway give Dublin's center a slightly giddy, tropical air. A typical day here brings nothing more bloody than a rugby match. "No, there's no bombs going off here," says Bono, as we pass the Guinness tankers being pumped full of Liverpool's stout ration at dockside. "But there may be some getting made here..."


The Home Front

The conflict in Northern Ireland is part of what goaded Bono and his bandmates to call their new record War, but the concept is not entirely military: "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is not so much about the Sabbath day bloodlettings in 1920 (in Dublin) and 1972 (in Londonderry) as it is about "the trench we build within our hearts"; "New Year's Day" was inspired by Poland's beleaguered Solidarity movement, and the accompanying video uses stock footage of fighting on the Russian front in World War II, but the cut also evokes lovers' separations; "Surrender" deals with suicide in Manhattan. Bono wrote, "A Day Without Me" (on Boy, their debut album) partly in reaction to the news that Joy Division's Ian Curtis had taken his own life. Since then, a school chum of Bono's, having survived electro-convulsive therapy in a Dublin institution (Boy's "The Electric Co.") has "had a go at himself with an electric saw. He told me that there's only two ways out of the place -- either over the wall or just to cut his throat." While visiting that friend during his recuperation, Bono was approached by a second acquaintance from his old school, who informed him the world was going to end on April Fool's Day, 1983. "I'm going through the wilderness now," he said, "but I'm coming into my glory soon. I've picked a good day for the end of the world." Bono summons up the barest of grins. "You've got to laugh. But it's disturbing, and I feel like there's a high level of mental illness in this country. And I think there's a link between that and a kind of spiritual unrest."

This spiritual unrest is hardly alien to Bono himself. The Bono who wrote an entire album as an excursion "into the heart of a child" bid goodbye to an emotionally troubled boyhood only to make October by virtually speaking in tongues, raging for days on end into the microphone inside an isolation booth hastily erected of corrugated iron. "Having had my notebook stolen in Seattle a few weeks before, I had no lyrics written down. So I just tried to pull out of myself what was really going on in the songs. The things you are most deeply concerned about, lying there in your subconscious, may come out in tears, or temper, or an act of violence..."

Or, in Bono's case, in a couple of months of raking through his own heart and mind and spilling the results onto tape. Steve Lillywhite, the young producer who's worked on all three U2 albums, cleared a space for the singer; out of twenty-four available tracks, he left eight open for Bono's resinous wail to resound in. "Gloria" was sung partly in a monotone derived from the recordings of Gregorian chants that U2 manager Paul McGuinness had supplied; some lyrics poured out in Latin, and when Bono dashed out of the studio for a Latin dictionary in order to translate his own disgorgings, he ran into a friend who'd studied Latin and hauled him back to translate. The English words are a supplicating howl describing the exact situation Bono found himself in: "I try to sing this song/I try to stand up/But I can't find my feet..."

"William Butler Yeats," says Bono, "said that once there was a period where he had nothing to say. Well, to say that is in itself a statement of truth about your situation, so say that. I had this feeling of everything waiting on me, and I was just naked, nothing to offer. So I went through this process of wrenching what was inside myself outside of myself."

The song that now frightens him, Bono says, is "Tomorrow." He'd originally thought that the words, with their images of a black car waiting by the side of the road and a dreaded knock on the door, had to do with the killings in Northern Ireland. A few months ago, he realized the song was about his mother's death, which came when Bono was about thirteen. "I realized that exactly what I was talking about was the morning of her funeral, not wanting to go out to that waiting black car and be a part of it. People sometimes say October is a religious record, but I hate to be boxed in that way."

Bono has by now transported us to Malahide Village, a suburb just north of Dublin, where the Edge lives with his family. Edge's real name is David Evans, and his father Garvin moved the family from Wales to Ireland because that was where his engineering business took him. As we pull up, Bono does a fond impression of Garvin singing "If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words" at the wedding of drummer Larry Mullen's father. Garvin Evans answers the door. "Why have ya still got your suit on, Mr. Edge?" asks Bono, gesturing towards the night sky. Mr. Edge, sharp-featured like his son, momentarily tries to look stern: "Somebody's got to earn the crust."

U2 has by now earned considerable crust, which they would split an even four ways if they didn't insist on pouring most of it back into their own recording (thereby retaining creative control) and touring. Their second American tour supporting October was long, hard and costly. But they were determined to find their U.S. audience, and it seemed radio was not ready to help. So they broke one of their rules and took second billing to the J. Geils Band (at Peter Wolf's personal request) for the resultant exposure.

Even though they have had virtually no time off from their 1979 signing until Bono's honeymoon last August, the band refuses to complain. They have a mission, and they are decidedly unified in their determination. "When people ask us what our influences are," says Bono, "we always say, 'Each other.' "


Campaigning

My first look at U2 came in the fall of 1980, just after Boy's release. Island Records' publicist Neil Storey shanghaied me from the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport directly down to Southampton College, where we walked in on U2 a few minutes before a gig. All four band members were twenty-one or younger: Larry Mullen, who organized the band by posting a notice at Mt. Temple Comprehensive School after being kicked out of the Artane Boys' (marching) Band for wearing long hair; Adam Clayton, who Bono says, "couldn't even dance" at the time he picked up the bass; The Edge, who had quickly gone from acoustic noodler to budding guitar hero through a seemingly innate gift; and Bono Vox, born Paul Hewson, with the slapdash good looks and unselfconscious swagger to match his drive. "It had been a long time," recalls Dublin rock writer Bill Graham of an early U2 gig, "since I'd seen a singer who went for an audience that way, all the time watching their eyes."

Their stage show was much too large in scope for that low-ceilinged, underpopulated function room at Southampton College. The Edge's clarion calls on the treble strings. Larry's martial ferocity and Bono's upthrust arm showed an expansive, hot-blooded streak that had been developed naturally in what Bono called "a garage band," as they went from being utter novices to playing in open market squares to the soused and skeptical local teenagers, to the kind of reputation that enabled them—before they even had a contract—to fill Ireland's largest concert hall. They stood against the pretensions of the new wave's ideologues, against the "gop" on U.S. radio, against the elitism of fashion bands like Visage.

They went a long way on Bono's tirelessness, his fervor with a mike in his hand. "When you think, 'Oh, screw it, I'm not gonna climb this mountain,' " says Adam, "he's the type of person who'll hit you in the ass and get you going. It doesn't make you a lot of friends, but it's a great ability to have."

Bono gave the Edge his nickname, but he's a bit cryptic about why. When he's asked, he grasps Edge's long, chiseled jaw and turns it in profile: "the Edge." Then, after a pause: "Let's just say he's on the border between something and nothing."

At one point during the endless rounds of touring, Bono thought he had sussed the Edge's guitar style, and attempted to demonstrate as much at a soundcheck: "I'd been watching. I knew all the settings, I knew his machines, the chord shapes, put my fingers where he puts his, had the volume he has it at, struck it the same way -- and this blluuug came out of the speakers. The road crew just burst out laughing, and the guitar roadie came up and said, 'You know, I've been watching him for the past year and I've tried every day to make it sound like he does. I can't do it."

"Oh, gosh," says the Edge in his disarmingly angelic way when asked how he does it. "I tend to do something with the guitar sound, use certain effects to fatten it, rather than just use it clean—though on War, it's cleaner than the previous two albums. I use the echo in a very concise way -- I try to use the repeats in time with the music. Most guitar players would use the full spectrum of the guitar to get across the power and dynamics, but by using the echo I can get away without using the bottom strings so much. I tend to use three-, maybe four-note chords rather than the full six and to use the top strings, the top end, which gives that distance between the bass and the guitar, and gives me a bit more freedom."

"We started out as non-musicians," Bono points out. "We learned to play after the group was formed. I mean, we started to write our own material because we couldn’t play other people's. Adam couldn’t slap in time when he joined, Edge could play sort of bad acoustic, Larry had his military drumming, and I started singing 'cause I couldn't play guitar."

Adam Clayton concurs. "In the past, when we went in the studio, we simply didn't know our craft well enough. On War you can hear more of the arrangements coming from a bass-and-drum thing; the rhythm section's standing up. That means Edge doesn't have to play as much. On the first two albums, knowingly or not, he was covering up for a rhythm section that wasn't quite mature. We're a much tougher band now." During a playback of War's "Surrender," I catch Adam's eye after hearing a particularly canny bass run. He grins wickedly: "Little something I picked up from Tina Weymouth." Like his bandmates, Adam stoked his adolescent rock fantasies with the likes of Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Television (the Edge clearly carries a few of Tom Verlaine's arrows in his quiver). But Adam's not unmindful of the Stones: "I was just listening to Bill Wyman last week, and he is all over the place with his bass playing, but the one thing he never tampers with is where he doesn't play, and that, I think, is the key to the Stones' sort of sloppy, but rhythmic feel."

When U2 first came on the scene, "atmosphere," sooner than rhythm, was their strong point. To fill in colors the three-piece couldn't provide, Bono and the Edge sprinkled the Boy tracks with glockenspiel, punctuating "I Will Follow" with a knife jammed into whirring bicycle spokes. For October, Edge taught himself piano, supplanting the glockenspiels, and injected searing slide guitar on "Gloria," "I Threw a Brick Through a Window" and elsewhere. (On War's "Surrender" he plays a 1945 Epiphone lap steel guitar he found in Nashville.) For War, the band caved in the soaring cathedral they'd created with Lillywhite, stripped down to a kind of "club" sound, and added violin ("Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Drowning Man") from Stephen Wickham, whom Edge met at a Dublin bus stop. They also imported la-la's from Kid Creole's Coconuts and trumpet from Kenny Fradley. With the abandonment of that big, atmospheric sound came a greater degree of realism in the lyrics, although one cut, "Drowning Man," retains the "wide-screen" feel of the earlier LPs. While his bandmates went on holiday, Edge doctored the song. In a fashion similar to "bowing' a guitar, he set his electric piano at zero volume, struck a chord, then turned it up, for a chiming, modal sound that Bono finds "Gaelic." Adam added a 6/8 bassline, and Larry, for the first time, played with brushes. Something in the song's Celtic feeling set off one of Bono's more forthright spiritual forays, and he allows as to how it may be his notion of God speaking: "You know, 'Take my hand, I'll be here if you can -- I don't want these famines to take place, these car accidents, this world of chance, this is not how I intended' -- but what comes out is also a love song."


Entrenchment

This proclamation arrives simultaneously with a hard left across a narrow concrete bridge. "Bono," says Edge with the air of one used to such notifications, "the windshield wipers?" In fact, the wipers have been grinding away uselessly since a shower ended fifteen minutes ago. "This is my road," says Bono, switching them off. "On the left there, that big house belongs to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. And," he says, slowing down a few yards further along to turn into the driveway of a rather grand home, "it would appear on first notice that I have as much money as Phil Lynott. But you'll notice I'm not stopping at this house. Because I live in the stables." We jounce a few more yards to Bono's cottage on the beach, on the north side of a peninsula known as Howth Head. Tidy, with two windows glowing amber, it looks like a hard place to desert in favor of playing Indianapolis. Inside, we're greeted by Bono's wife Alli [sic], an apple-cheeked dark Irish girl whose smile could be put on a tourist poster to typify the wise, surpassing sweetness of the island's inhabitants.

The couple were married last August, and as we head for Sutton Castle to eat dinner, they tell me about the raucous reception they held there, during which, of course, the band commandeered instruments from the hired help, climbed on a table and assisted local folkie-turned-rocker Paul Brady in playing "Tutti Frutti." Bono was carried about on his brother's shoulders and spent his wedding night in the castle without benefit of electricity (which the band's exertions had snuffed). For U2, it was a celebration of more than ordinary significance -- partly because it was their first work break since their Island signing in 1979, and partly because Bono and Adam sealed an unspoken pact. Since the late summer of 1981, when the band came off the road to slam out the October album, Adam had grown alienated—become, in his own words, "a cynical, sometimes vicious drunk." His problems stemmed from a feeling of being sealed off from Bono, Edge and Larry, as those three grew more and more committed to their heartfelt, but rather private band of Christianity. Bono had been raised in the Church of England, a fairly austere -- Episcopalian -- flock with little resemblance to the near-charismatic worshippers he began to seek out as he entered his twenties. The Edge had similar beliefs, and Larry -- especially after his mother's sudden death in a road accident -- likewise became a committed Bible student. "It is what," says Bono emphatically, "gives me the strength to get up every day and put forth a hundred percent of my energy." October centered on Christian topics. In the depths of this estrangement -- at a time when, as one insider says, "Adam may very well have believed he was about to be kicked out of the band" -- Bono asked Adam to be his best man at the wedding.

Adam, along with band manager Paul McGuinness, now supplies a hearty balance of sex, drink and rock 'n' roll to the abstemious U2. And although he skipped out on War's last sessions, when Bono was putting "40" (essentially a reading of the Fortieth Psalm) on tape, he's entirely at home with the singer's commitment. "It's very easy to be cynical about it, to knock it down. But it exists, for the public, on a heart level you can't intellectualize about, and I think Bono the singer is such an interesting person not because he stands on a street corner with his Christianity, but because of the conflict within him between Christianity and the rock 'n' roll—that's what I find fascinating about him."

It was Adam who stuck around in the control booth during Bono's tortuous October sessions. "I like to see Bono working under pressure, 'cause he's a great improviser, and I think he sings notes, sings words much better when's he's a bit desperate. That's when the soul comes through."

The soul of the twenty-two-year-old Bono Vox is a capacious and contradictory quantity. He'll point out with some reverence that the cover of Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece was shot on the steps of Sutton Castle, but he is a post-punk with little reverence for rock's godfathers. He accepts the praises of Townshend, Springsteen and Jackson Browne with none of the usual, false-modest demurrers. He seems to regard the Clash as politically modish carpetbaggers ("How come the Undertones, from the heart of the trouble spot in Derry, write pop songs about their girlfriends, while the Clash, who come from an art school in London, write about Derry?") and he loathes "the whole elitist vibe" of London's fashion bands. "The whole 1976 'punk rock, man' ethic, what happened to it? The anti-star ethic, the breaking down the barrier between stage and floor, it's all out the window. They're actually saying in London, now, 'Love is in fashion.' That's really wild."

One reason U2 glories in their trips to America is the openness, the non-trendiness, of the crowds. A quick riffle through press clippings from their last Florida sweep reveals Bono tactfully disarming a noisy kid in Tampa ("Florida does not suck. Who says Florida sucks? Are you from Florida, sir? Oh, you're from New York; I see.") and jumping onstage in a Tallahassee club (after being mauled by overzealous girls at that night's show in the county Civic Center) to sing "Wild Thing" with a local band called the Slutboys. Precious Bono isn't. He didn’t hesitate to walk up to future Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald in Heathrow Airport and befriend him (resulting in a Bono endorsement that was a front-page picture story in the Dublin papers). But when we pick up a girl hitchhiking to Bellfield College, from which Bono had once been suspended, he can’t bring himself to tell her he never went back because he became a rock star.

Bono says a simple grace before we dine at Sutton Castle, but it's clear the wine does not taste like medicine to him, and before long he is giving his stage-whispered account of the Hewson family in Irish history proceeding backwards through the famine of 1840 and adducing a rather dubious blood tie to the ancient kings. Bono drops Robert Plant's name in the dust as part of an episode in a bar near the Welsh border. Plant was grabbing Adam's coat and ranting about how much he loved U2, while Bono raptly concentrated instead on a document ordering the execution of British monarch Charles I; at its foot, one of the sixteen signatures was the name MacAodha, the original Gaelic of Bono's family name, Hewson.

Bono's wife looks on indulgently as he holds forth; he got his nickname not directly from the Latin for "good voice," but from the brand name of a certain hearing aid sold in the British Isles -- such was the force and frequency of his palavering. The arm-swinging, stutter-stepping onstage Bono is replaced in conversation by archings of his eyebrow and sly grins, but the energy always shows through. His marriage, says one friend, made life easier for everyone close to him: "Here is this horny, emotional guy who also needs to live as a Christian."

Bono wrote Boy's "Out of Control" immediately upon rising from a troubled sleep on his eighteenth birthday: "I said, 'Well, here we are. I'm eighteen, and the two most important things in my life -- being born and dying -- are completely out of my hands. What's the point? At that point in my life I had a lot of anger and discontent when I couldn't find answers. It was violent, but mentally violent." Thus October's "I Threw a Brick Through a Window" is a kind of screed against the singer's inability to find meanings in his own life -- but a brick is never mentioned except in the song's title.

From the perspective of the recently completed War, Bono would seem to now believe that he has been a bit self-indulgent: "On the first record, the lyrics were impressionistic -- and adolescent. On the second record, with a lot of travel behind me and a lot of experience going through the brain, I used more images -- still refusing to tell the story line, but giving more signposts."


Engagement

With the band's increasing confidence, their songs, which have always borne the simple publishing credit "U2," become more truly four-sided, and their favorite metaphor of a table stabilized by four legs becomes truer. On "Seconds" (which incorporates a chant from the documentary Soldier Girls) Bono and the Edge sing together for the first time on record (and Adam sings his first backup vocal on "Surrender"). "Two Hearts Beat As One," Bono insists, is his try at writing a song that might get covered by Barbra Streisand or Aretha Franklin.

War's clear single is "New Year's Day." It went straight into England's Top Ten on release, and was U.S. FM radio's most added song the week it appeared. Edge's guitar skitters through the verses with a special urgency, Larry's drums (recorded, to everyone's gross inconvenience, in the stone central stairway of Windmill Lane Studios) refuse to let up, and Bono gives one of his characteristically driven vocal turns. "I think we've reached the point," says Adam, "where we have the skill to direct the playing on each song right towards the feeling that caused the song to be written. We're trying to strip away everything until we get to that cause."

Much more than on the previous two albums, that cause is to be found in a territory far afield of Bono's internal philosophical struggles -- tumultuous as they may have been. It's clear he wants to strike a few pacifist blows against war's various engines -- but that doesn't mean he's quit doing battle with music he finds dishonest or irrelevant to the times: "War is meant to be a slap in the face," says Bono, "a slap in the glossy, made-up-to-be-pretty face which is the music of most of our contemporaries."


UTools

The Edge uses a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson Explorer through a vintage Vox AC30 amp with a Memory Man echo "which is a real budget echo, but it works really well; it's functional and uncomplicated." He likes "very heavy" strings, ranging from .011 or .012 gauge up to .056. "My Explorer isn't one of the vintage '58s, it's more like a '76, but it's great in that it has a nice top end without that extra raunch and distortion that a lot of players like in a Les Paul; it's like a compromise between a Les Paul and a Strat." He admits to occasionally using a Les Paul in the studio, as well as an Epiphone steel guitar he picked up at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. "It helps give an 'American' feel to 'Surrender,' on the new album. The Vox amps are like the original Beatles amps, with the original box speakers -- little 12-inchers with a very gutsy middle sound." The Edge is partial to Roland's Chorus 120 amps, because of their "tough, clean sound."

Bassist Adam Clayton favors a Fender Jazz bass played through Ampeg amps, while Bono Vox opts for a Shure SM-57 mike for the vocal chores.

Larry Mullen's drum kit is a Yamaha Studio series with Zildjian cymbals. He notes, "For 'Like a Song,' we wanted a pastoral, Celtic feel, so I got hold of a bass drum and some skins and used my hand instead of my foot."

Musician, 1983. All Rights Reserved.

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