Jan
06
2005

An Audience With...


06 January 2005
An Audience With...
Check the first of our exclusive extracts from the recently published photo-documentary of U2's touring history - 'U2 Show'.

With the announcement of U2's 2005 Tour expected shortly, the focus of fans will shift from the new album to the unique experience that is the U2 live show.

There is no better place to discover the myriad constituent parts that lie behind the live environment created by the four musicians on stage than a widely praised new book by photographer and writer Diana Scrimgeour.

'U2 Show' is a lavish photo-documentary which tells the story of U2's touring history through the eyes of the main players - including the band, key production creatives like Willie Williams, tour promoters, record producers and management.

Ahead of the tour announcement U2.Com will be carrying a series of edited highlights from 'U2 Show' - and a competition in which you can win one of five copies of the book.

In our first extract below, Bill Flanagan, one of U2's most successful biographers, reflects on the band's 'direct, personal, almost confessional relationship with the audience.'

'As record companies encounter new problems with free downloads on the Internet and the crashing sales of CDs, touring has again become the centre of the music business. Earlier in the twentieth century records were something that you made just to promote your live shows or whatever other career you had - movies, television. It was the baby brother. In the 1960s that all changed and record sales began to explode. Now, in the twenty-first century, as record companies contract at an extraordinary rate, the energy and certainly the cash flow has gone back into the touring business. And you see this reflected in a lot of ways. Everybody who was ever out on tour is out again now. You can go and see the Who, Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones. You name it. They're out there.

And while the price of CDs plummets, the sky seems to be the limit for the price of concert tickets. $100 is not considered to be particularly extraordinary. So that's where the money is, where the business is. And that's where people can have a unique experience. Tremendous amounts of music come at you for free through the television, radio and the Internet. But going out to see someone play in concert is still considered to be a great night out and good value for money.

In the time that U2 have been on the road they have ridden this shift. And U2 have demonstrated that it is possible for a band to compete on the biggest level - stadium shows, extraordinary spectacle - while maintaining a direct, personal, almost confessional relationship with the audience. A lot of people doubted that was possible. There's always been a puritan streak within rock and roll, that certain things are sell-outs, phony. Of course, certain things are. But at its best, it can be about the counter-culture coming together, progressive, political ideas, sexual and racial liberation. Big ideas have been attached to rock and roll, and this puritan streak tends to distrust giant inflatable pigs and laser shows. At its worst, that puritanism becomes elitist and that is contrary to the very nature of rock and roll. That elitism says, 'If a lot of people like this, I'm doing something wrong. If the jocks and the frat boys like it, then I must be selling out despite my best intentions.' I think that's self-destructive, but it's always been there. It slid into rock with the old lefties and the folkies who trailed in after Dylan. It erupted with punk rock, with the Clash and groups like that. It erupted with grunge and Kurt Cobain, that notion that if a lot of people like you, you are probably doing something wrong. And if you entertain on a vast scale, if it gets much bigger than a theatre, you're definitely doing something wrong.

It would be hard for anyone to deny that U2 managed to do things that were really big, that were really good, and that retained the core of what their connection was with their audience in the first place. That this is about something bigger than both of us. I remember that Springsteen once said that when he first saw U2 play in a club he knew they would play arenas because the sound was so big. Not just the songs, not just Bono's gestures, which were very big, but the sound made a club sound like it was an arena. The way that Edge's guitar bounced off everything. Springsteen thought that a group with a sound this grand would eventually find a room big enough to make sense. There's a lot of truth in that. By the time of the War tour, with the white flag and the marching and Bono scurrying up the scaffolding, it was clear that U2 was a big group like the Who, regardless of the room. I saw that show in college gyms and in small theatres, and it was a big show. It almost didn't matter what the room was. It was like going to a Led Zeppelin show. It was huge. And yet, they made everyone feel part of it. So, in that sense U2 justified broadness and bigness for a generation that might have been dubious about it otherwise.
It's possible to do a small show in a really big place, and a big show in a small place. You can see Radiohead play outdoors, for example, at some giant festival or over here as they did at the Statue of Liberty, and it's still fairly contained. The music and the way that they carry themselves still suggest an inward-looking performance, and the whole audience leans forward to see what Radiohead are seeing. I think one of the things that made U2 so powerful is that they were never elitist about it. Bono said, probably more than once, that he felt of the bands that came up during punk and new wave, U2 were about seventh in line, and accepted that. Suddenly everyone ahead of them - the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Police, Talking Heads - all disappeared and U2 were left along at the front of the line to gather all the energy those groups had built up. Kind of what Madonna did with disco.

One thing that U2 were not precious about that has been the death of so many bands - from the Clash to Nirvana to Lauryn Hill - is that U2 wanted to talk to everyone who would listen. That's the motivation of rock and roll. Elvis Presley and the Beatles and the Who and James Brown and Aretha Franklin, all wanted to talk to anyone who would listen to what they had to say. It was about reaching everybody. It was about appealing to the nerds and to the football players as well as to the people who wore all the right clothes. U2 didn't have that Hamlet complex that at key moments caused people from Sinead O'Connor to Eddie Vedder to doubt the worth of what they were doing. Or to look into the audience and say 'I don't like that person.' And that's one of the reasons that U2 have been so successful for so long. ....'

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This is an edited extract from Bill Flanagan's essay in U2 Show by Diana Scrimgeour. Bill Flanagan is the author of the book U2 at the End of the World. He met the band in 1980, when he was a music critic for the Boston Globe. From 1985 to 1995 he was editor of Musician Magazine. In 1995 he became editorial director of VH1. He is currently senior vice-president of MTV Networks International. Among his other books are Written in My Soul and A&R: A Novel.
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The thing that's never changed in U2 is the heart of what they do, which is the communication between the band and their audience. No matter how you dress it up, and no matter the size of the venue, that's constant. That's what people come back for and that has never gone away. At times U2 have made themselves and the audience jump through a few more hoops in order to get that, and they've had to adapt it to make sense in a 50,000-seat stadium, but I think that we wouldn't be talking about them if that hadn't stayed constant the whole way through. There's never been a point where they've just gone through the motions.

The core of what U2 do has remained remarkably consistent. The way it's presented to the world has adapted as times have changed. Bono always rails against what he calls the brown rice position, the hippie position on things. But he's got a lot more brown rice in him than he ever wants the world to see. He really does. Look at commercial sponsorship: I know that they've had endless philosophical discussions about it, but in the long run so far they just can't bring themselves to do it. That is ultimately a brown rice position, that's part of what we love about them. Within all of the morphing of the image and the sound and the record production and the way the shows are presented there's this bedrock core of four people who we met in the early 1980s and who we've grown up with. It would be a pathetic thing if they were to come out with the mullets and the white flag doing 'I Will Follow' every night, recreating a moment of glory. But the heart of 'I Will Follow' is alive in all the best work that they've done right down the line. It was certainly alive in the Elevation tour: here's the pure U2. All of their songs can stand next to each other in succession with no trimmings, with the bare stage, with the band walking out in the house lights, and still give you a transcendent experience.
U2 were the first to come up with the B stage on the Zoo tour, the idea of a small satellite stage where they could go out and play an intimate performance after all the hoopla. This kind of staging was immediately adapted by a lot of people - most notably the Rolling Stones, who've done it on every tour since. I remember seeing Mick Jagger in U2 shows paying close attention to the B stage during the Zoo tour.

These days, the tour business is bigger than the record business. And it'll be interesting to see if that turns out to be a good business for U2 in the long run. Touring is extremely unpredictable. It is an interesting moment. And certainly U2 made some very tough decisions before the PopMart tour about cutting their ties with the people they'd always worked with. I think that the biggest problem of all with making PopMart work is that U2 set contradictory goals for themselves. They wanted to do a tour that would be even bigger that Zoo TV and Zooropa, more elaborate. They didn't want to be seen as 'Now we're going back to our roots.' They were very, very resistant to that. They also wanted to come home having made some money this time. But they didn't want ticket prices to be nearly as high as comparable bands were charging or to accept corporate sponsorship. When you put all those things together the math doesn't add up. You can probably do two out of three of those things, but you can't do all three. They wouldn't compromise on any of it, and therefore there was probably trouble waiting to happen no matter what had happened with the album or anything else.

The four members of U2 and Paul McGuinness are a sort of fist - four fingers and a thumb - and that's always been at the core of their operation. It seems unlikely to me that anyone new could come along and become part of that core. But at the same time, I don't know another circumstance where 25 years on an immensely successful four-member band has maintained it's four members without a change and its original manager. That's very, very, very unusual. Maybe U2 is the only case of that happening. And I think as long as that group stays together, then however much the window dressing changes, U2 will remain the band they were in the beginning.

New York City
November 2003