BONO ON ANTON
To mark the publication of Anton Corbijn's new book of photos, 'U2&i'.
Sean O'Hagan, longtime friend of the band, spoke with Bono about the changing nature of U2's image.
It turned out to be quite a chat ranging from how the band realised that they were only 'self-conscious was when the cameras came out,' and how Anton 'found our masculinity', to which band member in drag looked uncannily like Dame Edna and why 'irony is not the enemy of soul'.
Since being sent to photograph the band in New Orleans by the NME in 1982, Anton Corbijn has been responsible for some of the most iconic images of U2. There was lots for Sean and Bono to talk about and it was such an intriguing conversation that we are publishing it for U2.Com Subscribers in two parts, with the second instalment due next week.
SO: Did you know Anton's work when you first met him ?
Bono: We'd never heard of him! I mean we knew that amazing shot of Joy Division, Ian Curtis sitting on a wall. We didn't make the connection. We liked him immediately 'cos he bought a round of drinks. Usually, it's the record company who pays but he insisted on paying. It's the little things that matter.
He's an independent spirit, Anton. In a lot of ways he sketched out some of the terrain for us. His famous shots of Captain Beefheart were done at Joshua Tree. I guess there was a kind of Wim Wenders 'Paris Texas'/ Sam Shepherd 'Motel Chronicles' thing in the air, and it was Anton who sent us down that dusty road.
SO: Did he tutor you in terms of look and style ?
Bono: Definitely, he tutored us. Our attitude was, 'If you didn't know, find somebody who did'. We knew we didn't know how to be in a photograph. We knew we didn't know how to look good. We were acutely aware of that. Remember, this was the New Romantic era. People were dressing up as potted plants to go out for the night. The cravat had re-entered the equation. And you know what ? A lot of people still looked better than us. Anton helped. He organised us as much as anything. We had this expression, 'everything but it'. That's what we said about a lot of the bands at the time, they had everything but it. The songs were crap but they looked the part. Whereas us - we had nothing but it.
SO: You felt that even at this early stage, you had the self-belief ?
Bono: Oh yeah. When we walked on stage and played together - I'm talking about the times it really worked - people's hair would stand up on their necks. Including ours! That was when it was right. The rest of the time it was the audience who would stand up. And leave. It was hit and miss. Young record company guys would see us on a good night, be blown away, then go back and tell their bosses to check us out. The big guys would turn up and maybe we'd be on a J curve. I know one guy was actually fired for trying so hard to sign us. That's actually true.
SO: You seemed very self-conscious in your early shots, as if you didn't know how to be a rock band. Is that fair ? You didn't have The Clash's totally cool attitude down, say ?
Bono: Well, we tried it, but it didn't work. I think it was actually a lack of self-consciousness. The only time we were self-conscious was when the cameras came out, not when we were on stage or recording. In terms of image, we tried on various guises before we found ourselves. It was a multiple choice questionnaire of personalities for a while back there.
See, when we met Anton, without appearing to direct us, he did so. He definitely gave us a confidence to look good. I mean, the general look at the time was very effete and homoerotic, but we were Irish! We were never gonna be that. We looked like we'd just got off the boat - because we had. In truth, I think Anton found a masculinity in us that was out of step with the time but has stood the test of time. He instinctively got that.
SO: What about the drag shots, I was there for the shoot, in Berlin, recording Achtung Baby ?
Bono: I remember. I remember your face when we came in the room.
Looking at the drag shots now, what's great is how badly we came out of it. I mean, The Edge looks like Cilla Black. Adam looks like Dame Edna. I just look... indistinct. Only Larry looks mildly convincing. Well, sort of. He looks like an automaton female out of 'Blade Runner'. There's a real Teutonic vibe going on there, just like in his drumming. The irony is, he kept wanting to leave Berlin. Hated it.
SO: The drag photos never really surfaced, except in that 'FACE' interview I did.
Bono: And in the video for 'One'. Then, we got nervous. 'One' became a big anthem for HIV sufferers in America. We were raising money for AIDS organisations, saying this is not just a gay man's disease. Not that cross dressing is essentially gay or whatever, but we didn't use the image in the end. We bottled it! The thing that was on my mind at the time was this Oscar Wilde quote, 'The mask reveals the man'. In a way, Zoo TV was a fancy dress party where everyone was more themselves. That's what tends to happen when you dress up. I remember you coming to a party in my house as an orange.
Bono: See what I mean, It's revealing. Mind you, Ali was a dying fish!
I used to be much more concerned than I am now about the way the band appeared in the media largely because we spent 10 years getting it wrong. The image thing just did not come naturally to us. But, as a result of getting it wrong, you pay attention. I suppose we felt guilty that we weren't real rock stars in the 80s. We felt somehow that we were pretending. And we sensed disappointment from other people that we were so awkward.
It was, like, 'Of all the people to become the biggest band in the world, who'd have thought it would be them?' There was a certain sense of, 'Those people don't have the star thing down'. Meaning us. Also, we told people, 'Don't look here for that. We're not cool, we're hot'.
SO: For a while you did that, and then Bang!
Bono: Enter Zoo TV! Then it was, 'What are we afraid of here? Our image?' It was, let's have some fun with image-making. We called the process 'Judo' at the time, it was all about using the force that is used against you.
SO: It was that though-through ?
Bono: We were always very strategic, yes. We were not spontaneous outside of the music. On stage, and in the studio, yes, but not in many other ways.
After 'The Joshua Tree', it was, to paraphrase Oscar again, 'the importance of not being earnest.' Anton's frozen faces on the cover of 'The Joshua Tree' was exactly right for the music we were making at that time. That's his genius: he shoots the music you are making, who you can be rather than who you are. That's a great gift.
SO: This was the moment when you discovered, as you once put it, that 'irony is not the enemy of soul' ?
Bono: Yep. Essentially, we didn't want to be the band that were too stupid to enjoy being at Number One!
SO: And Anton was still a guiding presence in all this ?
Bono: Yes. I think of him as a collaborator, visually. He was visually what Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and Flood were musically. He taught us to experiment. Plus, the other thing that's important is that he's a laugh. Just before we'd become Mount Rushmore (on The Joshua Tree cover), we'd be cracking up. He's a very funny man. Actually, that was another reason for Zoo TV, we finally found an outlet for our sense of humour. We'd had it at the start as a garage band in Dublin, but I guess we tended to take on the character of the music we were making.
(Pat Two of this interview coming soon)
U2&i is published world-wide under the imprint of Munich-based publishers Schirmer/Mosel on February 11th. More here