21 September 2004
Astonishing, Rococo Postmodernism
... is how Willie Williams' work with U2 is described in a new book exploring U2's history of live performance.
Edited and compiled by photographer Diana Scrimgeour, at the weekend The Observer Magazine in the UK carried an extract from the book by cultural critic Michael Bracewell.
'For more than 25 years, U2 have pushed the boundaries of live performance in spectacular fashion. In an exclusive extract from the first authorised account of the band's touring history, Michael Bracewell explores the tensions between music, theatre and technology that produce such memorable and emotional shows.
1979, at the Dandelion Market beside Dublin's Gaiety Green flea market, an up-and-coming local band called U2 played an outdoor concert to a largely teenage audiencewho were unable to see them when they played at the neighbouring, licensed, McGonagle's club. And in this little scrap of history, perhaps, can be found the beginnings of U2's founding attitude towards live performance.
First, U2 are a band who pursue a particular, visceral intimacy with their audience. (Hence, you imagine, Bono's admiration for the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Morrissey.) Even 15 years after their Dandelion Market gig, when the group were touring the epic, multimedia presentations of Zoo TV to some of the biggest venues in the world, their entire performance would be geared towards creating a one-to-one bond with every individual in the audience. They don't want anyone excluded.
Second, they are a group for whom performance is always in some way political - no matter to what extent they package those politics in extravagant display. So back in 1979, by playing the outdoor shows especially for their younger fans, U2 were also making a statement about access and exclusivity: that inherent in pop and rock, as the writer Dave Marsh has stated, is the drive to give a voice and a face to the dispossessed.
Third, U2 have pioneered live music as a spectacle. And within the spectacle of a U2 show is an accumulation of technical, aesthetic and theatrical devices, the combination of which might be seen as part ritual and part rally: a sensory bombardment of sound and image not only to heighten the drama and the meaning of the music, but also to enfold the audience within its world - to appeal to both head and heart; to thrill, but encourage the questioning of why we are thrilled. And again, back in 1979, near a flea market in Dublin, what better way of prompting all these notions than by playing raw, punk-based rock - as U2 were known for then - not just in a smoke-filled club but right out there on the street?
When U2 emerged off the back of the British punk rock scene, they were part of a generation of groups who made confrontational and lyrically smart music. This was a generation which might be said to include, from Ireland, both Stiff Little Fingers and the Undertones. Raw-throated and guitar-driven, yet seeming to stem from a much older sensibility of Irish folk music, these were groups for whom songwriting was steeped in both the traditions of romance and the political conscience of social realism. While SLF were the more musically aggressive and the Undertones delivered a gorgeously contorted interpretation of the classic pop love song, it was U2 who seemed to possess an almost unlimited potential to work on a global scale within the medium of rock music.
In the late 1970s, the live music scene which had been created by punk was a complex network of clubs and halls - many of which were little more than shabby local discos, handed over for the night to what the management would bill as 'new wave' groups. Bands like Prag Vec, Reluctant Stereotypes or Clock DVA appeared to be on an endless tour of such venues; but for U2, one particular night, supported by the Blades at a club called the Baggot Inn, in Dublin, their performance caught the eye of a Sounds journalist who noted Bono's compelling style: 'You follow Bono with your eyes as he counts on his fingers or runs across the stage or spontaneously mimes something that is impenetrable but opposite to the moody, fat rolling sound ...' This was astute, for as U2 progressed from their punk beginnings to a broader, more monolithic concept of music, there would remain at the centre the vital tension between Bono's inherent theatricality and the urgent, galloping tempo of the music. In many ways, you could say that Bono's range and intensity as a performer is more than partially enabled by the sheer physicality of U2's brand of rock. For there is a particular dandyism to Bono's performance, the disquieting style of which would be perfectly framed by the astonishing, rococo postmodernism of their later multimedia shows - Zoo TV and Popmart - designed by Willie Williams.
On an evolutionary scale, the shows designed by Williams might be said to represent a highly developed form of rock theatre, calling on inspiration and influence from a range of media from fine art to advertising by way of cinema and opera...'
Read the rest of this lengthy study here.
'U2 Show' by Diana Scrimgeour is published by Orion in the UK on 14 October at £25.