On the eve of Live 8, twenty years after Live Aid, the band talk about the present - and future - with USA Today.
U2's starring role in Live 8 marks a confluence of anniversaries, writes Edna Gundersen of USA Today. It has been 20 years since the Irish band made a splash at Live Aid, the Africa-relief benefit that inspired the similar Live 8 concerts being staged Saturday. A quarter-century ago, U2 was celebrating its first single and recording its debut album, Boy. By some barometers, 2005 is also the 50th birthday of rock itself.
This could be a nostalgic weekend for the planet's most driven band - if it had a reverse gear.
"I wince a little at the term 'veteran band,' because we're releasing records as popular and as creatively alive as anything we've ever done," says bassist Adam Clayton, 45. "We still get videos played on MTV. Rolling Stone, which tends to put half-naked ladies on its cover, had a very
successful issue with U2 on the cover.
"These things are not the industry norms. These things make people scratch their heads. It's humbling to be in that position."
And unique. The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and other boomer warhorses subsist on tour receipts or catalog sales that emphasize past glories while new music gets tuned out. U2 is the only rock band to survive on top this long without converting into an oldies act. With no mentor or model to guide them, the foursome's next challenge will be sustaining that unprecedented stretch of critical and commercial success.
"Rock bands aren't supposed to last," Clayton says. "We don't want to be in that subdivision called 'heritage,' so we're trying to figure out how to age and not make dull music. You don't want to start having work done on your face just to get on MTV. There has to be a way to be acceptable with dignity."
The Vertigo Tour, loaded with latter-day hits, is on track as the year's highest-grossing trek. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has sold 2.8 million copies so far after entering the chart last fall at No. 1 with 840,000 copies, nearly double the No. 3 debut of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Since 1991, when SoundScan began tabulating data, U2 has sold 29.2 million albums in the USA. It's not enough.
"We are still hungry," says drummer Larry Mullen Jr., 43. "We want the cake, the cream on it, cherries and jam and anything else you have. This is not about playing for our original audience. We are nothing like the Grateful Dead. It's about finding a new audience without disenfranchising the old one."
And it's not just about size.
"I don't want to be in the biggest rock band in the world," says the drummer for the biggest rock band in the world. "I want to be in the best band, and we're closer to that now than we've ever been."
The foursome was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April at the peak of its powers, not on the cusp of retirement.
"We were proud to be inducted, but our focus is not on the past," says guitarist Edge, who turns 44 in August. "It's an honor, but it's slightly off-kilter at this moment. We're not ready to sit back and reminisce about the golden years. We're determined to still be making great music in this
They head into an unmapped wilderness as they attempt to maintain creative and commercial authority in a field of fickle fans, sinking sales and discarded idols.
Chris Martin of Coldplay, the biggest of many acts shaped by U2, says the band is a career model.
"I don't know how they do it," he says. "Just the solidarity of the gang of U2 is really inspiring. There are great lessons there. So many bands I've loved have tripped. They sacked the drummer or did some crazy bad commercial or turned against their audience."
Lasting success brought fame, wealth and boxcars of awards, spoils that tend to invite laziness and boredom to the party. Unless you have guilt as your bouncer.
"We're constantly unsatisfied as a band," Mullen says. "We've got all this stuff, but maybe we haven't earned it. There are contemporaries who have worked equally as hard as U2 and don't have as much success. We're uncomfortable with it; we need to prove ourselves."
He says U2 will survive by clinging to founding principles.
"Early on, we decided to work as a democracy, and we use our votes very wisely," Mullen says. "It's a very transparent process, and it can be brutal, but we get the best out of everyone that way. We made a commitment to each other, to making music that we believe in. Today, it's about ego for a lot of bands: 'I wrote this part' or 'I want a bigger dressing room,' the most childish things you've heard in your life, never musical differences."
Uncharted waters don't necessarily portend rough seas, says Bono, who isn't in a panic over the industry's youth obsession.
"It would not surprise me if this album, depending on which songs catch fire, or our next album will be by far our most popular," he says, noting that many of pop's best sellers are adult-oriented. "The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Shania Twain. They made records for people ignored by the music business, which spends 80% of its marketing budget on 15- to 25-year-olds. We have an enormous audience potentially, if we're up to the task."
Can U2 drop another Bomb?
"I think we can make more extraordinary melodies," says Bono, 45. "I'm just kicking in as a writer. I was just sketching in the '80. I have much more focus, and the band has much more firepower."
If U2 retreats from the mainstream, as it did under the pseudonym Passengers in the mid-'90s, it hopes to do so by choice for artistic reinvention and replenishment.
"If you're interested in pop culture and what's going on, the music just naturally will be relevant," Bono says. "We still make music for virgins. That is the most powerful moment, the discovery.
"I'm always trying to bring myself back to that moment when Bob Dylan and John Lennon woke me up. I'm delighted MTV is taking a risk. They're saying, 'We think U2 can still communicate with our audience.' Even 14-year-olds don't want a diet of candy all the time."