In the community of U2 fanatics I rank somewhere near the bottom of the pile. In my 47 years I’ve seen the band only 14 times, none of their lyrics has been tattooed onto my skin, and I’ve only met the singer once if you call a handshake and brief exchange of words a meeting. That I remember the exact place on my right arm where he placed his left hand is neither here nor there.
Two years ago, when I took my mum to see the band play at Madison Square Garden, we met a French woman in her late fifties who had travelled on her own and queued for hours on the baking sidewalk. As we chatted and shared cool water, she grew nervous about her prospects of finding a prime spot in the front row. Older and smaller than most others in the queue, she doubted her legs could compete against the younger fans. When she told me she was coming back for the following night’s show, I wondered, not for the first time, whether I was a true fan.
Still, those four men have occupied a central room in my imagination for the greater part of my life, and as I stumble now through my middle years, I see only the first signs of their receding into the shadows. Many of their songs, listened to in private, still produce an intensity of emotion that I have rarely found elsewhere in life. Unable to name one way in which they have influenced my behaviour, I have long since accepted that they are part of who I am.
This will be familiar to any passionate music-lover. Our world is full of bands and artists who have attracted mass followings. If the teenage years of my two younger sisters were anything to go by, the obsession still begins in the bedroom, our secret shrine, where proud posters proclaim our first expressions of belonging and belief.
Is that what this is all about? Are we nostalgic for our teenage years and a time of naïve certainty when our young idols offered all the answers? Are we clinging to our youth longer than we should? With pop music it has become socially acceptable to nurse these obsessions into middle age, and many bands quietly slow down rather than formally retire. Economics may explain part of it: people have the money and desire to keep listening to the sounds of their youth, and the market responds. Yet none of this accounts for the sheer intensity of what I feel, still today, when U2 walk on stage and I hear the noise that greets them. It doesn’t explain what the songs do to me more than 30 years since I heard those first three chords.
E-A-D. Something happened in those first three seconds. A big bang: the creation of something new and expanding, and a world that would never be the same again. E-A-D. Or perhaps D-N-A? Something entered my body, through my ears, and invisibly, minutely, irrevocably altered my genetic code. Thirty years later, that segment of the code is still inside me, executing a neurochemical function that is as mysterious now as it was then.
E-A-D. I speculate now that I must have been waiting, unconsciously, for this to happen. Some void inside me was waiting to be filled, and the void, whatever it was, didn’t choose the thing that would fill it; it didn’t choose those three chords.
E-A-D. But the three chords got there before anything else and, once inside, they were not going to let go. 14 years old, I couldn’t have grasped their force or endurance. Today, at 47, I think I have some of the answers but I’m happy to accept the mystery of it all: the mystery of music, performance and worship.
Where the Streets Have No Name
“Thank you, U2” whispered Radio One’s Annie Nightingale into my bedroom on a Sunday night in March 1987. This was the bedroom from which I used to phone my dad on a Friday night, eyes closed, head turned to the floor, breaking the news that I wouldn’t be able to see him the next day, waiting for his voice’s resignation at the other end of the line. My step-dad had decided I should start to spend less time with him; perhaps I could see him after school during the week; a whole Saturday was a bit too much.
But Sunday night was for Annie Nightingale and her husky tones, cosy chat and professorial knowledge of music, and for this particular show, she had promised something special. In a secret and subversive manoeuvre – in a way that today’s kids wouldn’t comprehend – she possessed a copy of U2’s new album, The Joshua Tree, one day before it went on sale, and she was going to play three tracks from the record. Before it went on sale. Three tracks. Mayhem.
How many were we that night, immersed in Britain’s radio waves, eyes fixed on the dial, huddled witnesses to a secret nocturnal broadcast? How many of us were feeling nervous, not only in anticipation but also in fear of disappointment? If these new songs were not good, no, if they weren’t the best pieces of music that had ever been written, then what would we do? Where could we go?
Where the Streets Have No Name is not really a song. Played live at every one of the band’s concerts for a quarter of a century, it unfolds into a religious ceremony all of its own. Played very loud in front of seventy thousand wide-eyed believers, it becomes a physical experience: a soaring, stretching, twisting yearning. As Bono once confessed, the lyrics are crap. But tell that to the seventy thousand as they rocket skywards together, propelled by a five-minute belief that this could be the most extraordinary feeling they’ve ever shared.
I first experienced that sensation alone in a room. Lying on my bed that Sunday night, listening to Nightingale’s secret voice, my headphones heightened the sense of a private audience. The faintest electrical hiss, and then slowly those first few seconds of sound rose like daybreak, like a dark moon slowly revolving, the sound at first tentative and uncertain then gathering hope and light, rolling in from a faraway organ in an empty church, then growing louder and finally arriving through a tunnel in the night, while my legs began to stretch downwards, my arms outwards, so that soon my whole body was stretched out by this new sound. Six minutes later I was a taut arch, curved over the bed, and as the song receded and trickled away, echoing back into the night, I finally breathed out and sensed for the first time in my life that everything was going to be alright.
Pop history will register U2 as one of the great performers; it will devote less space to their songwriting and award the ‘classic’ label to only two of their albums, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. None of this will devalue the band’s legacy but rather pinpoint their most enduring contribution.
A U2 concert is neither music nor performance; the audience plays too big a role. I sense it has something to do with ‘communion’. No word better describes the intimate relationship between performer and audience, when both share something that lies precisely half-way between them. The group and their fans come together to make a whole; the band needs the crowd as much as it needs its instruments. U2 and their audience have maintained an unwritten pact for almost 40 years: you come on stage and give us everything you have, and we’ll give you a home for the night.
This is a miraculous machine that produces powerful surges of emotion. It’s an emotion that is deep and lasting, and for those that have made the investment of listening to them over many years, it is a machine that can be plugged in at any moment. Often the emotion takes on a physicality, takes hold of the body, and the band’s concerts reveal how this aspect can almost overshadow the music; how the communion eclipses the words and sound.
One of the most intense moments in any concert takes place before a note has sounded. A series of magical events conspire to transport us to another place, and U2 have mastered this art to perfection. As the clock ticks towards the beginning of the show, the crowd begins to chatter more nervously, checking its watch, standing on tiptoe, craning its neck, looking for signs of readiness from backstage, perhaps an upturned thumb or a secretive nod. We are not waiting to be surprised, since we know exactly what is going to happen. The scores of sturdy pilgrims that are following the show from city to city generously hand out small details from previous performances. We all know exactly when the show will start. Yet still we balance on tiptoe, all of us gradually turning to face the front.
It happens suddenly and simply: all the lights are switched off, and the thousands of onlookers instinctively roar. Nothing takes place, we simply lose all the light around us, and the new darkness sucks an enormous sound out of our lungs. We have been fused in a second into a single bundle of upturned throats. A nonchalant extinction of light tells us that time has almost run out, and everything is now set in motion and tumbling towards its destination. It is a silent message that goes out to a sea of minds and in a second connects them all: this is it, here and now, hold on.
Then comes a second surge as the four men begin their journey from a room hidden away far from the stage. We can’t see them but we know they are on their way. We know that, in a few moments, we will glimpse them for the first time. In both of these moments – the lights and the entrance – we sense a before and an after: light and then dark; now you don’t see them, now you do. Long years of listening to the music and that single voice, absorbing all its emotion – all lived privately inside our separate minds – every part of this universe is now condensed into a single moment of awe and expectation and suddenly shared with thousands of strangers gathered around us as we watch four men walk onto a stage.
Even at my age, this ceremony has lost none of its electricity. The energy at work – stretching me upwards, pulling me on tiptoe, causing me to roar at the sky – results from some instantaneous change in physical state, where sound, imagination and memory accumulated over years suddenly become flesh before our eyes.
After more than three decades of recording and performing, of being scrutinised and judged, documented and categorised, applauded and scorned, no artist can aspire to maintain even the tiniest corner of mystery. If we imagine the band playing the same songs over one hundred nights in the course of one year, we might even accept that U2 are just doing a job like anyone else.
Mystery is important. In the three years between the big bang that was Pride and my first U2 concert, I devoured concert reviews like a lonely disciple living far from the city. Thanks to a photo-book of the band’s early years, published by Dublin’s Hot Press, I succumbed to the mythical account of what happened when U2 took the stage; how the singer would strain every muscle to reach every person in the audience whether it numbered five or five thousand. Who was this man who climbed to the very top of the scaffolding fifty feet above the stage, and what on earth was he doing? It all seemed so strange.
Three decades later, this band has managed to retain a molecule of mystery. Something special lies in the idea that one of their most revered songs – one that many fans would place at the top of their list – is a track that many casual listeners have never heard of. How many could name the soundtrack to the singer’s theatrical leap into the sweaty Wembley crowd at ‘Live Aid’?
Bad, like much of U2’s most affecting work, is not a song. You can hum the tune or recite its lyrics, but until you’ve seen the band perform it live, and seen the effect it has on both singer and audience, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of what unfolds in those six minutes. This is not to suggest the band created a unique piece of music, and I cringe at how a music teacher might dismantle its workings to reveal just another anthem built around a slow-burning crescendo. But in a world that likes categories, I think Bad stands on its own.
Played live, the song is announced by a crystal bell that revolves hypnotically above our heads; a guitar both mournful and defiant lifts its brow to the sky and begins a simple chant that whirls in a circle and ends on tiptoe, only to start over again and again; the voice begins uncertain and apologetic from bended knee, “If…”, and offers a plea; a drum arrives to thump out a simple heartbeat, then trips into its stride, and the room begins to revolve. This sensation of slowly revolving yet marching forward at the same time begins to gather pace, while the guitar repeats its same simple chant to the sky, and the voice gathers strength and some anger and it too raises itself to its feet and marches forward, all the sounds and movements now orbiting towards a moment of departure and release when the voice, standing exhausted to face a barrage of chaotic drumming, finally lets go and falls silent, leaving the guitar to continue its chant that has now become feverish, relentless and ecstatic, and while the sound goes round and round and round, the bass and the drums march on unstoppable. I never want this to end.
What does all of this mean now, at the end of 2017? How long will these songs continue to produce such emotion? How long, for that matter, will the band want to carry on?
When it comes to resilience and appetite, U2 have always talked a good game, often claiming their best is yet to come. I’m probably not the most demanding critic but some of their recent material has reached the heights of old: Moment of Surrender, Iris and Landlady will surely find their place in the canon, bringing a melancholy that befits the band’s stage in life. Iris works its way towards the death of the singer’s mother and the final 30 seconds are breathtakingly poignant. In Landlady, gorgeous and poised, the singer finds the lyrical power of domesticity – “And when the doorbell rings, you tell me that I have the key, I ask you how you know it’s me” – and the song enters the sublime at 2’48”.
When today the band play their oldest material – the sweaty thumping pub rock of 1979 – it thunders and crackles. Nothing has aged here. The band’s respect for all of their work is endearing: they inhabit their songs and walk around inside them, sometimes stopping to rearrange furniture like a family in its own home. But I know we have long since entered a time when the new album and tour could be the last. Songs of Innocence and now Songs of Experience, their covers displaying younger members of the band’s family, appear to complete a circle started almost 40 years ago by Boy, their debut. Sometimes I rehearse how the news will break one day on the radio, “U2 have this morning announced…” I imagine myself buying a plane ticket for Dublin.
But I’m still here, hanging on, hoping there might be one great album to come. I know it can’t happen but that doesn’t matter. U2 have been a beautiful, joyous and uplifting presence in my life for more than 30 years, and I’ll carry them with me all the way to the end. The new music cannot match the old – can it ever? – but tell that to the seventy thousand when they switch off the lights at nine p.m. and Bono, Larry, Adam and The Edge leave the dressing room and head for the stage.