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U2 Zoo TV Tour
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U2 Zoo TV Tour

For its first tour of the Nineties, the biggest rock band in the world had one simple goal: to completely reinvent itself as a live act. U2 had just given their sound a full-scale makeover with 1991's Achtung Baby – a groundbreaking fusion of rock, pop, electronic dance grooves and krautrock – and they needed a tour that reflected their sleek, challenging new music. "We were drawn to anything that was going to give us a chance to get away from the Joshua Tree earnestness," said the Edge, "which had become so stifling."

The notion of U2 as the inheritors of rock's social mission had been central to their Eighties stardom. But as the band was well aware, it was increasingly out of step with an era defined by groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who cast a skeptical eye at sweeping Joshua Tree–style rock heroism. For the Achtung Baby tour, U2 were ready to loosen up and throw a dance party, albeit a subversive one, packed with multimedia images that were a clear break from the stark purity of their Eighties stage sets. "The tour was being conceived at the same time as the album," Bono recalled in 2005. "Zoo radio was a phenomenon before reality TV, with so-called shock jocks such as Howard Stern. It was aggressive, raw radio, the precursor to The Jerry Springer Show. The world was getting tired of fiction. ... We wanted to make a tour that referenced this zoo/reality phenomenon."

Extensive cable news coverage was a fact of life by the early Nineties; during the Gulf War, images of Scud missiles raining down on Iraq became dinnertime entertainment. U2 essentially turned the Zoo TV set into a postmodern art installation that reflected the numbing cacophony of the cable-TV era, playing in front of a mosaic of TV screens that mashed up war footage with old sitcoms, cooking shows and everything in between.

Bono, meanwhile, came up with a new, sly persona to match the new stage set. He donned an Elvis-style leather jacket, wraparound sunglasses and leather pants that evoked Jim Morrison. He took this rock star amalgamation and created a character called the Fly. "When I put on those glasses, anything goes," Bono told Rolling Stone. "The character is just on the edge of lunacy. It's megalomania and paranoia."

Zoo TV opened in Florida on February 29th, 1992. If the staging and Bono's wild get-up weren't enough indications this was a new U2, the band kicked things off with eight consecutive songs from Achtung Baby. "People went for it," Bono said to Rolling Stone later that year. "The first show, you just didn't know. 'How is this going to go down?' And they went for it. I think our audiences are smart and that they expect us to push and pull them a bit. They had to swallow blues on Rattle and Hum, for God's sake! They can take it."

The tour's first leg coincided with the 1992 presidential race, and every night from the stage Bono called the White House and asked to speak with President Bush. "Operator Two and I had a great relationship," Bono said. "She tried not to show it, but I could tell she was very amused, as we rang her night after night."

Bush never took the call, but a young Arkansas governor was all too happy to talk to the band. U2 met with Bill Clinton in Chicago in September 1992 during the tour and forged what became an enduring relationship. The sitting president was unmoved. "I have nothing against U2," Bush told a crowd in Bowling Green, Ohio, that month. "You may not know this, but they tried to call me at the White House every night during their concert. But the next time we face a foreign-policy crisis, I will work with John Major and Boris Yeltsin, and Bill Clinton can consult with Boy George."

For opening acts, U2 chose artists who enhanced the idea of the band as a gathering point for pop music in an increasingly fragmented era – from Public Enemy to the Ramones, Velvet Underground and Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder was initially skeptical about the scale of Zoo TV, but he came around. "[I eventually] understood that these weren't decisions they were making out of fashion or simply being clever," Vedder said. "It was like an edict they'd created as a new philosophy for the group, to really explore the avenues of connecting to people on a large level."

During a break in early 1993, U2 recorded Zooropa, which took the experiments of Achtung Baby further. When the tour resumed, Bono devised a new character: MacPhisto, a devilish figure with white face paint and horns. "The character was a great device for saying the opposite of what you meant," said the Edge. "One highlight was calling the minister of fisheries in Norway, young Jan Henri Olsen, to congratulate him on whaling, which was forbidden by the European Union but legal in Norway. He actually took the call and invited Bono to come and have a whale steak with him."

Those phone calls became a major part of each performance – some nights Bono ordered pizzas for the crowd; on another he rang Madonna on her cellphone (she didn't pick up). As venues got bigger, U2 kept things intimate by adding a miniset to the show, playing on a tiny stage.

The wall-to-wall video screens also set the scene for every pop spectacle that followed, from Lady Gaga's Monster Ball to Kanye West's Glow in the Dark Tour. "Zoo TV wasn't a set piece, it was a state of mind," said the Edge. For Bono, the experience was life-changing: "I've had to stop 'not drinking.' I've had to smoke incessantly. I've learned to be insincere. I've learned to lie. I've never felt better!" A.G.

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