Bono Vox likes to think of himself as a revolutionary, a man with a mission. And when he gets fired up, which is practically all the time, he just loves to talk. If he’s with a group of people, he dominates the conversation. And if it’s just one-on-one, the other person is lucky to get a word in edgewise. It’s like the boy can’t help it; he’s got to spread his message.
Right now, as he and the other members of U2 are airborne, flying from a show in London to one in Glasgow, Bono is on a real roll. The matter at hand is why he feels U2 is a special band, and why it is that they’ve developed such a strong following on both sides of the Atlantic. At a time when pop music is dominated by swishy, style-soaked synthesizer bands whose main concern seems to be their ability to make people dance and forget the problems of the world, U2 stands out as a real exception.
For one thing, they’re a rock band in the more traditional sense of the word. Guitar, bass and drums – no electronic keyboards, no computerized drums. Granted, their sound is modern – dominated by Larry Mullen’s boomy drumming and Dave “the Edge” Evans’ droning, neopsychedelic guitar playing – but they’re still a far cry from trendy technofunksters. And War, their third and latest album, doesn’t shy away from weighty issues: its songs grapple with such topics as the strife in Northern Ireland, Polish Solidarity and nuclear terror.
Then there are the band members themselves. Fashion-conscious these guys are not. No pouf hairdos. No photo spreads in Vogue or The Face. Black jeans and a sleeveless black combat jacket will do justfine, thank you. And their lifestyle doesn’t jibe with that of the usual rock & roller, either. Though they don’t support any particular denomination, three of them – Bono, Mullen and Evans – are devoted Christians. Not rabid Bible thumpers, mind you, but if they get bored traveling between gigs, there’s a good chance they’ll pick up the Good Book and read a few verses.
And all those factors, Bono believes, make U2 truly revolutionary. “I think that, ultimately, the group is totally rebellious, because of our stance against what people accept as rebellion,” he says. “The whole thing about rock stars driving cars into swimming pools – that’s not rebellion. People would be very pleased if I did that, and our record company would be only too pleased to pay the bill, because we’d get in the news and sell more records. That’s not rebellion.
“Revolution starts at home, in your heart, in your refusal to compromise your beliefs and your values. I’m not interested in politics like people fighting back with sticks and stones, but in the politics of love. I think there is nothing more radical than two people’s loving each other, because it’s so infrequent.”
There are two Explanations of how Paul Hewson came to be called Bono Vox. One is that it’s a somewhat skewed Latin translation of “good voice” – an appropriate moniker for a lead singer. The other is that it came from the brand name of a British hearing aid – a device one didn’t need if Bono was around.
“I had the loudest mouth,” he admits. “When we formed the group, I was the lead guitar player, singer and songwriter. Nobody talked back at first. But then they talked me out of being lead guitar player and into being a rhythm guitar player. And then they talked me out of being the rhythm guitar player and into just being the singer. And then they tried to talk me out of being the singer and into being the manager. But I held on to that. Arrogance may have been the reason.”
U2 came together in 1978 at the Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. Larry Mullen was the only member with any musical experience, having played drums in a local marching band. When he was expelled from that outfit because of his long hair, he decided to form a rock group and put a note up on the school bulletin board. Bono, bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist Dave Evans (nicknamed “the Edge” apparently because of the shape of his head) and his brother, Dick, also a guitarist, all responded. (Dick soon dropped out to attend university but has since reemerged as a member of a frenzied postpunk act called the Virgin Prunes.)
All of the band members had solid middle- or lower-middle-class backgrounds: Clayton’s father is a pilot for Aer Lingus, the Edge’s father is an engineer who designs heating systems in the family garage, and Bono’s and Mullen’s are civil fathers are civil servants. And all of the families tried to help the boys get their fledgling band off the ground.
Early practice sessions, for example, were held in a garden shed behind the Edge’s house in the Dublin suburb of Malahide Village. “They were all quite serious about music,” recalls Gwenda Evans, the Edge’s mom. “They would come here every morning at about 10 and really work very hard. I used to make them lunch. I was amazed that they took it so seriously.
They may have taken their music seriously, but they found that their limited skills made it impossible for them to perform cover versions of songs by bands like Television, Talking Heads or the Patti Smith Group – the artists that they were fond of at the time. So they decided to write their own material.
Even at this early stage, the band began feeling that there was something special about its music. “When people came into our little rehearsals, they were touched by the music,” says Bono. “The songs that we wrote really did have that spark, that ability to affect people.”
But if they were really going to get the band off the ground, they needed a manager, and the only man they knew of who might be capable of the job was Paul McGuinness. Though his background was essentially in movies – he worked on such feature films as Zardoz and The Great Train Robbery and directed commercials in Dublin – he had also managed a group called Spud. In fact, he even had landed them a recording contract in Sweden, something of a major accomplishment considering the group’s reportedly limited talent.
At first, McGuinness resisted U2’s come-ons. They were so persistent, however, that he finally agreed to go see them – so he could tell them once and for all he wasn’t interested. But the unexpected happened. “Edge’s playing was quite unique,” McGuinness recalls. “And Bono, he just looked the audience in the eyes as if to say, ‘I dare you to look back.’ “And all I had ever seen before were performers who looked out over the audience at some imaginary spot. There was something special about them.”
So McGuinness was hooked, and he and U2 – the band settled on the name after trying out such titles as Feedback and the Hype – set out to get a recording contract. They got favorable write-ups in British music papers like Sounds and New Musical Express, a result of Bono’s canny tactic of personally delivering demo tapes to journalists he felt would be sympathetic to the band’s sound. But they had a rough time convincing record-company A&R personnel. After several showcase gigs in London failed to do the trick, the group decided to put together its own tour of Ireland, climaxing with a show in a 2,000-seat stadium in Dublin – something no unsigned act had tried before. Bill Stewart, an A&R man for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, caught the show and signed the group.
But it was not the end of the band’s rejections. Shortly before U2’s first album, Boy, was to be released, McGuinness received a letter from the A&R department at Warner Bros. Records, the company that distributed their label, Island, in the U.S. “I had sent Warner Bros. a demo tape several months earlier, before we had been signed by Island,” McGuinness explains, “and they returned it to me with a curt letter saying they weren’t interested in us.” So he quickly fired back a response. “I thought they might like to know that they were releasing our album in a few weeks.”
“I feel that we are meant to be one of the great groups,” Bono Vox proclaimed when Boy was released in America in early 1981. “There’s a certain chemistry that was special about the Stones, the Who and the Beatles, and I think it’s also special about U2.”
It was certainly a mighty boast, especially coming from the mouth of a 21-year-old. But the exuberant sound of Boy offered a fresh alternative to both the tired, assembly-line rock of bands like Journey and the mindless, head-banging music of some of Britain’s second-generation punks. As a result, the album was a big hit with critics, and when U2 came to America for a three-month tour, their energetic stage show solidified their following.
The LP sold nearly 200,000 copies, but U2 was still far from being a chart-topping act in America. So when October, the followup to Boy, was released early the following year, McGuinness came up with an idea for a promotional gimmick – get the band a float in New York’s massive St. Patrick’s Day parade. An Irish band. An Irish parade. Hundreds of thousands of people would see them.
Genius, right? Well, not exactly. After McGuinness had made all the arrangements to land the band a spot in the parade, he found out that there was a possibility that the honorary marshal was to be Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger striker who had starved to death the previous year. Both McGuinness and the members of U2 had grown disillusioned with the incessant fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and felt the IRA’s terror tactics were definitely not helping to bring about peace. Surely, the parade’s organizers would understand if the group no longer wanted to take part in the festivities. …
So McGuinness called the friend who had helped the band get the float in the first place. The two got together in a bar in New York, but McGuinness soon got in a rather heated debate about the IRA. “He kept telling me to keep my voice down,” McGuinness recalls. “The place was full of New York policemen – Irish cops – and he thought I was going to get us killed.”
As it turned out, U2 didn’t ride up Fifth Avenue on a float. Instead, they played a show at the Ritz, one of New York’s rock halls, that St. Patrick’s Day. But the whole experience was to have a profound effect on the direction of the band’s music.
Several months after that concert at the Ritz, U2 was onstage in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland and the scene of much of that country’s violence. Partway through the set, Bono took the mike to introduce a new song.
“Listen, this is called ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.’ It’s not a rebel song. It’s a song of hope and a song of disgust,” he told the audience, most of whom no doubt identified the title with the day in 1972 when British troops opened fire on a group of unarmed Catholic demonstrators, killing 13 of them.
Then Bono read some of the song’s lyrics – lines like “Broken bottles under children’s feet/Bodies strewn across a dead-end street/But I won’t heed the battle call/It puts my back up, my back up against the wall” – before continuing: “We’re gonna play it for you here in Belfast. If you don’t like it, you let us know.” The band pounded into the song, a fierce, crushing rocker, and when they were done, the audience wildly cheered its approval.
“It was very emotional,” Larry Mullen says of that first live performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a track on the War album. “It’s a very special song, because it’s the first time that we ever really made a statement.”
Indeed, U2’s first albums hardly dealt with the kind of subject matter tackled by the songs on War. Boy was a look at the growing pains of adolescence, while October‘s compositions had lyrics of a more spiritual nature. It had been the band’s experience with IRA supporters in New York that prompted them to write “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” (In fact, the original lyrics to the song began, “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA.”)
“Americans don’t understand it,” says Mullen, sitting in a hotel restaurant in Glasgow a few hours before the band’s show. Normally the most reserved member of the group, the blond-haired drummer takes on an almost Bono-like fervor when discussing the troubles in Northern Ireland. “They call it a ‘religious war,’ but it has nothing to do with religion. It’s like the Dylan song ‘With God on Our Side.’ During the hunger strikes, the IRA would say, “God is with me. I went to Mass every Sunday. “And the Unionists [the Protestant majority that favors retaining ties with Britain] said virtually the same thing. And then they’d go out and murder each other. It’s very hypocritical.”
In fact, the key lines in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – lines that critics who have viewed the song as purely political have missed – are those at the end: “The real battle just began/To claim the victory Jesus won/On a Sunday, bloody Sunday.”
As the Edge, who initially came up with the idea for the composition, points out, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not a song in which U2 takes sides with either faction in Northern Ireland. Instead, it’s about the futility of war: “There’s many lost,” sings Bono. “But tell me who has won?” Though U2’s members haven’t personally experienced the violence between Catholics and Protestants in the North, they have witnessed the segregation that exists between the two religious groups in their homeland. Indeed, a mixed marriage like that of Bono’s parents – his father is Catholic and his mother was Protestant– is still scorned by many Irishmen.
“In their relationship, they were proof that the bitterness between those two communities is ridiculous,” Bono says of his parents. “I see in both of their churches aspects of things I don’t fully like. But I like to think that I’d be able to go to a Catholic church or a Protestant church.”
Bono was the first member of U2 to embrace Christianity. “When I was very young, I experienced death, and that can wake you up to certain facts,” he says, referring to his mother’s death when he was 15. It was also a death in the family that turned Larry Mullen to God; his mother was killed a few years ago in a motor accident.
But the band members shy away from discussing their beliefs in public. “It’s a personal thing,” says Mullen. “If you talk to a person about it, you should be telling him, not the public at large. It shouldn’t be an angle.”
“People would love to sensationalize our beliefs until they meant nothing,” adds Bono. “Three of us are committed Christians. We refute the belief that man is just a higher stage of animal, that he has no spirit. I think that when people start believing that, the real respect for humanity is gone. You are just a cog in a wheel, another collection of molecules. That’s half the reason for a lot of the pessimism in the world.”
And though the band members had religious upbringings – Mullen came from a Catholic family, while the Edge and Clayton had Protestant parents – they don’t like to refer to their beliefs as a religion per se. “All religion seems to do is divide,” explains the Edge. “I’m really interested in and influenced by the spiritual side of Christianity, rather than the legislative side, the rules and regulations.” So the members of U2 aren’t regular churchgoers, preferring to meet together in private prayer sessions.
And the money-grabbing preachers who bandy about the name of God on American TV raise their ire. “I turn on the television and see some of those people, and I get really scared,” Bono says. “I really want not only to turn the television off, but to throw it out the window. I believe it’s tarnishing something that’s really strong, really beautiful. And when I say to people that I believe in God, they are often bombarded with images of macho gentleman in suits, asking for money. And I go, ‘What am I up against?’ This particular battle is very real.”
Adam Clayton is the only non-Christian member of the band, and there was a time last year when the curly-haired bassist feared he might be booted out of the group because he was “the weakest member” and had succumbed to the temptations of rock stardom, becoming “a vicious drunk.” But those fears were erased when Bono asked him to be best man at his wedding to school sweetheart Alison Stewart last August.
Clayton still enjoys partaking of some of the vices so common to rock & roll, but he says he has also become more stable and more confident about his reasons for being in U2. “I can remember being confused when I first started playing,” he says. “I found it difficult to work out whether the motivation was that I wanted to be like somebody in a band or I actually wanted to do something for myself. It took a couple of years before I was big enough not to emulate someone else.”
As U2 crosses America on its current two-month tour, the real message the band hopes to convey is a musical one. “Music can be more,” Bono says. “Its possibilities are great. Music has changed me. It has the ability to change a generation. Look at what happened with Vietnam; music changed a whole generation’s attitude toward war.” But lately, he feels, music has lost that power.
“I believe that more than any other record, War is right for its time,” Bono says. “It is a slap in the face against the snap, crackle and pop. Everyone else is getting more and more style-oriented, more and more slick. John Lennon was right about that king of music; he called it ‘wallpaper music. Very pretty. Very well designed. Music to eat your breakfast to.
“Punk was supposed to be a revolution, but it wasn’t a real one,” he continues. “It was contrived in many ways, manipulated into a fashion thing. But we believed it. Punk rock fired us into trying to get music back to its roots. And I’d like to see a lot of the garage bands in America revolt. There has to be a garage-band revolution.”
Judging from the response to War – the album has already sold nearly 500,000 copies and is edging in on the Top Ten – Americans are starting to listen to U2. But along with providing the group a larger audience, success will also put new pressures on the band. A group whose members are still quite young – Bono and Clayton are 23; the Edge and Mullen are 21 – is bound to be impressionable. So far, they have managed to avoid much of the rock & roll circus by opting not to move to London, the center of the British music scene. With the exception of Bono, who lives with his wife in a cottage on a beach in Dublin, the musicians still reside with their families. However, that, too, may change in the near future. “By the end of this year, I finally will be able to tell them that they all have enough money to buy their own houses,” says manager McGuinness.
But U2 is not fearful of facing the future. “I think the important thing to retain through life is optimism,” says Clayton. “It doesn’t have to be something that you necessarily get from Christianity. You just have to feel that way about life.” And they try to project that feeling through their music. “The hope that’s in the music comes from the hope that’s in the band,” says Bono. “I believe it’s time to fight back in your spirit – right down deep inside. There is a great faith in this group.”