“The only band that matters.”

Those words, declared by CBS, were used to promote the brick-throwing explosion of punk idealism and rebellion that was The Clash. There’s hardly a more compact statement of the scale and impossibility of rock’s sometime ambitions and pretensions than that.

 With the November 23 release of U2’s 11th studio album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it’ll be about a quarter century since CBS first issued that insensibly pregnant slogan. And for 25 years U2 has been finding unexpected answers to the questions raised by those words.

 Their releases consistently reaching the top of the pop charts—the band has never really bombed commercially—U2’s rock rebellion is longer-lived and, well, less rebellious than anyone might have first conceived.

 For U2, it’s not the blast of the Molotov cocktail, but the fervent glow of moral persuasion. With their singular but ever-changing music, their junkets into the avant-garde, their assiduously cultivated popularity, their candor about themselves, and singer Bono’s disciplined expression of the band’s artistic messages in his energetic political campaigning, U2 has forged a vital working definition for a rock band with social principles. It’s a mixture of relevance, worldwide reach and application of the group’s popularity that makes U2 plausibly “the only band that matters.”

 

By the time of the 1991 release of Achtung Baby, U2’s increasing success had made the foursome almost ubiquitous in the global cultural wallpaper of mass-market entertainment and created an uncomfortable relationship with the band’s faith in the gospel of rock.

 At the peak of stardom and in the maw of the corporate music machine, could the band’s heart-on-sleeve spirituality and earnest political conscience be anything more than a vocabulary of superficial poses used to move product? At one end was the singer, cosseted by fame and wealth and deeded a world stage to channel his psyche through time and space. At the other, the faceless, fickle audience of the telecommunications age, inundated, listening or not. U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992 was a bracing reaction to the tension.

 Bono, once Paul Hewson, entered arenas at the beginning of that decade in a new set of guises—the Fly, Mirrorball Man, Macphisto. A preening, leather demiurge; a postmodern Elmer Gantry; the devil taken the form of a gauche, aging Vegas act; Bono reveled in the absurdity of being a rock icon and pointed up the irreducible koan of pop star as preacher—or of being a preacher at all.

 “Mock the devil, and he will flee from thee,” he told Rolling Stone at the time.

 Even more jolting was the way U2 embraced the music video format to transform pop into mixed-media performance art and challenge the channel-surfing apathy of its audiences. Onstage, live and recorded images were mixed with satellite TV news feeds and displayed on giant banks of video screens. Bono made mid-show calls to order pizza and pester the White House of George H.W. Bush. Linkups with residents of the besieged city of Sarajevo became a regular fixture.

 “One of the girls said the thing that we’d always hoped no one would say, but she did,” U2 guitarist The Edge (né David Evans) told Rolling Stone in 1993. “She said: ‘I wonder, what are you going to do for us in Sarajevo? I think the truth is you’re not going to do anything.’ It was so hard to carry on after that. It killed the gig stone dead. It was so heavy. I don’t know how Bono managed to carry on singing. It was such a crushing statement.”

 Another decade since those tours, it sometimes feels as though Bono is still flipping the channels, and somehow, dizzyingly, landing in the frame. There he is in September 1999, letting the Pope borrow his sunglasses and securing an appeal in support of Jubilee 2000’s campaign for third-world debt forgiveness. And again in Ghana in 2002, pressing for dramatic action to defeat poverty and AIDS in Africa on a continent-spanning tour with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. (In a memorably goofy image beamed across the planet, the pair at one point posed in striped tribal robes and caps offered them by a local chief in a gesture of comity.) This September in an interview on Fox, there was Bono dodging Bill O’Reilly’s knee-jerk defensiveness against anything remotely “anti-American” and disarming O’Reilly’s pre-rehearsed case for absolving the United States of responsibility by painting the AIDS crisis as intractably rooted in indigenous problems. And last Thursday, accompanied by The Edge on acoustic guitar, singing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at the dedication of the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock.

 Likewise, U2, the mass-media corporate supertanker, continues to steam along in a sea of schlock. The band has engaged in an unavoidable cross-marketing scheme to promote the new album and the Apple iPod by offering a special version of the player pre-loaded with their music. They’ll unveil certain cuts and a remix on the soundtrack for the CBS television show “CSI.” U2 had already spent 2000 and 2001 applying for the “job of best band in the world,” as they said frequently, with the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and you get the idea that Donald Trump thinks this is going to be huge.

 But Bono also remains the first to parody the irony of rock star philanthropy. He tends to do things like finish off an eloquent description of a humanitarian crisis and its worrisome consequences for geopolitical stability with a sheepish, unbidden aside about the color of his underwear, as though some teenybopper had asked (as he did in a recent interview). When an evidently won-over Bill O’Reilly declared that Bono was “doing God’s work,” Bono responded, “God must have a great sense of humor to have meon board.”

And Bono is an impressive spokesman. Evangelizing across the media spectrum, Bono knocks his talking points out of the park. For example, in a recent interview with Salon.com, he skillfully laid out the pragmatic benefits of providing antiretroviral drugs to Africa in an era when America’s image abroad is at an all-time low: “There’s the political strand. It’s an important thing to do in a world where the flag is being dragged through the streets of foreign dusty capitals. These drugs are great advertisements for America. And they run the flag right up the flagpole—they rewire the way America is seen in the world.”

 In the The Price of Loyalty, Ron Suskind’s account of Paul O’Neill’s tenure with the Bush Administration, Suskind relates that Bono—whom he dubs the “FM Gandhi”—had to pre-audition for his Africa trip with the maverick treasury secretary with O’Neill’s chief of staff. Of his eventual “audience” with O’Neill himself, Suskind writes, “Bono was serious, knew his stuff about AIDS and debt relief and the World Bank, surprising O’Neill.”

 Bono, at least, sidesteps the frequent association of celebrity activists with infantile, empty sloganeering. In fact, the magnitude of the catastrophes on which Bono expends his celebrity capital gainsay cynicism with their sheer gravity. And Bono’s ennobling causes match the sense of purpose and zeal that has characterized U2’s music. In fact, they even make his frequent apologies for being a rock star seem excessive. And even though at certain angles social and political activism is still a confounding role for a band that’s lent a song to the movie Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, U2 has already addressed this joke more profoundly in its music than you probably could.

 When discussing the Right-wing leaders he’s lobbied in the course of his humanitarian campaigns, Bono sometimes tells interviewers that it’d be easier to play to type by “going to the barricades with a handkerchief over his nose.” Bono, The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen met as high school students in Dublin in 1976, and Bono, eulogizing Joe Strummer after his death in 2002, said The Clash “wrote the rule book for U2.” But rock revolution for U2 was never a classist call to arms as it was for The Clash and punk rockers of their ilk. Instead, it’s an appeal to conscience wrought in a majestic amalgam of The Edge’s soaring guitar harmonics and Bono’s full-bore emotionalism and spirituality.

 “Rock music to me is rebel music,” Bono said in 2001 at Harvard’s graduation ceremonies. “What are we rebelling against now? If I am honest I’m rebelling against my own indifference. I am rebelling against the idea that the world is the way the world is and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it. So I’m trying to do some damned thing.”

 

U2’s 1980 debut, Boy, as the title implies, is kind of a sonic coming-of-age tale, appropriating the manic tempo of The Ramones to convey the angst of a restless soul traveling the indistinct boundary with manhood. The Edge announces himself as a developing alchemist of guitar textures on the album’s first track, launching “I Will Follow”—an ambiguous statement suggesting spiritual devotion—aloft in a rush of singing chords and chiming arpeggios. While not sustaining the intensity of the progression with the perfection they’d achieve in later albums, Clayton’s bass and Mullen’s drums nevertheless swell over the course of the song. In “An Cat Dubh,” the textures shift, calling forth a sense of lateral movement and foreboding, paranoia and betrayal. And another mix of guitar tones set the mood for the album’s coda, “Shadows and Tall Trees,” expressing resignation finally abiding self-doubt and uncertainty: “Do you feel in me/Anything redeeming/Any worthwhile feeling.”

 In the album’s deeply personal subject matter, its willingness to delve into the depths of the soul, its unabashed baring of the self and candor over personal weakness, Boy set down many of the pillars of U2’s work: honesty, an ability to apprehend irreconcilable contradictions and a repudiation of dogmatism, and unreserved passion.

 U2’s third album, 1983’s War, draws up in a desperate, anguished frenzy to decry political violence, turning martial bombast into a frontal attack on war itself. The album deploys overtly religious songs like “Drowning Man” and “40” as statements of authority and pleas for redemption. It is strident and righteous, yet simultaneously pacific. In “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which memorialized the 1972 killings of 13 demonstrators by British troops in Northern Ireland and deplored the continuing cycle of violence there, Bono sang, “But I won’t heed the battle call/ It puts my back up/ Puts my back up against the wall.”

 In the concert album Under a Blood Red Sky, Bono introduces “Sunday Bloody Sunday” with the clarification that “this song is not a rebel song.” This iconic moment underlies the approach Bono has taken to his current activism—a focus on building awareness and unity in action, and on knocking on the doors of power regardless of the bitter taste it can bring. Perhaps most noxiously for Bono, who had written “Pride” and “MLK”—a pair of sweet paeans to Martin Luther King Jr. from the album The Unforgettable Fire—were his meetings with Jesse Helms, who subsequently expressed shame at having done “so little” about AIDS. In his Harvard speech, Bono declared he is “a believer in grace over karma.”

 U2’s sound has evolved greatly during the band’s three-decade history. In the hands of experimental producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the Edge’s guitar atmospherics were layered into complex sonic tapestries in 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire and fashioned into spare, moody grandiloquence on 1987’s The Joshua Tree. After a digression into somewhat clunky takes on American blues and soul in 1988’s Rattle and Hum came the industrial funk of the astounding Achtung Baby in 1991.

 

Achtung Baby was an ecstatic peak in U2’s efforts to find transcendence in studio rock, brimming as it is with a heady mix of spirituality and eroticism. Aching ballads like “One” and “So Cruel” blur religious imagery with impressionistic romantic narratives. In “Even Better Than the Real Thing” Bono brazenly importunes for a chance to give his interlocutor an orgasm; in “Until the End of the World” he assumes the character of Judas, reveling in the bitter, rueful sensuality of the ultimate betrayer.

 In Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997) U2 pressed its interpretation of processed electronic sound forward, reaching a metallic extremity in the harrowing “Miami,” Bono’s imagistic deconstruction of that city’s plasticity. But even in “Miami,” it’s impossible to escape the empathy in Bono’s voice, even as the prominence of samples and artificial instrumentation can obscure the continuities in the U2 oeuvre. Zooropa’s “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” is a classicist guitar ballad, for example, and the arena-filling choral transcendence of The Edge’s guitar cuts through albums in songs like “All I Want Is You” from Rattle and Hum, “With or Without You” from The Joshua Tree, and “One” from Achtung Baby. In 2000, U2 backed off the club aesthetic with the rockist All That You Can’t Leave Behind, building 20 years of experimentation and exploration into something that somehow sounded like “classic” U2.

 “Vertigo,” the pre-released single from How to Make an Atomic Bomb, is a studio wizard’s idea of garage revival. The song begins with Bono counting out, “Uno, dos, tres, catorce” and with raygun guitar slashes that quickly give way to chunky power chords, swimming in reverb. Bono pushes out fragmented lines of verse in choppy aspirations and belts out “fe-el” in the chorus. Notes from guitar breaks puncture the air like light off a mirror ball, and a couple passages late into the song sound like they were spliced straight from Boy as more effects and accents crowd into the track. In a blistering performance of the song on Saturday Night Live last weekend, Bono, in customary shades and leather, stubble and a Mickey Rourke slick of hair, punctuated the song with his signature pantomime, pulling at his collar to reveal a wooden necklace while singing “Jesus ‘round the neck” and staggering like a cripple taking his first steps after casting off his crutches to “Your love is teaching me…How to kneel.”  “Vertigo” is about a young band first experiencing the exhilaration of playing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s hard not to think of the U2 of the Boy era, time-warping past the numerous evolutions the band has accomplished over the years. Yet a final passage from boyhood—the recent death of Bono’s father and the singer’s entry into lonely seniority—loomed over the creation of the album, the band has told the press. But what’s important for U2 is the license for renewal, for self-creation.

 In a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone, Bono said that one of the things that appealed to him about the debt-forgiveness campaign was the “chance to begin again, you’re free of the past.” He said, “I think you should be born again and again and again.”

 

Dizzying heights
U2’S RISE TO STARDOM

Fall 1976: Drummer Larry Mullen posts a notice on his high school bulletin board seeking musicians for a new band. Mullen, bassist Adam Clayton, singer Paul Hewson (Bono), guitarist David Evans (The Edge), and The Edge’s brother, guitarist Dick Evans, form the Feedback, later renamed the Hype, and finally U2. Dick Evans leaves the group in 1977 to join the Virgin Prunes, which disbanded in 1986.

September 1979: With manager Paul McGuinness and a deal with the Irish arm of CBS Records, the band releases their debut EP, U2 Three, showcasing early versions of “Out of Control” and “Stories for Boys,” which were to be re-recorded for the full-length Boy.

 

March 1980: On the strength of their growing popularity in Ireland and early exposure across the Channel with their first shows in London late in 1979, U2 signs a deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. The band’sdebut LP, Boy, recorded with producerSteve Lillywhite, is released in October.

 

October 1984: U2 releases their fourthalbum, The Unforgettable Fire, inaugurating the band’s relationship with ambientexperimentalists Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The pair will also have principal production credits on The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

 

July 1985: U2’s memorable appearance at the July 1985 Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief is an early icon of the band’s activist work.

 

March 1987: U2 releases The Joshua Tree, to become the band’s first album to reach the top berth on the Billboard chart. U2 would only fail to repeat the feat once with theirsucceeding five albums: All That You Can’t Leave Behind peaked at third place.

 

August 1991: Sonic-collage satirists Negativland deconstruct U2 the cultural force with a parody of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on the single U2. Triggering the impassive legal mechanisms of thecorporate music establishment with the release, Negativland spends the next three years campaigning to regain control of the composition and compiles the documents of their struggle into a grander statement on artistic freedom in the book Fair Use.

 

November 1991: U2 releases Achtung Baby, marking the band’s turn into dance-beatelectronica, which will continue with Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997). The band deconstructs itself in the supporting Zoo TV and Zooropa tours.

 

September 1999: Bono, as an envoy for the Jubilee 2000 debt-forgiveness campaign, meets with the Pope to secure a blessing for the group’s cause.

 

October 2000: U2 releases All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The album’s classicist U2 feel and redemptive themes turn it into a post-9/11 salve in the highly lauded Elevation tour.

 

2002: Bono and other Jubilee 2000 veterans form the DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) organization to continue their advocacy efforts.

 

November 2004: U2 releases How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, their 11th studio album. A new worldwide tour—35 shows in the United States followed by 30 in Europe and35 more back in North America and closing performances in Japan and Australia—is scheduled to launch in March 2005.—H.T.

 

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