There has been a lot of internet chatter about whether U2 are breaking up, following comments from Bono in Rolling Stone. He has been talking a lot recently about U2 having been “on the edge of irrelevancy for 20 years” and suggested “We’d be very pleased to end on No Line on the Horizon”. Despite a failure to deliver a hit single and a general perception that it wasn’t a classic, the album has recently reached the five million sales mark, and U2 have just completed the biggest, most technologically ambitious and highest grossing tour in rock history. Q magazine just presented U2 with an award for Greatest Act of the Last 25 years. Might it represent an opportune moment for U2 to bow out?
There is no set process for a band to break up. Usually it happens more or less accidentally and spontaneously, through internal conflict. Often it is accompanied by a decline in popularity and increasing creative divisions. But when you have been together as long as U2 (36 years and counting), and successful throughout your career, a kind of inertia can set in, where the band continues to exist just because, well, it continues to exist.
REM have been widely applauded for their recent decision to disband because of a sense that their best days were behind them. The Rolling Stones continue despite of it, taking the critical flak to deliver music and entertainment for their massive fan base. You can’t say one is right, and one is wrong – it is each according to his own. But REM are close to U2, and belong to the post punk generation for whom an allegiance to rock bands came with high ideals and a sense of purpose. Talking about REM’s break up on Newsnight this week, Mike Mills explained that “It was an opportunity for us to walk away on our own terms. There are no external forces, no problems, we can walk away as friends and feel like we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish.”
U2 have certainly accomplished a lot, probably more than they ever dreamt… although they did dream big. I’ve got Bono on tape when Boy came out, in 1980, enthusiastically telling me that one day they would make a record as great as Sergeant Pepper. They’ve been the biggest rock band in the world for much of their career, they have constantly reinvented and reinvigorated themselves musically, done ground breaking and record breaking tours, and been at the centre of political and charitable campaigns that have helped shape the world we live in. I think this is part of the problem, actually, the very cause of the existential crisis the band find themselves in. Bono likes to be at the centre of things, part of the musical, political and cultural conversation. “Lots of people have U2 albums, why they would want another one is a reasonable question,” he admitted recently. “I don’t know if it is possible for us to make something that is current that is meaningful, not just to our audience but to the times we live in. But that’s kind of the job for me.”
U2 have recorded a lot of music over the past couple of years, with a lot of different producers, including new songs with Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton, the cut and paste wizard behind Gnarls Barkley), clubby pop tracks with Red One and meditative, quasi-ambient material with their established team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. I would like to hear those records. But there seems to be little sense in the band camp that this is music the world needs right now, something singular and original and powerful enough to stand up with their very best, as big and bold as the sprawling emotion of Unforgettable Fire, the rough hewn rock of The Joshua Tree, the industrial strength invention of Achtung Baby or killer tunes of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And so they just keep chipping away, in search of that elusive creative breakthrough. But can a band of super rich middle-aged men ever achieve the creative heights of their youth, when making music really seemed like a matter of life or death?
Bono’s conviction that they have to create something world beating every time effectively creates a rod for their own backs. What bands have ever done their greatest and most resonant work in the middle age of their career? When U2 made their early classics, they worked day and night in pursuit of an ideal, sacrificing personal time and private lives, giving everything to the cause of the music. Inevitably that is not the case any more. They arrange meetings and recording sessions to fit with their increasingly complex personal schedules. Their fans may still like to believe that U2 live in Ireland and meet in the local pub or prayer meeting (hence the ludicrously inaccurate tax avoidance charge that keep being made against them). In fact, Bono lives mainly in New York now, The Edge in LA, Adam in London and only Larry remains a more or less full time resident of Dublin. They have all (apart from Adam) got wives and children who need time and attention. They have the kind of extreme wealth that ensures fabulous comfort. And Bono, their driving force, finds his time and energy much diluted by his sprawling range of extra-curricular interests and commitments, particularly political and charitable activities that inspire much antagonism in people who think a rock star should be in the business of making rock music. As Bono recognises, “We’re the most loved and the most hated band on Earth” and a lot of the reasons people don’t like them are actually about him – which he says he understands “because I have to live with me too.”
I was supposed interview Bono last week about the 20th anniversary re-release of Achtung Baby but he called it off because he felt he had done enough promotional work, and needed to take a break. He says he is becoming embarrassed by the amount of focus there is on him, as opposed to the rest of the band. It is a running joke that he sympathises with people who are sick of the sound of his voice, because he is too. And he’s plainly worn out. Or as he put it in an apologetic message: “Flat on my back from exhaustion.”
U2’s two year world tour may have finished in the summer but sometimes I think Bono just doesn’t know how to stop. He has continued his ceaseless globetrotting in connection with all his philanthropic, humanitarian and business commitments. He sang at Steve Jobs memorial in California on October 17, met Nicholas Sarkozky in Paris on the 19th as part of a lobbying group for the Global anti-poverty coalition One ahead of the G20, and was in London a few days later with the rest of U2 to pick up their award from Q magazine. It is hardly surprising that he told Rolling Stone his only future plans were to have some time off: “I want to take my young boys and my wife and just disappear with my iPod Nano and some books and an acoustic guitar.” Then on Monday, this week, he was in Dublin, as part of a delegation trying to convince foreign technology companies to invest in Ireland. He is the rock star who can’t say no.
Which is why, personally, I don’t think U2 are likely to do an REM and retire gracefully. If they ever do go, it will be in a blaze of glory or an act of outrageous folly, broken by their singer’s mad ambition. Right now, it is probably fair to say U2 need a break and the world needs a break from them. But U2 fans have heard these hints of disillusion and dissolution before – notably in 1989, after the excesses of Rattle And Hum, when Bono declared they had to “go away and dream it all up again.” They came back with Achtung Baby in 1991, probably their finest moment.
From my experience, what they tend to do is manufacture a sense of crisis to drive them. Edge refers to it as jeopardy, a constant buzzword in his discussions of their creative process. U2 need to feel that there are things at stake when they are writing and recording, deliberately using tension and risk to maintain focus. This, presumably, gets harder the more successful and comfortable individuals get. When Bono declares U2 to be on “the edge of irrelevance”, what he is really doing is raising the stakes for himself and his band, shoving them rudely out of their comfort zone.
U2 are in temporary retreat while their leader recharges his batteries, but his own self-questioning is not actually an indication of disillusion, but an instigation to action. Fans worrying that Bono’s remarks suggest U2 are about to call it a day could not be more wrong. What he really wants to do, indeed what he feels he needs to do, is for U2 “to go away and create the album of their lives.”
I don’t know if it is possible for a band with their long history to reinvent themselves again. But, like millions of other fans, I want to hear them try.