Thursday, November 2, 2006

Staring at the sun

The U2 tomeI bloody love U2. For all their detractors (Bono is a twat, their music is preachy, Larry Mullen eats people's kidneys to stay young) they are one of the most consistent and exciting rock groups ever to pretend to be Irish.

As it happens, I've just finished reading their new book U2 by U2, which tells the band's story in exhaustive detail.

Some poor bastard had to edit down 150 hours of interviews with the rockers into a manageable manuscript, which dishes the dirt on everything from the thrill of appearing on Top Of The Pops to the shame of Bono wetting himself of Frank Sinatra's sofa.

The whole story starts when Larry Mullen Jr pins a scrap of paper to the school noticeboard looking for musicians to join his band. By all accounts, the prototype U2 (Feedback, or The Hype, as they were known) were pretty shoddy, and struggled to make ends meet for years. They even tried playing gigs at airport hotels to earn some money.

"It didn't work," Adam Clayton explains in the book, "because the bands that were actually making money there were almost showbands, doing cover versions... I think six people turned up, and that was only because they thought another band was playing."

Edge rocksIt wasn't until Edge stumbled across an effects unit that they really hit their stride.

"Edge acquired his echo unit and that changed everything," says Bono. "It was punk rock with a symphony - suddenly you're in outer space instead of suburbia."

Later, with a few hit singles under their belts, the band made their first forays into writing lyrics with a political message. Edge reveals that the first draft of Sunday Bloody Sunday had a much more explicit anti-terrorist message.

"If I remember rightly, my opening line was 'Don't talk to me about the rights of the IRA, UDA'," he says.

The book is a hefty read. Indeed, it's taken me about a month to get through it (mostly because it's too big to carry onto the bus). But it’s a great little insight into the workings of a globe-straddling rock behemoth. Sure, the band are indulging in a certain amount of self-mythologising - they even admit as much in one passage - and there's only a certain amount of Bono's random association self-analysis you can take, but if you're interested in the band at all, it's a great peak behind the curtain.

Live AidMind you, there is a better U2 book out there. Bill Flanagan's U2 At The End Of The World follows the band for two years as they record Achtung Baby and mount the stupendous Zoo TV tour. With the benefit of an outsider's perspective and full access to the band, Flanagan uncovers some really juicy gossip from a period in time when U2 were at the height of their considerable creative powers.

He accompanies Bono as he steals a boat in Australia, and as the singer wakes up in Brezhnev's bed. But the best part is Flanagan's account of the Achtung Baby recording sessions in Berlin.

"It has never been this hard for U2 before," he writes. "The band begin to consider that they have really reached the end of the line together.

"Bono's wide-eyed raps about junk culture and disposable music are met with disinterest from Adam and impatience from Larry, who finally says, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' Larry says there is a simple problem here: 'You haven't written any songs! Where are the songs!

U2 in a homoerotic knees-up round the piano"That really goes up Bono's ass sideways. When Bono and Edge started abandoning the U2 tradition of all four of them writing songs together and brought in songs on their own, Larry was the first to bitch that he and Adam weren't getting enough input… But now that Bono's laying the burden on the four of them again, Larry wants the songs written for him. There's a fight brewing.

"Larry accuses Bono of not knowing who he is, which Bono throws back at him saying Larry always knows who Larry is because Larry never changes. 'You haven't changed your haircut in ten years!' Bono says."

It continues in this painful vein for dozens of pages before the band accidentally record One, then kiss and make up before it all descends into a torrid night of homosexual love (I may have made that last bit up).

After reading either of these books, you'll want to reappraise U2's songs. And by happy coincidence, they're releasing a new, compact, best-of collection on 20 November. The track-listing has just been announced, and it looks like this:

U2 18
1. Beautiful Day
2. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
3. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
4. With Or Without You
5. Vertigo
6. New Year's Day
7. Mysterious Ways
8. Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of
9. Where The Streets Have No Name
10. Sweetest Thing
11. Sunday Bloody Sunday
12. One
13. Desire
14. Walk On
15. Elevation
16. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own
17. The Saints Are Coming (with Green Day) - new
18. Window In The Skies - new
19. I Will Follow - UK Bonus Track

There are a few glaring omissions - including three of my personal favourites (Angel of Harlem, All I Want Is You and Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me, since you ask). But you'd be hard pressed to find a better greatest hits CD Christmas - and I'm including the Girls Aloud one in that list.

See? I bloody love U2.

You can buy U2 by U2 and U2 18 from Amazon. You'll have to find U2 At The End Of The World at your local second-hand dealer.

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