Well, for the benefit of our younger readers, Whistle Test was a venerable old BBC television show which came to Belfast on March 8 1987 and pointed its cameras at U2. I was 21 years old at the time, at the start of my own stint with the BBC and, like everybody else in the late 1980s, I was getting rather cynical about this kind of thing. In fact I was getting cynical about most things because, as some of you may recall, cynicism was more or less compulsory in those days. In fact it’s quite possible that the only people in the Balmoral studios that night who were not utterly polluted by cynicism were all in U2.
‘A lot of serious hype about this record,’ I cautioned some bloke leaning on a radiator. ‘Yes,’ he agreed with a smile. ‘I hope it’s good.’ A few moments later the same bloke – Adam Clayton - was up there playing bass with his pals. An unlikely looking bunch in some ways. Four people with, as record producer Brian Eno has pointed out, the most unlikely combinations of gifts and limitations. Bono, his Live Aid mullet now long grown out, was looking jumpy. He wasn’t carrying flags, leaping into the crowd or sporting a stovepipe, he was just shearing chords from a guitar with a nervy determination that seemed to put everyone on notice.
Those gifts Eno talks about were very evident that night, along with what he calls U2’s ‘induplicable chemistry.’ But what struck me most is that perhaps U2’s biggest plus was that they just wouldn’t engage with the cynicism. These guys were so full of belief it was breathtaking. They didn’t care what any of us thought the zeitgeist was supposed to be. They were making one of their own. How was it possible, I wondered, for Irish people in their 20s to be so sure of themselves?
Musically, the mid-Eighties were pretty grim and synthesiser pop was the order of the day. But even in places where the interesting stuff was supposed to be, everything seemed a little uncertain and lost. The legacy of punk was still in the ether but music now seemed to be heading more towards (and these are Eno’s words from his liner notes to the 20th Anniversary release of the album) ‘a self consciously, dehumanized, post-modern, politically detached, new electronic music.’ Or as Bono puts it, ‘music which was staring at its own shoes.’ What U2 were after with with The Joshua Tree was quite the opposite. This music was big, soulful and cinematic.
That night at the BBC the band performed (if memory serves and it often doesn’t) People Get Ready, Southern Man, Pride (In the Name of Love) and three from the new record - Trip Through Your Wires, Exit and In God’s Country. Not all of it made the broadcast but it gave a fair indication of what they sounded like, looked like, and felt like at that moment. It was very different from most of The Unforgettable Fire album but it all seemed part of a definite development, nurtured once more by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois – two producers who would do so much to help U2 find the bigger picture.
But of course the songs played on Whistle Test were only a hint of what was to follow. At midnight, when people got their hands on the actual album, after standing in line outside Makin’ Tracks, the full force of the new music was powerfully and immediately evident. Track 1. Where The Streets Have No Name. Track 2. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Track 3. With Or Without You. And so it continued. This was very big stuff and all I could think of was a stunned Roy Scheider in Jaws saying, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’
With hindsight it’s probably quite hard to credit that, in 1987, U2 were so much out of step with the prevailing mood. Yes, we’d had Live Aid and yes, many young people were aware of what was happening in Central America, but Eno’s description of the Eighties as a ‘greedy, small-minded time’ pretty much nails it. And yet here was this ambitious band making idealistic, altruistic, political and emotional music which would surely be derided as naive – or to recall a word much used in the 1980s - naff. And for a front-man, always so eager and open, to be talking about parched landscapes and spiritual thirst was really asking for it. It was all far too gauche to work. On paper that is. On vinyl, it went platinum in two days, reached number one in twenty two countries and the Americans bought it big time.
As Bono puts it, the concept was simple enough. They were looking at the idea of America and how that idea expressed itself in the 1980s. The songs were written out of a relationship with the States which most of us can understand. And in fact the original title for the album, The Two Americas, might have served as a more direct pointer as to the nature of what can be a rather complicated love affair. On the one hand there’s the landscape, the place-names, the writers, the movies and the musicians and, on the other, it’s Ronald Reagan and the track from the album, Bullet the Blue Sky, where Bono famously asked Edge to put the El Salvador war through his amp.
Of course this subject matter was well understood. U2, like the rest us, had been eating American culture for a very long time. And touring for several months a year throughout the Eighties had brought them into steady and sustained contact with both the romance and the reality of the place. And it was lyrics informed by this which made The Joshua Tree what it was. An album packed with big songs. And hits too. And what’s more they could be played live which meant they would grow even bigger. And of course, in Bono, these songs had the best salesman imaginable. Whatever needed to be done to get this material over, he was able to carry it off with such a lack of ‘cool’ that it was quite startling to behold.
There were other factors of course – production, design, management etc. But whatever the varied ingredients, it was the songs and the subject matter which made U2 quite unstoppable as they hit the States just a month after I saw them in Belfast. These were the songs and this was the album which would make U2 global stars and secure a sun lounger for each of them on the very slopes of Parnassus. Somewhere close to Bruce but with Iggy still in earshot.
Of course, for some, U2 had no business being there at all. They began with punk and any real hinterland beyond that always seemed somewhat absent. And Bono will admit that they didn’t know their green onions at all when it came to blues, gospel and country - the actual DNA of the music they would come to dominate. This was something which would lead to awkward encounters with their fellow Parnassians but, never mind Bob Dylan and The Stones, there was at least one person in the crowd at Whistle Test who had four harmonicas in his pocket. And certainly he could see what was happening here. U2 had obviously been cramming.
But now that the sounds of America itself were evident in the sound of U2, they were able to create that cinematic, soulful sweep they were after. And once that feel had been captured they now had something to project back onto America - with love for the most part, but also, as required, with righteous anger and rage. The response to this might have gone either way but America listened with great generosity. The American media too. Being Irish undoubtedly helped, but what people forget is that U2 had been working this American crowd for years and had already been playing stadiums. And so while begrudgers at home went into overdrive and cool people all over Dublin lost the run of themselves entirely, U2 were on the cover of Time magazine and literally singing from the rooftops
But where are they now? A question which usually anticipates some tale of great disaster and a fall from grace. But no. Not in this case. U2 are still the number one band and still fully intend to hit the number one spot with every single release. That makes them rather unique and, to my mind, deserving of enormous credit. To be still in the mix in 2012 at the very highest level is quite an achievement – and something no amount of cynicism can ever alter.
I’ve never been in favour of U2 bashing. And now, at times, when it looks as if Ireland is about to eat itself, U2 seems to be the first thing on the menu. And 25 years on from The Joshua Tree, we seem to be in real danger of becoming just as cynical as we were back in 1987. But believe me, younger readers, we really shouldn’t go back there. As Eno says, ‘the Eighties didn’t look so good when they were actually happening.’ And, as usual, Eno is right.
Sometimes I think that if I hadn’t seen U2 throughout the 1980s that I might be there yet. Stuck in a sulk. Stuck in a decade that I can’t get out of. Because what definitely rescued me from the cynicism of that time was music. Music brings out the best in people and I know that U2’s music (and their manner) certainly got through to this young cynic as he stood in the BBC studios waiting to be impressed. And when I now see that Whistle Test footage, and catch a glimpse of a lanky 21-year-old in the audience, I don’t much recognise him any more. I’m someone else now. But U2 is still U2.
Published in The Daily Mail 10/03/12
© John Kelly