U2: Here Comes the "Next Big Thing" -- Future looks bright for Irish rockers
By JAMES HENKE
Here I am, an American writer, dining with an Irish band in a Greek restaurant in the heart of England. Strange? Well, so is the scene that's unfolding in front of me. A few feet away, two musicians are seated on a platform. One is playing bouzouki, a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin, while the other, a heavy-set fellow in black suit and dark glasses who looks remarkably like the Godfather, is hammering away at a small electric keyboard with built-in rhythm machine. In front of them, approving patrons toss plate after ceramic plate to the floor, where they shatter at the feet of U2's Bono Vox, who is demonstrating that a rock singer from Ireland can be quite a lively dancer.
Though this seems like some sort of international celebration, it's only another preshow dinner for U2. The band, which has been touring Britain nonstop since the release of its debut album, Boy, in mid-October, has garnered more than the usual amount of attention -- thanks in part to an overzealous English music press. Since early last year, the media have been touting U2 -- vocalist Vox, drummer Larry Mullen, guitarist "the Edge" and bassist Adam Clayton -- as the Next Big Thing. If all the publicity weren't enough, Island Records President Chris Blackwell proclaimed the group the label's most important signing since King Crimson.
In concert, the loquacious Vox tries to play down all the hype -- he regularly tells audiences to "forget all that stuff you may have read and make up your own minds" -- but privately he concurs with the press. "I don't mean to sound arrogant," he tells me after the dancing has died down, "but even at this stage, I do feel that we are meant to be one of the great groups. There's a certain spark, a certain chemistry, that was special about the Stones, the Who and the Beatles, and I think it's also special about U2."
A mighty boast, to be sure. But Boy, scheduled for a late-January U.S. release, does indicate that U2 is a band to be reckoned with. Their highly original sound can perhaps be best described as pop music with brains. It's accessible and melodic, combining the dreamy, atmospheric qualities of a band like Television, with a hard-rock edge not unlike the Who's. In particular, Edge's guitar playing and Bono's singing stand out; the lyrical guitar lines slice through every song, while the vocals are rugged, urgent and heartfelt.
The title Boy is appropriate and significant: not only are the band members young -- Bono and Adam are twenty, Larry and Edge nineteen -- but the bulk of their songs deal with the dreams and frustrations of childhood. "We're playing to an audience in Britain that ranges in age from seventeen to twenty-five," Bono explains. "There is massive unemployment, and there is real disillusionment. U2's music is about getting up and doing something about it."
But wasn't that also the aim of punk? "The idea of punk at first was, 'Look, you're an individual, express yourself how you want, do what you want to do,'" Bono says. "But that's not the way it came out in the end. The Sex Pistols were a con, a box of tricks sold by Malcolm McLaren. Kids were sold the imagery of violence, which turned into the reality of violence, and it's that negative side that I worry about. People like Bruce Springsteen carry hope. Like the Who -- 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' I mean, there is a song of endurance, and that's the attitude of great bands. We want our audience to think about their actions and where they are going, to realize the pressures that are on them, but at the same time, not to give up."
Part of U2's attitude comes from the fact that they are, as Bono puts it, "appreciative of our background." The group formed in 1978 at an experimental school in Dublin. "It was multidenominational," he explains, "which, in terms of Dublin and Ireland, is quite unique. It was also coeducational, which was unusual too. We were given freedom, and when you're given freedom, you don't rebel by getting drunk."
That message comes across again when the group headlines a show at London's Marquee club a few days later. After a rousing forty-five minute set, the band returns to the stage for an encore. But before launching into another song, Bono makes a short speech about the little boy pictured on the British version of U2's LP. "Some people have been asking about the boy on the cover of the album," he says. "Well, he happens to be a kid who lives across the street from me. We put him on the cover 'cause he's a pretty smart kid. And sometimes I wonder what his future will be like -- and I wonder about ours."
At this point, U2's future looks bright. The band has managed to deal level-headedly with its sudden popularity in the U.K. In addition, they've shunned traditional rock and roll pitfalls as booze and drugs. Finally, the band is willing to work. A three-month U.S. trek will begin in March, and Bono is, as usual, confident about the band's chances in the States. "Right now, the word is 'go!' for U2," he says. "It is my ambition to travel to America and give it what I consider it wants and needs."