U2 - a sort of homecoming
On June 29 Dublin band U2 will play to an expected audience of 55,000 in Croke Park. This will be the biggest audience before which they've played as a headlining act. The weekend before this concert they played to an estimated 50,000 at Milton Keynes in Britain.
Their last three albums have been certified as million sellers in America and they rank as one of the three most popular live acts in that country (with Bruce Springsteen and Prince). Eight years of hard work and careful planning are bearing fruit.
IN 1977 LARRY MULLEN PUT UP A NOTICE IN Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. He was looking for other young aspiring musicians to join his band. The notice attracted Pain "Bono" Hewson, Dave "The Edge" Evans and Adam Clayton. Only Clayton had any previous experience but even that wasn't as solid as it seemed, as Bono recalled some years later:
"Adam used to pretend he could play bass. He came round and started using words like action and fret and he had us baffled. He had the only amplifier so we never argued with him. We thought this guy must be a musician, he knows what he's talking about and then one day we discovered he wasn't even playing the right notes, that's what's wrong, y'know."
The band persevered and learned their craft as they went along. They became well known on the Irish circuit using the discipline of performance to improve their technique.
A freelance film technician, Paul McGuinness, became the band's manager in 1978 - his only previous experience in this area was the year he spent as manager of celtic rock band Spud. U2 continued playing a lot of concerts and began to seek a record deal. In 1979 while they were negottiating with CBS in London about the possibility of signing an international deal they put out a three track single called "U23" on CBS Ireland as a "temporary and interim meassure". Although the record had some chart success in Ireland the international deal with CBS in London was not conncluded. Nevertheless they stayed with CBS in Ireland.
In December 1979 they did a short tour in the London area. These dates were not very successful and the band's own publicity material points out that only nine people turned up at one venue, not a very encouraging start. At this stage the average age in the band was about twenty and they'd been playing together for over two years.
In March 1980 New Musical Express, a very influential British music paper, sent reporter Paul Morley to Ireland to write a feature on U2. Morley, who has since gone on to mastermind the hugely successful rise of FranKie Goes To Hollywood, saw U2 play in places like Tullamore, supportting showbands. At this point the band had won a bunch of awards in the Hot Press readers' poll and were going back to Britain.
Bono was in a very optimistic frame of mind: "U2 is like learning, it's like a child learning. We've been given Lego, and we're learning to put things together in new ways. This is a stage that we've got to that I'm not ashamed of, but I believe we will get much stronger."
He was right. Their second tour in Britain was much more successful and they were signed to the prestigious Island record label shortly afterwards. Looking back on the record deal, the band's manager points out that U2 insisted on controlling everything they did. They would decide what would be released, when it would be released, how it was packaged and how they did their tours. At the time they felt that this was a perfectly reasonable and logical arrangement and it wasn't until they spent more time in the business that they realised it was really very unusual. It showed a degree of trust on Island's part which was rarely seen.
Two singles were released in the summer of 1980 and they were followed by their debut album "Boy". Around this time the band made their first sorties onto the continnent and they also went to America for the first time, playying ten dates in the North East, from Toronto down to Washington DC. In America they found that there was a ready acceptance of what they were doing. They were to return there early in 1981 for a more comprehensive three-month tour.
UNLIKE A LOT OF THEIR BRITISH CONTEMporaries U2 were not given to sneering at the American market. They realised that in market and prestige terms America represented half the rock and roll world, and they openly stated their desire to succeed thete.
Adam Clayton was very definite about this when he spoke on US radio: "We are putting a certain amount of energy and commitment into the United States. We're not just coming over because we have to tour because our record company says so. We actually enjoy America. We're not here to slag it off or say America stinks and they don't listen to good music. We're actually feeling very good about America and we want to be here and we want to put that commitment down and work that hard."
While U2 were saying things like that other bands from these islands were saying that the American market wasn't worth the effort - sometimes they even went to tour America to say this.
Paul McGuinness points out that breaking into the American music market has problems of its own. He says there's no other way to break America except by long tours. There's no national music media, with the exception of Rolling Stone magazine and MTV, the music video station. This means that each part of the country has to be addressed separately, each state has to be treated as a differrent territory, and the only way to do this effectively is to tour long and often. That's just what they did.
Each of U2's four studio albums (they've released five to date - the fifth being a concert recording) has been followwed by a three-month tour of America. These long tours could be seen as part of U2's strategy to succeed in the reecord business. They were always wary of the quick hit single approach to success, preferring to build a solid live following over a period of time. This approach was applied to Britain and Europe as well as the States. This meant that they toured pretty much non stop from '81 to mid '83 and from August '84 to summer'85.
The pace could be punishing but the band were well aware of what they were doing, as Bono told Hot Press' Bill Graham in America, 1981: "We've been touring six months now with three weeks off. We chose to do that. We don't have record companies telling us to do that. It's the other way round and we have chosen to do that because U2 could be misinterpreted as a group and we feel the only way to lay a foundation for us to grow on is to play to people face to face and let them make up their mind."
Bono's clear headed common sense was reflected by other band members' comments about the music industry around that time. Adam Clayton, speaking to Insight - a Dublin fanzine - said: "Well if you want success in any commercial terms, it is not just a case of being able to write good songs. You have to be very skilful and clever in the way you deal with people and clever in the way you deal with the press, particularly in England."
Some people began to get annoyed at the band's shrewddness and their attitude to the classic "rock arid roll" lifeestyle was often sneered at. U2 have never gone in for the wild, often inane, behaviour that certain rock bands get up to "on the road".
The idea of consuming large quantities of drugs and drink and of indulging in numerous incidents of casual sex has never held any attraction for them, nor are they known for throwing tellys out of hotel windows while they're still plugged in or for letting jelly set in the hotel room's bath. Indeed Adam Clayton has said, with some irony: "We're not the biggest rooting tooting drinking rock 'n' roll band in the world. I mean we're fairly level headed and sober most of the time. That helps, the fact that you aren't connstantly out of it. It does blur very very easily."
This is not meant to portray them as some form of newwPuritans, but just to show how starkly their relatively norrmal behaviour was seen as slightly abnormal in the rock and roll world. Their public profession of belief in Christianity has also been the subject of some derision even though the three members who profess to be Christians rarely if ever discuss the matter in interviews.
It's interesting to note that Pete Townshend, who played with The Who, a band particularly notorious for its antics "on the road", has recently been appearing on shows like the "Late Late" and "Wogan" talking about the folly of such behaviour, behaviour that led to his addition to alcohol and heroin.
THE BAND GREW FROM STRENGTH TO strength. Their second album, "October", was as successful as "Boy" but it was with their third album, "War", that they started doing very well.
"War" entered the British charts at Number One and soon sold over half a million copies in the States. During the "War" tour of the United States, they played to audiences of around 3,500 at each concert. By the end of that tour they were playing arenas like the Sports Arena in Los Angeles which held about 17,000 people.
It was with this tour and album that the band actually started to make money. Their first two major tours, followwing the "Boy" and "October" albums, lost money. This is not unusual - a lot of resources have to be invested in a band which tours a lot and ·that was a central part of U2's strategy. Hotels have to be booked, crews paid, etc. Norrmally what happens in that case is the record company take up the shortfall between the tour's income and its expennditure; this is then (by means of a formula) charged against future royalties the band might earn from record sales. There is of course an element of risk involved in this since the group might never sell enough records, leaving the record company with a large bad debt.
Island and their distributors in the US, Warner Brothers, took this chance with U2 because, as they said to the group, they could see a plan, a strategy, something other bands rarely had. No doubt this support plus the freedom they gave the band encouraged U2 to extend their deal with Island records in 1984. Extending the deal also meant that they recaptured the copyright to all their early songs, also an important consideration.
U2's latest LP, "The Unforgettable Fire", has sold partiicularly well, selling over a million copies in America alone. In the past three to four months three of their albums have been certified as million sellers in America, "The Unforrgettable Fire", "War" and the live album "Under A Blood Red Sky".
Royalty rates vary from band to band and it's impossible to accurately state how much a group is earning from reecord sales. However, informed music business sources say that a rate of 1 0% of the retail price would be about averrage. After packaging, distribution costs, etc, the group would probably end up with 6%. It must be remembered however that it's not unusual for a group to wait for up to two years before it gets its royalty payments.
U2 have just played to a crowd of about 50,000 in Brittain. On their recent American tour they played very large venues like Madison Square Gardens which holds 19,970. They're now playing the same venues as Springsteen and Prince, though these two might play them a little more. For example U2 played in Meadowlands in New Jersey for three nights whereas Springsteen played the same venue for ten nights. They began their last tour in August '84 in New Zealand. This was their first time in that part of the world and they were hugely successful. In Sydney they played in a 12,000 seater venue for five nights in a row. The only bigger indoor acts in Australia have been Springsteen and Elton John.
The profits at large concerts like these are now regularrly augmented by the sale of a group's merchandise: sweat shirts, t-shirts, badges etc. At concerts fans often spend large amounts of money on this official merchandise which can't be bought elsewhere.
Jim Henke, an assistant managing editor with Rolling Stone, which recently put U2 on its cover declaring them the band of the '80s, told Magill that U2's policy of buildding up an audience has certainly paid off and that that auddience has stayed loyal to them. He compared their present position with Springsteen's a few years ago - he's now gone a step further ahead, having massive hit singles as well as hit albums and a huge audience.
IT SEEMS THAT THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP for U2 is to follow Springsteen's lead and try to write hit singles of the strength of "Dancing In The Dark' and "Born In The USA". These singles lifted Springsteen from being a hugely successful concert and album selling act to an act that had hit singles as well; these hit singles increased the attendance at his concerts and his album sales even more.
When ABBA were at their peak they made a considerrable difference to the Swedish economy. Paul McGuinness says that U2 have not reached that stage yet, but they do have a healthy business. He points out that U2 have always recorded their albums in Dublin and continue to base themmselves here. When pressed about the turnover of this busiiness he said that that information was confidential and he couldn't reveal it.
Bono's stated admiration for Garret FitzGerald has caused him to be called a Fine Gael supporter. This is someething he refutes, saying that he doesn't have much time for any political parties but that he does admire FitzGerald as an individual. This admiration seems to have been reciproocated and Bono found himself appointed to sit on the National Youth Policy Committee which met under the Chairmanship of Justice Costello. A member of that committee, speaking to Magill, recalled that Bono didn't attend many meetings because of touring commitments but when he did attend it was 0 bvious he took its work seriously and intended to make a contribution. He was considered to be well tuned with youth subculture and he was very sensitive to the drugs problem prevalent in Dublin; friends of his had suffered because of drugs. The committee was apparently surprised at how "down to earth" this rock star was.
Speaking to Hot Press last November, the man who started it all those years ago; Larry Mullen, said: "Everyybody's got their own tastes so I can't expect everyone to like the band. But I'd hope they'd respect our achieveement." It's difficult not to.