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U2 – Globalisation’s poster boys

Adam Clayton (far left), The Edge (back), Bono (front) and Larry Mullen, Jr. (far right) form the rock band U2. - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

Globalisation might now be a dirty word for many, while U2 sometimes seem as disliked by an equal number. But, says IAN WALKER, at their finest the band capture a sense of optimism about the connected world.

Commercially, U2 are as successful as any band could be. Over the last decade, they made more money touring – just over $1 billion – than anyone. They’ve also sold more than 175 million records.

Even their worst-selling LP, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, a record given away on iTunes (whether you wanted it or not – much to the annoyance of many), ended up getting a silver disc.

The critical mauling and public grumbling that U2 got for that iTunes giveaway isn’t untypical of how the band is often regarded, especially in the UK.

U2 are, at times, much despised. They are often loathed for their arena-filling success, for their business practices and for Bono’s hectoring.

And this is where the band’s reputation tends to get stuck, somewhere between being a record-breaking, commercial operation, and Bono-hate.

One consequence of this is that the band’s music doesn’t always get the critical attention it deserves, especially in this century.

And this is unfair, because there have been times over the last 30 or so years when U2’s music caught the historical moment with almost unrivalled clarity.

From the mid-1980s, so much of U2’s music has been about that post-ideological, pre-populist age of an interconnected globe of relaxed borders, migration, international travel and dynamic, interconnected cities – plus the unease that has gone with people trying to find their place in this new ‘open’ world.

As such, U2 have caught those years – from the ending of the Cold War up until the rise of populism – as well as any other artist, writer, filmmaker that I can think of.

Twenty years ago, in October 2000, U2 released the LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind (ATYCLB). The band have never been shy of making grand statements, and this record – just re-released in boxset formats – was them at their most strident.

Here, months into the new century, the record opened with the euphoric Beautiful Day, a song which looked for redemption andpurpose within an almost ludicrously widescreen view of the Earth and of humanity. 

Here are four minutes, eight seconds of rising crescendos, swelling harmonies and glorious hooks, all working together to herald the new millennium with what was, at first hearing, swivel-eyed optimism.

The song was everywhere. It cropped up during the 2000 Olympics; the Labour Party used it; so did Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Most memorably, it was the theme to ITV’s Premier League coverage.

This ubiquity came close to robbing the song of its energy. But Beautiful Day wasn’t quite made quotidian by overuse. Instead, the track and the LP caught the moment.

Twenty years ago, the world was largely positive in a way that seems impossible in 2020, amid populism’s assault on science, progress and the ability of politics to manage just about anything. And that millennial optimism was not rooted in hope or vague idealism, but in recent history.

The Cold War was not long ended, the walls were coming down, borders were opening up, and a globalised market seemed to be driving sustained and unprecedented growth.

And this optimism was there in the ‘third way’, centrist governments who found a way of combining growth with pragmatic social justice.

Here in the UK, during the Blair/Brown years, class sizes shrunk, literacy and numeracy levels improved, the minimum wage was introduced, crime fell, inflation was kept low, as were mortgage rates, family and working tax credit encouraged people to enter employment, the NHS improved, etc. etc. etc… For many Brits, the years between the 1997 Labour election and the 2008 crash were as good as it had ever been.

But let’s not get too Panglossian about those years. Despite the undeniable successes of the Labour Party, the period also saw an increased cynicism about politics, especially after the Iraq War.

The deep mistrust about the institutions of government that took hold during these years became one of the origins of modern populism.

The other shadow that was cast over those years was terrorism.

As the world moved away from the 20th century’s murderous, entrenched ideological positions, there were those who found themselves lost to history; groups and individuals that became marginalised and irrelevant. Terrorism is the best weapon for the marginalised and irrelevant.

This is what happened with the Omagh bombing. While almost everyone was working towards peace in Northern Ireland, a small section of the IRA, consisting of the most lumpen, gangsterish members, wanted to derail the process.

The man identified as likely to have been responsible for driving the car laden with 500 lbs of explosives to the town’s centre on the afternoon of August 15, 1998, was an alcoholic whose self-esteem was so threadbare that he couldn’t imagine life outside of the Real IRA.

The phone warnings which were given shortly after the car was parked and before the bomb exploded were incorrect, probably not out of murderous spite, but out of murderous ineptitude.

The explosion killed 29 people, many of them teenagers or children.

The bombing sits deep within the creative process that went into making ATYCLB. U2 have, since War – their third LP, released in 1983 – been a band who have written political songs.

This has led to accusations that Bono sometimes coattails on political issues, and has a tendency to involve the group in campaigns and events in a self-aggrandising way.

As a fan of the band, I have some sympathy for this criticism; there will never be a U2 gig without a five-minute Bono lecture.

But the group are rarely crude in how they bring politics into their music.

On War, in the song New Year’s Day, you can see how the band can take the historical moment – the song is about the Polish trade union Solidarity – and connect it to something personal; its origins as a love song Bono wrote for his wife Ali are still there. This ability to make the political personal (which is not the same as making the personal political) became, for the band, the basis of so much of their greatest work.

And that ‘political being personal’ is everywhere on ATYCLB. It’s in songs like Walk On and When I Look at the World, which are about how you put the traumatic 20th century behind you as you face the future.

It’s certainly there in Beautiful Day, which is not quite the wide-eyed, optimistic song it first appears to be, but is actually about trying to convince someone who has lost everything that it is still worth having faith in the world.

And it’s there in the song Peace on Earth, which is about the Omagh bombing, and the collapsing of faith in the face of barbarity.

It contains the line that comes closest to summing up the LP.

After listing the Christian names of some of those who were killed in Omagh, Bono sings: “Their lives are bigger than any big idea.”

This big idea may be Christianity, but it could also be Irish nationalism, or it may be any one of the violent ideologies from the last century. Whatever it is, the song – and that line – is an argument for the importance of the personal transcending the political. It’s a declaration of faith in the century ahead and faith in the individual.

U2’s ability to make the political personal, which they do with such effect on ATYCLB, had become a feature of their work at the moment that their music went through a process of radical reinvention on the band’s fourth LP The Unforgettable Fire (1984). 

The band’s first three records – Boy (1980), October (1981) and War (1983) – had been interesting enough. With the exception of the occasional political song on War, these albums were full of, intense, introspective tracks, often with a religious dimension – U2 were the only post-punk-ish Irish Christian band likely to get on Top of the Pops. Then, in 1984, they teamed up with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce their fourth LP.

Up to this point, U2 had been handy enough with the riffs and hooks that bands use to link verses and chorus. Songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day were urgent, passionate, crowd-pleasing stuff. But their structure was orthodox.

What Eno did was to get the band, especially guitarist Edge, to create something original within what was expected of mainstream rock music.  

On The Unforgettable Fire, songs like Bad and the title track open as something tentative and provisional but become songs that grow into themselves as they evolve into something epic and intense.

This is music of compelling tension; it’s as if you are hearing the tracks coming into being. The Unforgettable Fire transformed U2. They were no longer a spikey post-punk band, instead, there was something more textured and panoramic in their songs. And this escalation in scale wasn’t just in the music – it was there in the themes the LP dealt with: race, exile, war, America. 

But while The Unforgettable Fire was a strange, experimental and original album it was a statement of intent rather than the finished article. The pay-off for that reinvention came with the band’s next album The Joshua Tree (1987).

Also produced by Eno and Lanois, this was the band’s first and greatest masterpiece. It’s the LP which, as the critic Paul Du Noyer described it in Q Magazine, is about the “urge to exist”.
From Elvis to Billie Eilish it is this ‘urge’ which makes so much of pop and rock what it is.

It sits deep in the DNA of popular music and is there in those swirling, escalating guitar patterns that Edge uses to create songs of constant imminence.

The subject matter of the Joshua Tree was America.

By now, Bono was too subtle a lyricist to be always overtly political, and while there were political songs on the record about American foreign policy in Central America (Bullet the Blue Sky and Mothers of the Disappeared), much of the record was full of doubt, conflicting ideas, imprecise bearings.

Songs like Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For were songs of intense introspection played out against both the epic sweep of American history and an idealised mythical idea of America.

Unfortunately, the band got carried away with the cowboy hats and surly stares. Their obsession with Americana on their next LP, Rattle and Hum (1988) saw them get a good critical kicking. So, grandiose as ever, Bono announced that the band were going away to think it all up again.

Teaming up once more with Eno and Lanois, the band went to Berlin to record Achtung Baby.

If The Joshua Tree was full of that intense, introspective ‘urge to exist’ then Achtung Baby (1991) was meant to achieve popular music’s equally important counterpoint to all that instinct and earnestness – the urge to be ironic.

Songs like The Fly and Even Better Than the Real Thing, which were structured around The Edge’s increasing interest in industrial and dance music, were U2 attempting to embrace post-modernity.

On the LP, recorded in a newly-reunified city looking to the future and all that it promised, doubt was replaced by a surrender to immediacy, conflicting ideas became lifestyle choices, imprecise bearings became a form of freedom.

Or at least, the LP was partially this. Any record that has a song named Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses hasn’t quite given up on all of rock’s swaggering blather. However U2’s next two records, Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997). pushed that industrial, dance-orientated, post-modern love of irony as far as the band would take it.

These records have their qualities, but musically the band had got too far away from that ‘urge to exist’.

Achtung Baby had been a brilliant counterpoint to the earnestness of The Joshua Tree, but at the turn of the new century, the band knew that they needed to get back to writing those epic songs where the political moment was personal.

Also, The Joshua Tree had sold 25 million copies, Achtung Baby 18 million. Pop sold barely a quarter of that. It’s no wonder that after Pop, Bono announced, as pompously as ever, in interviews and on stage, that the band were reapplying to become the biggest band in the world.

And that’s what ATYCLB was when it was a released: a huge, swaggering, euphoric application to be the biggest in the world. This time, doubt and conflicting ideas had become the basis of hope for a better century than the one we had just left behind. And those imprecise bearings? Well, that’s where this record, and U2 as a band, are at their most interesting. 

This is a group that comes with its own atlas. Lots of artists have a connection to a place; the Beatles with Liverpool, Springsteen with New Jersey, but U2 have connections with all sorts of places.

There’s Dublin, obviously, but also the American deserts, Vegas, LA, London, Paris, Berlin and New York. And then there are the imagined cities, the dreamt-of places, the City of Blinding Lights, the line-less horizon.

The Joshua Tree is all about maps, streets, deserts and cities. Achtung Baby is about Berlin and borders and trains.

And what is striking about the cautious optimism of ATYCLB is that this optimism is also connected to travel and place.

The album cover shows the band in Charles de Gaulle airport: the image establishes it as a record where movement through the world matters.

The theme recurs throughout the album: in the redemptive ‘in-the-world’ aspirations of Beautiful Day, in the travel metaphors of Walk On, in the mention of the ‘world’ and the ‘earth’ in the titles of two songs, and finally in New York, which celebrates the eponymous city.

But this is never simply a “Yay! World!” theme. This ‘in-the-world’ quality is, in song after song – and on U2 LP after LP – simultaneously about possibility and unease, about finding home and leaving home. You don’t need a degree in history to know why an Irish band might see things that way.

This geographical aspect of the band’s music is rooted in their being Irish. There’s no space in this article to write a history of 20th century Ireland, but, broadly, that history began with a revolt against a global empire and was followed by decades of isolated, introspective stagnation where the country’s main export was its youth, then a spectacular re-entry into the global economy of the 1990s.

Add to this that Ireland is so conscious of its own internal border and you have a country whose sense of itself tends to transcend borders and whose identity can exist outside of itself.

In other words, ‘Irishness’ is about movement, migration, borders and place. And so are U2. And so are the last 30 years for many of the rest of us.

It’s unlikely that an English band or an American band would have that same instinct to exist artistically on a global scale. But Ireland is a country that despite its strong national identity has also often found itself stretched between England and the USA. It’s not surprising that an Irish band finds that ‘urge to exist’ resolved in something global.

And this is the brilliance of ATYCLB. The optimism of 20 years ago wasn’t just that those 20th century murderous ideologies were being left behind.

Historically, this was the moment when things looked like they were becoming truly global. The world became a network of dynamic cities: people and places become connected in ways unimaginable two decades earlier. And this wasn’t just for privileged private jet pop stars, because from Poland to Tijuana, migration and movement became just how the world is.

There is nothing new about migration – but in the decades after the Cold War it became relatively effortless and normal for millions of people. 

Again, it’s important not to overstate things. China was, and is, a dictatorship, Putin’s Kremlin is rotten, large parts of sub-Saharan African and South America were not brought into these global networks.

North Africa and the Middle East still had Cold War thugs in charge, and terrorism began to shape international relations in horrific ways. And it can be argued that the origins of today’s absurd social inequality are rooted in how much money some people were making 20 years ago.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the band, and Bono especially, can provoke such irritation in many.

As symbols of the optimism of globalisation, they have also become symbols of its more controversial aspects.

As globetrotting campaigners against poverty and climate change, they have faced charges of hypocrisy from some over their tax arrangements and their carbon footprint. Bono may have once described ‘Davos Man’ as “fat cats in the snow” – at one of his many appearances at the World Economic Forum – but he himself has also been referred to as “the true Davos Man”.

Yet for all the cynicism that surrounds the band, to listen again to ATYCLB is to remember that, at the turn of the millennium, that optimism about globalisation was very real, and it was rooted in everything that populism hates: free trade, movement, openness and cities. And perhaps U2 are the artists who, working in any medium, in song after song, best described that historic moment of opportunity, one that now, thanks to populism and Covid could be lost for generations.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind has just been re-released as a five CD disc boxset and as a vinyl boxset

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