One night in the late 1980s, when Dylan was down the dumper and U2 were on top of the world, Bono went round to Bob’s house. Spending time with him was like having dinner on a train, Bob wrote: “Feels like you’re moving, going somewhere”. Bono knew a lot about the States, and what he didn’t know he was curious about. He could say things to sway anybody, said Bob: if he had come to America in the early part of the century, he would have been a cop.
Today, no one listens to Bono. Those who have met him recall his charm and his phenomenal memory – like a good politician, he knows where you last met, the names of your kids. Yet when he opens his mouth to speak out on A Cause, he activates rage in half the English-speaking world. We are so conditioned to being annoyed by everything he does, in fact, that when a 15-year-old Syrian girl is beamed up at U2’s Twickenham show from a refugee camp in Jordan, and is asked what message she would send to a stadium full of people, some automatic reflex in your brain says: There he goes again. Which makes me think, people, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves!
After a weekend of gigs at which the band played their 1987 album The Joshua Tree in its entirety, I watched an interesting sea change as rock journalists discussed a band they’d long been required to loathe. U2, like Queen, were always uncool because they were hugely successful and beloved of ordinary people. They were disdained because of their wealth (Bono made a billion from Facebook), tax dodging, “preachy” attachment to humanitarian causes, and their somewhat telescopic coverage of the Troubles.
But over the weekend, folk started asking what we really want of a rock star: a feckless manchild who doesn’t give a damn about the bigger picture, or a billionaire who gives airtime to good causes. In rock music, there is always some poor sod in the stocks for the duration of their career. Could Bono finally be released, leaving only Sting?
The vast panoramic screen at Twickenham – U2’s latest technological innovation – contains 11 million pixels and is powered by enough electricity to supply 700 houses: (“so much for green celeb Bono!” yelps your automatic Bono-decrying brain reflex). On it is broadcast stunning new footage of the US landscape by Anton Corbijn, a bit like that movie you watch on repeat when going through US border control. Mexicans making a dusty path through the desert; a thin cowgirl painting a hut in red, white and blue.
When U2 recorded The Joshua Tree, they couldn’t decide what order to put the songs in, so Kirsty MacColl did it for them, creating, Bono said, an album with a beginning, a middle and an end. Thirty years later, that means hit after hit: “With or Without You”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
It must be terrifying touring an old, beloved album, playing your trump card, when you still strive to be relevant. What next for U2? Their new records are not of mass interest – their last, which appeared for free in your iTunes library, was considered malware by many.
At Twickenham, they perform the crucial first half hour clustered together on a mini stage with no visual props at all – which could backfire, were it not that every move is expertly choreographed to say: here is the loudest folk band on the planet (their phrase), unchanged in line-up, personal relationships a mystery, working in service of you.
Bono, with Cuban heels and hair that grows more lustrous with every passing year, keeps the commentary to a minimum: shout-outs to London (for offering sanctuary to the Irish); Brian Eno and Natasha Richardson – between squirts of harmonica, his own equivalent of David Bowie’s saxophone.
The onslaught of so many hits turns the stadium into a giant karaoke machine. A 30-foot silk flag bearing the face of the Syrian refugee girl makes a billowing passage across the crowd, as at a football match. There he goes again.
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions