U2's Perilous Life At The Top

March 17, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

What do you say to a young Irish band after critics on both sides of the Atlantic dub it the rock group of the '80s?

Before you answer, consider also that Pete Townshend has tabbed the same band as the one he sees in the best position to pick up the Who's rock leadership reigns.

So, what do you say to Bono Hewson, 24, and the three other members of U2?

One thing is: Be careful.

"Band of the '80s" is the kind of praise that has buried lots of promising pop-rock contenders. Just check the cut-out bins for all the 39-cent albums by singer-songwriters who were once proclaimed the "new Bob Dylan."

The danger is two-fold. Rock fans begin to expect more than the still-young band can deliver and, more crucially, the band members may start taking themselves too seriously and end up a caricature of what once excited people.

As it is, one member of the often cynical British pop press has already referred to Hewson as "God . . . errr--I mean--Bono Hewson." The remark was a jab at both Hewson's idealistic bent and the spiritually tinged intent of U2's music.

Sitting in a West Hollywood hotel during the group's recent three-day engagement at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Hewson acknowledged the dangers of the group's increasingly revered position in rock.

"We're not trying to act like saints in the rock 'n' roll city--on any level," he said. "I try and tell people, 'How can you be the spokesman for a generation if you've nothing to say other than "help"?' Listen to our songs, we're not saying we have the answers to the world's problems. We're struggling to find answers and we make mistakes all the time. We're always falling down.

"I think our audience recognizes that in us, and it's one reason they can relate to us. I feel I'm way down the line in superhero potential. I'm not a rock 'n' roll stereotype. Look at me, I look more like an artisan than an artist. I have these big hands and this pointed face. Where's the glamour in all that?"

Whatever his self-image, Hewson and U2 have moved into a position of leadership and trust in rock that few bands have approached in recent years. There's an affection for this band that is reminiscent of the early days of groups like the Who and the E Street Band.

Even though U2 still hasn't had a Top 10 single, it has moved in the last two years from being able to headline one night at a 15,000-seat arena here to selling out three arena shows and in position to have sold out two more shows if the tour schedule had permitted the longer stay here, according to a spokesperson for Avalon Attractions.

The recent breakthrough was especially impressive because it came on the heels of "The Unforgettable Fire," one of the most elusive albums ever released by a band on the edge of rock stardom.

Though the uplifting "Pride (In the Name of Love)" gave the group a highly appealing single, the heart of the moody, atmospheric album was a daring career move away from the sure-fire rock explosives of U2's "War" album and "Under a Blood Red Sky" mini-album, both of which sold a million copies. The introspective songs on the LP, co-produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, suggested an emotional and spiritual re-examination.

Explained Bono, "I do feel that 'The Unforgettable Fire' was the ultimate joker as opposed to the ultimate trump card for us. I thought that in this country, where some people were giving us that 'future of rock 'n' roll thing,' we really threw them for a loop because this album isn't really rock 'n' roll at all.

"It's out of focus in a rock world that thinks of itself as so very much in focus at the moment. You have to sort of stand back from the album to see what it's really saying. Even some of our biggest fans were puzzled at first, but they've come to accept it and it is now even a bigger seller than 'War.' If we had tried to just duplicate the feeling of 'War' to keep that momentum going, we really would have begun to be cartoon characters."

The contemplative tone of "The Unforgettable Fire" did catch the rock world by surprise last fall. After two promising but slightly directionless albums, U2 broke through to stardom in 1983 with an album ("War") that looked with both anger and compassion on a wide range of social concerns, including the religious and political discord in the band's native land.

The live show was even more commanding as Hewson went to dangerous extremes to forge a bond with the audience. At the US Festival in 1983, he carried a white flag of peace to the top of the huge stage scaffolding. (The incident has now become so celebrated in rock that the height of that climb is being described in miles rather than feet.)

At the Sports Arena a few months later, Hewson raced up to the upper deck and leaped to the main floor in a dramatic effort to build that communal feeling. Unfortunately, a few fans dove after him and there were no security guards waiting to break their fall.

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