"They always pull it out of the bag at the last minute, whether it is the album or the tour details," says Williams.
"I personally would like to get a lot of those things in place earlier because it is just less stressful, but it's the way they work," he continues. "You'd be amazed by how late some of the crucial elements in the show come about. For instance, MacPhisto [Bono's colorful character on the European leg of the "Zoo TV" tour] appeared at rehearsal the night before the first show. It's like a constant high-wire act with them."
As the band became more confident with the dance-music textures, they became committed to going big rather than small with the show.
Though periodic meetings are held on various aspects of the project, from potential video directors to the nature of the tour souvenirs, tour planning takes up the biggest part of the band's time apart from the music.
Williams, 37, who over the last 15 years has gone from lighting director to show design director, began making periodic flights into Dublin from his home in San Francisco around the first of the year to explore plans for the new tour.
"People imagine you are handed the album a year in advance and you start work, but it's not that way," he says. "The band is working on the music while you are working on the stage, and the stage has to change as the music changes. The themes develop side by side."
The most important thing about working with U2, Williams has learned, is that you listen to the band.
"Big rock shows are really the only kind of live performance that doesn't have a director in the traditional sense," he says. "I talk to friends of mine who work in theater or opera and ask them to imagine a situation where you are trying to put a show together and the cast is in charge. Well, they look at me in horror."
Though ideas come up in the formal meetings, it's often casual conversation that provides the breakthroughs.
"Sometimes you might just be sitting with them in a pub and they'll say something that gives you a clue to what they're eventually going to want to do. With this band, you can't separate their music and their personalities.
"When we were talking about concepts for the 'Zoo TV' tour, for instance, we were going back and forth in all sorts of directions until Bono said one day that it would be fun to take a television station on the road. Well, that was the moment everything fell into place."
By the middle of last summer, Williams had enough ideas about the album's musical direction to start putting together some proposals.
"There were two options we were looking at," he says. "One train of thought was take the show in a more traditional, very low-tech direction, almost Brecht. The other was more in the brighter, more open sense of pop art. Those were the two horses that were running neck and neck for quite a spell, but the pop art approach eventually pulled ahead."
The moment of decision came when Williams showed the band a sketch book filled with some possible stage looks. Bono thought one of them looked like a supermarket--and the image fascinated him. The symbol of a supermarket, with its myriad choices, fit well with the group's songs, which frequently talk about life's struggle between temptation and faith. (In keeping with the playful supermarket theme, the band would later announce the "PopMart" tour in the lingerie section of a New York K mart.)
Even in November, however, the group was still refining the stage design. During a break from the recordings, Bono unfurled a set of design plans on the studio's kitchen table and pointed to various surprise features that he hoped would delight the crowd.
"I think there was a time when our position was very much, 'It is about the music, about the songs,' " said bassist Clayton. "By the time of 'Zoo TV,' however, we realized it was OK to acknowledge there is an element of entertainment over the 2 1/2 hours you are on stage. It's not just the music that has to do the work. You can have fun on stage, you can try to add to the stimulation and to the excitement of the music."
For McGuinness, the challenge all along was finding a way to pay for this rock 'n' roll gala.
Though he had scant experience as a manager before taking on U2, McGuinness enjoys the same respect within the rock industry as his band. Jimmy Iovine, who worked with U2 as a producer before he co-founded Interscope Records, calls McGuinness "a master manager, someone who understands both the business of rock 'n' roll and the art of it."
McGuinness has made sure that U2 has always had total creative control over its recordings and, since 1983, full ownership of its song publishing. At the same time, he has made some shrewd financial decisions. When renegotiating U2's deal with Island Records in 1985, he took 10% ownership of the label rather than an adjusted royalty rate. When PolyGram bought Island for a reported $300 million in 1989, it meant around $30 million for the band.