Grand Pop

Transcribed by Stephen Holda

In a What’s On exclusive, Sean Sennett goes to Brazil to check out U2’s PopMart extravaganza.

It’s four-o’clock in the morning and The Edge looks immaculate. Two hours earlier, U2 played Brazil’s Sao Paulo soccer stadium to 85,000 of the faithful. It was an intense performance. During the show helicopters circled the arena – maybe 20m above the outer circle.

The throngs’ focus on the band was so extreme, it was as if they barely noticed. The bulk of the audience arrived at the venue seven hours before showtime. For a country that suffers such extremes in wealth, and despite the extravaganza they witnessed, the event somehow reinforced the emotional kick, and universal appeal of the group’s latest tour, Popmart.

Ensconced in the makeshift dressing room, The Edge sports a moustache-distinctly bandito. He’s wearing a leopard-print shirt and an oversized straw cowboy hat. The only straight guy in the Village People? You’d be forgiven for thinking as much. Despite the humidity, there’s not a drop of sweat on him. He bums a cigarette and gets down to business.

Popmart itself is big business. For the tour, U2 has created the biggest television set in the world. It looms behind the band every night. The group performs under a huge golden arch which carries the largest orange PA system you’re ever likely to see. Ever seen a 35m toothpick, lancing a giant olive? How about the world’s largest lemon which doubles as a mirrorball?

Rest assured, U2 still likes to glam it up. In many ways Popmart goes beyond the group’s previous ZooTV tour. ZooTV attacked the senses with the shock of the new. The seamless mix of old and new songs featured on the Popmart tour go straight for that delicate spot behind the rib cage, and slightly to the left. Popmart fuses images from the pop-art world with U2’s brand of pop music.

Three years ago, critics were expecting U2 to go quietly. In retaliation, the band has become bigger and badder than ever.

“We’re not interested in doing the safe thing,” says The Edge. “We want to do the most vital, most challenging, most inspiring things. To do the things that we never have done before is really important. In some ways, it’s the only reason to do anything. That’s where we live.”

Regardless of the extreme visual set, the show carries a certain humility. It’s carried in that direct emotional quality apparent from the opening bars of Mofo, through to whatever the band chooses to close with.

The themes are timeless – love, loss, pride, passion and, ultimately, redemption of sorts. Refering to the new stage design, bassist Adam Clayton says the group’s playing is “the heart under the arch.”

“Music that impresses us isn’t that interesting,” says The Edge. “Music that connects in some way, well, that’s something You’re not sure why it is or what makes one song mean everything, while another means nothing. But that’s the magic of music. For us, in the end, the show is about music. That’s what we set out to do in the very beginning. When we were putting this show together, we always saw that at the heart of it would be the music, and the songs themselves.”

The group may have changed substantially since the days of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum-but it has still got soul. The band’s most recent release, Pop, might now feature drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. inflicting a trip-hop groove or two, but it has stuck with a credo that began in Dublin nearly 20 years ago.

“We’re always heading in the same direction,” says The Edge. “We simply want to create music that is going to mean everything to us, music to blow our minds. There’s no strict approach in how to do that. Long ago, we realized that if you stick to strict approaches, you end up with repetitive sounding records. So, part of what drives us forward as a band is finding new approaches and new ideas all the time.”

The evolution of U2 as a recording and touring act has been constant. The severe left turn hit its traditional audience in 1991 with Achtung Baby. Zooropa continued the trip, Pop is as fresh and consistent as anything the group has committed to tape.

“For us, there’s no such thing as classifications in music,” says The Edge……it’s good or bad. If it’s great, then it’s great for a reason. We’re interested in what makes music great. We want it. We’re quite greedy in that respect, we’re not prepared to stay within our small area of music. We want to keep moving, we don’t want to get tied down.”

Twelve hours later, on the 23rd floor of Sao Paulo’s Renaissance Hotel, Bono saunters in. These day it appears as if Bono has been styled by Senor Castro, apart from the silver wrap-around shades. (Fidel wouldn’t be caught dead in those). For Bono, they’re now almost de rigeur.

Despite the plush interior, outside Sao Paulo resembles a scene from Blade Runner. Fuelled by South American cocktails, it’s fair to say Bono’s been enjoying his day off. Now, even more so than Bob Dylan, Bono has become rock’s foremost chameleon. One year he’s out for a sainthood, the next he’s playing the devil.

His private moments tend to offer a certain humility. But he’s Irish, so the humility may occasionally be followed by a sly grin-a wink from under the army hat.

Bono, in Sao Paulo in 1998, is a long way from Paul Hewson who started out singing Peter Frampton’s Show Me The Way in a Dublin classroom, with the other members of U2 behind him, more than two decades ago.

“Paul is dead, Paul is dead,” Bono says in mock reference to 1967 and the well known Sgt. Pepper theme. “It’s not who you’re born, it’s who you decide to be,” he says of the way he’s changed. “I was born into a family, in a situation where being average was the highest achievement and I guess I’ve lived up to that.”

“My father, whom I’m close to now and I love, taught me not to drink. He taught me not to have big ideas. It’s the Boy Named Sue situation. I owe him for that. That’s where the design of who I was going to be came from. I don’t believe in average in the end. I don’t believe anyone is. I tell you what, being a pop star is low on the list next to nurse, mother, firemen, whatever. It’s low, low, low on the list. But having a sense of something else and pursuing it was not taught to me, the opposite was.”

Lately, Bono has been enjoying playing with his new Popmart TV set. The enormity of Popmart seems a logical procession to the singer. And to U2’s credit, they and the fans have built the visual spectacle. Unlike the Rolling Stones and others, you won’t see Popmart sponsored by a phone company or running shoes.

“ZooTV was a bit smartarse,” he says, “and a bit conceptual. With Popmart we just want to get to the joy of things. In our head, ZooTV was a sci-fi gospel show.”

“Popmart feels good to me. It’s brightly coloured, where a lot of things now are done with more muted tones. I do believe in it. It’s cost us a fortune. It even costs the people who come see us a fortune. We’ve no sponsor. We’re stick our fucking arse out of the window but we’re coming off okay. Just ‘okay’ is all we need. I’m proud, because I think it’s fresh.”

To Bono, presenting an album like Pop in this type of large arena is a logical marriage. “If the word ‘pop’ means anything, it means ‘in the moment’. That’s it. That’s what we’re about. With Pop, it was us saying here we are living in a time where ephemera is everything, glossy magazines are everything, fun is the order of the day. We wanted to see what else is going on, while enjoying right now. There’s deeper questions in the record and the show, but we’ve made it look completely fresh.”

The night is starting to disappear. There are planes to catch. The U2 boys are spreading the Pop word globally. Bono reaches into his travel bag and produces a bottle of the local firewater. “I bought it for you,” he says as I examine the contents. “Thirty-six hours on a plane back to Australia-you’re going to fucking need it.”

Win U2 tickets What’s On has five double tickets to give away to the U2 Popmart concert at the ANZ Stadium. To be in the draw, phone 005568213 by midnight February 15. Winners will be notified by telephone on February 16. Calls are charge at the Broadsystem rate of 50cents a minute. Mobiles and public phones are higher.

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