In U2’s 35-plus years of existence, no member has ever died, been fired, or left. The members of U2 have never gone on an “indefinite hiatus” or succumbed to splintering solo projects. On the contrary, they have performed at an extremely high level and been one of the world’s most popular bands throughout most of their career.
They are, indisputably, in the “1%” of bands, as much for their financial standing as for their mastery of the band dynamic.
Commentators will continue to debate whether their recent Apple-sponsored release, “Songs of Innocence”, was a spammy debacle or a savvy and disruptive business move. A more interesting discussion, however, is about how U2 got here—standing shoulder to shoulder with one of the world’s biggest technology giants. How could four Irish teens with the musical ability of a bag of hammers keep a band together long enough to become a commercial juggernaut to begin with, and how can younger groups learn from their unlikely success?
Decisions and Divisions (of Labor)
U2’s most recognizable member is, without a doubt, Bono, the band’s outspoken frontman. In public, Bono certainly plays up–even encourages–the perception that he has an outsized ego. He wears sunglasses and devil horns. He gives TED talks and hangs out with Bill Gates. He shows up in seemingly every music documentary ever, spouting holy opinions you probably weren’t interested in to begin with. Behind the scenes and within the confines of his band, though, Bono is just another member—one with equal say in every decision and equal stake in every outcome.
In her book Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M., Radiohead, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mirit Eliraz quotes U2’s longtime manager Paul McGuinness as calling the band “obsessively—sometimes annoyingly—democratic.” (McGuinness receives a fifth of royalty shares, just like each band member). Though at times the band members have called this quest for unanimous consent on issues both big and small “excruciating”, they also recognize the benefit: decisions can’t be made just for the sake of one member’s ego.
Perhaps you’ve been in a band, had a bad show or practice, and had that ego-driven moment when you look sideways at your bandmate and think ‘I can sing/play guitar better than that guy.’ But what if you all play different instruments, you all stink equally and you know it?
“When you think of our start, we all started with minus points,” bassist Adam Clayton told The Bergen County Record in 1985. “There wasn’t even the remotest possibility of anyone having an ego. More importantly, we reveled in seeing each other getting better.” Over time, each member developed a singular style, a singular input to the music, and thus an indispensable role in the band. Although Bono will continue to get the headlines, he is also the first to admit that the band members all need each other to write music, and that if they challenge each other, all the better. “I always think you’re as good as the arguments you get,” he has said.
Is U2 the best-selling Christian rock band of all time? One could make a case, as Joshua Rothman suggested in his 2014 New Yorker article “The Church of U2”. In addition to every member besides Adam Clayton being devoutly Christian, the band has several songs with either thinly veiled, or open references to religion and faith.
In their early years, this faith caused friction within the band, particularly for The Edge, who contemplated leaving the October-era U2, feeling that his religious spirituality and the rockstar lifestyle were at odds. He and the band eventually realized it was a imaginary division that could be flipped on its head. Bono, The Edge, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., broke with Shalom, the organized religious community that they belonged to in Ireland, redirecting their impulse toward faith back into the band.
“I think the most important thing, the most important element in painting a picture, writing a song, making a movie, whatever, is that it be truthful,” Bono told Mother Jones in 1989, in response to a question of rock and religion being at odds. “Rock ‘n’ roll, and the blues, they’re truthful. It says in the Scriptures, ‘Know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
Bono has said before that the band is ‘on a mission’ to improve the world, but stops short of shoehorning any specific religious dogma into that mission statement. However the mission takes shape, being in one of the most successful rock bands in the world provides plenty of resources and influence for good. “To miss realizing the potential of what a band like U2 can achieve in various different spheres, to me, is betrayal,” Bono told Spin in 2009.
The Challenge of the Music
A typical band’s songwriting, recording, and touring schedule may look something like this:
- Write a bunch of songs, and practice the hell out of them when no one is looking until they are very good (but you are sort of sick of them),
- In an effort to save money, record them quickly and with minimal mistakes (and without much room for creative exploration)
- Play those same songs over and over again to new audiences to promote the “new” album you just released, featuring songs that are probably now over a year old.
The perks of being U2, on the other hand, include things like unlimited studio time, indefinite album schedules, infinite recording budgets, and diverse production crews featuring multiple collaborators. This allows U2 to do most of their songwriting in the studio. Some elements evolve from jam sessions, and crystallize through meticulous re-working. . Others—like Bono’s vocal ideas—are invented on the fly and only captured because of U2’s legendary insistence on non-stop recording in the studio.
During the making Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 cycled through producers Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, and Flood regularly, and sometimes had all three working at once. Likewise, the band could work independently of one another simultaneously, doing overdubs or cooking up new ideas, often adding them at the last minute—sometimes to mixes that were otherwise finished already.
“What I did was push the performance aspect very hard, often to the point of recklessness,” Daniel Lanois said of the Achtung sessions. “I think that musical recklessness goes a long way on records. You don’t hear enough of it.”
Takes were often completed in “live” settings: the band performing all together with monitor mixes rather than headphones. Bleed was not a major consideration.
Often, hours of jamming would lead to nothing. The band filled over 180 2-hour DAT tapes with overdubs, not using most of them, but never giving permission to get rid of them either. They spent months recording in Berlin’s famed Hansa studios, only to come back with little more than a few half-formed ideas. They flew back from concerts in other European countries just to record at home in Dublin the same night.
Frivolous and indulgent? Maybe for any band not named U2. But when making music is your only job, when you can’t write songs without your bandmates, and when you’re not running out of money any time soon, writing in the studio sometimes makes practical sense.
U2 is a band that relishes the inherent challenges of sculpting music out of marble in real-time. They search for transcendent moments in the music—“the reason why we’re all here”—as Bono says in the beginning of Davis Guggenheim’s 2011 documentary From the Sky Down”. The film’s title comes from Bono’s own interpretation of how the band makes their music: They don’t write songs and then try to get these ‘moments’ out of them; rather, the moments of divine inspiration “become” the song.