U2: A History in Gigs No. 2â€”PopMart Leeds, Aug. 28, 1997*
March 20, 2006 · Print This Article
By Kenneth Maclellan
The second in a continuing series of articles using specific concerts to show where U2 was at key times during in its career.
For such a criticized period in U2 history, it’s surprising how many key shows the band played during the PopMart Tour. There was Sarajevo with U2 keeping its promise to perform for those who had endured the horrors of the Bosnian conflict, a people the band had championed and given voice to during Zooropa four years earlier. There was Belfast, closer to home, another city afflicted by political and religious division, U2′s gig the first major concert to be held there since the ceasefire began. There was Buenos Aires and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. South Africa, Chile and Israel were added to the tour itinerary for the first time. The 1998 concerts in Australia and Japan would be the band’s last on Australasian soil for almost a decade.
While these concerts may be Polaroid photos of a changing world, or historic moments in U2 history, they give a skewed indication of the band’s standing in 1997. By the time U2 played Belfast, the earliest of the gigs listed above, the common perception of "Pop" and PopMart had set in the mind of the public and it was not universally favorable. For a time it looked as though U2′s place as rock’s No. 1 creative, populist force was coming to a close.
The day after the Belfast show, a rare, new George Harrison interview was published in a French newspaper. According to the Irish Mirror, after dismissing U2 and lumping the band in with Oasis and the Spice Girls as "disposable pop," the ex-Beatle said the following: "Will we remember U2 in 30 years time? I doubt it. One thing irritates me about current musicâ€”everything is based on ego. Look at a group like U2. Bono and his band are so egocentric. It’s horrible. The more you shout, the higher you jump, the bigger your hat, the more people listen to your music. It’s nothing to do with talent."
The next day PopMart called at Roundhay Park in Leeds. It was August but someone forgot to tell the elements. The rain lashed down, drenching the support act Cast. Shortly before 9 pm, U2 took the stage. Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and Edge walked along the catwalk and took up their positions, and as he had throughout the tour, Bono appeared in robes of a boxer. Within three songs, the gloves of rock’s most celebrated diplomat would come off and he’d regress back to the Grafton St. punk of the midâ€“’70s.
Over the intro to "Even Better Than the Real Thing," Bono told the audience, "Good people of Yorkshire, you’ve made a terrible mistake. George Harrison says you shouldn’t be here. It’s all about big f–king hats and lemons and ego. This one’s for you, George. Pump it up!" As the crowd jeered the ex-Beatle, Bono gave him a one-fingered salute.
The band also seemed fired up, playing as if it had something to prove. As anyone who was there, or who has heard the bootleg of the show will testify, Leeds saw outstanding versions of oldies like the aforementioned "Real Thing," as well as "New Year’s Day," and provedâ€”if proof was neededâ€”that the likes of "Please" and "Gone" could stand proudly alongside the classics.
But given the criticism and derision that U2 had encountered in 1997, why should Harrison’s opinion get to Bono and Co. so much?
Perhaps it was the culmination of the criticism. While "Pop" was far from flawless, it initially received applause from sections of the music press for its bravery and scope. Even the NME gave it a very credible 8/10 review. Unusually for a U2 album though, it was the public rather than the critics who were disappointed, who were more reluctant to put their hands together, or in their pockets. Many older fans, who loved U2 in the ’80s, simply did not enjoy the album’s electronica surface. And while a new generation of fans had found the band via "One" or "Mysterious Ways" earlier in the decade, singles like "Discotheque" and "Staring at the Sun" did little to convince many fans of The Prodigy or The Verve that "Pop" should be their next purchase.
However, U2 had a trump cardâ€”its live show. The K-Mart launch of the PopMart Tour was cheeky and kooky, fuelling the excitement held by many at the prospect of U2 taking to the road again. The last tour had been the ZooTV/Zooropa extravaganza, a concert experience so fresh and daring and technologically advanced that no band in the intervening years had dared to equal it, let alone better it. That challenge, then, fell to the members of U2 themselves. On paper, the giant video wall, the arches, the 40-foot lemon certainly looked capable of matching the Trabants and buzzwords of ZooTV.
Back then, of course, U2 had chopped down its "Joshua Tree" image in the early ’90s with trash and irreverence, seeing Bono employing characters such as The Fly and MacPhisto. Through these alter-egos, U2 underlined its ironic intent. However, on PopMart the irony wasn’t so pronounced or as in-your-face as the earlier tour was. The band was looking around, asking if there was still heart and spirituality in a world where individuality was becoming repressed by the corporate homogenous. It used satire to do so, and the upshot was irony aplenty: U2 was satirizing globalization while touting the world plugging a product as standardised as an album; the song selection was virtually identical in every city, a McSetlist if you will; and, by not using characters, by playing it straight, using less theatrical set pieces and screen messages than ZooTV, U2 were everything you would expect from the U2 brand: a passionate and engaging rock n’ roll band. In order to make an effective comment on consumer culture, branding and logos, PopMart required the band to be itself. On PopMart its charisma and values and, more importantly, its music, were the heart amid the technology and the satirising of brands. In a way, answering the fundamental question that the show asked. U2 may have looked like The Village People, but it was very much itself. However, by blurring the distinction between person and persona, the band invited confusion from the public.
Crucially, damagingly, the first PopMart show, performance-wise, wasn’t what people had come to expect from U2. The reason for "FlopMart"â€”as NME dubbed itâ€”was that the stadium dates had been booked before the album had been completed, the extended album sessions required to finish "Pop" ate up the band’s rehearsal time, and so the resultant, rusty opening performance in Las Vegas, in front of the world’s media, lead to the wrong kind of headline. Expectation, the band may have thought reading the reviews, can be a pest. Soon U2 media coverage became a game of finding new uses for the word lemon.
So when the band did get into its stride, there were many still unable or unwilling to square the men in oxygen masks and camp cowboy garb singing "Miami" with those in black and white on the cover of "The Joshua Tree." There were even those who accused U2 of selling out, missing the point of the golden arches et al completely. Ironically enough, the tour was not one of the band’s most lucrative ventures commercially.
Initially, the band’s response to the criticism veered between the self-depreciative and the defiant, illustrated by Bono’s comments in the Irish Times in the lead up to the Belfast show: "It was a little dodgy . . . We were a bit crap. But . . . we can be crap if we want to. It’s not Broadway. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll show."
Despite the annoyance and defiance, typified by the "Pump it up!" outburst, U2 became almost apologetic for "Pop" and PopMart as time wore on. Even over the course of the Leeds show, Bono’s attitude shifted markedly, remarking before "I Still Haven’t Found," "We brought the 40-foot lemon, of course. I hope you like this sh-t because you paid for it." Then he paused and said, "Thanks for sticking with us."
If ZooTV was the "Sgt. Pepper" of rock tours, then PopMart was U2′s "Magical Mystery Tour" and maybe that’s what stung Bono about Harrison’s comments, his lack of empathy for U2′s predicament. The biggest band in the world bewildering fans shortly after its greatest innovation? This was as true of The Beatles in late ’67 as it was of U2 in ’97.
Then again, it may be something more fundamental, more personal that caused Bono to publicly lash out at Harrison. Perhaps it was that Bono simply felt hurt that Harrison didn’t see or appreciate that U2 was the modern equivalent of The Beatles in terms of a band using its music and position to unite and inform its audience, raising questions along the way, employing modern means to do so. The fact that Harrison was contemptuous of U2 would have been hard to take especially as The Beatles were heroes of U2 and had had an impact on the fledgling Bono, a point acknowledged by the singer in Hot Press in 2001:
"We were great fans of his [Harrison] and I do think that he brought a dimension to [The Beatles] that gave depth to the consummate pop writing that it couldn’t have had without him. His taking on the taboo of religion also made an impression on me as a teenager. I used to think if rock ‘n’ roll means anything, it means liberation. It means freedom to express yourself sexually, politically, and of course, spiritually. But very few people do. And he was one of the first before Dylan, before Marvin Gaye and Marley."
Underlining this, snippets of Harrison songs found their way into the Leeds set. The nod to "Here Comes the Sun" in "Last Night on Earth" was more pronounced and lines from "Something" and "My Sweet Lord" were slotted into "Mysterious Ways." At first, it’s difficult to know how to take this referencing. Initially it may seem a kind of passive-aggressive retort, but it was more likely a kind of mirroring: reflecting how relevant the spiritual concerns from 30 years before were in 1997, at the same time showing that though the style and packaging may be different, what U2 were exploring through rock n’ roll was in a similar vein to that of "The Quiet Beatle." Indeed, it almost goes without saying that spirituality has always been a key factor in the music of U2.
The band may have closed the Leeds show with a defiant cover of The Beatles’ "Rain," the last lyric of the gig being, "Rain, I don’t mind." In terms of the rain of criticism that poured down on them throughout the "Pop" era, U2 did mind.
But while "Pop" may have not have resonated with people as well as other eras of the band, it didn’t negate the validity of the point U2 were making at the time about the lack of soul in an increasingly materialistic society. Conceptually it had moved on, switching style and subject, ditching the surrealism of ZooTV for pop art, information overload for consumerism. They were looking around them and seeing a "god shaped hole," a generation defining itself with consumer durables and designer labels, measuring itself against advertising’s ideals. The only problem was that it was three years ahead of its time. If PopMart had come along in 2000, when "No Logo" and "Kid A" were in vogue, it would have certainly been more celebrated.
By then, Bono was deeply involved with Jubilee/Drop the Debt campaign, making the step up from rock ‘n’ roll activist to rock n’ roll ambassador, going a step further than The Beatles, engaging world leaders directly and persuasively. Of course, without an electorate, Bono’s political power was only as good as the band’s popularity and relevance. It was crucial then that the band maintained this and so U2 had to find a new direction that would not only connect with the fans they had, but those lost through "Pop," and also the next generation of music enthusiasts and so U2 produced, "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," 11 slants on the disposable pop song. This was a very astute move given the sales and acclaim the album received, as well as the Elevation Tour’s status as 2001′s hot ticket. U2 had put itself forward as candidates for biggest band in the world again, and been given the vote by both the public and the music press, ensuring that it will be remembered in 30 years time. Given Bono’s reaction to Harrison’s comments a few years earlier, however, that U2 should do so by pursuing this musical route is as ironic as anything it did during its luminous and experimental ’90s.