U2: A History in Gigs No. 2—PopMart Leeds, Aug. 28, 1997* - U2 Feedback

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Old 03-20-2006, 07:57 AM   #1
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U2: A History in Gigs No. 2—PopMart Leeds, Aug. 28, 1997*

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 music—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 mid–'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 proved—if proof was needed—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 card—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"—as NME dubbed it—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.

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Old 03-20-2006, 10:38 AM   #2
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Excellent article Kenneth! I look forward to reading more of your writing. It reminded me of another insightful piece at Interference from a few months back. Here’s some snippets:

The press is a fickle thing. In 1997, having indulged U2's irony and mockery, it felt to me that the press was saying to the band, "OK, enough, we get you can do irony. Now let's have the hats and flags back." And while ZooTV was a distinctly urban, industrialized exercise in mockery, PopMart was a lot more sincere. But some people mistook the wrapping for the gift.

Simply put for some people, "Pop" and PopMart were a step too far. The idea of U2, once the most sincere band in rock, in Village People outfits, performing sub-Jesus Jones technopop, was a bridge too far. "Pop" failed because it worked at both levels—both utterly sincere and utterly satiric at the same time. The message of U2 hadn't changed, but the medium had, and in a culture which is presented as all surface/no subtext, some people were simply unable to compute. And, matched with a recession that saw many thousands of expensive unsold tickets sitting in offices across the United States, it was not too hard to deduce that maybe U2 should get back to basics and ditch the window dressing. But to me, and some other U2 fans, U2 was never as interesting as when it had that window dressing. In some respects, the Vertigo Tour is the offspring of both PopMart's grand staging and Elevation's intimate atmosphere.

So what made PopMart to me, the band's finest—and most underrated—moment?

Firstly, the vision. PopMart was huge and had a heart to match. PopMart took the established conventions of U2 and ZooTV, and instead of gritty and dirty, it went Day-Glo and playful.

The first time I saw the PopMart arch in the flesh was from a car. Driving into London's Wembley Stadium, the first thing I saw was that Arch. Legendary already for being a 100-foot tall yellow McDonald's sign, from miles away I could see a thin sliver of yellow and, yes, an inflatable olive poking off the top of a stick. I knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. By the time we entered the stadium and were looking at the gutsy and ridiculous stage, I knew that U2 had created something that some people just could not get. Some people just would not be able to comprehend what they were seeing. Some people don't like a challenge.

"I suppose in retrospect you have to draw the conclusion that the PopMart concept was asking a lot of American audiences. Whatever it was that we were playing around with, it wasn't touching the right buttons."—Adam in the November 2000 issue of Q Magazine.

On the stage images seemed to come from everywhere with the world's biggest video screen, four of the best musicians and some of the best songs, it was difficult to know what to do next or where to look. PopMart was the place where art and artifice met.

From a staging perspective, it was probably the most courageous staging the world has seen—an enormous art installation with a kick-ass soundtrack, topped off with a 100-foot tall olive, a 40-foot lemon on wheels, a 150-foot wide TV and an arch taller than the roof of a football stadium supporting a fluorescent orange pyramid of speakers. Given that there were no speakers at the sides of screens, the feeling was overwhelming, sound seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, and the eyes were assaulted by a playful perversion of nearly every cultural icon known to man.

And for PopMart U2 took previously disparate elements of culture and welded them together into a coherent and overwhelming whole. From the opening moments of the concert, where the stadia of the world were converted into giant shopping malls—"Thank You For Shopping At PopMart" read the signs and the plastic bags—and long-established conventions of cultural reading were reversed, we knew that nothing was what it seemed and yet everything was what it seemed. The joke was on capitalism and some people didn't like it.

The McDonald's arch became a grotesque speaker stack. The biggest television in the world was our backdrop. Established conventions were perverted, music became a product to be packaged and sold, and not only that, to be established as being sold knowingly as a pop group. U2 deconstructed the nature of commercialism with PopMart and showed the wiring under the board.

Some people didn't want to look even though it had pretty lights with whizz-bang sounds. Some people only like their rock sincere. Some people can't handle subtext. U2 was tired of playing it straight and here, PopMart took ZooTV to its logical conclusion. The band took the rule of Burroughs’ "Interzone" and made it flesh. "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

On the screens we were presented with Day-Glo, Warholesque interpretations of the world. The band members themselves became fodder for pop art, their faces duplicated on the screen in a variety of hues. Icons of the dead were irreverently presented as heroes of the age, and yet also as hip cool product, mixing fiction and fact. Ziggy Stardust was one of the Icons of The Passed Away shown during "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me,” alongside Bob Marley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison.

At this time, U2 took long established conventions and works of art and perverted them. Munch's "Scream" was recreated by The Edge and reset as a single cover. Warhol's portrait of Marilyn Monroe was recast with the prime movers in Ireland's political crisis. U2 was cast as The Village People in the video for "Discotheque" and, then again, as superheroes in a deserted city for the video of "Last Night On Earth." Lichtenstein's pop art comic books of war were brought to life on the PopScreen. Kubrick's "2001" was re-imagined as a Windows screensaver during "Where the Streets Have no Name." The established ways of reading a text no longer applied: the ZooTV ethos of "question everything" was extended to its logical extreme with PopMart.

Next came a belly dancing, cross dresser on the video screens and a UFO landing into "Lemon" whilst gigantic mechanized fruit traversed the stadium. At this time U2 was at its most audacious, most ballsy and, yes, most playful. No white flags, no sermonizing about war and human rights.

But to many the wind had changed. U2 couldn't do this. Where were the three chords and the truth? Even now some fans lambaste U2 for making techno with "Pop" and for getting off message. People like to place bands in boxes. Sincerity, white flags, hats? That's U2. Ballads about John and Jane fighting to achieve the American Dream? That's Broooooce. People don't like bands to step out of those boxes. Some people decided what they wanted U2 to be and in their minds U2 could be nothing else. U2 never went off message, just put the same picture in a new, shiny frame with glitzy disco balls. And it was fabulous.

"The irony is, there's no irony in those songs [on Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop]. There's never been any artifice in the material itself... the past decade of artifice [was in] the presentation of the material."—Bono in the November 2000 Q.

The message was still there but the members of U2 were also working as great artists. Seeing the world through a lens and re-presenting it to us through their own eyes. Art is how the artist sees the world.

As Bono said on that fateful night in Dublin, U2 had to go away and dream it all up again, in new colors and with brand new shoes. PopMart was, and is, the band's finest achievement in mixing a serious message with a fundamentally flippant medium and speaking the truth in a way that ensured it could be believed if it could seen. Sadly, with time and circumstance, many people now no longer wish to admit that they saw it and no longer can admit that PopMart was, and is, one of the best concert tours of all time and, despite baffled reviewers and sometimes poor ticket sales, was the band at the peak of its abilities.

Defending U2’s PopMart
By Mark Reed

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Old 03-20-2006, 04:24 PM   #3
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Its 2006 and I still haven't dried out.
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Old 03-20-2006, 05:00 PM   #4
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Leeds is the best Popmart gig. It is also one of the top 3 U2 concerts ever.
Anyone who doesn't have this concert should get it fast.
2 hours of pure rock and roll.
U2 have never rocked so hard as on the Leeds 1997 gig.
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Old 03-20-2006, 05:14 PM   #5
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I was at this gig awesome it was and yes the bootleg ain't bad either!! le cock up indeed!!
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Old 03-21-2006, 09:10 AM   #6
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U2-Beatles Radio Interview

Amazing Article Kenneth !!!,

and the topic of the interview has everything to do with the contents of Kenneths's article.

We discuss the contents of my site "The Ethereal Connection: a synthesis of U2 and The Beatles", and at some point a similar dynamic than the one that arose between George Harrison and U2, takes place between him and me. In advance i would say that English is not my mother lenguage, and that i took a break from work to do the interview and i work at a night club so i was not in the best shape to do it, anyway, i think its freaking interesting in the ligth of Kenneth's article.

Instructions to listen to the show:

-go to: www xzone-radio com / archives.htm
-scroll down to the March 16th show
-click on the “Play Now” button
-The show lasts 4 hours and I am the fourth guest so you have to
forward the file until 3:15:00 to start listening to the interview.
-And with this you can skip the commercials:
Show Starts 3:15:00
Commercial Break 3:27:42
Show Continues 3:33:22
Commercial Break 3:49:04
Show Continues 3:54:59

Peace and Love
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Old 03-21-2006, 10:25 PM   #7
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Dude I have to get my hands in this concert , specially coz I'm a big deffender of Pop and Popmart , and to listen a show that the band had to prove something , had must been a hell of perfomance . Besides as far as I know , only the US in the entire world didn't like PopMart , see Europe , Latin America and the rest of the world , everybody liked and enjoyed the tour .

And for the comments of George couldn't be more shocked and upset , man the guitar master of the Beatles bashing out your favorite band , that's just......... I'm actually surprised that Bono answered this way , I mean he couldn't have done better , but it doesn't sound much like him , but it's normal , that must have hurt.
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Old 03-22-2006, 06:35 PM   #8
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Could someone please post a link to 1st in this series( a history in gigs no1)
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Old 03-22-2006, 10:16 PM   #9
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Originally posted by pride346
Could someone please post a link to 1st in this series( a history in gigs no1)
Here you go, it was about Live Aid.

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Old 03-23-2006, 12:28 PM   #10
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Thanks dsmith2904 for the link to the Live Aid one. I read it again and another fantastic article Kenneth!

Thinking about other key U2 concerts.............so many. One that comes to mind is their 9/11 performances of Peace On Earth / Walk On (the sunglasses are off! And the heartbreaking “sister, see you when I get home”) and the Super Bowl set (the red glow sticks and three storey high scrolling names). Emotionally powerful. World wide audience size? Press coverage of both events?

Sure, ATYCLB was very well received. Beautiful Day was a success. It received 3 Grammies. The first 2 Legs of The Elevation Tour were highly praised and sold out every venue. But I wonder how much U2’s response to 9/11 had as an impact on America (and the world for that matter) in the grieving process. As well as I wonder what sort of a factor did it have in influencing their “resurrection” from the late 90s? I begin thinking not only these 2 performances but also how they bookend-ed everything else: the immediate radio 9/11 remixes of certain ATYCLB songs; CNN using “New York” in their initial coverage; the internet broadcast of the Notre Dame concert the New York firefighters and police brought up on stage; the New York Tribute concert using “New York” for a segment; the 3rd Leg press concert reviews describing the shows as healing experiences; the Grammy Album of the Year articles discussing how it became the “soundtrack” for the Fall of 01; etc. America suffers an enormous tragedy and it’s an “Irish” rock band which plays a major role in the consolation and healing of the nation.
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Old 03-26-2006, 12:24 PM   #11
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Great, great stuff. Congrats Kenneth!

PopMart was one of U2's greatest and best tours. It really tells you a lot about them as a band and as a creative group of people. It was more than just music with that tour. They were fucking ballsy, unpredictable, original and undoubtedly a few steps ahead to the rest of the world without losing their own charm that they had created throughout the years. Great stuff indeed.
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Old 04-04-2006, 11:24 PM   #12
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Fantastic article I need to get ahold of Leeds!

and I certainly agree that Pop was ahead of its time... the message of Popmart even more than the album itself really was similar to what Yorke was trying to bring across with Kid A, I think.
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Old 04-11-2006, 10:08 AM   #13
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brilliant article! still need the whole show, what i have is superb!

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