Fly that gave a tree the chop

U2: The Best of Propaganda

May 14, 2004

In 1982, Brian Eno was invited by U2 to produce their third album. Eno was a former member of glam-era Roxy Music, collaborator with David Bowie and Talking Heads, and pioneer of ambient music. Over the previous two years, U2 had carved out a growing and passionate following, but they played serious, flag-waving stadium rock with Christian overtones. The two parties seemed unlikely bedfellows, and Eno, uninspired by listening to their records, turned them down more than once.

But the young Irishmen persisted, and eventually persuaded him to produce their fourth studio album. It proved an inspired choice. As Eno explains in U2: The Best of Propaganda , he functioned mainly as a catalyst, stepping back and providing perspective, suggesting the unexpected, always frank in his comments. The Unforgettable Fire (1984) was a critical and commercial triumph, and still sounds both powerful and experimental today. U2 have continued to work with Eno (in tandem with Daniel Lanois) on most of their releases since, including the three pivotal albums The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991) and All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000).

It is rare indeed for a pop group's fan club magazines to be dignified with the treatment given here to Propaganda , the official newsletter of U2. Its first issues were inspired by the wave of DIY fanzines that accompanied the punk explosion of the late 1970s, from which the band itself had emerged.

(Strictly speaking, Propaganda did not appear until 1986, being preceded by U2 Magazine , which ran from 1981 to 1985. Excerpts from both appear in this volume.) This is by no means a scholarly book (many articles have no byline) and it assumes prior knowledge, but it does shed light on the reasons behind the success of the world's biggest rock act of the past two decades, a band more interesting than they are often given credit for.

If their most important musical collaborators have been Eno and Lanois, U2 (like the Beatles) have had the knack of working with people who bring the best out of them, but the longevity of those relationships is exceptional.

The band still consists of the same four boys who formed it at school in 1976. They have kept their Dublin base, where they have been adroitly managed since 1978 by Paul McGuinness, and their record sleeves continue to be designed by Steve Averill. The majority of their imagery has been shot by the most distinctive music photographer of his generation, Anton Corbijn, many of whose pictures are included here (although the book's lack of photographic credits conceals this considerable asset).

The best insights are often provided by this inner circle rather than the four musicians themselves. McGuinness reveals that U2 had a clear strategy from the start, to build up a live following rather than relying on hit singles. This rendered them immune to the music business's developing fixation on image-led, marketing-driven chart success, the kind of short-termism that tends to curtail careers.

Eno, for his part, identifies "the lack of politics between band members" as a key ingredient of their success, enabling them to direct their creative energies into the music rather than petty feuding, a recurring problem for so many musicians working in rock and other fields.

Regular musical reinvention has been a keynote. Following the unfocused Americana of Rattle and Hum , their 1991 single The Fly , with its industrial guitars, dance-inflected rhythms and falsetto vocals, was their most important release, described here by vocalist Bono as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree ". The ensuing album, Achtung Baby , has been portrayed as their Blood on the Tracks . Like Bob Dylan's 1975 return to form, it is a tortured masterpiece, in which the musicians embrace turmoil, irony, ambiguity, and their own dark side. This reinvention paved the way for further explorations, and the band has found liberation in embracing film and literature, working with the likes of Wim Wenders and Salman Rushdie.

The hyperactive Bono now tempers his egomania with a likeable self-awareness, or harnesses it in worthwhile directions, such as his high-profile campaigns against third-world debt. Similar contradictory tensions, between the bombastic and the humble, the anthemic and the humane, are present in the music: or, as Bono puts it here, in a 1986 quote: "There's always been two sides to U2, the energy and the atmosphere." In the long run, they have skilfully negotiated a precarious path. Next year the band publish a collective autobiography; until then, this volume will provide the most valuable insider's perspective on them.

Oliver Craske edited The Beatles Anthology and Playback , the autobiography of George Martin.

U2: The Best of Propaganda: 20 Years of the Official U2 Magazine

Author - U2 and Paul McGuinness
Publisher - Carlton
Pages - 288
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 84442 987 3

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