by Dave Thompson
While the fan club lapped up the “old” U2, the band members themselves were preparing to inaugurate the “new” band.
After three albums recorded with producer Steve Lilywhite, they had already decided they needed a change, even before they realized that their musical ambitions, too, were shifting.
Initially they considered producing themselves, something which they had not done since their first two singles, recorded as unknowns back in Ireland. The names of Bert Whelan and Jimmy Iovine cropped up as well — U2 had worked with Whelan on one song on War, “Refugee,” and were interested in pursuing the partnership; while Iovine, best known for his work with Patti Smith, Tom Petty and Dire Straits, had overseen the Under A Blood Red Sky tapes.
However, the man they were most intrigued by was Brian Eno, and having arrived at that decision, their persistence astonished everybody — especially the myriad onlookers who laughed when they mentioned his name and sagely predicted that the wise old man of electronic experimentation would likely run screaming from the room at the prospect.
The Edge explained, “When we were deciding on a producer for [the next] record, [Eno’s] name kept coming up. I mean, within the band, there’s a variety of different tastes in music and producers and what have you, but whenever Brian’s name was brought up, it seemed to meet with unanimous approval.
“We’d been toying with this ambient music idea, the idea being that instead of going into a dead, acoustic atmosphere which is the usual studio sound, and then trying to revitalize the recorded work using effects and reverberation and all the standard musical trappings, we would go into a very live room and try to do the opposite, try and tame what would be a wild sound, something with musical excitement.”
They chose the ballroom of Slane Castle, a stately home in County Meath, Ireland, where 30-foot-high ceilings and a ballroom the size of a small nightclub would certainly challenge their customary way of making music. It was, on the other hand, precisely the environment that Eno would relish.
Eno’s relationship with rock music had always been very tenuous, after all. True, he started his public life aboard Roxy Music, before moving on to a pair of highly idiosyncratic solo albums in the mid-1970s. But he had always preferred to tackle the genre through the work of other artists, preferably those cut from the same adventurous cloth as he was — David Bowie’s so-called Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger; Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light trilogy; further collaborations with the Heads’ David Byrne; and so on.
Occasionally he was stirred to work with a more conventional rock band, but even Ultravox only lured him in with their banks of synthesizers, while an attempt to pair him with Television was doomed before it even got started.
“I’m not really interested in being a producer,” he told Melody Maker. “It’s not my main thing at all.”
And now, here were these four fresh-faced rock ’n’ rollers asking him if he’d oversee their next visit to the studio, as though there was anything in the world that he’d enjoy more than twiddling the knobs through whatever they chose for the follow-up to “New Year’s Day” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
U2 made their first approach to Eno in the summer of 1983, and he turned them down flat. They came back to him, he turned them down again. And again and again and again.
However, Eno said, “They just kept on nagging me, so much so that I listened briefly to some of their old material, which didn’t inspire me particularly.” So he turned them down again.
Only when it became painfully obvious that they weren’t prepared to take “no” for an answer did Eno finally agree to meet with them. And he was hooked immediately.
“Once I’d met Bono, I knew I had to work with him. I thought there was something about him, something that made the idea of spending time in the studio with him very interesting. His attitude struck me as very intelligent and inspiring. He talked about how they work as a band, not in terms of playing and so forth, but in terms of contribution, what contributed to the identity of the band as a whole. I hadn’t heard anyone talking about a band like that in a long while, and so, on that basis, out of curiosity, I agreed to work with them.”
He also felt that it could be a fascinating learning experience.
“I had a lot to learn from it,” he agreed. “I also knew it was a pretty controversial job when I decided on it, and that too appealed to me. I was mystified by their reasons for wanting me particularly. I wanted to discover just what it was they wanted from me.”
Bono admitted that the fact that Eno wasn’t a U2 fan added to the intrigue. “You should never work with people who are your fans, is my opinion. I knew he wasn’t a fan of us; it was one of the reasons we got to work with him. I wanted to know the other side of the argument. I knew what was right about us … I wanted to find out what wasn’t.”
The Edge admitted that the band was equally uncertain as to whether Eno was appropriate; that they had hounded him more out of curiosity than because they’d already convinced themselves he was the guy for them.
“It wasn’t until we met [him] that we were finally committed to the idea of him producing, because he is a very, very honest, no-bullshit kind of person. He’s worked with some of the most obscure avant-garde artists, but I think that’s just because he’s a little bored with some of the mainstream things. We felt maybe he was a little too contrived in the people he works with, but not at all. He’s a really solid guy, and he also agrees with so many of our unwritten rules about music, the axioms upon which we judge our music and other music. He seems to have so many common feelings about things, it’s remarkable.”
Common feelings? Forget how far it is from “Gloria” to “Baby’s On Fire,” it’s even further to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. No matter how often U2 insisted that they still had something to prove to themselves, a lot of people wondered if it wasn’t just hot air. Again, the band was on the top of the world. No. 1 records, sold-out arenas. How could they possibly have had anything left to prove, to either the world or to themselves?
“Yeah, it was an interesting time having climaxed — certainly commercially — in that way,” the Edge mused. “But those sorts of ambitions have never been important to us. We never set out to make No. 1. The thing that has really kept us going, kept us fresh, has been an artistic ambition. We didn’t climax on that tour or that album.”
Eno entered into the sessions, he said, without any preconceptions whatsoever, which in turn ensured “I had no blindfold to work against. I wasn’t acquainted with their work, [and] to tell the truth, I was concerned at the outset. I was unsure of what they wanted or expected from me. I emphasized that if I worked with them, the record would not sound like anything else they’d done and perhaps that would be a problem.”
In fact, it was exactly what U2 were hoping to hear.
by Dave Thompson