The 80’s ended with Bono declaring that U2 needed to “go away and dream it all up again”. I don’t remember that statement being viewed as being very significant at the time, but hindsight has seen it take on much more significance than perhaps it merits. The backlash from Rattle and Hum no doubt played a part in needing to “go away”, but I think that 12 years of constant recording and touring may also have played a big part. Either way, U2 needed to figure out their next move.
Ireland was on something of a high in 1990. The national football had qualified for the world cup finals for the very first time. The tournament was held in Italy, and we had drawn Egypt, Holland and the old enemy, England in our group.
As was the tradition, the team recorded a song. A song that in 1990 Ireland, at least, was the greatest sound any Irish person had ever heard. This song also proved to be the first u2 related music of the 90’s, as Larry was given writing production credits. Ireland went football crazy in June 1990. We beat England 1 – 1, drew with Egypt 0-0 (in what was probably the worst game of football EVER) and a 1 – 1 with Holland was enough to qualify Ireland for a last 16 match against Romania in Genoa. Another 0 – 0 draw played out and the game went to penalties. Each team scored their first 4 penalties. Then Up stepped Daniel Timofte to take Romania’s last penalty. He hit it well but Ireland’s ‘keeper, Packie Bonner, leapt like a salmon and pushed the penalty aside. Mayhem ensued, but Ireland still needed to score their final penalty. The job was entrusted to David O’Leary, a veteran defender nearing the end of his career. What happened next is part of Irish history
The penalty win over Romania led to Ireland being drawn in a quarter final showdown with the host country and one of the best teams on the planet, Italy, at the Olympic stadium, Rome. Italy won the game 1-0 and Ireland was out, but it didn’t matter. Something had changed within the Irish people. Suddenly there was a confidence, a belief that we were no longer the also rans. The football team came home to a hero’s welcome with over a million people cramming the streets of Dublin to welcome them back. I don’t know if what happened during the summer of 1990 had any direct effect on U2, but when Achtung Baby landed over a year later, in November 1991 it was obvious that these boys had found their mojo. The album was (almost) universally revered and praised. The songs seemed to be a million miles away from all that I had previously loved about U2, but upon closer listening they proved to be among the most raw and honest of U2’s career, they were just dressed up differently. There were none of the obvious stadium rock anthems that had become the staple of u2 in the 80’s, but it didn’t matter. This was better, better than everything that went before. Then came “The Fly” video complete with the new image. Leather clad, bug eyed, cigarette smoking, ass-shaking ROCK STARS. Ireland was on the up and U2 were leading the way, but it would be almost 2 years and another album before we got to see u2 live again in Ireland.
I don’t recall much anti-Bono/u2 feeling at that time in Ireland. It was a time when Ireland was going through a huge change. No longer was the church the dominant entity it had been – the first of the sexual abuse scandals was being uncovered – so we were almost without identity. We knew that we didn’t want to go back, but weren’t sure how to go forward. By the time ZooTV made it to the RDS arena at the end of August 1993, Achtung Baby was an old album and Zooropa too new for any but fans to be familiar with it. My recollection of those RDS shows is one of…not disappointment, per se, but something just didn’t click. The RDS is a terrible venue for a concert. The sound is appalling. Perhaps that played a part, but it is telling that as Achtung Baby is generally regarded as being U2’s finest hour, the RDS shows were the smallest venues and lowest attended U2 concerts in Ireland in over 30 years. With attendance at just over 30,000 per night. I remember leaving the RDS after the 1st show and being struck with how subdued the throng of people was. I know my own wife didn’t care for ZooTV (but she’s not a fan) Maybe we just didn’t “get it”. There was a sense that we ‘missed’ ZooTV. Despite the supermodel girlfriends, the belly dancers, and the calls to presidents, ZooTV sort of passed Ireland by.
By the mid 90’s it was not a story anymore that U2 were the biggest band on the planet, and they had long since stopped making the news for their conquests. A new generation of music fans was growing up to the sounds of the ‘Madchester’ scene; The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, and, in America, the birth of grunge with Nirvana. Once again the Irish football team had qualified for a world cup finals, this time in the USA 1994. A tournament I was lucky enough to attend. (I’m somewhere in that picture) U2 were “old guard” now, dismissed as ‘a good commercial band’ but not relevant to the teens of 1994 Ireland. Ireland didn’t need U2 to represent them anymore. Ireland and the Irish had a new identity. The football fans were feted around the world as being the best. Never caused trouble. They drank beer, they sang songs, they supported their team , then they went home….eventually.
The Kitchen nightclub, owned by Bono and Edge, opened in the basement of the Clarence hotel on Valentines night 1994. It was supposed to be the new glamorous hang-out for the supermodels and movie stars that now frequented Dublin. It was a terrible place. I ventured into it many times (in the vain hope of meeting Bono and Edge!! Never happened) the music was non-stop dance music, the beer was over-priced, and glamorous it was not. It did give us an inkling of what U2’s next direction would be. Bono and Edge’s fascination with dance music! When Pop was released in 1997, the initial view in Ireland (and elsewhere, I presume) was “What the fuck is that noise?” It wasn’t quite dance, It wasn’t quite rock, and it wasn’t quite finished. U2 had pretty much disappeared from the radar of the Irish people. They were just another band. There wasn’t a feeling of u2 putting Ireland on the map anymore. Ireland was firmly established on the map now. Riverdance, The Commitments, The Cranberries, My Bloody Valentine, Ash, My Left Foot. All raised the profile of Ireland. Bono’s philanthropy went unnoticed and U2 barely got a mention other than withering put-downs. It was upon this backdrop that Popmart arrived in Lansdowne Road on the 31st of August 1997. Emerging from the bowels of the stadium, making their way through the crowd “New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about pop music…” U2 were home. Lansdowne Road went wild. (It is still my wife’s favourite U2 show, but she’s not a fan… :/ ) It was huge, yet very very intimate, just like all the best U2 shows. We left the stadium on a high, the exact opposite to the atmosphere following ZooTV. People were bouncing out of the stadium. I could hear people asking “is tomorrow night sold out??” Everything was positive. Of course, when we arrived home on 31st of August, 1997 news started to come through from Paris about a crash involving Princess Diana. We all know what happened thereafter
The concert the following day was a strange one. We were Irish, Diana was a British Royal, but it was all everyone was thinking about, talking about. Bono dedicated MLK (I think it was MLK) to Diana and said that he couldn’t believe how much it was affecting him (or words to that effect) The concert was as good as can be expected and for the most part, what the whole world outside Lansdowne Road was talking about, was blocked out. The show ended, off U2 went and off we went. Popmart was a great success, but Pop was considered a failure (by U2 standards), and so, just like the 80’s, the 90’s ended with U2 on some unsteady ground and unsure of where they were headed. The decade kind of petered out for U2 (in Ireland at least). No fanfare, no promises of going away and dreaming it all up again. What might u2 do next? Would u2 even come back? No one, it seemed to me, cared too much.