The Edge interview: Memory Man
GW In consideration of U2’s induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what image from your past stands out the strongest: performing in the fog and rain at Red Rocks, walking out of a giant lemon on the Popmart tour or performing on a flatbed truck through the streets of Manhattan?
THE EDGE [smiles] Probably all of them in different measures. See, that’s something people sometimes forget: that we’ve always played with theatricality. Even as a young band in Dublin, we knew rock and roll was a show. David Bowie was a big influence on us. He had amazing songs, but what a performer! Putting it all together is what keeps us going. We constantly ask ourselves, How can we put on a great show but still be a big garage band? It’s funny you mention Red Rocks. Looking back on that footage—and not just how fashion-challenged we were [laughs]—it’s amazing how many mistakes we made onstage. Some of it makes me cringe. Of course we were nervous as hell; it felt like a big gig. But despite the mistakes and everything going wrong, you can’t argue with the commitment we brought to the stage.
GW What about Red Rocks makes you cringe?
THE EDGE Bono waving the white flag. It became such a symbol for us. But the thing is, it’s something we took from our audience; it isn’t something Bono went out to do intentionally. Lots of people would bring flags and banners to the shows, and Bono just went with it.
GW U2 have never shied from being “big.” Your sound was big, your ideas were big, the way you approached live performing—big… Has “big” ever felt like a burden?
THE EDGE In a word, no. We grasped early on that this is what we want to do. We wanted our music to get everywhere. When we grew up, it was always a thrill if one of our favorite bands got on the radio or Top of the Pops, ’cause most of the time they weren’t. When punk rock broke on a mass level, when the Sex Pistols and the Jam got on Top of the Pops, the impact was huge. It was like, “Look, our heroes are next to the enemy!” So right away, we knew we wanted to be a band that has the reach to become successful on a global scale, to get on TV and to be played on radio, but also to be the musical exception rather than the norm. We never felt embarrassed about our aspirations. We couldn’t do what we wanted without getting big. We were always very upfront about wanting…everything. [laughs]
GW Even so, did you feel as if you were, to some degree, outsiders? The ethos of Seventies punk rock was so anti–rock star—antibig.
THE EDGE It wasn’t so much anti–rock star as it was anti–shite music. Punk rock was a response to all the boring, pretentious bands. It was about getting back to essentials and remembering what rock and roll was all about—that it should be political, it should have passion; that it should play a social role in the community, and that it affects people’s lives. It sure affected my life. I’m convinced that the worst thing musically that ever happened to rock was the whole Seventies progressive-rock, jazz-fusion period. Music got so up its own arse. No passion. It was real navel-gazing crap.
GW What bands are we talking about?
THE EDGE I don’t even want to name bands, although, come on, it’s so clear who I’m talking about. Bands that made these ridiculous progressive musical excursions that ultimately took you nowhere. Again, where’s the passion, the life? You see, rock and roll isn’t a career or hobby—it’s a life force. It’s something very essential. We didn’t go into this because we thought it’d be a good way to put our kids through college. Rock and roll is just something I have to do. It’s my raison d’être on every level. Great music changes your life. That’s the kind of music I want to listen to, the kind of music I want to make. I don’t want to make interesting wallpaper. I need to make something that’s challenging, I don’t want to make…
GW You don’t want to make product.
THE EDGE “Product.” See, that’s a record company term. No band thinks about making product. But I do think that, all too easily, bands get caught up in the trap of trying to please the industry, and that’s the kiss of death. The only way to make something pure and unique is to ignore what is going on, what’s hot this minute and the next. After you’ve made your record, sure, then it’s entirely appropriate to think about where it’s going to go in the marketplace and what steps have to be taken.
GW But the industry should follow the music, not vice versa.
THE EDGE Absolutely. A lot of people forget that one.
GW In a recent interview with Time magazine, you described songwriting and making records as “painful and laborious.” You also said that Adam and Larry were particularly tough on you and Bono during the writing sessions for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
THE EDGE They can be very tough gatekeepers, it’s true. See, I get so involved in writing and recording that I’m probably the first one to lose all objectivity. Adam and Larry aren’t as involved in that process, so it’s that distance that enables them to come in and go, “Hey, Edge, you might think we’re done, but we’re not. In fact, we’re far from done.” [laughs] That’s what happened with what I call “phase one” of this record, the stuff we did with Chris Thomas.
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