U2’s imperial phase–that period of their career where they could do nothing wrong–extended from the release of The Joshua Tree in March 1987 through to the end of the touring cycle for Achtung Baby. Okay, so maybe the Rattle and Hum film fell a little flat and the Zooropa album was…okay, but for the most part, U2’s trajectory brought them almost nothing but fame and acclaim.
By late 1995, though, U2 had run into a roadblock. Under pressure to come up with an album that could meet or exceed the standards of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, the band decided to immerse themselves in the emerging world of electronica. There were many dead ends and false starts and the resulting album, Pop, felt…unfinished. Reviews were not good. Later, Bono was heard to say that he’d like to go back and work on the album until the band got it right.
Now comes this article in The Irish Times. (Full disclosure: I’m quoted here.)
A little after midnight on June 16th, 1997, two Irishmen walked into the US immigration pre-clearance facility at Edmonton International Airport in Canada. One wore a silk boxer’s dressing gown with the hood up, his eyes concealed behind mirror shades. The second sported a goatee and was dressed head-to-toe in a white cowboy outfit studded with rhinestone and topped with a vast stetson hat. Under the fluorescent lights of the near-deserted terminal, he looked like a neon ornament brought to life.
Bono and The Edge had come straight from the stage at the city’s Commonwealth Stadium and were hastening towards a flight to San Francisco. Behind the sunglasses Bono could barely keep his eyes open as he filled in the immigration form. The two Edmonton gigs had gone well – certainly better than an instantly notorious concert two months earlier at which U2 had stopped midway through a new song in order to work out to play it.
But he was nonetheless exhausted – physically and emotionally too. Seven weeks into their most ambitious – and expensive – tour to date, the frontman dressed as a boxer was feeling punch-drunk from defending U2’s title as the biggest band in the world.
Twenty-one years on, it seems ludicrous that U2’s position as one of rock’s heavyweights could ever have been under threat. They roll into Dublin’s 3Arena on November 5th for four nights, part of a blockbusting global trek which has to date grossed $106 million.
How different it all was in 1997 as, in service of opinion-splitting new album Pop, they struggled against some of the most sustained setbacks of their career. True, in places such as Edmonton – provincial, happy to be on the international touring circuit – the greeting afforded the PopMart tour had been as full-hearted as U2 had come to expect.