U2

U2 AND THE ARC

U2 - UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 copyright Pat Galvin

U2 – UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 © Pat Galvin

 

In December, 1992, the Cork-born showband singer, Tony Stevens, sustained multiple injuries when the van in which he was travelling back home after a show in the West of Ireland was involved in a serious road collision. He spent the best part of a year recovering in hospital, endured many subsequent years when he was physically unable to perform and saw his career locked in the sidings and his considerable national profile all but lost. Five years later, the full details of the accident and the extent of it’s impact emerged during a High Court case in Cork, in which he settled an action for damages.

 

Stevens, whose real name is Tony Murphy, was a welder from Cork who, during the mid-1970s, went full-time onto Ireland’s lucrative cabaret circuit and quickly developed a decent domestic standing. Clean-cut and affable, he pitched himself as a young, middle-of-the-road crooner among an established cohort of old-school performers. Backed by his band, Western Union, he gigged early and often, playing inoffensive covers and making regular appearances on RTÉ’s light entertainment shows, plugging his numerous releases, of which a cover of ‘To All The Girls I Loved Before’ is easily his best known. And as such, he’s an unlikely starting point for a story about U2 and that group’s long association with Cork city and it’s people.

 

During the summer of 1977, the main canteen on the U.C.D. campus at Belfield hosted what was billed as ‘Ireland’s first punk rock festival’. The line-up featured some of the country’s most exciting and freshest punk-pop and new-wave outfits, headed-up by The Radiators From Space, who’d released their debut single, ‘Television Screen’, months Earlier. Among those on the undercard were the emerging Derry outfit, The Undertones and The Vipers, a local mod-fused power-pop band who, among their number, was Brian Foley, who later fetched up alongside Paul Cleary as a member of The Blades.

 

The UCD event was marred by – and is, sadly, best remembered for – the death of an eighteen year old man, Patrick Coultry, from Cabra, who was stabbed after a row broke out in the crowd during the concert. Over thirty years later, John Fisher, who promoted the show and who went on to manage the career of the comedian, Dermot Morgan, recalled in a piece for the excellent Hidden History of UCD blog how, at the time, ‘gigs in Ireland were pretty simple affairs. They were run by enthusiastic amateurs, with very little security. After Belfield it became more regulated, more professional and safe’.

 

Elvera Butler, from Thurles, County Tipperary was, by her own admission, one of those enthusiastic amateurs who, from humble beginnings, and possibly more by default than design, went on to become, like John Fisher and a slew of others from that period, key players in the domestic entertainment industry.

 

She had become the recently-installed Entertainment Officer on the Student’s Union at University College, Cork during that period when, in Britain, The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’ and The Clash unleashed their vital, self-titled debut album. And, by so doing, fundamentally democratised many of the long-established tenets that tended to under-pin the entertainment industry. Punk rock was, in many respects, just doing it for itself and urging everyone else to do likewise.

 

As part of her brief, Butler staged regular live music shows – mostly low-key, often solo acoustic affairs – on the U.C.C. campus, primarily in The College Bar. But from time to time, she’d book bigger and more established acts like Sleepy Hollow and Stagalee to perform in The Kampus Kitchen, a large, low-ceilinged restaurant buried deep in what was then the college’s Science block. When, towards the end of 1977, an opportunity to move those shows into a bigger venue off-site presented itself, the College travelled the three mile distance downtown, to what was then known as The New Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road, opposite Kent Station.

 

The first ever live show advertised in the local press as a Downtown Kampus event, took place in it’s new home on Thursday, November 24th, 1977, when The Memories played live at that year’s ‘Cowpuncher’s Ball’ ;- admission was one pound. The following night, down in the belly of the building, Tweed, a Kilkenny-based, pub-rock seven-piece headlined the night that formally christened The Downtown Kampus. ‘UCC Kampus Kitchen moves downtown to New Arcadia MacCurtain St’ [sic], ran the text that accompanied the small box advert in The Evening Echo.

 

And on Saturday, November 26th, the Cobh-born Freddie White [and his band, Fake], and Dublin hard rocker, Jimi Slevin, played a two-handed headliner that book-ended the venue’s opening weekend ;- The Arc was up and running.

 

The Downtown Kampus rightly enjoys a mythical standing in the history of contemporary music in Cork, as much for the quality and spirit of the music it hosted as for what it represented in wider socio-cultural terms. Over the course of it’s three-and-a-half year life-span, it hosted a series of often chaotic, widely diverse and fondly recalled live shows at a time when, in the after-glow of punk rock, Cork was a city light on glamour. And during the late 1970s, Ireland’s second city, over-dependent on a cluster of long-standing, traditional industries, could indeed be a grim and dank place. Albeit one with serious notions and a long-standing creative under-belly.

 

During the summer of 1977, Fianna Fáil had been returned to power following a landslide victory in that year’s general election and the party’s leader, Jack Lynch, in whose constituency in Cork North Central The Arcadia Ballroom was located, was elected Taoiseach with a huge majority. In early September, Martin O’Doherty of Glen Rovers, the fabled northside club of Christy Ring, Josie Hartnett, John Lyons and Jack Lynch himself, captained the Cork senior hurling team to their second All-Ireland hurling title in a row :- they’d memorably complete a famous three-in-a-row the following year.

 

But it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that those live shows at The Arcadia gave a young and clued-in sub-section of Cork society a real glimpse of something more arresting and moderately glamorous ;- a cracked window beyond which was another time and another place, far from the the more traditional influences of establishment politics and Gaelic Games.

 

And this is reflected in the full list of acts that performed there – local, national and international – that’s as varied as it is long and that runs the line fully from the likes of John Otway to The Beat, The Specials to Nun Attax, XTC to Sleepy Hollow and that also includes The Only Ones, The Blades, UB40, The Undertones, The Cure, The Damned, Doctor Feelgood, The Virgin Prunes and hundreds of others. Practically all of them enticed to perform at The Arcadia by Elvera Butler who promoted most of those shows and, betimes, by Denis Desmond, then a fledgling agent working in the U.K., now one of the biggest and most powerful players on the international music circuit.

 

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980 © David Corio

 

The U.C.C. Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom is still best known, however, because of the many live shows played there between 1978 and 1980 by U2, the young Dublin band who, during this period, were in search of a beginning. Like every teenage band with ambition, they were still trying to locate a distinguishing voice in a crowded field while also building up flying-hours, putting money in the bank. In Paul McGuinness, they had a connected manager who was sussed in the dark arts of public relations and marketing and, unusually enough, they appeared to have a strategy. Part of which was to play as many shows as they could as often as they could and wherever they could while, in parallel, developing their song-writing.

 

Contrary to popular belief, U2’s first Cork show wasn’t in The Arcadia at all but, rather, in The Stardust, now The Grand Parade Hotel, on July 7th, 1978. On that night, they were supported by a young local outfit, Asylum, featuring Sam O’Sullivan on drums :- he has long been part of U2’s core road crew working, to this day, as the band’s drum technician.

 

The band’s first appearance in The Arc took place later that same year when, on September 30th, they supported the Swindon new wave band, XTC, and were paid £80 for their troubles. Its not entirely clear how many shows U2 played at The Arcadia – its either nine or ten – but what is certain is that, by the time they took the stage there for the last time – in December, 1980, when they were supported by a young local band, Microdisney – they’d built up a decent and loyal following around Cork and, as has long been documented, had also assembled the bulk of a road crew plucked from the scene there, many of whom would serve them for decades thereafter. Primary among them Joe O’Herlihy, who did their front-of-house sound in The Arc and who remains an integral component of U2’s operation, listed these days as the band’s ‘audio director’.

 

 

On Saturday, March 1st, 1980, U2’s set at The Arcadia was witnessed by the young British music writer, Paul Morley, who was assigned to write the band’s first major feature piece for the influential London-based music weekly, New Musical Express. And on the morning after that show, he sat down with Bono in ‘the cheaply luxurious lounge of The Country Club hotel’ to gauge the extent of the band’s ambition a matter of weeks before U2 signed a major recording deal with Island Records. According to the piece, which appeared in print on March 22nd, 1980, the band was then ‘at the rare-in-Eire point where they’re recognised in the streets, hounded for autographs at Gaelic Football matches’.

 

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980 © David Corio

Thirty-seven years on, that two-pager – off-set by a series of terrific snaps by David Corio, then a young free-lancer who has since gone on to photograph some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry – makes for terrific, if sometimes bizarre reading. In part a considered policy paper from Bono – who, in outlining U2’s plans to take their shtick beyond Ireland, takes aim at a number of his peers – and in part an over-excited, fanzine-style sermon by Morley about the vagaries of the music business and the state of the Irish nation, it concludes over its closing furlongs with the following quote from
the singer :

 

We’ve been given Lego, and we’re learning to put things together in new ways. This is a stage that we’ve got to that I’m not ashamed of, but I believe we will get much stronger’.

 

Later that afternoon, a fleet of cars carrying the band, it’s small crew and Paul Morley, left Cork to play yet another live show, this time at The Garden Of Eden, a dance-hall in Tullamore, County Offaly, then a four-hour drive away, where U2 were scheduled to play a ninety-minute set. Supporting the night’s head-liner, Tony Stevens and his band.

 

Tullamore is referred to throughout Paul Morley’s NME piece as Tullermeny [Bono’s real-name is also mistakenly noted as ‘Paul Houston’], possibly because the writer is especially scathing of the town and it’s youth ;– ‘they rarely smile and there is a far away look in their eyes’, he writes. But he reserves his most savage lines for the showband culture and for Tony Stevens in particular, whom he frames, not unreasonably, as a cultural counter-point to post-punk and the very antithesis of what U2, at the time, were attempting to do. ‘Showbands are slick, soulless, plastic’, he writes. ‘The showbands are failed rock musicians, their faces shine with aftershave … their technique is improbably over-competent’. Even if, whenever the definitive, unfiltered history of Ireland’s showbands is eventually captured, the darker realities of that scene will be far removed from such casual stereotyping.

 

By Bono’s own reckoning, U2 died miserably on-stage at The Garden Of Eden. Taking the carpeted floor shortly after 11PM, they were greeted, at best, by a minimal audience response. ‘Sat along the front of the stage’, Morley wrote in his NME piece, ‘bored looking girls can’t even be bothered to turn around and see what all the commotion is about’. The venue manager was just as bemused :- ‘Very good’, he quipped. ‘Much different from Horslips’.

 

I felt ashamed because we didn’t work’, Bono told Morley. ‘I actually saw it as a great challenge. It became like slow motion. We blew the challenge, and that’s bad’. But Tony Stevens and his band fared far better in Tullamore and, shortly after they opened their two-hour set, comprised in the main of contemporary chart hits, the dance floor began to fill.

 

The story of Tony Stevens’s fleeting dalliance with U2 one Sunday night in 1980, deep inside Ireland’s midlands, was one of a number that didn’t make the final cut of ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, Tony McCarthy’s film about that period that airs on RTÉ One television on July 20th next. Because in many respects, the commercial half-hour just isn’t enough to do justice to a story that, although rooted in music and the culture of youth, also extends way beyond that.

 

The last ever Downtown Kampus show at The Arcadia took place on May  30th, 1981 when four Cork bands ;- a nascent Belson, a noisy, multi-part Microdisney, Sabre – who included a young John Spillane among their number – and Prague Over Here, featuring the future RTÉ radio reporter Fergal Keane on bass – brought the curtain down on what, in hindsight, is a wholly distinctive local history.

 

Months earlier, forty-eight people lost their lives when a fire broke out during the early hours of Valentine’s Day at a disco at The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside. That disaster, and the scale of the loss of life and the age profile of those who died, had a profound impact – politically, socially and legally – on many of the day-to-day dealings of the state. Particularly so on those, like Elvera Butler, who were promoting big, live social events to the same age cohort in similarly-sized venues across the country. In an interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday in March, 2012, Butler told Danny McElhinney that ‘after the Stardust disaster, insurance premiums for gigs rocketed and we knew we couldn’t go on for long. Then the hunger strikes happened not long after that and a lot of bands were avoiding Ireland altogether’.

 

Not long afterwards, she decamped to London with her partner, Andy Foster, from where she initially ran a small independent imprint, Reekus Records, that issued quality wax by a series of superb Irish bands, The Blades and the epic Big Self among them. The label continues to release new material, albeit on a more ad hoc basis and, now living back in Ireland, Elvera retains a direct involvement in the development of young, emerging Irish talent.

 

After many years off of the track, Tony Stevens made his way back very slowly onto the cabaret circuit and eventually resumed a career of sorts, albeit to nowhere like the same extent he once enjoyed. He still performs live, at home and abroad, with his current band, The Rusty Roosters.

 

And U2 ? Within ten years of their last show in The Acradia, U2 were among the biggest and most influential rock bands on the planet and, for many years thereafter, the most compelling and distinctive live draw anywhere. And yet there are those around Cork who remember those magical nights on The Lower Road when many a noisy local rival or an international peer blitzed them off-stage, handed them their arses and sent them packing back out on the road to Dublin.

 

And they may well be right and they may well be wrong.

 

Ghostown: The Dublin Music Scene 1976 – 1980

 

FÓGRA :- ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, directed by Tony McCarthy, airs on RTÉ One television on Thursday, July 20th, at 7PM.

 

FÓGRA EILE :- Cork librarian, Gerry Desmond, has compiled a definitive list of all of the Downtown Kampus shows and this typically thorough undertaking was of huge benefit to us in compiling this piece. And is, of course, a fine public service. Go raibh maith agat.

U2 :– WELCOME TO THE CABARET

 

The announcements in early January that U2 were parking the release of an intended album and were instead loading their bases to tour ‘The Joshua Tree’ on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of it’s issue, won’t have taken regular watchers of the veteran band by surprise. ‘Songs Of Experience’ had initially been touted as a quick-fire follow-up and companion piece to 2014’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’, even if more specific detail wasn’t forthcoming, a tack favoured by a band that, even now, likes to play with a closed hand. ‘Innocence’ was recorded in a  myriad of locations by multiple producers and a team of engineers and sounds like it was a real struggle to complete. And so it’s easy to see why the band has re-ordered it’s to-do list ;- with a big birthday  looming, the associated commercial opportunities are simply too  attractive to ignore. The line between band and brand is indeed a fine  one and U2 have played fast and loose with it for years.

 

The band has always been as pragmatic as it’s been notoriously driven and competitive, especially in the corporate field. Writing about the ticketing mechanism used for the band’s date in Dublin’s Croke Park next July for instance, Jim Carroll has pointed out in his excellent Irish  Times blog, ‘On The Record’ how ‘the same corporate entity is  promoting the U2 [Joshua Tree] tour, managing the band, flogging the tickets and operating one of the biggest secondary ticket markets’.

 

On the day of the announcement of the forthcoming tour, Adam Clayton, the band’s bass player, told Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio One that  ‘desperate times’ motivated the band to re-visit ‘The Joshua Tree’ thirty years on. But while many believed he was referring to Donald Trump’s election to the office of American President and the growing sense of global anxiety that’s followed it, he could just as easily have been referencing U2’s creative and critical nose-dive, which started in earnest over ten years ago and which shows no sign of abating. Simply  put, U2 have ‘the drabs’ and have been re-cycling bitty old riffs and scraps of familiar lyrical conceits for ages.    

 

It’s not the first time that U2 has shelved a record, of course. The early sessions for what eventually became the band’s 2009 album, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ were started three years beforehand with Rick Rubin, one of the co-founders of the Def Jam label and unquestionably one of  the most important producers in the history of contemporary popular  music. The band’s previous album, ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’, was an uncomplicated, mildly diverting but ultimately familiar sounding U2 record. And so the prospect of a creative marriage with Rubin on it’s follow-up suggested, fleetingly as it transpired, the sort of possibilities realised a decade previously on the two most lateral of all of U2’s albums, ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop’, when the band cut loose while under the influence of producers Flood and Howie B. And paid dearly for the privilege at the hands of critics, who largely panned them, and fans,who rejected them.

  

But although Rubin’s ‘Beach’ sessions sound far more conventional than one might have expected, the marriage was dissolved quickly and the band returned instead to the more familiar arms of it’s long-time squad of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, aided by a large support cast of assistants and engineers. Rubin clearly wasn’t taken by, or had the patience for, the band’s preferred way of working ;- riff it out in studio and let’s see what gives. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, The Edge claimed that ‘it’s in the process of recording that we really do our writing’. And, with reference to the abandoned Rubin sessions added :- ‘we’d almost have to make a record with Brian [Eno] and Daniel [Lanois] first, then go and re-record it with Rick Rubin’. Even to those of us who’d grown accustomed to U2 at half-throttle, this was a pretty exceptional reveal.

 

Steve Lillywhite had first seen the band work this way during the studio sessions for it’s second album, 1981’s ‘October’. He’d already produced U2’s debut, ‘Boy’, in the relatively modest Windmill Lane facility in Dublin city and was back again behind the desk when an under-prepared band struggled to bring a follow-up record together on the studio floor. U2 have never traded as the most prolific of writers and, having flogged the best of their early material on 1980’s ‘Boy’, found themselves under real pressure to deliver a second album on schedule. But despite helping the band to make an initial splash in Britain, ‘October’ was really no more than a collection of loose ideas and half-imagined words stitched together in studio, a point made by Lillywhite some years back during an interview with the www.atu2.com website. ‘They pretty much exhausted all of their songs on ‘Boy’’, he said. ‘They were touring ‘Boy’ and they used to play ‘I Will Follow’ twice because they didn’t have enough songs. So when it came to doing ‘October’, they didn’t really have very long to prepare it’. And it shows :- the title track is Spinal Tap’s ‘Lick My Lovepump’, ‘I Threw A Brick Through A Window’ is a meandering jam, ‘Scarlet’ is random riffing and so on and so forth.

 

Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois go back with U2 to 1984’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ when, during a critical cross-over period in the band’s career, they succeeded in pushing them out of what had already become comfortable territory. They also pushed U2 out into the sticks :- the record was laid down, for the most part in the vast, ornate ballroom at Slane Castle in County Meath, and the layers of production and additional sound design on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ reflect the extent of the surroundings in which slabs of it was conceived. Much of it brought to the table by Eno, in particular.

 

 

Barry Devlin’s documentary film, ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ is an excellent portrait of a starry-eyed young band at work, especially revealing in how, as early as 1983/84, U2 were approaching the studio recording process and regarding the role of the producer. After three albums and the broader cut-through achieved by ‘War’, which was also produced by Steve Lillywhite, the band had of course earned the right to take a looser, more unhindered approach to studio work. But Brian Eno’s contribution to ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is vast, none moreso than on ‘Pride’, the record’s signature piece, which he elevates – as seen in Devlin’s film – – from a series of sinewy riffs into something far more defined and magical. ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ captures Eno variously as producer, mentor, writer, teacher and guru :- if Devlin were to document U2 at such close quarters today, what – and who – might he find inside the studio walls ?

 

In Joshua Klein’s 2009 Pitchfork interview with Eno, filed to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, the producer explained that the band wanted him on that album was because they wanted ‘to be changed unrecognisably’. And by effecting that change, Eno and Lanois became fundamental to the scale and extent of U2’s global breakthrough and, consequently, their entire raison d’etre. So much so that by the time the two producers had completed their work on ‘No Line On The Horizon’, they were also finally credited as co-writers and, to all intents, the fifth and sixth members of the group. If, as The Edge had previously explained, it was in the process of recording that the band did it’s writing, then what was it exactly that U2 brought to the studio with them at the start of that project ? Because ‘Horizon’, like ‘Songs Of Innocence’,  sounds exactly like a record painted by numbers and laid down by a committee.

 

U2 wouldn’t be the first, and certainly won’t be the last of the great bands to work in such a manner. Johnny Rogan reveals in ‘Morrissey And Marr : The Severed Alliance’, that much of The Smiths’ finest material came together very quickly during studio sessions, often from half-raw riffs that were vigorously jammed out on the fly. Indeed the band’s long-time producer, Stephen Street, maintains that during the recording of the group’s final album,‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, his input into the string arrangement on ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ was such that he could have been given a writing credit.

 

Although The Smiths were only ever together for barely five years, their career – like much of the early part of U2’s – was characterised by a relentless and often reckless touring-recording-touring schedule. ‘Strangeways’, for instance, was recorded off of the back of a long American tour and many of the songs that made it onto that album were seriously under-cooked before the formal sessions began. Its been decades since U2 have had those kind of scheduling problems and time pressures but, from 2000 onwards, they’ve been re-mining the same seam for ever-decreasing returns. And the more that basic songwriting has become an issue, the more desperate – and ultimately cluttered – their sound has become in search of those familiar, big statement pieces.

 

In that same http://www.atu2.com interview, Steve Lillywhite suggests that the band has consistently asked him back because he brings clarity to what they do. But by their own standards, U2’s recorded output has lacked real clarity and any sort of positive form line since ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, their last truly full-bodied album. And the Cinemascope cut of ‘The Joshua Tree’ that The Edge referred to recently in Rolling Stone magazine is far removed from the wedding video finish of the band’s last three elpees. With U2 cut adrift in the roaring forties, the suite of songs on ‘The Joshua Tree’, must pretty much haunt them now.

 

The more flaccid and middling U2’s records have become, the bigger and more complicated their accompanying live shows have been ;- spectacle and scale plastering over the obvious. To that end, the ‘Songs Of Innocence’ tour was essentially ‘U2 : The Musical’, a flabby and over- rated theatre show that only really kicked into gear up the final straight when the band dipped into it’s back-catalogue to just about salvage it from the ordinary. And ‘The Joshua Tree’ cabaret is an obvious extension of that broader theme, U2 celebrating themselves and their achievements – some of which are still scarcely believable – under-pinned by the shake and roll of some of their greatest hits.

 

The ‘Innocence’ tour in Dublin was the first time that the emotional under-lay that usually accompanies their Irish shows wasn’t enough to fully hold the weight of the band’s ambition. Bono’s voice, previously the fulcrum around which every single great U2 moment has resounded, sounded weary and weak, hindered by the lethargic set-list. And from my seat in the stalls, I found it difficult to buy into the giddy hoopla that surrounded the record’s lyrics ;- in the absence of imposing signature tunes, the autobiographical aspect of the words had attracted much of the critical focus beforehand. But Bono has long dealt in the confessional, themes of childhood, aspects of family life, parenting, adolescence and loss. And far more convincingly so on U2’s earliest records too. By comparison, the likes of ‘Iris’, ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’ and ‘Cedarwood Road’ just sound as hollow and incomplete as the most featherweight material on ‘October’, as if they’d been beaten into shape to accompany an elaborate set and lighting design.

 

A point that was also made over five years previously by the Dublin writer and journalist Michael Ross, who has observed the band at close quarters since it’s inception and has written with terrific insight on U2 over many years. And never more so than in a long feature for The Sunday Times in 2009 following the release of ‘No Line On The Horizon’- and the opulent live tour that accompanied it – that forensically deconstructed the band’s creative decline using thirty years of personal testimony and first-hand experience to scaffold his thesis. That prescient piece at atU2.Com. is essential for anyone with even a passing interest in the complicated and compelling history of Ireland’s most successful ever rock band, and it was foremost in my mind as I sat watching on in The Point.

 

I made the mistake of articulating my views on the ‘Innocence’ tour to my companion that night in November, 2015 ;- my wife. Devoted, loyal and steadfast, I pale into insignificance when she turns her focus onto the small matter of U2, with whom she’s been smitten for the guts of thirty years, for better and, this last while, for worse. And I’m still paying the price for my loose tongue. She’ll be there once again come July and, like most other long-standing U2 fans, will travel in good faith, delighted to have stayed the course with them, still fearless in devotion. And why not ?

 

Croke Park itself – and the organisation to which it belongs, The Gaelic Athletic Association – has changed beyond recognition in the thirty years since she first saw U2 anoint the holy ground to the strains of ‘The Joshua Tree’. The band itself may be caught in a long-term creative torpor but remain one of the most fascinating, infuriating, driven and ambitious acts in the history of popular music. Like the hurlers of Cork, who’ve long lapsed into listlessness, they have tradition and history on their side, even if that’s been eroded slowly over time. And yet, as we’ve seen over the years, they’re at their most lethal and dangerous when they’ve been counted out.

 

But for now that count continues, steady and backwards.

 

 

U2, LIVE IN CROKE PARK, 1985

Well, the Jacks are back. And what an All-Ireland we have for you tonight’.

As opening gambits go, Bono’s introduction to the partisan hordes at Croke Park just after 8.30 p.m. on a sticky June evening in 1985 had a familiar peel. Eight years previously, Phil Lynott had marked Dublin’s All-Ireland football semi-final victory over Kerry with a similar line from the stage at Dalymount Park, where Thin Lizzy were headlining a bill that also featured another emerging local act, The Boomtown Rats. Trip forward through the wires to Dublin 3 and U2’s singer had recently turned 25 years old and now, four albums in, his own band was on the cusp. They’d come very far very quickly and, just four summers earlier, had nervously opened for Lynott’s Thin Lizzy at Slane Castle. Croke Park was easily U2’s biggest Dublin show yet, marketed with an almost reluctant brand of hoopla and fanfare as ‘a sort of homecoming’ and yet, very clearly, marking the end of the beginning of the hero’s journey too. The release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ in October, 1984, had carried U2 onto the Rubicon but now, however fleetingly, they were back from the far-away and returned to more familiar turf.

Myself and my friend, Michael, had been enticed by the late addition of R.E.M. onto the support bill, where they joined In Tua Nua, The Alarm and Squeeze. We’d travelled up from Cork that morning and, I guess, were half-hoping that the headliners too might find it in themselves to put on a show for us. Young, dumb and drunk on cool, we’d had a long day in the sun ;- by the time U2 took to the stage we’d already been in the old stadium for an eternity. Our thoughts were already drifting to the journey back to whatever part of Dublin we were staying in and, in many respects, our £12.50 tickets were wasted on us. We were really there in name only and, thirty years on, recall the aftermath far more vividly than the main event.

I took a job the previous summer in the Roches Stores supermarket on Patrick Street in Cork ;- into my final year at secondary school, it was high time I got out from under my mother’s feet and started to contribute a few pounds at home. On my first morning in the standard issue blue house-coat, I was assigned to an experienced staffer who understood well the vagaries of the biscuit aisle and a whole lot else besides. He told me pretty quickly that he’d only recently been ‘inside’, although he didn’t elaborate on either where or whom. The clues – had I not been so clueless – were dotted in Indian ink all over his arms ;- these indeed were the hands of a fired man. I made my excuses and quietly went to work on the gang-packs.

It was during breaktimes with my work-mates in the cavernous store-rooms at the back of Roches that I first saw U2’s broad appeal up-close. I frequently heard tell, in obsessive detail, of the emerging Dublin band’s genius and of it’s many connections with Cork. One of my new colleagues was especially smitten ;- he’d seen them twice in 1982 in The City Hall and had heard about a bit of hand-bagging with one of the support-acts, a local shower called The Unknown Wrecks who, I was told, didn’t appreciate U2 acting up on someone else’s manor.

I had a basic working knowledge of U2. Themselves and Pat Benatar seemed like constants on MT U.S.A., the Vincent Hanley/Bill Hughes music video-show that dominated Sunday afternoons on RTE Two television and, consequently, I now knew Bono’s Red Rocks schtick by heart. Dave Fanning seemed just as unnaturally infatuated by them as any and his nightly show on RTÉ Radio served them well and regularly. As did Hot Press who, someone said, was keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll. To be fair, I thought that ‘New Year’s Day’ was pretty ace but thought that ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ was chronic. I preferred ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ to ‘War’ which, I thought, was clumsy and over-weight and, other than that, U2 were merely close to fine. In my mind, other bands like R.E.M., The Smiths and New Order especially, were better, a bit more adventurous and far more curious.And I wasn’t slow to say so. U2’s case wasn’t helped either by the fact that so many others – like Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt and the others back in Roches – loved them so unquestioningly and so blindly. The irony was lost completely on me :- U2 were simply too popular and I was just a snob.

I’d sometimes head out around town during my lunch break and would often drift into the Golden Discs shop on Patrick Street or Pat Egan’s place in The Queen’s Old Castle. It was there that I bought the In Tua Nua single, ‘Coming Thru’ – which now sounds like a failed social experiment but which, back then, was loaded with promise – and happily shared it around the store-room. Bizarrely, while some of the lads had scant knowledge of the band almost all of them had heard of the label, Mother Records. And this was just more of it ;- U2 were everywhere and, on one level, it just seemed unpatriotic not to swear blindly by them.

Before we left school for good in June, 1985, one of the longer-serving and better teachers advised us to take a hard look around the class. There were lads in our year who, we were told, we’d never see again and others that we’d never want to see again. I can’t remember us ever discussing the complexities of male friendships and how, over time, boys become men and how their relationships develop – and often implode – accordingly. This, after all, was an all-male school in a working class part of the Northside of Cork city where, presumably, this kind of carry-on was a bit quare.

Decades on and some of us, but not many, are in touch just as often now as we were then. Somewhere beneath the surface, a shared love of guitar bands, books and films, hurling and our beloved hometown has helped to keep Michael and myself in touch ever since. We sat together in the old A.G. building every school-day for five years, where the conversation was routinely dominated by music, sport and television. By The Byrds, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and R.E.M., by records we’d inherited from our parents and new songs we’d picked up along the way. By tales of derring-do down in The Glen or up in Na Piarsaigh and Delaney Rovers, by names like Spriggs, Connery, Cummins, Coutts and Hackett. We were infrequently touched by celebrity and glamour too :- we had a female teacher one time and, on another occasion, the late broadcaster Liam Ó Murchú paid our class a visit. He’d been parachuted onto the Fianna Fáil ticket in Cork North Central in 1982 and, in his fancy cravat and stacked heels, was canvassing the wide voter base in his old school and promising that he’d repair the swimming pool up by the monastery. And that, really, was that ;- when it came to music and arts, we were pretty much on our own and were happy out for that.

Some of us had seen The Smiths in The Savoy in 1983 and 1984 and Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982 [and, by default, the last part of a raucous, discordant Microdisney support set which, in the great traditions, has become far more than the sum of its parts in the many years since]. We’d started to explore and gather widely, and it wasn’t just new music either. From out of nowhere, one of our number saw our Prefab Sprout and raised us his ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Rubber Soul’. Someone else produced a Joy Division album and my desk-mate trumped it with a Byrds tape. A copy of ‘Back Again In The D.H.S.S.’ by Half Man, Half Biscuit was distributed far and wide and, in one corner of the yard, vinyl was swapped on a daily basis.

Talk of The Beatles led us down a couple of other avenues. One night, two of us fetched up at a Transcendental Meditation information session in the meeting rooms in The Metropole Hotel. But on scanning the room and determining the affair a bit too illicit and weird, we made for the exit quickly and ended up playing a couple of frames of snooker instead.

One of the early evening television magazine shows on RTÉ had featured a short film report about Dave Fanning’s radio show. In one of the sequences, he gets into an old Renault 5 and, exactly as I’d imagined, slides a cassette into the player on the dash :- R.E.M.’s magnificent ‘Radio Free Europe’ comes on. This, to me, was where the bar was set ;- shortly afterwards I wrote to the P.O. Box number cited on the liner notes of the band’s second album, ‘Reckoning’, earnestly insisting to whoever was on the other end just how difficult it was, living in Ireland, to keep up to date with events in Athens, Georgia. Where, I imagined, R.E.M. cavorted freely and frequently with the likes of The Meat Puppets, The Long Ryders, Let’s Active, Guadalcanal Diary and Green On Red.

When, the following year, I saw that R.E.M. had been added to the support bill for U2’s home-coming show in Croke Park, the decision to travel more or less made itself. The timing was sweet too ;- we’d completed the Leaving Cert a couple of weeks previously and, having stayed honest and earnest until the very end, had earned our right to make the trip. With another of my recent favourites, The Alarm, also added to the bill, and with an opportunity too to see one of the great British pop bands, Squeeze, the fact that this was U2’s biggest headline show in Ireland to date didn’t matter and was conveniently lost in the wash.

I’d been to Croke Park twice previously and had been unfortunate enough to see Cork’s hurlers wiped out by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland finals of 1982 and 1983. On both occasions I’d travelled by train with another friend of mine, Brendan O’Sullivan from Great William O’Brien Street, and his older, sports-mad brothers, Anthony and Dom. In 1982, Cork were given an education on the field and, as Christy Heffernan announced himself as the definitive agricultural full-forward of his time, so too were we given a life lesson of our own up in The Canal End in our rain-soaked Lord Anthony duffle coats. Before the throw-in, the stellar Cork forward Tony O’Sullivan, then a gifted teen who’d been a couple of years ahead of us in school, was reduced before the National Anthem had started. The mood of the day had been set and, while I have a vague memory of the game itself, I can vividly remember the dank atmosphere on the torturous train journey back to Cork. But at least I’d been inside the great old ground and, by the time we’d returned in 1985, I felt as if I knew the venue intimately. Showing like we owned the place and anxious not to miss a single note, we were in situ in Croke Park long before the hawkers had even unfurled the first of the U2 headbands.

All of these years later and I can remember the riots and the support bill with far more clarity than I remember U2’s set. Michael and myself had negotiated the first part of the trip – from Cork to Dublin by train – handily enough and, on arrival, were greeted by our host, a cousin of his who’d ventured in from the suburbs to meet us at Heuston. We’d made plans to meet him again after the show, whenever and wherever and however :- we had a vague idea where we were staying and it never once struck us to note an address. We had better and far more important business to be minding.

The day of the concert was exceptionally hot and, from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, we took a fair amount of heat. R.E.M. had blown away Dublin’s S.F.X. the previous year when they’d powered their way through the best parts of their first two incendiary albums, with an odd nod to the debut IRS mini. But ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ is a more difficult and far more considered record and plugging it here, out of doors and battling both the elements and a typical support act’s sound mix, they were melting before us. In a long over-coat and panama hat, and with his back to the audience, Michael Stipe intoned the off-kilter ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ ;- it was far too subtle for the four-albums-a-year set and it wasn’t just the sky that was up in arms. Almost immediately a barrage of bottles rained down on-stage, pulling a drawly response from Peter Buck. It was absolutely terrific and, the more the band confronted and battled the crowd, the sound and the scale of the venue, the more we loved them.

Comprehensively stealing the show that afternoon were a big-haired, fast-paced four-piece from the best and worst traditions of punk rock, a band that had paid it’s dues, worked the clubs endlessly and who now, obvious to all, were on the brink of a serious popular cross-over. We left in awe, heads turned and brains melted ;- nothing was going to stop The Alarm. I never understood why – or, rather, I never wanted to fully understand why – The Alarm were so maligned. Fanning had played ‘Unsafe Building’ and ‘The Stand’ off the air and now, with ’68 Guns’, they’d cracked the Top Forty ;- ‘they’re after you with their promises, they’re after you to sign your life away’, they railed. And beyond their well-intentioned, Dylan-tinged sentiment were, to my ears, the kind of simple, unsophisticated mega-choruses that were important and valid because, unlike so much of what we were all listening to, required no de-construction. The Alarm, in their own way, dealt as emotive and direct a hand as The Smiths and yet were everything that The Smiths weren’t.

They dominated the bill that afternoon, no question. The hands were in the air from the off, an over-load of call-and-response to the guts of ‘Declaration’, the band’s excellent debut. The Alarm left a pretty serious footprint behind them at The Canal End, going out in a blaze of glory indeed. And were we ever to form a band, we’d be taking our cues from Mike Peters and Dave Sharp, and that much was certain.

Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook had already written some of the finest and most perceptive British pop songs of their generation and, with the clock now counting backwards to the arrival of the main deal, their band did exactly what was required of them. Scheduled in the tea-time slot, Squeeze kept the score-card ticking over without ever threatening a knock-out blow. Their gorgeous melodies and smart word-plays were largely wasted across the vast spaces but at least they kept shuffling their feet, and with no little swagger. Too subtle and clever for the great outdoors – where the crowd had now swelled in numbers and had gotten noticeably noisier – Squeeze had earned their corn as U2’s fluffers.

I know that U2 opened with ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ and not, as you’d think from the Windmill Lane documentary clip on YouTube, ‘I Will Follow’, which was the second number on the night. But beyond that, I remember little else of the detail. Yes, I know that ‘Bad’ was as sublime as I’d hoped it would be, worlds removed from the under-cooked album track that barely registered on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Here, as was standard during this period, it provided the meat in the middle-order. I was transfixed then, as I still am, by Larry Mullen :- to this day, he consistently appears as if he’s playing to exactly the same rhythm all of the time and yet, on ‘Bad’, he owns all ten minutes, chaperoning it from humble, shy beginnings and delivering it as one of the most intense live music experiences I’ve been fortune enough to witness. Edge’s guitar solo – back- boned and enabled from behind the traps – takes the song into some kind of wonderful, even more profound than I’d ever imagined.

There were other moments too. They did Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’ as a first encore, back-to-back with ‘Out Of Control’, and made several other detours during their eighteen song set, notably ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Following the last post – was it ’40’ ? – and as the crowds began to drift out into the night and onwards, Michael and myself stayed behind to catch the shafts of green, white and gold light cross-beam the masses as Clannad’s ‘Harry’s Game’ sounded out over the P.A. We left Croke Park wondering why The Alarm hadn’t played for another thirty minutes.

Following the crowds across the city, down past Barry’s Hotel and then The Gresham Hotel and into the middle of O’Connell Street, we eventually found Grafton Street and, to round off the day, walked straight into the first of the baton charges. For whatever reason, the Guards were flaking wildly as, all around us, shop windows were put in and a real scene was kicking off. The air was thick with Northern accents and loose talk ;- someone remarked that some of the Guards had removed their numbers from their shoulders and were pulling with abandon. Michael and myself were even separated for a while, re-united much later somewhere up around Saint Stephen’s Green. We’d missed our bus and, on foot, asked for directions to Stepaside ;- we could have been asking for directions back to Fair Hill, and we just kept walking onwards.

There was an incident with a telephone directory in a booth somewhere along Baggot Street. We gave Liam Mackey a royal salute when we saw the then TV GaGa presenter striding out past The Shelbourne Hotel ;- and he waved back. It was about the friendliest exchange we’d encountered since we left Cork that morning. In the days long before de-regulation and on the night of a couple of serious events, a taxi ride home was out of the question too ;- it was 4AM before we were finally picked up by a fanatical cab driver who, with little prompting, insisted on driving us around past the corners where some prostitutes were gathered. Silently, I wished I was at home with my mother.

To this day, Michael and myself remember the prologue and the aftermath in far greater detail than we do U2’s performance as we roamed, more Adam and Paul than Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, directionless and gormless around Dublin. The narrow streets around where I’d grown up had produced a mind which, betimes, could be just as narrow and, far from the comforts of what I knew, the whole experience was more a rude awakening than a spiritual awakening.

In hindsight, Croke Park was a last refuge for U2. We saw, for instance, a hat- less Edge. We saw what was, quite possibly, the last great U2 tour without an over-reliance on smoke and mirrors :- exposed on a huge, Spartan stage, the band had started to boost their sound with sequencers and tapes and yet, for all that, the core sound was still an unsophisticated one. And we saw the machine at work at close quarters :- if REM sounded tinny and slight, U2 were vast and heavyweight. If The Alarm were stealing the show, it was Squeeze who went home empty-handed and with their pockets picked.

But more than anything we saw a master showman borrow shamelessly from left, right and centre to claim another big home win.