As they circle the globe on their 360° Tour, U2 have grounds to boast. The Irish rock band has sold nearly 150 millions albums, has won 22 Grammy awards, and has been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet, for all of their accolades perhaps the most impressive achievement is that U2 have done it all together.
Avoiding the Stereotypical Rock Band Split
How many times have we seen this cycle play out?
1. Rock band achieves fame
2. Fame generates egotism
3. Egotism leads to infighting
4. Infighting provokes an acrimonious split
Countless music groups shatter under the pressures of stardom. As their fame grows, individuals in the band assert their personal agendas more forcefully, and unity erodes. Mix in a little substance abuse, and you get the spectacular implosions common to rock-and-roll bands.
U2 have avoided the stereotypical rock band split by working as a team. Let’s dissect a few of the qualities that have bound the band together since its formation in 1976.
Commitment Based on Mutual Respect
The bedrock of any team is the relationships between its individual members, and U2 are no exception. Certainly, the four self-assured showmen have had their artistic squabbles and personal conflicts. Yet, the mutual respect shared by the members of U2 has enabled the band to remain intact after 30 years of making music together.
Ask U2 about the band’s internal dynamics, and they’ll invariably point to the metaphor of marriage. In the words U2’s guitarist and keyboardist, Edge “I’m so close to the other three guys in this group that sometimes it feels like a marriage.”1 Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. agrees, “We don’t always like each other but we respect each other, and we love each other. Marriages don’t last this long.”2 While U2 may have their rocky moments, at the end of the day any disagreements between them pale in light of their committed friendships.
Inclusion of All Members
Producer Brian Eno notes another quality binding U2 together: inclusion.
U2’s chemistry relies on their empathy and respect for each other, but also on something intrinsic to Irish society-the attempt to keep everyone included…If somebody starts to feel they’re not part of the process they are quickly brought back in. U2 have that tribal attitude: if you get ill it’s not just your problem, it’s the problem of the entire tribe.3
A prime example of the group’s ‘all for one, one for all’ mentality can be seen through the personal crisis of bassist, Adam Clayton. At a concert in Sydney, Australia in 1993 Clayton simply failed to show up. His struggles with alcohol had rendered him incapable of performing. Such an inexcusable absence could have torn apart a less established group. But, as Bono puts it, “No matter what scandal was happening, no one cared about the band in those moments. Everyone just cared about (Adam).”4 As Clayton grappled with alcoholism, his fellow bandmates rallied around him. In the long run, U2 emerged from the incident stronger than ever.
We before Me
The staying power of U2 has much to do with each individual’s decision to place group interests above personal agendas. As Bono explains, “Individual egos, as big as they may appear-and they may not be as big as they appear-are certainly subsumed to the band ego. That’s the real thing.”5 The performers comprising U2 recognize that they’re better together than alone, an idea articulated by Adam Clayton, “Instead of thinking that the band is limiting we feel it is very free. (Together) we can do things that we can’t do as individuals.”6 Edge concurs, “To be perfectly honest, I’m not a solo artist. I need to find collaborators…I make a lot of music on my own but no one ever hears. It just gets better when I’m working on it with Adam, Larry and Bono.”7
Refusal to Settle for Past Success
The reason so many bands get trapped in an era is that they find a style that works and stop growing. U2’s relevance has spanned three decades because they push themselves to evolve. They don’t rest on past success. As Chris Blackwell observed, “That’s the thing about U2. The band always feels like it’s coming, never that it’s arrived.”8 Whenever they feel their sound is becoming too recognizable or too comfortable, U2 forces themselves to change, to find new ways of blending their talents.
As a rock band, U2 always have an element of creative dissatisfaction, and in many ways, this shared hunger is vital to the group’s cohesion. U2 see no reason to cut ties with one another because, in their minds, they still haven’t reached their potential. Larry Mullen Jr. sums up this quality: We’re never satisfied. We never feel like we’ve made our greatest record. We always feel we can do better, we can be better, and that’s constant. After every record, we sit down and go, “OK, what was wrong with that? What was right with it?” And next time around, we fix it. We constantly do that, and that’s why U2 survives. 9
Bono describes U2’s demeanor as, “hungry in a way that can’t be fed,” 10 and he speaks often of the relentlessness and passion that pushes the band to excel. This drive and sense of unreached potential propels U2 forward while simultaneously linking each musician together.
In an industry where bands combust regularly, U2 have stuck by one another to achieve unrivaled success. Mutual respect has laid the foundation for their longstanding musical partnership, and personal friendships have carried them through tough times. Each band member’s willingness to elevate the U2 brand above their own popularity has kept the group unified. Meanwhile, a refusal to be content with prior accomplishments has compelled U2 to pursue change and push the boundaries of their artistry.
1. Henke, James. “The Edge: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone online 10 March 1988. Web. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.u2station.com/news/archives/1988/03/the_edge_the_ro.php>.
2. Hiatt, Brian. “U2 in Their Own Words.” Rolling Stone online. 13 March 2009. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/26692262/u2_in_their_own_words>.
3. Horan, Tom. “Brian Eno: Interview with the Producer of U2’s No Line On The Horizon.” Telegraph.co.uk. 27 Feb 2009. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/4838918/Brian-Eno—interview-with-the-producer-of-U2s-No-Line-On-The-Horizon.html>
4. Assays, Michka. Bono on Bono. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 2005.
5. Quan Denise. “U2 Looks to a New ‘Horizon.'” CNN online. 2 March 2009. 10 Oct 2009. <http://edition.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/03/02/u2.horizon/index.html>
6. Cameron, Keith. “Exclusive Adam Clayton Q&A!” Mojo online. 26 Feb 2009. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.mojo4music.com/blog/2009/02/adam_clayton_qa_part_2.html>
7. Hiatt, Brian. “U2 in Their Own Words.” Rolling Stone online. 13 March 2009. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/26692262/u2_in_their_own_words>.
8. Assays, Michka. Bono on Bono. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 2005.
9. DeRogatis, Jim. “Jim DeRogatis Talks with U2’s Larry Mullen Jr.” Chicago Sun-Times. 2 May 2005. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.u2station.com/news/archives/2005/05/jim_derogatis_t.php>
10. Assays, Michka. Bono on Bono. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 2005.