Bono, while getting ready for the resumption of the band’s mammoth 360 tour back in May, “suffered severe compression of the sciatic nerve”, as the German doctor who eventually rebuilt the 50-year-old explained.
The singer would require surgery, and extensive rehabilitation. The band would have to shelve the American leg of the tour and look to start again in Europe in August.
Fast forward to August 16. Tonight U2 will perform only their fifth show back - the second of two nights in a row at a smallish (“It’s not even 360,” drummer Larry Mullen Jr laments) football stadium in Horsens, Denmark.
Prince Frederik was in the house yesterday. Tonight it’s supermodel Helena Christensen passing for Danish royalty.The double-header is clearly a test for Bono’s fitness - on stage he milks the audience of every last drop of energy to make it through the show.
Pre-show, Mullen says he’s surprised the frontman hadn’t done himself a serious injury a lot earlier in the band’s career.
“He’s fallen off the stage. He trips over on a regular basis and gets straight back up, never a problem. So I’m surprised… he normally bounces!”
The Edge is less likely to make wisecracks about Bono’s bung back. For the guitarist, it’s been more an existential crisis.
“We’re a band that play hail, rain or shine and no matter what’s going on physically, if somebody’s ill, got the flu, we just play. So it was a shock to me when we finally had to admit that actually we can’t perform,” he says. “Bono famously on the Joshua Tree tour fell and separated his shoulder, which is a serious injury and puts most, say, professional football players out of action for six months, yet he got strapped up and went on and we did every single show on that tour.
“So this was the first time that we went, ‘Oh wow, we’re actually not superhuman’. There is actually a human frailty involved in the band. We had to take that on board.
“The great news is he’s, I would say, 95 per cent back to full physical health, and every show he seems to be getting closer to top form, and the voice is as good as ever.”
What about The Edge’s vital bits - any RSI setting in?
“No, not that I don’t have the odd ache or pain, but nothing that’s that worrisome. This was just kind of a freak thing that occurred.”
“I’m not sure,” Mullen says, returning to Bono’s propensity for falling over. “I mean he’s totally abused himself over the years. When I thought about it, the amount of jumping off stages, the physical risks…”
“Much more in the early days too,” Edge agrees. “Early on, we took it for granted that Bono would by the end of the show be scaling the scaffolding, and on numerous occasions he scared the life out of not so much us - because we had this bizarre, unfounded confidence that he would be fine - but our touring personnel would be just quaking in their shoes.
“He on one occasion jumped from a second-floor balcony down into the crowd who grabbed him, and again I thought, ‘That was a bit much’, but our touring people just went absolutely nuts.
“I think part of the reason Bono’s never hurt himself during a show is the amount of adrenalin going through the system and he’s lost in the music so much that he’s got this resilience that no normal person would have.”
For all its magnificent runways, spider-like legs and that eye-melting, 43m-deep cylindrical television screen, for the band, the 360 playing surface is actually so small that if Bono is to fall over, he’d most likely trip on one of his bandmates. (Or perhaps he’d be momentarily blinded by the reflection off bassist Adam Clayton’s silver pants.)
The small stage area makes The Edge feel exposed - “We’re really out there in a way we’ve never been before.”
Mullen describes the stage as: “Actually quite intimate. It’s just with the other stuff around it, it looks a lot more intimidating than it actually is.
“It’s an amazing place to play. There’s a real connection with your audience that it’s hard to find in a stadium. It’s certainly the best stage I’ve ever played on. And I’m not that a—-d either way, you know, like I get on, I’ll do my job, I’ll do what I have to do. But it’s nice to be on a stage where you feel, ‘Ooh, this is really something’.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the show is seeing the usually reluctant Mullen getting out from behind the kit, strutting the runways with a bongo drum. It’s hard to tell if he’s actually enjoying it, though.
“Sometimes hitting things for 30 years takes its toll, so the various grimaces on the face may not necessarily be to do with my dislike of what I’m doing, it might be that I’ve basically just pulled the other leg out,” the 48-year-old says with a wry smile.
“No, I like it, it’s a strange sensation. I’ve never done it before, not like that. I’ve done it being in the middle and then just running back up, but actually having to walk around and perform to people is different.
“You start to realise how crap you are at playing those drums when you’re standing in front of that many people - ‘S—-, I’m really bad at this, I better go home and practise!’ “
On this European leg, the set has featured four songs from U2’s album of last year, No Line on the Horizon - Get on Your Boots, Magnificent, I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight and Moment of Surrender.
Though none of the new songs have been hits to rival those they rub shoulders with in the set-list (think Mysterious Ways, Elevation, New Year’s Day, With or Without You), they really catch fire in the live show.
No Line on the Horizon has sold more than five million copies in a year and a half - that’s a disappointing result in U2 land. When Hit raises this lack of commercial success, Mullen, who had entered the room carrying his dinner (chicken and vegetables, in case you were wondering) drops his cutlery on his plate and makes to storm off.
“I won’t have it!”
A lesser band probably wouldn’t be cracking jokes. U2, however, are well in touch with the reality of the music business, and their place in it. The reception to the album hasn’t knocked their confidence.
“No Line on the Horizon, I’m still very proud of it and I think it’ll stand up against our best albums,” The Edge says. “But we probably underestimated in the environment in which we released it the importance of having maybe one song that caught fire.
“It’s reinforced that point that to puncture public consciousness right now for any music release is hard. So you’ve either gotta have some kind of platform, some massive thing strapped to your song, or it’s just gotta be such an absolute out-and-out smash hit that it does all the work for you… and I don’t think we had either of those.”
Will the next U2 release be a traditional album?
“We’re open,” Edge says.
“We’re open to whatever the music directs us to do. We feel a little frustrated that we’re constrained by this CD format when there are all these powerful opportunities to allow the work to get out there on the internet that we’re not fully making use of. But it comes down to some very fundamental questions of what’s best for the music, and we have record deals, we have publishing deals, we have to think about those agreements, and also how we’re gonna get paid,” he laughs.
“Nothing’s presented itself yet that says ‘This is it’, but I can only assume that very shortly there’ll be some very exciting new things to do in terms of the way music can be distributed using the internet and we’ll be right on it when they present themselves.”
Mullen believes the industry needs a “silver bullet” that will change everything, especially for fledgling artists.
“It doesn’t affect us, it’s too late for us, but it affects a lot of other people,” he says.
“Did the music business need a kick up the a—-? Yeah, course it did. Did prices need to change? Yes of course. Are people entitled? Of course they are. But people are not entitled to have music for free. The drummer in Blur is part of this organisation to make it that everybody basically should be able to download music for free.
“That’s fine for him, he’s made enough money, he’s actually got a career, he’s actually doing very well thank you very much. A lot of artists don’t have that luxury. So it’s a little unfair and disingenuous.
“It’s an issue that’s going to come to a head over the next couple of years and hopefully somebody will find that thing and we will jump on the back of it… or maybe be on the front of it, which I’d prefer to be.”
If some teenage wannabe approached Mullen on the street, would the veteran warn him off a career in music?
“I wouldn’t warn them off, but I think they’d want to go into it with both eyes open.”
Talking to Mullen and The Edge, you get the feeling U2 will carry on regardless. The Irishmen are perpetually driven forward by a sense of discovery.
“We still get excited about being able to get into a room and actually make a piece of music that doesn’t sound really crap,” Mullen says.
“In the end, that’s what drives us, the idea that we can still get excited about this, and have fun, and feel we’re actually achieving - let’s try to be better, despite ourselves.
“Because none of us are… I mean Edge is probably pretty good, but the rest of us… I mean, we’re all good, we’re very good at being U2.”
“And the great thing is that’s all we have to be good at,” The Edge grins.
“Thankfully, because that’s probably all we are capable of being good at.”