Review: John Jobling’s ‘U2: The Definitive Biography’

U2 perform during the 2014 MTV European Music Awards in Glasgow, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014
U2 perform during the 2014 MTV European Music Awards in Glasgow, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014 / AP
November 29, 2014

On September 9, 2014, 500 million iTunes users found a new album tucked inside their libraries: Songs of Innocence by U2. Thanks to an agreement between the Irish rock band and Apple, the album was given away for free.

Considering that the band is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the winner of more than 20 Grammy awards, you would think this was a good thing. Instead, there were widespread complaints about the band forcing its latest product on the world. During that first week of release, an estimated 33 million users kept Songs of Innocence in their iTunes folders. Others didn’t, and some were rather annoyed by the hassle of trying to get rid it. Apple was forced to create a "remove album" button just to quell the uproar.

To be sure, U2 didn’t technically give away their 13th studio album for free. Apple did. As Bono, the lead singer, told Time, "We were paid. I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament." While we’re on the subject of money, let us also not forget that ticket sales from U2’s last tour totaled $736 million—the highest-grossing tour of all time. Or that while Bono implores the West to save the Third World from debt, AIDS, and malaria, U2 Ltd. (the publishing arm) relocated from Ireland to the Netherlands in order to avoid paying higher taxes. Not to mention the band’s multimillion-dollar concert and merchandising deal with Live Nation. Or that Bono’s investment firm, Elevation Partners, owns pieces of Facebook and Yelp.

You know the word that comes to mind: Sellouts! At least that’s the point of U2: The Definitive Biography, written by British journalist John Jobling. The author quotes music critic Jim DeRogatis, who laments that "if it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t be so heartbreaking. But to see bands like U2 become what they once hated and operated in opposition to, it really is heartbreaking."

But it’s only heartbreaking if, like DeRogatis, you’d prefer the band to have split up after Pop (an enthralling album, provided you’re into electronica). But my guess is most fans enjoy the more traditional rock ballads and are just happy to be along for the ride—a ride that began in 1976 when 14-year-old Larry Mullen posted a notice on the high school bulletin board. It read, "Money wasted on a drum kit. Anyone done the same on guitars?"

Reading through this "definitive" biography, it’s hard not to take notice of U2’s work ethic. What they initially lacked in skill was more than compensated by raw dedication (though guitarist The Edge was always regarded as being "streets ahead of everybody else in terms of musicianship"). In those early years, with the exception of bassist Adam Clayton, the band avoided drinking, drugs, and even casual sex. As Jobling notes, Bono pumped gas to make ends meet. Parents would have to drive the boys around to gigs. The Edge once played through a set despite bloodying his hand in a car accident.

Luck also played a part, especially when it came to hiring a manager. Paul McGuinness was able to land the band a contract with Island Records and, after the critical success of War, did them one even better: "In what is still considered as one of the shrewdest moves of all time in the music business," writes Jobling, "McGuinness and company saw to it that U2 got back the publishing rights to all their music and recordings—something not even The Beatles accomplished. … U2 now had complete control over their affairs and, along with their manager, were set up for life."

Unlike Eamon Dunphy’s Unforgettable Fire: The Definitive Biography of U2 and Bill Flanagan’s U2: At the End of the World, Jobling’s book is eager to dish the dirt—no surprise since it is unauthorized (no members of the band are directly quoted). Lola Cashman, a stylist during the Joshua Tree tour who, until recently, was locked in a legal battle with the band, freely discusses the Edge’s hair loss and Bono’s concern over his height (a mere 5-foot-7) and even weight. "I would catch him vomiting before going on stage," she claims. The details behind the recording of "Do They Know It’s Christmas?" are particularly juicy. But there are no real bombshells—nothing like the time George Harrison, in the midst of a dinner party, informed Ringo Starr that he was having sex with the drummer’s wife.

There are, however, a few distractions. Jobling goes on a rant about the National Prayer Breakfast, where Bono was a keynote speaker, describing the event as "long … regarded by the political left as a thinly veiled excuse for congressional figures, business leaders, and evangelists to gather together in a luxury ballroom and partake in superficial, photo-opportunistic solemnity and false goodwill and perhaps even equate the president with Jesus Christ; to all hold hands and pray for the downtrodden while being served lavish food by impoverished black and Hispanic waiters; and facilitate the worldwide funding and growth of the [Fellowship Foundation’s] religion-based bigotry." The author is way off—breakfast at the Hilton cannot possibly be described as "lavish."

And Jobling has little patience for Bono’s flirting with the right-wing in order to promote his various causes. But what some may view as deals with the devil, others may see as an unusual open-mindedness for a rock star. Would Springsteen ever dedicate a song in concert to Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson (the song was "Miracle Drug")? Or write a note to then-senator Jesse Helms, saying, "Hope you had fun at the concert. We are really confusing the cynics with our friendship and our action in Africa. You are blessed, [and] I am to know you. Love, Bono"? Or give a shout-out to John Kasich in the liner notes of All That You Can’t Leave Behind?

On the other hand, the author rightly exposes the harsh reality of the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert—hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in an attempt to thwart a manmade famine in Ethiopia created by "a Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist military junta." The event itself catapulted U2 onto the world stage.

Plus the underappreciated bassist finally gets his props: According to bass instructor Patrick Pfeiffer, Adam Clayton "uses a technique called ‘harmonic syncopation,’ which is when the bass plays a consistent rhythm, usually attacking every eighth note in a measure, but anticipates the harmony by shifting the tonality before the actual chord does. This technique gives the song a forward motion, a thrust, because the bass keeps arriving early for the harmony, anticipating it."

For U2 fanatics, there are plenty of details to keep them engrossed: It turns out the LAPD was more than cooperative during the filming of "Where the Streets Have No Name." The song "Exit" supposedly drove a man to commit murder. In 1982, U2 was scheduled to perform in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade but backed out when they learned that the grand marshal honors had been bestowed posthumously on Bobby Sands, the imprisoned IRA member who died during a hunger strike.

That last gesture, critics will surely point out, was done in the band’s more idealistic days—you know, before they became sellouts. It happened when they abandoned their punk roots for Brian Eno’s synthesizers on The Unforgettable Fire. Or was it when they made Rattle and Hum, the motion picture? In any event, that Apple deal definitely proves that these guys have sold out.

Can’t we just call it ambition? As Jobling himself notes, Bono, at age 19, said, "We’re building ourselves up, holding out for a record deal that gives us what we want—total artistic control, allied with the marketing power of a big record company. It’s a high price, but we feel justified in asking it. We want to sell records. We want to be big."

"Big" is having your album sent out to 500 million iTunes users. And if you don’t like it, well, that’s what the "remove album" button is for.

Published under: Book reviews