U2, For the Next Generation

Review: Brian Boyd, ‘U2 Experience’

September 12, 2015

Thumbing through U2 Experience, a booklet featuring a brief history of the band, discography notes, and, most important, 20 items of band memorabilia, I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Spaceballs in which Mel Brooks’s character Yogurt explains his primary occupation—selling souvenirs from the very movie in which he stars:

"Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made. Spaceballs the t-shirt! Spaceballs the coloring book! Spaceballs the lunchbox! Spaceballs the breakfast cereal! Spaceballs the flamethrower—the kids love this one."

Or in this case, U2 the poster! U2 the guest pass! U2 the phone card! It’s all in there, although the band is not profiting from any of this—the book is written by Irish Times journalist Brian Boyd and beautifully produced and packaged by Carlton Books.

What U2 fanatic can resist such collectibles? Probably one that can read the fine print, which on almost every item states: "This is a facsimile reproduction." So there’s no actual worth to, say, the film strip with three frames from Live Aid, the Joshua Tree-themed phone card sold in Japan, or even the "1 Zoo ECU" bill (a parody of the euro), which Bono showered upon concertgoers during the Zooropa tour.

Don’t get me wrong—the products are authentic-looking and nicely tucked inside the book. But they aren’t as real, say, as my now-ratty t-shirts from The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and Zooropa concerts, or my bootleg cassette a friend had smuggled out from a concert in Cork. Somewhere in one of my closets is a dusty baseball cap bearing the logo for PopMart. Even that is more authentic (although that should probably remain in the closet).

And yet the obsessed U2 fan is probably thinking, "Well, it still might be nice to have." (I’m talking about U2 Experience, not my PopMart hat.) After all, the book is chock-full of photos spanning almost 40 years. Boyd has also written a compact chronology from the band’s inception in 1976 right up to the current Innocence + Experience tour. U2 fans are always looking for ways to connect with their beloved band.

Except Boyd isn’t breaking much news here. The first interesting revelation for me came on page 14, when he writes, "The [October] album actually went to number 11 on the U.K. charts, but this was in part thanks to a scheme their record label had at the time which involved releasing cassette versions of albums that had music on one side only, leaving the other side free to tape something else on." The Joshua Tree was almost named The Two Americas. The band turned down a $23 million offer from a company that wanted to use "Where the Streets Have No Name" in a commercial. (Let us also be thankful that "Elevation" was never used in a Cialis ad.) Ever wonder why, at the onset of "Vertigo," Bono says, "Uno, dos, tres, catorce"? This is apparently a nod to producer Steve Lillywhite, who was involved in the first three U2 albums and, years later, the 14th, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which features "Vertigo." And to his credit, Boyd is candid about which albums worked and which ones didn’t—for the record, October, Pop, and No Line on the Horizon.

But many of the factoids mentioned by the author can be found in other sources. U2: The Definitive Biography by John Jobling dishes the dirt on everything from the Band Aid recording sessions to allegations of Bono suffering from an eating disorder. In U2: At the End of the World, author Bill Flanagan travels extensively with the band during the Zoo TV tour. The most reliable reference book, however, is U2 by U2, a doorstopper of a book, and the equivalent of The Beatles Anthology.

Perhaps the ideal reader of U2 Experience is the more recent fan—as Boyd notes, the U2-iPod tie-in from 2004 introduced the group to a new generation of listeners. "It caused no end of amusement to the band," he writes, "when newer fans would tell them, ‘We go all the way back to the early albums such as Achtung Baby.’" In a span of 62 pages, these newbies can develop a better appreciation of the Irish rockers, their humble origins, and deep spiritual roots.

Speaking of spirituality, Boyd suggests the band had chosen rock music over religion. Bono, Larry Mullen, and the Edge left a Christian sect but religion pervades their music to this day. Note, for instance, the album photo for All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The airport departure gate number was altered to read "J 33 3," referring to Jeremiah 33:3:

Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.

U2 Experience won’t tell you great and unsearchable things. But did I mention the phone card?

Published under: Book reviews