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U2 Drops the 'Bomb'
Bono spins around on his heels to take in the dazzling night above and behind him: the illuminated cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, lacing the sky like golden thread; the lighted offices of the Manhattan skyscrapers across the East River, staring back at him like jeweled eyes. "Look at this!" the singer yells. "It's wild! What a sight!"

He swings back to face the U2 fans packed on the riverside grass of Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park for a free concert, the climax of a November 22nd video shoot in which the Irish quartet plays all day, all over Manhattan, on a flatbed truck. "When you've been doing this for years," Bono tells the crowd, "you remind yourself why you wanted to be in a band in the first place -- to come to the U.S., over the bridge into Manhattan for the first time. An amazing, powerful time."

Then he introduces "City of Blinding Lights," from U2's magnificent new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb: "The chorus is set in New York," he says, "looking from Brooklyn." Guitarist the Edge fires up a steely barrage; bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. lock into a jubilant gallop. At the mike, in black leather and dark glasses, Bono again becomes the excited, twenty-year-old Dubliner, the former Paul Hewson, who first saw these lights in December 1980, on the way to U2's U.S. debut at the old Ritz on East Eleventh Street: "Neon heart, day-glo eyes/A city lit like fireflies/They're advertising in the skies/For people like us."

Then as the Edge builds a wall of chime under him, Bono achieves liftoff. "I'm getting ready," he sings with delight, "to leave the ground."

Later, in the encore, Bono, 44, shows what that feeling sounded like in the beginning by leading U2 into a thrilling version of their first single, a song he wrote in 1978, on his eighteenth birthday: "Out of Control."

The next morning, Bono is in his Manhattan apartment, sipping a Diet Coke to nurse a throat ravaged by the long-weekend campaign for Atomic Bomb: the free gig, the flatbed shoot, a three-song appearance on Saturday Night Live. The payoff will be huge. The album debuts at Number One in Billboard with first-week sales of more than 840,000 copies, the third-best figure of 2004 (after Usher and Norah Jones) and the year's best for a rock band.

Bono, Clayton, Mullen and the Edge (real name David Evans) took two years to record How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, with a small army of producers and mixers, including Chris Thomas, Steve Lillywhite and new Irish wunderkind Jacknife Lee. Now U2 are in high rock-combat gear: chewing up screens with a TV ad for the Apple iPod that doubles as a knockout video for the single "Vertigo"; compiling a "digital boxed set" (Bono's phrase) of U2's catalog for iTunes, to go with a personalized U2 iPod; revving up for a world tour to start in the U.S. in March. But today, in his high-rise living room, Bono is looking back at the start of his life with U2, recalling the incident that inspired his flood of memories in "City of Blinding Lights."

Bono was attending the opening of a museum exhibition in Holland by U2's longtime photographer Anton Corbijn, "and he had a room full of Bonos, if you can think of anything worse," the singer says, chuckling with embarrassment. "But to see these giant pictures, through the years -- I got stuck in front of one, it must have been 1981 or '82, of me taking a ride in a helicopter. The eyes were so open. The whole face was so open.

"A journalist sidled up to me and said" -- Bono affects a thick, old-world accent -- " 'Vat vould Bono now say to dis Bono?' I went, 'Well, I would tell him, he's right -- and stop second-guessing himself.'

"The band was what I believed in then," Bono contends. "My faith in myself was a different matter. That innocence -- you don't just want to shed it. You want to beat it off you, scratch it off. You think that knowledge of the world will somehow give you an easier route through it.

"It doesn't," he says emphatically. "In a lot of ways, that's the essence of this album -- the idea that you can go back to where you started, that you can start again." To press his point, Bono quotes the last verse of Atomic Bomb's Who-ish blitzkrieg "All Because of You," chanting the words like a prayer: "I'm alive/I'm being born/I just arrived, I'm at the door/Of the place that I started out from/And I want back inside."

"We've closed the circle," he says, beaming, "back to our first album" -- 1980's echo-drenched thriller, Boy. "Maybe we should have called this one Man."

Three of the four members of U2 are on the stage at Studio 8H in New York's Rockefeller Center, sound-checking for Saturday Night Live. Bono is not one of them. He is late, which is not unusual.

It is not a problem, either. The Edge, Clayton and Mullen are used to Bono's long, frequent absences. They spent much of this and last year working on Atomic Bomb as a trio while he was busy with his other job: touring world capitals, debating and charming dignitaries into joining the fight against poverty and AIDS in Africa. Bono first went to Africa in the mid-Eighties as a volunteer aid worker. In 2002, he co-founded the nonprofit activist group DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) with Live Aid creator Bob Geldof and billionaire philanthropists including George Soros and Bill Gates. Bono is nearly as well-known now for his tireless lobbying as for his singing. "He seems permanently on view," says U2's longtime manager Paul McGuinness. "Somebody once said to me, 'In America, you can only be famous for one thing at a time. That's clearly not true in Bono's case.' "

"I'm not sure if him being around more would have made a difference," the Edge, 43, says of the new album before the SNL sound check. He notes that he, Clayton and Mullen nailed five backing tracks in two weeks while Bono was gone. "But when he is around, he's completely fresh. Bono's creativity has always been a quick thing, a head rush. He often gets something amazing right away."

The U2 sound check is a revelation, a rare look at what goes on under Bono's voice and bravado: Mullen's natural, martial force; Clayton's melodic brawn; the pregnant echo and cutting distortion in the Edge's cathedral-guitar reveilles. A blast of "I Will Follow" from Boy and the trio's slow dance through the Atomic Bomb ballad "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," Bono's elegy for his late father, are so strong that the entire SNL stage crew stops to listen and applaud.

But when Bono arrives for the live-audience dress rehearsal, you can see what the Edge means by "head rush." Looking like a cross between a priest and a Ramone in a black leather jacket and black turtleneck sweater, with a crucifix hanging from a necklace and banging against his chest, Bono takes the band's vicious chop in "Vertigo" to higher catharsis. He pushes his voice up to a fighter-jet scream and punctuates the song's bridge ("Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt") by head-butting an SNL camera: "a Glasgow kiss," he calls it.

"People think I tell the band what direction to go in," Bono says later. "The truth is, they tell me. The singer has to put into words the feelings in the music." He quotes another of his favorite lines on Atomic Bomb, this time in "Vertigo": "A feeling is so much stronger than a thought."

"This is where U2 live -- a four-piece in a room, struggling to get it right," Mullen, 43, contends over a cup of tea one night during U2's New York stay. "We are deficient in many ways musically. We don't have the standard vocabulary. But to play at this level, you have to have commitment. You have to have really good reasons -- and they need to be your songs."

"We couldn't give you an analysis of what makes a U2 song," the Edge claims. He will tell you this: "You don't go into the studio unless you have a shot at making Album of the Year. We had no interest in being the biggest if we weren't the best. That was the only way being the biggest would mean anything."

Actually, Clayton, 44, can tell you what makes a U2 hit. " 'Pride,' 'With or Without You,' 'Beautiful Day' -- they're all simple structures," he says. "The verses and choruses have virtually the same chords. There is a build that starts slowly and keeps going. And you get a climax at the end. But you can't make a formula of it. So much of ending up with that simplicity is arguing about the complications along the way."

U2 Dissect "Bomb"

Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry have their say

There is no such thing as a quick interview with U2 singer Bono. That also goes for guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Despite the short supply of spare time that U2 had for speaking to Rolling Stone during their recent, mad November weekend in New York -- performing on Saturday Night Live, touring Manhattan on a flat-bed truck, playing for free under the Brooklyn Bridge at night -- they went into deep, revealing detail about the personal and creative trials and triumphs that led to their Number One album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

What follows are additional excerpts from the nearly six hours of interviews that produced the current Rolling Stone cover story -- which comes just three months shy of the twentieth anniversary of U2's first appearance on our cover, in March, 1985. The headline then: "Our Choice: Band of the Eighties."

The decades have changed. Our choice has not.


You've been in high-gear this weekend, and for the past month, launching the new album. Do you feel like you're in control of its destiny?

I know we're in control. But it is a little frightening, because trajectory is everything. Two inches off on Earth, and you miss Mars [laughs]. But I won't really feel confident until "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" or "Original of the Species," one of those two, punctures the "pop" balloon. Otherwise, the album won't be what it should be.

There are two routes for you. There is your relationship with your audience. But that can go on, and the rest of the world not know. And that's OK when you're in a band. It's not OK if you're a songwriter. Because every songwriter wants their song to belong to people other than their audience.

It's like you want your kid to do the best he can. You want your songs to go all the way. And if you can't get them on the radio, you want other people to sing them on the radio. "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" -- that's not so easy to get through, because it comes from such a different world than everything else on the radio now. It sounds like it's from the Fifties.

Is the pop success of that song particularly important for you, because you wrote it about your late father?

I hadn't thought of it in that light. But as a song, I want to hear it sung poorly in a bar [laughs]. I really do. I want to cringe as the cheesy piano player in the blue tuxedo grins, as you walk across to order your vermouth. [Affects Bill Murray-style lounge-lizard voice] "Someti-i-i-i-mes you can't make it . . ."

I noticed that on Saturday Night Live and at the free Brooklyn show, you sang a couple of extra lines at the end, from "No Regrets" by the folksinger Tom Rush. It's a wonderful song, but I was surprised that you knew it.

"I don't want you back/We'd only cry again/Say goodbye again": That song came to me through a version by Scott Walker. I'm a big fan. You can hear that in our music -- "City of Blinding Lights," that painterly side of the lyrics, that kind of melodrama. But that just came into my head on Saturday Night Live. It was the first time I did it. It went through my head, and I sang it.

Yet in making "Atomic Bomb," you recorded a number of the songs more than once -- with producer Chris Thomas, then Steve Lillywhite -- and dropped several that you had nearly completed. You wrote three different sets of lyrics for "Vertigo" alone. Why is it sometimes so hard to come up with something that, at other times, comes to you so naturally?

Because you look everywhere else, don't you? There's a certain hit you want to get off a song, and we weren't getting it from the material. It happens. And that's the problem. We're addicted to that feeling. We could have had an album out [earlier], and it would have been pretty damn good. You would have really liked it, because it was a rock & roll album. But we have to sing these songs for the rest of our lives, and they have to work on so many levels. Two years -- it's a song a month. There are twenty-four songs that came out of the sessions. Eleven of them are on the album.

How would you describe your first set of lyrics to "Vertigo"? Originally, it was called "Native Son" -- a reference to the jailed American Indian activist Leonard Peltier.

It was a new-journalism approach. I don't think this man should be in prison. But the song just didn't change the molecules in the room. We made the mistake of sending "Native Son" to Interscope, because we were jumping up and down over it at first. And they started jumping up and down. And then we sort of stopped. It wasn't as good as we thought.

How do you explain the strange Spanish math at the beginning of "Vertigo"? In English, that countoff is "one, two, three, fourteen."

There might have been some alcohol involved [smiles]. Improvisation is where this group really hits its form. That's when Larry and Adam feel they're contributing the most to songwriting. Through improvisations, we got "Miracle Drug." That's Adam's chord sequence. "Yahweh" -- that is something that came into my mouth, out of my lips, before I knew what I was singing. [Yahweh is the Hebrew name for God.] What an amazing word. You know it's a holy word, even if you didn't know what it meant.

One of my favorite lines on Atomic Bomb is in "Miracle Drug": "Freedom has a scent/Like the top of a newborn baby's head."

Have you ever smelled the top of a baby's head? It's incredible. That line came out of a conversation I had with Sean Lennon, when he was doing his work for Tibet. He asked me what freedom smelled like? And I said, "Like the top of a newborn baby's head." I carry definitions around with me a lot.

How long was that one in your head before you wrote it down?

I don't know if I ever wrote it down. I love definitions, aphorisms. I have a few around, like "laughter is the evidence of freedom."

But for me, it's not about the lyrics. That's the last thing. What's important is the world you create, finding this thing that makes you want to be in a band, and then finding out what that sounds like and what it means. Then the subject matter falls into place.

You've talked about how this album has brought U2 full circle, back to the feeling of empowerment on Boy. Does mean that U2 has an assured future, and that we can expect another album before, say, 2007?

I think there will be a record in 2006. Because we're on it now. But I don't think it's a healthy state of mind to imagine that this band should go on and on. Everyone in it asks very hard questions about its continuing.

What is the question you most ask yourself?

Me? I don't want to betray the trust of our audience -- but more than that, the gift, and the life that comes with that gift. When I feel we're abusing that, when we're just knocking them out, treading the boards . . . I don't think this band would be capable of doing that. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's what most people do -- they're just doing the job.

But you have set higher standards, and you are prisoners of those standards.

Yes. It's a tyranny. If we'd had more sense, we would have outgrown it [smiles]. But it seems to be hardwired into us. It is our DNA. I imagine we would just self-destruct if we weren't true to our own code. It's not that it's better than anyone else's or somehow nobler. It just is that.


During the making of Atomic Bomb, there were long stretches when Bono was absent, off doing his political work. Did you ever feel you were doing the lion's share of the labor?

That always happens. You get different times when someone has to take the strain and push forward. It starts with me, early on. Then when we started to record tracks, it's Adam and Larry that have to step up to the plate. And when it comes to the end, when it's about vocals and finishing the lyrics, Bono is in the hot seat.

My job is to come up with material that will get everyone else excited and inspired. And some of the things I come up with go nowhere. They don't get anyone going. Others take off, and pretty soon, everyone is involved in developing them, and they become U2 songs. Until everyone gets a chance to do their thing with them, they are not U2 songs.

Was that the same process in the beginning, when you wrote songs like "I Will Follow" or "Stories for Boys"?

It's changed. Early on, because of the pressures of time, we did most of our songwriting as a group, in a room. Occasionally, Bono would come in with an idea: "Here, I've got this." But the first two albums -- we would all be in the rehearsal room, grinding out arrangement ideas. From the War album on, we developed other ways of writing. I went off to develop material on my own and bring it to the band -- some very undeveloped, some more so. It became another way for us to arrive at music.

In the credits for Atomic Bomb, some songs have the line "Lyrics: Bono with the Edge." That's an interesting distinction, as opposed to "and the Edge."

I suggested that. On this record, I sat in more as an editor, rather than contributing. We'd sit down and talk about what the song is about. We'd throw couplets around. Sometimes I would help with the particular rhythm of a line. It's rock & roll -- the rhythms of the vocals are very important.

Is Bono proprietary about his lyrics?

Not really. I wouldn't turn to Bono and say, "I've just written a far better, second verse." I would say, "I think that line can be better. How about this?" And he might say, "You're right" or "No, you're wrong." And that's the end of it.

That's how a great band works. He would do the same for me, for a guitar part or an arrangement that isn't working: "Try that" -- and it's the missing piece. An example would be "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own." We had this tune that we had started working on for the last record [2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind]. I had a good feeling, but it never came together for us. I had another go at the music and got very close, but it still wasn't quite there. I was sitting on the steps with Bono, outside the house in France where we were working, trying to figure out something. He took an acoustic guitar and said, "Maybe this is what it should be." He played the first two chords, except the second chord was different, this weird thing. I was like, "You can't do that -- that's illegal, musically" [laughs].

But we went into the studio, tried it -- and it was what the song needed. That simple change of the second chord changed the whole song. It took on a whole, new life. In fact, we're going to release the earlier version in this U2 Complete Works set [on iTunes]. So people can get a chance to tell us if we made the right choice or not.

When you went with Bono to the recent opening of Bill Clinton's new presidential library in Arkansas, that was a rare foray for you into Bono's political world. You and the rest of the band have worked hard to keep that separate from the music.

We figured that out early on. If I disappeared into that world, we're never get anything done in the studio. That world -- it's about Bono's personal relationships with people in high places, his ability to persuade them that they can do more than they think. I don't know what part I would have to play in that. I like to maintain the position of the artist, where it's about writing from the heart and not about having to come up with a workable solution for changing the world.

The difference is, Bono is doing both. I was shocked when I realized he was as successful at this as he is. When it comes to those meetings and telephone calls, you have to be a great presence, someone who can put over a story, to command respect. And he has that. He's always had that. That's the performer in him. He's done that every time he plays a U2 show.


When we last spoke, in early 2002, you mentioned that U2 had started writing for a new album, right after the last, post-9/11 U.S. leg of the Elevation tour. At that point, you said you had quite a few songs going already.

Out of that session, the survivor was "All Because of You." That tour, playing indoors, playing the material from All That You Can't Leave Behind: We really seemed to connect with people. In some ways, the songs from that album were much bigger live than they were on the radio, because they touched people in a certain way.

I think that's what this record comes down to: questions about how you fit into the world, how you feel about it, and the power and strength of family and relationships. That's what people want from music, at the end of the day. They want the power of those eight notes, and those colors and moods, to touch them.

How have Bono's extracurricular activities changed or raised those stakes for your music? He does his political work outside the band, but no matter where he goes or what he does, he represents you.

People see and hear a very pragmatic, determined man, who is not in it for the glamour, who is getting up early, going to those meetings, having those arguments and slowly gaining ground. It is a real job, and he is getting results. I don't think people see him as this frivolous pop star. So while what he does might demystify the band, it creates more gravitas for the band at the same time.

He seems to be able to strategize and set goals for himself. If he had spent the last two years being frustrated and not getting anywhere, it might have been a very different experience. But he is very realistic and humble, in terms of going after these things. And when he comes back to the band, it's a relief. He is in this other environment where he has to be quite methodical and concentrate. When he comes back to us, it's fun. He can cut loose.

Was he that organized in 1977 and '78?

Not really. He is, as he says of himself in "All Because of You," "an intellectual tortoise." He is a unique character. He is organized intellectually, but he wouldn't know where his car keys are. And to say he is disorganized is kind of derogatory. That stuff isn't important to him, and it never was. As long as he could borrow money off someone, he didn't care if he had any. And likewise, as long as he had money, he would lend it to someone else. And that wasn't just money -- it included clothes, meals, somewhere to sleep. As long as he could find somewhere warm and dry, he was happy with that.

At what point, during the making of Atomic Bomb, did you know you were finally on the right track? And in going back to Steve Lillywhite to produce, were you trying to recapture something from your beginnings as a band?

I wouldn't say that. Steve has had a durable career: He's virtually from the same era as us, and he's kept making successful records. That gives him a certain perspective on us. Initially our first reaction was, "Let's check our heads. Let's play him where we are and see what his advice is."

And that advice was?

His reaction was the same as ours. You could see that certain songs had stopped -- they weren't going to make it up the hill. Then he mentioned that unmentionable of words in the middle of a U2 record, which is: "I think you need more songs." We knew then that the man was speaking the truth.

But out of that came "Miracle Drug" -- and "A Man and a Woman," which although it existed in demo form, hadn't been paid any attention. With those two, suddenly the album was coming up a notch. It became more of a U2 record.

Don't you find a certain irony in obsessing over simplicity? You didn't have that leisure or leeway when you made Boy or October, and no one would accuse those records of being unfinished.

Funnily enough, looking back on them now, I would say we should have taken more time to get them right. But we didn't have that luxury. We were trying to survive, without being dropped from our label. But every time we have taken more time, the music and the records get better.

All I can say is, if you ended up listening to the songs as much as we did, and they weren't any good, you wouldn't have finished them. Quite often people say about U2 songs, "I listened to it fifty times, and it keeps getting better." That's the reason -- we listened to it 50 million times. It may appear simple, but you live and breathe every quarter note, every beat. You know it's there for a reason. And you know what would happen if it was removed -- and that nothing else would have done the same thing.


How far did you get in recording Atomic Bomb with Chris Thomas? And how hard do you think it was for him to come to grips with U2's way of recording?

We got quite far with Chris. It was a real learning curve, and I don't regret it at all. Chris Thomas is a great producer -- he did work with the Beatles [as an engineer] and the Sex Pistols. But U2 is unlike any other band you've ever worked with. U2 is a band in which things are constantly changing. The ground is always shifting, and everyone has strong opinions. There's been blood, sweat and tears on every record we've made.

Everyone in the band has an opportunity to be involved, and, for Chris, it was extremely frustrating. We had ideas for songs, we recorded them, and they were very close. But some people thought they were closer than other people.

What did you think?

We'd come off the road and started writing and recording early on. Later, after we'd done two or three months with Chris, I took my foot off the gas and said, "I need some time to settle down." Edge was in the studio doing a lot of work on his guitars. Bono was doing his political work, writing lyrics, coming in and out. At some stage -- I think it was towards last Christmas -- Bono and Edge said, "We've put down lots of guitars and vocals. Let's have a listen." I said, "I don't think it's as good as it could be." And they said, "If we release this now, we can get on and make another record."

I felt uncomfortable with that. And it was hard saying it. Edge was in the studio for days and nights, working hard, with his screwdriver out, doing these guitar parts. Then I come in, and I'm like, "I'm not sure." It was hard to say it, and it was hard for him to bite his lip and accept that. But that's what makes us U2.

How hard is it to withstand Bono's enthusiasm?

You can get away with that on the debating stage [smiles]. But it's much harder doing that with U2. There are very clear rules of engagement. And one of them is, unless everyone agrees that this is something special, there must be something not right with it.

You created your signature sound with Steve Lillywhite, on your first three albums. What was it like when you first worked with him?

Steve Lillywhite was our choice. He had done XTC and, before that, Siouxsie and the Banshees. He was a hot, young, English guy, good with young bands. He was used to working with people who were not proficient players -- which U2 were not and, to a large degree, still aren't. I found it particularly hard. I was younger than the rest of the band, and there were demands on me, to be professional, to do this right. "You're playing for keeps. This isn't just for fun." I was so wet behind the ears, and so righteous.

Steve reminds us where we came from. I think he's amazed that we got away with it for all these years.

When you start touring again this spring, do you think that, with the changes in this country since 9/11 and the recent presidential election, you will be playing to a much different America than you did at the beginning of 2001?

I hope we're playing to a much younger America [laughs]. The purpose of rock & roll, what it can achieve, has changed. The world we're in now is one in which people recognize the value of family. People are drawing back and looking at a very dangerous world. That's what this record is about. It's about living in a state of fear. But people want to see U2 and feel like they're part of something special.

People respond to U2 in an unusual way. People trust U2 and believe what we do. And that's much bigger than the music -- and it's despite us. I remember one of Bono's classic lines. We were on the last tour, running the names of the victims of 9/11 behind us [during "One"]. There was crying, applause -- everything seemed louder and bigger. And those old songs, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "I Will Follow," "Out of Control" -- they suddenly had new meaning. But Bono said, "When people applaud, when people laugh and cry, it's nothing to do with you. It's memory -- that song takes them somewhere."

We have to separate ourselves from that. If we thought it was all about us, it would fuck us up. Something happens, but it is not something we can make happen. It only happens when God walks through the room.

But the result is, you're not allowed to break up. People won't let you.

After twenty-five years, to break up over musical differences would be quite funny. I'd love to see that headline: "They Finally Disagree."

U2 - Atomic: Then and Now
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