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Int'l Musician & Recording

Pluck of the Irish

International Musician and Recording World, December 01, 1984

Philip Bashe

Overlooking the River Boyne, Slane Castle is a towering, Gothic structure built in 1785 and designed by the distinguished Irish architect Francis Johnson. Approximately a 40-minute drive from Dublin, it's surrounded by sumptuous fields and majestic woods of oak and beech trees.

Enter the castle, owned by the Earl of Mount Charles, and you come to the drawing room, with its opulent carpets, sculptures, paintings -- and a 24-track Effanel recorder?

The adjacent library, dubbed the Chinese Room, is even more ornate, and packed not with Victorian antiques but with rock & roll band equipment and tangles of cable.

In 1821 Slane Castle was visited by King George IV of England. For four and a half weeks last summer it was taken over by the Irish group U2, and the unusual setting was partially responsible for the most radical album of the their career.


THOUSANDS OF MILES away, U2's Dave Evans -- better known as the Edge -- is relaxing before the evening's show at the Melbourne, Australia, Sports and Entertainment Center, and is chatting about the tack taken on the group's fifth album, The Unforgettable Fire. On some songs, U2's patented sound is so obscured by co-producer Brian Eno's electronic "treatments," that you have to check the label to make sure somebody didn't swap records on you.

Precisely the point, claims the Edge.

"As far back as the War album, we'd become quite aware of having a very defined sound," the guitarist says in his gentle, even voice. "We were becoming more of a sound than a band; those echoey guitars and that ethereal vocal sound. For War we decided to get back to something a bit more abrasive and raw, and for the next studio record we wanted to take a really radical step. In order to do that, we had to change our methods, our approach and some of the influences on our work -- in other words, the producer and the studio.

"Steve Lillywhite had never intended to become the 'U2 producer,' " he continues, in reference to the indefatigable Britisher who oversaw the group's first three albums, Boy, October and War. (Jimmy Iovine produced the live Under a Blood Red Sky.) "He was in agreement with us that it was time for a change and in fact was quite helpful in suggesting another producer."

The band had long entertained the idea of ambient recording. Coincidentally, Daniel Lanois, the 32-year-old producer of Martha and the Muffins and engineer for Eno, had been experimenting with that technique in Hamilton, Canada, where he owns Grant Avenue Studio.

"I'd recorded this band called Language in the old Hamilton library," says Lanois, "this beautiful old building with marble staircases and hundred-foot ceilings. We'd bring in portable recording equipment and have all these interesting rooms to work in: washrooms with very snappy-sounding, hard surfaces. You never could get that in a studio."

Brian Peter George St. John de Baptiste de la Salle Eno, studio experimentalist and onetime synthesizer for Roxy Music, had been involved in ambient recording since 1975's Discreet Music, on which he fashioned hypnotic sound patterns that could stealthily modify mood and environment. U2 weren't seeking to forsake rock, but, in the Edge's words, "We wanted to capture a very live sound instead of the usual method of taking a dead sound and trying to revitalize it through technology." After a two-hour conversation with the band about recording theory and its LP concept, Eno agreed to the project, his first with a rock group since 1980's Remain in Light by Talking Heads. Two days later, he and Lanois arrived in U2's hometown of Dublin and were whisked off to the castle.

Recording gear was moved into the drawing room. The Effanel 24-track, says Lanois, "is a Stevens machine, not quite as flexible as, say, a Studer, but so portable that just one person an haul it." Mornings were spent around the breakfast table, planning the day's work. "We had our own chef," says Lanois, laughing, "luxurious living. We'd have the crew bring in a blackboard on which we'd map out a progress chart: which instruments were finished for which song, what was definite, what wasn't."

The band was recorded in the Chinese Room for powerful numbers like the title track, and in the huge ballroom, with its 14-foot-high ceiling, for dreamy, atmospheric songs such as "Indian Summer Sky."

Eno's talent as a producer stems as much from his ability to motivate the artist as to manipulate the machinery. "He has a great capacity for working with people," says Lanois, to which the Edge adds, "He's extremely aware of the chemistry of being creative. He opened us up to a whole other world and encouraged us to improvise."

Especially encouraged was Paul Hewson, a.k.a. Bono Vox, U2's plucky singer. He'd attempted that before on 1981's October, when, after his notebook of lyrics was stolen during a U.S. tour, he had to extemporize into the microphone, wrenching emotions from within. On "Elvis Presley and America," The Unforgettable Fire's most quixotic and abstract piece, Bono ad-libbed the lead vocal to a backing track he did not recall hearing before. But he had.

"That was originally another song," explains Lanois. "I was mixing it at real speed and was getting rather fed up with it, so I slowed it down from thirty ips to twenty-two, which is a full fifth below. I got a bit of a mix going when Bono walked in, 'Hey, what's this?' He didn't even recognize it.

"We gave him a mike, and he sang it right there in the control room, with the monitors blaring."

The Edge picks up the story: "Bono wanted to write the proper lyrics and rearrange the vocal, but Brian and Daniel and finally the rest of us decided that we never would have been able to recapture the vocal's unique ability, so we left it."

The most obviously altered aspect of U2's sound is the Edge's neopsychedelic guitar, which Eno processed through an AMS harmonizer, a Lexicon Prime Time and a reverb chamber. At times the guitars sound so much like keyboards, that even Lanois, when listening to the playback, wondered if Eno hadn't snuck back into the studio and overdubbed some parts on the Yamaha DX7 and CP70.

Question: Is U2's audience going to accept all this change? It's a subject the Edge, fully aware of the album's controversial nature, broaches gingerly.

"I know this LP is going to disappoint some people," he begins, "but that's something we've never worried about. It was very important for the band that we make a departure."

"I think our audience trusts us to follow our own noses," reckons bassist Adam Clayton, who may rank behind Bono as U2's most demonstrative member off stage but is possibly their most candid. "I don't think we've been wrong so far."

The startling change in the band's music should be even more pronounced on U2's upcoming American tour, scheduled to begin this month. Bono once remarked that their live performances aspired to uplift, yet many of the new, more reflective songs are almost somber in tone.

"We want to challenge people a bit more," contends Clayton. "They may have to sit for half the show and actually listen to what's going on. I don't think that's too much to ask."

For the Australian tour, U2's first of that continent, only three of the new songs had been added to the show, which clocks in at just under two hours. One problem the group faces is how to reproduce the more keyboard-oriented material. Clayton is adamantly opposed to adding an extra musician, and the Edge, who in the past played keyboards on stage, admits that the dual role would probably be too demanding.

"One alternative, which we've done before, is to change the arrangements, which I think is quite valid." The Edge changes guitars a dozen times during the course of the show, according to his technician, Steve Rainford. His main guitars, strung with heavy-gauge Superwounds, are a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson Explorer. The Fender, customized only with a graphite nut and a Seymour Duncan Quarter-Pound pickup in the treble position, is preferred for its cleaner, top-end sound; the beefier Gibson is used on such songs as "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Effects include two Korg SDD-3000 programmable digital delays, an MXR pitch transposer, two MXR compressors and a Yamaha R-1000 digital reverb, all linked to a Roland SCC-700 programmer. The Edge still uses the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man echo he's had for years, and plugs into a Vox AC30 ("It has a clarity that I've never been able to find in any other amp") and a Roland JC-120, though for the Australian tour he was experimenting with a MESA/Boogie C-series amp.

Adam Clayton puts his Fender Jazz and Precision basses through two different amp setups: an Ampeg SVT 8-10", "which has a very midrange sort of sound, great for the more aggressive, driving songs," and an Alembic preamp/750-watt BGW amp/two Harbinger 1-15" cabinets combo "for the more R&B-ish songs. That gives me a very dry, clean sound with lots of bottom and a cutting top." Clayton uses Rotosound heavy-gauge strings, while his only effects are Ibanez's UE-400 multieffects unit and HD-1000 harmonics delay, hooked up to custom foot switches.

The bassist, whose bushy blond hair has been tamed into a shorter, more urbane look, is U2's unadulterated rocker. "He doesn't lose sight of the essence of rock & roll," praises Lanois. While he insists he's as committed as the others to the new direction, Clayton professes an intense dislike for synthesizers. "I like to hear guitars, bass and drums," he shrugs, adding that unlike Bono and the Edge, he wasn't a particular fan of Eno's ambient records. "They're...fine, but they're not rock & roll, as far as I'm concerned."

Clayton is something of an anomaly in another respect, the only member who does not profess to be a born-again Christian, and the one most likely to indulge in rock-star affectations. Two years ago he went through a phase of drinking and feeling estranged from the others -- even suspecting he was about to be given the boot -- but now claims intraband life has become comfortable again. "Almost too comfortable," he says cryptically. "I think maybe we need another shock."

Though Bono, the Edge and drummer Larry Mullen embrace the same theological beliefs, there are enough disparities within the group to provide a creative balance. "Bono gives the bands its depth," observes Lanois. "He's a real thinker. With Larry you get strength, to balance the cerebral side. With Adam you get strangeness, so everything isn't too profound all the time. And with the Edge you get consistency; he's right down the middle."

Lanois was most impressed by the intense loyalty that binds the members of U2, who formed in 1976, after Mullen had posted a musicians-wanted at the multidenominational Mount Temple Comprehensive School all four attended. Bono was originally the lead guitarist, then the Edge, whose engineer father, Garvin Evans, had moved his family to Ireland from Wales. The Edge (explanations of the nickname vary; a favorite is that it has something to do with the shape of his head) played an acoustic guitar before picking up an electric, which may account for his unorthodox style. He seems to approach the fretboard as if it were horizontal, playing sunbursts of notes that undulate from side to side rather than conventionally streaking up and down. It's a telling fact that he drew his inspiration not from the usual guitar heroes, but from New York art rocker Tom Verlaine, "the only guitarist I heard who I felt was actually saying something musically." The Edge's sound is characterized by the use of echo, set to each song's rhythm and tempo, and the way the guitarist focuses his playing on the instrument's top three or four strings, giving him a greater dynamic range. "Because Adam plays with a lot of midrange," he points out, "I can play the sparser chords, and the echo gives me the fullness I need."

It took the Edge and the others time to refine their individual styles. Adam Clayton recalls bemusedly that the early U2 "were awful; not a hope in hell. I think all the elements were there, just done extremely badly. Somehow people in the audience managed to get something out of it, though I don't know how. I've listened to tapes of us from those days, and we were just appalling."

Clayton credits U2's constant touring that followed the fall 1980 release of Boy with strengthening the band, and the resultant growth was demonstrated amply on October, which hinted at the musical progression fully realized on The Unforgettable Fire. "A lot of people were expecting Boy II," says the Edge. "They didn't get it."

The follow-up, War, showcased a lyrical maturity, articulating U2's concern about the world around them, most notably on "New Year's Day" -- a statement of support for Poland's Solidarity movement -- and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which cut closer to home, about the turmoil in Ireland -- its title a reference to the 1972 massacre of 13 Catholic protestors by English troops. Though most of the violence is a good 100 miles north of Dublin, "It manifests itself in different ways," asserts Clayton. "There's a lot of unemployment in Dublin -- it's become very poor, which makes it a good breeding ground for young terrorists. The cancer does spread to our city; we don't exactly live outside the eye of the hurricane."

In the past year, all but Mullen moved out of their parents' homes. "We tend to keep a pretty low profile," says Clayton, whose father is an Aer Lingus pilot, "so when we do play a concert there, it's seen very much as the boys coming home. The people relate to us in a very nationalistic way."

U2's last hometown performance was in August 1983, with Simple Minds, Eurythmics and Big Country also on the bill. "It was sort of the future of rock & roll at the time," says Clayton, "and all Gaelic bands too, so it was very emotional. There were about thirty thousand people there, and for me it was very tense -- which it is every time we play Dublin."

U2 are often touted as a political band, which in rock & roll seems to apply to anybody that thinks from above the neck instead of below the waist. They are, but in a humanistic sense and, on the new LP, on a more individualistic basis, proclaiming that living one's life responsibly and peaceably is ultimately the most political act of all. Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., is eulogized on the album's first (and probably only) single, "Pride (In the Name of Love)," a stirring pacifist's anthem and U2's most definitive song to date -- ironically, on an album intended to steer away from their past.

Sometimes the band's sense of duty verges on self-consciousness, as when Bono semi-apologizes on stage for the frivolous content of "Party Girl." But perhaps that zealousness is partially the spirit of youth: Bono and Clayton are just 24, the Edge and Mullen, 23. While they are no longer cling to the naivete of Boy, its world view that of a child, the Edge maintains that U2 remain eternally optimistic and that the group's commitment to its ideals extends to its offstage life as well.

"We're not just shouting slogans, like the Clash, for example, who've become caricatures of themselves," he declares. "And David Bowie -- he's presented so many sides of himself to the public, that I find it hard to think of him as a whole person.

"We are what our music's about."

-------------------------------------


The Stoking of Unforgettable Fire
By Daniel Lanois



Bono Vox -- Neumann U47 and U67, and AKG C-12 mikes

All are tube mikes, which have a certain warmth to them. We managed to capture a bottom end and depth to Bono's voice that surprised even him. One of the first songs we did a vocal on was "Promenade," and I think I shocked him because I presented with a very close presence and a big sound on his voice in the headphones.

At one point he was ready to do a scream, but because he had this big tone in the phones. It caused him to sing a little quieter. That gives you more opportunity to draw on the fine points of the voice, because if a singer screams, his voice gets compressed automatically.

It was an example of a vocalist conforming to his environment. If you give a singer a lot of reverb, for example, that will inspire him to hold long, loud notes, whereas if you put him in an enclosed space, he'll mumble; maybe poetry will come out.

The Edge -- Fender Stratocaster, stock Fender Telecaster, Gibson Explorer guitars; Vox AC30 amp and, on some tracks, Fender Bassman amp with two 12" speakers, miked with a Beyer 88; Electro-Harmonix Memory Man echo, three Korg SDD-3000 digital delays.

Mostly Edge used his Strat, but we had some very good results with the Telly, an excellent-sounding instrument. Whenever we'd do an overdub, we'd experiment by recording several different combinations of guitar, amp and mike. The Beyer consistently proved the best for Edge.

Adam Clayton -- Fender Jazz and Precision basses; Ampeg SVT amp with eight 10" speakers, BGW 750-watt amp with Harbinger cabinet housing one 15" speaker and two horns, miked with an Electro-Voice RE20 and a Neumann U87.

Most of the time we used no effects, just a big flat-out sound that was very obnoxious and loud. In fact, sometimes I'd solo the bass and think, "This can't be, we can't use this; it's horrible, rumbly, filthy -- and upsetting!" But then I'd get home and listen to the song, and it'd have something.

We used a combination of DI and from the amp. On "Wire," which has the best bass sound on the LP, we used two amps miked and no DI.

Larry Mullen -- Yamaha drum kit with Paiste cymbals, miked with an AKG stereo mike (overhead), an Electro-Voice RE20 (kick), and AKG 414 (snare) and AKG 452s on the toms.

We experimented with some distant miking on the kit, sometimes from as far away as sixty feet. Larry uses two snares, one of which is called a piccolo, this three-inch-deep drum that has a sound like a gunshot. A lot of the drumming that sounds like a whole percussion section was just Larry, in one take, playing patterns on the two snares, the floor tom and two timbales. He really hit on some unique patterns; some of the world's primo jazz drummers would have a tough time delivering something like that. He really outdid himself; the strength is outstanding.

Throughout the record Larry had these very large, very loud monitors behind him; most of the time he didn't use headphones at all. And some of the drum sound spilled back through the mikes into the room. It was like recording a band in rehearsals, with Bono singing through the PA, which was so blaringly loud that if you walked in front of the cabinets and Larry hit his kick drum, it'd practically knock you over.

Keyboards -- Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and CP70 electric piano.

Eno had been playing the DX7 for about six months and came up with some beautiful tones. The piano parts were played by him and the Edge.

International Musician and Recording World, 1984. All rights reserved.

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