U2 still flying high, with a little help from their friends
Staying close to the top of your game in the music game is no mean feat, but U2, whose Joshua Tree tour comes to Dublin today, have managed through talent, shifting direction and cultivating key relationships, writes Tony Clayton Lea.
It started with very little except four young men in search of - as one of these young men would later proclaim - "three chords and the truth". It arrives in Dublin this evening as (so far) the year's highest-grossing rock music tour. 'It' is The Joshua Tree Tour, and when U2 visited Croke Park 30 years ago, plugging an album that would unwittingly set them up as rock music's hottest ticket, there was surely no one in attendance that could have envisaged a 30th anniversary show for the same album at the same venue.
And yet here we are. According to Billboard, the US-based music industry bible, the overall gross for The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 has reached $123.7m from 1,043,414 sold tickets at 20 concerts. U2 return to North America in September, and play out the final leg of the tour in Brazil on October 22, so there is still a hefty amount of money to be added to the definitive tally.
Back in 1987, money was something U2 didn't have much of. The band arrived at Croke Park with a back catalogue of four studio albums (Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire) that had increased their profile to a reasonable degree but hadn't made them anywhere close to even a tidy sum.
When The Joshua Tree album was released in March 1987, expectations were, inevitably, high, but no one predicted the record would grip the public so tightly and with such depth of feeling.
By the time U2 returned home for those Croke Park shows in June, there was no point avoiding what was going to happen - their lives would irreversibly change.
In the hefty coffee table book, U2 By U2 (published in 2006), Bono recalls a visit to Las Vegas in the summer of 1987, when they were in the city to film the video for I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. Guest tickets to a boxing match between Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard at Caesar's Palace were trumped by an invite from Frank Sinatra to a charity concert he was giving and, after the show, to join him in his dressing room.
"We went to that gig," remembers Bono, "feeling like U2, Dublin, Ireland, and left feeling like the number one group on the planet." For 30 years, that "number one group on the planet" quote has followed U2 around - sometimes cautiously, sometimes pragmatically, sometimes cynically, but always with a degree of truth.
In line with this, one of the questions you might feel inclined to ask yourself is, how exactly have they managed to stay on top, or as close to the top, for three decades without falling prey to the associated pitfalls of such incredible success?
There are many factors, of course, but perhaps it's best to define their durational achievements in terms of music industry shrewdness and the long-established close friends they look to for counsel.
From the very beginning of the band's career, the intrigues of the music industry were deftly negotiated by (now former) manager Paul McGuinness.
Once dubbed the band's fifth member, when McGuinness wasn't making ground-breaking deals for the band, he was perceptively applying the business stratagem of hiring the smartest people he could find.
He would then gather everyone together for brainstorming sessions, from which ideas - some outlandish, some with germs of brilliance - were realised. A case in point is how the 1980s ended for U2, how the 1990s started and how the next 25 years continued.
Still in thrall to America, the follow-up to The Joshua Tree didn't fly so well. Despite sales of 14 million (which would be regarded these days as a stellar success), Rattle and Hum was viewed as a failure.
The album's Lovetown Tour didn't even play in the US, such was the mixed critical reaction, and when U2 visited Dublin's Point Depot in December 1989, they ended their third show with Bono saying: "We have to go away and just dream it all up again."
This is, effectively, what U2 have been doing for the past 25 years. If you're a discerning fan (mea culpa), it's fair to say that while creative missteps along the way have been few and far between, the band have yet to release an album that comes close to the cohesiveness and occasional majesty of The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind.
A rare business mistake occurred when McGuinness booked a stadium tour for 1997's Pop album before it had been completed, causing Bono to call the move "the worst decision U2 ever made".
Interestingly, for that same Pop tour, McGuinness created what he termed a new business model for touring, wherein U2 "would sell the whole tour to a single promoter in an arrangement where we shared the profits of the tour, but they would underwrite costs and put up a guarantee".
By such sharp acumen have U2 continued to further their longevity. What people often overlook, however, is how crucial are their close-knit team of friends and collaborators. If the definition of a fool is having no one around you that will call out your nonsense, then U2 have perfected the significance of personal friendships by keeping their best mates close to their hearts and their enemies lower down.
Of course, the question many people ask as U2 pack up and move on is, what comes next? No one, bar the truly blinkered fan, is looking forward to the 30th anniversary of Rattle and Hum. Arriving in 2021, however, is the 30th anniversary of Achtung Baby, the album that U2 conjured up after Rattle and Hum.
To say that it completely recalibrated the band and copper-fastened their appeal even further is underselling its durability.
Accompanying the album, however, was the Zoo TV tour, an eye-popping pageant that kickstarted the band's apparently ever-ambitious stage production designs.
Tonight's show at Croke Park revisits and contextualises The Joshua Tree album with more cinematically compelling visual delights than U2, or anyone else for that matter, could ever have imagined 30 years ago.
Revisiting Achtung Baby in four years' time - when each member will be in their early-60s - with a similar mindset is surely something that even U2 couldn't dream up again.
Or could they?