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Achtung, Bono

Ahead of their Belfast concerts next month, U2 have been accused of lacking sensitivity with their tribute to the victims of a 1970s UVF massacre. But the legendary frontman is no stranger to controversy, writes Andrew Johnston

Published 31/10/2015

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Irish rock superstars U2 have never shied away from controversy. And this week, the band courted more drama when it was revealed their current stage show includes brazen pictorial backdrops documenting the UVF's Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which claimed 33 lives in 1974.

The images accompany the track Raised by Wolves from the Dublin group's latest album, Songs of Innocence. But if the visuals are an innocent gesture to highlight one of the Troubles' most notorious atrocities, they have been met with fury by some commentators, who have called upon U2 to drop the number from their set-list at their upcoming Belfast concerts.

It's unlikely they will go for such a compromise, considering frontman Bono has repeatedly spoken out and sung about IRA outrages in the past, from introducing live performances of U2's 1983 track Sunday Bloody Sunday by saying, "This is not a rebel song" to unequivocally denouncing republican terrorists following the infamous 1987 Poppy Day massacre in Enniskillen. Republican paramilitaries even threatened to kidnap Bono over the latter.

Meanwhile, in May 1998, U2 appeared at a special concert at Belfast's Waterfront Hall to promote a 'Yes' vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum and, in 2000, they released a song in response to the 1998 Omagh bombing, with Bono's lyrics for Peace on Earth featuring the names of some of the victims killed in the Real IRA atrocity.

Love him or hate him, the politicised singer has never been afraid to confront challenging issues and he remains one of music's most outspoken figures.

Bono was born Paul David Hewson in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, on May 10, 1960, and raised in the city's northside suburb of Finglas. Bono's father, Bob Hewson, was Catholic and his mother, Iris Hewson (nee Rankin), was Protestant.

Bono grew up in a religiously mixed environment, attending both Catholic and Church of Ireland services with his elder brother, Norman.

The youngster who would become Bono attended Glasnevin National School and later the multi-denominational Mount Temple Comprehensive School, where he met his future wife, Alison Stewart, as well as the fellow fledgling musicians who would eventually make up U2, Larry Mullen Jnr, Adam Clayton and Dave Evans, aka The Edge.

He and his friends were part of a surrealist street-gang called Lypton Village, which had a ritual of nickname-giving. After a throng of rather unwieldy monikers, the young Hewson settled upon 'Bono Vox', meaning "good voice" in Latin. This was soon shortened to Bono.

After he left school, Bono's father told him he could live at home for one year, but would have to leave if was not able to pay his own way. Little did either of them suspect that the artsy punk fan would one day become the world's richest pop star with a fortune estimated at £1bn.

That such financial rewards should result from such inauspicious beginnings is one of the wonders of rock 'n' roll. U2 began life in 1976, when Bono, guitarists The Edge and his brother, Dik Evans, and bassist Clayton responded to an advertisement on a school bulletin board posted by drummer Mullen to form a rock band. At first, Bono played guitar, though he admitted in a 1982 fan club interview he "couldn't play guitar".

He did contribute some guitar, as well as harmonica, at many later U2 live shows, though his six-string abilities were curtailed by a 2014 bicycle accident.

U2's ongoing prosperity has surely taken some of the sting off that for him, though. A series of hit albums and singles have seen them sell more than 170 million records worldwide to date.

The modestly popular Boy (1980) and October (1981) led to their breakthrough release, 1983's War, which went to number one in the UK and achieved nine million in sales. The Unforgettable Fire (1984) built on this triumph, but it was The Joshua Tree in 1987 that really elevated the quartet to the major league.

The all-time classic album, which contains the U2 staples With or Without You, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and Where the Streets Have No Name, has shifted a massive 25 million copies to date, reaching number one in 12 countries.

And, since then, the likes of Rattle and Hum (1988), Achtung Baby (1991), Zooropa (1993), Pop (1997), All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000), How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) and No Line on the Horizon (2009) have continued the success story. Songs of Innocence was the first U2 long-player since 1984 not to get to number one in their home country, but it is a tiny chink in the armour of an outfit who have established themselves as perhaps the most consistent act of all time, both in terms of output and line-up stability.

Traditionally, Bono has penned the band's lyrics, latterly sometimes in collaboration with The Edge, and they often delve into social and political themes.

Bono's work as an activist began when, inspired by Live Aid, he travelled to Ethiopia to work in a feeding camp with the charity World Vision. In 1984, Bono sang on the Band Aid single Do They Know it's Christmas? and returned for Band Aid 20 and Band Aid 30. He also collaborated with Bob Geldof to organise the 2005 Live 8 project, where U2 also performed.

In a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, he explained he was motivated to become involved in social and political causes by seeing one of Amnesty International's benefit shows: "I saw The Secret Policeman's Ball and it became a part of me."

He has been particularly strident in campaigning for Third World debt relief and raising awareness of the plight of Africa, including the Aids pandemic. He has met with several influential politicians, including former US President George W Bush, whom he accompanied for a speech on the White House lawn to announce a £3.25bn aid package.

"This is an important first step and a serious and impressive new level of commitment," the rock star said. "This must happen urgently, because this is a crisis."

On a more personal level, many U2 songs, including I Will Follow, Lemon and Tomorrow, focus on the loss of Bono's mother, while there has been a religious overtone to tracks such as Gloria and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

The band have rejected the tag of Christian rock, however. During U2's Zoo TV Tour of 1992 to 1993, Bono even incensed some fundamentalist devotees by showcasing the stage personas of The Fly, a stereotypical rock star, The Mirror Ball Man, a parody of American televangelists, and 'Mr MacPhisto', a combination of a corrupted rock star and the Devil.

As for awards, with U2, Bono has won 22 Grammys and a Golden Globe, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his bandmates in their first year of eligibility, 2005.

With Bill and Melinda Gates, the vocalist was named Time Person of the Year in 2005, and in 2006, he received an honorary knighthood from the Queen for his services to the music industry and for his humanitarian work.

But there has been flak, too, most notably in 2007, when Bono and U2 were widely scorned for moving part of their lucrative back catalogue from Ireland to Amsterdam, six months before Ireland ended a tax exemption on musicians' royalties.

The band's manager, Paul McGuinness, stated that the arrangement was perfectly legal and commonplace, but it led to criticisms in the Irish parliament and in a report by the charity Christian Aid, as well as protests at the group's 2011 Glastonbury appearance and elsewhere.

Bono has also been questioned over whether or not his high-profile philanthropy trivialises the plight of African countries and creates a stigma of victimhood, but he has had short shrift for his critics.

"They are cranks carping from the sidelines," he told Times Online in 2006. "A lot of them wouldn't know what to do if they were on the field."

In addition to his work with U2, Bono has collaborated with artists ranging from legends like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Luciano Pavarotti to newer acts such as Green Day, the Corrs and Ash.

Business-wise, Bono is the managing director of Elevation Partners, has refurbished and owns the Clarence Hotel in Dublin with the Edge and co-founded the African activism organisations Data and Edun, the One campaign and Product Red.

He married childhood sweetheart Alison in August 1982 and the couple have four children, daughters Jordan (born May 1989) and Memphis (July 1991), and sons Elijah (August 1999) and John (May 2001).

The singer's iconic look, which sees him almost always sporting a pair of tinted sunglasses, has been widely mocked over the years, but it is actually largely due to him suffering from glaucoma.

As he confessed to Rolling Stone magazine in 2014: "I have very sensitive eyes to light. If somebody takes my photograph, I will see the flash for the rest of the day. So, it's part vanity, part privacy and part sensitivity."

But sensitivity is something Belfast audiences will have to put to one side when U2 roll into town next month. Bono is on a mission to highlight injustices wherever they occur, and after 39 years of stirring up righteous debate, it's unlikely he is going to stop anytime soon.

U2 play the SSE Arena in Belfast on November 18 and 19

Belfast Telegraph

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