[sic] Magazine

U2 – Paris Stade De France – 18 September 2010

The problem with U2, like Jesus, is their followers. U2 fans are a terrifying prospect.

Admiring the architectural wonder that is the futuristic Stade De France the night before the show, we walked around the perimeter twice: the curve of the stadium bulging forward in the sunset like a mothership. Gates A-D and U-Z of the Stade De France Stadium in Paris are, even at this time, more than 24 hours before the band take the stage populated by small fractions of people, in sleeping bags and in hooded bootleg tops. A Polish girl has already staked her claim in chalk on the route to Gate D with her name and ‘#1’. A claim akin to writing to God, and thoroughly ignored the next morning. The queue snakes the other direction by 3pm, bulging with a disorganised commitment.

Since U2 come to town generally rarely – twice a decade for a few cities – it’s not unknown for their fans, the type who think nothing of making their own homemade t-shirts called ‘My Tour With U2’ demonstrating their love for them, to camp out overnight outside football stadiums writing numbers in magic markers on their hands to maintain a sense of order with the Queue Mafia. Such devotion is both touching and a little odd. Almost, in fact, a little unhealthy. It’s all well and good, but it does betray a lack of internal narrative, or inner life.

I’m not really in any place to complain: we arrive about 10am on show-day, get our hands daubed with 84B + 85B, and then sit down on hot concrete. This is so we can go to the toilet and return and come back.

For some daft reason, having seen U2 many times, from the back of Barcelona’s Camp Nou, to Hyde Park on Live8, and a truck parked outside a television studio, I’ve never actually even tried to see the U2 ‘up close’ as such, and so, with this being very possibly the last opportunity I may have for five years, we decided to queue for hours and get inside the (relatively) small section that fits maybe 2,000 people next to the band inside the stage itself. I’ve always seen the U2 spectacle, the show, and never actually seen the band perform as they are often little more than dots in the vague distance.

This is the area – known informally as ‘The Heart’ – full of the weirdos and the nutters. The people whom William Shatner once told to ‘Get A Life’. The people who have a slightly unbalanced devotion to the art – but never forget ; it isn’t the person these people come to see, but what their art means to them, and it’s not Bono or his Leprosy Cure Guitar, but the songs. That’s why I’m here – for the songs and the experience.

Stairway to heaven?

I had a dream. A silly dream about a year ago, when tickets went on sale, that I’d be watching U2, in Paris, from the rail. I managed to achieve that. Considering that, in retrospect, this is the first tour ever that the band has not played either the UK or Ireland, the anticipation is high. By my estimation about 20% of the audience, or 15,000 people, are either British or Irish, judging by the accents around me. It’s really quite odd to have conversations with several complete strangers from London in a football stadium in Paris. Or for a band to have a virtual home show in a different country: though, to an extent, U2 aren’t Irish any more, but a band that belongs to all nations. And have played to more people on this tour to constitute a decent sized country in their own right.

Unlike many GA queues at stadium gigs, there are no barriers, rails, or fencing to keep a sense of order and control; just one amorphous mass of people. As far as organisation goes, it’s piss poor: by 3pm, the sole contribution from so-called security is to remove the barriers that have been placed by fans to maintain some sense of order. By 4.30, 700 fans are all crammed up against the barriers. By 5.30, it’s nearer a thousand. Japanese Rush Hour bullet trains.


And then the gates open. It’s frantic. The ‘fans’ all jamming their tickets in gates in a frenzy, swearing at security guards, opening bags, and then, despite the protestations from men in bad black puffer jackets, it’s the traditional – as seen in a Guns N Roses video – scramble to the inner circle. I’ve seen U2 from the front and the back, and whilst I’ve always seen the U2 show, I’ve never just seen U2. So why do this?

The time will come when there are no more gigs, no more songs. There will be things we can no longer experience: no longer will there be a chance. So take them whilst you can. It may 20 years from now – but even now, the band is open that the end is nearer than the beginning. There will be the time when all these songs become silence – when the last note of the last performance of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ fades and the stadium fades to darkness, and the sheer ecstasy of the moment at 3.06 when the drums move from Toms to Snare and the guitar chimes out as the venue is bathed in red and white, and then no more. That’s why I do this again and again. Because it’s now, but not always forever.

And after three decades of this, it’s become an instinctual, second nature to the band: Bono is acting on muscle memory, not even thinking as such, just knowing – I do this and then the crowd do that . Every time. Like Schrödinger’s Rock Star. Put a crowd in front of him and off he goes. A perpetual show-off.

But at the same time, when you have something like £400,000,000 in the bank, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to – apart from be constantly recognised. But, as John Lennon said, you spend your whole life trying to be famous then the rest of it wearing glasses trying not be recognised. So it can’t be money. Because if it wasn’t that, the money wouldn’t be worth it. And, as many people saw with Pink Floyd, no amount of money would make some people do anything they don’t want.


At some point the music becomes almost irrelevant: well, to an extent, because the public will scoop up almost any old shit from U2 and love it, apart from they try to sound like a weirder version of Coldplay. With no album to plug and no real reason to tour, U2 instead are just going out there, and playing – for the first time – a tour that doesn’t seem centered on promoting a record: a set has been subtly reworked from last summer, and the nearest thing as such to a greatest hits package as such, whilst still over half of the songs performed come from the last decade of their 34 year career.

After a spirited support from Interpol (who finished at around 8.30), it’s a long wait as the sun sets over the full stadium. The Claw itself dominates the stadium, a strange, unusual steel insect, clad in orange and green like a poisonous spider warning off others. Hell, as a work of art and a work of architecture, it’s one of the finest and most unusual constructions I have ever seen. Something that will, in a year or so from now, maybe only exist in pictures. Imagine if the Eiffel Tower had been dismantled in 1909 as the original lease suggested: or Watkin’s Folly, or The Bamyan Buddha’s – feats of construction that now only exist as a matter of record and memory.

As night falls, it’s a tense 9.23 before the band take the stage. For many, the anticipation is almost electric, the pilgrimage of some from Dublin and (judging from the t-shirts) New York or Helsinki or Auckland. Now, after thousands of miles, and millions of pounds, cometh the hour, cometh the songs.

And I’ve never seen U2 better : I’ve seen them nervous on first nights, I’ve seen them on auto-pilot with tour jetlag, I’ve seen them ablaze on a last night, and this was U2 justifying their reputation as one of the finest live shows of all time. After 35 years, this band, formed in a school in Dublin, with a line-up unchanged and a solid vision, have grown up in public and now, as it has been for years, confident capable, and above all, worth of the accolades. Good and bad.

Cock sure

Opening the as yet unreleased ‘Return Of The Stingray’ – a stomping two minute T-Rex riffarama – it’s clear from the off that U2 are both absurdly comfortable at being a global jukebox of dozens of songs, including those you know even if you don’t think you know them, and also the only huge band in the world to still tour several new songs without any projected release date.

Bono though, firstly, is an almost unbearable show-off. Like the annoying kid that won’t shut up in the class he jumps and preens, and runs around the stage as a hyperactive toddler. Look! A Balloon! I’ll Blow That Up! Meanwhile, The Edge (stupid name that), Adam and Larry lock into a telepathic groove where they can each stand hundreds of feet apart from each other, yet remain in perfect sync. From my vantage point – Adam’s side inside the claw – each member has been doing this so long now that it’s second nature. At some point, maybe during the second verse of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, Adam might, for example, think The Tour Is Now In Profit.

It’s a confident and powerful set, greeted with the most enthusiastic audience I’ve seen in a long time: for tonight is, as much as there is one, a homecoming show for 2010, and the audience have come from far and wide. For some, it’s some kind of sacrament. In the end, it’s just songs, just an experience, just a moment: it’s an impressive staging, matched to a powerful performance, but also, it’s a kind of euphoria: it’s not the band, but the songs that matter – and there’s a fierce release of adrenaline with the opening notes of ‘Beautiful Day’ or ‘I Will Follow’. Aside from the music, it’s the lyrics that people cling to – simple human emotions expressed with a verisimilitude. But also, with songs 30 years old, they’ve practically become cover versions. Then again, some common currency still exists in these songs, the desire to run, to hide, to jump up and down, and that moment in ‘Beautiful Day’ where he sings ‘take me to that other place’, as if music were some kind of spaceship that changes the world and paints sunlight onto the side of a house.

All these moments one day will be gone: everyone here will one day no longer be around, and one day, there will be no more people living who ever experienced U2 with their own eyes and ears. But for now, there is this. And I want to remember it all.

The other three

U2 criss-cross the stage with every song; and being never more than a minute or two from having Bono or The Other Three standing above me, there are some strange moments where faces I’ve been seeing on television and the back of stadiums for years are feet away from me: it’s the nearest I have ever come, I suppose, to someone in the genuine status of a world-recognised celebrity.

And being this close, I experience dozens of things I’ve never seen before: The Edge idly strumming his guitar as he ascends the ramps of the stage. The imperceptible second when each member shakes themselves and moves into ‘Show Mode’ – getting into character, as such – and then, they ascend into the white mist of the spotlight like some kind of alien abduction, or passing over to ‘The Other Side’ in a crap supernatural thriller. And then it has begun.

There’s a minute or two when the bassist stands at the entrance ramp at the back of the venue in ‘Magnificent’, and plays to the rear of the venue. I am for this minute or two the nearest punter in the whole venue to him. Seeing the faces staring at him, and the flashes of cameras, is an odd experience, as indeed, is the fact that the crowd also see me, but they don’t see me at all. Or, as the band sing in the final song ‘I did not notice the passersby, and they did not notice me’. And maybe, the record covers and the image on television feels more realistic than the sweaty, speechifying rock dwarf in leather above me who’s singing ‘Vertigo’ at us and banging on hypocritically about debt, tax evasion, and starving children.

And that’s the most difficult thing to swallow is Bono’s use of his ability to belt out a cracking good tune to tell all of us that war, debt, starvation, AIDS, and setting fire to live dogs for fun is bad. Yes, Bono, I know those things because I’m not:

a) A retarded asshole or
b) Stupid

But what I also am is someone who knows that the words ‘Tax efficient’ mean ‘Tax avoidance’ which, whilst maybe not illegal, is certainly immoral and also offensively hypocritical coming from one of the richest men on the planet, who has several hundred times more money than most of us will ever earn in all of our working lives and decides he wants to keep even more of it. He probably pays a lower tax rate than all of us.

Mysterious Ways

In the meantime, though, I forget that when the band are on stage and the guitarist is hopping around as if this is the best job in the world (it probably is), and Bono stares at the moon hanging low in the stadium and sings ‘Mysterious Ways’. A few minutes later, and it is the long-term fan favourite ‘Until The End Of The World’, taken from the soundtrack to a largely forgotten Wim Wenders film: back from the days when U2 still acted almost instinctively and not as a calculated, cynical corporation. The Edge plays his guitar with no small fury, the rest of the band lock into a tight and menacing groove, and at moments like this, it’s easy to get lost in the music. Time and riches don’t necessarily exist anymore; fragments, and vision of the past, and it’s 1992 again. Music is a time machine; reaching into memories and feeling that are easily forgotten but never forgotten forever. Money, heartbreak, cancer, for a few minutes, these things don’t exist at all. Music, like love, is the greatest painkiller of all.

There are new songs – the delicate ‘North Star’ and the thumping ‘Mercy’ (the latter being almost legendary in the bands canon) are as strong as anything else. Which makes me wonder, just how many more songs the band are sitting on out there. How many songs as meaningful and potent as anything they have done sit on hard drives and await cynically plotted release schedules?

But what a show. After a multitude of shows, one of the moments I’ve most wanted to experience is ‘Miss Sarajevo’ – taken from their weird 1995 soundtrack album and rarely played: and tonight we get it. The Edge picks out the piano medley, U2 almost do subtle in an understated musical backing. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful song. And to hear at least my portion of the crowd singing along note, but not word, perfect to the Latin opera finale is joyous. And the doubters who feel that Bono simply doesn’t try to sing as much as he used to, the voice is still there.

After this, it’s pretty much business as usual and the same set the band have been playing since we caught the opening night in Barcelona 15 months ago. There’s ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ and ‘Vertigo’. And the revamped, immense ‘Crazy Tonight’ : songs that show that the adage that you only do the good stuff in the first decade is bullshit. The stadium becomes a disco, lights explode, steam and dry ice floods this corner of Paris. My favourite part of the show, when Larry gets behind the drums and rises ‘Crazy’ up to a crescendo as the band peel out riffs galore and Bono sings with the unaware, unselfconscious passion he used to have before he got old, as lights flood out across the stadium and everything goes a little crazy is cruelly short but still one of the finest minutes of music ever. I know. Forget that Bono is a speechifying hypocrite for a moment and remember that he is also a singer, and that this – being a great frontman and lead egotist – is what he does best.

Blue Edged

Thankfully, the hectoring of ‘Pride’ is omitted tonight: and no one misses it. A fierce ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, as bitter and passionate as I can remember it ever being: it’s once boring predictability of past tours seems to have been relegated, the fire rediscovered.

The next tranche are almost predictable, and have been played in the same order every one of the past 69 or so shows: MLK, Walk On, One, and Where The Streets Have No Name. Yes, they are fine songs. But shake it up: move them around in the set, make it a little less predictable. ‘Streets’, in particular, has occupied the same point in the setlist – the three quarters point for the past 20 years. It must get boring – or perhaps meditative and hypnotic to comfortably slip into a predictable rhythm knowing exactly what the rest of the gig must be like. And, as Neil Tennant, once confessed, to get so comfortable that when singing ‘Rent’, he was actually wondering what was for dinner? Maybe it’s things like this where the band lock and gel into a stage where they don’t need to think, where everything is always the same forever, and there’s a comfort and a familiarity: I hit this chord, and the crowd scream.

By any standards, tonight’s performance demonstrates that a great band also needs a great audience – each feed off the other, and at the heart of these things, there is a chemistry, an alchemy that is more than just 4 men playing songs to 80,000 people.

For the encore, it’s 1995’s relatively obscure stomp of ‘Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me’, taken from a forgettable and risible Batman movie, Bono in a suit of lights, hanging from a microphone and swinging like a drowning man, holding onto nothing, love, or hope, or something, whatever the thing is that keeps his character from breaking, by a thread. The rest of the band thunder out the song’s welcome reappearance. For the end, and what an end, it is ‘With or Without You’: yet another great song in a night of great songs, dispatched with a passion I haven’t seen in years. Edge gently strums the guitar solo as the bass shifts keys, and the audience is together, alone, united, yet as one, with and without each other in a shared and individual experience.


Finally comes ‘Moment of Surrender’: on record, it’s a limp eulogy – in the flesh, it makes a sense, a hymn to surrender and unity, and to the mass impending exit, as the audience disengage from a communal experience and dissipate into our own lives after a night together, like lovers separating after an experience only the people in this room could ever experience and will never have again.

There will come a time when there are no more songs, no more concerts, and no more moments when the venue floods with light and 80,000 people are flooded with this music. But until then, we’re living, and alive, and making the most of it. Smell the flowers, whilst you can.

For more from Mark, please visit The Final Word