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The unforgettable unicorn

Serene Goh
Serene Goh • 6 min read
The unforgettable unicorn
SINGAPORE (Nov 4): In the music business, superstars often make the news for their misadventures, bust-ups and inglorious exits as much as they do for their music. So often, in fact, that fans expect an ugly split before a latter-day reunion (read: The Ea
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SINGAPORE (Nov 4): In the music business, superstars often make the news for their misadventures, bust-ups and inglorious exits as much as they do for their music. So often, in fact, that fans expect an ugly split before a latter-day reunion (read: The Eagles, Spice Girls, et al), or a band to just never get back together (Robbie Williams and Take That).

Irish supergroup U2 is a unicorn in more ways than one. It continues to defy disruption and the decades to deliver a lucrative model for bands — by staying together.

Founding members Paul “Bono” Hewson, David “The Edge” Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr still call the shots. The four have a combined wealth of US$1 billion ($1.36 billion), with Celebrity Net Worth reporting in 2018 that Bono was worth US$700 million; The Edge, US$340 million; Clayton, US$300 million; and Mullen Jr, US$300 million.

Operating as a brand as much as a band, U2 remains a big business. Its 14 albums have sold an estimated 170 million copies, and its current U2 The Joshua Tree Tour 2019 has been attended by 2,713,136 fans and taken in $316,990,940.

The band still commands arenas that seat more than 70,000 while their peers play smaller venues. On Nov 30 and Dec 1, it will take over the Singapore National Stadium.

Clifford Yeo, co-owner of independent record store RetroCrates on Joo Chiat Road, notes that U2 has always been popular with his customers. Each record can range from $25 to more than $200 for rare finds.

“Nostalgia plays a very big part [in the purchases]. Many buyers grew up in the 1980s when U2 was the ‘it’ band. So [with the current resurgence of vinyl], coupled with the fact that they are performing in Singapore, we are transported back to that time,” he says.

The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and The Joshua Tree (1987) are the two main U2 staple albums people go for; the original, deluxe or coloured pressings — you name it, our buyers want it.”

Minor feedback

To its largely Gen X fan base, the band provided the soundtrack of their journey from childhood to C-suite.

Forty-four years ago, U2 came into the scene. The story goes that Mullen Jr placed a notice at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Clontarf, Dublin, and the other three answered it. The four lads, who could not play a song all the way through, cobbled together a minimum viable product in his living room. They called themselves “Feedback”, The Edge said, “because there was so much of it” (U2 By U2, 2006, HarperCollins).

But it worked. Later, as they discovered punk rock, the band members set their religious and socio-political commentaries to music, addressing a space left by pop outfits. They refused to trade details of their personal lives for publicity.

So while sex or drug-related scandals caused the downfall of other bands, U2’s greatest threat was what audiences perceived as its own hubris.

Critics grumbled that rock stars should not try to get involved in issues in Africa, as U2 did. And that they should not have avoided taxes by moving their business interests to the Netherlands.

In 2014, the band released Songs of Innocence, its 13th album, free to Apple iTunes subscribers. Wired’s Vijith Assar called it no better than spam when the album suddenly appeared in people’s private music collections after a routine update. So livid were users at the invasion that Apple had to post a guide on its support page on how to remove it from libraries.

Still, the album reached 30 million people. After the backlash, Bono offered a mea culpa in The New York Times.

“Oops, I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I had this beautiful idea. Might have gotten carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing: a drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

In U2 fashion, they got on with it and, in 2017, came back with Songs of Experience. It reached No 1 on the US Billboard Chart, making U2 the only group in music history to have No 1 albums four decades in a row — from the 1980s to the 2010s.

U2 then returned to its roots. Instead of promoting its new release, it embarked on The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 and The Joshua Tree Tour 2019 worldwide concert tours to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the album’s 1987 release. The first leg, with a total of 51 shows, covered North America, Europe and Latin America. The current phase of 15 concerts covers Oceania and Asia, including first-ever stops in South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines and India.

Long road to Singapore

Flashback to the late 1990s: At the height of its two-decade reign as the world’s biggest band, a common narrative was that U2 avoided performing in authoritarian countries, whose politics it disagreed with.

But a check with SunVic Productions, a major regional concert promoter at the time, reveals that U2 had planned to perform in Singapore as part of its PopMart Tour. An agreement had been reached and contracts issued for March 16, 1998, at the National Stadium. Tickets were to be priced at $175, $125 and $60, and the band would have arrived here after playing Osaka on March 11.

But then the Asian financial crisis escalated, and it became untenable to stage a concert of that size here. The date eventually went to Cape Town, South Africa. In 2001, the band’s record label Island Records (and parent, Universal), flew members of the regional press to Chicago for its Elevation Tour. It played to a 25,000-strong audience at the United Centre indoor stadium, an epic show that set its rich catalogue to multimedia storytelling.

Its then-latest studio release, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000), its 10th, went on to sell more than 12 million records, yielding radio hits Beautiful Day, Walk On, Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of and Elevation. It made history at the Grammy Awards as the only album to have multiple tracks win Record of the Year — Beautiful Day in 2001 and Walk On in 2002.

As The Edge had then explained to the press in Chicago: “You know, we have tried on a number of occasions to make the economics work out, and we’re still trying, but it would be such a thrill to make it to Singapore, and some of the other parts of Southeast Asia we’ve never been to. It’s kind of an ambition of ours to get there. And I know we will.”

It would take another two decades for that to happen. On its website, The Edge says: “We promised we would and, finally, now we can say that we will see you in November... It’s going to feel like a homecoming and we are very excited.”

Bono adds: “…it’s quite a ride. And now we get to do it all over again. Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul… We’re coming for you.”


Serene Goh loves stories that inspire.

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