It’s 1989, the final year of a decade in which you took the world by storm, going from absolutely nothing to the biggest rock ‘n roll band in the world by challenging yourselves to always be different. And you’ve achieved that lofty status with one of the best selling albums of all time, an album that doesn’t sound like anything anyone else put out in the 1980s. But you’re not satisfied to rest on those acclaimed laurels. You’re restless, and you want to create something even greater. So you head to Berlin in early 1990 and you record an even more seminal album that is as different from anything you’ve ever done as it is from anything else others are releasing at the time. Or any time, for that matter.
One of the most fascinating aspects of U2 is their adaptability, their absolute willingness to change while others are content to stagnate. It’s what makes them so unique as individuals, as a band, and as a revolution. What makes U2 By U2 so special is that it tells the story from the perspective of the band members (and of their manager, Paul McGuinness), from their earliest individual memories, to the formation of the band, through 2006. It captures the madness of trying desperately to land a record deal, the glory of their first number one record, to the fears that they would fall completely apart while trying to create what would eventually become Achtung Baby.
It’s the story of Adam Clayton, the band’s bassist, who was born in England but who moved to Ireland as a young boy and eventually embraced his new country, an outcast who looked cool enough to be a bassist and so became one. The narrative also includes Larry Mullen, Jr., the quiet drummer who never quite understood why Bono had to leap off the stage on occasion. Then there’s The Edge, an accidental master of odd guitar effects that have characterized U2 from the start. And at the center of it all is the wordsmith, Bono, who only wanted to be a guitar player. Who still wants to be a guitar player.
The book alternates between the perspectives of the members of U2 through the different creative phases of the band, in chronological order, so after introducing the family backgrounds it moves forward to how they met, the now famous note on the board at Mt. Temple, posted by Larry Mullen, Jr., and doesn’t finish until after the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It is incredible to hear about the poor initial concerts, the scramble to put an entire album together, the random nature of The Joshua Tree, and how the band broke America.
What makes it work is that the pictures and the words are so perfect together. There are the horrible haircuts of the October period, the crazy muscle suits of Pop, and the airplane hangar in the Beautiful Day video shoot. Then as a reader you can understand from the perspective of U2 what they were thinking when those photographs were taken, and how they honestly felt that they had the worst possible fashion sense at each stage of the journey. You know, except for Bono’s fly shades during the ZooTV period.
It’s 1999, and after mixed reviews and the less than expected sales of your latest album, it’s time to dream it all up again. So you do, going back into the studio and making your most intimate record in years. It’s a record about loss, about goodbyes, and about looking back on your life, but also about looking forward to something new, to something different. And it resonates, like so much of your music has done over the years, creating a connection with your fans that cannot be denied. Then you write down that feeling, even though it cannot be contained in mere words.
What I love the most about U2 By U2 is its honesty, its soul-stripped-bare brutal honesty, even when that honesty reveals a humanity that most bands like to leave behind, even when it is the band at their most vulnerable. Because that’s when U2 is at its best, in its music, and in its creativity that encompasses so much more than just its music. It’s what makes the book compelling as more than just a companion piece to the phenomenal albums the band has produced.
I give the book FIVE stars.