U2 have spent the last two years revisiting their songs. The band is reflecting retrospectively on their career and asking the question, how do we (the individuals) fit into this story?
Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman is an interview style documentary film directed by Morgan Neville and was released on Disney+ on March 17, the same day as Songs Of Surrender, the band’s new compilation album of “reimagined and re-recorded” songs. The 40 newly recorded tracks are collected together under each of the four band member names across four separate ‘albums’, with The Edge adding “Hearing the songs interact, and finding the running orders for the four albums was really thrilling; finding the surprising segues, getting a chance to DJ. Once we had four distinct albums it was easy to see who would be the figurehead for each one.”
The interview was filmed between U2 tours whilst Adam Clayton was injured, and Larry Mullen Jr. was off making an art film. In their absence, Bono and The Edge invited their old friend Dave Letterman to their hometown of Dublin, Ireland to watch them perform these reimagined songs live for the first time and talk about their songs. But why do this at all given the incredible success of their back catalogue, especially in the 80s and 90s? How does this further the artistic juggernaut of the legacy that is U2? Bono states “We wanted to strip away the artifice that is the inevitable after you’ve been around all these years”. Whilst The Edge offered, “In the isolation of the pandemic, the question becomes what is left when everything is stripped away? Where do you take it?” Bono adds “There is a part of me that wanted to hear these songs again, as if for the first time”.
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There are so many insights offered over the hour and half film, dating all the way back to when Bono attended an unnamed school for a year and got kicked out. Thus, he moved to Mount Temple Comprehensive School where he met The Edge as well as Clayton and Mullen Jr and later they would collaboratively become U2. According to Bono, “the band was born out of culture at a particular school, at a particular time. It [the school] was a social experiment in our country at that time. Non-denominational people of any religion could attend and more importantly to me… girls and boys”. The Edge explains how they invented a whole culture of their own amongst their friends to rebel against the conservative society they lived in. They called it ‘Lipton Village’ and everyone had a nick name when they got together. This how Paul Hewson become ‘Bono’ shortened from ‘Bonovox of O’Connell St’, and David Evans become ‘The Edge’. Mullen Jr. was known as the ‘Jam Jar’ and Clayton was ‘Mrs Burns’; easy to see why the rhythm section discontinued the use of their monikers.
Many of the people who have contributed greatly to the work of U2 over the years are interviewed. For instance, long time band photographer Anton Corbijn, as well as singer/songwriter Glen Hansard and frontman for the Dublin band The Frames. Hansard also features as a guest musician and has known the band most of his life. He saw them open for The Police when he was 10 years old and from that moment himself and the rest of the crowd became obsessed. “They had something intangible, and they had a message in their songs” recalls Hansard.
The writer/journalist Fintan O’Toole remembers seeing U2 for the first time and when he heard ‘I Will Follow’, he was blown away by their original sound that was completely different to anything he had heard. O’toole says, “U2 were trying to express something with this force of sincerity”. U2 were 18 at this time and the positive reaction from the live crowds kept the band moving forward. U2 literally cut their teeth as a band live on stage and continue to do so as their career progresses. Meanwhile, footage is interspersed of Letterman handing out tickets to the live show at the Ambassador Theatre in Dublin for U2’s latest offering and even the guide of a U2 walking tour of Dublin that Letterman partakes in. Letterman asked Bono “Is everything you do still within your comfort zone?”, to which Bono replies, “I’m rarely in my comfort zone and I think that’s been difficult for the band as I don’t let them be in it either”.
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Letterman introduces the band with the first offering in the way of live performance footage of the 2003 hit, ‘Vertigo’. This comes as a stripped-down version with The Edge on acoustic guitar and a cellist, with Bono setting the room alight on the mic. Say what you like about the man but as far as a seasoned frontman is concerned, Bono shows us exactly why he is still one of the greatest performers of our time. A highlight is when the crowd fills in for Mullen Jr. by adding Flamenco rhythm hand claps, the joy of the moment is written on everyone’s faces.
A Higher Power
When asked by Letterman about the origins of the religious theology steeped in the bands ethos that it has carried throughout their career, Bono responds by offering a quick history lesson on the troubles in Ireland. With his guidance we learn the greatest animosity amongst the Irish has always been the divide between the Protestants and the Catholics. The band were young kids during the troubles in the 70s and they were looking for a way to express their faith that wasn’t obviously religious.
The band became involved with a movement in Ireland in the late 70s called the ‘Charismatic Renewal’, which consisted of religious people with little possessions who lived a very disciplined life. Bono thought they were “Quite punk rock actually”. However, the movement frowned on Rock n’ Roll and asked the members to quit. This almost caused the demise of the band after the sophomore album October released in October 1981. The influence of the movement left The Edge questioning his career choice. He asked the question, how could he be a useful member of the faith whilst engaged with his musical endeavour and continue a career which demands everything you have and then some? The answer to this conundrum came from pure frustration and presented itself in the form of a song, the song was ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.
Bono witnessed the transformation of Edge’s internal rage turn into an external expression and realised that’s why he was in a band and that’s why had met these three lads, and the song was a way the music could mean something outside of itself. This magical unity amongst the band with its new voice was immortalised forever on film in the now legendary concert at Red Rocks, Colorado in 1983. As Hansard points out “Here was a guy singing about Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland who had gone and made our case and presented it to millions of Americans and we were watching it on TV in Dublin, and we were gobsmacked”. Bono hopes in his lifetime the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country goes away and the country can reunite with respect for one another.
The next live offering is the first song the band wrote about Dublin, and it is the 1984 uncompleted sketch of a song ‘Bad’. The song questions the country’s then current position in politics and its relationship to the teaching of the scriptures. Bono again shines on this song showcasing his lower range with crooner like silkiness. He also reveals that Brian Eno once told him to not concern himself with being cool, because that would be uncool. He really embodies this statement within his performance. The Edge again is in full flight on the acoustic. It is fascinating to see him play guitar without his usual arsenal of effects pedals, and if you ever questioned his abilities as a guitarist then you’re in for a treat.
One of the more unique and refreshing aspects of the Edge’s guitar playing is his mastering of minimalism. The constant reverence to the song and what is needed in service of the song always dominates his pocket within the mix. His style of playing transfers well to the acoustic sound and his stillness fills the soundscape to give grandeur and scope to the song. It’s very inspiring to watch and pleasurable to listen too. It seems the two of them are channelling a higher power. The performance is followed by a short on-stage interview with Letterman in which he enquires who wrote the “who, who” lyric in ‘Bad’. The boys brush it off with a when and why retort.
Why is U2 rereleasing their back catalogue in this new format? Long-time friend and collaborator Jimmy Irvine defines the why as, “They wanted to do more than entertain, they wanted to do something that spiritually affected people”. If anything, the reason why is that it feels like a companion piece for Bono’s 2022 book also named Surrender, a soundtrack if you will. I think the whole venture is best described as retrospective. One can only hope that this is a potential ending of a chapter that has had its challenges for the group and a beginning of a new chapter filled with reinvention and artistic genius, and I put my money on U2 to do it.
After giving Letterman his own up close and personal rendition of ‘The Streets Have No Name’, The Edge explains how he conceived the song. He used a thought exercise and imagined he was in the audience and what could he play that would blow himself away. Bono explains the song as a transcendent place you can all go together, and would we like to come? He also goes on to describe the band as “A chemistry set and the chemical reaction between the audience and the band, that’s what makes a good band great”. He also reveals his approach to playing ‘The Streets Have No Name’ at the 2001 Superbowl half time show and the insinuated significance of the song under those circumstances after 9/11.
Next is an acoustic version of the 2001 hit ‘Beautiful Day’. Although the performance is fantastic, the lack of a rhythm section is more obvious on this song, and it lacked bite compared to other reimaginings during the evening. However, the use of delay on Bono’s vocals which are mixed in using the natural reverb of the acoustics of the auditorium are exceptional to hear. During the performance, an interview with Hansard is intercut from on a train. He dwells on how the band stopped taking themselves so seriously and started to enjoy being rockstars. This small snippet is pivotal in the band’s narrative, because the difference in the U2 between 1989 (taking themselves too seriously while in Stetsons) and 1991 where we get the tongue in cheek rock band with the release of the album Achtung Baby, is almost night and day. The album and the transition saved the band as it started a new chapter in the 90s.
The Drag Queen
Political issues have always been at the forefront of U2. The documentary is no different and continues this career spanning theme when Letterman interviews local Drag Queen and activist Panti Bliss. The interview tackles the once repressed Irish attitude towards homosexuality and how in today’s current climate there is almost this antithetical attitude towards the rainbow community. Bliss admits to not being a U2 fan in her youth, having judged them as just another white male, straight culture rock band and knowing very little about what U2 seemed to stand for against her viewpoint of the world.
Bliss moved to Japan to pursue a career in drag and escape the oppression. Whilst there, U2 brought their ZOO TV tour and to Bliss’s delight the U2 she encountered at the concert was not the serious young boys from Dublin but rather a group of artists who wanted to create an experience that was young, sexy and fun. This insight into the changes back home inspired Bliss to return to Ireland. In 2015 she joined U2 on stage in Dublin to celebrate Ireland being the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage. When handed the mic by Bono, Bliss exclaimed that “This might be the straightest audience I’ve ever played to!”
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Next is a beautiful rendition of the 1991 hit ‘One’. The Edge plays upright piano whilst Bono leans on the piano and gives a heart filled performance, a highlight is the build with the cellist and Edge’s backing vocals and the subtle back lighting of the setting really captures the mood of the song. During an interview with Letterman, Edge offers some insight as to what it is like to be in a band for 40 plus years by saying “It’s like being a little institutionalised by being in U2 this long”. Bono reflects on the band’s deep friendship, that he admits was lost at times along the way and they had to work on it. He also admits that his work as an activist has challenged the bands relationship at times, and cites the job of an activist as ‘very unhip’.
For example, The Edge begged Bono to not bring Jessie Helms, with whom Bono had done incredible work with the fight against Aids, to a U2 show. Why? Because Jessie Helms was also responsible for dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. However, Bono brought him anyway and goes on to explain he uses the currency afforded to him by being in U2 to support certain causes. He is also aware of the tension and discomfort that it can bring to the band as individuals and to the band’s brand, and there has certainly been a fair share of backlash from the fans over the decades.
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But how have they lasted so long? The Edge says, “The relationship is stronger by acknowledging each other’s idiosyncrasies and we are not in competition, it’s part of the way we show respect to one another”. As Bono points out, Edge is from the future, and we cut to The Edge showing Letterman his digital lifelike avatar. Bono introduces 2001’s ‘Stuck In A Moment’ by sharing what he dislikes about The Edge is that he could easily be a successful solo artist and he doesn’t need the band to which Edge replies, “But it wouldn’t be as much fun”. The song is firstly presented with The Edge alone at a grand piano doing a solo rendition of the song that is deeply moving. This is then interspersed with live footage with Bono singing and Edge on acoustic offering those stunning falsetto backing vocals that sound so divine in the stripped-down mix.
The link between the Irish and poetry is deeply steeped in the essence of the Irish culture. Hansard shares his love of the poetry with Letterman by quoting Joyce to describe the Greystones on the coast near Dublin where they meet with the line “Swerve of shore, bend of bay.” Tying in with the reflective narrative of the documentary, Hansard also later recites ‘Carrying the Songs’ by Moya Cannon. The poem’s theme is linked to the history of songs and where they end up in the cannon of such history. “It’s the songs we carry when we have nothing else, so we have a lot of songs in Ireland” points out Hansard.
The Edge and Bono then take Letterman to an unnamed Dublin pub for a get together with the who’s who of the Dublin music scene for a Guinness and a sing along. To see the likes of Bono, Edge, Glenn Hansard, Dermot Kennedy, Loah and Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten all in the same pub with acoustic instruments and pints in hand is beyond exciting. The fact that this scene climaxes with a group sing a long of the 1989 hit ‘All I Want Is You’ is perfect.
The boys have also written a song in homage of Letterman after getting his feet wet at a local swimming spot. Bono and The Edge wrote for Letterman in the middle of the night. The ditty was inspired by their day trip with Letterman to the Forty Foot, a Dublin Bay tourist attraction where daredevil swimmers regularly take a rite-of-passage icy plunge. The song gives an unfettered look into how they work with new composition. To be honest, the performance is shaky given they only just wrote it less than 24 hours ago, but Letterman is over the moon with the gesture and then he tries to turn the subject towards publishing. The band then give an acoustic performance of a new lyrical version of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, and as Bono puts it “What a thrill to finish the song all these years later and bring it into the present tense”.
Towards the end of the film the focus starts to move towards the future of the band. In an interview, Bono reveals that he has contemplated walking away from U2 more than once and every member has had the same thoughts over the years. However, the drive to continue to create and write more music comes from the desire to write the song they haven’t written yet, like chasing a dragon to find the elusive perfect song. Ironically, they then perform an acoustic rendition of the 2014 song ‘Breaking Wave’ from the album ‘Songs of Innocence’, with Edge on piano. Bono reflects on how he is still unsatisfied with the vocal’s song 10 years on and is seen in the studio with Letterman and sound engineer Tom Elmhurst giving it another go.
The Edge then speaks of the connection the band has with Dublin and how the city has given them a real connection to their everyday lives and how they still have the same friends from 16 years old. The connection incredibly had saved the band from the excesses of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. The film ends with a live performance of the 2014 song, ‘Invisible’. Hansard and a group of other musicians join Bono and The Edge for this moving performance of the song. However, I preferred the interspersed footage of the rendition in the pub with the Dublin all-star line-up.
Bono concludes that the real miracle of U2 is that everything they need and all the people they needed have always been right there and the documentary is a salute to them as much as the band itself. The documentary concludes with the studio version of ‘Forty Foot Man’ in homage to Letterman. The film is highly reflective, which as a fan since 1985 I thoroughly enjoyed. However, this deep dive into the back catalogue does have me questioning where will the band go from here given the absence of new material. The takeaway for the fan after seeing Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman is that the dream is not over for U2, and they will now go away and dream it up all over again; and I for one cannot wait!
Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman is available to watch exclusively on Disney+ now. Watch it here.
Listen to Songs Of Surrender below!