by Mike Pattenden
Few releases can cause as much speculation, anticipation and activity as a new U2 album, but the scale of interest preceding the release of Pop, the band's 11th album, is unprecedented in recent years.
There have been leaks, broken embargoes and wild rumours surrounding the project since it began 14 months ago, and these have grown ever more frantic as it has approached completion. All par for the course for a band that can still consider itself the biggest in the world after more than a decade at the top.
The release of Discotheque, the first single from the LP, has only served to sharpen the appetite with its combination of powerhouse rhythm, muscular Edge riffs and insistent groove. A 300,000 ship-out, the biggest in Island's history, makes the record destined for the number one spot here but Discotheque has done little to stifle speculation as to the direction of the LP.
With long-time associate Flood joined in the studio by Soul II Soul/Massive Attack guru Nellee Hooper, trip hop artist Howie B and Steve Osborne, one half of Perfecto, many were led to expect a dance album from the band. This theory was further confused by conflicting comments from Bono that the band were "going to make a trip-hop record"/"a rock'n'roll record. Bright red. No whingeing."
In fact initial listens suggest that Pop is a rich hybrid, unmistakably U2: powerful, big-sounding, richly melodic but inflected with a distinct club feel in its atmospherics and styling. Songs like Mofo and Last Night On Earth sound like classic U2 while others, notably The Playboy Mansion and Miami, have a dancefloor feel. "It's very much a rock'n'roll record but at the same time it's steeped in dance culture," agrees manager Paul McGuinness. "Creatively, they always follow their noses, they intended to make a modern-sounding record at the outset and they've achieved that."
"The whole thing about calling the album Pop is to emphasise its diverseness," explains Flood. "Some of the singles are more obviously rock-orientated but that's not true of the album as a whole. The basic premise was that they wanted to move on, that they couldn't repeat themselves. They wanted to bring in elements from the dance world and integrate them, not necessarily with the aim of turning it into a danceable album, but to synthesise a new sound. That's why different people came in - they wanted to experiment with different influences."
Sessions for Pop began in November 1995 at the band's new studios at Hanover Quay, dubbed HQ, in Dublin's dockland area, with everyone generally working in 12-hour shifts most days, together or separately. The recording proceeded, with small breaks, through to Christmas of last year when it was finally completed with a batch of nearly 30 tracks whittled down to the 12 which appear on the LP. Occasional hiatuses occurred, notably early on when Larry Mullen sought medical help for a chronic back problem.
Virtually all the finished songs bear contributions from the various producers, often on the same track, with few bearing the stamp of one single member of the team. Such a modus operandi could have disintegrated into a war of egos but, says Flood, while there were obviously disagreements, things never got out of control.
One name did emerge as a very significant force in the making of the record, according to McGuinness. Howie B, (nee Bernstein) remains enthusiastic about his part in Pop. The DJ, producer and artist was associated with the Mo Wax crowd a few years back and his skills have become much in demand. He assisted with Everything But The Girl's fresh dancefloor direction on Walking Wounded and first collaborated with U2 on the Passengers project. This time he took his engineering skills, ideas and record collection into the studio with him. "I began just playing tunes, old school hip-hop, that sort of thing, and we talked," he says, explaining his part in the process. "Then we were jamming together in the studio. I was putting together beats and loops, digging out samples. For example, Discotheque started out as a little wee jam me and The Edge had that turned into this mad tune."
Frequently, he confesses, the recording took wild left-turns. "It went off at magic tangents and that was the best thing about it. Half the time I didn't have a clue what was going on. As long as you were able to react to what was happening and were honest, it was really exciting."
Island managing director Marc Marot explains how one of the tracks altered radically under this working régime. "I've got an early version of a track called Mofo which was originally a much more traditional-sounding U2 record then it turned into this monstrous Bomb The Bass meets U2 meets Nine Inch Nails type thing, which is 100 degrees hotter than the original."
The finished result, he says, ranks among their best work. "It is more than the album I hoped they'd produce. It more than surpasses my expectations. It's both extremely modern and traditional U2 at the same time. It has an experimental edge but the spine harks back to traditional U2 territory. Fans are going to be delighted with it."
McGuinness is equally bullish about the finished treatment and feels confident about its potential in the US, U2's biggest territory. "The record is very well-timed, particularly in the US where dance-based music has made very little impact until recently. With The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers beginning to make inroads, it comes at a good time and I think the sound behind Pop could even open up the market in America."
Reflecting the album's diversity Island America managing director Hooman Majd prefers to concentrate on Pop's strength in the modern rock area, where things have been stagnant in the US for some time. "I think it's incredibly impressive. Given the state of the American charts and suggestions that maybe the alternative market is a bit flat here I think this will turn everything upside down. It sounds very much of the time, everyone is hoping it will spark the market. Certainly the retailers who have heard it here feel strongly that it's an adventurous and exciting record."
Pop faces strong competition in the US from Live, whose new album Secret Samadhi is released two weeks earlier, and the continued success of No Doubt. Pop should have seen the light of day in November but was delayed when both sides felt that it wasn't quite ready. But this left Island without a major Christmas release, which Marot maintains they simply had to accept. "You can't take a three-month snapshot of a company and those sort of pressures certainly can't be allowed to intrude on an act. In the history of things people will remember Pop, not whether Island had a bad last quarter of '96," he says.
More serious were the various leaks which sprung around the single and resulted in the release-date being brought forward a week. An original problem which emanated from the band's fanbase on the internet was superseded by a security breach which ended with America's KROQ playing the single over Christmas. "We turned the original problem to our advantage, and generated a lot of press from it," says Marot. "We had stories in Time, Rolling Stone, Newsweek and the national newspapers but the second leak was more damaging. It was a question of our international media and retail plan being thrown into disarray. We chose a release window which we thought was best for the artist and were forced to change. We took a decision to bring Discotheque forward and we moved mountains to do it."
With a worldwide act the size of U2 a major release like Pop becomes a juggling act, maintains Marot. "You simply can't afford to be parochial about a record like this, you'll never see us going for a Chart Show exclusive if there's something needed somewhere else. We try to be even-handed and while the UK is U2's second biggest market they're still growing in the Far East and parts of Europe. There's potential here to take them beyond the 10m mark. However, that sort of volume of sales can't be achieved without touring as Majd is keen to point out. "Touring is crucial for big sales, a band like U2 put on a real show and it puts them in the shop window. People look at REM and say that the last record wasn't successful but one of the reasons it didn't do so well is that they didn't tour, same with Pearl Jam."
With this in mind U2 are set to announce a major world tour at a press conference in New York on February 12. Opening in the US this April it moves to Europe in July, runs through to October there before the band head back to America for a second leg.
Figures in the region of $100m are being bandied about, which would make it the biggest-grossing tour ever and a very attractive vehicle for outside sponsorship. McGuinness confirms they have had approaches but maintains nothing has been sealed. "There are always people who would like to be associated with the band, particularly in the information technology world. Since that's stuff we like to use it's not something we're rejecting out of hand but no deal has been inked so far." Heavyweight computer companies like Microsoft and Apple appear to be in the running. There is a distinct possibility that one of the acts on Mother Records - the label co-owned by the band, McGuinness and Malcolm Dunbar - is in the running for a support slot. Both the Longpigs and Audioweb have shown promise - the former performing well here - but a support slot on the tour could break them worldwide.
With U2 preparing for live action once again it would mean little let-up in the punishing schedule they have maintained throughout the Nineties. With two huge world tours, three major album releases plus a host of side projects, including the Eno collaboration Passengers, plus film soundtrack work on big budget movies like Batman and Mission:Impossible, U2 are rock music's biggest workaholics. "They are an example to younger bands who may have sold a million records on what it means to stay at the top. They work incredibly hard and I have nothing but admiration for them," says Marot.
It's difficult not to agree with him as U2 prepare to put the Pop into popular.