‘Here Comes the ‘Next Big Thing.’

17 Feb 2003
James Henke, Curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum, remembers first meeting - and writing about - U2, in 1980. Part one of a U2.Com exclusive.

See our earlier story on the opening of 'In The Name of Love: Two Decades of U2', at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the Name of Love: Two Decades of U2 , the new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, had its genesis about 23 years ago, writes James Henke. Back then, in 1980, I was the Los Angeles bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine. I was also an avid buyer of import singles. Every week, I'd trek off to the record stores in search of new singles, primarily from the U.K.
One time I came across a single called "11 O'Clock Tick Tock." It was by an Irish group called U2. I'd read about them in the British music press, so I bought a copy. I loved it. A little while later, I picked up another U2 single called "I Will Follow." It was even better.
Back in those days, when record companies had lots of money to throw around, it was common for them to offer to fly journalists to see bands. One day I got a call from a friend of mine at Warner Bros. Records. The call was about U2. Warner Bros. had a distribution deal with Island Records, the company that had signed U2. The band was playing two gigs in London, and the record company wanted to know if I would like to go see them. No strings attached. If I didn't like them, I didn't have to write a story.
It was around Thanksgiving, so I figured I could use my holidays and go check them out. At the time, U2 was based in a London apartment, while they ventured out for a series of gigs around England. The day I arrived, their PR guy from Island invited me over to meet the band. I was immediately taken by how genuine and polite Bono, Adam, Larry and the Edge were. At the time, which was early on in my career at Rolling Stone, I was covering a lot of punk and New Wave bands, and, for the most part, they all reeked of attitude. Either they wanted to shock you with how weird they were, or they were totally obnoxious. The members of U2, on the other hand, weren't trying to impress or shock.
It turned out that the band was playing a show in Coventry, England, the next night, and they invited me to tag along. The date was November 24, 1980, and we headed out in a van from London to Coventry. It was just the four band members and their road manager, who served as the driver.
Looking back, it's funny to think how young the members of U2 were at the time - some of them were still teenagers. Bono and Adam were both 20; Larry and the Edge were 19. As we drove along, we discussed music - I remember the Edge going on about Tom Verlaine and Television - and talked about religion, politics and the weather. Occasionally, when things got boring, they'd pull out a Bible and read.
The Coventry gig, at the Polytechnic, was akin to seeing a band in a high-school gymnasium: crappy acoustics, crummy environment . Even so, it immediately became clear that U2 was special. It didn't matter where the concert was taking place. Their sheer power and passion, coupled with Bono's ability to break down the barrier between the stage and the audience, completely knocked me out. I thought they were amazing.
Two days later, I saw the band at London's legendary Marquee club, and they were even more impressive. By the time I returned to Los Angeles, I was converted - I thought U2 was one of the best bands I had seen in a long time.
Part of what appealed to me about U2 was that they were different from almost every other band that was around at the time. They were not great musicians. Like many bands of that era, they were inspired by the punk movement, and by the belief that you did not have to be a virtuoso musician to form a rock band. But unlike many of the punk bands, U2 were not nihilists; they didn't want to destroy the world. They were optimistic, they were honest, and they were passionate about rock and roll. In many ways they were the perfect blend of the punk bands like the Clash and the great rock stars of the Sixties, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon. They believed that music mattered, and that through your music, you could touch people's lives. They had also set their sights high: in that first interview, inside the van on the way to Coventry, Bono told me that they wanted to be one of the great bands, in the tradition of the Stones, the Beatles or the Who.
Rolling Stone ran my story with a headline that read, "U2: Here Comes the 'Next Big Thing.'" I don't think any of us at the magazine knew how accurate that prediction would be. I stayed in touch with the band, and I was present for their first American show, on December 6, 1980, at the Ritz in New York. I caught them a couple of times the next year, once again at the Ritz and at a Los Angeles bar called the Country Club. Though I was a little disappointed when October came out, I thought they were turning into a terrific live band. Then, when they released War , in March 1983, I thought they were finally delivering on the promise I had seen a year and a half earlier in England.
By this point, I was the music editor of Rolling Stone, so I assigned myself the task of doing another story on the band. I once again caught up with them in the U.K. and accompanied them to a string of shows in London, Glasgow and Liverpool. I returned to write a fairly lengthy feature story in Rolling Stone, and I began talking them up around the office. I thought they deserved to be on the cover on the basis of their music alone. But as any magazine editor knows, the cover is what sells an issue, and Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's editor and publisher, didn't think U2 was recognizable enough to sell enough issues. So the story wound up inside.
Meanwhile, I had started corresponding with Bono. We would send each other books and tapes of music we liked. It turned out that one of the books I sent him would influence their next recording. When The Unforgettable Fire was released, I continued my campaign to get them on the cover of Rolling Stone. Somewhere in my attic I have a whole slew of memos to Jann Wenner advocating that U2 be on the cover. In March 1985, he finally relented, and the band made its first appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone. The cover headline read: "U2: Our Choice - Band of the Eighties." The next five years would prove us right.
It wasn't until two years later, with The Joshua Tree , that U2 became one of the biggest bands in the world. To many people, they were a new band. But the reality is that they had already been together for a decade. They had paid their dues, and they had taken the long road to success. Then, at the end of the decade, it seemed as if things might fall apart. At a show in Dublin in December 1989, Bono announced that U2 had to, in his words, "go away, and just dream it all up again."
I, like others, worried that the band might split apart. But out of that tension came one of my favorite U2 albums, Achtung Baby . I can still remember when U2's longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, came to New York in the fall of 1991 with an advance tape of the album. I met him at his hotel room, and he played the entire record for me. It was stunning. And I was particularly taken by the song "One." To this day it is one of my absolute favorite U2 songs.
I managed to catch several shows of the subsequent Zoo TV tour, but this period would mark the end of my relationship with U2 as a Rolling Stone journalist. I decided it was time for me to move on, and I took a job as vice president of product development at Elektra Records. (The person who hired me, appropriately enough, was Ellen Darst, who had long been U2's U.S. management rep.) But within a year, I would again change jobs and our paths would cross again.

More of this two part article by Jim Henke soon.

More on the U2 retrospective at Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame here


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