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U2: A Tainted Icon

U2’s music is acclaimed, but its members pursuit of profit is not very Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Michael Smith and Mark Hunt

U2 were formed in 1976 when Larry Mullen, 14, posted a notice on the board at Mount Temple school.  Seven tufty and cacophonous teenagers attended the first practice. It was, Mullen has said, “‘The Larry Mullen Band’ for about ten minutes, then Bono  walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge”.

The band went through incarnations as “Feedback” and “the Hype” before settling on the name U2 and the famous four-man format in 1978. They were signed to Island Records in 1980 by Paul McGuinness, by then their manager; and released their first album, Boy, with a somewhat incoherent focus on adolescent trauma, to favourable reviews.

By 1985 Rolling Stone was calling U2 the band of the eighties.  U2 have sold more than 145 million albums worldwide and have won 22 Grammy Awards,  more than any other band. After twelve albums, of which only Pop was not favourably reviewed, and associated epic tours, they are probably the biggest band of all time and have somehow managed, partly through Bono’s hyper politics, never to lose relevance.

They remain good friends, though they did disband once in 1981 when Bono, The Edge, and Mullen joined a Christian group called the “Shalom Fellowship”, which led them to reflect negatively on the rock and roll lifestyle. To this day Bono allegedly is often accompanied by a spiritual adviser; and Christianity animates much of his approach, something that has gained him some strange friends including the late Jesse Helms, America’s most racist mainstream politician. U2 are regarded as being very well managed and apparently have a combined wealth of €628m. Unlike most musicians, the bandmates still control the lucrative rights to all their own music. Bono has said they will not disband unless they start getting “fat arses” and irrelevant.

In general the band are reasonably-well grounded socially though their soaring levels of fame and wealth have led to a dubious self-consciousness that can be excruciating.  Bono rarely passes up an opportunity to talk about the irony of it all, including that he’s a rich rockstar pontificating. Nevertheless some of their behaviour is beyond parody.

U2’s music is essentially American; played  big, with pseudo-American accents: Edge’s celebratory guitar counterpointed by Bono’s cracking voice accompanying largely   banal lyrics about Love, Religion and cult politicians. It’s a beautiful day.

It is not for their anthemic music that U2 have been  attracting opprobrium, particularly in Ireland.  It is for their business activities and a perceived hypocrisy.

Some of the criticism is unfair since the band does not necessarily share all Bono’s opinions, since Bono at least is grappling with Big Problems in an intelligent, articulate way, and since they do not purport to be pure in their lifestyles.  It is also probably the case  that, contrary – for some  reason – to most people’s expectations, most of the band don’t really have a problem with Capitalism, and contrary to received wisdom,  don’t really have a view on the Environment, albeit that is a dead-on issue of the type Bono associates with.

This probably scotches many of the hypocrisy allegations. Perhaps the fairest criticism is that it is a dead-end for Bono to lead the world’s greatest rock band in a direction which ultimately indulges global power structures, while tinkering at the edges just enough to undermine at least the simplistic critique of them.  Youth-rattling Rock and Roll it is not.

Bono’s charity work divides opinion. U2 were central to Live Aid, Live 8 and indeed an embarrassing native event called Self-Aid in 1985 where Bono famously addressed the crowd in his “Ronnie Drew” accent about unemployment.  He has since settled on a variable, multi-purpose mid-Atlantic drawl.

Somewhat interestingly, he  has stated that “U2 are about the art of the possible, politics is about the possible.  They’re very different and I’m resigned to that now”.

In 2005, Bono helped persuade world leaders to double aid for Africa to $50 billion a year by 2010 and erase the debt of the 18 poorest countries on the continent. In doing so – much to the horror of Larry Mullen who professed himself embarrassed –  he cosied up to Antichrist George W Bush, as well as to Tony Blair (who Mullen considers a war criminal)  – indeed to almost anyone he deemed useful. Bono said, “It is much easier and hipper for me to be on the barricades with a handkerchief over my nose — it looks better on the resume of a rock ‘n’ roll star. But I can do better by just getting into the White House and talking to a man who I believe listens, wants to listen, on these subjects”.

George Monbiot, in particular – writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper –  has suggested that Bono is not qualified to speak on some of these issues nor, in  particular, to outflank some of the well-informed voices outside each global summit, from his positionseated betwixt some of the people who caused the problems in the first place – inside.  Bono does not seem to understand that power structures create and perpetuate iniquities.  Nor, apparently, does he see it as possible that global capitalism may be inimical to resolving the world’s problems of poverty, injustice and inequality.  But then he has vested interests, as one of the biggest practical beneficiaries of global capitalism.

More particularly it is alleged that much of George Bush’s aid was linked to distribution by American firms and faith-based charities. Only a limited number of countries benefit from the debt relief package  and what is being written off is mostly the debt owed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, with other debts unaffected. The hoops the debtors have to jump through to get even this limited relief are onerous. Qualifying countries have to abide by certain conditions – they must “boost private-sector development” and get rid of “impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign”. Major economic and social projects are to be “built and delivered in conjunction with the private sector”.  Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, said last year: “Ten years after debt was first put on the international agenda, developing countries are still giving $5 in debt repayments to the rich world for every $1 they get back in aid.

U2 have a very un-rockstar-like affinity with property. One or other of them is rarely out of the press, dousing some planning controversy, usually centring on house-expansion plans being challenged by some dogooder or begrudger or other.

Bono has a property portfolio that includes a villa in Eze in the South of France and an enviable Italian-style palazzo overlooking the sea in Killiney, Co Dublin, as well as the £15 million penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper  West side that he bought from Apple boss, Steve Jobs.

The apartment, which takes up two floors of the 27-storey north tower of the famous San Remo building, is listed as one of New  York’s top 40 properties.

Having said that, according to Bloomberg,those who have visited describe Bono’s apartment, with its avant-garde stone walls and floors, as “charmless and stark”.

Meanwhile, on top of his own gracious property in Killiney, following planning difficulties including an unsuccessful appeal by An Taisce of radical extension plans, Bono paid €4 million in 2004  for his neighbour’s house, and  linked the two.

In Dublin U2, as rock-stars-cum-developers, have recently delayed the start of work on a skyscraper in Ringsend docks. “U2 Tower” controversially doubled in height from the 60-metres originally permitted to the 2003 competition winner.  It is now to be 130 metres high – 10 metres taller than Dublin’s Spike, despite the fact that the impact of the additional height has never been properly assessed by EIS. There was an architectural competition for the site but as Frank McDonald noted  in the Irish Times, “the name of the original winner was somehow mislaid and the jury subsequently decided to award first place to BDACH Architects. One of the principals, Mr Felim Dunne, is a brother-in-law of U2’s manager, Mr Paul McGuinness”.

Bono and the Edge with Paddy McKillen (one of the “Anglo 10”) also have planning permission to quadruple the size of the Clarence Hotel –  demolishing all the protected structures, behind quayside facades. Dublin City Council’s Conservation Officer, Claire Hogan, wrote an exasperated report in 2007 describing the scheme as facadism “reminiscent of the climate of 1960s speculative development” and saying the owners were “unable to provide exceptional circumstances as required under the  Planning and Development Act 2000 in order to allow demolition of protected structures”.

Neverthless U2 obtained permission for a greedy Norman-Foster-designed   cybership – a rockstar bubble which treats Dublin’s Wellington Quay as if it were  Cape Canaveral. For some reason U2 could not get their heads around the perfectly simple idea that they could expand the existing Art Deco hotel into the other adjoining buildings they own, retain the exterior shells and not demolish them.

This is the same failure of vision that animates the Edge in blowing up a Malibu mountainside to build five (beautiful) mega-mansions. It drives U2 members’ serial domestic planning applications. It is a vision of rapacious maximalism not minimalism; a fetish for glamour over substance, ultimately a failure of taste bordering on a failure of ethics.  It is the same force that led Bono once to fly a missing hat first-class in a jet; and which propels U2 around the world in a private jet.  It is what led them to sue their hair-stylist for taking some minor momentoes such as a hat.

They’d be loth to accept it but they can’t just go with the flow.

So, U2 forgot the plot in in 2006 after Ireland said it would scrap a break that lets musicians and artists avoid paying taxes on royalties so that those who make more than 500,000 euros annually are required to  pay tax on half their “creative” income. They expatriated their music publishing company to the Netherlands in 2007. Edge brazenly commented,   “Of course we’re trying to be tax-efficient. Who doesn’t want to be tax-efficient?” Indeed.

In 2007   U2 paid only €270,000 in Corporation Tax in Ireland. Dutch filings show that the same year they registered a tax-effective 79 per cent fall in profits due to the withdrawal of €8.5 m from their bank account , more than 50 per cent of which went on  paying loans to themselves and other companies which the band controls. The Irish Mail on Sunday recently reported that in  2007 U2’s 15 companies shared over €31m in “intra group” loans, money the band effectively extend to themselves via interest-free, unsecured loans.

Richard Murphy, a director at UK-based Tax Research Ltd called U2’s accounting of this“messy” and said, “If I was an Irish tax inspector, I’d have a whale of a time”.

Beyond property, U2’s  empire, run by financial arm Principle Management, is made up of multiple interlinked companies, structured to minimise the amount of tax the band members pay.

A few years ago Bono quietly helped establish a private equity fund to invest more than €1billion.

He co-owns Elevation Partners, named after a U2 song,   with  five former senior business figures, including the former chief financial officer of Apple Computers (with which U2 had a promotional arrangement).

Elevation invested more than €220 million in merging two  computer games firms and attempted unsuccessfully to buy Eidos, the makers of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Beyond this, Elevation  spent a reported $300 million in 2005 on a company called Pandemic Studios which was then preparing to launch a game entitled “‘Mercenaries 2: World in Flames”, a violent video game in which players become hired mercenaries who invade Venezuela, where a tyrant has tampered with the country’s oil supply”.

According to a release by the Venezuela Solidarity Network on US Indymedia, “Pandemic is a sub-contractor for the US army and the CIA-funded Institute for Creative technologies which uses Hollywood techniques to mount war simulations in California’s high desert in order to conduct military training”. It also claims that “Pandemic’s target market is young men of military recruitment age”, all of whom presumably go off to war while playing U2 on their Bono-branded Apple iPods. Elevation sold Pandemic in 2008.

But it is  the company’s 40 per cent buy-out of Forbes, which elevated it into the big time.  The New York Times reported “some people said the deal gave Elevation a stake of more than 40% at a cost of $250 million to $300 million in the magazine”. The bible of capitalism is run by editor-in-chief Malcolm “Steve” Forbes, who despite failing in two runs for the White House, nonetheless pushes his “traditional” US Republican agenda. Accessible via  multiple media such as his own TV show, “Forbes on Fox”, “Steve” is well-known for being against gun control, pro death penalty, opposed to pollution control, and inclined to ventilate a world perspective that promotes, as he succinctly puts it himself, a “US not UN Foreign Policy”.

Forbes  happily proclaimed that Bono was an avid reader of the magazine and Elevation’s sixth partner Roger McNamee told the New York Times that Bono likes the fact that there “has been a consistent philosophy throughout its history”. It is beyond speculation that  capitalism is an adventure in which Bono has an enthusiastic stake. Reflecting this, it is no surprise that in  2007 alone U2’s company lost €800,000 through “currency speculation”.

Bono counts a  Maserati among his fleet of luxury boys’ toys. His Manhattan apartment boasts 12ft nickel and bronze doors and  floor-to-ceiling windows costing $70,000 each. And the band flaunt their buying power. Gay Byrne got a Harley Davidson, no less. from them for his support over the years. U2  invested in Vertigo 3, an Airbus A320, to fly them around in style on their 2006 world tour. If they eschew radicalism they at least can do excess.

It’s Rock and Roll of a sort.  But U2 are a tainted icon.