The indispensable wisdom of the rhythm section was proved most recently during the making of U2's new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. For all its success, U2 has never enjoyed making records, largely because the force and diversity of the band members' personalities, combined with their politeness and respect for one another, turns the process into something slow, sloppy and complicated like democracy. There was hope, though, in October 2003, when the group gathered in Dublin to give a close listen to songs that Bono, 44, and the Edge, 43, believed were ready for release. "All we needed was the assent of the politburo and the record would have been out for Christmas," says Bono. Clayton, 44, and Mullen Jr., 43, focused on each track and then voted decisively that the songs were simply not good enough. "When it comes to signing off on a project," says Clayton, "you ask questions like, 'Have we got a first single to open the campaign?' Frankly, we were missing more than just a first single." Says Mullen Jr.: "It was awkward, but it had to be said."
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With 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind an album that sold 4 million copies, spawned a $110 million grossing North American tour and earned the band a Super Bowl half-time-show slot U2 appeared to regain the coveted title of biggest and best band in rock 'n' roll. But neither Clayton nor Mullen Jr. could shake the feeling that the record had been overpraised by a public relieved to see aging rockers not thoroughly embarrassing themselves. "On the last album there was lots of good feeling," says Clayton, "but only Beautiful Day was a hit. I felt that, if our goal is still to be the biggest band in the world, the new record had to have three or four songs that would bring in new people. Three or four hits."
When it became clear that Clayton and Mullen Jr. were not going to budge, producer Steve Lillywhite was brought in to break the deadlock. "They played me the record," says Lillywhite, "and it was, well, it had the weight of the world on its shoulders. It certainly wasn't any fun." After several lengthy meetings, Bono and the Edge caved. "The songs were good," says Bono, "but good won't bring you to tears or make you want to leave your house and tour for a year. The bastards were right."
Acceptance of that, however, ushered in a typical U2 mini-depression. The not-good-enough songs had taken a year to make, largely because the members of U2 long ago convinced themselves that they're unskilled musicians who, as the Edge says, must "wait for God to walk through the room" before they can write a good song. The humility is charming, but it also provides a convenient excuse for working slowly. "They operate in total chaos," says Lillywhite. "They work slowly, get frustrated and then hold these epic meetings to bemoan how slowly they're working and how frustrated they are. I love them, but sometimes they just need to put one foot in front of the other."