U2 are more punk than you think they are. Bono on the raw faith that has fuelled 46 years
The U2 frontman on his memoir, Surrender, and how the band Suicide influenced 'With or Without You'
By his own admission, Bono is insufferable.
It's a word he uses a lot when reflecting on his life and career. It points to a self-awareness about his place in the celebrity pantheon, where in recent years he's become known almost as much for his humanitarian campaigns as he has for his decades fronting the band U2.
But to hear him tell it, Bono doesn't mind the jokes at his expense. "I'd miss it," he tells Tom Power in a career-spanning interview on Q.
The iconic Irish rock star is on the show this week to talk about his new memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, and to correct, perhaps, some misconceptions about U2 — mainly that the incredible commercial success they've had means they aren't still punk at heart.
Being grating, for Bono, is a consequence of having an impact as an activist, something that can't really be separated from the band's identity.
"Our activism is baked into who we are," he says, remembering the band's early days as teenage punk rockers. "U2 did our first anti-apartheid show before we signed a record label."
And doing good — being of service to the world and each other — is, in turn, the central aspect of his faith. It's a spiritual conviction that has guided him, and his band, from their school days to now and isn't something he's wanted to talk much about, until now.
"Francis of Assisi is reported to have said go into the world and preach the gospel, but only use words if you absolutely have to," Bono tells Power. "And yeah, I think actions speak louder than words. So I'm only talking about this stuff because I've written about it."
Since activism is part of U2, Bono says that faith is at the core of the music they make.
"What is art?" he asks. "Art is the discovery of beauty in unexpected places. Art chases ugliness away. And part of that is to serve each other. And in the band, I think when we're functioning, we serve each other and then go on to serve the community as a band. So this was all at the heart of our religious convictions when we were in our late teens, early twenties. It is still there."
While a Christian, Bono, doesn't reject the secular world. "Actually the most principled people I know are atheists," he says. And neither is he really set on one interpretation of Christianity. Raised in a religious mixed household, he tends to find spirituality in many spaces.
"I'm quite ambidextrous in terms of my faith as a Protestant, a Catholic," he confesses. "I'll go into St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. I'll go somewhere else down south or whatever."
And he's also not above tackling hard topics. He tells Power what it was like bringing up the child sex abuse scandal to the pope:
"I asked the current Pope Francis about it. I felt I had to as an Irish person because, like, you know, we have spectacular examples of pedophile priests. And I could see his physical self almost collapse into the seat... He didn't speak for a while. I could just see the weight of it. And he just said, 'I cannot explain. I cannot. It is no excuse.... please pray for me. Pray for us as we try to get away from this awfulness. We try to put it right.' But people have lost their faith all over Ireland. And when the pope arrived, there wasn't a big crowd. Understandably."
U2 are way more punk than you think they are
"With or Without You," U2's 1987 mega-hit that went platinum in multiple countries and has been a rock radio staple for 35 years, was inspired by the 1970s New York synth-punk band Suicide.
"It sounds like a pop song now, and it's on jukeboxes, and I'm sure it sounds a bit mainstream to certain ears, but that is one weird-ass sonic adventure of a song," Bono tells Power. "It's a very unusual construction. And in fact, we were throwing it in the trash because it was almost too pop. We were basing it on a band called Suicide out of New York."
At the time they were going for a "psycho pop" sound but somehow lost the psycho part, and ended up making one of the biggest tracks of the decade instead. It's something Bono sees no contradiction in now.
"I want [my] music to be on the radio," he says. "And I see no humiliation in turning up, selling your songs."
He adds that many of his first-wave punk heroes were also unabashedly aiming to cross over.
"I wanted to realize our potential," he says. "The Sex Pistols were like that. They were taking it as far as they could go... They were luminous. They were vivid. It wasn't that miserablism."
Having said that, Bono acknowledges that the group's punk influences bled into their hits more often than you might think. He points to their insistence on working with Roxy Music's Brian Eno on 1987's The Joshua Tree, in spite of record company concerns.
At the core of being punk for Bono, however, is not less the sound and more the punk values. Values, when he describes them, which sound rather similar to his Christian values.
"Maybe I'm wrong," he says, "but it's how you treat your road crew, your community, the people that are with you. That's how we tell punk values. The rest of it is just you mouthing off. And I utterly believe in my heart that U2 has stayed true to those values."