Feature: U2 — The story of the band and the state (Colorado) that welcomed it to the New WorldBy Ricardo Baca | May 17th, 2011 | 1 Comment »
As U2 released its first few albums in the early ’80s, it was clear to a select few that the Irish rock group had the potential to be big.
The band members knew it. Those early publicity stills are more about the fire in their eyes than their questionable fashion sense.
Band manager Paul McGuinness knew it and agent Frank Barcelona trusted in it.
And the early adopters, the fans who fell in love with “I Will Follow,” from the band’s debut “Boy,” they were sure of it — especially once they’d seen U2 live.
With or without the help of any individual person or place, U2 was going to evolve into one of the world’s greatest and biggest rock bands — and one day put on a show like its behemoth 360 Tour, the highest-grossing tour of all time, which is playing Invesco Field at Mile High on Saturday night.
Saturday will be a special night, as even the band will agree that few places helped U2 find its audience more than Colorado — its venues, its fans, its promoters, its believers.
“We always had a lot of affection for Denver,” McGuinness, the band’s manager for 30-plus years, said last week from London. “Denver was quite conservative in radio terms in the ’80s. . . . But it was an important touring market for us, and having started at the Rainbow (Music Hall), we continued to play Denver, moving up to theaters and arenas as time went by.
“That, I suppose, is a testament to having a good, vigorous promoter in the market, and Feyline was that.”
Feyline was promoter Barry Fey’s company, and McGuinness later worked with Fey and his colleague Chuck Morris to book many of the band’s dates in the Southwest. Both Fey and Morris were early supporters, and U2’s dates at the now-shuttered Rainbow were most important because of the seeds they planted.
After one Rainbow show, sold out on a $2 ticket, Morris remembers driving Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. to Red Rocks Amphitheatre in his Jeep. He told them: “You guys are going to headline here someday.”
It stayed with them, and on June 5, 1983, the band headlined the venue in support of its third album, “War.” The weather was terrible, with rain, wind and cold threatening the show. But they played on and were smart (some might say lucky) enough to capture it all on videotape.
“It absolutely helped break the band all over the world,” Morris said of “Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky,” the live concert video filmed that night. “That video got more attention than anything I’d ever seen.”
The video was a hit in the U.S., the U.K., Europe and beyond. Nearly 30 years later, the consensus is that the dramatic live footage solidified U2 as a must-see live act. Rolling Stone magazine included the video in its “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and it certainly changed the band’s path, opening doors that would help define its future.
“Was it their finest moment?” Fey said recently from his Denver home. “You’d have to say so.”
The band’s music was dynamic and emotionally sweeping, yes. But with an assist from the most celebrated outdoor venue in the U.S. and Colorado’s typically unpredictable weather, U2 became international stars. The live video broke sales records, and its accompanying CD set the stage for the band’s next two studio releases, “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree,” which gave us the songs “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You” and more.
In Colorado, U2 had one of its biggest stateside champions in Feyline, which booked the band in Arizona and Nevada as well, and the venue that helped break it to the world. But the band also had fans here who understood it, fans who didn’t need the big radio stations to guide them to the group’s music.
Patrick Milligan lived in a Denver house with his bandmates throughout the early ’80s, and he remembers a band field trip to the Red Rocks show. He likes to recall how young the Edge looked, the mist and fog that hung in the air, the sense that something important was happening, Bono’s awesome mullet.
“At Red Rocks, their presence was so big that it felt like a stadium — especially in the way that Bono in particular took advantage of the venue and the crowd and him climbing up on the rocks,” said Milligan, now an L.A.-based freelancer at iTunes and a former vice president of A&R at Rhino Records. “It felt like, ‘Wow, they blossomed into this huge act all of the sudden.’ . . . It was a huge launching point for them.”
About five years after Red Rocks, the band was touring its biggest record to date, “The Joshua Tree,” and recording another film, what later became “Rattle and Hum.” The big-production, full-color stadium footage was captured at Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, a show promoted by Fey. But much of the black-and-white material was filmed over two days at the old McNichols Sports Arena in Denver.
U2 took over the now-demolished arena Nov. 7-8, 1987, and the second night of that stand was an emotionally charged concert that was driven, in part, by the news of that morning’s Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
An Irish Republican Army bomb had killed 11 people and injured more than 60 at a ceremony honoring those who had served in the British military. Bono was clearly bothered by something as he started in on an impassioned speech during “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” one of the film’s most powerful and memorable moments.
“I’ve had enough of Irish Americans who haven’t been back to their country in 20 or 30 years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home — and the glory of the revolution, and the glory of dying for the revolution,” Bono said from the McNichols stage. “F— the revolution!
“Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where’s the glory in that? To leave them dying, or crippled for life, or dead under the rubble of the revolution that the majority of the people in my country don’t want?”
And while that moment, that thrilling, off the cuff, mid-song speech, could have happened in any arena in the world, it’s no surprise that it happened in Colorado. Bono was simply reacting to the news of the day from home, but the cameras were rolling, and the band was among friends. The guys were back in Colorado, and it was yet another legendary night for Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry.