The wages of sincerity

It's 20 years since U2's first single. Despite appalling dress sense and Bono's embarrassing earnestness, they became the world's biggest rock band, hobnobbing with popes, presidents and Salman Rushdie. How the hell did that happen?

Happy birthday, Paul Hewson. Forty years old on Wednesday, U2's frontman has spent over half his life sharing a name with a long-defunct Dublin hearing-aid showroom. In that time he's been derided and despised, worshipped and adored, made a fortune and, for many, been partially responsible for the modernisation of Ireland. Bono Vox, we salute you.

It's 20 years since this writer first saw U2 play. Their début album Boy had yet to appear and it was 50p to get in. Only two people in the sparse crowd considered that U2 could one day be the biggest band on the planet, and the other one was Bono; he probably hadn't seen many other groups play either. Such a thought had doubtless never crossed the minds of contemporaries such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, neither of whom were remotely respectful, Bernard Sumner wittily calling Bono "Bongo".

It's also 20 years since their first UK single, "11 O'Clock Tick Tock", was released. Some 80 million album sales later they're still ostensibly signed to Island Records, though the company's $275m sale to Polygram in 1989 was largely contingent on their control of the band's recordings.

Huge sales or not, during their pomp U2 were anything but fashionable, with Bono seen as the worst of a bad bunch despite bassist Adam Clayton's hairstyling disasters. He was a flag-waver with his heart on his sleeve, so sincere he made Bruce Springsteen look, well, English. Things change. These days Bono hobnobs with presidents and collaborates with occasional house guest Salman Rushdie. Bizarrely, he inadvertently gave a favourite pair of sunglasses to Pope John Paul II (who instantly popped them on, though you'll only see an unexplained jumpcut on TV footage) at a papal audience promoting the recent NetAid event.

His politics are decently mainstream and socially responsible - the Jubilee 2000 campaign to suspend Third World debt, Greenpeace, Amnesty International. Hell, even that old curmudgeon Will Self was moved to praise the nosh at the band-owned Clarence Hotel in Dublin during his spell as The Observer's food critic. (Actually, he reckoned they'd wasted their time in music, and that catering was their real forte, but it was magnanimous of him.) It's not saying much, but Bono is quite possibly our best-loved, insanely wealthy, estate-owning, happily married rock star.

In short, he now displays a very public sense of the ridiculous, even appearing on The Simpsons, interrupting a U2 concert to lecture the crowd on the important subject of waste management while his bandmates leave the stage "for a pint" in Moe's bar. Sting mocked himself on the same TV show years before, of course, but in comparison he's beyond redemption.

Perhaps success sometimes makes the famous less, rather than more, guarded about their image. Introducing a then cloistered Rushdie to a packed Wembley stadium was audacious by any standards (not that the experience helped the author with his rock'n'roll novel - it was still feeble), but in music business terms it was an unimaginable engagement with the real world. Ditto a stadium show in a still devastated post-war Sarajevo.

Such dramatic gestures are a long way from U2's origins in drab late-Seventies Dublin. Formed at the city's only non-denominational school, the band's blend of two natives, an Englishman and the son of a Welsh couple was atypical before playing a note. Yet with a frontman insanely eager to communicate, and a remarkably original guitarist, U2 gained a devoted following, their patent sincerity a refreshing alternative to the studied cool of their peers. Three of the band became involved with a serious-minded charismatic Christian sect ("but the other one [Clayton] makes up for them," manager Paul McGuinness joked to a prospective tour manager), even considering jacking it all in for Jesus at one point, but they came to realise that there are other ways of praising the Lord, and touring America endlessly is one of them.

By the time of Live Aid in 1985, when Bono dragged a girl out of the crowd and danced with her to his bandmates' mortification and the delight of millions of watching record-buyers, worldwide success was assured. 1987's The Joshua Tree sold 15 million copies. But 1989's Rattle and Hum, an exploration of traditional American music they'd never before shown much interest in, saw the rot set in. Its accompanying movie, a wide-eyed musical travelogue, was ominously described by Bono as "like Apocalypse Now without the helicopters" - overblown and embarrassing, then. By the turn of the decade he was protesting: "I don't have an ironic persona like David Byrne or David Bowie to stand behind." Clearly time to develop one.

In fact, the band did exactly what David Bowie had done in 1976. They hunkered down in Berlin with Brian Eno, by now their regular producer, and created their best work yet. The former German capital was no longer a consumerist island behind the Iron Curtain. With the fall of the Wall it was again at the centre of Europe, and the ensuing optimistic chaos was reflected on Achtung Baby: playful, technology led and a clear stylistic shift back to this side of the Atlantic. Bono was now portraying himself as a dapper rock star called "The Fly", all wrapround shades and shameless leering. Meanwhile, the ZooTV and Zooropa tours took stadium shows to a new level, with huge banks of televisions and flashing Jenny Holzer-style slogans.

Thankfully, Larry Mullen, the band's drummer, kept his feet firmly on the ground. "They're coming to a rock'n'roll concert and watching television. That says it all," he commented. Charlie Watts would have been proud. The similarly gargantuan PopMart tour of 1997/8 utilised the biggest TV screen ever seen, and an inexplicable stage entrance from a giant lemon.

You can't keep Bono down, of course, recently developed sense of irony or not. This man implored a German audience to reject fascism with the words "This is your chance to be heroes" (it worked - thanks Bono) and named his son Elijah Bob Patricius Guggi Q. His contribution to the Irish peace process, bringing together John Hume and David Trimble in an uncanny visual echo of Bob Marley's Peace Concert of 1978, was as uncontroversial as it was photogenic. With his film collaboration with Wim Wenders, Million Dollar Hotel, just out to mixed reviews, U2 releasing a song with (somewhat woeful) lyrics penned by Rushdie and a new album due in the autumn, there's little chance of his profile sinking. Even queries about a future in politics always garner the same response about not wanting to move to a "smaller house", an answer as hackneyed as George Best's "where did it all go wrong?" anecdote. But credit where credit's due. His desire to please remains as strong as ever. You'll never see Bono refusing to sing the hits. A Sinatra-length career seems inevitable.

The 'Million Dollar Hotel' soundtrack is out on Universal/Island

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