ROCK / The medium and the message

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The Independent Culture
IT IS A lot easier to be cynical about U2's Zooropa spectacular if you haven't actually seen it. The bitter truth is that the days when hating this group was the easy way to prove yourself a person of good taste are probably now behind us. Of course, the new-look 'ironic' U2 is even more irritating than the old-look sincere one, but it would be churlish to criticise them for being pompous when they are so good at it.

Wembley Stadium is not an easy venue on which to stamp your authority, but the 'Zoo TV' installation does just that. The floodlights blare, adding greatly to the sense of occasion, but when U2 come on, to the jaw-juddering bass of The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, they go off. The flashing screens and bewildering slogans are much the same as when 'Zoo TV' made its debut last year indoors, but the brew has been spiced up with some deadly toxins.

The opening video imagery is borrowed from Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films and, in conjunction with Bono's ugly half-goosestep on to the stage, promotes a distinct feeling of unease. The idea of using a spectacle of which Albert Speer would have been proud to hammer home the dangers of Fascism is inherently problematic. And the crowd's adherence to every diktat from the stage - when Bono breaks into a ridiculous high-speed handclap, they ape him as one - is not reassuring in this context.

The singer slithers about the stage like a little leathery penis. The sexual aspect of all the power on display is brought explicitly into focus when a female fan plucked from the crowd to help Bono with his dancing begins to writhe atop him in a most unseemly fashion. The show's new musical content is not as potent. While the songs from Achtung Baby sound sleek and complete, most of the Zooropa material is drab. U2 have so far shown impressive skill in making the best use of limited creative resources, but it's hard to know where they might go next.

Whichever way they choose to turn, the busking segment will remain a reliable showstopper. In the middle of 'Satellite of Love', Lou Reed appears on the screen singing along, courtesy of his very own satellite of love link-up. Bono is not yet finished with his video screens. His 'Good evening, Sarajevo' has a grisly Eurovision echo, but the sudden switch from deafening rock to beleaguered Bosnians is genuinely shocking.

The appropriateness of this switch back to old-fashioned campaigning amid all the post- modern flash has been widely questioned, but the gesture is more effective than the rock- messiah postures of yesteryear just because it is so unsettling. Ironically, it's the unreconstructed U2 who provide the most dramatic musical moments of the night, via the epic bluster of 'I Will Follow' and a resplendent 'Where the Streets Have No Name', delivered through a great swathe of white light which makes the crowd feel like extras in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

U2 return for their encores with Bono in his instantly passe 'Macphisto' garb of white face, red devil-horns and Archie Rice whine. At this stage the night before, he conjured up Salman Rushdie on the phone and then in person. Tonight he rings the Princess of Wales, but she's not in. The show ends with an uncharacteristically delicate version of 'I Can't Help Falling in Love with You', nursed almost back to health after the mauling recently inflicted on it by UB40. Bono's voice fades, very noticeably, into Elvis's. Surely, it can't be; not the surprise guest to end all surprise guests . . . ? No, that's right, it can't.

Another comeback; if not from the dead, at least from the early Eighties - Nick Heyward walks among us again. It's heartening to see a queue stretching round the block for the last of the Beckenham pixie's Tuesdays at the Borderline. Anticipation is keen, and not just because rumour has it he's been playing Jam songs.

Heyward has filled out a bit, but his smile has not lost its charm. He's still every inch the school gerbil the whole class wants to take home for the holidays. The keen fashion sense that once made him wear his guitar at shoulder-height and tuck his trousers into his socks seems to have gone though. Tonight he looks like a young City gent on a bank holiday outing. On reflection, this is probably no bad thing, as it means he has stayed true to Haircut 100's suburban ideal.

He was always a bit of a fretwork fiend on the quiet, and his new group has a surprisingly muscular sound, with a hint of the Byrds in the richness of the guitar interplay. With his old Haircut helpmeet Les Nemes on bass, a relaxed and chirpy Heyward cracks jokes and moves easily between new and old material. None of the songs from his forthcoming album From Monday to Saturday quite matches 'Fantastic Day', but the current single, 'Kite', is an object lesson in growing older without losing your innocence.

(Photograph omitted)

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