Killing Bono: on the wrong side of history

However much serious rock critics fantasise that U2 were rebellious rockers, the truth is ‘the kids’ rejected them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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A few years ago there was an achingly trendy ‘electro rock’ band called Bono Must Die. It was sued out of existence by Bono himself who clearly didn’t like the idea of young, hip people swinging their pants to tunes built on Bono-hatred. Now there’s a new film out called Killing Bono, yet far from troubling the normally so sensitive singer, it has received his backing. It isn’t hard to see why. It’s like a creation myth for U2, depicting Bono as a long-suffering saint and his band as a punkish, rebel outfit rather than the po-faced promoters of ‘world music’ they really were.

The film is based on rock critic Neil McCormick’s book, I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger. It tells the true-ish story of Dublin-born Neil and his brother Ivan trying to make it in pop and/or rock while continually being overshadowed by their former schoolfriends Paul Hewson and Dave Evans – otherwise known as Bono and The Edge, whose band The Hype later becomes U2 and conquers the world, while Neil and Ivan scrape by in a dingy flat in London where their numerous record company rejection letters are pinned to the wall in the shape of the word ‘WANKERS’.

Neil starts to blame Bono for his own spectacular failings. Every time he gets thrown out of a record company office he seems to come face to face with a billboard or bus advert for ‘U2’s new million-selling album The Unforgettable Fire‘. ‘A million people – it’s like having the population of a small country jumping up and down to your music’, says a bitter Neil (Ben Barnes). Even when Neil manages to get off with one of the few groupies of his tiny, flailing band Shook Up!, she turns out to be a U2 fan: a black-and-white poster of Bono, looking all serious and self-satisfied, peers at Neil as tries to get his end away.

Of course it isn’t Bono’s fault that Neil is such a crap pop star – it’s simply that Neil is ‘a genius at making shite decisions’, as his brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) puts it. That and the fact that the music created by the McCormick lads is bad even by Eighties standards, as they flit between ripping off Joy Division to aping the bizarre mix of peasant costumes and fist-clenchingly Serious Pop of bands like Spandau Ballet in their desperate attempt to make a dent on the pop charts. ‘Try to steer clear of writing songs about rape’, advises one record company boss after listening to their demo tape. ‘That doesn’t really work on Top of the Pops.’ There is the inevitable brother breakdown when Ivan discovers, years after the fact, that one of Neil’s earliest shite decisions robbed him of a place in U2.

The trouble is that in turning U2 into the barometer by which he measures and gets miserable about his own rubbishness, McCormick’s book and now celluloid life story make Bono a saintly, inscrutably good, otherworldly figure. Bono (Martin McCann) floats through the movie in a Christ-like fashion, always impeccably turned out, voice calm, never saying words like ‘bollox’ or ‘shite’ as his schoolmates and the McCormicks do. He does, however, eat chips at one point, which is a kind of shocking image.

It is entirely feasible, of course, that Bono really was like this: aloof, pure, pompous. That would not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen footage of Bono performing in the Eighties, with his big hair, high heels, and breathy, strangely American-accented mini-speeches about uprisings in Soweto (good) or uprisings in Northern Ireland (bad). Yet in investing Bono with an ethereal quality, in making him the yin to McCormick’s yang, the movie comes across less like a rock biopic than as a conservative morality tale stuffed with righteous seers and wayward scallywags. Bono effectively saves the McCormick brothers, with a speech in the back of a limousine about brotherly love, in a not dissimilar fashion to the way Christ rescued James and John from a life of fishery.

The mythologising extends to the way U2’s music is presented. They’re depicted as the heirs to punk, bashing out Iggy Pop songs in a garage before going on to conquer and colonise a bland pop landscape with heartfelt music. In truth, far from being the punks of the Eighties, U2 were the equivalent of those Seventies po-faced prog rock bands that punk eventually swept aside. U2’s own comeuppance came towards the end of the Eighties when, after a decade of thrilling ageing rock critics and Americans but boring the rest of us rigid with their sweeping and serious guitar songs, they were elbowed aside by the rebirth of pop hedonism: rave, acid, baggy, whose adherents didn’t go to gigs to learn about Nelson Mandela but to get smashed.

U2’s out-of-touchness was brilliantly illustrated by their release in 1988 of the film and album Rattle and Hum, their most worthy dose of blackish, bluesy, Elvisy Americana to date, at a time when the kidz were knocking back Es and dancing like mental patients. ‘Bombastic and misguided’, said one critic of Rattle and Hum. ‘Pretentious’, said the rest. And of course U2 only made things worse when they tried to recover by releasing the electronic dance-inspired Achtung, Baby! in 1991. It was as if Jethro Tull had tried to play ‘Pretty Vacant’. Just as the punks cheered upon hearing of the death of the fat, bloated Elvis in 1977, so some young ‘electro rockers’ today wish for the death of Bono.

It really is only a handful of serious rock critics who still treat U2 seriously, fantasising that they are ‘real’ where most others are fake. As a result, Killing Bono, the life and times of a rock critic in the making, ends up being deeply conservative. Part On The Buses, part Rattle and Hum, it combines slapstick humour with Bono sanctification to tell a pretty warped story about both U2 and the Eighties.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Watch the trailer for Killing Bono:

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