Ambition first, talent later: the U2 approach.

U2 would be sitting on top of the world right now, if they weren't so busy touring it. The Dublin-based band is about to begin the fifth leg of a fourteen-month global tour in South America next month.

They've grossed more at the box office in the last decade than any other musical act except the Rolling Stones. They've sold 150 million records to date, the most of any alt rock group. And they've won more Grammys (22) than any other act.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that when they first started out in 1976, they were all talk and no talent. At the time U2 could have qualified for the lowest talent-to-ambition ratio in rock history. In fact, they could barely tune their guitars or sing on key.

But they did have an ambitious dream. (See my earlier post on "big hairy audacious goal.") They aimed to be the best band on the planet.

They also had a dogged determination and work ethic (true for all the great rock groups but especially for U2) that kept them on the road, continually sharpening their skills. That paid off artistically and commercially in 1987 with their highly acclaimed Joshua Tree album and string of hit singles, and it's still paying off.

But in the beginning it was just aspiration and a large dollop of chutzpah. Lead singer Bono said it was his father's attempt to suppress his audacity that fired him up.

By telling me never to have big dreams or else, that to dream is to be disappointed, he made me have big dreams. By telling me that the band would only last five minutes or ten minutes—we're still here!

So here's the rock & roll business lesson (by now a familiar theme on these cyberpages): before talent develops there has to be a vision, a dream—and an outsized belief in yourself. Then the work begins.

As Edge, the band's guitarist, explains:

[We had] a belief that we could go all the way. Before we could play, before we could write songs, before we could perform, we believed in ourselves as a band.

Such is the power of rock: that mix of bold dream and brazen attitude. (Not a bad launching point for any team or organization in any field.) As Bono once asked us: "What is rock 'n' roll if it doesn't dare to have big ideas?"

U2's ambition for things just outside their reach—a perpetually asymptotic quest—is movingly expressed in their "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."


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20 Comments

  1. hey wheres the love? this is the most inspirational band in the galaxy! how can anyone dislike them? they're in a class by themselves.... this song is their best... the intro gives me goosebumps.
    iron man

  2. i.m: I have a lot of respect for this band NOW. Wasn't always the case though. You can me an elitist, but I—and most of my musician buddies—didn’t take U2 at all seriously for their first 10 years. The musicianship especially was unexceptional. (They’d be the first to admit this. They even acknowledged that in the early years they kept bassist Adam Clayton in the band for his image and attitude, despite his initial lack of musical talent!) Likewise their singing, songwriting, and record production left something to be desired. Meanwhile they were getting a lot of hype when they hit the US, which can trigger its own backlash. (That's another ratio you don’t want to dip: the TALENT-TO-HYPE ratio.)

    But by Joshua Tree something had started to gel for them. Not coincidentally they had discovered on their American tours in the 80s that they didn’t have the musical roots that many of their favorite rock artists had (Dylan, Van Morrison, etc.), so they made a deliberate attempt to dig into blues, R&B, and folk. (In fact they previously had an antipathy towards blues.) I remember hearing on the radio "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Within and Without You," and "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" and thinking, “Jeez, I’ve got to give these guys another listen.” I think a lot of rock musicians from my generation (spoiled by the songwriting of Lennon-McCartney, Dylan, Jagger-Richards, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend or the musicianship of Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Richards, Townshend or the performing originality of the Stones, Who, Bowie, etc.) were late arrivals to the U2 party. Frankly, it wasn’t until I heard “Stuck in a Moment” that I fully appreciated the backbone of their sound: Edge, their self-effacing (and self deprecating) guitarist.

    Another thing that won me over to the band was reading their autobiography, “U2.” They were refreshingly candid about their initial lack of talent and surplus of ambition. And to this day they make NO claims about their individual musical skills, while expressing confidence that their whole exceeds their parts. They’re a music TEAM in the true sense of the word. And they continually aim to be the best.

  3. I totally agree with the U2 Big Dreams premise, except for the fact that Bono has one of the great natural rock voices in the world, and could have succeeded musically in a wide variety of settings. Most bands don't have a Bono but have Big Dreams and fail. The guys with the Big Voices actually don't have to do much to train them, they're just born with them like inheriting daddy's money. The band did certainly evolve a very distinctive songwriting style and sound though, that definitely takes work and will and talent.

    But lack of confidence can certainly lead to lack of will and persistence, and those are always dealkillers in music or biz.

  4. Ken, I'd agree Bono had a great natural voice, but in rock & roll that can work against you until you learn how to use it. Rock & roll success often comes from "un-training" one's voice. Another dynamic worth mentioning: when the band started to catch up musically to some of Bono's grandiose lyrical statements in the mid-80s, that's when things started to click into place. But, again, kudos to them for hanging in there. That's where 'TUDE comes in handy.

  5. For rock recording, if the great voice isn't there the moment you slide the pot up, it's over. It has to have the right mix of gravel, hoarseness, a phat midrange warmth. Bono has that in spades. But you're right, you have to have the musicality to know what to do with it as well.

    Dylan is a great singer. Watch his concerts in Don't Look Back. Never misses a note. Same for his guitar playing. Perfect, spot on, no sloppiness, never hits a clunker. Even his silly harmonica playing on that goofy holder is very precise and worked out to the last breath. He never gets credit for any of that...I like how his contemporaries called him fanatical, frighteningly intense and a "shape-shifter: in that he would do or become anything to advance his career. Talent plus a near-madness to please and succeed. Too bad it takes crazy people to become successful. Pretty much every single executive I ever met in the videogame business was a major crook and scumbag. Gangsters in suits.

  6. Ditto on Dylan. One of the most under-appreciated singers EVER. Not technically of course, but who cares? Even his early work on tunes like "Don't Think Twice" is spell-binding. The guy could deliver a lyric like no one else. And he had ambition and attitude in spades from day one. He's another case of attitude before talent. But he developed FAST, more quickly than any other act I can think of in that era.

    "Too bad it takes crazy people to become successful." I'll have to think about that while I do my usual afternoon exercise (running naked through my neighborhood).

  7. I knew the previous comment (which I immediately trashed) was from a spammer. It was a milk-toast compliment: "Useful information, thanks." A dead give-away. If a spammer showed some originality or attitude (like "the local obits are more interesting and entertaining than your friggin' blog") I might let it stand.

  8. The local obits actually are most interesting ... just kidding. I'm not sure I'd call Dylan a 'great singer' but he had his own style at a time when a lot of folk singers sounded alike. Bono had his own style too, tho less so. But once U2 developed their 'anthemic' sound —- soaring vocals, long instrumental build-ups, grandiose lyrics, tracks drenched in echo -- they had their own unique formula. Peter

  9. Peter, every megasuccessful music act has developed a completely distinct brand identity. And the best of the best accomplished that with their sound AND image. Dylan was onto that early. You're right: U2 developed that over time. The best example of that in rock history would be the Beatles of course.

  10. "The guy could deliver a lyric like no one else."

    Okay, did anyone catch Dylan's Christmas album (two years ago)? I love it. Admittedly, I do like a little theme music during the holidays - but with just a few exceptions, none of it really stands out. But Dylan's album? I am telling you, it makes me smile. Every single time I listened to it.

    That has to be a great example of delivering some rather mundane lyrics. (Not like when he sings his own stuff).

    And "Don't Think Twice" is one of my all time favorites. I'm on the wrong side of the door ...

  11. Dorothy, I haven't heard Dylan's Christmas album, but I suppose the master of irony may be putting us on.

    How's the Oregon weather?

  12. I think there was definitely some putting on of us in his album, which is part of the huge smile it gives me. Find the video - the one where he sings "Who laughs this way, Ho Ho Ho? Santa laughs this way, Ho Ho Ho" - it kills me dead, so funny. Gives me seasons joy. Or something. Ho Ho Ho!

    Oregon weather is amazing. Bright sunny blue skies the past few days, after several days of wonderful rain. We love it here. Temperature outside? 56. Somewhere in the 50s is typical, year round. Give or take a few. Ho ho ho!

    How about you? How are your parking lot snow hills?

  13. Hey, I just checked out Dylan's video. I forgot I did see that. The guy's inscrutable.

    Weather in Boston is 58 this afternoon — about 40 degrees warmer than a few days ago. The mounds of snow are gone, but they'll be back. We've had blizzards in April.

  14. The 'brand identity' thing is interesting... An outrageous visual image (with some theatrics to go along with it) combined with musical performance that's at least minimally competent can get you a lot of attention -- a la Alice Cooper, Kiss, Lady Gaga. Bowie and Madonna also worked that formula at times, tho they had significant musical talent to sustain it. I wonder why more musical artists don't use the formula? One way or the other, you have to stand out, no matter what your business is.
    Peter

  15. Peter, the musical act that had the most outrageous visual image — for its time — was the Beatles. Hard to imagine, but the Beatles' hair was as shocking in its day as Lady Gaga's wardrobe is today. And of course the Fab Four had a dramatically distinct musical brand to go along with a dramatically distinct visual brand. Yes, differentiation is everything in business. As my guru/mentor, Tom Peters, liked to say, "Be distinct or be extinct."

  16. There is another important ingredient that hasn't been mentioned yet: U2 had a very supportive and patient record company.

    It used to be the way that record companies would help to break an act by working with and supporting it as it developed and matured. This was seen as an investment because one day they might release a gazillion-selling LP. Even if they didn't, but still sold steadily enough to remain in the black, they'd probably remain on the label for a lengthy time.

    But that, of course, was when records were the big money earners. Now that they're not (concerts are) labels demand instant success. Of course, they're protrayed as the bad boys in this but I have a lot of sympathy for them: bands expect support and subsidy when they're starting and then want a higher royalty rate and a huge share of the profits when they make it. The words "cake," "eat" and "too" spring to mind.

    We all know that the rewards of U2 sized mega success are huge. But getting to that self-sustaining stage requires huge costs and risks too and the industry needs to develop new models that allow both parties to profit.

  17. And another ingredient is this: collaborators.

    Early doors, U2 worked with a very talented producer called Steve Lillywhite. In recent years, they've worked extensively with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. This ability to listen to outside criticism / ideas, to try new things, to change and to stretch themsleves is what really keeps them relevant.

  18. Yes, Mark, Island Records believed in them early and stuck with them. And that loyalty was reciprocated when Island couldn't afford to pay them $5 million in royalties from the Joshua Tree album and U2 took an ownership stake in the company in lieu of payment. And then there's the support of their long-time manager Paul McGuinness.

    Despite their audacity of vision they've always been humble and self-effacing about their individual talents. And, yes, they have been very open to collaboration, outside input, and (as a result) significant changes in musical direction. But that's also true of many of the greats.

  19. Hey John!!
    Yesh, I watched U2 from their beginnings. The Byrds started out the same way, but drugs and egos ended that.
    Also, U2 is from Ireland....they work hard on making dreams come true over there....

    :-)

  20. Good points, Nick. The Byrds DID have big dreams when they started. I was a huge fan of the early Byrds. Years later I got to sit in with them thanks to my friend Skip Battin who played bass for them for a while. But you're telling me they took drugs?

    Speaking of which, U2 is a band that has kept it pretty clean over the years, though I think Bono likes a nip now and then.

    Regarding their audacity & chutzpah, I never thought of the Irish angle. That might help explain the wild-eyed dreams of the early Beatles — three of whom were of Irish ancestry.

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