History Lesson: U2 Begin Their Iconic ZOO TV Tour

28 Years Ago, U2 set forth on a tour that spawned 157 shows and reinvented the modern concert.

History Lesson: U2 Begin Their Iconic ZOO TV Tour
photo credit: Rob Verhost

By

Soubhik Ray

2/29/2020 11:30 AM

Since their inception and through the 1980s, U2’s earnestness, championing of social causes, and a habit of avoiding infamy had seen them being pinned as the good guys of rock n’ roll. They had limited space to shift from there...until they switched on the TV.

On the leap day of February 1992, U2 began their ZOO TV Tour at the Lakeland Civic Centre. This was the parting of curtains to a landmark moment not just for the band, but in the history of music and live entertainment. Over the next two years, and 157 gigs, the U2 that would strut across stages had never been seen or imagined of. 

The tour saw the group incorporating a maddening fusion of audio-visual experiences and a complete rebranding of their identity. From guitar riffs and rock braggadocio coming from a band known to be devoutly reserved to transforming the stage and its set-up into a theatre of titillation and media saturation - the ZOO TV tour was U2 at their wildest. The L.A Times called it the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s of rock concerts’, while after visiting a Dublin show of the tour, Mick Jagger commented that rock n’ roll had now entered the ‘Star Wars era.’ U2 had finally thrown caution to the wind and let loose the ZOO.

But the spectacle wasn’t an overnight shift in style for the pioneering college rock band. A renaissance in the rock landscape, ZOO TV came to be after much contemplation from a group that at the height of their fame were ruminating over the constraints of their identity and in dire need of change. 

The complete shift in axis following the divisive and shunned Rattle and Hum saw U2 moving as far away as possible from their established sonic identity. It was the birth of ‘Achtung Baby.’ An eclectic 7th studio album from U2, that saw experimentation with a myriad of styles like dance music, alternative rock, and industrial. Intrigued by the German unification and the fall of the Berlin Wall and an eagerness to explore what it could inspire, U2 decided to fly to Germany to record the album. Recording at Berlin’s Hansa Studio in October 1990, the cold and distant conditions took the band out of their comfort zone and even provoked internal conflict.

But, while the four mates were witnessing a rupture in their relations, the world was amidst a bigger, raging war. The first to receive 24 hour coverage at that and CNN brought the Gulf War to every home television set. But the advent of broadcast media’s reach in every area and radio’s bold and brash approach in the form of talk shows and unabashed DJs led to the first seeds of ZOO TV being planted in Bono’s mind.

In Germany and confined to the Hansa Studio, U2 found the German culture and lifestyle distant and the only English channel available constantly blared updates from the Gulf War. When they looked for an escape from the war, they stumbled upon undecipherable German comedies and soap operas. Their observation was that cable tv was blurring the lines between reality, escapism, and entertainment. News of death to debauchery, humour to horror, slapstick acts to serious affairs - everything was now just a remote switch away. 

Radio broadcasting with its shock jocks, entertainment fused with intrusion and the popularity of ‘Morning Zoo’ formats on airwaves were also a dominant theme of contemporary media. Thus with the fusion of television broadcast, sound and radio, U2 crafted a format of live concert that was set to deliver a sensory overload and keep the viewer hooked. Welcome to ZOO TV.

The ZOO TV tour was a bold blow of hammer to the mainstream media’s wall. U2 wasn’t just dismantling their identity, but also presenting an Orwellian future, swathed in dystopia and doom and turned it into frivolous fun. One where privacy and human expressions weren’t just breached but also broadcasted on-air. Anticipation was sky high, the tour though planned far in advance was announced three weeks before opening night. The opening show at the Lakeland Civic Centre sold out in under four minutes through phone purchases, while L.A. reported 54 million calls in a duration of four hours. Meanwhile the Boston ticket office crashed.

And what ensued onstage was a circus of madness, mayhem and modernism from a barrage of TV screens on stage, a live radio group, new wave visual installations, satellite link-up broadcasts from world media and the siege in Sarajevo, virtual belly dancers, and a sensory overload of communication across mediums. Paul McGuinness, Brian Eno, production designer Willie Williams and Bono brought together a team of visual creators, designers, and technicians to arrange a spectacle that would have given P.T Barnum a run for his money. 

A television studio control room worth $3.5 million, 12 directors and a 19-member video crew working round-the-clock delivered tabloid style headlines projected on-stage, used old German Trabant cars as lighting fixtures, and projected the whole thing on a wildly creative interactive seven screen setup. There were nightly prank phone calls to the White House made on stage. During “The Fly” such phrases flashed on the screens as “religion is a club” and “taste is the enemy of art.” The brilliant funk of “Mysterious Ways” featured accompaniment from a virtual belly dancer, while “One” perhaps the best remembered song from Achtung received a graceful visual of buffalos and the word in various languages. Audiences were understandably blown away by the sheer spectacle of the concert.

All these unabashed expenditures posed a major financial risk that the band and its manager were treading on. There was such heavy investment in stage design that travelled across continents and production that it stifled any profits U2 could have expected from the tour. The show cost about $125,000 a day on average, regardless if there was a show booked at all, but they wouldn’t have let go of this chance to make a statement.

Throughout, U2 emerged with a complete shunning of their previous austere and post-punk image. Bono, now consuming a live identity turned up clad in leather jacket and pants, with oversized sunglasses and a cigarette in his lips as The Fly, his on stage persona. It was a parody on the excesses of the rockstar life and star egomania and a far cry from 80s U2. Bono developed two other personas: Mirror Ball Man was the greedy, disco loving, shiny suit cowboy hat donning televangelist while Mr. Macphisto was meant to be a glamorous representation of the horned Satan himself. The Edge meanwhile underwent a complete shift in his guitar work with a more extensive use of effects throughout the period he became a main show of his own right.

The tour through high praise and word of mouth received a second run with larger stadiums, sold over 5 million tickets, became the highest-grossing North American tour of 1992 and even inspired their next album, Zooropa. But above all in the eyes of the fan and critics, it reinvented U2 as a chameleonic force in the rock world. Changing their colours quickly to adapt to changing times and staying roaringly relevant as new names came and went by in the industry.

The 7000 who gathered at Lakeland Civic Centre on 29th February, 1992 wouldn’t have known what was in store. The moment Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton stepped on stage, live stadium music would never be the same again. The blueprint that the ZOO TV tour executed inspired a host of live performers across eras. From “Watch the Throne” to the on stage glamourization of pop divas like Beyonce and Miley Cyrus or even classic rock n’ roll acts like The Rolling Stones re-inventing their live performances, ZOO TV continues to be a reference for constant the evolution of the modern concert.