June 13, 1997



Journal Music Writer


Some facts and figures about U2's PopMart world tour:

  • The PopMart Tour began in Las Vegas at Sam Boyd Stadium April 25. U2 will play 62 cities in 20 countries by the end of the year.

  • Canadian dates are Edmonton on June 14 and 15, Toronto on Oct. 26 and 27, Montreal on Nov. 2 and Vancouver on Dec. 9.

  • Before Edmonton, U2 played New York, Philadelphia and Winnipeg. After Edmonton, the tour goes to Oakland, Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin.

  • The equipment and more than 200 crew members travel in a customized 727 jet, 15 buses and 52 trucks.

  • The tour costs an estimated $250,000 a day to run.

  • More than two million tickets to PopMart shows have been sold throughout the world.

  • EDMONTON - You've likely already heard about the hi-tech gadgetry and enormous icons that dominate U2's PopMart tour: the world's biggest television screen, an 11-metre-tall lemon, a giant yellow arch.

    If those sound over-the-top, check out some of the ideas that were scrapped.

    One early plan put the Irish supergroup on a giant "U2000" set, performing in front of an enormous clock racing toward the millennium. As the clock hit midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, U2 would play the song New Year's Day.

    Another concept had crowd members wearing hats crowned with different coloured lights that U2 singer Bono would flick on and off by remote control.

    One problem: the hats cost $17 each. As PopMart will likely end up playing to five million customers worldwide, the numbers didn't add up.

    A giant, sci-fi disco supermarket

    "The thing about U2 is that they come at you with 100 ideas, most of them crazy. They always have," laughs Willie Williams, the man who designed the spectacle 100,000 people will witness Saturday and Sunday at Commonwealth Stadium.

    "It's my job to sort through them and figure out what will work."

    Williams, a good-natured Brit who has designed every U2 concert jaunt since the band's War tour in 1983, ultimately came up with PopMart.

    It's billed as a "giant, sci-fi disco supermarket," which has a hint of ridiculous overstatement to it.

    PopMart is spectacular, though, and every bit as eye-catching as U2's previous stadium tour, the much-lauded Zoo TV.

    The secret's in PopMart's screen, a $6-million monster that measures 50 metres by 16 metres.

    It broadcasts live, bungalow-sized pictures of band members, as well as images ranging from work by pop artist Andy Warhol to blinding, strobing white lines that look like a television's horizontal hold gone berserk.

    "Once it became clear that we were thinking of having the world's biggest screen with us, all the other ideas were no longer contenders," says Williams, on the phone from New York, U2's informal home base for the tour's North American leg.

    Williams was initially wary of having a screen as PopMart's centrepiece because Zoo TV was so television-oriented.

    That tour, with its several screens and on-stage satellite links, was all about satirizing the medium and its pervasive influence on society. Bono, dressed in a series of wry guises, surfed through hundreds of channels as he sang.

    "We were playing with the fact that if you walked into a bar with a bunch of people and there was a TV on, no one talked because everyone was watching the TV. We're so programmed that if there's a TV on, you can't not watch it," Williams explains.

    "It was a very cerebral show, very much a head show. But this time around we wanted to do something that affected the emotions."

    Williams says PopMart's show is more "gut-level," in keeping with the music from Pop, U2's new dance-music influenced record.

    "Because the screen's so massive, you don't just see the images, you feel them. It's a much looser show. The boys aren't tied to the video. They can play around a bit more."

    The band's also celebrating the most trashy and kitschy, elements of pop culture, hence the four-metre-wide olive atop a towering swizzle stick at stage left, and the 30-metre high yellow arch.

    Williams says there's no truth to the rumour that the bearers of two even more famous arches -- McDonald's -- has threatened to sue U2 for copyright infringement.

    "No, that isn't the case. And they'd be silly to try, don't you think? There's no copyright on the parabolic curve," he says, well, archly.

    "And actually, it's a totally different shape anyway. Our arch tapers to its smallest points at the bottom."

    Then there's the lemon, an 11-metre-high monstrosity which begins the two-hour-plus concert covered in a yellow drop-cloth.

    As the first encore begins, the lemon sheds its cover to show a glittering mirrorball skin before splitting open to reveal U2's four members.

    So, what inspired the symbol-happy U2 camp to come up with a lemon? Was it a Freudian thing? A comment on the state of the citrus industry?

    "Spinal Tap, actually," says Williams, referring to the famous mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.

    It's all in the music

    "We needed a pod-like object for the band to come out of like they did in the movie."

    In the movie, Tap bassist Derek Smalls gets trapped in the pod when it won't open.

    Williams says U2 guitarist The Edge nearly suffered a similarly humiliating fate during the band's world-tour kick-off show April 25 in Las Vegas.

    "The thing about the lemon gag is that we felt that the more smoke there was, the better, because it was the pure Spinal Tap moment. So we really poured the smoke on," he recalls.

    "Of course, at that moment, Las Vegas decided to have the stillest wind ever. So The Edge comes down from the stairs, and he knows to start his guitar, he has to kick a switch on his foot pedal.

    "Well, he can't see his hand in front of his face and he ended up on his hands and knees, feeling around for the pedal.

    "Later he said to me, 'There I was at the debut, the premiere opening night, and this voice came into my head, 'I am Derek Smalls.' "

    Some of the band's harsher critics are revelling in stories like this, saying they show the folly and the insincerity of huge stadium rock shows like PopMart.

    The music can't help but be overshadowed by the irony and the spectacle, they rail.

    In response, Bono has championed PopMart's hugeness, pointing out that black musicians like George Clinton and P-Funk used to stage massive, elaborate shows while keeping the music real.

    You can guess which side Williams is on.

    "Look, none of this stuff would make a bit of difference if the music wasn't there," he says.

    "Ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the performance, not a lemon that splits open or a big TV screen."