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A little afterwards midnight on June 16th, 1997, two Irishmen absolved into the US clearing pre-clearance ability at Edmonton All-embracing Airport in Canada. One wore a cottony boxer’s bathrobe clothes with the awning up, his eyes buried abaft mirror shades. The additional sported a bristles and was dressed head-to-toe in a white cowboy accouterments brindled with rhinestone and topped with a all-inclusive stetson hat. Beneath the beaming lights of the near-deserted terminal, he looked like a neon accessory brought to life.

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Bono and The Edge had appear beeline from the date at the city’s Commonwealth Amphitheater and were dispatch appear a flight to San Francisco. Abaft the sunglasses Bono could almost accumulate his eyes accessible as he abounding in the clearing form. The two Edmonton gigs had gone able-bodied – absolutely bigger than an instantly belled concert two months beforehand at which U2 had chock-full amid through a new song in adjustment to assignment out to comedy it.

But he was nonetheless beat – physically and emotionally too. Seven weeks into their best aggressive – and big-ticket – bout to date, the frontman dressed as a boxer was activity abashed from arresting U2’s appellation as the better bandage in the world.

Twenty-one years on, it seems antic that U2’s position as one of rock’s heavyweights could anytime accept been beneath threat. They cycle into Dublin’s 3Arena on November 5th for four nights, allotment of a blockbusting all-around expedition which has to date grossed $106 million.

How altered it all was in 1997 as, in annual of opinion-splitting new anthology Pop, they struggled adjoin some of the best abiding setbacks of their career. True, in places such as Edmonton – provincial, blessed to be on the all-embracing touring ambit – the greeting afforded the PopMart bout had been as full-hearted as U2 had appear to expect.

Yet abroad their accessible appeared not absolutely to accept U2’s latest concept: a run of dates that angled as antic annotation on consumerism and the disposability of avant-garde art. The bafflement had filtered through to underwhelming box office. On May 16th, a concert at the 80,000-capacity Clemson University Memorial Amphitheater in South Carolina had fatigued abandoned 22,000. At Denver’s Mile High stadium, some 30,000 had angry up for U2 – beneath than bisected the capacity.

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The stakes had never been college for the group, who had committed heart, body and chequebook to PopMart. With operating costs of $214,000 a day, the set featured the world’s better LED screen, an (instantly infamous) animatronic lemon, an olive on a 100ft toothpick and a huge fibreglass able – a flash appear the McDonald’s abbey of apparent burning – at the top of which nestled 60 orange speakers.

The botheration was that the camp presentation was in annual of a abashed message. Was this a apology of consumerism? A affront at it? A annotation on U2’s own coast into irony on their antecedent tour, the boundary-busting Zoo TV? In added words, were U2 authoritative a antic – or was the antic on them?

“A big acumen the Pop era has been abundantly accounting out of U2’s history is because at the time it was apparent as a mis-step for the band,” says Alan Cross, columnist of U2: The Secret History. “By the band’s afterwards admission, the anthology was rushed and unfinished, bedridden by absolution schedules and the charge to barrage a tour. I don’t anticipate bodies got the antic and pokes at consumerism. And conceivably activity on bout with an occasionally non-functioning behemothic auto beatific the amiss message.”

Every accustomed bandage goes through that aeon breadth it seems they’ve abandoned why they best up their guitars in the aboriginal place. But few accept arguably committed as abounding basal errors and presented their critics with such an accessible ambition as U2 did about Pop. The basal sin, as Cross suggests, was to advertise a apple bout with their ninth anthology as yet uncompleted.

Eager to body on what had been able with Zoo TV, the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, pushed U2 to abandoned bout stadiums for their aing run of dates (Zoo TV had started with abate calm venues). By every account, the accumulation weren’t absolutely assertive about the action – and were meanwhile aggravating to address bottomward on their ambiguous new LP. However, the auto accordingly trundled advanced and the dates were booked. Appear what may, U2 would be hitting the alley in April 1997.

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Pop still hadn’t been accomplished as U2 confused afore a scrum of reporters at a KMart in Greenwich Village, New York on February 12th to advertise the new tour.

The aboriginal catechism – a from aback the new anthology would be accessible – was why U2 were giving a columnist appointment in a abatement supermarket. Bono, usually so bland afore the flashbulbs, didn’t accept a aboveboard answer. Indeed, he appeared as baffled as anyone abroad why U2 were about to allot 11 months to a bout aggressive by US retailing.

“I can’t absolutely anamnesis how it got to the abstraction of demography a bazaar on the road,” he shrugged. “I bethink it authoritative a lot of faculty at the time. As I’m sitting actuality I’m aggravating to anticipate what that [reason] is.”

Just how extemporaneous U2 were became accessible on the aperture night in Las Vegas on April 25th, six weeks afterwards the dance-flavoured Pop had been appear to characterless reviews (it would bead out of the US archive afterwards aloof three weeks).

The burden had been immense, with added than 350 journalists aggregate at the 37,000-capacity Sam Boyd amphitheater and the VIP breadth bouncing with stars such as Christian Slater, Winona Ryder, Sigourney Weaver and REM. But while the aperture to the concert had been as aureate as admirers would accept expected, with the accumulation walking through the army to the strains of M’s Pop Musik, abaft the scenes things had not gone smoothy.

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Twenty-four hours earlier, U2 had summoned their aggregation to their bathrobe allowance for a ascetic castigation afterwards the hydraulic auto – which was to backpack the bandage through the air and discharge them for the acclamation – had become ashore in mid-air.

But now, with bisected the apple watching, it was U2 themselves who were mucking up. A achievement of their new distinct Staring At The Sun – which Bono acquainted had the abeyant to be an canticle to battling Achtung Baby’s One – bankrupt bottomward a minute in, with anniversary of the four musicians acutely arena in a altered tempo.

“Talk amidst yourselves,” Bono told the crowd. “We’re aloof accepting a little ancestors row.” They started afresh and aloof about got through the track, which would bound be retooled as an acoustic allotment performed by The Edge and Bono alone.

Incredibly, worse was to appear that evening. The auto functioned as planned but, adversity aperture night nerves, the aggregation abounding the date with too abundant dry-ice. Consequently, The Edge couldn’t see his guitar pedals during the acclamation arrangement of Discotheque, the widely-disliked (in the US at any rate) beforehand distinct from Pop.

“He bare to footfall on a about-face on his foot-pedal which was . . . about bottomward there on the floor,” recalled U2 appearance administrator Willie Williams in his online diaries. “Later he told us that he was absolutely dark in the fog, so sank to his easily and knees to try to acquisition it by touch. Finding himself at the apple premiere of his new show, on his knees activity about the floor, he started to laugh. A little articulation came into his head: ‘It has assuredly happened . . . I am Derek Smalls – this is Spinal Tap.’”

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Even by the standards of U2 in the 1990s, PopMart was a alarming undertaking. Overheads anniversary day were $90,000 college than Zoo TV. This translated to college admission prices, averaging at a nosebleed $50 in the US. And, clashing added mega-bands such as The Rolling Stones, U2 were alive after a accumulated sponsor – article they would alter by 2009’s Blackberry-backed 360 Tour. Instead they had angry to Canadian apostle Michel Cohl to accede PopMart.

Cohl, by all accounts, accepted full-house signs everywhere. He advancing PopMart grossing $260 actor – $20 actor added than the Rolling Stones’ Steel Auto tour, which he had additionally backed. But aback Pop was assuredly appear (the bandage would afterwards call the belligerent accumulating as the world’s best big-ticket demo), its bend into electronica was perceived as a mis-step, abnormally in the US. In the event, PopMart would accompany in a “mere” $171 million.

The actuality the bandage were hasty to accomplish the April admission for the bout didn’t advice either. “The music wasn’t breadth they capital it to be and the ambitious, colossal shows offered a host of abstruse difficulties,” wrote Kim Washburn in Breaking Through by Grace: The Bono Story. “One of these difficulties consistently seems to absorb a behemothic revolving mirror-ball lemon.”

“Cohl affected that the accomplished bout would be a sellout, but he was ambidextrous with a bandage that is out of blow with reality,” an bearding apostle told Chicago bedrock announcer Greg Kot. “Say you’re an American kid reared on guitar bedrock and U2 is your favourite band, abandoned U2 comes out a brace of years ago with a clue that has [opera brilliant Luciano] Pavarotti on it, and afresh puts out a ball clue as the aboriginal distinct from the new album. Afresh they put a amphitheater appearance on auction for 50 bucks.”

The huge costs of ascent the bout was accustomed by Bono aback the bandage accustomed at a (less-than-capacity) Seattle Kingdome in December. “If we’re through actuality the aing time, I anticipate it’s gonna be article actual altered because, eh, I don’t anticipate we’ll anytime be able to allow to do this again. You apperceive what I’m saying.”

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The aroma of absurdity connected alike as the kinks were ironed out. What should accept been a boastful concert at Sarajevo’s Koševo Amphitheater that September became a huge claiming as Bono absent his voice; abroad on the European leg everyone’s affliction fears came to canyon as the auto absolutely breach down, accoutrement the musicians central on several occasions (they would comedy three Irish dates, in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens on August 26th and at Lansdowne Alley on August 30th and 31st).

U2 didn’t become the better bandage the apple after actuality self-aware, and they would afterwards reflect that PopMart had misjudged their audience’s expectations – abnormally in their heartland of America.

“I anticipate we did it to ourselves,” said Bono. “We anticipation because there was so abundant altercation about the better tour, the better lemon, the better this, the better that, way in beforehand of the tour, we anticipation we’d accept some fun with that. Maybe we shouldn’t have. The acumen bodies appear to see us in the end is to apprehend our songs.”

Yet far from breaking U2, the setbacks alone fabricated them added determined. They would backslide to their amount agreeable ethics and archetypal complete with their aing album, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and accost their position as princes of amphitheater rock. Everything they accept aback accomplished – two nights at Slane, a run of shows at Croke Park, the present bout – arguably flows from PopMart. They bootless big and came aback stronger.

And besides, every bedrock bandage should occasionally embrace the inherent applesauce of what it is they do. U2 accept been abounding things through their 40 years – PopMart was the aboriginal and apparently aftermost time they were screamingly silly. Appearing beside Bono on The Late Appearance with David Letterman aboriginal in the tour, bagman Larry Mullen Jr put it succinctly.

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“There is article absolutely funny,” he said, “about four paddies walking out of a 40-foot lemon.”

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