U2 has a charismatic leader without portfolio for a singer, an idiot savant for a guitarist, and about the strongest rhythm section you can imagine. Distinctive and impressive today, they started out scruffy and rather anonymous. On the release of their first album, Boy, in 1980 they seemed like just another vaguely new-wave British aggregation of the Simple Minds sort. Bono, the likeable if somewhat self-important lead singer, the Edge, the guitarist who’s parlayed the simple trick of running his instrument through a delay into one of the most distinctive guitar sounds of the last decade, and the big combo of drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton have over the years gotten not just better but smarter and morally responsible as well. They’ve also developed a healthy wariness of stardom that among major bands only R.E.M. appears to share. U2 grew up in the 70s watching bombast replace emotion, ritual replace thought, and pretension replace meaning. They watched, that is, rock ‘n’ roll becoming stupid and careless, and resolved not to be a part of it.

I know what you’re thinking: so they’re punks. But what’s interesting about U2 is that they aren’t punks, never were. Oh, they paid some lip service to the idea, sure, the Edge crediting Magazine’s John McGeoch with influencing his playing and such. But Bono and his pals were after something less, well, negative. The lovefests U2 concerts became, the deliberate evocation of reassuring figures from the past–from John Lennon to B.B. King to Bob Dylan to Billie Holiday–Bono’s pompous self-appointment as a political spokesman: these were all the accoutrements of an earlier, Woodstockian stardom long forgotten by the early 80s. And while almost every one of their punk avatars fell by the wayside–lost in success (either too much or too little), political contradictions, or sheer centrifugal force–U2 pressed on, protecting itself with the grace of an earlier time.

This is something that’s easy to hit the band on: they were rarely artistically pretentious, but personally they certainly were, most particularly Bono, he of the grandiose gesture, sweeping statement, and dumb move. (During a free concert in 1987 in San Francisco’s Halliday Plaza he spray-painted some graffiti on a noted fountain sculpture.) Also, some charge that the band became megastars only after they conveniently switched their sound from edgy and angular new wave to the more enveloping formalistic grandeur of its latter-day work. But two factors belie this rather uncharitable view. First of all, Bono’s pomposity seems to come out of an otherwise laudable desire to keep perspective on his increasing fame, to be a concerned star rather than an irresponsible one. Also, that musical switch wasn’t as cynical as it might seem: even in the early days there was an equanimity and a sort of generic Christian peacefulness to U2. They never wore the new-wave mantle well; and when these youthful musical illiterates began investigating the past they discovered messages that made sense to them. They’d found what they were looking for.

As their success grew, U2 did not exactly embrace their fame; after the very hard rock of War had set them up nicely for megaplatinum success, they turned and moved in a new fairly radical musical direction with the Eno-produced Unforgettable Fire. And later, after 1987’s The Joshua Tree did make them superstars, they followed it up with a weird, but in retrospect rather likeable, assemblage of foofaraw called Rattle and Hum, the sort-of sound track to the tour documentary of the same name. Then finally, their status assured, they disappeared for four years.

Now they’re back, with a refreshingly downsized album and tour. Achtung Baby is neither a double album nor a song cycle: there’s no overarching theme, sound, or overview. It is, however, edgy and quite daring, considering the source, and in its song constructions–particularly on “One,” “Zoo Station,” and “Ultraviolet”–it’s fully the equal of the beloved Joshua Tree, by my estimation the band’s best.

The Zoo TV tour, which hit the Rosemont Horizon for one night a couple weeks back (the rumored multiple dates never materialized, but the band will probably be back playing the World this summer), is probably about the most respectable arena show I’ve ever seen. The obvious drawbacks of the location notwithstanding, the show provided exemplary entertainment, with appropriately grand visuals and even some intimacy.

The size of venues like the Horizon makes meaningful interaction between the audience and performers completely impossible. Most arena acts truck in loads of glitz, lights, and dancers to try to obscure this problem. U2 has come up with a couple of its own solutions. The first is a gimmick: a battery of video screens strewn about the stage like chunks of glittering, flickering confetti. Those screens are bolstered by three huge banks of monitors that serve the dual purpose of communicating with the cheap seats and functioning as backdrops: from time to time the Edge or Adam Clayton would happen to strike a pose in front of the video images, the silhouette creating a dramatic tableau. It was simple, elegant, and stunning: the best onstage landscape I’ve ever seen at a large concert.

The second solution is–another gimmick. Clumsy acts try to create intimacy with corny stage patter. Better ones, like Springsteen, use scripted stories, told in a hushed voice, to compress the atmosphere. U2’s expedient is a tiny stage maybe ten feet in diameter in the middle of the main floor. Halfway through the show, the band members trotted down the runway leading to the ministage to give an MTV Unplugged-style take on a couple of songs as fans pressed up against it like feeding kittens. It was cheap and easy, but it worked. (It also displayed the band’s trust in the audience; on one of his several trips down to the ministage Bono leaned out over the audience, held aloft by outstretched hands.)

The staging also included half a dozen automobiles that dangled high above the stage. They turned out to be gutted Trabants–East German clunkers widely despised for their unreliability–the band picked up while recording Achtung Baby in Berlin last year. Like a lot of other artistes before them, the band has appropriated the city of Berlin as a symbol–Bowie, for example, took to the town as a fellow decadent. For the optimistic Bono, however, it’s probably a symbol of hope for the future of the New Europe: “I’m ready,” whispers Bono on the album’s opening track, his voice distorted and torn, “I’m ready for what’s next.” At first the steel carcasses twirling above the stage seemed ominous, but it soon became clear that the band had demystified them, covering them with flowers, a Keith Haring design, even a mosaic of mirrors. It reminded me of 60s antiwar protesters putting flowers down the barrels of soldiers’ guns. If only, you can see Bono sighing, we could paint the world over and make it all better.

The show began, unusually, with the lights up, and Bono made his entrance in black leather and wraparound sunglasses. Then the lights dimmed and the band blasted into “Zoo Station” and “The Fly,” the clanking and grinding centerpieces of Achtung Baby. “The Fly” was accompanied by snippets of text zipping across the video screens: “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” “Free Nelson Mandela,” “Pizza,” and so forth. Certain slogans–“It’s Your World You Can Change It”–drew an enormous vocal response; while the music was as loud as any rock show (and the band’s sound technicians rose ably to the challenge of the Rosemont’s generally ruinous acoustics) nothing the band did could match the pitch of some of the screams.

The highly scripted show–aside from a slight change to the ending of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” the belly dancer undulating to “Mysterious Ways” was the only addition to the performance I saw when the tour began a month or so ago–was divided into four parts. The first consisted of pristine and unapologetic presentations of 8 of the 12 songs on Achtung Baby. The band has mastered the modern AOR rock song so thoroughly that the new material never dragged: most notably, “One,” a long and silky ballad on record, is turned into a cathartic and moving experience live. The weirder guitar parts–the electronically treated riffs in “Until the End of the World,” “The Fly,” and “Zoo Station”–came across terrifically, loud and crisp. The band’s traditionally stripped-down sound–it’s just a power trio, remember–was helped along with some sequencer programming triggered, as far as I could tell, by the Edge’s foot pedals. By the end of the last Achtung song, “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” Bono had established himself on the band’s little mid-arena platform. The Edge, Clayton, and Mullen scampered down to join him, and they launched into a rhapsodic acoustic take on “Angel of Harlem,” Bono’s somewhat turgid but good-hearted tribute to Billie Holiday and the Harlem Golden Age. Lou Reed’s luminous classic “Satellite of Love” followed: at the title words, the mirrored Trabant floating over the ministage was hit with a burst of clear spotlight; it hung glittering in the air to the roars of the crowd.

The big statements made, the band retired to the stage proper for a bang-up greatest-hits set–greatest hits, that is, from the fourth album on. Early war-horses like “I Will Follow” and the blistering “Sunday Bloody Sunday” were left behind. But the band has better later songs, including “Bad,” another ballad that’s a bit dull on record but invariably transforms into a concert-stopping moment live; The Joshua Tree’s ripping “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and The Unforgettable Fire’s “Pride (in the name of love),” which was accompanied by a video clip of Martin Luther King. The fourth and final set was a four-song encore, each song one of the band’s rather bleak love songs: “Desire”; the new “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” probably Achtung Baby’s most traditionally enjoyable U2 track; “With or Without You,” the stunning and bitingly obsessive opening track from The Joshua Tree; and the new “Love Is Blindness.”

Bono and the boys will always be problematic; you don’t notice it unless you really concentrate, but the bitterness that makes “With or Without You” such a stunner verges on unpleasantness in other songs. The new “One,” for instance, is an uncharitable requiem for a relationship: “You say love is a temple / You ask me to enter / But then you make me crawl / I can’t be holding on to what you got / When all you got is hurt”; it’s just one of several lyrical excursions that don’t have much nuance or demonstrate much self-awareness. Similarly, in the lovely, coursing “Ultraviolet,” these words stand out: “Your love is like a secret / That’s been passed around.” I’m not sure what Bono’s trying to say there, but it sure sounds nasty. Lyrics like these, of course, are signs that Bono still has a ways to go. Until then, U2 will just have to rest on their laurels: they’ve conquered the world–again–with that massive sound, those lilting tunes, an incomparable stage show. Bono’s still got some growing up to do? Tell us something we don’t already know.

Long ago in another lifetime, John Lydon was Johnny Rotten, the scabrous singer of the angry Sex Pistols. Of course, to call the Sex Pistols angry doesn’t really convey the force, the utter loathing fury of the group’s few performances and recordings. As you probably know, after releasing one record and causing a lot of press commotion, the band abruptly broke up halfway through its first American tour. The members went their separate ways (bassist Sid Vicious, most notably, ending up the subject of an acclaimed movie bio); Rotten changed his name back to Lydon and formed Public Image Limited, or P.I.L. The band recorded some challenging music–notably the searing Second Edition, fueled by bassist Jah Wobble–before edging over into the rather undemanding world of teen electropop. It was in this capacity that they played at Poplar Creek in 1987, opening for New Order, and just last week at the Aragon, headlining along with Mick Jones’s BAD II in a four-act road show sponsored by MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Back in 1987 Lydon’s moves leaned toward the infantile, tended to involve references to the, um, back end of the human digestive system, and included lots of faux bad boy comments like, “Do ya like your Johnny, then?” delivered in Lydon’s screeching yowl over the rest of the band’s dense, pulsing beats. “Just imagine,” said a friend at that show,”if Johnny Rotten had been able to see himself ten years down the line.”

That was when it hit me: he had. The origin of the blinding sarcastic fury that gave the Sex Pistols their power had always been a great mystery. The usual line–that Rotten and the boys were just articulating the fury of the jobless British working-class youth–seemed somehow too puny a source for such otherworldly rage. It had to be something else, and my friend had put his finger on it. Somehow, some way–I don’t want to speculate on the logistics–the young John Lydon had been presented with the picture of himself circa 1987: the scatological jokes, the pandering to the audience, the undistinguished music, the agreeable suburban crowd spending their parents’ money on $22 T-shirts. Some Mephistophelian projectionist displayed the film, saying “No matter what you do, this is you ten years hence.”

Were the Sex Pistols young John Lydon’s howl of pain? Having committed that howl to vinyl and for eternity, is his soul at rest, or still agitated? At the Aragon last weekend, Lydon hit the stage, marched to the apron, presented his back to the crowd and pulled down his pants. Reaching behind with something in his hand–it might have been a banana–he pretended to sodomize himself. Then he turned, threw the relic far out into the audience, and began the concert. A stern God will keep him a low-level star forever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ebet Roberts.