When Bono Went Walkabout...
“It was a great day, but I thought I had fucked it up.”
“We felt like we’d blown an opportunity to be great.”
“I really thought we were crap.”
On July 13th, 1985, U2 took to the stage at Wembley stadium for their designated slot at Live Aid, the global concert for African famine relief. This was pre-Joshua Tree, so while they were popular, they were nowhere near the household name that they are now. The plan was to play 3 songs: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Bad” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”.
“Pride” was an intentional choice. It was their biggest hit at the time, and the band wanted to close out the set with a song that audiences across the world would remember, bringing U2 a completely different level of exposure. Bono, unintentionally as it turns out, had other ideas.
As the looping synth that characterizes Bad began to play, Bono introduced the song: “We’re an Irish band. We come from Dublin City, Ireland. Like all cities, it has its good and it has its bad. This is a song called ‘Bad.'”
And so began one of the most captivating, exciting and memorable performances ever. But not because the band intended it to be that way. The album version is about 6 minutes long, but the version they did at Live Aid went on for 12 minutes. Because part of the way through the song, Bono decided to go walkabout.
As the band played behind him, he jumped onto the photographers’ platform in front of the stage and then ultimately down onto crowd level. The band had no idea where he was, or what he was doing, but they kept playing, in the hopes that he’d be back soon and they could close out the set with Pride.
But Bono was following his instincts. Knowing that millions of eyes across there world were on him, he went looking for a memorable TV moment. He surveyed the fans at the front, and picked a young girl out of the crowd. And with the entire world watching, engaged in an intimate, yet very public slow dance with the young fan.
When he eventually returned to the stage, he realized they had run out of time to play Pride, so he ad-libbed, launched back into the chorus and then, after thanking the crowd, walked off the stage, leaving Edge, Adam and Larry to close out the song.
As we would all find out later, the band had a huge argument afterwards. They were angry that Bono had veered off script and ruined their exposure by not being able to play their big single. He flew home depressed, brooding over the lost opportunity and the mistake he had made.
But that’s not what I saw, as I sat in my living room, watching all of this unfold live on TV. I saw a band connect with their audience. I saw a singer captivate his crowd. I saw a band that came of age.
I wasn’t the only one. In the days that followed, everyone was abuzz about this incredible, emotional, breathtaking performance by this Irish band called U2, whose lead singer had given the performance of a lifetime, breaking the barriers between artist and audience. The performance was one of the absolute highlights of Live Aid, ultimately catapulting U2 to global fame and success.
The point is that that walkabout, that veering off script isn’t something that conventional wisdom, or the “experts” would tell you to do. It’s instinctual. It’s something that you feel in the moment. It’s a gut reaction that just feels right at the time.
The point is we need to take risks. Bono took a risk, ultimately making the judgement that this was the right thing to do. He trusted his gut, and while it cost them the chance to play their biggest hit in front of hundreds of millions, it ultimately delivered a whole new level of success for U2.
The point is that playing it safe never delivers greatness.