Memories of U2 gigs in benefit book for Syrian refugees

Updated 01.24.17 with a full-length excerpt from In Concert by Billy McGrath, 1st University College Dublin Ents Officer, Students Union 1975/76; Manager of the Atrix and Stagalee; RTE television producer and documentary maker. McGrath was a key figure in the development of the U2-era Irish rock scene. He worked for the 1980 Sense of Ireland festival in London at which U2 played. Later, McGrath produced a RTE show about U2’s 1985 Croke Park concert and then U2 in Modena for RTE in 1987. For a time, he shared an apartment with Bob Geldof. McGrath’s story follows the description of In Concert below.

In Concert: Favourite Gigs of Ireland’s Music Community shares short reflections from more than 100 writers, artists and critics who have been in the Irish music scene since the 1970s. Professor Michael Murphy of the Dun Laoghaire Institue of Art, Design and Technology, a historian of Irish popular music who previously worked for 20 years in the music industry, compiled the book with Niall McGuirk and is giving all proceeds to the Irish Red Cross fund for helping displaced Syrians.

The book will be released for sale on January 24 at an event at Liberty Hall, Dublin, at 7 p.m., with readings and performances from some of the musicians featured in it. Only a limited edition printing of 1000 copies are available, and some are ready now for online purchase for 15 Euros (the price includes postage). Retail sales in Dublin starts on February 1.

I previewed an advance copy (and then later purchased one), and the contributions cover a wide range of acts playing in and outside of Ireland, from the 1970s – 2015, from David Bowie to Kings X to Sufjan Stevens.

Murphy notes that for U2 fans, In Concert has reflections on seeing U2 live from 1976 – 1992 by:

  • Neil McCormick
  • Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues)
  • Rory Stokes (The Sussed) on early opening shows for U2
  • Andrew Bass (Reveille) on opening for U2
  • Sean Campbell, author
  • Billy McGrath (TV producer, former manager of The Atrix)
  • Colm O’Dwyer

And there are many related pieces of interest, such as:

  • On The Clash gig at Trinity College Dublin that Bono saw
  • On the Virgin Prunes
  • Writings from U2’s early contemporaries, such as DC Nien, The Blades and Stiff Little Fingers
  • Contributions from members of In Tua Nua and Cactus World News

Billy McGrath remembers …

Not so much as the best gig of my life but more an appreciation of the best live band in the world. And they grew up under my nose! (I will get to U2 in Modena in due course but nobody has ever asked me to write about best ever live gigs before, so if you have a few minutes join me on a wee journey beforehand.)

We all have all opinions of U2 and I suppose with me once sharing a house with Sir Bob and co-organising Ireland’s first ever national rock tour; managing Ireland’s No.1 live band Stagalee (Hot Press 1978) and later the much loved The Atrix, I had an eye and ear behind the scenes of the Irish rock scene. I saw the four-piece from Dublin’s north side develop over the years differently than most. From The Dandelion to McGonagles, TV Club to the National Stadium.  I turned down a chance to book out the band as their agent in Ireland – and before Bono and Adam left my flat and got the bus back into town, I threw them an idea to turn their June residency in McGonagles into Xmas shows. That’s another story.

My true appreciation of what was going with this four piece started in 1980.

In March [1980] I organised the rock section of The Sense of Ireland in London. U2 and The Atrix were two of the acts. Both played different venues. As U2 didn’t have a lighting person their manager (& friend) Paul McGuinness saw what I was doing with The Atrix and asked me would I do the honours. So now I had a job to do. With such a small lighting system and say eight or 10 lamps you have to be as varied as you can. During the show I never realised how much I knew/liked the songs and how ‘visual’ the music was. The band took the packed small crowd by the scruff of its neck and afterwards back at the ‘team’ hotel Paul & the band agreed to their contract with Island Records. Of course it was the ‘lightshow’. And Paul still owes me the tenner he promised (STERLING!) – but that’s another story.

Later I ran the PR side of their brilliant homecoming show at the Phoenix Park (1983) and running in and out of radio, press and TV interviews it was good to get to spend time with them as people. They are a grounded and solidly interesting group of individuals. Couple of years later I joined RTE as a producer/director with music top of the list. Our paths crossed again. U2 were generous enough to allow me to produce & direct two TV docs – one in 1985 based around their Croke Park sold out show and the second a couple of years later – a half-hour special from their live show from Modena near Bologna in Italy. The first was a one off mad filming challenge and I probably caught the band for a couple of songs. Dave Fanning was the host of the shorter [Modena] film and it was part of an eight-part series called Visual Eyes. If you ever see the U2 in Modena for RTE half-hour, you can see that the show included less than a minute of the band live. That is because we were told the camera lead had to be unplugged after the first 50 seconds of the band walking on stage at the packed heaving football stadium. After the show at the backstage bar I think I had my first ever and last row with Paul McGuinness over why we had we were denied some decent live footage. Now I understand what he was doing – and the protection of image rights is everywhere now – but all I was fighting for was the fact that we had travelled so far and felt short changed. I was thinking of the RTE viewer! That night and row was actually the reason I left RTE two years later to join a Channel 4 music series but that’s another story! We filmed by day before the two shows and had to turn the camera off for the full set minus 50 seconds on both nights so we shot side stage on the first night and from the middle of the football stadium at the sound desk on night two. It was there I was hit by the light bulb moment!

I sat there behind audio wizard Joe O’Herlihy on a flycase and sucked a beer in the warm evening. Over the next two hours I twigged that I was watching the Best Live Band in the World.

That impact and emotion has never stopped. Over the years the venues & songs may change but the band remains the same.  Not many bands stick together or members survive for 40 years. There is something special about seeing the same four guys you saw, let’s face it, as kids stay the course and then to go on and re-write the rules of the industry and the road. I am a fan and U2 live always reminds me why I love live music so much. I must get out more. That thought occurred to me as I listened to U2’s new album driving up and down to Donegal in summer 2015. It is very, very good and I suddenly got the goo to hear the songs live.

So at 7:30 p.m. on November 10th, 2015, I will be at the Bercy Stadium in Paris waiting for the houselights to dim as four men from Dublin take the stage. I will not be alone.

But that’s another story.

Watch McGrath’s first documentary about U2 for RTE (it plays in six parts on YouTube): U2 – Wide Awake in Dublin 1985

Watch McGrath’s second documentary about U2 for RTE, with host Dave Fanning (it plays in three parts on YouTube): U2 in Modena 1987


4 Responses to Memories of U2 gigs in benefit book for Syrian refugees

  1. Julian Rankowicz January 21, 2017 at 4:02 pm #

    Any way to get this book WITHOUT supporting refugees entering the U.S?

    • Peter Harvey January 25, 2017 at 3:09 am #

      You evidently have never read a U2 song lyric.

  2. calhouns January 24, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

    Based on the description above, the editors are giving the sales funds to the Irish Red Cross for helping Syrian refugees. I’m guessing that’s for helping them in Ireland.

  3. Leslie Perrine January 27, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

    “I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one…”