Films & music, Recommended books & reviews

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono [review]

I remember walking back from the shops after buying U2’s The Joshua Tree as a 14 year old and bumping into someone from my church who was about 10 years older than me.

He said “Umm, I’m not really sure about U2” and started reading the album’s lyrics sheet.  He read out these words from I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For:

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil

His concern illustrated the ambivalence that some Christians had with U2. They had clear Christian convictions but were never a ‘Christian band’ and so were not easily labelled in ways that some believers find reassuring.

Autobiography

Bono’s autobiography Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is a fascinating read. As well as recording the ups and downs of one of the most famous bands on the planet, it is also deeply personal. Bono gives many insights into the impact of his Mum’s death when he was young, his insecurities and how his long-lasting marriage has survived.

The strapline of this blog is ‘faith, transformation and social justice’ and each of these are key threads in the book.

1. Faith

As teenagers, Bono, Edge and Larry Mullen were part of the Shalom Christian fellowship which captivated them with its demanding and radical approach to faith. After their first album and tour, Bono and Edge decide to leave the band, seeing it as incompatible with a life of Christian commitment. 

But their manager, Paul McGuinness, counter-challenges and persuades them not to break their legal contract. It was the song Sunday Bloody Sunday which convinced them they can express their beliefs and mission through music:

The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won

Biblical references puncture every chapter and illustrate the way scriptures continue to fascinate Bono and the central role that faith has played in his life. Towards the end of the book, Bono writes:

‘I return to a spiritual master like the apostle Paul…I have so much to learn from this ancient writer. How does someone who first shows up as a monumental pain-in-the-arse fundamentalist become someone who can write the greatest ode to love in two thousand years?’

2. Social justice

Bob Geldof got Bono engaged in anti-poverty activism and shortly after Live Aid, he and his wife Ali spend time volunteering in Ethiopia.  From here his grasp of the complexities of the issues grows as he campaigns for the Jubilee debt relief and in fighting the devastation of AIDS in Africa.

In the book Bono avoids the over-worthiness that he was often accused of. There is little ideological grandstanding but a huge amount on how to pragmatically win battles which make a practical difference.  As a songwriter he understands the need for a hook and a top line which grab people’s attention and capture the imagination of politicians.

This approach takes him into collaboration with the most powerful people on the planet like Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, Rupert Murdoch, George Soros, Bill and Melinda Gates. The importance of relationships is paramount:

‘You don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you do agree on is important enough…the search for common ground starts with a search for higher ground.’

And Bono shows an understanding of how justice comes about which goes far deeper than rock star patronage:

‘And it turns out the fight for justice comes down to boring words that don’t look good on a T-shirt. Competence. Governance. Transparency. Accountability. Words that bring transformation. The non-shouty words. The quiet words that turn the world right side up.’

3. Transformation

Surrender is a deeply personal and self-aware book. Bono is upfront about having ‘an ego far taller than my self-esteem’ and ‘having a big mouth and a foot that’s often in it’. He describes this as a ‘struggle with the self’ and frequently records appreciation to bandmates and family for their tolerance. 

But it is also clear that his pushiness is a key factor in driving the band on in new directions, some more successful than others. He accepts responsibility for the ill-judged decision to release their 2014 album Songs of Innocence for free by automatically including it on 500 million Apple iTunes accounts without users permission.

‘If you are fronting a rock ‘n’ roll band, you need a bit of a messiah complex, but such a complex is less helpful for the antipoverty activist.’

Admiration

At 550 pages, Surrender is a long read, but it held my attention from start to finish. This is partly because I like U2’s music, but also because it includes so much rich material about faith, social justice and transformation. It turns out that its not just inspiring songs that Bono can write:

‘The well of friendship can run dry in a family, a marriage, a community, a band. A good strategy for me is to continually go back to the source. To drop my bucket in the well in the hope of a refill. Why am I always talking abut the scriptures? Because they sustained me in the most difficult years of the band and they remain a plumb line to gauge how crooked the wall of ego has become.’

5 thoughts on “‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono [review]”

  1. This is a really enlightening review of what sounds like a very interesting book. Maybe i need to revisit Bono – having been an avid U2 fan in the earlier years I sort of dialled out of them as I decided i had grown out of the shouty Sunday Bloody Sunday approach. But, from what you say, obviously so did he. You sometimes forget that other people grow up and change as well. Even popstars. Particularly those who hold faith in so important a place.
    This did remind me of U2’s South London connection – there is a story (may be true) that they once played the Bedford in Balham, and they certainly played Brixton Academy on 2 November 1984 because I was there.
    Finally your review helped answer two very important questions: (1) why did Adam Clayton often look like he was part of a different band and (2) why do songs from Songs of Innocence keep annoyingly popping up on my itunes playlists even when i have never ever downloaded it. Yes that was ill-judged. But the fact that he would go out of the way to admit it speaks volumes. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Thomaj! Glad we have a veteran of their 1984 gig commenting! Yes, Adam Clayton is the only one of the band who has never professed any Christian commitment but as this book makes clear, he has been through a whole host of deep experiences in his recovery from addictions which threatened to completely derail him.

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      1. First one I noticed: ‘Gloria’ – in televised German gig c.1981. Can’t name a favourite, but single lines resonate: e.g. (with my wife), ‘the mysterious distance between a man and a woman’, & drama: 1985, ‘Pride’, (Milton Keynes Bowl – only time I’ve seen them) rained all day, stopped as Bono came on stage (soon rained again but so what).

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