With their prankish popmart spectacle, the Irish band corners the market on junk culture

By Chris Willman
Updated May 09, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Back around the time of the roots-conscious Rattle and Hum, U2 were solidly into the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Shift ahead to the techno-Pop era, where we now find the band very excited about a blinding lemon.

It’s Friday, April 25, opening night for the PopMart tour at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium, where no little intrigue surrounds the sheathed, 40-foot-high super-citrus at stage left, awaiting its moment in the, er, limelight. Come the encore, the mega-lemon finally sheds its drop cloth to reveal a dazzling mirrored surface. But it’s not just decoration; it’s transportation. The glittery contraption wheels out at its top speed of 2 mph and, with spotlights blazing, splits open to reveal…ELO?…nope, U2, dressed to kill and ready to ”Discotheque.” A staircase rises to meet the emerging stars, while the few old fans still clutching whatever’s left of the band’s scrupulous ’80s earnestness bow their heads and pray: Please, God, let this all just be a bad dream.

If it’s any consolation to the purists who were hoping for ”40” instead, this climactic fruit fantasia is at least an intentional homage to you-know-who.

”Spinal Tap is the reason we have the lemon,” confirms Bono, chuckling as he surveys PopMart’s oversize props the day before the tour launch. U2 borrow only from the best — though it remains to be seen whether any of the 100-plus stadium dates will find the group trapped inside its pod, a la Tap bassist Derek Smalls. (The lemon did break down during dress rehearsal, so there’s always hope.)

U2 had determined to do the world on a grand scale again and began commissioning all this ”mobile architecture” even before they’d begun recording their recently released Pop album last year. The record itself turned out rather sober, even though a 12-foot stuffed olive atop a 100-foot swizzle stick is anything but. At a stadium level, levity helps bring things back to human scale, ”or else things get very progressive rock, and we have to watch for that,” Bono explains, munching on chips and guzzling bottled water. ”We thought, if we really have balls, let’s have some fun with our bigness. You know, we can’t be hung for that. Because humor is the evidence of freedom, isn’t it?”

Yes, or of having gone completely daft. But barrister Bono brings the soul brigade to his defense. ”You see this in black music. It can be fun, funk. They can glamour-puss it up and they’re telling stories of the street. It seems white music’s got this very strict rule book, and I’m not buying into it.”

Or cashing out. ”From the word go, we wanted to be at the top of the pop charts; we wanted to take it on. But we also wanted the freedom to put out something like the Passengers or Zooropa,” Bono says, invoking their last two, more ambient albums, ”where we can go off. It’s a blueprint that goes back to the Beatles. We’re basically living out the White Album!” As if mentally cataloging four LP sides, he quickly qualifies that ambition. ”Well, there’s a few tracks we should dodge. But do you know what I mean?”