Bono must get Boris Johnson to put on record that Abba can't be blamed for Partygate – Aidan Smith

It’s August 1993 at Celtic Park and Bono is on the phone. He’s calling the White House from the stage and 50,000 rock fans are amazed at his boldness, even for someone as self-important as the U2 leader.
Bono has finally admitted his love for Abba. He didn't have the 'courage' to do this before (Picture: Olle Lindeborg/AFP via Getty Images)Bono has finally admitted his love for Abba. He didn't have the 'courage' to do this before (Picture: Olle Lindeborg/AFP via Getty Images)
Bono has finally admitted his love for Abba. He didn't have the 'courage' to do this before (Picture: Olle Lindeborg/AFP via Getty Images)

Possibly the crowd are thinking of what might be the ideal Glaswegian greeting – which piece of merry abuse they might deliver in the local vernacular – when President George Bush picks up the phone. Except he doesn’t. The call goes straight to voice-message. And the set-piece falls flat.

Bono tried the stunt many times on that tour but never got to speak to the POTUS. Was Bush made aware of the calls? I’ve sometimes wondered. Did he mention them to his wife Barbara? And did the conversation go something like this…?

“That cockamamie singer just rang again. The Bonio guy … ”

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“I don’t think that’s his name, dear. Bonio is a brand of dog biscuit which is only sold in Britain so I’m not sure how you even know about it.”

“Well, Bonzo or Boner or whatever he’s darn called had better knock it off. He seems to think he’s the leader of the free world, but that’s me.”

I was reviewing the Celtic Park show and, not being a fan, rather enjoyed Bono’s failure to engage with the president. At the time he seemed like the most preposterous man in rock – pretentious, histrionic, bombastic. He was all of these things on BandAid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and, even if he wasn’t actually responsible for the lyrics, that foghorn moment: “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

But with age has come wisdom. Also reflection and self-mockery. “Our best work is never too far from our worst,” the 62-year-old Bono writes in his recently published memoir. There’s a chapter headed “White Messiah Syndrome” in which he concedes: “Despite our best intentions, some of us activists can burn in the fire of our own do-goodery and the secret is to know when to shut up and listen.”

Long ago, back when he was a teenage punk rocker, Paul Hewson – his real name – listened to Abba, loved their songs but couldn’t admit it. Now he’s come clean about being a musical snob, and of not having the guts to own up to what would have been a serious guilty pleasure.

He remembers Abba singsongs in his local pub when the Swedish super troopers’ Thank You For the Music was “the national anthem for young mothers at closing time”. He would join in but confesses: I didn’t have the courage to own up to [Abba] when I was 16 and in the middle of punk rock.”

He had to be seen as “macho”; that was the culture. “But I tell you what, they are just better songs. You can’t be empirical about everything in art.”

I wonder what Abba thinks of Bono’s belated tribute. Possibly it won’t even register. Just as being called naff immediately post-Eurovision didn’t. Just as being called naffer still in the wake of punk didn’t. In any event, critical reassessment has been happening for quite some time.

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Elvis Costello was slipping Knowing Me, Knowing You into his concerts in 1978. Erasure scored their only No 1 in 1992 with a cover of Lay All Your Love on Me. More recently, Noel Gallagher has professed unapologetic admiration for SOS and Waterloo. The reaction from the saunas of the band’s multi-millionaire mansions back in Sweden might well be: “Bonio, what kept you?”

Musical snobbery, it’s a terrible thing. I know because I practiced it – religiously, fanatically. In my teens – the age Bono was when quietly humming Abba into his lager and lime – if you liked one kind of music, you were required to disavow all others. Even individual genres produced school-quad squabbling. My band’s better than your band.

In the realm of progressive rock, Yes fans would bicker with Emerson, Lake & Palmer fans over which of these long-winded and ludicrous cod-classical combos was the most contemptuous of verse-chorus-verse – ie, the basic principles of popular song, adored by everyone else.

Why is it only boys – and indeed men – who are this competitive, possessive and downright silly about music? Girls, and women, respond to it truthfully. They know what they like and don’t care whether or not a band is “cool”.

Punk rockers armed with a year-zero dictum were obliged to rubbish prog, but this was a lie. The discovery that Johnny Rotten had, right through the revolution, never stopped being a devotee of the difficult chord sequences of Van der Graaf Generator was akin to the Bono/Abba revelation now.

In our house, I’ve been removed from kitchen disco duties. I’m no longer allowed to be in charge of the playlist for the bopalongs which are a happy legacy of lockdown. Too many times I tried to slip in a track that I reckoned to be esoteric and clever, in the hope that my kids may grow up to have my superior taste. Each one was shouted down and the experience of all those daft arguments about music from my youth counted for nothing as I was left without a comeback.

Maybe it’s time, then, that I cut Bonzo some slack. That Celtic Park show was part of the Zoo TV tour which sent up stadium rock and, by implication, U2 themselves and was pretty amazing. But there’s one thing I need him to do: call Boris Johnson.

Abba was the soundtrack to Partygate. Their hits were played loud and long into those disgraceful nights. When the former Prime Minister is quizzed about the Covid contraventions in Parliament tomorrow he needs to categorically state that no blame can be attached to Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid.



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