Songs Of Innocence: On U2, Tax & Hypocrisy

John Doran is singularly unimpressed by U2's invocation of William Blake's Songs Of Innocence. Shouldn't they stop cosying up to morally bankrupt corporations, banks, philosophers, religious leaders and politicians instead?

Without much fanfare the Irish stadium rock band U2 released an album yesterday (09/09/14) to well over half a billion people (iTunes customers and subscribers) for free. The eleven track album Songs Of Innocence will get a physical release on October 13 as well via Island.

U2 have released so many bad albums now that the idea of yet another one doesn’t really cause me much concern. (I will listen to it with an open mind at some point soon by the way – I’m not going to judge it without hearing it at least twice but the titles – ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’, ‘Every Breaking Wave’, ‘California (There Is No End To Love)’, ‘Song For Someone’, ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’, ‘Volcano’, ‘Raised By Wolves’, ‘Cedarwood Road’, ‘Sleep Like A Baby Tonight’, ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’, ‘The Troubles’ – really don’t inspire much in the way of confidence. What is with this embarrassment of brackets? And didn’t they already do a song called ‘Sleep Like A Baby Tonight’? And ‘The Troubles’… really?)

However before I even get to that questionable delight, I already have a deep and abiding problem with the album. By taking on the title of English mystic poet, painter and illustrator William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence, U2 are indulging in laughable subterfuge. They are aligning themselves with pre-lapsarian mankind; those yet to be tainted by forbidden knowledge and yet to be banished from the Garden Of Eden. They are claiming to be naked and carefree in John Milton’s Paradise, before original sin brings about The Fall.

To Blake, childhood was a state of protected innocence which would sometimes be interrupted – often violently and unfairly – by an action of experience, usually down to the corruption of the state, the church or other, more amorphous, institutional body such as the ruling classes. But Bono, more than any other current rock star I can think of, has loaned his not inconsiderable weight to making such figures as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Theresa Of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II seem more human. And he will often provide this service to those that can afford it at the drop of a – wide-brimmed and ridiculous – hat.

To put it another way, William Blake – a fierce believer in the Bible but hater of what the church had become – would have despised what U2 stand for. For all their protestations, the band are the money lenders in the temple, NOT Christ, turning over their tables.

There’s no need for us to get too bogged down in what a terrible company Apple is – and mea culpa, like most people reading this, I have used their products in the past but then again, I’m not going into multi-million pound business with them either. But in short, Greenpeace have, in recent years, called them the least environmentally friendly tech group there is and their history in using child labour in dangerous factories is shameful. And this week, it has transpired that the premier of their latest gewgaw, the iPhone 6, has had shade thrown on it by revelations that Apple’s already appalling record of factory conditions for foreign workers, is getting even worse not better – despite all of their protestations that they are on the case.

(LATE EDIT: Greenpeace have since commended Apple on cleaning up its game over the last two years but the picture is far from satisfactory. China Labor Watch and Green America released a report last week which slammed the tech giant on the grounds of environmental issues and labour issues. The CLW report listed revealed forced overtime, fire and safety risks, poor compensation and exposure to toxic chemicals at a factory in Suqian, China, operated by Apple supplier Catcher Technology. The labour group had approached Apple with their concerns 16 months ago and the tech firm promised they were on the case. But as the report this week reveals: things have actually gotten much worse.)

Bono and co. want us to believe that they are motivated by a religious purity and are apparently giving this album away. But this isn’t really the truth at all. It may be motivated by religious impulses but their faith is one of money and free market capitalism. (It is no coincidence, I’d say, that Bono told TIME magazine: "We were paid [by Apple]… I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament." The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church describes the sacraments – usually dispensed in the form of blessed wine and the eucharist, representing Christ’s blood and body, not an overproduced rock album – thus: "[The sacraments are an] efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us". And Bono feels that this is not something that should be given for free: that there should be a hefty price tag attached to it.)

No doubt, all of this will be too tenuous for some. There will be the usual, woeful cries of, ‘It’s only rock & roll… just shut up and enjoy it.’ But you really don’t have to look far at all to see further evidence of Bono’s malign cant and hypocrisy.

A few months ago I was invited by Steve Lamacq to be a guest on the Round Table segment of his BBC 6Music show along with Amy Lame and Ghost Poet. I had a good time in good company and I heard some music I really enjoyed. However, there was one point in the show that made me so angry that I developed a migraine which I found hard to shake off. Not the fault of anyone in the studio I hasten to add. The source of the stress was having to listen to the new U2 single.

The band had launched the song ‘Invisible’ in partnership with Bono’s charity RED and the Bank Of America during the Super Bowl and for the first hour of release it was available as a free download. What was even better was that for every free download of the M4a, the bank pledged to donate $1 to the RED charity. They shifted a colossal one million downloads in the first hour and by midnight [US time] (the end of the free-to-download window) the enterprise had raised $3million for the charity which will be spent on fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. And this was only the start, as all proceeds from the standard $1.29 DL went to RED’s Global Fund as well. So let’s be absolutely clear about this – lives will have been saved by this initiative and the lives of many more besides will have been improved. Which I guess should have made everyone – bar the most bitter and removed from reality – very happy. Except I wasn’t; I was spitting blood.

The anger wasn’t caused by how appalling the song was, although the terrible quality didn’t help. I should say, for the record, when I was in school, prior to discovering the Jesus And Mary Chain, I really liked U2 a lot. A lot of their early post-punkish and mid-period post modern rock is intrinsically great – even if it becomes harder and harder to like it with every passing year because of their narrow shouldered, shivering cretin of a singer.

The band claimed ‘Invisible’ was like a mix of Kraftwerk and Ramones but really it was just more of the same, hedge-betting, song-writing by focus group they had been employing for the last 15 years, which rendered it more like a mix of Coldplay and MGMT. It achieved the double-whammy of being utterly contemptible while playing and then utterly forgettable immediately after it finished. It featured the nauseating line: "There is no Hell, there is only us." (Apologies if it’s not this – it doesn’t really change the thrust of what I’m saying.)

This song was stunningly inane even by their own standards and it’s not like they set the bar particularly high over the last twenty years. "There is no them, there is only us." This is the kind of fucking horseshit that only an obscenely wealthy rock star with half-witted pretentions towards socialism could come out with. But of course Bono isn’t any kind of socialist that I recognise – he’s more like Smaug the Dragon with a mullet and two grand wrap around shades sitting on a giant mountain of gold, dressed like Che Guevara, talking about "us" and making peace signs any time someone gets out a camera.

But what is the ‘us’ that he’s singing about? There is no ‘us’ when it comes to you and me and the rest of the plebs and Bono. Like anyone reading this who makes some or all of their money by freelance work, a few months ago I completed my taxes. Even though the figure I owed was hardly astronomical, I still felt sick to the pit of my stomach when thinking about how I would cover this debt and make my mortgage payments for the following few months. And now that it’s paid, I have to start saving up for next year’s bill.

This is one particular boat that Bono is not in though. And I don’t mean, ‘He’s rich so it doesn’t matter how big his tax bill is LOL.’ What I mean is, he’s rich enough to avoid paying an astronomical amount of tax to the Irish government despite being based in and operating out of the country. For 20 years the band used 1960s tax exemption laws for bands but when this was capped at quarter of a million, the band ‘offshored’ its main money making business – the publishing arm of the U2 empire – to a "special financial unit" in the Netherlands in 2006. The upshot of this, according to Irish Financial News, is that Bono does not pay tax on about 95% of his not inconsiderable income. As it stands now Bono – who is worth something in the region of £600million* – won’t need to remortgage any of his very big houses or sell the Renoir or the yacht just yet.

(*This is a very conservative figure. In all likelihood, Bono is now a billionaire because of sales of shares in Facebook, and is routinely described as the world’s richest rock star.)

As has been pointed out these handy little tax avoidance schemes – such as the Dutch venture that Bono is part of – have been used to deprive developing nations, in continents such as Africa, of tax revenue approximately worth £100billion per year. Yes, that Bono. The one who has been campaigning for African debt relief for the last thirty years.

Of course this kind of cant and hypocrisy is utterly standard and par for the course for a neo-liberal, which is essentially what Bono has become. He has picked up a lot of flak over the years for lending legitimacy to such figures as Pope John Paul II and George W. Bush but less attention is paid to the man that he refers to as "my professor". Jeffrey Sachs is a free trade economist and neo-liberal who helped the transference of several countries rapidly into full blown free market capitalism – with disastrous consequences for millions of people – especially in Poland in the late 80s and Russia in the early 90s. No one is claiming that Sachs did this on his own or did this on purpose but because of the ‘shock tactic’ methods used to transition the countries into Western capitalist economies but in Russia alone, 3.5 million children became homeless, the suicide rate doubled and violent crime quadrupled and the country’s valuable assets were sold off for a fraction of their value to a small group of oligarchs while tens of millions became unemployed and fell below the breadline.

For a neo-liberal, Sachs is actually a nice guy – he believes firmly in big aid packages to offset the damage done by the rapid transition to capitalism. However many people believe that despite his good intentions, Sachs has genuinely made the world a much, much worse place. In The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs And The Quest To End Poverty the author Nina Munk claims that despite being well intentioned his schemes have left people much worse off than they would have been otherwise. And there are plenty of others who support this idea.

How has it come to this. A rock star supporting the cause of neo-liberalism? Instead of trying to raise money for AIDS charities shouldn’t Bono simply attack the neo-cons such as Donald Rumsfeld who patent AIDS medicine and aggressively prevent cheaper versions being made available in the very place where they are needed the most: Africa?

It made me angry because this kind of effort – which was nothing more than a promotional stunt (for both band and bank), amounted to little more than a band aid on a gaping wound administered by the kind of people and the kind of financial institution who have the power to apply complete, effective and lasting medical care.

There is no them – there is only us. It’s a Utopian ideal and one that will never happen while people like Bono and institutions like the Bank Of America stand in the way.

Here’s some Utopian thinking for you. How about every multi-millionaire such as Bono pay a flat rate of 50% tax on their income in the country that they are domiciled in. How about every financial institution such as the Bank Of America be nationalised and run as a not for profit organisation for the benefit of the people. How about bands the size of U2 point to the whole scale wreckage of civilisations that the pursuit of free market capitalism by any means necessary have caused instead of lending this philosophy a patina of acceptability. Then the need for any charity – now and for the rest of time – would disappear completely. There genuinely would be no them, there genuinely would just be us. And until that day U2 will remain, in my eyes at least, guilty.

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