Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: U2
By Steve Hochman
If you had to pick one iconic U2 moment, what would it be? The earnestly engaging “Gloria” video that entered MTV’s regular rotation in 1981? The band’s inspiring 1985 Live Aid performance in London, clearly placing it among the global rock elite? The first time singer Paul Hewson — Bono to you and me — donned those yellow wrap-around “fly” shades that became one of his visual trademarks? Or, more recently, the massive 360° Tour of 2009-2011, which became the highest-grossing concert trek in history?
No, the iconic moment of U2’s iconic career is clearly June 17, 1983, when, on the War tour, Bono sprinted through the stands with the white flag he’d been making a regular prop of, headed for the balcony and then leapt to the floor to lead a parade with the peace symbol.
It was a move both daring and reckless — several fans followed him over the ledge, and it’s pure luck that no one was hurt.
“When you have music as exciting and purposeful as U2, you don’t really need a sideshow as well, especially a potentially dangerous one,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn, an enthusiastic U2 supporter since seeing the band’s first L.A. show several years earlier.
Chastened by this scolding, Bono ceased such stunts. But the image was set; the legend assured; the notion of a rock star who would jump off a cliff not as an act of destruction or nihilism but of unity and optimism now enshrined. And the case can be made that everything the band did before that moment led to it, and everything it did after flowed from it in a career in which U2 unquestionably became the top band of its era; a career in which the band became known for artistic exploration while remaining true to its core belief that the power of rock could change the world (which Bono later refuted in 1988 in the lyrics to Rattle and Hum’s “God, Part II”). And arguably, the gesture was emblematic of everything the band has done in a career marked by musical and image-related twists and turns — some rather startling and even disorienting — in a constant quest for new horizons.
That U2 today remains the same four people who got together as teens at Dublin’s Mount Temple Comprehensive School in 1976 speaks volumes. When Hewson, guitarist Dave Evans and bassist Adam Clayton responded to drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s high school bulletin board invitation to form a band (along with three others, including Evans’ older brother, Dik), it was all about the DIY spirit radiating across the channel from London — enough to overcome a general lack of musical experience.
Within a few months the lineup was down to the four and a new name (after, originally, the Hype) reduced to two characters — evoking at once a sense of global anxiety (the famous U.S. spy plane of the 1950s to the present) and community (the inclusiveness implied by homonym you too). With their youthfully spirited live act and formative-but-already-distinctive sound in those first years, they won a talent contest in Limerick on St. Patrick’s Day 1978, with cash and studio time to record a demo for CBS Ireland as the prize. Increased attention and support from Ireland’s Hot Press music magazine brought them to the attention of manager Paul McGuinness, who’d been working with English post-punk band the Stranglers. U2’s debut EP, Three, was released in Ireland in September 1979.
After several major labels passed on the young group, Chris Blackwell’s Island Records — most significantly then the home of Bob Marley — signed them and paired them with producer Steve Lillywhite. The result was 1980 debut album Boy, which captured the slashing ambience of Evans’ guitar (befitting his nickname, “Edge”), the sturdy rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen and the contained yelp of Bono.
Lead single “I Will Follow,” with its mix of guitar rush, tinkling glockenspiel (played by Lillywhite) and pulsing bass-drums interplay, quickly became a U.K. sensation and broke through to a small but receptive U.S. base. Its lyrics, ostensibly about forlorn infatuation, were later said by Bono to be about a mother’s unconditional love, and as such constitute a lament for his own mother, who died when he was 14. That sense of bigger things runs through the album, including the sexual allegory of “An Cat Dubh” and the innocence-lost theme of “Stories for Boys.” A tour that included the band’s first U.S. shows built a buzz of great expectations.
Said expectations stalled somewhat with 1981 second album October, seen on release as something of a musical holding pattern and even disconcerting to some fans for the openly Christian tone of many of its songs. But then still-new network MTV embraced the “Gloria” video, which featured the band at the industrial Dublin docks and Bono striking clearly Christ-like poses during the mass-derived Latin chorus. And then their spirituality took hold among many young people searching for music with meaning amid the new wave fluff.
That and tireless touring paid off in terms of the tremendous buzz leading up to the 1983 release of War. With punk having splintered into new wave and other subgenres, and MTV elevating the pretty and the quirky over the deep and creative, there was a craving for a band that “mattered,” and U2 was more than happy to oblige. War, with its stern-looking boy on the cover (shot by Anton Corbijn, who would thenceforth often shape the band’s visual aesthetic), mixed audacity and optimism with anger and hope. “New Year’s Day” alone had all that, with Edge switching between a spare, clarion piano riff and soaring, echoplexed guitar lines while Clayton pumped out a memorable bass line and Bono looked ahead with a tone of urgency not for a new year, but a new era.
The martial cadence of War’s opening track, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” paired imagery of Britain’s brutal 1972 put-down of unarmed Irish civil rights protestors in Derry, Northern Ireland, with an Easter Sunday message of hope through sacrifice. It and “New Year’s Day” were huge hits and soon became centerpieces of the band’s concerts, which became more and more communal events than mere rock shows, as documented on the Under the Blood Red Sky EP and U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky video, filmed at the majestic Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver. The former’s live versions of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” became MTV staples.
Rather than repeating or even building on the formula of War, U2 enlisted Brian Eno to produce 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Eno was known for his stint in pioneering art-rock group Roxy Music; a series of bracingly eccentric solo and collaborative albums; production duties with Talking Heads, Devo and others; and, crucially, his electro-acoustic experiments in ambient music. With Canadian guitarist-engineer Daniel Lanois, Eno helped U2 create a new sound of nuanced textures, equally rewarding in moments of hushed reverie and grand passions. Edge used an “infinite guitar” device, invented by Eno-Lanois associate Michael Brook, that allowed seemingly endless sustain. Bono, with a new kind of sonic tapestry to support his words, adopted a more mature lyrical stance, with a sense of poetry impressionistic and implicit in its messages.
The Unforgettable Fire is haunting and sometimes chill-inducing — notably in the intro to “Pride (In the Name of Love),” one of two tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. on the album and it’s biggest and most enduring hit. Fans and critics considered it a landmark album, but its sonic shift and abandonment of big, posturing anthems left some scratching their heads, wondering if U2 had the desire and focused artistic vision to reign atop the pop world.
The tour for the album dispelled those notions quickly. And if there were any doubts left, the July 1985 Live Aid appearance at London’s Wembley Stadium blew them — and the world — away. During “Bad,” one of the most subdued Unforgettable Fire songs, Bono jumped off the stage to dance with and hold a fan, a move that might have seemed corny but nonetheless reinforced the communal ideal the band had long embodied and made the global nature of the African famine relief event intimately personal. With the Police apparently gone for good, Rolling Stone magazine soon dubbed U2 the band of the ’80s.
U2 justified that declaration in no uncertain terms with 1987’s The Joshua Tree. Once again working with Eno and Lanois (the latter now taking a lead production role), the group found inspiration for its sonic experiments in growing relationships with heroes including Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, and found new thematic purpose in headlining the 1986 Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour (alongside Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and others). Further inspiration came from Bono’s travels to beleaguered Third World flash points such as El Salvador. The literal and literary wide-open spaces of the U.S. Southwest served as the thematic foundation for the album’s sound and scope (hence the title, after a plant found in the U.S. desert Southwest).
The reach was great. So were the results. The sound brought the Unforgettable Fire approach into focus, at once lush and stark. In “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You” and particularly “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the band summed up its very sense of purpose, expressing the nature of its spiritual and social quests, elaborated on and complemented by addiction lament “Running to Stand Still,” darkly Doors-like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the meditative “One Tree Hill.” It became U2’s first number-one U.S. album, scored two Grammy awards (including Album of the Year) and ultimately sold more than 25 million copies worldwide (a 2007 20th anniversary edition contained 14 extra tracks).
1988 Rattle and Hum film and the double album of the same name documented the huge Joshua Tree Tour, which saw the band headlining stadiums for the first time. Both film and album received mixed reviews. Showing the band’s fascination with the United States, Rattle and Hum featured new songs recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., (and the awed band visiting Elvis Presley’s Graceland home and grave site) and collaborations with Bob Dylan, B.B. King and, on “Angel of Harlem,” a gospel choir. While the film and album were an enormous success, cracks were showing and critics and even some fans started talking of pretentiousness and the pitfalls of mega-stardom. A break and a change were called for.
The break lasted until late 1990 and the change came in recording location. U2 reconvened in newly unified Berlin, again with Lanois and Eno. This time, however, the team — particularly Bono and Edge — looked less to American roots in favor of embracing more contemporary European dance and industrial sounds. When Achtung Baby was released in November 1991, it caught many off guard with its electro-sheen, especially on danceable first singles “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways.” The former (through its video in particular) introduced Bono’s unctuous, ironic and perhaps self-mocking rock-star caricature (with aforementioned wrap-around yellow shades); the latter wrapped a lyric straddling lust and spiritual ecstasy around a magnetic Clayton bass line and Edge’s throbbing guitar.
The album’s biggest single, “One,” was the real keeper — a heartfelt yearning for peace that combined Bob Marley’s “One Love” spirit with the ambience of The Joshua Tree. The Zoo TV tour that followed was equally polarizing, with a multimedia spectacle at the fore (shells of cars on moving hydraulics, words and images projected on screens) and Bono bringing his “star” persona to the stage, soon spinning off other characters such as the even more disturbing rock-star-as-satanic-agent, “MacPhisto”. Both album and tour were unqualified commercial successes, however, and both came to be seen as landmarks for the band and for ’90s rock.
Before starting a 1993 European tour swing, U2 returned to the studio to record an EP, only to emerge with a full album, Zooropa. It was a bit of a hodgepodge—“The Lemon” further explored dance beats; “Numb” introduced Edge as a lead singer (well, talker), and “The Wanderer” featured lead vocals by Johnny Cash. But the album, with production by Eno, Bono, Edge and newcomer Flood (known for his work with, among others, Depeche Mode), complemented and extended the Achtung turn while standing up nicely as an engaging collection in its own right.
After returning from another huge tour, U2 took a small side trip with 1995’s Original Soundtracks 1. Technically not a U2 album, it was released under the name Passengers and featured Eno as a full partner. A haphazard set, it contained a series of sonic experiments, with only “Miss Sarajevo,” a surrealistically compelling dreamscape featuring opera star Luciano Pavarotti, really reaching public consciousness.
1997’s Pop might be U2’s most controversial album. At a time when many felt the band should have stripped back to guitar-based rock and grand, personal-spiritual themes, U2 instead opted to explore and comment on the commercialism of pop culture, all couched in more modern dance sounds. The PopMart tour took that concept to visual extremes, with massive structures mirroring and mocking brand logos and architecture, blurring the line between art and kitsch a la the classic pop artists of the 1960s.
A Sept. 23, 1997, PopMart tour stop in Sarajevo was the first major rock concert in Bosnia and Herzegovina following that nation’s devastating civil war, and it re-touched the earnest depth of U2’s legacy. It underscored the band’s — and especially Bono’s — increasing presence at the forefront of social and geopolitical issues; some driven by the continued adherence to their Christian faith.
Bono took a lead role in addressing African famine crises and in the Jubilee 2000 campaign to move global economic forces to forgive the crippling debt of Third World countries. He started attending global conferences such as the Davos gathering, palling around with politicians from all parts of the spectrum (even archconservative U.S. senator Jesse Helms) and undeterred by the resulting criticism by various detractors. 1991 hit “One” (the royalties from which had been designated for AIDS issues on its original release) became the theme for the ONE Campaign, a star-studded human rights coalition co-founded by Bono (“One” would come into play again in 2005, when Mary J. Blige joined U2 for a spine-tingling version performed for a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon).
Perhaps one album too late, U2 went back to the basics (relatively speaking) for 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, once again with Eno/Lanois production. The album presented some of the most direct U2 sounds and songwriting since War, with Hit single “Beautiful Day” joining the roster of engaging, expansive and enduring U2 hits. The Elevation Tour (named for another of the album’s hits) followed suit with a scaled-down approach emphasizing a direct relationship with the audience rather than spectacle. It brought the band to arenas rather than stadiums, and it included a stage featuring a heart-shaped runway that let the musicians wander out among the fans. Two shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden only a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the band’s appearance at the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show emphasized a tone of healing.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb followed in November 2004 with an even harder-edged but still straightforward sound. Single “Vertigo” was a particularly exuberant hit, and the Vertigo Tour expanded on the strong appeal of the “Elevation” approach.
A quarter century after Boy, Bruce Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. The band’s place there was long assured. The trick now was not to be a legacy band all about the past. Perhaps with that in mind, the band turned experimental again with Eno and Lanois for 2009’s No Line on the Horizon. The album wasn’t quite as out-there as advance word might have led some to believe, but its use of electronics, African rhythms and various other elements gave it a distinctive tone. It lacked a hit single, however, and sales were rather low for a U2 album.
But if the album was a bit under the radar, the mammoth 360° Tour was anything but. In European and North American stadiums from June 2009 to July 2011, the trek saw the band performing in the largest stage structure ever mounted for touring rock concerts. The stage set consisted of a massive construction with arched legs stretching over the stage, with a cylindrical video/light screen suspended from its peak that afforded the titular full-circle view to maximize the in-the-round positioning. The tour was temporarily suspended in mid-2010 after Bono sustained a serious back injury (a period that also saw some bruised egos for Bono and Edge’s prominent behind-the-scenes role in trouble-plagued Broadway musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark), but resumed with missed dates rescheduled in 2011, plus legs in South Africa, South America and North America. In the course of the latter, the tour shattered the previous box office record of $558 million set by the Rolling Stones and became the world’s top-grossing tour of any sort. A fitting achievement for this band of Dublin kids. No white flag here.