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U2

+ {Passengers} + {The Edge} + {Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen}

Indisputably one of the biggest and the most talked about “musical phenomena” of the last two decades, the likes of early single `I Will Follow’ and classic albums such as `War’, `The Joshua Tree’ and `Achtung Baby’ were blueprints for the U2 formula. And it was a formula which seemed to command devotion; those who followed the Irish rockers did so with the same zeal, as U2 set out their humanitarian agenda, the group eschewing party politics for a more expansive, but no less focused commentary on the world’s ills with an overriding religious/spiritual bent. Live, Bono and the bhoys were also being hailed as one of the most innovative and exciting acts to emerge from the post-punk morass. Strikingly original, U2 carved out their own plot of fertile territory within the suffocating, oversubscribed arena-rock format, cultivating a watertight, propulsive minimalism to partner their politically direct lyrics.
Formed as “Feedback” September 1976 in Dublin, Ireland by youngsters Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums), singer Paul Hewson (aka Bono), guitarists David Evans (aka The Edge) and his older brother Dik Evans plus bassist Adam Clayton, the lads graduated from humble beginnings to punk covers band, Hype. Inspired by emerging English acts such as The JAM, The SEX PISTOLS and The CLASH, Dik was first (and last) to leave as the group adopted the moniker U2, in March ’78; the latter duly teamed up with GAVIN FRIDAY in The VIRGIN PRUNES.
U2 subsequently attracted the attention of Paul McGuinness, one of the most respected managers in the business, and it wasn’t long before they found themselves signed to C.B.S. (in Ireland only) through A&R man Jackie Hayden; released their debut EP `U2:Three’ in the autumn of ‘79. The track scaled the Irish charts, as did a follow-up `Another Day’. The quartet were subsequently snapped up by Island Records for a worldwide deal. Initially, U2 made little impact; singles such as `11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ and `A Day Without Me’ failing to chart.
By the release of the Steve Lillywhite-produced debut album, BOY (1980) {*8}, however, U2 were already assuming the mantle of cult status. Carried equally by Bono’s crusading vocal theatrics, The Edge’s serrated guitar cascades and the rhythmic drive of Clayton and Mullen, opening track/single `I Will Follow’ was surely one that got away – still to many U2 aficionados one of their best of all time. A slow starter in many respects, the LP took a whole year to dent the UK charts, while a single (`Fire’) from their forthcoming sophomore set cracked the Top 40 in August ’81. With rays of light shining from the redolent punk/new wave scene to the shadowy early 80s (example the TELEVISION-esque `An Cat Dubh’), a growing legion of fans could still pogo their way via the very SIOUXSIE `Out Of Control’, the aforementioned CURE-like `A Day Without Me’ and the power-pop of `The Electric Co.’.
Delivered in the same month as its title, OCTOBER (1981) {*6} almost broke into the Top 10, even though the album failed to spawn any major hits; the clarion call of opener `Gloria’ surprisingly stiffing outside the Top 50. `I Threw A Brick Through A Window’, `I Fall Down’ and the Celtic lilt of `Tomorrow’ nevertheless pulled the set up from the brink of disaster – and after only a couple of LPs in the bag, anything could’ve happened. Maybe a little more time in the can and the inclusion of non-album minor hit, `A Celebration’ (from the following April), might’ve added some oomph to its rather pompous character.
So it was a major shock that U2 seemed to come out of their murky direction-bending mist in early ’83. Top 10 single, the highly emotive `New Year’s Day’ (inspired by the Lech Walenska’s Polish Solidarity Union) previewed their classy third album, WAR (1983) {*9}. U2’s first masterstroke, the record was consistently compelling, through the rousing rhythmic militarism of opening salvo `Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (interpreted by many as a Republican rebel song, Bono famously declared otherwise when introducing the track live) and the celebratory second Top 20 entry `Two Hearts Beat As One’ to the more meditative acoustics of `Drowning Man’. Fiery and passionate, songs such as `Seconds’, `The Refuge’, `Red Light’ and `“40”’ spread the message that there were new kids on the block – or indeed the arena. The record’s anthemic Irish qualities also appealed to the Americans, with War almost making the US Top 10.
From the electric atmosphere of the live mini-set UNDER A BLOOD RED SKY (1983) {*6}, it certainly seemed U2’s sound could galvanise a transatlantic audience, while re-promoting repertoire from their previous albums – a bit too soon for such self-indulgence but it paid off hitting the Top 3.
Previewed by perhaps U2’s most anthemic, politically-pointed song `Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ – a tribute to assassinated black civil rights hero Martin Luther King – the chart-topping THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE (1984) {*7} consolidated the band’s commercial and creative maturity. For the most part, however, the record took a completely different approach, BRIAN ENO and DANIEL LANOIS presiding over a collection of more exploratory, occasionally near-ambient excursions, the highlight arguably being the epic atmospherics of the stunning hit title track. If one can forgive Bono his lengthy poetical excursion through `Elvis Presley & America’, fans just lapped up the drive of `A Sort Of Homecoming’, `4th Of July’ and `Indian Summer Sky’. Equally evocative was `Bad’, an almost hymn-like incantation with which U2 entranced the world at Live Aid the following summer; Bono had laid down integral vocal lines for the Band Aid charity song, `Do They Know It’s Christmas’. One of the key events in the U2’s career, their celebrated performance at Wembley undoubtedly won them a massive new audience almost overnight, much in the same way as QUEEN rejuvenated their career through the concert. On the back of an American-only/import concert mini-set, WIDE AWAKE IN AMERICA (1985) {*4}, that year, also saw U2 instigating their own record label, mainly for other Irish groups such as HOTHOUSE FLOWERS and CACTUS WORLD NEWS.
Understandably, then, the anticipation for U2’s next studio album THE JOSHUA TREE (1987) {*10}, was fevered. Fortunately it was also justified, the quartet delivering what was undeniably the most accomplished set of their career and probably one of the greatest rock albums ever released. Like many such masterworks, U2 scaled this pinnacle of creativity by means of a subtle balance, between panoramic euphoria and hushed reflection, between the personal and the political and between insinuation and crystal clarity. The record’s undertow of spiritual soul searching evident on the likes of `I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (a US No.1) obviously struck a chord in a decade more concerned with ruthless material gain, while the air of soft-focus melancholy permeating `With Or Without You’ and non-hit `Running To Stand Still’ further enhanced the album’s almost tangible warmth. Even the more full-on tracks such as `Where The Streets Have No Name’, import hit `In God’s Country’ and `Bullet The Blue Sky’ seemed to emanate from a deep-seated yearning through the shards of The Edge’s guitar scree. The Joshua Tree was an obvious transatlantic No.1 (and worldwide No.1), facilitating U2’s move to the top of the world premier league. As well as being a formidable commercial proposition, U2 were hailed by some commentators as the most “important” rock group on the planet, both lyrically and musically. Of course, such inflated claims were matched by equally vociferous critics of the group’s perceived pomposity and preaching self-importance. Such criticism was nothing new, although it reached its height in the aftermath of the album and its attendant tour, when Bono was being hailed as some kind of musical messiah. The sight of the singer charging around the stage with a floodlight and a white flag, together with his increasingly politicised between song (or even half-way through) speeches became too much for some, although in a music scene bereft of direction or purpose, Bono probably made up for the prevailing insipidness.
If The Joshua Tree was U2’s collective imagining of America, double-disc, part-studio/part-live rockumentary soundtrack RATTLE AND HUM (1988) {*7} was the reality, recorded on the road. This is the sound of U2 doing the field research after they’ve written the thesis, and why not. There are plenty of missteps, ill-judged covers and blind alleys, but it’s often a fascinating trip, and not quite as extraneous and poorly edited as the critical consensus would have it. The live anthems are here of course, but they’re not definitive, and it’s in the ad hoc, the offbeat and the indulgent which this album holds its charms. With recent research highlighting a bizarre similarity between the gospel singing traditions of Gaelic speaking Scots and southern Afro-Americans, it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to consider that Irish émigrés may well have put down similarly intertwined roots, religious differences notwithstanding. There’s a poignancy to The Edge’s underrated emigrant elegy, `Van Diemen’s Land’, which doesn’t require Celtic citizenship to appreciate, a dedication to an obscure Fenian poet which resonates beyond mere history. And while Bono’s identification with black America may actually have more substance than he realised, his own sense of spiritual kinship was more than deep enough to carry the likes of Billie Holiday tribute hit, `Angel Of Harlem’ and the engaging B.B. KING collaboration `When Love Comes To Town’ – huge American hits both. The ragged root and stomp of `Desire’, meanwhile, remains one of U2’s most soulfully immediate singles, certainly their most soulful No.1, the gorgeous `All I Want Is You’, arguably Bono’s best love song. And for all his political chest beating, the gut-level ambivalence of Bono’s `God Part II’, even if it is conceived through the prism of JOHN LENNON, gives the lie to the notion that earnestness is his bottom line. While the inevitable backlash which this record inspired led to a wholesale re-invention of the band and their sound, its grit and soul suggested that U2 and America wasn’t such a bad combination – `The Star Spangled Banner’ via The BEATLES’ `Helter Skelter’ to DYLAN’s `All Along The Watchtower’ lent a sort of hero HENDRIX motif to the mix. That same year, Bono and The Edge co-wrote for ROY ORBISON on his last living studio album, “Mystery Girl”.
Lodged somewhere between “Joshua” and “Rattle”, The EDGE approached friend and creator of his “infinite guitar”, MICHAEL BROOK, to augment him with his CAPTIVE (1988) {*5} soundtrack commission. The Canadian-born composer helped co-write and co-produce the set, but his performance only stretched to one collaborative track, `Djinn’, probably the least effective track, but just might’ve been partly inspirational for a certain TORTOISE combo. If The EDGE wanted to create something leftfield of U2, this mostly instrumental album certainly took him there, the core (bar one song) stemming from his guitar frets. The one theme/song in question, `Heroine’, saw the guitarist introduce 19-year-old Irish singer, SINEAD O’CONNOR, her delicate tones very much the highlight of the set; Larry Mullen also featured on drums. Of the rest, opener `Rowena’s Theme’ (very “Whiter Shade…”), `The Strange Party’ and `Hiro’s Theme I’ stood out, The EDGE opting for ambient, Celtic/ENO-like soundscapes of guitar and keyboards.
Sporting wraparound shades and skin-tight black leather, Bono and Co finally emerged in late ‘91 with `The Fly’, a grinding guitar groove with urgent, hoarsely whispered lyrics. The track entered the UK chart at No.1, paving the way for the massively successful ACHTUNG BABY (1991) {*9}. Stylistically diverse, the album marked the beginnings of U2’s flirtation with dance culture, a sign that the band were wary of falling into the rock dinosaur mould; productive examples stemming from `Even Better Than The Real Thing’ and `Mysterious Ways’. Bono had also obviously been listening to his critics, changing his persona from earnest poet to lounge lizard sophisticate. Though the likes of `Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ and the deeply affecting `One’ (probably the most intimate song the group have ever penned) signalled a move into more personal lyrical territory, the album’s attendant “Zoo TV” tour was themed around political events in Europe, albeit with a more post-modern, multi-media stoked irony.
Inspired by the tour, ZOOROPA (1993) {*8} was U2’s most contemporary release to date, a fractured, dance-orientated affair which rather unfairly received a bit of a pasting from more short-sighted critics. Released as twelve-inch singles as a sort of postscript to `Even Better Than The Real Thing’, `Lemon’ and `Numb’ continued their sway toward the mainstream, while `The First Time’, `Some Days Are Better Than Others’ and the Top 5 hit, `Stay (Faraway, So Close!)’ kept U2 firmly on terra firma. As well as catering for dance train-spotters, U2 topped off the set with a JOHNNY CASH duet, the darkly brilliant `The Wanderer’, in effect kick-starting the ageing country star’s career.
In the ensuing two years, BONO popped up with GAVIN FRIDAY on the title theme to the acclaimed movie `In The Name Of The Father’ (BONO and The EDGE wrote the theme for the James Bond-vehicle, `GoldenEye’, a hit for TINA TURNER), while U2 themselves scored a UK No.2 hit with `Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ from the huge box office smash, Batman Forever. This fascination with soundtrack music continued via the PASSENGERS project, a collaboration between U2, BRIAN ENO, Italian opera singer Pavarotti and Glaswegian beatz guru HOWIE B. Entitled ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKS VOL.1 (1995) {*6}, a few of the album’s tracks (highlight being the hit single `Miss Sarajevo’) were actually written as themes to avant-garde films while the remainder were written for obscure celluloid pieces. As low-key as U2 have ever dared go, the album passed by without much fuss, its ambient noodling not really indicating a new direction as such but proving that the group were firmly committed to constant experimentation. Messrs CLAYTON and MULLEN made sure they weren’t left out of the film/celluloid equation, when they had their own re-interpretation of the `Mission: Impossible’ theme (re-make) crack the UK and US Top 10 in 1996.
For their next album proper, U2 retained HOWIE B as co-producer, crafting an album that once again used dance music as a touchstone. Preview single `Discotheque’ sounded like a watered-down `The Fly’ although the accompanying Village People-pastiche video showed, shock horror, U2 having a right old laugh. Despite this newfound sense of humour, the POP (1997) {*5} album met with mixed reviews, some hailing it as a bold new dawn, others accusing the band of treading water. The record certainly had a few moments, the searing desolation of the OASIS-like `Staring At The Sun’ and the apocalyptic `Last Night On Earth’ (the video featuring an appearance from counter-culture guru William Burroughs just weeks before his death, U2 having previously persuaded the voraciously anti-rock Charles Bukowski to attend a gig, no mean feat!) for example, but there was a feeling of incompleteness to the whole affair. Likewise, the accompanying “Pop Mart” tour (highlighting further hit `If God Will Send His Angels’) which got off to a shaky start in Las Vegas, its consumerist theme carried by another media extravaganza, albeit downscaled from the “Zoo TV” era. While U2 undoubtedly led the way in terms of stadium rock, constantly innovative in new ways to keep the medium fresh, they arguably needed to rediscover themselves musically and give up recycling second hand ideas.
Umpteenth Top 3 smash, `Sweetest Thing’ (from their first “Best Of” sets) rounded off a successful two decades at the top.
With a new decade, a new millennium and a new album, ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND (2000) {*7}, U2 arguably did rediscover themselves although only in terms of the strident, open sound which defined their approach during the 80s. This revisionism works (often spectacularly) well within a modern – or even post-modern – context, most obviously on the massive singles, `Beautiful Day’ (their fourth No.1), `Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’, `Elevation’ and `Walk On’. Bono’s recently stated intention to reclaim U2’s position as the world’s top dogs matched the overarching reach of the album, resuming normal service for the Irish veterans. A second “Best Of” update in 2002 was previewed by a fresh Top 5 hit, `Electrical Storm’.
HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB (2004) {*7} hammered home a ruthlessly back to basics policy and a complete disavowal of production flash (an economy they might’ve well applied to the clunky title). Lead single – and UK No.1 – `Vertigo’ dropped like a scud missile from wars long forgotten, the hardest, grungiest U2 single since “The Fly” more than a decade earlier, but ultimately more bluster than substance. Follow-up `Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’ (think BON JOVI) was likewise their most earnest power ballad for years, the album’s standout track and another more deserved UK chart-topper. `Love And Peace Or Else’ mixed politics with a BOLAN stomp, but it was perhaps the swooning `City Of Blinding Lights’ which most convincingly reprised their 80s pomp, a UK Top 5 alongside the disturbingly catchy `All Because Of You’.
After completing another update in the singles compilation front (two songs utilising the production talents of Rick Rubin), U2 were back in full swing on the much-anticipated but delayed ENO-LANOIS-Lillywhite produced NO LINE ON THE HORIZON (2009) {*6}. Of course, it went to No.1 globally, but it was their weakest album sing “Pop”. Whether it was over complicated by too much outside interference, or its rather spacy attempts to recreate past glories while staying cool and contemporary, there was little to shout about from inside its gaudy grooves. Having said that, the title track comes up trumps as well `Magnificent’, `Breathe’ and the collaborative HAROLD BUDD finale, `Cedars Of Lebanon’.
Whether U2 will find their halcyon days of old in the future (both Bono and The Edge were working on the Broadway adaptation of `Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark’ in 2011), well, if The ROLLING STONES can do it for the OAP’s why not U2 for the middle-agers.
On another note, over the years U2 have covered many songs including:- `Dancing Barefoot’ (PATTI SMITH), `Night And Day’ (Cole Porter), `Paint It Black’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Fortunate Son’ (CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL), `Hallelujah’ (LEONARD COHEN) solo Bono, `Neon Lights’ (KRAFTWERK), etc.
One certainly worries when a major million-selling group gives away their fresh album product. When it was reported/promoted by the media that the William Blake-inspired, unlucky-for-some 13th set, SONGS OF INNOCENCE (2014) {*6}, had went the same way as RADIOHEAD’s In Rainbows, well, questions were being asked of its merit. The fact that thousands of iTunes members complained they’d been posted the set without notice, added fuel to the, er… unforgiveable, but probably unforgettable fire. A storm in a teacup or just semi-autobiographical Bono and Co’s admirable generosity, the judge and jury was out. Three and a half decades down the line for U2, but still rocking after all these years, the bombastic and brittle Bono and the boyos merge a tried-and-tested formula of post-punk, classic arena-rock and technology. From the opening flourishes of `The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’, to the LYKKE LI-backed beauty of `The Troubles’ (and almost every anthemic dirge in between, including the excellent `Raised By Wolves’), U2 step up for their loyal fanbase, without trying too hard to gain extra weight with a fickle media baying for royal blood – or even ROYAL BLOOD.
A subsequent freak bicycle accident (in which Bono broke his arm in six places and fractured his eye socket), put paid to any quick fire sequel. In the process of the singer’s recovery, and in the events surrounding global politics in the wake of Brexit and the Trump inauguration, several of the original ideas were reconstructed to address the times. 2017 was now upon U2 (and also their plethora of producers) to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Armed with fresh lyrics that matched the climate, SONGS OF EXPERIENCE {*7}, pitched its passive/aggressive political plateau with opening salvo, `Love Is All We Have Left’. Whether young socialites would adhere to Bono’s hammed-up howls of despair via `American Soul’, `Get Out Of Your Own Way’, `The Blackout’ and the pointed `The Showman (Little More Better)’, the jury was out for lunch. A diversion of sorts, `Lights Of Home’ (penned with HAIM), had a more personal aspect by way of Bono’s thoughts of mortality, whilst the fist-pumping ode `You’re The Best Thing About Me’ was equal to anything high in the pop charts; incidentally, although U2 topped the US lists, a UK No.5 was deemed as their first failure in many a year.
© MC Strong BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS May2012-Dec2017

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