“Hey Traci, why don’t you write about the history of U2?” Jimmy Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief | OC Music News. “No problem” – me. “But there was a problem” – narrator.
How can I give you the history of U2? Why don’t I just describe the history of air?! This will take months! One of the most popular and successful bands of all time. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members. Bazillions of awards and records sold. Zillions in concert tour revenue. Thanks, Jimmy!
But in reality, it is good timing to take a look back at U2. They are celebrating the 20th anniversary of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” with a special anniversary reissue and deluxe editions. All the original songs are remastered, a new song added, and the super deluxe edition has a staggering 51 tracks with rarities! And in keeping with our continuous 40th anniversary celebrations this year, U2 has an offering in there as well. Their debut album, “Boy,” turns 40 and to celebrate the occasion, U2 has a special white vinyl edition available.
Plus…there may be some new music soon… (details at the end!).
It is weird to think of U2 as being around that long because in my head, they are all in their 40s. Did they start U2 when they were toddlers?! Alas, they were teenagers when they began. When the teen boys with minimal musical skills formed a band in 1976 Dublin, there was no way to know they would become one of the best-selling artists in history. How could some untrained kids from Ireland take over the world? The talent of these four, and their ability to mesh together musically is something no one could have prepared for.
Larry Mullen Jr. wanted to be in a band and sought out other members at his school. While more than four people showed up for the meeting, by 1978, only four remained to become the U2 we know. Mullen handled drum duty, Adam Clayton took bass, David Evans (who we know as The Edge/Edge) manned the guitar, and Paul Hewson (“Who the hell is Paul Hewson?” – me, totally forgetting Bono had any other name) became the front-man with a side of guitar. Bono was an impressive personality from the beginning and boys got to work learning their instruments.
They started out with covers and post punk tunes, which helped hide their lack of musical ability, but they showed passion. As Bono has said more than once, “A band before we could play.” They went through some name changes, but landed on U2 and won a talent contest (while still in high school!).
With their cash prize and studio time, they tried to assemble a demo, but did not possess the experience to make one worthwhile. They did get the attention of a local music magazine which led them to the man who would become their longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, who was “amazed at the quality and talent and ambition of these four musicians.” They recorded a three-song EP (“Three”) for release in Ireland, which sold out immediately and got them on the Irish charts. They began playing more shows locally and in London, and then released the single “Another Day.” In celebration of its release, the boys boldly played a 2000-seat venue the same day, which had an Island Records rep in attendance. Boom. The boys had a record deal.
“To be one, to be united is a great thing. But to respect the right to be different is maybe even greater.”
BONO | U2
They released the single “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” to not much fanfare, and headed to the studio to record their debut album. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had already done well with Peter Gabriel, The Psychedelic Furs, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Boy” contained themes of innocence and spirituality. Supported by singles “A Day Without Me” and “I Will Follow,” the album charted in the UK and US. U2 had people’s attention.
They took to the road for their first big tour and while not the most experienced band around, Bono’s stage presence was immediately obvious, as well as the work ethic of the musicians. The extensive tour gave them time to form their style and begin writing their next album.
In a stroke of bad luck, Bono’s briefcase (which held his work in progress and plans for the next album) went missing during the US portion of their tour. The band had limited time to record the next record, so they had to scramble to recreate what they had written so far. Once again produced by Lillywhite, “October” landed them a spot on the legendary “Top of the Pops” and the British charts. “I Will Follow” (from “Boy”) and “Gloria” put them in rotation at that new music station, MTV, and their following in the US grew.
“October” contained religious themes, inspired by Bono, Edge, and Mullen’s involvement with the Shalom Fellowship. This involvement made them consider if their Christian faith could live in harmony with their new lifestyle. There was even talk of breaking up the band, but thankfully, they stayed with music.
They went back on the road to support “October” and during the tour, they met the supremely talented photographer Anton Corbijn. You know his work from not only U2, but Depeche Mode – anything visual for these two powerhouses is Corbijn.
With more time and less chaos, the follow up album was a much more cohesive and organized project. Lillywhite returned for producing duties for the third time, and the band lived and wrote together for months. Edge found himself making improvements on his songwriting and the band was becoming sure of themselves and their skills.
“War” became their breakthrough album and launched their political voice that remains a main identifier today. Released in 1983, “War” went right to the top of the UK charts. Singles “Two Hearts Beat as One,” and of course, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” This song stirred some controversy as it focused on the incident in Derry (Northern Ireland) where British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters in 1972. The album was anchored by their uber-hit “New Year’s Day.” The album solidified U2 as a commercially-successful band.
The “War” tour put the band at bigger venues, including the historic 1983 US Festival where we got the image of Bono waving a white flag during “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
The guys were now secure enough to express their political views and social commentary, which some say kicked other artists in the behind to do so as well. In the ‘80s, there was no internet or social media to get information about bands and their causes; we had radio stations and MTV.
To hear of a group of musicians/celebrities getting together for a cause now would be easy, but it really was historic in 1984. All the “it” British and Irish artists were involved in Band Aid and the still heavily-played Christmas track “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Organized by Bob Geldof, U2 was included with members of Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Wham, The Police, David Bowie and Paul McCartney (and more!) to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. I can still remember how excited I was to own this record and play it over and over (sorry Mom!) and see the video on MTV.
The following year, U2 was part of another massive Geldof fundraiser. Also for famine relief, Live Aid had concerts in London and Philadelphia with performances by EVERYBODY. Ok, maybe not everybody, but it felt like it.
At Wembley it was Queen (yes, the performance that remains epic), David Bowie, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran, Sting, Madonna, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, The Who, Tom Petty, Adam Ant, Black Sabbath, Elvis Costello, and more – seriously! U2 put on another fantastic performance, highlighted with Bono pulling a woman from the audience for a powerful hug. Also, Bono’s amazing hair.
In between these unforgettable events, they also found time to record and release “The Unforgettable Fire.” They had a better record deal and wanted to experiment more on this album – less hard rock, more “ambient” – which came courtesy of producers Brian Eno and Danny Lanois. Clayton said in a radio interview at the time, “With Steve (Lillywhite), we were a lot more strict about a song and what it should be; if it did veer off to the left or the right, we would pull it back as opposed to chasing it. Brian (Eno) and Danny (Lanois) were definitely interested in watching where a song went and then chasing it.”
The concept worked and the disc put them at the top of the UK charts again, plus landed them at 12 on the US charts. “Bad,” “4th of July,” and “A Sort of Homecoming” are awesome, but the standout remains “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
Five years since the release of “Boy,” U2 was selling millions of records, filling huge venues, and landed on the cover of Rolling Stone as their choice for “Band of the ‘80s.”
Yet, we could say the best had not even happened yet.
Their next album not only went to number one on the UK charts like the past records, it put them at number one in the US for the first time. “The Joshua Tree” firmly planted U2 as international superstars.
Bolstered by the number-one tracks “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the album also included “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” U2 went a bit harder with their sound and it paid off. “The Joshua Tree” earned them Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and put them on the cover of Time magazine as “Rock’s Hottest Ticket” (a cover slot had only been given to The Beatles, The Band and The Who in the past).
“The Joshua Tree” ended up on pretty much every respected “best of” album list (even today). They set off on a stadium tour in support of the disc and made a documentary/double album about it, “Rattle and Hum.” Having just watched it, I am trying to understand why it received criticism for the “egotistic” band trying to “rip off” American music when it came out.
The band has agreed with the backlash. In 1992, Mullen told Rolling Stone, “We were the biggest, but we weren’t the best. That was an awful thing to feel — to go onstage in front of 17,000 people and go, ‘Whoopee!’ when we were feeling like shit, that it wasn’t as good as it should be, that we really hadn’t done our homework.” He continued, “Plus we were so stupid that we actually decided to put it on film. Only an Irish band could do something like that.” Regardless, it has amazing live performances that show even 30 years ago, U2 can do live extremely well. The album did go number one worldwide when it came out and introduced us to “Desire.”
While having the highest highs with their tour and album successes, yet experiencing their first big dose of criticism, the band was having doubts about themselves and took an extended hiatus when they wrapped the 1989 Lovetown tour. Bono famously stated, “We have to go away, and just dream it all up again” and the band went away to “refresh and reinvent” themselves.
Despite their hectic schedule, they found time to work on a song for a benefit compilation CD titled Red, Hot + Blue. The CD featured U2’s Cole Porter cover of “Night and Day” which gave us a sign of things to come for U2.
After a short break, U2 was back in the studio. Eno and Lanois returned as producers and U2 headed to Berlin where the world was changing and the wall was coming down. The band had turmoil in their lives as well with Edge’s separation from his wife. While Bono writes the majority of the lyrics, The Edge stated his own life offered inspiration for the album.
“Achtung Baby” was labeled as their heaviest record by Bono, even stating “There is a lot of blood and guts on that record.” It was not without drama. Several demos were stolen and bootlegged and the guys argued over the musical direction, even a possible break up. That changed when they improvised “One.”
“One” brought them together and enabled them to finish the disc. “Achtung Baby” was released in 1991 and showed an ironic and flippant tone compared to their past work, plus more dance and electronic music.
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle“
The CD opens with “Zoo Station,” as if to say “this is not your mom’s U2 album.” Just like the past black and white album covers, the colorful cover for “Achtung Baby” showed a new U2, and we got to meet Bono’s new personality, “The Fly.” “One” and “Zoo Station” were not the only hits on “Achtung Baby;” “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “The Fly,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World”… hit after hit. Another album for the “best of” lists and more Grammy awards.
The band kicked off the Zoo TV Tour to support the record and they subscribed to the “go big or go home” concept. An elaborate stage with multimedia, cars, phones, and televisions spoke of pop culture and our fascination with “all the things.” The sensory overload tour became the highest grossing tour of the year and “reintroduced” us to U2.
In the midst of the Zoo TV Tour, U2 found time to record songs for their next album, “Zooropa.” The dance and techno sound was still there, but it did not excel as well as “Achtung Baby.” It did however give us “Numb,” “Lemon,” and “Stay (Faraway So Close),” plus picked up another Grammy for the band. Upon completion of the Zoo TV Tour, the band took another extended break, but not before signing a major new record deal that would make them the highest-paid rock group ever.
During this longer break, they did contribute “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” for 1995’s “Batman Forever” movie. I could even say this was the only good part of that movie. Well, the whole soundtrack is pretty awesome…
U2 returned in 1997 with “Pop” and gave us another over-the-top spectacle tour, the PopMart tour. They learned a valuable lesson – do not tour while you are still recording the album you are promoting. Diving in further to dance music and nightclub culture, “Pop” was a bit of a disappointment to the band. I will admit to struggling to remember a song off it besides “Discotheque.” But hey, the PopMart tour was damn impressive. With the inspiration of consumerism, the stage had what was at the time the largest LED video screen, plus that damn lemon. Despite the flaws and lack of sell outs at certain venues, the tour grossed more than $171 million.
The band wrapped up the ‘90s with an appearance on “The Simpsons” and their first best of compilation, “The Best of 1980-1990,” which included a rerecording of “The Sweetest Thing.”
The 2000s did bring U2 back to commercial success, including right off the bat when they delivered “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Once again working with Eno and Lanois, they returned to their rock roots and did not stick to a deadline, making the process more enjoyable and less stressful. It worked. “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” debuted at number one in 32 countries and Rolling Stone called it their “third masterpiece” (with “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” being the other two).
The lead single, “Beautiful Day” was a monster hit and made U2 cool again.
Huge sales followed and we got “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Walk On” and “Elevation.” They added four Grammys to their collection and in a cool twist, won the Grammy for Record of the Year two years in a row, even though the songs (“Beautiful Day” and “Walk On”) were from the same album.
Their Elevation tour began in early 2001 and while scaled down compared to previous tours, it featured a heart-shaped stage that allowed the band to connect with more audience members. The tour kept them on the move for the entire year, but then our world was shaken on September 11, 2001. U2 was able to perform at Madison Square Gardens in New York for three emotional nights in October 2001 and have stated it was deeply emotional for them. They also paid tribute to those who lost their lives during their moving Super Bowl performance in 2002. The tour was able to resume and the global total for the Elevation Tour: $143 million, making it the highest grossing tour of the year. They were loved by the media again and Spin declared them “Band of the Year.”
A second compilation album, “The Best of 1990-2000,” was released and the band decided to go harder rock on their next release, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” They began with one producer, but found the album did not have the magic they desired, so they called in Lillywhite again. They made it happen and the album went number one in multiple countries. It was also a time where our lives were changed by a little device called the iPod. “Vertigo” was used by Apple to advertise the new music gadget and we will always remember the silhouettes with white wires, won’t we?
“How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” allowed the band to continue adding to their Grammy trophy collection (NINE nominations and NINE wins!) with help from “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” and “City of Blinding Lights.” Once again, on a bunch of those “best of” lists. Does that get old, I wonder?
It can’t be a U2 album without a kickass tour though, so the Vertigo tour included multiple screens and projections and was filmed in 3D to make “U2 3D” – the world’s first live-action digital 3D film. The tour resulted in sold out arenas and stadiums and was the highest-grossing tour that year, plus at $389 million, the second highest-grossing tour ever at that time. While breaking records, they also stopped in Louisiana to play with Green Day at the Superdome for the first NFL game post-Hurricane Katrina.
In 2005, U2 was in their first year of eligibility for induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And so they were. No waiting for a few years like most artists. Nope, boom, they are in and inducted by none other than Bruce Springsteen.
After a four-year gap, U2 released their 12th album, “No Line on the Horizon.” They began with legendary producer Rick Rubin, but went back to the team of Eno and Lanois. It debuted at number one in multiple countries (again) and sold millions (again), but was considered a flop by U2 standards. I mean, can you get higher than an A+ on a test? It did launch the U2 360° tour with a massive rotating stage – the largest ever constructed – which allowed stadiums to increase attendance and break records. Once again, highest grossing tour of the year and remains in the top five of all time. The tour ended up running for three years due to Bono being injured while preparing for the North American portion of the tour.
In mid-2010, he needed emergency spine surgery due to a herniated disc, ligament tear, compression of sciatic nerve, and partial paralysis of his lower leg. But because he is Bono, he was back in the studio less than two months later and the tour resumed in February 2011.
There were some side projects and an “almost” album, but we did not get another U2 studio album until 2014’s “Songs of Innocence.” Does that name sound familiar? It’s because we all woke up one morning with it in our iTunes and lost our collective shit over it. For some reason, 500 million people got the new U2 album for free and it made us mad. What’s wrong with us?! Bono described the album as “very personal” and it reflected on their youth and growing up in Ireland.
In keeping with the Apple connection, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” was used in a TV ad as part of a mega deal between the company and band. The band’s promotion of the album was interrupted by another Bono medical situation. A nasty spill from a bicycle (“There is nothing cool about coming off a push bike. This is not a Harley-Davidson. There’s nothing cool. There’s Lycra involved.” –Bono on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon) resulted in a broken arm, fractured eye socket, hand and shoulder blade.
After the accident, which gave him a titanium elbow, Bono said he did not think he would ever play guitar again. He did an amazing recreation of this accident for Fallon:
“Songs of Innocence” gave us a look at the band’s youth, and then they gave us its adult companion, “Songs of Experience.” Planned as Bono’s “letters” written to people and places close to his heart, in 2016, the world was changed by Brexit and Trump and the album changed a bit. The “autobiographical narrative” of passing from innocence into experience was made into a massive event.
The multimedia tour put the stage across the length of the venues and a 96-foot-long double-sided screen which showed graphics of events in their youth, stories about song meanings, and honestly, just incredible visuals. Even if you are not a fan of U2 (which surely you must be to have stuck with me this long), it is definitely worth a look.
Before they released “Songs of Experience,” “The Joshua Tree” turned 30 and U2 celebrated with an anniversary tour. They performed the full album and brought along the world’s largest and highest resolution screen used in concert tour. The same world events that were changing “Songs of Experience” could be connected with events when “The Joshua Tree” was written. The Edge told Rolling Stone “So, anyway, we then were looking at the anniversary of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ and another thing started to dawn on us, which is that weirdly enough, things have kind of come full circle, if you want. That record was written in the mid-Eighties, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and U.S. politics. It was a period when there was a lot of unrest.”
He continued, “It feels like we’re right back there in a way. I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent. It just felt like, ‘Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn’t have three years ago, four years ago.’” I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but…it was the highest grossing tour of the year. They toured again in 2019 for “The Joshua Tree.”
But now, here we are in 2020 and the anniversary we celebrate the 20th of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” During lockdown, The Edge reflected on the disc with Rolling Stone: “Coming into ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind,’ it was very much on our minds that this was a new millennium. The title tells you everything. ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ … you could also parse it as only the things you can’t leave behind, only the things that were essential. After all the opinions of the day had drifted away, what would be left behind by this work? We realized it’s just the songs themselves.” The band has the aforementioned sets available and perhaps we will see them on the road for reflection in person….
As we’ve all been stuck this year, U2 has found things to do. Bono and Edge were working on new music together before the quarantine, but did separate for the lockdown. The band has been on Zoom together, but Edge told BBC it was challenging. He did reunite with Bono in July to perform an acoustic version of “Stairway to Heaven” on their social media to send some humor to their road crew. Bono also shared a new song, “Let Your Love Be Known,” as a tribute to Italians fighting the virus. But this is U2. They know songs and videos of encouragement are wonderful, but money makes things happen. They have donated several millions of dollars to organizations for COVID relief. They donated $10 million to one group in Ireland. TEN MILLION. Even more millions to other groups for PPE and music industry assistance, handwritten lyrics for auctions, and more money individually. They are some good guys.
Whether it be the 150-170 million records they’ve sold, the 22 Grammys they’ve won, the billions in concert tickets they’ve sold, or the work they have done to end poverty, disease, social injustice, war, and more, U2 is a legendary band whose impact will last for generations to come. Relive your past with them and celebrate 20 years of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” with a deluxe edition and check out their track by track rundown on Twitter account.