Four teens at a Dublin high school, fans of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, wanted to play music themselves. In 1976, these boys – Paul Hewson, David Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. – along with a few others, started playing together. By 1978, their number was down to four and they had the name U2. Soon they would dominate the airwaves as the biggest musical phenomenon from Ireland since jigs and reels.
Hewson had been nicknamed Bono Vox by fellow members of a gang called Lypton Village, who then shortened it to Bono. Between his big voice and strong personality, he quickly dominated the band. The Lypton Village kids also gave Evans his nickname, The Edge; he played lead guitar and keyboards. Somehow Clayton, on bass, and Mullen, the drummer, escaped being saddled with a special moniker.
The year 1978 was crucial to U2’s foundations. Although they’d started as a cover band, the boys quickly realized that their strength was in creating original material, so they concentrated on songwriting. They met Paul McGuinness, who became their manager, staying in that role for 25 years. He used his connections to let them record and release an EP, which landed them on the charts for the first time.
This was all happening in Ireland, but the rest of the world was about to find out about U2. A representative from Island Records heard the band in 1980 and signed them. Attached to their first album was a young producer named Steve Lillywhite, who would go on to work with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Simple Minds, and many other huge new wave bands.
U2’s members didn’t have to write much material for their debut album, Boy (1980), since they’d already been churning out songs for a few years. Boy gained surprising traction in the US, helped by the Top 40 single “I Will Follow” and a tour that showed off Bono’s charisma. An excellent introduction to the early U2 sound is the opening of Side B, “Stories for Boys”; the Edge’s jangling guitar sound and Mullen’s exuberant drumming seem to catch and magnify Bono’s energy.
A stolen briefcase of song lyrics made the second album, October (1981), more of a scramble than it should have been. The replacement contents were written on the fly, with Lillywhite once again at the producer’s desk. Although no singles fired up public interest, the song “Gloria” was the first U2 number to have a video on MTV.
October was made during a period of deep spiritual contemplation, particularly for Bono and the Edge, who mulled the conflict between their Christian beliefs and the rock star lifestyle they aspired to. That discontentment and searching found its way into their lyrics, as you can hear in “Rejoice,” which also demonstrates the impressive development of the Edge’s guitar technique.
With War (1983), U2 introduced an aspect to their music that has remained ever since: an outspoken sociopolitical voice. The most obvious example is “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” dealing with the troubles in Northern Ireland. This new opinionated songwriting only helped sales, with War briefly outselling Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the UK and performing much better than their previous releases in the US.
With the goal of experimenting with a less rock-oriented style, the band hired Brian Eno to produce their next album, The Unforgettable Fire (1984); they were interested in his ambient manipulation of sound. From this experiment came one of their biggest hits, “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Perhaps the clearest demonstration of Eno’s contribution can be heard in the multidimensional soundscape of “A Sort of Homecoming.”
Eno stuck with the band, producing a much different album in The Joshua Tree (1987), which leans more toward the rock, and even folk, side of things. As the album title suggests, the overall concept was to express the expanses, both geographical and spiritual, of America. It was a massive success, selling well globally and winning two Grammy Awards. Rattle and Hum, which followed the next year, was part studio album and part live, selling nearly as well. Rattle and Hum was produced by Jimmy Iovine, but Eno returned for the last of the band’s peak-performing albums, Achtung Baby, in 1991. That brought in another Grammy and the hit singles “One” and “Mysterious Ways.”
With an assist from Eno, the band brought in the producer known as Flood to give an electronic dance sound to Zooropa (1993). Another Grammy but no big singles this time. But the imagination at work on this album makes it worth a listen. Guest producer Robbie Adams created an interesting electronic world for “Dirty Day,” with Bono using his falsetto against a constant metallic tonic pitch.
The fascination with electronics continued through Pop (1997) and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000). But for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) they brought back Lillywhite, although Eno, Flood, and others still had a hand in the operation. Under Lillywhite, the flavor trended more toward classic rock and roll. Bono said in one interview that he considered it “our first rock album.” It won an astonishing nine Grammys.
Things were slowing down for the band as the members became involved with other projects. It was another four years before No Line on the Horizon was released. Partly because of that album’s commercial failure, Songs of Innocence did not come out until 2014, the longest U2 had ever waited between albums. They were trying to figure out what, if anything, they should do next. Innocence was produced primarily by Danger Mouse, with help from other industry giants like Paul Epworth, known for his work with Adele, Rhiannon, and others.
Innocence is perhaps most important historically for its unprecedented marketing campaign. Apple released the digital version for free to all iTunes users (this was before Apple Music took over from iTunes) for six weeks before the physical media became available. The experiment did not go over well: The auto-loading of the album onto millions of mobile devices was described by Chris Richards of the Washington Post as “rock and roll dystopian junk mail.”
While there are a couple of songs that hint at the preservation of innocence, the borrowing of this title from poet William Blake allowed for easy expansion into a second release. Sure enough,
Songs of Experience followed in 2017. This time the main producers were Ryan Tedder (who also worked on Innocence) and Jacknife Lee, a longtime collaborator with U2. Some of the material originated in the Innocence sessions.
The top-performing single was Bono’s love song to his wife, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” while the single “Get Out of Your Own Way,” featuring rapper Kendrick Lamar (a year before he won the Pulitzer Prize), was performed at the 2018 Grammy Awards. The band was at its hard-hitting best for both these albums, as evidenced by the funk/punk core of “The Blackout.”
There have been no new studio albums since 2017, but U2 is still active. Most recently, you can hear a new song by them on the soundtrack of the animated movie Sing 2. Meanwhile, Bono was chosen in 2020 as a spokesperson for Irish culture in his nation’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, which they won. It’s impossible to overstate U2’s importance as a representative of Ireland on the global cultural scene.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Remy.