I originally wrote this write up for CityFM 89 Face The Music competition last month. Though I did not win the competition, my article was among the top 3 submissions, as I was later on informed.
I thought it was just appropriate to upload this on the day of Bono’s 51st birthday and a day before they start of what will be the last leg of U2-360 Tour, the biggest rock tour ever, in Mexico.
Rock’s Hottest Ticket
By Abid Hussain
The year is 1976. The scene is set at Mount Temple High School, Dublin. A precocious young lad of 14 posts a note on his school’s notice board, asking budding musicians to collaborate for a band. Little does he realize, posting that note will change the face of music forever.
What sounds like a typical, ordinary story, resulted in the creation of inarguably world’s most successful band, both critically and commercially. This is a fascinating tale of how four young men believed, evolved and ultimately elevated themselves to the pinnacle of success, and even 35 years later, show no signs of stopping anytime soon.
When 14-year-old Larry Mullen Jr. posted that note, he had hoped to lead what he would call the ‘Larry Mullen Band’ to stardom. However, with six people auditioning to be part of the band, they decided to name the band ‘Feedback’. Originally consisting of Larry Mullen, Paul Hewson, David Evans, his brother Dik Evans, Adam Clayton, and Mullen’s friends Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin, the band soon lost McCormick and Martin. The remaining five renamed themselves as ‘The Hype’ and started out on their musical journey.
Fate struck again when just two years later, Dik Evans left the band and those left behind made the final name change – finally, ‘U2’was born. After a few initial shows, U2 gained a steady following among the Dublin music scene as the most charismatic live performers – most notably due to their effervescent lead singer Paul Hewson, who often pulled wild stunts while performing.
Admittedly short on skill but big on captivating the audience, U2 was rewarded with a deal in 1979 to launch ‘U2-3’, their debut three-track EP. Inspired by the popularity of the punk genre and the general wave of rebellious rage that was surging through the British Isles, the band’s music was heavily inspired by The Clash, Sex Pistols and Joy Division, among others. By this time, Hewson had earned himself the moniker ‘Bono’ – inspired by the Latin phrase ‘Bonavox’, literally meaning ‘good voice’ – and Dave Evans’ sharp facial features made him The Edge.
Regular performances catapulted the band’s fledgling reputation to the more mainstream London music scene, which resulted in the band being signed by Island Records, followed closely by the release of U2’s first album, ‘Boy’. With lead single and video ‘I Will Follow’ receiving constant airtime, U2 continued performing live and their fan following grew. The album also received positive reviews and was considered among the most successful albums of that year.
The commercial success of ‘Boy’ led U2 on their first ever multi-city tour of America where they earned much appreciation for their unique music style and passionate live performances. It was during this period that the band also began recording material for their second album, ’October’. The album, released in 1981, saw U2’s musical focus deviating towards faith, spirituality and rebellion. Gloria, Tomorrow, Rejoice were some of the songs which were highly religious in nature and affirmed the growing trend of overt Christianity among the band members.
Following this, Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. joined a religious group and contemplated disbanding. However, after a long intense debate, the band felt they could carry on pursuing music while retaining their religious beliefs.
1983 saw the release of U2’s first internationally acclaimed album, War. Moving on from their usual themes of youth, spirituality and adolescence, U2’s third album took on a harsher, more politically charged sound. The first track off the album, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was about an incident in Northern Ireland where innocent people were mercilessly shot by the British Police.
This album showcased the band’s growing maturity and ability to highlight issues in order to create awareness or raise a voice against them. The album’s overall composition was aggressive with a remarkable drum beat accompanying the booming bass line.
Post-release, the band set out on an ambitious ‘War Tour’ which included one of U2’s most celebrated concerts ever at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. This live performance was later also released on DVD with the title ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’.
After the culmination of the War Tour, U2 went back to the studio with the intent to bring about yet another change in their artistic endeavours. Ever evolving, the boys from Dublin chose to completely revamp their musical structure, and this time opted to create music which was more atmospheric in nature, with a more spatial, anthemic and melodic song structure. With a brand new team of producers, the recording began in early 1984 and the album, ‘Unforgettable Fire’ was released in October later in the same year.
If War nudged U2 onto the threshold of stardom, Unforgettable Fire throttled the foursome into the full limelight, having churned out some of their finest work. This was the beginning of the golden era of U2, when they delivered some of the most seminal work in their career. With songs like Pride (In the Name of Love) – a tribute to Martin Luther King – and Bad – dealing with drug addiction – U2 sped up the ladder of success and were slated to perform at the Live Aid charity concert in London. This phenomenal performance absolutely skyrocketed U2’s reputation and kick-started the Unforgettable Fire tour. But amidst this newfound fame and fortune, new ideas for the next album were already brewing.
- I Still Havent’s Found what I am Looking For
When the band entered the studio in 1986, they had a plethora of ideas to work with for their next offering. Over the next few months working with same team of producers at Windmill Lane Studios saw the emergence of what is easily The Magnum Opus of U2’s career. The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987, delivering the most powerful 1-2-3 punch with just its opening three singles.
The album earned U2 the label of ‘Rock’s Hottest Ticket’ and is widely considered to be among the greatest rock albums of all time. With music that is at once atmospheric, and yet retains a distinct American flavor, The Joshua Tree’s success surpassed anything U2 had previously accomplished. With a sellout tour across the globe, U2 were truly the superstars of rock and roll.
The following year, U2 released their 6th studio album, ‘Rattle and Hum’, accompanied by a movie with the same name. The album, despite being a commercial success, was critically panned. Dubbed as pretentious and self-righteous, it could not build on the success of The Joshua Tree, despite the presence of some all-time great songs such as All I Want is You, Desire and others. As the band wound down its Love Town tour in 1989, its next destination remained unknown as Bono promised, “we have to go away and … and dream it all up again.”
- Even Better Than The Real Thing
Upon entering the 90s riding on the wave of grunge music and synthesized sound, the band assembled in Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall. This was also the rockiest period of U2’s career as the band members were uncertain about which direction to choose. However, as they started writing and composing at the Hansa Studio amidst great pressure, the four men found their miracle drug in the form of a song called One, touted by many as their greatest track of all time.
Achtung Baby! was released in 1991 and its composition consisted of processed sound and synthesizers, a previously unknown territory for the band. Often competing with JT as U2’s best album, AB had some of the band’s finest work, dealing with human characteristics and failings such as lust, jealousy and despondency with songs like So Cruel, Until the End of the World, etc.
The 90s were rounded out by two more album releases, Zooropa (1993) and POP (1997). This decade saw U2 shifting towards processed music more than ever before while reinventing their live shows. The Zoo Tv Tour as well as POP Mart tour were concerts on a massive scale, creating a spectacle in large stadiums with state-of-the-art technology.
Zooropa provided the band with critical acclaim, as songs like Lemon and Numb received constant airplay but POP was deemed as an experiment gone wrong, despite the presence of tracks like Do You Feel Loved, Please and If God Will Send his Angels.
After a three-year hiatus, the band released its first album of the noughties, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ in the year 2000, claiming to have returned to its roots. With its stripped down sonic structure, sans effects, the album provided U2’s modern-day classics, Beautiful Day and Walk On. The release of ATYCLB was followed by another series of successful tours, culminating with U2 acquiring the heady designation as ‘The World’s Biggest Band’.
Four years later, U2 continued in the same musical tradition to release ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’, declaring it as one of their best. However, despite commercial success, the critical response was lukewarm, suggesting the band chose to play it safe instead of venturing further in their musical journey. Vertigo, Miracle Drug and City of Blinding Lights were the highlights of the album.
U2’s latest album is their most diverse work since the release of Zooropa. Commercially, the album received moderate success but critically, U2 explored new horizons with their songwriting and have composed their finest work in years. Magnificent, Moment of Surrender, Unknown Caller are among the gems from this album.
The album was followed by the 360° tour which has to date covered over 30 countries and is the highest-grossing tour of all time
After a journey of 35 years and still counting, the band has left an indelible mark on the music scene as a whole, as well as followers and critics alike. With a vast repertoire of some of the finest songs ever, U2 has won more than 80 awards worldwide, including 22 Grammys, the most prestigious honour offered by the music industry. Aside from music, Bono and The Edge have also been involved in various charity activities. Bono, known for his social activism especially in and for Africa, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times.
However, the journey hasn’t ended yet as plans are underway for the band to return to the studio and complete work on their new album, potentially titled ‘Songs of Ascent’. With working titles such as Mercy, North Star, Every Breaking Wave being performed at the 360° Tour, the new album has raised expectations among the critics and fans keenly looking ahead towards the release of the 13th album.
Despite some commercial duds and a lack of adventurism in some of their recent offerings, the success of the 360° tour shows that U2 still retains the magic to enchant its followers and weave a mesmerizing web of music with its unique brand of soulful compositions.
Alternative playlist, in order of release.
The Electric Co.
Running to Standstill
All I Want Is You
Do You Feel Loved
When I Look At The World
City of Blinding Lights
I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight