U2

 U2

 Bono – circa 2004

 “If you twist and turn away / If you tear yourself in two again” – ’Bad’ (U2)

“That day changed my life,” says Bono, the lead vocalist of Irish rock group U2.  He is talking about 13 July 1985 when U2 is one of the acts performing at Live Aid, an all-star extravaganza charity concert to raise funds in order to combat famine in Africa.  Stepping on the stage at Wembley Stadium in London, England, Bono tells the crowd, “We’re an Irish band.  We come from Dublin City, Ireland.  Like all cities it has its good; it has its bad.”  The group then launches into their song titled ‘Bad’.  The performance is unusual for a few reasons.  Firstly, Bono begins singing not the lyrics to ‘Bad’, but to American singer Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite Of Love’ before starting ‘Bad’ a few bars later.  He ends the song quoting Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ – after similarly quoting lyrics from ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, songs by British rock titans The Rolling Stones.  More memorable is Bono dropping the microphone at the instrumental break, jumping the barricade, and walking out on the apron of the stage to interact with the crowd.  A couple of young girls are handed up to him, but Bono pulls another young woman out of the crowd.  She hugs him and he slow dances with her.  Meantime, the rest of U2 vamps for time, extending the song by five minutes.  U2 guitarist The Edge remarks, “We were really depressed [about the performance].  Bono…felt it had been kind of clumsy and that generally the whole thing hadn’t lifted up.”  After pausing to dance with the two younger girls handed up earlier, the errant singer clambers back on stage and concludes the song.  “Thank you!  God bless you!” he yells before sauntering off, the band still playing.  U2’s set is seen as ‘a show stealing performance’ on a day when there was no shortage of big name stars on stage.

Bono is born Paul David Hewson on 10 May 1960 at Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, Ireland.  His parents are Brendan Robert ‘Bob’ Hewson and Iris Hewson (nee Rankin).  The couple already have one son, Norman, who is eight years older than the new arrival.  Norman is raised as an Anglican, but Paul is raised as a Catholic.  “I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays…and my father used to wait outside,” Bono reminisces.  “My earliest memory of waking up with a melody in my head was, you know, 8, 9, 10.  I’ve always heard kind of melodies in my head.”  Paul Hewson attends Glasnevin National School.  On 10 September 1974, Paul’s mother, Iris Hewson, dies from a cerebral aneurysm while attending her father’s funeral.  The lad attends Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Clontarf.  This is ‘a progressive, non-sectarian alternative to the conservative Catholic schools most Irish children attend.’  At Mount Temple, Paul Hewson meets Alison Stewart, his ‘childhood sweetheart’, in 1975.  Paul ‘fights constantly’ with his father.  He will describe Bob Hewson as ‘a working-class Dublin guy who listened to the opera and conducted the stereo with my mother’s knitting needles – he just loved opera.”  The bickering between father and son may have been the start of something better.  “Overcoming my Dad telling me that I could never do anything is what made me the megalomaniac you see today,” Bono later says, half in jest.  At first, Paul Hewson channels his excess energy into becoming a school boy chess champion.  Then, on a fateful day in 1976, he sees a note pinned to the bulletin board at his high school seeking musicians for a band.  The lads who respond to the notice will become U2.

The Edge is born David Howell Evans on 8 August 1961 at Barking Maternity Hospital in Essex, England.  His parents, Garvin and Glenda Evans, come from Llanelli, Wales.  David is the middle child in the family.  He has an older brother, Richard (‘Dick’) and a younger sister, Gillian.  Garvin Evans is an engineer working for the Electricity Board.  The family lives in Caldwell Heath until around 1962.  When Garvin Evans is offered a promotion if he transfers to Dublin, Ireland, the family relocates with him.  David is 1 year old.  The boy goes on to attend St Andrew’s National School.  He takes piano and guitar lessons at school.  The other children tease him a bit because of his accent which clearly betrays his non-Irish origins.  Dave Evans goes on to Mount Temple Comprehensive School.  It is there he meets his girlfriend, Aislinn O’Sullivan.  Both Dave Evans and his brother, Dick, answer the same bulletin board announcement that catches Bono’s eye.

Adam Charles Clayton is born 13 March 1960 in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, England.  His parents are Brian and Jo Clayton.  Adam has two siblings, Sarah and Sebastian.  Brian Clayton is in the Royal Air Force but becomes a civilian aviation airline pilot.  Jo Clayton is a stewardess.  The family lives in Nairobi, Kenya, for a short time when Adam is 4.  They move to Malahide in County Dublin in 1965.  Adam’s younger brother, Sebastian, is actually born in Ireland.  Adam Clayton is sent to a boarding school but is expelled.  He then goes to Mount Temple Comprehensive School because it is a progressive school and non-denominational.  Adam’s mother, Jo Clayton, becomes friends with Glenda Evans (The Edge’s mother) and, through the two women, the families socialise.  Adam meets Paul Hewson (Bono) at school.  Like Bono and The Edge, Adam Clayton is intrigued by the notice on the school bulletin board seeking kids to form a band.

Larry Mullen, Jr. is born Laurence Joseph Mullen, Junior, on 31 October 1961 in Artane, Dublin, Ireland.  His parents are Laurence Mullen, Senior, and Maureen Mullen (nee Gaffney).  Laurence Mullen is a civil servant and Maureen Mullen is a homemaker.  Larry has an older sister, Cecilia (born 1957), and a younger sister, Mary (born 1964).  Sadly, Mary dies in childhood in 1973.  Larry attends a school of music in Chatham Row.  He plays piano at age 8, but switches to drums when he is 9.  Larry studies with Joe Bonnie, a famous Irish drummer.  In 1976, Larry Mullen, Jr. starts at Mount Temple Comprehensive School.  In that year he meets Ann Acheson who becomes his long-term girlfriend.  It is also in 1976 that Larry has the idea of forming a band and so puts a notice on the school bulletin board seeking like-minded youths.

In 1976, Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Dick Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. get together to form a band.  Larry recounts that the group is called, “The Larry Mullen Band for about ten minutes, then Bono walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge.”  Paul Hewson (Bono) really ‘hopes to play guitar, [but] is deemed unacceptable even by the others’ fledgling standards’, so he becomes the vocalist.  The group takes the name Feedback.  The teens have rich imaginary lives and create a fictitious hometown for the group, Lypton Village, from which they critique everyday life in Dublin.  In the same spirit, new names are adopted by some of the boys.  Paul Hewson becomes Bono Vox, after a hearing-aid retailer.  Bono Vox is Latin for ‘good voice.’  Over time, the singer abbreviates his stagename to simply, Bono.  “The only person who ever called me Paul was my father, so I always associate it with doing something wrong, you know,” Bono says.  “People will come up to me…and call me Paul.  I don’t like it, actually.”  The guitarist is dubbed ‘Dave Edge’ by Bono ‘because he is on the edge of things, assessing what is going on, and partly because of the shape of his head, which has a straight edge.’  Over time, Dave Edge becomes The Edge.  (Larry Mullen does not become known officially as Larry Mullen, Jr. until U2 become a little more famous – around 1983 – when his father starts getting bills associated with U2.)  Adam Clayton takes on the role of being the band’s manager as well as playing in the group.

Feedback begins playing gigs with a repertoire drawn from the works of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and Peter Frampton.  Bono concludes his formal education when he is 16.  Feedback changes their name to The Hype.  Dick Evans, The Edge’s brother, quits the group in March 1978.  At this point, the band changes its name to U2, ‘with the implication that every fan could join as well’ (i.e. ‘you too’).  “I don’t like the name U2, actually,” Bono will later admit.  The line-up of U2 is: Bono (vocals, occasional guitar), The Edge (guitar, keyboards), Adam Clayton (bass) and Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums).

Shortly before Larry Mullen, Jr.’s 17th birthday, his mother, Maureen Mullen, dies in a car accident.  “She passed away in 1978,” he says.  “Every Irish son is closest to his mother.  She thought I’d make a priest one day.  She’d be very disappointed [in my choice of career]…When I joined the band, it was like running away to the circus.”

U2 win a talent contest sponsored by Guinness brewery and held in Limerick in 1978.  The rest of the boys (apart from Bono who left school at 16) wrap up their education.  Adam Clayton passes over the role of manager to Paul McGuinness, ‘who has worked in the Irish film industry and dabbled in the music business.’  The Edge promises his parents that if U2 hasn’t become a success in a year, he will start a natural-sciences course.  Larry Mullen, Jr. does some work as a messenger for a company.  U2 make a deal with CBS Records and prepare to enter the recording studio.

The music of U2 is characterised in broad strokes as pop or rock, with some allegiance to alternative rock and post punk.  The list of the band’s influences supports these designations.  Mainly, they pick up on the biggest acts in rock history: Elvis Presley (Larry Mullen, Jr. is ‘a huge Elvis Presley fan’ and Bono says, “Elvis’ music has been my greatest inspiration”); The Beatles; The Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan; and The Who.  U2 is a band that aspires to populism.  “If you pour your life into songs, you want them to be heard,” asserts Bono.  “We were never shy about wanting to appeal to a wide audience,” agrees The Edge.  “From the very beginning that was the way we felt about it.”  At the ‘very beginning’, U2 is seen as a post-punk band.  Moving on from punk acts such as The Clash (“We were like the b*****d children of The Clash who actually believed that music could change the world,” claims Bono), they are at first lumped in with Joy Division, Magazine, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo And The Bunnymen.  It’s accurate enough, but U2’s ambitions are greater.

U2 take their music very seriously.  “Even people who loathe us and can’t stand the sound we make, they know that we see music as a sacrament, something sacred,” Bono testifies.  This ties-in with another aspect of the band: with the exception of Adam Clayton, all the members of U2 strongly identify themselves as Christians.  For the most part, their religious beliefs are present as a subtext in their songs. U2 rarely preaches at their audience, preferring to inspire by example.  “Great music is written by people who are either running toward or away from God,” observes Bono.

U2’s songs are almost always credited to the band as songwriters.  Their works are often built up around The Edge’s guitar lines with Bono improvising poetry to accompany the sound.  “U2 is sort of songwriting by accident really,” says Bono.  Having acknowledged the role of the group as an entity, it is also a barely disguised fact that Bono and The Edge are the main songwriters.  “Everyone argues, then we do what I say,” admits Bono.  “I am, as a character, at times, a little overbearing.  I recognise that…Look, I’m sick of Bono and I am Bono.”  The Edge is a remarkable guitarist.  He takes a professorial attitude to his work, exploiting technology and effects.  “Edge is much more Zen, much more monkish, much more ethereal,” says Bono of his regular conspirator.

The first U2 recording released is the three-song EP wittily titled ‘U2:3’. It is issued by CBS in September 1979.  The trio of songs on this disc are ‘Out Of Control’, ‘Stories For Boys’ and ‘Boy-Girl’.  The first two will be rerecorded for U2’s debut album.  ‘U2:3’ is released only in Ireland.  After this, U2 play their first gigs in England.

U2 releases two one-off singles in 1980.  ‘Another Day’ is their last for CBS.  ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ is their first for Island Records.  It is produced by Martin Hannett and is issued in May 1980.

The debut album by U2, ‘Boy’ (1980) (UK no. 52, US no. 63, AUS no. 25), is released in October.  The cover is a close-up photograph of a male child – except in the U.S. where a photo of the band is substituted ‘because of fears of a homosexual interpretation.’  Martin Hannett was scheduled to produce the disc, but instead Steve Lillywhite acts as producer on this and U2’s next two albums.  ‘Boy’ is the kind of work a band can only create once – and that is at the start of their career.  U2 are neophytes and this is reflected in the album’s loose theme, the life of a young boy.  Specifically, Bono draws on the experiences of his own youth.  This includes the death of his mother when he was 14.  “A boy tries hard to be a man / His mother takes him by his hand / If he stops to think, he starts to cry, oh why / If you walk away, walk away, walk away / I will follow,” sings Bono in ‘I Will Follow’ (AUS no. 71), the album’s most notable song.  The Edge’s echoing, circular guitar work forms a sonic tunnel around the singer.  Some listeners think the song is about being so in love, you follow that person; some see it as a declaration of religious faith to be followed; but it’s simplest meaning is a child tagging along after his mother.  ‘Stories For Boys’ and ‘Out Of Control’ from the ‘U2:3’ EP are revisited here, and the latter is also purportedly inspired by the death of Bono’s mother.  ‘Boy’ is viewed as ‘a moving and inspired document of adolescence.’

‘October’ (1981) (UK no. 11, US no. 104, AUS no. 34) is the title of U2’s second album and it is released, fittingly, in October.  The songs on this album have a difficult birth.  After a show in Portland, Oregon, in the U.S.A., Bono loses the briefcase in which he was carrying the lyrics for these compositions.  With the recording sessions booked, the words are hastily recreated or improvised, lending the album a sketchy feel.  The album’s most impressive track is ‘Gloria’ (UK no. 55, AUS no. 32) – but it’s not about a girl.  “Gloria / In te domine / Exultate Gloria, Gloria / Oh Lord, loosen my lips,” petitions Bono.  The chorus is from the hymn ‘Gloria In Excelsis Dio’ and the Latin words mean, ‘Glory in you, Lord / Glory exalt [him].’  As with ‘I Will Follow’, it hardly matters if fans of a more secular background think it is just a love song to a girl.  The Edge contributes a masterful guitar solo to ‘Gloria’ that leads into a final verse where, through double-tracking, the band seems to expand into a cavalry charge by the heavenly host of angels.  It’s bracing stuff.  The bruised and brooding ‘Tomorrow’ is, again, a song about the death of Bono’s mother.  ‘Its dread of a dark figure waiting outside the singer’s house, is about the undertaker’s car coming to the Hewson home.’  ‘October’, the title track, is almost an instrumental with only thirty seconds of vocals.  It is built on The Edge’s crystalline piano notes.  As an album, ‘October’ has a stronger religious tone, perhaps more so than any other U2 album.

U2 comes close to breaking up after their second album due to a crisis of religious faith.  They are weighed down by doubts about whether being ‘rock stars’ is really an appropriate way to spend their lives.  Adam Clayton, as the least religious, is comparatively untroubled.  Bono and Larry Mullen, Jr. both reach some sort of personal agreement with God and soldier on.  ‘The Edge wavers and almost quits the band in 1982 to devote himself to the Lord’, but he too elects to remain part of U2.

In 1982 Bono marries his long-time girlfriend, Ali Stewart.  Bono and Ali go on to have four children.  They have two daughters – Jordan (born 10 May 1981) and Memphis (born 7 July 1991) – and two sons – Elijah (born 17 August 1999) and John (born 20 May 2001).  Note: Memphis goes on to become an actress using her middle name of Eve Hewson.

‘War’ (1983) (UK no. 1, US no. 12, AUS no. 9), released in February, is a breakthrough album for U2.  While ‘Boy’ and ‘October’ have their moments, they are the sound of a band searching for something; on ‘War’ they seem to have found it.  The cover is a picture of a pre-teen boy with a split lip.  It echoes the cover of the debut disc, but speaks of growth and pain.  ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is a song about ‘the troubles’ in the band’s native Ireland, the ‘massacre of civilians by the British in Northern Ireland.’  “Broken bottles under children’s feet / Bodies strewn across the dead end street / But I won’t heed the battle call,” asserts Bono in the lyrics to this song.  The bone-rattling martial music is all anger, nearly drowning out the wry comment towards the end: “The real battle just begun / To claim the victory Jesus won / On a Sunday, bloody Sunday.”  ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ leads to a kidnapping threat against U2 from the Irish Republican Army.  ‘New Year’s Day’ (UK no. 10, US no. 53, AUS no. 36) is almost the opposite of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.  This time, The Edge’s glacial keyboard notes evoke a pristine fresh beginning – but his helicoptering guitar sounds cut through.  Bono’s vocals carry a searing, almost unbearable, power.  Again there is a sting in the tail: “And so we are told this is the golden age / And gold is the reason for the wars we wage.”  ‘War’ manages to hit its targets repeatedly.  Other high quality efforts are: ‘The Refugee’ (‘a barn-burning rocker about a political victim dreaming of asylum in America’); the para-military bomb warning ‘Seconds’ (with The Edge on lead vocals); the passionate trilogy of ‘Two Hearts Beat As One’ (UK no. 18, US no. 101, AUS no. 53), ‘Red Light’ and ‘Surrender’; and the soothing balm of ‘40’.

On 12 July 1983 The Edge marries his girlfriend since secondary school, Aislinn O’Sullivan.  The couple go on to have three daughters: Hollie (born 1984), Arran (born 1985) and Blue Angel (born 1989).

A live album is U2’s next release.  ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ (1983) (UK no. 2, US no. 28, AUS no. 2) takes its name from a line in ‘New Year’s Day’, one of the tracks performed on the disc.  Because an accompanying video is filmed of U2 on stage at Colorado’s Red Rocks Ampitheater in the U.S., it is often thought the album is recorded there.  In truth, only two tracks come from that venue (‘Gloria’ and ‘Party Girl’); one is recorded in Boston, Massachusetts (’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’) and the bulk of the album (the other eight songs) are from a show at Sankt Goarshausen in Germany.

‘The Unforgettable Fire’ (1984) (UK no. 1, US no. 12, AUS no. 1) is named after paintings made by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts at the end of World War Two.  This album is co-produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.  It features U2’s all-time best song, ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ (UK no. 3, US no. 33, AUS no. 4).  This is a tribute to the African-American civil rights campaigner, the Reverend Martin Luther King.  In this big and bold anthemic number, Bono sings, “One man come in the name of love / One man come and go / One man come, he to justify / One man to overthrow / In the name of love / What more in the name of love.”  It also chronicles King’s assassination: “Early morning April 4 / Shot rings out in the Memphis sky / Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride.”  There is a historical inaccuracy here because King was killed at 6:01 p.m.  As an added bonus, ‘Pride’ closes with some backing vocals from ‘Mrs Christine Kerr’ (that’s Chrissie Hynde from new wave band The Pretenders who, at the time, was married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds).  ‘Pride’ is the definitive U2 song because it merges their most important elements: a big guitar noise from The Edge, Bono’s impassioned vocals, a social conscience (a song about a civil rights activist) and religious overtones (“One man betrayed with a kiss” seems to refer to Judas’ treatment of Jesus).  The hymn-like closer, ‘MLK’, is also about Martin Luther King.  ‘Bad’ is introduced in concerts as a song about heroin addiction, even though there is no mention of that drug in the words of the song.  ‘Promenade’ is ‘a description of the view from Bono and [his wife] Ali’s seaside home on a warm evening.’  The title track, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ (UK no. 6, AUS no. 59), is a showcase for The Edge’s grandiose keyboards.  ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ has a tramping, marching rhythm.  Although reverting to a more dreamlike tone, this album evinces ‘a new maturity.’

‘Wide Awake In America’ (UK no. 37, US no. 11) is an EP released in May 1985.  The title is inspired by ‘Bad’, one of the tracks on this disc, where Bono bellows, “I’m wide awake.”  ‘Bad’ and ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ are live recordings.  This EP pairs them with ‘The Three Sunrises’ and ‘Love Comes Tumbling’, two B sides of singles.

On 13 July 1985 U2 put on their triumphant set at the Live Aid charity concert.  In December 1985 Bono records ‘Silver And Gold’ with Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood for the album ‘Sun City’ (1985) (US no. 31) by Artists United Against Apartheid (‘apartheid’ is the name for the institutionalised racial discrimination practiced in South Africa at that time).  U2’s activism continues when they headline the Conspiracy of Hope tour for Amnesty International in 1986, raising awareness of people unjustly imprisoned for their beliefs in various countries around the world.

‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 3) is U2’s finest album.  While this set is produced again by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, in contrast to the gauzy ‘Unforgettable Fire’, these songs are tightly constructed and clearly defined.  There is a distinctly American flavour to the project from its absorption of the grass roots sounds of Americana to the twisted, prickly desert plant that gives the album its name, to The Edge’s cowboy hats (a vain attempt to disguise his thinning hair).  ‘With Or Without You’ (UK no. 4, US no. 1, AUS no. 9) shows Bono’s voice has deepened considerably.  Looking back over the earlier part of U2’s career, he will later remark, “I am sort of a macho, Irish guy and particularly in those 1980s songs, I think I sound like a girl.”  ‘With Or Without You’ is a throbbing, anguished howl about male-female relations: “My hands are tied / My body bruised, she’s got me with / Nothing left to win / And nothing else to lose.”  The questing ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (UK no. 6, US no. 1, AUS no. 17) is a generalised meditation on faith.  Both sides of the Christian belief system manifest in the lyrics: “I have held the hand of a devil / It was warm in the night” co-exists with ‘I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colours will bleed into one.”  ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ (UK no. 4, US no. 13, AUS no. 27) is breathtakingly cinematic.  ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ is a song in which ‘The Edge’s guitar conveys…the horror felt by Nicaraguan civilians as they huddle together during a U.S.-sponsored bombing raid.’  ‘Running To Stand Still’ deploys slide guitar to illustrate a downcast tale of drug addiction.  ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ is a trudging account of economic hardship.  ‘In God’s Country’ (UK no. 48, US no. 44) offers refreshment in the desert.  Bono blows harmonica on the wild-eyed ‘Trip Through Your Wires’.  ‘One Tree Hill’ is a shamanic song of mourning.  ‘The Joshua Tree’ is justifiably called ‘a masterpiece’ and turns U2 into the ‘biggest band in the world.’

When ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ is released as a single, the B side is ‘The Sweetest Thing’.  Bono writes the song as an apology to his wife, Ali, for forgetting her birthday.  Gifted with the royalties from the song, Ali Hewson donates them to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Russia that occurred on 26 April 1986.  ‘The Sweetest Thing’ will have another life later in U2’s career.

The problem with creating ‘a masterpiece’ like ‘The Joshua Tree’ is that it imposes a crushing weight of expectation for what comes next.  U2 try to get around the issue with ‘Rattle and Hum’ (1988), a black-and-white movie directed by Phil Joanou, that serves as a combination of documentary and concert film.  The accompanying double album, ‘Rattle And Hum’ (1988) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), is produced by Jimmy Iovine.  The title is taken from a line in one of the featured concert performances, ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ (“In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum / Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome”).  ‘Rattle And Hum’ presents live versions of some other songs (including ‘Silver And Gold’ from the ‘Sun City’ album).  Here, U2 audaciously cover the songs of rock greats (Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’, both from 1968) and then have Dylan himself sing backing vocals on ‘Love Rescue Me’ while ‘God Part II’ seems to be intended as a sequel to ‘God’, a track from ex-Beatle John Lennon’s album ‘Plastic Ono Band’ (1970)‘Rattle And Hum’ also contains some brand new songs including the following: ‘Desire’ (UK no. 1, US no. 3, AUS no. 1) is built on the kind of basic rock riff Bo Diddley introduced to rock’s D.N.A. in the 1950s.  ‘Angel Of Harlem’ (UK no. 9, US no. 14, AUS no. 18) is a tribute to the great jazz and blues singer Billie Holliday.  ‘When Love Comes To Town’ (UK no. 6, US no. 68, AUS no. 23) is a riotous and rough duet with blues great B.B. King.  ‘All I Want Is You’ (UK no. 4, US no. 83, AUS no. 2), the closing song, is aching, with a cosmic string section finale.  ‘Rattle And Hum’ is generally underrated.

‘Achtung Baby’ (1991) (UK no. 1, US no. 2, AUS no. 1) boldly reinvents U2 for the 1990s.  The Americanisms are ditched and the album takes on the ambience of Berlin, Germany, where it is primarily recorded.  The Edge trades in his cowboy hat for a head scarf, beanie, or his bald pate.  Bono begins to wear dark glasses at all times from this point.  However this is more than an affectation: “[I have] very sensitive eyes to light,” the singer explains.  Daniel Lanois is brought back to act as producer for this album.  “I remember saying to the band this should be the sound of four men chopping down ‘The Joshua Tree’,” claims Bono, trying to explain the new and brash noise.  The darkness on the record may come out of The Edge’s disintegrating marriage at the time; he separated from his wife in September 1990.  The title, ‘Achtung Baby’, is born from a line in the movie ‘The Producers’ (1967), a comedy send-up of musicals, which features the unlikely stage-show ‘Springtime for Hitler’: “The Fuehrer does not say baby!” (‘Achtung’ is the German word for ‘attention’).  ‘The Fly’ (UK no. 1, US no. 61, AUS no. 1) is built on The Edge’s remarkably corrosive and distorted guitar work.  His voice electronically altered, Bono advises in ‘The Fly’ that, “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest / It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.”  This subverts the band’s image as crusading do-gooders and commercially powerful recording artists.  Is ‘One’ (UK no. 7, US no. 10, AUS no. 4) sinister or romantic?  It’s both really; love is complicated.  “Have you come here for forgiveness / Have you come to raise the dead / Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head,” intones Bono in ‘One’.  With its seductive guitar line and tender chorus (“One love / One life”), ‘One’ is used at many weddings while U2 express ‘utter incomprehension that anyone would want to get married to this song’ with its often poisonous sentiments.  The undulating, funky groove of ‘Mysterious Ways’ (UK no. 13, US no. 1, AUS no. 3) takes some inspiration from William Cowper’s 1773 hymn ‘God Moves In Mysterious Ways’, but substitutes a woman for the Lord, also evoking the story of Salome and John the Baptist.  The startling opening track, ‘Zoo Station’, sets the scene for the album with its processed, metallic, invitation.  It is inspired by Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station which is ‘notorious as a haunt for drug-dealers, prostitutes and pimps, pick-pockets and transients.’  ‘Zoo Station’ is serviced by the U-Bahn line designated…U2.  ‘Until The End Of The World’ faces down Armageddon in what is reputedly the story of Jesus and Judas told from the point of view of Judas.  ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ (UK no. 12, US no. 32, AUS no. 11) is a sugary rush while ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ (UK no. 14, US no. 35, AUS no. 9) is softer, a taunting – yet loving – ode.  ‘Achtung Baby’ is ‘an impressive work’ that ‘eliminates many of the rules the band had built for themselves during their rise.’

To support ‘Achtung Baby’, U2 undertakes the Zoo TV tour, ‘an innovative blend of multi-media electronics, featuring a stage filled with televisions, suspended cars and cellular phone calls.’

Around this time, bass player Adam Clayton is ‘so nearly lost to addiction.’  He posed nude for one of the many small photos on the back cover of ‘Achtung Baby’ saying, “Men should not be forced to wear pants when it’s not cold.”  During Zoo TV he almost ‘loses his way.’  “When I was in party mode, I was out every night,” he admits.  He barely recovers his bearings before throwing himself into a relationship with supermodel Naomi Campbell (in 1993-1994) that makes him a celebrity.

The Edge too goes through some changes.  His marriage to Aislinn O’Sullivan has fallen apart.  In 1993 he begins dating Morleigh Steinberg, whom he meets when she appears on stage as a belly dancer during the Zoo TV tour.  Edge and Aislinn divorce in 1996.  Edge and Morleigh go on to have a daughter, Sian (born 1997), and a son, Levi (born 25 October 1999).  Edge and Morleigh Steinberg marry on 22 June 2002.

‘Zooropa’ (1993) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) extends the experiments of ‘Achtung Baby’ and the Zoo TV tour.  The album is co-produced by Flood, Brian Eno, and The Edge.  Bono adopts a falsetto voice for the dance music-influenced ‘Lemon’ (AUS no. 6): “She wore lemon / To colour in the cold grey night.”  The Edge intones the lead vocal for ‘Numb’ (AUS no. 7), a buzz of noise that seems to celebrate sensory deprivation.  ‘Zooropa’, the title track, is an electronic babble, a sort of media self-help program.  ‘Babyface’ is a perverse love song.  Slightly more conventional are the loose-limbed – and loose-minded? – ‘Stay (Faraway So Close)’ (UK no. 4, US no. 61, AUS no. 5) and the hushed and strummed ‘The First Time’.  ‘Zooropa’ ‘demonstrates a heavier techno and dance influence.’  On the Zooropa tour, Bono adopts the red-leather-clad guise of the ‘demonic MacPhisto.’

In 1995 U2 contribute the ‘glam rock’ ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ (UK no. 2, US no. 16, AUS no. 1) to the soundtrack of the movie ‘Batman Forever’ (1995).

Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. becomes a father for the first time in 1995.  He is still with Ann Acheson, the girl he met at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in 1976.  Although Larry and Ann never marry, they go on to have three children together: a son, Aaron Elvis (born 3 October 1995), and two daughters, Ava (born 28 December 1998) and Anya (born 8 February 2001).

‘Original Soundtracks 1’ (1995) (UK no. 12, US no. 76, AUS no. 11), released in November, is credited to Passengers.  This is a pseudonym for a collaboration between U2 and Brian Eno, the art rock experimentalist who has worked as a producer for the band.  This project includes the song ‘Miss Sarajevo’ (UK no. 6, AUS no. 7), featuring opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, which mixes opera into what might vaguely be considered rock music.

U2’s next album is titled ‘Pop’ (1997) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1).  The Edge claims that, on this this set, “We deconstructed the concept of the rock ‘n’ roll band.”  Bono puts it this way: “Rock ‘n’ roll is ridiculous.  It’s absurd.  In the past U2 was trying to duck that.  Now we’re throwing our arms around it and giving it a great big kiss.”  The album is produced by Flood and is, again, ‘heavily influenced by techno, dance and electronic music.’  The processed sound of ‘Discotheque’ (UK no. 1, US no. 10, AUS no. 3) sets the tone: “You know you’re chewing bubble gum / You know what that is but you still want some.”  Early songs on the album like the scintillating ‘Do You Feel Loved’ and ‘Mofo’ (AUS no. 33), with its fast-paced laboratory of dance, continue the theme.  However, by the middle of the album, a more anguished mood sets in as exemplified by the scorched acoustic strum of ‘Staring At The Sun’ (UK no. 3, US no. 26, AUS no. 23) and ozone-bound guitar that howls into the heavens on ‘Gone’.  Reaching the end of the album, U2 kick through the ashes in the harsh ‘Please’ (UK no. 7, AUS no. 21) and the penetrating ‘Wake Up Dead Man’ (“Jesus, Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a f***ed up world it is too”).  ‘In the 1990s the band’s music and concerts mocked the excesses of commercialism.’

From 1997 to 2007 Adam Clayton has a romantic relationship with Suzie Smith.

The compilation album ‘The Best Of 1980-1990’ (1988) (UK no. 1, US no. 2, AUS no. 1) includes ‘The Sweetest Thing’ (UK no. 3, US no. 63, AUS no. 6).  This track is released as a single in its own right in October 1998.

On 21 September 1999 Bono meets with Pope John Paul II to petition for relief of third world debt.  In the following years, U2’s vocalist has similar crusading meetings with world leaders like America’s George W. Bush, Britain’s Tony Blair and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.  He feels obliged to tell the media, “I’m a singer, not a politician, and I think you don’t want the two to get confused.”

‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ (2000) (UK no. 1, US no. 3, AUS no. 1) is the first of two new albums released by Island and Interscope.  It is produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.  The Edge says this album is “a chance to rediscover the core chemistry of U2 as a band.”  Just as ‘Achtung Baby’ redefined U2 for the 1990s, this album hits ‘reset’ for the 2000s.  The Edge claims that the glorious, euphoric rock of ‘Beautiful Day’ (UK no. 1, US no. 21, AUS no. 1) “had come through various different incarnations.”  “It’s a beautiful day / Don’t let it get away,” is the simple, yet important, message of the song.  The underrated ‘Elevation’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 6) successfully makes ambiguous whether it is about arousal or beatification.  Aside from these two rockers, the prevailing mood on ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is wistful and elegiac.  The album is released in October 2000 so U2 could not possibly have anticipated the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001, but the tour to promote the album that subsequently takes place is spurred by that tragic day and ‘takes on new resonance…[with songs] full of ecstasy, mourning and release.’  The album’s title is drawn from Bono’s spoken word introduction to the light ‘Walk On’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 9): “The only baggage you can bring / Is all that you can’t leave behind.”  ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ (UK no. 2, US no. 52, AUS no. 3) is soulful, yet thick with depression.  ‘Kite’ is appropriately swooping.  ‘Peace On Earth’ reflects bitterly, yet tenderly, on the absence of the quality described in the title of the song.  There is even a prescient hothouse number called ‘New York’.  The album closes with the hypnotic ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, a song whose lyrics are the work of controversial author Salman Rushdie.

The compilation album ‘The Best Of 1990-2000’ (2002) (UK no. 2, US no. 3, AUS no. 1) includes a couple of new tracks.  ‘Electrical Storm’ (UK no. 5, US no. 77, AUS no. 5) is full of sketchy electronics while the skeletal ‘The Hands That Built America’ comes from the soundtrack to the movie ‘Gangs of New York’ (2003).

In 2003 Bono is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to relieve third world debt and promote A.I.D.S. awareness in Africa.

‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ (2004) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is produced by Steve Lillywhite, the producer of U2’s first three albums.  There are two separate forces driving this album.  From the dance music of the 1990s to the graceful tunes of the early 2000s, The Edge has been using a lot more keyboards.  Bono notes, “[Edge] might be into keyboards this album, and you have [drummer] Larry [Mullen, Jr.] and [bassist] Adam [Clayton] going, ‘Oh f***, he’s into the keyboards now.  We’ll never get a rock song out of him.’”  Contrary to such fears, on this disc The Edge ‘rediscovers the guitar as his weapon of choice.’  The best example is the full-blooded, riff-happy, ‘Vertigo’ (UK no. 1, US no. 31, AUS no. 5): “Hello, hello / I’m at a place called vertigo / It’s everything I wish I didn’t know / But you give me something I can feel, feel.”  Mind you, by the last verse, that changes to “Your love is teaching me how, how to kneel” in a typically ambiguous U2 religious allusion.  ‘Love And Peace Or Else’ is seemingly sculpted out of guitar feedback and turned into a bold groove.  ‘All Because Of You’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 23) is powered by scarring riffs and is both rough and lovely.  “It is a guitar record,” says Mullen.  “I think they are all rocky tunes.”  The other impetus shaping the album is the death of Bono’s father from cancer in 2001.  “In my head, ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ is about my father, Bob – How To Dismantle An Atomic Bob’,” says Bono.  This comes through most clearly in the painful examination of ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’ (UK no. 1, US no. 97, AUS no. 19): “We fight all the time / You and I…That’s alright / We’re the same soul.”  ‘One Step Closer’ is inspired by a comment from Noel Gallagher of British rock band Oasis.  Bono was uncertain about his father’s faith and fate and Gallagher said, “Well, he’s one step closer to knowing [what comes after death], isn’t he?”  Along the way there is also the hopeful ‘Miracle Drug’ and the giddy flight of ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 31).

The compilation album ‘U2 18Singles’ (2006) (UK no. 4, US no. 12, AUS no. 1) yields two more singles: ‘The Saints Are Coming’ (UK no. 2, US no. 51, AUS no. 1) (a duet with neo-punk band Green Day) and ‘Windows In The Skies’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 17).

‘No Line On The Horizon’ (2009) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is released internationally by Interscope.  The album is produced by the trio of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite.  Eno and Lanois are also co-credited with U2 as songwriters on this album.  “Brian and Dan have been part of our little musical commune for some time,” says bassist Adam Clayton, explaining the increased role for the producers on this disc.  “The image of no line on the horizon…is an image of the future and wanting to disappear into it.  There’s no limits, no end in sight,” explains Bono.  “There’s some songs [on this album] that just sound very, very different,” he continues.  “But some songs do sound a little familiar and that wasn’t a good enough reason for us to throw them out.”  The wild and way out ‘Get On Your Boots’ (UK no. 12, US no. 37, AUS no. 26) finds Bono warbling, ”You don’t know how beautiful you are / Hey sexy boots / I don’t want to talk about the wars between the nations,” undermining his own public persona.  ‘Magnificent’ (UK no. 42, AUS no. 79) is big and ambitious.  ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’ (UK no. 32) offers straight up rock and pop.  The title track, ‘No Line On The Horizon’, is rock that gets right in your face.  Among the more unusual pieces are the pummelling and punning ‘Stand Up Comedy’ and the quietly moving ‘Cedars Of Lebanon.’

In 2009 U2 bassist Adam Clayton begins dating Mariana Teixeira de Carvalho.  The couple marry on 4 September 2013.

‘Songs Of Innocence’ (2014) (UK no. 6, US no. 9, AUS no. 7) is produced by Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), though with many production assistants.  The rather startling cover image portrays drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. hugging the naked torso of his son, Elvis.  This ties in though with the overarching theme of the album: a look back at the band’s own youth.  Accordingly, U2 reminisce about their first exposure to punk rock in the form of The Ramones (‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’) and The Clash (‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’); the death of Bono’s mother (‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’); and growing up in Ireland (‘Cedarwood Road’, ‘The Troubles’).  The sweeping ‘Every Breaking Wave’ is perhaps the most traditional U2 song, but some of the more successful pieces – artistically, at least – are the less traditional ones.  The abrasive ‘Raised by Wolves’ looks at the aftermath of a car bombing while the sinister ‘Sleep Like A Baby Tonight’ seems to depict a paedophile priest.  Adam Clayton’s bass is given a strong place in the mix of the whole album and Bono often sings in a higher voice than he has for many years – which is fitting enough since it evokes his more youthful style.  ‘Songs Of Innocence’ achieves a bit less commercially for U2 than usual and does not generate any hit singles.

In 2016 U.S. magazine ‘Glamor’ names U2 vocalist Bono ‘Man of the Year.’  This breaks the publication’s twenty-six year tradition of awarding the title of ‘Woman of the Year’.  Bono wins this distinction due to his campaigning for ‘Poverty is Sexist’ and calling for assistance to the world’s most financially disadvantaged women.

U2’s performance at Live Aid signified many aspects of their career.  Bono’s venture off the stage embodied their questing and impetuous drive.  Yet it also displayed the humanism and compassion associated with U2.  The charity concert itself symbolised their crusading capacity for good works as dictated by their Christianity.  It was also powerful rock music they pumped out on the day, highlighted by The Edge’s distinctive guitar work.  “Music can change the world because it can change people,” said Bono on one occasion and U2’s career worked towards proving that true.  ‘U2 possessed an acute instinct for taking the right creative – and commercial – decisions.’  They were ‘equally known for their sweeping sound as for their grandiose statements about politics and religion.’

Sources:

  1. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 22 July 2014
  2. ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘U2 Become Stars After Live Aid’ by Peter Paphides (12 June 2011) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  3. You Tube
  4. allmusic.com, ‘U2’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 15 January 2004
  5. wikipedia.org as at 2 June 2014, 1 January 2015, 7 January 2017
  6. brainyquote.com as at 14 July 2014
  7. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘U2’ by Bill Flanagan (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 633, 634, 635, 636, 637, 638
  8. whosdatedwho.com as at 2 June 2014
  9. ‘Sunday Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Bono’s Journey to Peace’ by James Wigney (21 November 2004) p. 7 of ‘i.e.’ lift-out
  10. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 132, 139
  11. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Keeping It Together’ – U2 interview by Chrissy Illey (15 November 2004) p. 8, 9, 10 of ‘Weekend’ lift-out
  12. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 2 June 2014
  13. ‘War’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1983) p. 4
  14. ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p. 451, 452
  15. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 217
  16. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 223
  17. Pitchfork Media Inc. – Video interview with Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton conducted by Mark Richardson (2009)
  18. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 52, 58
  19. lyricsfreak.com as at 15July 2014
  20. ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1984) p. 3
  21. songfacts.com as at 14 July 2014
  22. ‘Ellen DeGeneres Show’ (U.S. television program) – Bono interview conducted by Ellen DeGeneres (1 December 2011) via nme.com/news/U2/60733
  23. ‘The Joshua Tree’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1987) p. 10
  24. ‘Rattle And Hum’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1988) p. 9, 20
  25. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine via (5) above
  26. ‘Achtung Baby’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1991) p. 3, 25
  27. ‘U2 – Achtung Baby – A Classic Album Under Review’ – DVD (Sexy Intellectual, 2006)
  28. ‘Zooropa’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1993) p. 22
  29. ‘U2 – The Best Of 1990-2000’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Universal Music International B.V., 2002) p. 26
  30. ‘Pop’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 1997) p. 4
  31. ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Pope Meets Bono and Calls for Debt Relief’ (Jubilee 2000 Press Release) (24 September 1999) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  32. ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 2000) p. 15
  33. ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Island Records Ltd, 2004) p. 20
  34. ‘No Line On The Horizon’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Universal – Island Records Limited, 2009) p. 18
  35. ‘Songs Of Innocence’ – Sleeve notes by Bono (Island Records – Universal Music Operations Limited, 2014) p. 16, 17, 21

Song lyrics copyright Island Music, Inc. BMI (1980-1983), Chappell Music (1984-1991), Polygram International Publishing (2000), Universal Music Publishing B.V. (2004), Universal Music Publishing B.V./Opal Music (2009)

Last revised 12 January 2017

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