One of only a few bands to achieve consistent commercial and critical success across three decades, U2 has charted success on its own terms on both the artistic and business sides of the music industry. From the band’s earliest days in Dublin, Ireland, to the present, U2 has broken free from the traditional limitations of what a rock band — and rock music — could and couldn’t do. By combining an original sound with honest lyrics and a challenging social message, U2 has earned the respect of their peers and critics, and an almost fanatical following of fans around the world. This is their story.
U2 formed in Dublin in the fall of 1976 after 14-year-old Larry Mullen, Jr. posted a note on the bulletin board at his high school seeking musicians for a new band. From the group of hopefuls that showed up at Mullen’s home that first day, a five-piece known originally as “Feedback” formed with Mullen (born October 31, 1961) on drums, Adam Clayton (born March 13, 1960) on bass, Paul Hewson (later nicknamed “Bono Vox” and eventually just “Bono”, born May 10, 1960) on vocals, and Dave Evans (later nicknamed “The Edge”, born August 8, 1961) on guitar. Dave’s brother, Dick, also played guitar for a while, but left Feedback very early on to join another Dublin band, the Virgin Prunes.
Feedback quickly changed their name to “The Hype,” and began rehearsing on weekends and after school as often as possible, forming genuine friendships and developing an undeniable chemistry in the process. After nearly 18 months of rehearsing, the band’s big break came at a talent show in Limerick, Ireland, in March, 1978. With CBS Records’ Jackie Hayden judging, U2 (they had just changed their name again) won the contest, earning a £500 prize and studio time to record their first demo.
Shortly after the talent show contest, the band convinced a Dublin businessman named Paul McGuinness to manage them. Now out of school, the band played as many shows as possible in and around Dublin, trying to build up a local fan base. In September, 1979, U2 released its first single, an Irish-only release called “U2:3” which topped the national charts. In December of that year, U2 traveled to London for its first shows outside Ireland, but struggled to get attention from music fans and critics.
After continuing to build a large following inside Ireland, and after the success of a second Irish-only single, Island Records signed U2 to its first international contract in March, 1980. The first album to come from that agreement was Boy, released in October of that year. The album offered a fresh, new sound that earned rave reviews in both the Irish and UK press. Bono’s lyrics tackled subjects like faith, spirituality, and death — subjects generally avoided by even the most seasoned rock acts. U2’s first tour outside the UK helped develop new fan bases in other parts of Europe and in the United States, where strong club shows helped propel Boy briefly onto the U.S. album charts.
But while synthesizer acts and bubblegum pop bands dominated the early 80s, U2 went off in their own direction. Their second album, 1981’s October, witnessed an open embrace of Christianity, especially in songs such as “With a Shout” and “Gloria”:
Oh, Lord, if I had anything
Anything at all, I’d give it to you
Of the four band members, only Adam Clayton wasn’t an admitted Christian. Bono, The Edge, and Larry attended regular prayer group meetings and eventually joined a religious group in Dublin called Shalom. That led the trio to question the relationship between the Christian faith and the rock and roll lifestyle. Edge, in particular, wasn’t sure if he wanted to be in a rock band. Bono was ready to support his friend if he chose to quit the band. After nearly throwing in the towel on U2, they decided it was possible to continue making music without shedding their personal beliefs.
U2 enjoyed its first international success with the 1983 release of War, U2’s third album. An all-out attack against the keyboard- and drum machine-based songs that made up the song and album charts, War featured the band’s most aggressive songwriting to date in both music and lyrics. For the first time, Bono addressed the long-standing “troubles” in Northern Ireland with the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Fearful to be seen as taking one side over another, he insisted on introducing the song during concerts by saying “This is NOT a rebel song!”, and wrapped himself in a white flag while he sang it, to symbolize the song’s call for peace. The album’s first single, “New Year’s Day,” was U2’s first legitimate hit single, reaching the #10 spot on the UK charts and almost cracking the Top 50 in the U.S. MTV put the song’s video into heavy rotation, and helped introduce U2 to a new audience of fans. Tours that supported the War album in the U.S. and Europe included sold out shows at many stops. The band captured this era with the Under a Blood Red Sky mini-album and video, which also received heavy airplay on MTV and other TV channels in Europe, and only served to add to U2’s reputation as a top-notch live act. The success of War and Under a Blood Red Sky allowed U2 to renegotiate their record deal with Island Records, and the band gained more creative control and financial rewards for the future.
Just when it appeared U2 had found the formula for success, they switched gears and took off in an entirely new direction. For their fourth studio album they chose Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce it, a surprising choice Bono explained by saying the band members felt their new music would be more “ambient,” and needed an appropriate guiding hand in the control room.
1984’s The Unforgettable Fire — named for a series of paintings drawn by survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — introduced the world to a new U2, a more experimental and unfocused U2. Gone was the aggression of War, but the band’s social and political messages stayed alive in songs such as “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which was written for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the mesmerizing “Bad”, written in response to the struggles Bono’s friends had with drugs in Dublin. While “Bad” quickly became a highlight of the band’s live set, it was “Pride” that took U2 up another rung on the charts. The single cracked the UK Top 5 and the U.S. Top 50. The tour that supported The Unforgettable Fire saw U2 expanding its itinerary to more countries than ever before, and saw them playing to sold out sports arenas in the U.S. for the first time. Rolling Stone magazine named U2 its “Band of the 80s,” suggesting that “for a growing number of rock-and-roll fans, U2 has become the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters.”
With four years of nearly constant recording and touring behind them, and with album and single sales increasing with each release, U2 was poised for international stardom in the mid-1980s. They earned it with a pair of charitable live shows. The Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief in July, 1985, was seen by more than a billion people worldwide. Not expected to be one of the main draws, U2 stole the show with a relentless, 13-minute version of “Bad” in which Bono jumped down into the Wembley Stadium crowd to dance with a fan. That performance helped earn U2 the headlining spot on 1986’s “Conspiracy of Hope” tour for Amnesty International. This six-show caravan across the U.S. played to sold out arenas and stadiums, and helped Amnesty International triple its membership in the process. It also solidified U2’s spot as international stars on the verge of greatness.
Greatness arrived in 1987, with the release of U2’s fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree. U2 had delivered a record that caught them at their musical and lyrical peak, finally comfortable with the “rock band with a conscience” label they first encountered with the War album four years earlier. In the spiritual and moral desert that had become the U.S. of the mid-1980s, U2 stood out by bringing meaning and passion to its music. Bono tackled his contradictory feelings about America in “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “In God’s Country.” Biblical images showed up throughout the record as Bono questioned faith, social injustices, governmental oppression, terrorism, and drug addiction. The album debuted at #1 in the U.K., and quickly reached #1 in the U.S. The songs “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” gave U2 its first #1 singles in the U.S. Even TIME magazine put U2 on its cover, declaring the band “Rock’s Hottest Ticket.” The Joshua Tree tour sold out stadiums around the world. U2 had become the biggest band in the world.
Just as U2 chronicled their first taste of international success some five years earlier with Under a Blood Red Sky, the band set out to document their latest run at stardom with Rattle and Hum. The project — a combination big-screen rockumentary and double album — paid tribute in words, music, and pictures to some of the American music pioneers that had influenced U2 in its rise to the top.
On Rattle and Hum, U2 played with B.B. King and at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis Presley first found his feet as a rock and roll star. They wrote with Bob Dylan, sang about blues great Billie Holiday, and covered The Beatles. And for many critics, U2 had gone too far. Rattle and Hum was widely praised as a rock movie, but the project as a whole was roundly discarded by critics for being pretentious and excessive. It was seen by many as an overblown homage to U2’s self-importance. The U2 backlash had begun, and U2 decided to stay away from the public eye for a while. The brief “Lovetown” tour of late 1989 and early 1990 lasted less than four months, and steered clear of North America.
After taking time off from the band and each other, U2 joined forces again in Berlin in late 1990 to begin work on their next studio album. They were working again with the familiar duo of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, but these recording sessions were anything but comfortable. Recognizing they had to “go away and dream it all up again,” — as Bono promised during a Dublin concert before the turn of the decade in late 1989 — U2 struggled to forge a new sound and a new identity together. But in November, 1991, the new U2 delivered Achtung Baby, an album that Bono would describe as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”
Achtung Baby was U2 at its most adventurous, bringing industrial guitars, feedback, altered vocals, and electronic dance beats into the mix. This was U2’s most eclectic record to date, yet fans and critics welcomed it with almost universal praise. Rather than paying homage to the past, U2 were experimenting again — introducing new sounds and textures, pushing new limits and moving ahead on their own terms. Instead of addressing the world’s problems, Bono’s lyrics were as introspective and intimate as he’d ever written before. On “Acrobat,” Bono dismantled his holier-than-thou image of the 1980s:
And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that
And you can dream, so dream out loud
And don’t let the bastards grind you down
U2 hit the road in early 1992 for its first American concerts in more than four years. The “Zoo TV” tour was a mind-boggling exercise in sensory overload, complete with dozens of on-stage TV monitors spitting out images from stage cameras, a hand-held Bono-cam, and even direct from satellite TV. U2 ditched the “poor-men-in-the-desert” look in favor of a fun, loose, and raunchy run at glam-rock. Bono dressed in head-to-toe leather for “The Fly” and in a metallic, silver suit for “Mirrorball Man,” two characters he adopted on-stage. Zoo TV was U2’s attempt at mocking the excesses of rock and roll, and they succeeded so convincingly that some fans missed the point entirely. While U2 pretended to embrace trash and decadence, they still made a point to join a Greenpeace demonstration protesting the Sellafield nuclear power plant in England.
During a break in the nearly two-year Zoo TV tour, U2 went back into the studio to work on song ideas they first developed during the tour. These sessions resulted in Zooropa, the band’s seventh studio album, released in July, 1993. Zooropa took the experimentalism of Achtung Baby and multiplied it exponentially. “Numb,” the album’s first single, featured Edge on lead vocals reciting a monotone list of admonitions over a repetitive guitar riff. But like its predecessor, the album still managed to dominate the charts (admittedly for a shorter time than Achtung Baby did) and provided even more material for the remainder of their world tour.
U2 took an extended break after the Zoo TV tour, working relatively quietly on projects for the Batman Forever and Mission: Impossible soundtracks. In 1995, the band re-emerged with Brian Eno as a collective called “Passengers,” and released an experimental album called Original Soundtracks 1. The album produced a memorable collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti, “Miss Sarajevo,” but was largely ignored both critically and commercially.
U2 began work on its next studio album in early 1996, with an eye toward releasing the record later that year. The band admitted its desire to incorporate the electronic sounds of bands such as Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers into U2’s vision of late ’90s rock and roll. Even though the album was pushed back to early 1997, pieces of a couple tracks were leaked and distributed by fans around the globe via the Internet. The brief sample that circulated of “Discotheque”, which was already known to be the first single, only reinforced the rumor that U2 were trying to make a dance record.
But when the Pop album finally hit stores in March, 1997, the electronic and dance influences weren’t as pervasive as previous rumors suggested. Instead, tracks such as “Staring At the Sun,” “Do You Feel Loved”, and “Gone” represented some of U2’s strongest and straightest songwriting yet. The lyrics seemed to expand at times on ideas first brought up on previous records: “Please” was a modern update of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and an even stronger plea for peace in Ireland; “MOFO” found Bono talking to his departed mother, just as he did on Boy‘s “I Will Follow.” The album debuted at number one in 28 countries, and earned U2 some of the highest critical praise of the band’s career. But Pop didn’t have the long term staying power that previous U2 albums had, and it was soon surpassed on the charts by the record industry’s newest flavors-of-the-month.
Meanwhile, U2 hit the road in April, 1997, with its PopMart Tour, which attempted to outdo the sheer size of Zoo TV five years earlier, but with a different goal: “I want this tour to be not quite so smart-arse as Zoo TV,” Bono told Propaganda, the band’s official fan club. The PopMart props included a 100-foot tall, bright yellow arch; the world’s largest video screen at 150 feet x 50 feet; a 12-foot-wide illuminated olive which was stuck on top of a 100-foot tall toothpick; and a motorized, 35-foot tall mirrorball lemon. While some critics were quick to mention that PopMart didn’t sellout every stop, U2 fans still ate it up. PopMart was the second-highest grossing tour of 1997, with revenues of just under $80 million (US). By the time the tour ended in March, 1998, U2 had taken its act to every inhabited continent on the planet and played to well over two million people.
After PopMart, U2 remained in the public eye by throwing the band’s weight behind the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. They played a brief concert in Belfast in May, 1998, three days before the public voted in favor of the agreement. Later that year, U2 would perform on Irish TV during a tribute show and fundraiser for victims of the Omagh, Northern Ireland, bombing which killed 28 and injured hundreds more earlier in the year. In late 1998, U2 issued its first compilation, The Best of 1980-1990, which included an updated version of “Sweetest Thing”, an old b-side from The Joshua Tree sessions.
U2 returned to the studio in early 1999 to work on its next studio album, reuniting with both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for the first time since 1991’s Achtung Baby. The band also collaborated with author Salman Rushdie, who penned the lyrics to a song called “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” based on his book of the same name. That song, and others, eventually appeared on the soundtrack to The Million Dollar Hotel, a movie based on a story written by Bono.
In between studio sessions, Bono seemed to devote every free moment he had to causes including debt cancellation in Third World nations and HIV/AIDS relief for Africa. In 1999 alone, Bono made appearances at the G8 Summit in Germany, at the home of Pope John Paul II, at the NetAid concert, at America’s Millennium Gala, and at various other functions on behalf of the Jubilee 2000/Drop the Debt campaign. While his social crusading slowed down the band’s efforts in the studio, Bono dropped hints that the next record would be a more “classic”-sounding U2 album.
That album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was exactly that. After spending the better part of the 1990s trying not to sound like U2, the band decided it was finally okay to stop avoiding the U2 sound. The album, released in late October, 2000, debuted at No. 1 in 22 countries and spawned a worldwide hit single, “Beautiful Day”, which earned three Grammy Awards. U2 made more than a dozen promotional appearances, including many live performances, in an effort to promote the album and win back mainstream fans that had deserted the band in recent years.
U2 set out on a full-blown world tour in the spring of 2001 to promote All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The Elevation Tour saw the band return to arenas for the first time since Zoo TV in 1992. After the extravaganzas of that tour and PopMart in 1997, the relatively stripped-down Elevation Tour saw U2 perform on a heart-shaped stage which brought the fans closer to the band than ever. The highlight of the tour was an unprecedented two concerts at Slane Castle outside Dublin, the first of which took place just days after the death of Bono’s father. The terrorist attacks of September 11th led U2 to rethink continuing the tour, but they chose to tour throughout October and November with a setlist that had changed to reflect the times. The Elevation tour was nearly a complete sellout, and U2 was the top concert draw in North America. The band’s 80 shows (of 113 total) in North America grossed $110 million, the second-highest total behind The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge Tour in 1994.
After wrapping up the tour in late 2001, U2 returned to the stage in front of a worldwide audience in early 2002 when they performed three songs in New Orleans at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, the NFL’s annual championship football game. The band returned to the States just weeks later for the Grammy Awards, where All That You Can’t Leave Behind picked up four more awards.
When plans for a European tour in the summer of 2002 fell through, Bono continued his campaigns for debt and HIV/AIDS relief, which included a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush and an 11-day tour of Africa with U.S. Treasure Secretary Paul O’Neill. He made his case for African relief on the Oprah Winfrey and Larry King TV shows. His clout, both musically and politically, earned Bono the title “Most Powerful Man in Music” according to Q magazine in October, 2002.
A month later, U2 issued its second compilation, The Best of 1990-2000. The set included tracks from Achtung Baby through All That You Can’t Leave Behind, plus two new songs: “Electrical Storm” and “The Hands That Built America”. The latter, also featured as the theme to Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, won a Golden Globe Award in January, 2003 for Best Original Song.
U2 spent much of 2003 in the studio, working on new album with a new producer: Chris Thomas, who had previously worked with Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols. But after eight months together, the two sides went their separate ways and U2’s new album was delayed well into 2004.
Old friend Steve Lillywhite came on board in early 2004, and six months later U2 had a new album: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was released in October, 2004. Though the title sounds political, Bono admitted it was a reference to his father and the impact his father’s death had on Bono. U2 supported the album with more aggressive marketing, including an unprecedent relationship with Apple, which created a U2-branded iPod. Bono also kept up his fight against AIDS and poverty in Africa with the launch of The ONE Campaign in May, 2004.
In December, 2004, Edge learned that his daughter, Sian, had a serious illness. Though Edge and the band tried to keep the story quiet, it forced a delay in the annoucement of their Vertigo World Tour, and news of the family illness spread rapidly around the world. After working out a new tour schedule that allowed Edge to spend more time with his family, the Vertigo Tour began in San Diego in March, 2005. It was a smashing success, playing to sold out crowds around the world. 2005 also saw U2 get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and collect three more Grammy Awards. Late in the year, TIME magazine named Bono and Bill & Melinda Gates its Persons of the Year for their humanitarian work.
But in early 2006, the fourth leg of the tour was postponed due to a “family illness.” The band never spoke publicly about what was going on until the release of their official biography, U2 by U2, in September, 2006, when Edge confirmed that Sian was ill, but didn’t say what the illness was. The tour resumed late in 2006 with shows in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii. New songs from the U2 18 compilation album, including “Window In The Skies” and “The Saints Are Coming” featured prominently at several shows.
U2 returned to the big screen in 2007, with the premiere of the groundbreaking U2 3D at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The band began work on new songs in Morocco with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as co-writers, but the only new material released in 2007 was a few outtakes that appeared on the November re-release of The Joshua Tree, celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary.
More than thirty years on, it appears that U2 still has plenty of gas in its tank. The four original band members remain close friends and stellar musicians, and their collective ambition appears to be as strong as ever. U2 remains one of only a few bands qualified to wear the label of World’s Biggest Band. They continue to write music and explore new ideas on their own terms, and their future releases and tours will be no less anticipated than those of the past.