The Story of U2 – Rejoice (Part 2)

Just want to acknowledge here the passing of another one of my musical heroes, Walter Becker. I’ve already written a Steely Dan series so I’ll let that be my statement on Mr. Becker, his fine, underappreciated guitar playing and his wonderfully twisted, cynical world view.

“Everywhere I look I see evidence of a Creator. But I don’t see it as religion, which has cut my people in two.”- Bono

“I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me” – “Rejoice”

Bono himself felt the effects of the religious division in Ireland. His father was Catholic and his mother Protestant. I don’t know how the situation is today, but when his parents got married in the Forties. intermarriage was very much frowned upon. Bono himself was raised Protestant and despite being a popular figure at school, always felt a lack of belonging, an understandable sense of being torn between two worlds.

The band was pretty prolific in their songwriting and had by now developed a backlog of some 40 songs to choose from for their debut album Boy. (Lest we forget, this was still the era of vinyl onto which one could cram maybe 43 minutes.)

According to Wikipedia, producer Steve Lillywhite “employed unorthodox production techniques, such as recording Mullen’s drums in a stairwell, and recording smashed bottles and forks played against a spinning bicycle wheel. Thematically, the lyrics reflected on adolescence, innocence, and the passage into adulthood, themes represented on the album cover through the photo of a young boy’s face.”*

Boy kicks off with one of U2’s very best and most popular tunes ever, “I Will Follow.” (I love this song.) The lyrics of the song are about a mother’s unconditional love for her child. This resonated with Bono as his mother Iris had died just a few years earlier when he was 14. Felled, actually, by a brain hemorrhage as she was leaving her own father’s funeral.

“I Will Follow” also has spiritual overtones and it will come as exactly zero surprise to anyone reading this that Bono, Mullen and The Edge are avowed Christians. Clayton, not so much:

Spotify link

Boy sold something like 200,000 copies which, while not Joshua Tree numbers, is pretty damn good for a debut album. The record established not only the band’s overall sound but the unique bell-like quality of Edge’s guitar.

I must say here as a guitarist that while I have been much more influenced by the Hendrix’ and Clapton’s of the world, I like the palette that Edge uses to give the band its primary colors. He doesn’t have the virtuosic soloing ability of the Sixties and Seventies guitar gods. But he has an instantly recognizable sound that works perfectly in context of these songs and gives the band a compelling sound.

The band followed up with a tour of (mostly) the UK with some other parts of Europe and a couple of stops on the East Coast of the US. Their repertoire of recorded material was so limited they sometimes had to do songs twice.

College radio started to pick them up. WBCN in Boston, a groundbreaking FM underground station, was one of the outlets that was key to their US success. In fact, I believe one of the earliest (with Unforgettable Fire) books ever written about them was Outside is America by Carter Alan, still a Boston DJ. (The book is now only available as a print-on-demand.)

I won’t detail every album U2 did. But their second album, October, is significant as it could well have been their last album and might have never been made at all. For one thing, a briefcase full of Bono’s lyrics went missing somewhere around Portland, Oregon. For another, Bono, Edge, and Mullen had gotten involved in a Charismatic Christian group called the Shalom Fellowship.

According to Uncut, “[the three band members] were all undergoing severe crises of guilt and indecision –  a “faith vs. music” conflict of interests, exacerbated by Shalom’s insistence on total commitment – and Bono and Edge both left the band for a short period. … Midway through sessions for [October], U2 ceased to exist.” This was no idle thing but a real crisis of faith for these guys.

For quite a while, Adam was the odd man out while the other guys read their Bibles in the back of the tour bus. (“Are we now a Christian band?” he wondered.) But the guys eventually came away with the decision that they could reconcile their faith with rock ‘n roll.

The recording of October continued apace. The spiritual themes come through loud and clear with the refrain of ‘Rejoice’ occurring on several songs. The album’s kick-off song is “Gloria” and while it is a far cry from the Van Morrison song, Bono said this:

“And of course, “Gloria” is about a woman in the Van Morrison sense. Being an Irish band, you’re conscious of that. And I think that what happened at that moment was very interesting: people saw that you could actually write about a woman in the spiritual sense and that you could write about God in the sexual sense. And that was a moment. Because before that there had been a line. That you can actually sing to God, but it might be a woman? Now, you can pretend it’s about God, but not a woman!” (Huh? – ME).

Gloria in te domine
Gloria exultate
Oh Lord, if I had anything
Anything at all, I’d give it to you
I, I’d give it to you, to you
Give it to you

Spotify link

Released in October of 1981, the album got mixed reviews and sold much better in the UK than in the US. It didn’t hurt that the newly launched MTV arrived a few months earlier. MTV boosted bands; bands boosted MTV. It was symbiotic.

Before we leave this album, here’s another song I dig from it called “With a Shout (Jerusalem).” Again, a religious theme but mostly some bitching playing with Clayton laying down some ferocious bass. One thing I’ve always liked about U2 is their intensity. The band said that in their music they wanted to achieve a “cinematic, big screen, Panavision sound.”

Spotify link

In late 1982, U2 – still working to make their name in the States – opened a bunch of shows for J. Geils. (Seriously? I know, right?) The guys knew they’d have to work hard to overcome being an unknown post-punk, alt-rock Irish band in front of a crowd known for getting off on blues ‘n boogie.

Wisely, their sound guy – who BTW had also worked with Rory Gallagher – got to know Geils’ sound guys who allowed him to hook up some equipment Edge needed. (The main act never wants to be overshadowed and sometimes, mysteriously, the opening act doesn’t get a good sound check.) Overall they went down well with Geils fans which helped raise their profile.**

But after the October tour, the band started wondering where exactly they were headed. Like the best and most resilient bands, U2 put their heads down and decided they had to work on putting out the best album they could. This was a make-or-break moment for them. Searching for a theme for the album, they thought that “war seemed to be the motif for 1982.”

And so with producer Steve Lillywhite at the helm, they went into the studio and produced a terrific album called, simply, War.

Next: Before and after The Joshua Tree.

Sources: Wikipedia; Unforgettable Fire: The Definitive Biography of U2, Eamon Dunphy; U2 The Complete Story, Uncut Magazine.  

*The boy’s name is Peter Rowen, son of Bono’s Village mate Derek Rowen. Derek, nicknamed Guggi, went on to play in the band the Virgin Prunes from whence sprung singer Gavin Friday. Peter is now a Dublin-based photographer.

**My chiropractor – who is an avid reader of this blog – attended one of these Geils/U2 concerts in Atlanta. He advises me that not only were a fair number of people there to see U2, some of them actually left after their opening stint and never even saw Geils.

 

43 thoughts on “The Story of U2 – Rejoice (Part 2)

  1. Great post. I must admit that when it comes to listening to the earlier stuff I tend to skip October and go from Boy to War. I always found it an odd transitional thing, I guess they were trying so very hard to reconcile their faith and the idea of producing music that I felt that, while the elements were all there, they didn’t quite fit together. That being said I seem to recall “Is That All?” being a belter and have always loved the song “October” – I saw that one as a real marker for future directions and hear echoes of it in things like “Acrobat”.
    And we’re just an hour away – according to Spotify – from the release of their new single.

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    1. Is the story about their faith crisis a well-known one? I was unaware of it until I researched this. As to the single, I wonder if it’ll get the kind of press that a new Beyoncé or Taylor Swift song or album gets over here. You’d think it was the Second Coming. And Adele? Over the top.

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      1. Don’t even get me started on that bloated moaner and her banshee-like wailing….

        It seems to bet getting a lot of hype at the moment, I’ve heard it mentioned on a couple of radio stations and Spotify and others are running a countdown clock.

        The faith thing… it is fairly (I guess at least it was with me) well known. I’ve read a couple of features that drew parallels with that of U2 and other acts’ faith battles / influences.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You’re ready to move on. I have been a pretty big Beatles fan but if they were still recording 35+ years later, I doubt it would be good much less that I’d be listening. Their ultimate collapse -at least from a musical perspective – was a good thing.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Somehow I fat-fingered your last response and it disappeared. (All errors I make on the computer are crushing.) What’s the name of the post-rock band? As to that cult band U2, they have good PR.

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        3. I don’t know that anything does these days. I’m heading back to Paris in a month or so, maybe I’ll bump into one of em working in a Fnac then

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head – it’s that rawness in those early U2 songs that is very compelling, along with The Edge’s never heard before signature guitar sound and Bono’s amazing voice that draws you in.

    Perhaps all of that is best captured on the live album “Under a Bloody Red Sky” from Nov 1983, which draws from U2’s first three studio albums, mostly “War.” In fact, I think I like the live versions of these songs even better than the studio tracks.

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    1. Yeah, I talk more about “Blood Red Sky” in the next post. Seminal moment for the band. The shitty weather created almost a “disaster” mentality that the band (and fans) plowed through. U2 and Red Rocks somewhat made each other.

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  3. Thanks for the reminder of Walter Becker . I was listening to “Katy Lied” in honour of the Dan yesterday, a very underrated album IMO and appreciated that for all the writing and instrumental skills he and Fagen had, they understood their limitations and willingly allowed others to add a greater depth to their sound. He will be missed RIP

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    1. I can’t say enough about Steely Dan. So fucking great. I didn’t want to let Becker’s passing go unnoticed but as mentioned, my series is out there. It’s shown up recently on my Top 10 most recent posts so the world is searching. That’s a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s a lot of Dan talk on the blogosphere this week due to Becker’s death. One guy ranked the albums and had ‘Katy Lied’ pretty far down. I mentioned ‘Chain Lightning’ and specifically Derringer. That is one of the coolest songs ever made. The riff, the feel, the solos – everything. I started to lean Becker’s solo on ‘Bad Sneakers’ as my own small tribute to him.

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        2. To be honest Jim I would find it almost impossible to rank Steely Dan albums. They are all so good, and if I picked a favourite you can guarantee I’d probably change my mind the next day.

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        3. Don’t disagree but for me, overall ‘Gaucho’ is my least favorite of their first batch if I had to rank. And not a superfan of their reunited stuff. But no quibbles here.

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  4. I just love that early stuff. I will follow is the song that got me into them. Even then, people were calling them a Christian band but I didn’t care too much about that. The sheer passion they were bringing was what resonated for me. They were a pretty big influence on my later musical efforts.

    I believe they played Asbury Park on that first East Coast tour, though not the Pony.

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    1. I think it’s fair to say they’re a band comprised of Christians but not a Christian band per se. That said, there’s not too many ways one can interpret “carry the cross on my chain.” I wonder how someone who is not Christian yet loves the band deals with a line like that. I was raised Christian but fairly well lapsed. I wonder if there were some Muslim band whose music I loved and they sang, maybe, “I love the Koran.” I have no problem with that. It would just be a weird singalong for me. 😀

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      1. I wouldn’t be interested in that because it wouldn’t speak to me. The thing about U2 in that early period was they felt like they were seeking some truth, trying to make sense of the world. I could relate to that and to the intensity they brought to the question.

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        1. Yes, and while some think that Bono was trying to save the world singlehandedly, I prefer to think his humanitarianism is a natural extension of his faith.

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        2. Interesting. Hadn’t heard that. My stepmother was over the house, said she no longer gives to charities. (And yet she’s the world’s most charitable person). She thinks the bucks don’t always make it there. So she tries to send clothing or whatever to places like Houston through her church.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I stopped believing in corporate charities a some time ago. I believe they mostly just maintain people in their poverty rather than attempt to lift them out of it. If people want to help someone in need, I think the best way is to do it directly. Find someone who needs help and, y’know, help them.

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        4. Yes, we all have our weird little obsessions. 😀 BTW, new U2 single out today on Spotify. It’s called “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” Not bad but nothing I think we haven’t heard before.

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      1. I meant John Martyn, but auto-correct got a hold of it on my phone.

        He’s a British folkie, same generation as Nick Drake. He liked to mess around with an Echoplex, which influenced The Edge’s work in U2. He’s worth hearing if you’re unfamiliar with him – Solid Air is an early peak, One World is more experimental, Grace and Danger is a pretty good divorce album with a more mainstream sound.

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