The Story of U2 – Innocence and Experience – (Part 3)

Peter Rowen, who was on the cover of Boy, is used here again on 1983’s War. This time with an angrier look. A big theme for U2 throughout the years is loss of innocence. The names of their most recent albums continue to reflect this. 

It’s beyond the scope of this series or even my knowledge of the events to talk in any detail about “The Troubles” in Ireland to any great degree. Suffice it to say that even though the majority of the violence was happening in Northern Ireland, people in Dublin were not unaffected. I can still clearly remember in 1981 the hunger strikes and the bombings in Belfast and London which became worldwide news.

U2 felt they needed to address this conflict in some way. Their goal was to write a song about it but not themselves become targets of the violence. According to Wikipedia, early versions of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” opened with the line “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA.” Adam Clayton recalls that better judgment led to the removal of such a politically charged line and that the song’s “viewpoint became very humane and non-sectarian…which, is the only responsible position.”

As both a personal and political statement, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is, in my opinion, one of the greatest rock songs of all time and is on my Top Ten list of favorite rock songs (video from Red Rocks about which, more info soon.)

Edge sings the refrain over Bono’s lead. He’s such a good singer I think he could just as easily have been the lead singer if the job wasn’t already taken:

Spotify link

“Sunday” was the kickoff to the album War which hit #1 in the UK and #12 in the US. Along with songs like “New Year’s Day” about the Polish Solidarity movement, and “Seconds” about nuclear proliferation, this was U2’s most political (and in some ways personal) album. It’s fair to say that if October put them on the map, War kicked them up to the next level.

U2 had by now moved up to the arena level and for the next few years, with appearances at the US festival and their iconic visit to Red Rocks in Colorado, they increasingly became one of the world’s biggest rock bands.

The Red Rocks concert is significant as its accompanying video and album proved U2 to be an engaging and exciting live band. The concert almost didn’t happen as Red Rocks is an outdoor venue and it was raining for much of the time prior to the show. Shivering crew members wanted to quit but band manager Paul McGuinness rallied the troops and told them this was one of the most important gigs of the band’s career.

About half the crowd showed up and the band played not in rain, but in a misty haze that amplified the seemingly dramatic nature of the whole enterprise. Cameras trailed red streaks which created an eerie effect. The album went on to be called Under a Blood Red Sky, which is a line from “New Year’s Day.”

Spotify link

Even with their star rising – or maybe because it was – the band decided they wanted to create a more “ambient and abstract” sound. For that, they turned to producer Brian Eno and his engineer Daniel Lanois. (Lanois was to go on to some level of notoriety for his work on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album.) Eno and Lanois produced not only The Unforgettable Fire but also their next album, the landmark The Joshua Tree.*

The band recorded much of Unforgettable Fire at Ireland’s Slane Castle looking for “inspiration.” (It always mystifies me when bands do that. The Beatles recorded virtually everything at Abbey Road Studios, finding inspiration within themselves.) For the record, RTE-TV in Ireland made a short documentary about the making of this album. It’s worth a look to see early U2 at work. No I don’t know why Bono is playing bass.

If there’s any song that epitomizes this album it would have to be the song about Martin Luther King, “Pride (In the Name of Love.)” I actually think there are better songs on the album. But if you’re writing about U2, you got to do this one:

Spotify link

U2 were by now established as one of the leading bands of the Eighties. Manager Paul McGuinness renegotiated their contracts to the point that the guys were now all financially secure. In March 1984, Rolling Stone chose U2 as Band of the Year for 1983.

Their appearance at Live Aid in 1985 is the stuff of legend. Bono, in his zeal to connect with someone – anyone, preferably female – in the audience, climbed over several barriers to get down to the field to give some of the attendees a hug.

The rest of the band didn’t know where the fuck he had disappeared to and just keep playing the song (“Bad”) over and over. Their performance turned out to be an iconic moment that further jacked up their career.

In 1985, Rolling Stone called U2 the “Band of the ’80s”, saying that “for a growing number of rock-and-roll fans, U2 have become the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters.” (Conveniently forgetting that this was how the Clash had been referred to just a few short years prior.)

They toured on an Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez, Lou Reed.** This, along with Live Aid, helped them realize that yes, they could reconcile rock ‘n roll and their faith and use it in good ways. 

In recording their next album, U2 knew that they – again – had to up their game, especially now that they had pressure on them. Once again recruiting Eno and Lanois, they wanted to make an album contrasting the real America with the “mythical” America. (As an American, I never really know what that means. Or why people think they’ll find some magical thing if they drive out west. I think the guys were fascinated with the size of America considering that their country is roughly the size of Indiana.)

In speaking of The Joshua Tree, Edge said, “We wanted the record to be less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. To make it more straightforward, focused and concise.” This album had an immediate worldwide impact and has by now sold over 25 million copies.

Spawning several hits, one could easily say that there was U2 before Joshua Tree and U2 after Joshua Tree. It was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry.

U2 toured this year behind the 30th anniversary of this landmark album. Several bloggers paid tribute to it, none I think better than Cirdec Songs. You can hear a few of the tunes on his post. Which leaves me free to post a song that he did not, “One Tree Hill.”

One Tree Hill is a volcanic peak in Auckland, New Zealand. The band had met a Māori man in NZ named Greg Carroll who took Bono up on the peak. Carroll wound up working as a roadie for the band and was killed in a motorcycle accident running an errand for Bono. Consumed with grief – and guilt – Bono wrote this song for him. In light of that, I find this song incredibly moving:

Spotify link

I can’t say with any certainty that U2 was the biggest rock band in the world in 1987. But they were on anybody’s short list for that honor. They went on to make an album and documentary called Rattle and Hum. The album sold well but the documentary was not especially well-received. People felt they were trying too hard to align themselves with blues and R&B artists.

Personally, I wasn’t unhappy that they discovered B.B. King. But I thought that the song they wrote for him, “When Love Comes to Town,” was a so-so rock song and a lousy blues song. Better if they had performed “Trip Through Your Wires” or even “Desire” with him, which are infinitely better songs. They never even performed that song again live for something like 23 years until B.B died in 2015. What’s that tell you?

By this time I think the stress of fame was getting to Bono a little bit. To Melody Maker, he said this: “I could hang my dick out onstage and people would think it was a statement.” Yes, and that statement would be “I want to get busted for indecent exposure like Jim Morrison.”

Next (and final) post – I cram 30 years of U2 history into one post. 

*Eno and Lanois also produced Achtung Baby, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and were involved in How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Interestingly, Eno, Lanois and former producer Steve Lillywhite produced No Line on the Horizon.

**There’s a great story in the Unforgettable Fire book about how the Amnesty group took over a hotel lounge in Atlanta one night and sang, among other things, Velvet Underground tunes. “Wake me up next time,” Lou Reed bitched. They did but on the second night, the spontaneous magic was gone.

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

18 thoughts on “The Story of U2 – Innocence and Experience – (Part 3)

  1. I’m sure I read somewhere that – as part of those contract negotiations – U2 split everything 5 ways, with each member of the band taking 20% and Paul McGuinness the additional 20%, regardless of individual involvement on a particular song and that just such an arrangement is how they managed to maintain a peace / functioning dynamic for so long. Now that McGuinness is out of the game I wonder how that plays these days

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    1. Yeah, I mentioned the very fact of the equitable split and how that (and probably lack of drugs) kept them together in post 1. What I didn’t know was the actual split numbers but those make as much sense as anything else. Bono and Edge slowly develop as the primary guys. But the arrangement holds. McGuinness? Good question.

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      1. Your piece isn’t doing anything to lessen my like for this group. Interesting stuff. I have listened to the music for a long time and knew very little about them. CB hears so much bullshit that he ignores or tunes it out. Refreshing to hear they are clean livers, it makes life a hell of a lot easier. Your comment on that and the split makes total sense.

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        1. If I were, say, twenty years old and on the road in a popular band, I’m not 100% sure I’d be less like U2, more like Motley Crue. Not music-wise of course but bad behavior-wise.

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        2. I know this for a fact. Bono was in my neck of the woods. He went for a walk (Kinda like CB) and lost track of time. He decided to hitch hike back and was picked up by a young couple. The young guy was a pro hockey player. To make a long story short Bono flew them to a U2 gig and gave them the VIP treatment. If you google it Doc it should show up.

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        3. Yeah, just read it. In Rolling Stone no less. Reminds me of when Bruce’s motorcycle broke down in Jersey. Some veterans picked him up. Unfortunately when they posted the story online, they got some grief because some people weren’t crazy about Springsteen’s politics. Everything’s political here.

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        4. Bruce did that years ago before he became BRUCE. I think it was back during ‘River’. He used to connect with people all the time. Yeah that political shit blows my mind. Why CB likes Bull Riding, no politics involved. Bull don’t know anything about politics.

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        5. Forgot to mention that when I saw U2 in Boston on their last tour, they pulled a young teenage kid from the audience and had him sing and play guitar with them on one song. Then they gave him the guitar. I saw the kid later on local news. I figure the thing was worth about 1500 bucks. It was certainly given to the band by Taylor, the manufacturer. But the kid gets to say Edge gave me a guitar.

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  2. Congrats to another nice installment, Jim! “Under a Bloody Red Sky” is one of U2’s best albums, in my opinion, together with “The Joshua Tree.” I feel very fortunate I was able to visit one of their 30th anniversary gigs in New Jersey. As I posted at the time, it was amazing to me how fresh these tracks still sounded after all these years.

    BTW, I did watch the “Rattle and Hum” documentary when it came out in a movie theater back in Germany and enjoyed it and still do. I don’t really care about the criticism. To me it’s ultimately about the music, which I think is great for the most part.

    Last but not least, while U2 has recorded so many great tunes, I suppose “Pride” will perhaps always remain their signature song. It features The Edge’s signature guitar sound in all its glory, and Bono’s singing is just amazing. Best of all, he can still bring this tune live with the same intensity!

    I’m very curious about their forthcoming album. The upfront single “You’re the Best Thing” isn’t bad but not necessarily love at first sight or perhaps more appropriately listening. Of course, once you have a band with an album like “The Joshua Tree,” pretty much anything thereafter is going to a tough comparison! Plus, I think one needs to respect that great music artists develop over time and don’t want to do the same stuff all over again – still…

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    1. I bet the show was great. I’ll have to reconsider my “I’m done with big arena live shows” stance next time they come around. I’ll bring the wife this time. I’ll have to chase “Rattle and Hum” down. Never seen it. As mentioned, I’m not a big “Pride” fan, its subject matter notwithstanding. For me it’ll always be “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” I just think it’s a better song. Agreed that “Joshua Tree” is a pretty tough act to follow. But in listening to a bunch of their stuff, I’m totally digging “War,” “Achtung Baby,” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” My Spotify list has 60 songs and I think it’s a reasonable mix.

      U2 were on the Tonight show the other night and did that new tune. I think it came across quite a bit better live. And I didn’t know this but the girl on the cover wearing a helmet is Edge’s daughter. As to the new album, I wonder how they will continue to sound fresh but not have songs sound like, well, U2. They tried that in the “Pop/Zooropa” era with mixed results. Hey, how about a bunch of Chuck Berry covers? Can they even PLAY that shit? 😀

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  3. That’s a great point you make about their career being pre and post Joshua Tree. You could argue that their music previously was the long struggle up to the pinnacle, and everything after it the slow descent. I could go with that theory, however “Achtung Baby” kind of messes it up really.

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    1. Yeah and I may not have expressed it well but I was thinking less musically and more star to megastar. Happened to a certain extent with the Dead after “Touch of Grey.” Such a big hit that the parking lot scene became filled with hippie wannabes leaving the old stoners in some dismay.

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      1. No I understood, I agree with you, they did move from stardom to mega-stardom with “The Joshua Tree”.
        I appreciate that you pointed out two critical points that for me, raised their profile immensely, Red Rock and Live Aid.

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        1. Jumping-off points. Having read their bio, it’s interesting to observe that – minus this or that thing happening – they might have been just like a million other bands, never escaping the gravitational pull of Dublin.

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