“We all have views on what our Irishness means to us. Two members of the band were born in England and were raised in the Protestant faith. Bono’s mother was Protestant and his father was Catholic. I was brought up Catholic. U2 are a living example of the kind of unity of faith and tradition that is possible in Northern Ireland.” – Larry Mullen Jr.
Throughout the Nineties, U2 experimented with a change in their sound. Through three albums – Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, they tried techno, dance, and electronica with mixed results. I give them credit for expanding their sound and trying to stay relevant.That said, the band was not all necessarily aligned on their sound.
It was Bono and Edge that wanted to experiment, with the other guys wanting more of the older sound. “We were suddenly, musically, on different levels and it affected everything,” said Mullen. “Nobody knew what the fuck anyone else was talking about.”
Around the time of Achtung Baby (named for a Mel Brooks clip from a Producers-related video), Edge was listening to industrial rock like Nine Inch Nails while Mullen was listening to classic rock. Tempers flared and the band again came close to breaking up. And for the first time, Bono and Edge started composing songs away from the others.
And sometimes, that conflict is just what is needed to create great music. One of U2’s finest, most acclaimed songs is “One,” a tune which is frequently misunderstood.
Bono: “The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people wanted it at their weddings. I have certainly met a hundred people who’ve had it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s a song about splitting up.” (Why, then, call it “One” and have such a soothing tone?)
The band continued touring in the Nineties behind their Zooropa album. I was personally not following them much during this period. But their ZooTV* tour was called by Q magazine, “the most spectacular rock tour staged by any band.” I do know that one of the characters Bono played was a leather-clad “egomaniacal rock star” which, I think, came dangerously close to self-parody.
The Pop album kicked off with a song called “Discotheque,” whose video showed the guys dressed up as… the Village People? Not sure what this was all about but I guess it was the logical extension of their dance music interest. The PopMart** tour was another multimedia extravaganza during which “on several occasions, the mirrorball lemon from which the band emerged for the encores malfunctioned, trapping them inside.” Can you say Spinal Tap?
After they got that stuff out of their system, the band decided to “return to their old recording ethos of the band playing in a room together.” (Thank you). In 2000 they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Lotsa good stuff on this – “Beautiful Day,” “Stuck in a Moment,” “Walk On.” Reunited with Eno and Lanois, sounds like they found their way again.
Here’s a song I’ve always dug, “Elevation.” This is the Lara Croft (and, to these ears, much better) version.
Spotify link. (Album version.)
The band played at Madison Square Garden after the 9/11 attacks providing them with some of their most emotional concerts. (I can’t think of too many bands that have that kind of connection with the audience. Springsteen, certainly, maybe some of the country artists.) They followed that up by playing at the 2002 SuperBowl XXXVI halftime show, again paying tribute to 9/11 victims.
Of their 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono said, “I wanted to check where I was to where I am. So I went back and listened to all the music that made me want to be in a band, right from the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen, all that stuff. [This is} our first rock album. It’s taken us twenty years or whatever it is, but this is our first rock album.” I’m not really sure what that means but ok.
Here’s “Vertigo.” Uno, dos, tres, catorce!
I should note here during all this time, the band kept touring and breaking records with every single tour. (The Vertigo tour had some dates canceled due to an illness to Edge’s daughter. And for the record, several of the guys had long since married their teenage sweethearts. Bono’s still married to his as is Mullen.)
According to Wikipedia, “The group’s tours ranked them second in total concert grosses for the decade behind only the Rolling Stones, although U2 had a significantly higher attendance figure. They were the only band in the top 25 touring acts of the 2000’s to sell out every show they played.”
The last two studio albums the band made, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon and 2014’s Songs of Innocence did not produce any radio hits as such. Songs of Innocence “recalls the group members’ youth in Ireland, touching on childhood experiences, love, and losses, while paying tribute to their musical inspirations. Bono described it as “the most personal album we’ve written.”
Its distribution was also a colossal marketing fuckup. The guys, apparently thinking that everybody now loved everything they did, released the album into everybody’s iTunes account. Now I personally thought a free album was great. But a lot of people were greatly offended. This seemed to me like an overreaction. I mean, just delete the fucking songs if you don’t want them. But this didn’t help the band’s reputation for sometimes being arrogant.
The Songs of Innocence tour remains the only U2 show I’ve seen. While I really have come to dig the band, they clearly were of a different generation. As much as I enjoyed the show, there were definitely some songs I did not know and I sometimes felt a little disengaged. (This was the tour where one of their Paris shows got postponed due to the terrorist attacks on the city. HBO later broadcast the rescheduled performance.)
In 2010, Bono and Edge got themselves involved in one of Broadway’s most controversial musicals, SpiderMan: Turn Off the Dark. They may well wish they never had as it was plagued by near-catastrophic screw ups, a fired director and poor reviews of both show and music. (I actually saw this show on Broadway very near the end of its run in 2014. I thought it was pretty good.)
In 2014, Bono took a spill off his bike, screwing himself up pretty good. There was some question about whether or not he’d play guitar again, leading everyone to say, “Bono plays guitar?”
He recovered of course and as of this writing, the band is in the middle of their Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour. In its first 20 shows, the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 grossed $123.7 million from 1.04 million tickets sold. To date, it has sold 2.4 million tickets.
Rolling Stone placed U2 at number 22 on its list of The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time while ranking Bono the 32nd-greatest singer and the Edge the 38th-greatest guitarist. In 2010, eight of U2’s songs appeared on Rolling Stone‘s updated list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Five of the group’s twelve studio albums were ranked on the magazine’s 2012 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
U2 received their first Grammy Award in 1988 for The Joshua Tree, and they have won 22 in total out of 34 nominations, more than any other group. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by Bruce Springsteen) in March 2005. Of them, the Bruce said, they’d “beaten [the odds] by continuing to do their finest work and remaining at the top of their game and the charts for 25 years.”
U2 have sold more than 170 million records, placing them among the best-selling music artists in history. They dropped a single called “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” in September, 2017. Their next album, Songs of Experience is due out December 1, 2017.
*Larry Mullen missed a dress rehearsal for a show during this time due to a hangover. This was not only the first time any member had missed a show but finally evinced a little bit of the “bad boy” behavior some people think rock bands are supposed to display. He has since given up drinking.
**The best thing about the PopMart tour was the band’s appearance on The Simpsons. Worth checking out the whole clip. (If Fox doesn’t pull it again.)
A U2 sampler for – as always – your dining and dancing pleasure.