U2 is one of the most iconic and influential bands in music history and one of my favourite bands.
Over the years, U2 has released numerous popular albums that have topped charts around the world, including The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. They have won 22 Grammys, more than any other band, Stole the show at Live Aid and pissed off millions of iPod users with their free album.
I’ve been a huge fan since watching the Rattle & Hum movie. I’ve seen them live more than any other artist and continue to play their albums on rotation. But who are U2, really?
The Band That Plays Together Stays Together
A quote from the Edge at one of their countless awards. But it’s a true point – U2 are one of the few bands that have remained together as they grew from a Dublin band to Global Megastars. Could it be that all four members are credited with the song writing, that all of the money is split four ways (five with their original manager) or that each band member brings something to the party?
Larry Mullen Jr. posted a hand written note on his notice board of Mount Temple school in the summer of 1976. “Drummer seeks musicians to form band.” He was 14. The three budding musicians that came to those first auditions were David Evans, Adam Clayton and Paul Hewson.
Since those first auditions, Larry has been the backbone of the band. His drumming style is both intense and nuanced, able to play with rhythm and groove while also adding energy and movement to U2’s songs. It’s Larry that keeps the band grounded musically and emotionally – a foil for Bono’s more grandiose ideas! He only add the Jr. to his name when his date (Mullen Senior) started receiving tax bills for his son’s success!
From their first album, the guitar style of The Edge has been unique and unmissable. Born David Howell Evans , he was given the nickname ‘The Edge’ by Bono and his gang which has remained to this day. His compositions, and his cool just add to the unique mix that is U2. You can hear is unique guitar style from the opening chords of ‘I Will Follow’ the opening track of their debut album. It is the Edge that often comes up with the musical direction sharing them with the band to flesh out what becomes the U2 sound.
Bono Vox is one of the most iconic and influential singers in music history. His nickname came from a hearing aid shop in their Dublin neighbourhood. A singer with a talent for lyrics, singing – and showing off, his style belies a deep Christian faith. The subjects and themes from the bible occasionally appear overtly in U2 songs like Until the End of the World (Achtung Baby), If God Will Send his Angels (Pop) but the themes are there. “Carry the Cross of My Shame” from ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for (Joshua Tree) is a particular favourite lyric of mine.
” To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.” wrote Joshua Rothman in The Church of U2.
To me Adam Clayton is an underrated bassist who has got better over time. Certainly on the first two albums, his basslines are pretty simplistic and not as unique as the Edge’s guitar style. From War, you can start to hear his bass take more of a foundational role in songs like Seconds, Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day. Whilst his bass is rarely the lead (try 4th July on the Unforgettable Fire, and Your Blue Room from Passengers) it serves as a fundamental anchor to the groove of U2.
Big Hits and Deep Cuts
For every global hit, there are more deeper album cuts that showcase the quality and depth of Bono’s writing and their musicianship. Their topics cover religion, exploration, tragedy (Red Hill Mining Town) injustice (Mothers of the Disappeared) , Disintegrating relationships parental friction (Sometimes you can’t make it on your own) and possibly, mental health (The Troubles.)
Some of their later albums find the band in reflective mood sharing some of the stories and feelings that propelled them along. For me, the albums Pop and Songs of Innocence get overlooked depriving listeners of some great great music.
1994’s Pop came with a lot of confusion. Had the band really lost it and gone disco? Had they deserted their roots and gambled wrong? Yes the signature guitar sound of the Joshua Tree was replaced with a different feel, but the songs were still U2. Ironically it was Discotheque that achieved a number one hit, not Pride!
In Rolling Stone, Barney Hoskins wrote, “with Pop, they’ve defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives. Pretty heroic stuff, come to think of it.”
The 2014 release of ‘Innocence’ was overshadowed by a media stunt that just added fuel to the U2 grievances, which were unjustified in my opinion. if you can get past the press you will find one of the most personal albums the band has ever released. Speaking to Rolling Stone before the release Bono said, “We wanted to make a very personal album …. Let’s try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys — first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”
These personal stories are told in songs like Cedarwood Road where Bono grew up. Iris, a song about Bonos’ late mother who passed away when he was just a teenager. For me it is the final track that seals it. With a title of The Troubles one immediately assumes it’s the Irish Troubles, but if you listen to the lyrics it is something else.
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control
You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do
I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me and then hurt me some more
I can live with denial
But you’re not my troubles anymore
Maybe it’s time for a reappraisal of U2?