In 1980, Tom Snyder, on the old Tomorrow show (which occupied the time slot now held by Jimmy Fallon), four Irish lads, not even 20 yet, appeared. They reminded people of The Beatles in their early days. The singer had an odd name, calling himself “Bono Vox.” The guitar player called himself “The Edge.” Their music was raw and edgy, the lyrics seemingly improvised but dark.
They were U2, and they were the force to be reckoned with in the 1980’s. In the 50’s, Elvis fused black blues with white country and called it rock and roll. In the 60’s, The Beatles reinvented rock and roll. In the 70’s, Led Zeppelin turned up the volume and gave it a dark side.
U2 would be back to basics. In an age when synthpop dominated, and heavy metal was moving to thundering three-chord menace, U2 took its cues from the punk movement, its sound driven by The Edge’s (real name David Evans) guitar. Bono (born Paul Hewson) began writing more and more socially conscious lyrics. By 1983, they had established themselves with the single “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (about the 1972 Bogside Massacre in Belfast). Rolling Stone was calling them “heroes” at that point. Not bad for a band formed in drummer Larry Mullen’s kitchen in 1976.
U2 broke in Ireland in early 1979 and reached the top of the music industry in 1983. This is the point where successful bands suddenly slide into that limbo zone between “hot new thing” and “classic rock,” where they’re forgotten for a few years before returning on a wave of nostalgia. Not U2. Instead, they followed up their opening salvo of Boy, October, and War with 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Its biggest hit, “In the Name of Love,” about the death of Martin Luther King, established the band’s reputation of social awareness. Bono could be overwhelming and in-your-face about issues he cared about, often calling out Jerry Falwell in during live performances (provocative, since U2 are all Christians), but he was never as pompous or angry about it as Roger Waters. Waters would nearly destroy Pink Floyd with his zeal. Bono would look at it as a tool both for change and for the band’s sound. Bassist Adam Clayton said they were trying to avoid becoming another “shrill, sloganeering arena-rock band.” They hired Brian Eno, he of the ambient, New Age sound, to produce. Eno led them to more complex, less-intrusive rhythm and more experimental guitar work. This is where Edge’s distinctive sound emerged.
They followed up with 1986’s The Joshua Tree, probably the band’s signature album. From it came hits “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” The band benefited greatly from friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards, who urged them to study blues, Irish, and Gospel music. The sound became deeper, more complex. Their reputation also grew. They might not have been shrill or sloganeering, but only arenas could contain a U2 show.
It would not have been surprising if U2 went off the rails in 1989. At the peak of their popularity, they released the live-ish album and film Rattle and Hum. The film offended many, including previously enthusiastic Rolling Stone critics, who found the band’s comparisons of themselves to The Beatles the height of hubris.
Stung by the criticism, they decided to break with the past and spend the 1990’s experimenting, never recording the same album twice. 1990 saw the release of Achtung Baby, a back-to-basics rock album that included the hit “Mysterious Ways.”
They spent the 90’s experimenting both in the live setting and in the studio with Zooropa and Pop, both of which saw them pushing the boundaries with live multi-media shows instead of spartan stage sets. Sometimes, they were accused of selling-out, but they were U2. They could do whatever they wanted and did so.
As the New Millennium dawned, U2 decided they were “reapplying for the job of Best Band in the World.” They moved back into more conventional rock, peaking with 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Since then, they have, as many solo artists and bands have done in their later years, turned to producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin to bring out their best sound with No Line on the Horizon.
U2 is often compared to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin for their influence in the decade where they became dominant, but whatever the changes, it’s not hard to pick out a U2 song even if one is unfamiliar with it, no matter the style. In that regard, as well as their longevity, perhaps a better comparison would be The Rolling Stones.