U2 - Biography
By Michael Keefe
Irish rockers U2 rose up through the ranks of early '80s post-punk acts to become one of the most popular and influential bands of all time. The group's best works are united by an anthemic feel, as Bono's surging vocals, The Edge's ringing guitar, and the propulsive rhythm section of Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton all work in synchrony to both elevate and deepen their sound. All of their albums have gone platinum in both the US and the UK. U2 have won many awards, including 22 Grammys and seven BRIT Awards. In 2005, they were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Following fourteen-year-old Larry Mullen, Jr.'s poster seeking bandmates, U2 formed in September 1976, initially calling themselves Feedback. The final quartet of singer Bono (Paul Hewson), guitarist The Edge (Dave Evans), bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Mullen were augmented at first by Edge's older brother Dik on guitar. They began as a covers band, and then changed their name to The Hype in March 1977. One year later, following tensions exacerbated by his difference in age from the rest of the band, Dik Evans left The Hype. He would later form post-punkers The Virgin Prunes. The remaining four immediately changed their name to U2 and switched to playing all original material. The group won a talent show later that month, enabling them to record a demo in April. In May 1978, The Stranglers' manager Paul McGuinness took the band of teenagers under his wing.
U2's first release was the EP Three (CBS 1979). Along with early versions of "Stories for Boys" and "Out of Control," the EP featured the poppy and slightly punk "Boy/Girl." Issued only in their home country, Three topped the Irish charts in late 1979. This local success led to the band signing with Island Records. In-house producer and future legend Steve Lillywhite helmed the recording sessions at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios that would lead to U2's debut album, Boy (1980 Island). The black and white cover and taut, wiry ambiance of the record reflected the growing post-punk movement of the time. U2's sound, however, was far less bleak and more accessible than that of their contemporaries. Along with Echo & the Bunnymen's debut of the same year, Crocodiles, U2's Boy signaled a shift to a more extroverted, energetic sound. Album opener "I Will Follow" charges out of the gate and is followed by the fiery growl of "Twilight." Though "A Day without Me" failed to chart, it too is a rousing single. An excellent debut, Boy hit #13 in Ireland, #52 in England, and #63 in America. It has also received high marks from most critics (aside from the prickly Robert Christgau, who gave it a C+).
The next year, U2 and Lillywhite returned to Windmill Lane and knocked out the band's second LP, October (1981 Isalnd). Even U2 were not immune to the sophomore slump, as evidenced by this solid yet unexceptional release. Its sound is too similar to Boy, but without the same high quality songwriting. That said, Latin language rocker "Gloria" is a terrific track which reached #10 in Ireland. First single "Fire" did better, hitting #4 in U2's homeland and #35 in the UK. Album cuts "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "I Fall Down" are also highlights. America's initial interest in U2 dipped with October, which reached only #104 on the Billboard 200. In the UK, however, it hit #11.
U2 experienced their first big breakthrough with the release of their third album, War (1983 Island). Lillywhite and the band expanded their sonic palette, adding guest musicians to imbue certain songs with distinct flavors. Opener and future U2 classic "Sunday Bloody Sunday," for instance, features electric violinist Steve Wickham. Deeper into the record, vocal group The Coconuts add a sweet and sultry air to "Red Light" and "Surrender." Elsewhere, Kenny Fradley contributes trumpet parts, and The Edge plays lap steel. It was the timeless "New Year's Day," however, that won U2 a worldwide "modern rock" audience. MTV was saturated with that video's stark imagery and the song's mercurial mix of longing, bitterness, and underlying hope.
That same year, U2 capitalized on the success of another legendary MTV phenomenon – multiple airings of their rain-soaked concert in Red Rocks, Colorado – to solidify their fan base with their first live effort, the Jimmy Iovine produced mini-LP Under a Blood Red Sky (1983 Island), a somewhat brief yet riveting introduction to U2's prowess in concert.
With the release of their fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire (1984 Island), U2 stepped firmly beyond their post-punk phase. Produced by Brian Eno and his then-protégé Daniel Lanois, the record presented a more interior aspect of U2. They traded the punch of War for a greater reliance on atmospheric sounds and a moody aura. Despite that, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" packed a huge wallop and got the band their first US Top 40 slot at #33. In England, the song became their second #2 hit. Though no other single made it big, panoramic anti-heroin album cut "Bad" has since become a classic.
The next year saw an EP from the band. The title of Wide Awake in America (1985 Island) was taken from the lyrics to "Bad," an epic live version of which kicks off the release. It's followed by a live rendition of "A Sort of Homecoming" and two strong b-sides, "The Three Sunrises" and "Love Comes Tumbling." That July, U2 played a career-making set at Live Aid, displaying their passion, generosity, and ability to rock out in front of tens of thousands of concert goers.
Even without a major release, the group's stature and fan base grew mightily over the two-plus years between albums. When LP five, The Joshua Tree (1987 Island) arrived in spring 1987, anticipation was extremely high. U2 exceeded everyone's expectations, releasing one of the greatest and biggest selling albums of the decade. Working again with Eno and Lanois, U2 looked to the musical traditions of America for inspiration in their songwriting, but transformed these inspirations through their own prism. Cross-Atlantic #1 first single and smoldering ballad "With or Without You" begins with echoes of Johnny Cash, only to surge upward and outward in patented U2 style during its second half. Its hugely successful follow-up, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," is based on gospel music (as the band would later magnify). With its propulsive rhythm, "Where the Streets Have No Name" went Top 20 in the US and the UK and proved a worthy sonic successor to "Pride." The album tracks are just as satisfying. The seething and serpentine "Bullet the Blue Sky" melds the ferocity of War with the textures of The Unforgettable Fire. Back-to-back tracks "In God's Country" and "Trip through Your Wires" put U2's Americana fascination front and center, while the album's closing trio mine intense emotions, dark territories, and the deep sorrows of closing song "The Mothers of the Disappeared." Along with rapturous reviews, The Joshua Tree reached #1 in five countries, including America and England. In the US, it has reached diamond album status (meaning sales of 10 million or more copies).
Riding this wave of success, U2 followed quickly with Rattle and Hum (1988 Island), a companion piece to the Phil Joanou-directed documentary of the same name. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, the 72-minute album careens from live tracks to new studio recordings, with a snippet from a street musician thrown in. This makes for an intriguing, yet not terribly cohesive, listening experience. Though hardly a classic U2 album, Rattle and Hum succeeds more often that it fails, offering several great tracks along the way. Thumping, rockabilly-based lead single "Desire" hit #3 in American and #1 in England. Dedicated to Billie Holiday, the soulful "Angel of Harlem" went Top 20 in both countries. Though not as successful as a single, the brooding and gorgeous "All I Want Is You" is an album highlight and an enduring favorite.
Throughout the 1980s, U2 always emerged with the right sound at the right time. In the fall of 1991, the band emerged with another whole new aesthetic. Abandoning the neo-hippie look and earnestness of their late-'80s appeal, U2 in the early 1990s looked like bikers at a European disco. To a degree, the Eno/Lanois-produced Achtung Baby (1991 Island) mirrors this image. U2's Americana phase is funneled down into Edge's gritty rock guitars, but that sound is also married to an increased reliance on electronics. So, right as the paradigm-shifting grunge-pop of Nirvana's Nevermind began to burn up the airwaves, and just as rave culture and electronica were catching on, U2 delivered an album that fused aspects of each of these trends into a highly listenable album perfectly suited to a mainstream rock and pop audience. Along with deservedly rapturous reviews, the album reached #1 in the UK and #2 in the US, where it has sold over eight million copies. Achtung Baby also produced five very good singles that all reached either #1 or #2 in America and went Top 10 in England. "One" has become a modern standard, as has the haunting album track, "Love Is Blindness."
Two years later, U2 issued Zooropa (1993 Island). Relying more heavily on electronics and less on conventional songwriting, the album highlighted the band's interests in both atmospherics and electronica, though the songs remain generally rock-based. The album reached #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, but sold fewer copies than its predecessor. None of its singles – "Numb," "Lemon," "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" – fared well on the charts. Though reviewed favorably at the time, Zooropa has not stood well the test of time. The glitzy monstrosity of its tour, Zoo TV, also reinforced the growing notion that the once modest U2 had grown conceited and crass.
U2's infatuation with electronica resulted in something of a side project called Passengers, a one-time "band" consisting of U2 and Brian Eno. The latter's influence dominated their lone album, Original Soundtracks 1 (1995 Island). Larry Mullen was left out of the proceedings entirely, and Edge's and Adam Clayton's contributions are minimal (though the latter narrates on "Some Kind of Blue"). Mostly the album is chilly ambient pop that features Bono's generally restrained vocals on half the tracks. Of greatest note is the single "Miss Sarajevo," which features vocal parts from Luciano Pavarotti.
U2 hardened their sound for their next album, Pop (1997 Island). The title of US Top 10 lead single "Discothèque" encapsulates the general feel of the album, as Euro club music provides the filter for U2's songs. The sound here, however, is so highly compressed that there's no room left for group dynamics. Even all of the member's live parts sound like samples, which doesn't serve a rock band particularly well. Despite mixed reviews, Pop reached the #1 slot in 12 countries. That said, its popularity was fleeting and sales were ultimately disappointing for an artist of U2's stature.
The following year, U2 released their first compilation, The Best of 1980-1990 (1998 Island), a satisfying retrospective of the band's first decade. Though it leans a bit heavily on the latter half of the group's first six albums, it's hard to argue too much with the selection of so many strong songs that were also top-sellers. A limited edition bonus disc included many excellent b-sides. A remix of "Sweetest Thing" (itself originally a b-side) emerged as a new single and made the UK Top 40. The Best of 1980-1990 reached #1 in America and #2 in England.
At the turn of another decade in U2's career, it was clear that the band needed yet another reinvention. Rather than completely revamping their sound, U2 opted to consolidate all of their previous incarnations into a unified identity. If you'd loved any aspect of U2 in the past, you'd be sure to find a treasure or two on the appropriately titled All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000 Island). This is the sound of U2 simply being U2. Opening track and UK #1 "Beautiful Day" bounces lightly through its verses and rings out huge in the chorus. Like most of the Eno/Lanois-produced album, elements of electronica are utilized, but sparingly, allowing U2's rock elements to return to form. Most of the songs are mid-tempo, lean toward major keys, and feature big, surging, soaring moments. Though the singles didn't fair all that well in the US, All That You Can't Leave Behind made it to Billboard's #3 and reached #1 in England and 11 other countries. It also earned seven Grammys for the band.
That amazing feat would be topped four years later with U2's next album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004 Island). What might appear to be an anti-war album reveals more of the themes of interpersonal relationships and questions of faith that ran throughout U2's prior LP. Catchy and aggressive lead single "Vertigo" featured prominently in an ad for Apple's iPod, leading the song to #1 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart, as well as the top spot in the UK. Other singles went Top 10 in England, while finding less commercial success in America. The album, however, performed remarkably well all over the world. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb reached #1 in 14 countries and won eight Grammys.
Two years earlier, U2 had released another decade-spanning compilation, Best of 1990-2000 (2002 Island). Given the uneven quality of the band's releases during that time span, the collection does well to corral their biggest hits, along with two songs previously only available on soundtracks ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" and "The Hands That Build America"), plus a new single, "Electrical Storm," which reached #5 in England. In 2006, U2 issued their third "best of" in eight years, U218 Singles (2006 Island). Adequately summing up the group's whole career in 18 tracks is nearly impossible, but U218 Singles offers a fine sampler for the casual fan or a good introduction to the newcomer. Also on the collection are two new songs, including U2's thunderous teaming with Green Day, "The Saints Are Coming," which became a #2 UK hit.
Throughout their three-decade career, U2 have mostly transcended the scene around them, reinventing post-punk for a wider audience, ushering alternative music into stadiums around the world, and establishing a following of modern acts such as Coldplay, Elbow, and Keane. U2's albums The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are widely considered rock masterpieces and have also sold millions of copies. They are also among the most highly awarded acts in music history. U2 is expected to release a new record in early 2009.