Formation and early years (1976–1980)
In 1976, Larry Mullen Jr., then a 14-year-old pupil of Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland, posted a note on the school’s notice board in search of musicians for a new band. Six people responded and met at his house on 25 September. Set up in the kitchen, Mullen was on drums, with: Paul Hewson (“Bono”) on lead vocals; David Evans (“the Edge”) and his older brother Dik Evans on guitar; Adam Clayton, a friend of the Evans brothers, on bass guitar; and initially Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin, two other friends of Mullen. Mullen later described it as “‘The Larry Mullen Band’ for about ten minutes, then Bono walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge.” Martin, who had brought his guitar and amplifier to the first practice but could not play, did not remain with the group, and McCormick was dropped after a few weeks. The remaining five members settled on the name “Feedback” for the group because it was one of the few technical terms they knew. Most of their initial material consisted of cover songs, which they admitted was not their forte. Some of the earliest influences on the band were emerging punk rock acts, such as the Jam, the Clash, Buzzcocks, and Sex Pistols. The popularity of punk rock convinced the group that musical proficiency was not a prerequisite to success.
We couldn’t believe it. I was completely shocked. We weren’t of an age to go out partying as such but I don’t think anyone slept that night … Really, it was just a great affirmation to win that competition, even though I’ve no idea how good we were or what the competition was really like. But to win at that point was incredibly important for morale and everyone’s belief in the whole project.
—The Edge, on winning the talent contest in Limerick
In April 1977, Feedback played their first gig for a paying audience at St. Fintan’s High School. Shortly thereafter, the band changed their name to “The Hype”. Dik Evans, who was older and by that time attending college, was becoming the odd man out. The rest of the band was leaning towards the idea of a four-piece ensemble. In March 1978, the group changed their name to “U2”. Steve Averill, a punk rock musician (with the Radiators) and family friend of Clayton’s, had suggested six potential names from which the band chose U2 for its ambiguity and open-ended interpretations, and because it was the name that they disliked the least. That same month, U2, as a four-piece, won a talent contest in Limerick sponsored by Harp Lager and the Evening Press. The prize consisted of £500 and a recording session for a demo that would be heard by record label CBS Ireland. The win was an important milestone and affirmation for the fledgling act. Within a few days, Dik Evans was officially phased out of the band with a farewell concert at the Presbyterian Church Hall in Howth. During the show, which featured the group playing cover songs as the Hype, Dik ceremonially walked offstage. The remaining four band members returned later in the concert to play original material as U2. Dik joined another band, the Virgin Prunes, which comprised mutual friends of U2’s; the Prunes were their default opening act early on, and the two groups often shared members for live performances to cover for occasional absences. As part of their contest prize, U2 recorded their first demo tape at Keystone Studios in Dublin in April 1978, but the results were largely unsuccessful due to their inexperience.
Irish magazine Hot Press was influential in shaping U2’s future; in addition to being one of their earliest allies, the publication’s journalist Bill Graham introduced the band to Paul McGuinness, who agreed to be their manager in mid-1978. With the connections he was making within the music industry, McGuinness booked demo sessions for the group and sought to garner them a record deal. The band continued to build their fanbase with performances across Ireland, the most famous of which were a series of Saturday afternoon shows at Dublin’s Dandelion Market in the summer of 1979. In August, U2 recorded demos at Windmill Lane Studios with CBS talent scout Chas de Whalley producing, marking the first of the band’s many recordings at the studio during their career. The following month, three songs from the session were released by CBS as the Ireland-only EP Three. It was the group’s first chart success, selling all 1,000 copies of its limited edition 12-inch vinyl almost immediately. In December 1979, the band performed in London for their first shows outside Ireland, although they were unable to gain much attention from audiences or critics. On 26 February 1980, their second single, “Another Day“, was released on the CBS label, but again only for the Irish market. The same day, U2 played a show at the 2,000-seat National Stadium in Dublin as part of an Irish tour. Despite their gamble of booking a concert in such a large venue, the move paid off. Bill Stewart, an A&R representative for Island Records, was in attendance and offered to sign them to the label. The following month, the band signed a four-year, four-album contract with Island, which included a £50,000 advance and £50,000 in tour support.
Boy and October (1980–1982)
In May 1980, U2 released “11 O’Clock Tick Tock“, their first international single and their debut on Island, but it failed to chart. Martin Hannett, who produced the single, was slated to produce the band’s debut album, Boy, but ultimately was replaced with Steve Lillywhite. From July to September 1980, U2 recorded the album at Windmill Lane Studios, drawing from their nearly 40-song repertoire at the time. Lillywhite suggested recording Mullen’s drums in a stairwell, and recording smashed bottles and forks played against a spinning bicycle wheel. The band found Lillywhite to be very encouraging and creative; Bono called him “such a breath of fresh air”, while the Edge said he “had a great way of pulling the best out of everybody”. The album’s lead single, “A Day Without Me“, was released in August. Although it did not chart, the song was the impetus for the Edge’s purchase of a delay effect unit, the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, which came to define his guitar playing style and had a significant impact on the group’s creative output.
Released in October 1980, Boy received generally positive reviews. Paul Morley of NME called it “touching, precocious, full of archaic and modernist conviction”, while Declan Lynch of Hot Press said he found it “almost impossible to react negatively to U2’s music”. Bono’s lyrics reflected on adolescence, innocence, and the passage into adulthood, themes represented on the album cover through the photo of a young boy’s face. Boy peaked at number 52 in the United Kingdom and number 63 in the United States. The album included the band’s first songs to receive airplay on US radio, including the single “I Will Follow“, which reached number 20 on the Top Tracks rock chart. Boy‘s release was followed by the Boy Tour, U2’s first tour of continental Europe and the US. Despite being unpolished, these early live performances demonstrated the band’s potential, as critics complimented their ambition and Bono’s exuberance.
Bono and the Edge performing on the Boy Tour
in May 1981
The band faced several challenges in writing their second album, October. On an otherwise successful American leg of the Boy Tour, Bono’s briefcase containing in-progress lyrics and musical ideas was lost backstage during a March 1981 performance at a nightclub in Portland, Oregon. The band had limited time to write new music on tour and in July began a two-month recording session at Windmill Lane Studios largely unprepared, forcing Bono to quickly improvise lyrics. Lillywhite, reprising his role as producer, called the sessions “completely chaotic and mad”. October‘s lead single, “Fire“, was released in July and was U2’s first song to chart in the UK. Despite garnering the band an appearance on UK television programme Top of the Pops, the single fell in the charts afterwards. On 16 August 1981, the group opened for Thin Lizzy at the inaugural Slane Concert, but the Edge called it “one of the worst shows [U2] ever played in [their] lives”. Adding to this period of self-doubt, Bono’s, the Edge’s, and Mullen’s involvement in a Charismatic Christian group in Dublin called the “Shalom Fellowship” led them to question the relationship between their religious faith and the lifestyle of a rock band. Bono and the Edge considered quitting U2 due to their perceived spiritual conflicts before deciding to leave Shalom instead.
October was released in October 1981 and contained overtly spiritual themes. The album received mixed reviews and limited radio play, and although it debuted at number 11 in the UK, it sold poorly elsewhere. The single “Gloria” was U2’s first song to have its music video played on MTV, generating excitement for the band during the October Tour of 1981–1982 in markets where the television channel was available. During the tour, U2 met Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, who became their principal photographer and has had a major influence on their vision and public image. In March 1982, the band played 14 dates as the opening act for the J. Geils Band, increasing their exposure. Still, U2 were disappointed by their lack of progress by the end of the October Tour. Having run out of money and feeling unsupported by their record label, the group committed to improving; Clayton recalled that “there was a firm resolve to come out of the box fighting with the next record”.
After the October Tour, U2 decamped to a rented cottage in Howth, where they lived, wrote new songs, and rehearsed for their third album, War. Significant musical breakthroughs were achieved by the Edge in August 1982 during a two-week period of independent songwriting, while the other band members vacationed and Bono honeymooned with his wife, Ali. From September to November, the group recorded War at Windmill Lane Studios. Lillywhite, who had a policy of not working with an artist more than twice, was convinced by the group to return as their producer for a third time. The recording sessions featured contributions from violinist Steve Wickham and the female singers of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. For the first time, Mullen agreed to play drums to a click track to keep time. After completing the album, U2 undertook a short tour of Western Europe in December.
War‘s lead single, “New Year’s Day“, was released on 1 January 1983. It reached number 10 in the UK and became the group’s first hit outside of Europe; in the US, it received extensive radio coverage and peaked at number 53. Resolving their doubts of the October period, U2 released War in February. Critically, the album received favourable reviews, although a few UK reviewers were critical of it. Nonetheless, it was the band’s first commercial success, debuting at number one in the UK, while reaching number 12 in the US. War‘s sincerity and “rugged” guitar were intentionally at odds with the trendier synthpop of the time. A record on which the band “turned pacifism itself into a crusade”, War was lyrically more political than their first two records, focusing on the physical and emotional effects of warfare. The album included the protest song “Sunday Bloody Sunday“, in which Bono lyrically tried to contrast the events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday shooting with Easter Sunday. Other songs from the record addressed topics such as nuclear proliferation (“Seconds”) and the Polish Solidarity movement (“New Year’s Day”). War was U2’s first record to feature Corbijn’s photography. The album cover depicted the same young child who had appeared on the cover of their debut album, albeit with his previously innocent expression replaced by a fearful one.
On the subsequent 1983 War Tour of Europe, the US, and Japan, the band began to play progressively larger venues, moving from clubs to halls to arenas. Bono attempted to engage the growing audiences with theatrical, often dangerous antics, climbing scaffoldings and lighting rigs and jumping into the audience. The sight of Bono waving a white flag during performances of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” became the tour’s iconic image. The band played several dates at large European and American music festivals, including a performance at the US Festival on Memorial Day weekend for an audience of 125,000 people. The group’s 5 June 1983 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on a rain-soaked evening was singled out by Rolling Stone as one of “50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll”. The show was recorded for the concert video Live at Red Rocks and was one of several concerts from the tour captured on their live album Under a Blood Red Sky. The releases received extensive play on MTV and the radio, expanding the band’s audience and showcasing their prowess as a live act. During the tour, the group established a new tradition by closing concerts with the War track “40“, during which the Edge and Clayton would switch instruments and the band members would leave the stage one-by-one as the crowd continued to sing the refrain “How long to sing this song?”. The War Tour was U2’s first profitable tour, grossing about US$2 million.
The Unforgettable Fire and Live Aid (1984–1985)
With their record deal with Island Records coming to an end, U2 signed a more lucrative extension in 1984. They negotiated the return of the copyrights of their songs, an increase in their royalty rate, and a general improvement in terms, at the expense of a larger initial payment.
U2 feared that following the overt rock of the War album and tour, they were in danger of becoming another “shrill”, “sloganeering arena-rock band”. They were confident that fans would embrace them as successors to groups like the Who and Led Zeppelin, but according to Bono: “something just didn’t feel right. We felt we had more dimension than just the next big anything, we had something unique to offer.” Thus, they sought experimentation for their fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire. Clayton said, “We were looking for something that was a bit more serious, more arty.” The Edge admired the ambient and “weird works” of Brian Eno, who, along with his engineer Daniel Lanois, eventually agreed to produce the record. Their hiring contravened the initial recommendation of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who believed that just when the band were about to achieve the highest levels of success, Eno would “bury them under a layer of avant-garde nonsense”.
Partly recorded in Slane Castle, The Unforgettable Fire was released in October 1984 and was at the time the band’s most marked change in direction. It was ambient and abstract, and featured a rich, orchestrated sound. Under Lanois’ direction, Mullen’s drumming became looser, funkier, and more subtle, and Clayton’s bass became more subliminal. Complementing the album’s atmospheric sound, the lyrics were left open to interpretation, providing what the band called a “very visual feel”. Due to a tight recording schedule, Bono felt songs like “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” were incomplete “sketches”. The album reached number one in the UK, and was successful in the US. The lead single “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, written about civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr., was the band’s biggest hit to that point and was their first song to chart in the US top 40.
Much of the Unforgettable Fire Tour moved into indoor arenas as U2 began to win their long battle to build their audience. The complex textures of the new studio-recorded tracks, such as “The Unforgettable Fire” and “Bad”, posed a challenge in translating to live performances. One solution was programming music sequencers, which the band had previously been reluctant to use but now incorporate into the majority of their performances. Songs on the album had been criticised as being “unfinished”, “fuzzy”, and “unfocused”, but were better received by critics when played on stage. Rolling Stone, which was critical of the album version of “Bad”, described its live performance as a “show stopper”.
In March 1985, a Rolling Stone cover story 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”. On 13 July 1985, the group performed at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium for Ethiopian famine relief, before a crowd of 72,000 fans and a worldwide television audience of 1.5 billion people. During a 12-minute performance of “Bad“, Bono climbed down from the stage to embrace and dance with a female fan he had picked out of the crowd, showing a television audience the personal connection that he could make with fans. The performance was regarded as a pivotal event in the band’s career; The Guardian cited Live Aid as the moment that made stars of U2 and included their performance on a list of 50 key events in rock history.
The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum (1986–1990)
The wild beauty, cultural richness, spiritual vacancy and ferocious violence of America are explored to compelling effect in virtually every aspect of The Joshua Tree—in the title and the cover art, the blues and country borrowings evident in the music … Indeed, Bono says that ‘dismantling the mythology of America’ is an important part of The Joshua Tree‘s artistic objective.
For their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, the band wanted to build on The Unforgettable Fire‘s textures, but instead of out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitation of conventional song structures. Realising that “U2 had no tradition” and that their knowledge of music from before their childhood was limited, the group delved into American and Irish roots music. Friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards motivated Bono to explore blues, folk, and gospel music and to focus on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. U2 halted the album sessions in June 1986 to serve as a headline act on the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concert tour for Amnesty International. Rather than distract the band, the tour invigourated their new material. The following month, Bono travelled to Nicaragua and El Salvador and saw first-hand the distress of peasants affected by political conflicts and US military intervention. The experience became a central influence on their new music.
The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987. The album juxtaposes antipathy towards US foreign policy against the group’s deep fascination with the country, its open spaces, freedom, and ideals. The band wanted music with a sense of location and a “cinematic” quality, and the record’s music and lyrics draw on imagery created by American writers whose works the band had been reading. The Joshua Tree was critically acclaimed; Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times said the album “confirms on record what this band has been slowly asserting for three years now on stage: U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago—the greatest rock and roll band in the world”. The record went to number one in over 20 countries, including the UK where it received a platinum certification in 48 hours and sold 235,000 copies in its first week, making it the fastest seller in British chart history at the time. In the US, it spent nine consecutive weeks at number one. The album included the hit singles “With or Without You“, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For“, and “Where the Streets Have No Name“, the first two of which became the group’s only number-one hits in the US. U2 became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, which called them “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”. The album and its songs received four Grammy Award nominations, winning for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Many publications, including Rolling Stone, have cited it as one of rock’s greatest. The Joshua Tree Tour was the first tour on which the band played shows in stadiums alongside smaller arena shows. It grossed US$40 million and drew 3 million attendees.
In October 1988, the group released Rattle and Hum, a double album and theatrically released documentary film that captured the band’s experiences with American roots music on the Joshua Tree Tour. The record featured nine studio tracks and six live U2 performances, including recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis and collaborations with Dylan and B.B. King. Intended as a tribute to American music, the project received mixed reviews from both film and music critics; one Rolling Stone editor spoke of the album’s “excitement”, another described it as “misguided and bombastic”. The film’s director, Phil Joanou, described it as “an overly pretentious look at U2”. Despite the criticism, the album sold 14 million copies and reached number one worldwide. Lead single “Desire” became the band’s first number-one song in the UK while reaching number three in the US. Most of the album’s new material was played on 1989–1990’s Lovetown Tour, which only visited Australasia, Japan, and Europe, so as to avoid the critical backlash the group faced in the US. In addition, they had grown dissatisfied with their live performances; Mullen recalled, “We were the biggest, but we weren’t the best”. With a sense of musical stagnation, Bono said to fans on one of the last dates of the tour that it was “the end of something for U2” and that they had to “go away and … just dream it all up again”.
Achtung Baby, Zoo TV, and Zooropa (1990–1993)
Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy, and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hifi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2 …
—Brian Eno, on the recording of Achtung Baby
Stung by the criticism of Rattle and Hum, the band sought to transform themselves musically. Seeking inspiration from German reunification, they began work on their seventh studio album, Achtung Baby, at Berlin’s Hansa Studios in October 1990 with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. The sessions were fraught with conflict, as the band argued over their musical direction and the quality of their material. While Clayton and Mullen preferred a sound similar to U2’s previous work, Bono and the Edge were inspired by European industrial music and electronic dance music and advocated a change. Weeks of tension and slow progress nearly prompted the group to break up until they made a breakthrough with the improvised writing of the song “One“. They returned to Dublin in 1991, where morale improved and the majority of the album was completed.
Achtung Baby was released in November 1991. The album represented a calculated change in musical and thematic direction for the group; the shift was one of their most dramatic since The Unforgettable Fire. Sonically, the record incorporated influences from alternative rock, dance, and industrial music of the time, and Bono referred to its musical departure as “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree”. Thematically, it was a more introspective and personal record; it was darker, yet at times more flippant than the band’s previous work. Commercially and critically, it has been one of the band’s most successful albums. It produced five hit singles, including “The Fly“, “Mysterious Ways“, and “One”, and it was a crucial part of the band’s early 1990s reinvention. In 1993, Achtung Baby won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Like The Joshua Tree, many publications have cited the record as one of rock’s greatest.
Bono in March 1992 on the Zoo TV Tour
portraying his persona
“The Fly”, a leather-clad egomaniac meant to parody rock stardom.
Like Achtung Baby, the 1992–1993 Zoo TV Tour was an unequivocal break with the band’s past. In contrast to the austere stage setups of previous U2 tours, Zoo TV was an elaborate multimedia event. It satirised the pervasive nature of television and its blurring of news, entertainment, and home shopping by attempting to instill “sensory overload” in its audience. The stage featured large video screens that showed visual effects, random video clips from pop culture, and flashing text phrases, along with a lighting system partially made of Trabant automobiles. Whereas U2 were known for their earnest performances in the 1980s, the group’s Zoo TV performances were intentionally ironic and self-deprecating. On stage, Bono performed as several over-the-top characters, including the leather-clad egomaniac “The Fly”, the greedy televangelist “Mirror Ball Man”, and the devilish “MacPhisto”. Prank phone calls were made to President Bush, the United Nations, and others. Live satellite link-ups to war-torn Sarajevo caused controversy. Zoo TV was the highest-grossing North American tour of 1992, earning US$67 million.
In June 1993, U2 signed a long-term, six-album deal to remain with Island Records/PolyGram. The Los Angeles Times estimated that the deal was worth US$60 million to the band, making them the highest-paid rock group ever. The following month, the group released a new album, Zooropa. Quickly recorded during a break in the Zoo TV Tour in early 1993, it expanded on many of the themes from Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV Tour. Initially intended to be an EP, Zooropa ultimately evolved into a full-length LP album. It was an even greater musical departure for the group, delving further into electronic, industrial, and dance music. Country musician Johnny Cash sang the lead vocals on the closing track “The Wanderer“. Most of the songs were played at least once during the 1993 legs of the tour, which visited Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan; half the album’s tracks became permanent fixtures in the setlist. Although the commercially successful Zooropa won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1994, the band regard it with mixed feelings, as they felt it was more of “an interlude”.
Clayton’s issues with alcohol came to a head on the final leg of the Zoo TV Tour. After experiencing a blackout, Clayton was unable to perform for the group’s 26 November 1993 show in Sydney, which served as the dress rehearsal for a worldwide television broadcast the following night. Bass guitar technician Stuart Morgan filled in for him, marking the first time a member of U2 had missed a concert since their earliest days. After the incident, Clayton resolved to quit drinking alcohol. The tour concluded the following month in Japan. Overall, it tallied 5.3 million in ticket sales and US$151 million in gross revenues. Q‘s Tom Doyle called Zoo TV “the most spectacular rock tour staged by any band” in 2002.
Passengers, Pop, and PopMart