It can’t have escaped your attention that U2 – that pretty big band from just across the water – have a new album out very soon. ‘No Line On The Horizon’ is set for release on March 2.
Clash hasn’t heard the new record yet, but took the opportunity to revisit some of the Irish four-piece’s best albums to date ahead of our date with their twelfth studio LP. And much of what we found, we found we still liked.
This is the second of our Fan’s Eye View pieces on the biggest and best bands around – find our piece on the return of Blur HERE. Look for a future piece on Morrissey soon.
- - -
In the download age where trends come and go in the time it takes to dial up a modem, U2’s sustained success is remarkable.
Formed in the then-impoverished city of Dublin, U2 were a gang of friends fired up by the punk energy transmitted by imported seven inches and music papers. Devouring each word, each groove, the band developed a stunning work ethic that would stay with them until the present day. Disliking the cult of personality that seemed to dog The Sex Pistols and other punk icons, U2 from the start seemed shrouded in anonymity, a faceless commune transmitting messages of faith that dripped in echo. The band won a talent show contest in 1979, gaining money to record a demo and an enthusiastic young manager in Paul McGuiness. With the resultant demo setting tongues wagging at major labels, the group headed to London wondering what would await them.
Debut album ‘Boy’ was released in 1980, with the death of Ian Curtis shocking the post-punk community. The nascent U2 shared much in common with Joy Division, even borrowing producer Martin Hannett to apply a suitably granite-like texture to early single ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ (added to the deluxe release of ‘Boy’ in 2008). With its now iconic cover, it’s difficult to imagine a time when U2 were seen as being just another band. So pervasive is the U2 brand it has dragged the group’s early failures along with it, giving ‘Boy’ a prominence it perhaps doesn’t deserve. Tracks such as ‘I Will Follow’ scream energy, but album filler such as lead single ‘A Day Without Me’ showed the group to be unfocussed. At a time when their post-punk peers were charging forward with new and exciting music, U2 seemed to be perfecting a template that some already argued was out of date. Placed next to The Pop Group, The Slits, or the pop perfection of The Human League, ‘Boy’ seemed somehow inadequate.
Retiring to Dublin, the group became involved with a non-denominational Christian commune. Disliking the hypocrisy of their London peers, who despised set rock star behaviour but still took more drugs than a prize racehorse, the band worked on a series of songs informed by spiritual beliefs. ‘October’ was released in 1981, showing the band to be confused as to their direction. The elegiac title track was little more than a hushed Bono vocal sung over a piano riff, while the lyrics seemed content to use broad brushstrokes over complex spiritual problems. Follow up ‘War’ found U2’s energy reignited. Choosing to examine the Troubles was a brave move at the time, with the hunger strike and the brutality of the Shankhill Butchers still an open wound on Irish society. With parents from mixed religious backgrounds, Bono felt able to sing honestly and passionately about the conflict resulting in the group’s first true breakthrough, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. A desperate urge for peace, the song links U2 with the politics of punk inspirations The Clash. The two share political beliefs rooted not in ideology but in a faith in common humanity. While groups such as the Red Wedge were hectoring parliament, U2 seemed to have their eyes on a greater prize, rising past class and religious conflict with a universal message.
U2 teamed up with ambient pioneer Brian Eno to produce the daring change in direction that was ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Whilst it spawned the massive it ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ much of the album was dark and dense, frequently bordering on the ambient. Follow up ‘The Joshua Tree’ would become the band’s true breakthrough, retaining elements of Eno-inspired experimentation whilst also including a new found love of Americana. Phenomenally successfully, it catapulted the Dublin band into a world of stadium tours and platinum sales. Whilst singles such as ‘’With or Without You’ are now well known to the point of becoming part of a shared cultural tapestry, it is worth listening to the song’s introduction again. Shrouded in Eno’s synths, it delicately builds until The Edge’s trademark guitars enter with almost laser-like exactness. ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ dares to tackle the United States’ involvement in Central America, at precisely the same time as U2 were breaking through in the country.
Anthemic gospel-influenced single ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ perhaps outlines the album’s lasting appeal: U2 continually seem like a band questing for something but never finding it. To them, the search and what it brings – a sense of purpose, of definition and direction – is more important than the actual prize. Of course, the fact it could also double up as a Civil Rights anthem also did them no harm in a world still scarred by Apartheid. Selling by the bucketload across the planet, ‘The Joshua Tree’ is the point where the U2 brand becomes enshrined. Perhaps the group’s definitive album, it still contains moments of rare abandon. Intriguingly, Bono once claimed singer Kirsty MacColl was responsible for the tracklisting. MacColl simply jotted down her favourite songs in order of preference – probably why the first side contains most of the album’s truly iconic material.
Touring heavily after the success of ‘The Joshua Tree’, U2 invited director Phil Joanou to construct a concert film. ‘Rattle And Hum’ displayed an increasing awareness of American roots music, but was also widely criticised for being complacent. Whilst it does contain its fair share of classic U2 tracks, ‘Rattle And Hum’ the album reeks of complacency, with the group seemingly keen to follow in illustrious footsteps rather than charge forward down their own path.
Sensing a change was needed, Bono took the group to Berlin – a city then in reconstruction from the fall of Communism. Intent on reinventing the band, U2 were split over the direction they needed to go in, with the singer pushing for an avant-garde return. Divided by internal tensions, but open to new influences from the burgeoning illegal rave scene, the sessions resulted in the rejuvenated set ‘Achtung Baby’. Opening with the buzzing, near industrial guitars of ‘Zoo Station’ the album was unlike any the group had released before. Dark but passionate, the lyrics made use of irony to replace Bono’s increasingly over-earnest political pleas. ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ crossed boundaries, with a stunning Perfecto mix becoming a firm rave favourite. The sheer euphoria of the synth-drenched sound blended with The Edge’s slide guitar runs, cutting through his umbilical cord to Americana. The album centres on Aids anthem ‘One’. Written in respect for the victims of the virus, at a time when those struck down by HIV were viewed with suspicion by society, it was a brave and emotive move. ‘One’ is perhaps the band’s high point as songwriters, combining their political and spiritual views into something that moves beyond stadium dramatics. The song continues to inspire, retaining a mysterious allure despite its fame.
The new decade ushered in a continuing confusion within the group as to their direction. The ‘Zoo TV’ tour found them playing with their image, displaying a love of irony that would eventually see them emerge onstage from a massive lemon come their ‘PopMart’ tour. A hair’s breadth away from the alienating live routines employed by the prog acts U2 once despised, it was widely criticised. Resultant LP ‘Zooropa’ was a confusing blend of techno and house influences, with Bono even handing the mic to Johnny Cash at one point. An extensive period of experimentation followed, alienating some of the group’s fans. Eventually releasing left-field sessions with Brian Eno under the moniker Passengers, the group seemed confused and uncertain of their future. 1997’s ‘Pop’ was a relative flop by their standards, with lead single ‘Discotheque’ featuring some abysmal dancing from Bono in the accompanying video. If it was all a joke, fans wondered, then who’s laughing at whom?
Just when one was needed, U2 seemed to find a renewed sense of purpose. Adrift in a sea of record sales and stadiums tour the group suddenly downgraded, playing arenas and beginning to re-connect with their audience. With a new breed of rock ‘n’ roll acts snapping at their heels, U2 decided to act. Recalling Brian Eno and engineer Daniel Lanois to the studio the band began working on new, far more direct material. 2000’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ was a stunning return, gaining across-the-board plaudits. The record’s standout track, and first single, was the joyous rock of ‘Beautiful Day’. Eschewing the dance elements that had intrigued them for a decade, it was buoyed a brutal riff from The Edge as Bono hurled himself into lyrics that spoke of the band achieving a form of homecoming.
In a way, they were. U2 exist, ultimately, as a brand - albeit a brand that speaks to millions about their everyday lives. Artistic progression is welcome, but not at the expense of communicating with their audience. From ‘I Will Follow’ to ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and beyond U2 have always nurtured a link with their audience that seems personal and far removed from the excesses of stadium rock. Their triumph is ultimately the triumph of the post-punk band model. The group continues to act as four individuals apparently devoid of ego working for a shared cause. Remaining in the shadows U2’s music speaks for itself, despite Bono’s frequent intrusions upon its right to free speech.
U2 release their new album ‘No Line On The Horizon’ on March 2.