For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a world without U2; like The Rolling Stones before them, they’ve been so ubiquitous for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted. The Irish foursome – consisting of ever-polarising frontman Paul ‘Bono’ Hewson, iconic guitar wizard Dave ‘The Edge’ Evans, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. – formed at Dublin’s Mount Temple High School in 1976, with a line-up that, remarkably, has remained stable for over 40 years.
Though initially limited in terms of technical proficiency, the band quickly began making a name for themselves in the then-emerging post-punk scene, thanks in part to Bono’s boisterous youthful charisma and The Edge’s innovative guitar work, which largely eschewed the narrow constraints of punk ferocity for a bigger, echo-laden sound.
U2 steadily refined their sound and amassed a cult following throughout the early 1980s, until their breakout moment at the seminal 1985 Live Aid concert hurtled them onto the world stage – where they’ve essentially remained ever since, despite a series of boundary-pushing releases in the 1990s and challenges of a constantly evolving mainstream musical climate.
With the band set to begin their ‘Joshua Tree 2017’ world tour to commemorate the landmark record’s 30th anniversary, Gigsoup looks back at the long and winding catalogue of one of the music world’s most successful, enduring and influential acts, charting their ascension from humble Dublin beginnings to the very top of the rock royalty totem pole.
Standout Track: ‘Out of Control’
Before they were stadium rock giants emerging from giant mechanical lemons and shaking hands with presidents, U2 were just another young band writing scrappy post-punk songs in the vein of Echo and the Bunnymen and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and touring relentlessly.
‘Boy’ reflects this, and is unsurprisingly the most straightforward record the band ever released; anchored by Adam Clayton’s driving bass, Larry Mullen’s powerhouse drums and The Edge’s signature delayed guitar sound (which is arrived basically fully-formed on this debut), Bono yelps and wails his way through stories of adolescence and the process of being dragged kicking and screaming into the adult world.
The genesis of the larger-than-life sound that would become their trademark can be heard in the album’s biggest tracks, such as their chest-beating first single ‘Out of Control’, perennial live staple ‘I Will Follow’ and the crawling, eight-minute epic ‘An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart’.
Standout Track: ‘Rejoice’
Hastily written and improvised during recording after Bono’s briefcase full of lyrics was stolen, ‘October’ is usually seen as the nadir of their catalogue and a shining example of ‘second album syndrome’ – but whilst patchy and at times awkward, it’s actually much better than given credit for.
Building on the generic post-punk of ‘Boy’, ‘October’ saw the band diversifying its sound; rockers like ‘Gloria’, ‘Is That All?’ and ‘Rejoice’ were more nimble and aggressive than previous attempts, whilst the gorgeous, piano-led title track – their real first go at creating an expansive, emotive ballad – remains something of a stark, wistful hidden gem in their early discography.
It’s also worth mentioning there’s an undercurrent of religious imagery throughout the whole record. This probably accounts for some of the album’s unfashionable reputation; as Bono himself later reflected: “Can you imagine your difficult second album, and it’s about God?”
Standout Track: ‘New Year’s Day’
U2’s first legitimate hit record – knocking Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ off the top spot in the UK – ‘War’ was their last album as a simple post-punk outfit, and for many this is where the story truly starts. Perhaps their most political record, ‘War’ shows Bono’s continuing lyrical maturation, addressing themes such as nuclear warfare (‘Seconds’), the Polish solidarity movement (‘New Year’s Day’), prostitution (‘Red Light’) and, most famously, the troubles in Northern Ireland (‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’).
The album is also notable for its stripped-back production and The Edge’s use of harsher, less grandiose guitar tones than in albums previous, with the militaristic drumming and cutting, treble-heavy riff found in iconic opener ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ being the best example. A monolithic, pacifist rallying cry, the track is still among the band’s best known, and along with towering lead single ‘New Year’s Day’ made the album an early 80s college rock staple.
The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
Standout Track: ‘Bad’
Enter Brian Eno. After solidifying their sound with ‘War’ and the gruelling tour that followed, the Dublin foursome encountered the ex-Roxy Music maestro and retreated to the remote surroundings of Ireland’s Slane Castle to record what would be, at the time, their biggest artistic departure.
Swapping machine-gun guitars and punk vigour for subtle washes of ambience and evocative soundscapes, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ took U2 to new heights and set them apart from their two-dimensional peers.
Worth the price of entry for the twinkling title track and the impressionistic fan-favourite ‘Bad’ alone, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is the prettiest album in the band’s discography, even if it veers slightly into lift music territory at times (‘4th of July’, ‘MLK’) and Bono’s lyrics are often frustratingly sketch-like.
Oh, and it carries the distinction of being home to a song named ‘Pride’ – you may have heard of it.
The Joshua Tree (1987)
Standout Track: ‘Red Hill Mining Town’
An epic love letter to America that needs no introduction, ‘The Joshua Tree’ catapulted U2 into the stratosphere by building on its predecessor’s cinematic scope with the addition of various gospel, blues and folk music influences, accompanied by a quantum leap in the band’s songwriting abilities.
Its first three singles (‘With or Without You’, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’) have deservedly become both pop culture and rock radio mainstays but deeper cuts like the slow-burning Miner’s Strike commentary ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ – the album’s great forgotten moment, containing one of Bono’s most affecting vocal performances – the ferocious ‘Exits’ and the soothing, Polynesian-tinged send-off ‘One Tree Hill’ are just as essential to the stunning, remarkably cohesive whole.
‘The Joshua Tree’ is quite simply a classic of the late 80s, and in the eyes of many the band’s greatest achievement.
Rattle and Hum (1988)
Standout Track: ‘Heartland’
Part live album, part odds-and-sods collection, ‘Rattle and Hum’ saw the band take the world-beating, Americana-tinged blueprint of ‘The Joshua Tree’ and ramp it up to eleven.
The soundtrack to the infamous documentary/concert film of the same name, the record’s straight-faced rootsiness verges on self-parody on occasion – blues legend B. B. King popping up as a guest on ‘When Love Comes to Town’ and the inexplicable inclusion of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ are particularly jarring – and it didn’t help that the public at the time ostensibly misinterpreted the whole project, thinking the band were attempting to suggest they deserved a place among their heroes as opposed to merely playing tribute to them.
Unfairly maligned and home to some of the band’s most overlooked gems, such as the mystical ‘Heartland’ and the fiery ‘God Part II’, it’s nevertheless an album that necessitates separating the wheat from the chaff.
Achtung Baby (1991)
Standout Track: ‘Ultraviolet (Light My Way)’
The band’s other undisputed masterpiece, ‘Achtung Baby’ was described by the band as “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua tree”. Having taken the painfully earnest schtick as far as they could go, the band took a huge gamble and completely re-invented themselves for the 90s as subversive, leather-clad rock stars, modifying and darkening their sound accordingly to incorporate aspects the burgeoning industrial, dance and alternative rock movements.
Packed with irresistible singles like the funky, Madchester-indebted ‘Mysterious Ways’ and of course their definitive ballad ‘One’, alongside stellar tracks such as ‘So Cruel’ and the show-stopping ‘Ultraviolet (Light My Way)’ – even the less-than-essential ‘Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World’ is too charming to resist – U2 themselves credit this dark, tortured album with keeping them alive after their post ‘Rattle and Hum’ implosion, whilst paving the way for the decade of experimentation that was to follow.
Standout Track: ‘Lemon’
Once described by the band as U2’s answer to ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Zooropa’ is essentially ‘Achtung Baby’s wackier, more outlandish younger brother, and without a doubt the most fascinating and experimental record the band ever released, taking the alternative rock and European electronica flirtations of its predecessor to their natural conclusion.
Lead single ‘Numb,’ sees The Edge deliver a monotone rap over heavily processed guitars and arcade sound effects, whilst Johnny Cash provides guest vocals on the kitschy ‘The Wanderer’. Other highlights include the demonic, grinding ode to heroin addiction ‘Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car’, the unsettlingly breezy stalker anthem ‘Babyface’, and ‘Lemon’, the irresistible (if batshit crazy) German disco pastiche sung entirely in falsetto.
An admittedly imperfect record, ‘Zooropa’ is nevertheless one of the most daring and decidedly un-commercial collections of music ever released by a mainstream band at the peak of their powers.
Standout Track: ‘Do You Feel Loved’
‘Pop’ is perhaps the most infamous album in U2’s long and storied history, and one that saw the band embraced self-deprecation on an industrial scale – many fans still balk at the gaudy Village People homage that was the ‘Discotheque’ video – whilst continuing to embrace all things electronic, with techno and trip-hop influences grafted onto their familiar epic sound.
Whilst this mixed bag of an album was ultimately rush-released due to manager Paul McGuinness booking the mammoth PopMart tour midway through its development (forcing them to cut corners to get it finished), the its strongest songs are among U2’s most rewarding: the dark, electronica-tinged ‘Do You Feel Loved’, the weary plea for peace of ‘Please’, the paranoid rock star tragedy ‘Gone’ – and ‘Mofo’, easily the least U2 track they ever released.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
Standout Track: ‘Kite’
Scared straight by the (relative) commercial failure of ‘Pop’, ‘ATYCLB’ marks the point where they became of the familiar U2 we know today; in other words, the chart-topping elder statesmen of arena rock.
Front-loaded with huge singles like the life-affirming ‘Beautiful Day’, the wacky, fuzzy punk-pop of ‘Elevation’ and the touching Michael Hutchence tribute ‘Stuck in a Moment…’, the album sheds all but the very subtlest of their electronic flirtations, instead signalling a partial reprise of ‘The Joshua Tree’ via the return of The Edge’s signature guitar tone and Bono’s affected croon (the stately ballads ‘Kite’ and ‘Walk On’ being notable examples).
It’s a mostly cheery, chilled-out affair brimming with heart, and the songwriting is undeniably top notch with very little in the way of filler, but after the brash excitement of their previous decade’s output it can sometimes feel like the morning after a party you weren’t quite ready to leave.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
Standout Track: ‘City of Blinding Lights’
Hailed by the band as their first real ‘rock’ album, ‘…Atomic Bomb’ saw them swinging for the fences in the hopes of building on its predecessor’s back-to-basics approach, playing to their strengths to create the quintessential U2 album.
The result was a glossy, nine-times-Grammy-winning behemoth of a record, which eschewed almost every one of their experimental inclinations and focussed squarely on stadium rock anthems. From the storming garage rock of ‘Vertigo’ to the glittering, neon-tinted epic ‘City of Blinding Lights’ and everything in between, every one of its eleven tracks is a would-be rock radio single, which made for a wildly successful (if painfully safe) album.
A few dodgy missteps aside – the snoozefest ‘One Step Closer’, and ‘A Man and a Woman’, which veers far too close to Ricky Martin territory for comfort – ‘…Atomic Bomb’ was unapologetically designed to be the perfect dad-rock record, and succeeds with aplomb.
No Line on the Horizon (2009)
Standout Track: ‘Moment of Surrender’
After the preceding one-two punch, ‘No Line on the Horizon’ arrived with a bang but failed to deliver on the momentum created by its two predecessors. The album was marketed as a spiritual sequel to ‘Achtung Baby’ and a return to the experimental U2 of old, with pre-release interviews promising their boldest and most innovative work in over a decade.
In reality, it’s nothing of the sort, as if the band bottled it half way through its troubled three-year production, resulting in a fairly bland, meandering effort forever stuck in no-man’s land; not immediate and radio-friendly enough to work as another blockbuster, but nowhere near unique or daring enough to be an engaging listen.
Aside from a couple of worthwhile tracks – the hypnotic, Brian Eno-led futuristic hymn ‘Moment of Surrender’ in particular – ‘No Line on the Horizon’ is a disappointing and largely forgettable entry into the U2 canon.
Songs of Innocence (2014)
Standout Track: ‘Every Breaking Wave’
‘Songs of Innocence’ was, at the time of its release, the best album U2 had put out in a decade – though this comment becomes faint praise as soon as you realise they’d only come up with ‘No Line on the Horizon’ in that time frame.
A more exciting affair than its bland and messy predecessor, ‘Songs of Innocence’ in many ways has the opposite problem; it sounds focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, ticking all the usual U2 boxes – the stately, anthemic ballad (‘Every Breaking Wave’), the grooving rocker (‘Volcano’), the dark, meandering electronica (‘Sleep Like a Baby Tonight’) etc. – as if The Edge was literally checking them off as he went along during production.
Overall a solid late-period effort, but everything here has already been done by the same band more convincingly – and as such you’d probably struggle to find anyone who considers it their favourite.