Formed: 1976, Dublin, Ireland
Years Active: 1976 through present.
Group’s Main Members: Bono (vocals and rhythm guitar), the Edge (lead guitar, keyboards, and vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums and percussion)
One of only a few bands to achieve consistent commercial and critical success across three decades, U2 has charted success on its own terms on both the artistic and business sides of the music industry. From the band’s earliest days in Dublin, to the present, U2 has broken free from the traditional limitations of what a rock band — and rock music — could and couldn’t do. By combining an original sound with honest lyrics and a challenging social message, U2 has earned the respect of their peers and critics, and an almost fanatical following of fans around the world.
The group of known originally as “Feedback” quickly changed their name to “The Hype,” and began rehearsing on weekends and after school as often as possible, forming genuine friendships and developing an undeniable chemistry in the process. After nearly 18 months of rehearsing, the band’s big break came at a talent show in Limerick, Ireland, in March, 1978. U2 (they had just changed their name again) won the contest, earning a £500 prize and studio time to record their first demo.
This win was an important milestone and affirmation for the fledgling band. U2 recorded their first demo tape at Keystone Studios in Dublin in May 1978. Hot Press magazine was influential in shaping the band’s future; in May, Paul McGuinness, who had earlier been introduced to the band by the publication’s journalist Bill Graham, agreed to be U2’s manager. The group’s first release, an Ireland-only EP entitled Three, was released in September 1979 and was their first Irish chart success. In December 1979, U2 performed in London for their first shows outside Ireland, although they were unable to gain much attention from audiences or critics. In February 1980, their second single “Another Day” was released on the CBS label, but again only for the Irish market.
After continuing to build a large following inside Ireland , Island Records signed U2 to its first international contract in March, 1980. The first album to come from that agreement was Boy, released in October of that year. Bono’s lyrics tackled subjects like faith, spirituality, and death — subjects generally avoided by even the most seasoned rock acts.
U2 enjoyed its first international success with the 1983 release of War, U2’s third album. War featured the band’s most aggressive songwriting to date in both music and lyrics. For the first time, Bono addressed the long-standing “troubles” in Northern Ireland with the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Fearful to be seen as taking one side over another, he insisted on introducing the song during concerts by saying “This is NOT a rebel song!”, and wrapped himself in a white flag while he sang it, to symbolize the song’s call for peace. The album’s first single, “New Year’s Day,” was U2’s first legitimate hit single, reaching the #10 spot on the UK charts and almost cracking the Top 50 in the U.S. MTV put the song’s video into heavy rotation, and helped introduce U2 to a new audience of fans. Tours that supported the War album in the U.S. and Europe included sold out shows at many stops. The band captured this era with the Under a Blood Red Sky mini-album and video, which also received heavy airplay on MTV and other TV channels in Europe.
The success of War and Under a Blood Red Sky allowed U2 to renegotiate their record deal with Island Records, and the band gained more creative control and financial rewards for the future.
1984’s The Unforgettable Fire — named for a series of paintings drawn by survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — introduced the world to a new U2, a more experimental and unfocused U2. Gone was the aggression of War, but the band’s social and political messages stayed alive in songs such as “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which was written for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the mesmerizing “Bad”, written in response to the struggles Bono’s friends had with drugs in Dublin. While “Bad” quickly became a highlight of the band’s live set, it was “Pride” that took U2 up another rung on the charts. The single cracked the UK Top 5 and the U.S. Top 50. The tour that supported The Unforgettable Fire saw U2 expanding its itinerary to more countries than ever before, and saw them playing to sold out sports arenas in the U.S. for the first time. Rolling Stone magazine named U2 its “Band of the 80s,” suggesting that U2 has become the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters.”
U2 was poised for international stardom in the mid-1980s. They earned it with a pair of charitable live shows. The Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief in July, 1985, was seen by more than a billion people worldwide. That performance helped earn U2 the headlining spot on 1986’s “Conspiracy of Hope” tour for Amnesty International. This six-show caravan across the U.S. played to sold out arenas and stadiums, and helped Amnesty International triple its membership in the process. It also solidified U2’s spot as international stars on the verge of greatness.
For their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, the band delved into American and Irish roots music. The band explored blues, folk, and gospel music and focused Bono on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. U2 interrupted the album sessions in mid-1986 to serve as a headline act on Amnesty International’s A Conspiracy of Hope tour. Rather than being a distraction, the tour added extra intensity and focus to their new material. Later that year, Bono travelled to San Salvador and Nicaragua and saw first-hand the distress of peasants bullied in internal conflicts that were subject to US political intervention. The experience became a central influence on the new music.
The tree pictured on The Joshua Tree album sleeve. Adam Clayton said, “The desert was immensely inspirational to us as a mental image for this record.”
The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987 and became the fastest-selling album in British chart history, and topped the Billboard 200 in the United States for nine consecutive weeks. The first two singles, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For“, quickly became the group’s first number-one hits in the US. They became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, which declared that U2 was “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”. The album won U2 their first two Grammy Awards, and it brought the band a new level of success. 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.
Seeking inspiration on the eve of German reunification, they began work on their seventh studio album, Achtung Baby, at Hansa Studios in Berlin in October 1990 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 the band 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. Like The Joshua Tree, many publications have cited the record as one of rock’s greatest.
In between studio sessions, Bono seemed to devote every free moment he had to causes including debt cancellation in Third World nations and HIV/AIDS relief for Africa. In 1999 alone, Bono made appearances at the G8 Summit in Germany, at the home of Pope John Paul II, at the NetAid concert, at America’s Millennium Gala, and at various other functions on behalf of the Jubilee 2000/Drop the Debt campaign. While his social crusading slowed down the band’s efforts in the studio, Bono dropped hints that the next record would be a more “classic”-sounding U2 album.
That album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was exactly that. After spending the better part of the 1990s trying not to sound like U2, the band decided it was finally okay to stop avoiding the U2 sound. The album, released in late October, 2000, debuted at No. 1 in 22 countries and spawned a worldwide hit single, “Beautiful Day”, which earned three Grammy Awards. U2 made more than a dozen promotional appearances, including many live performances, in an effort to promote the album and win back mainstream fans that had deserted the band in recent years.
After wrapping up the tour in late 2001, U2 returned to the stage in front of a worldwide audience in early 2002 when they performed three songs in New Orleans at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, the NFL’s annual championship football game. The band returned to the States just weeks later for the Grammy Awards, where All That You Can’t Leave Behind picked up four more awards.
When plans for a European tour in the summer of 2002 fell through, Bono continued his campaigns for debt and HIV/AIDS relief, which included a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush and an 11-day tour of Africa with U.S. Treasure Secretary Paul O’Neill. He made his case for African relief on the Oprah Winfrey and Larry King TV shows. His clout, both musically and politically, earned Bono the title “Most Powerful Man in Music” according to Q magazine in October, 2002.
A month later, U2 issued its second compilation, The Best of 1990-2000. The set included tracks from Achtung Baby through All That You Can’t Leave Behind, plus two new songs: “Electrical Storm” and “The Hands That Built America“. The latter, also featured as the theme to Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, won a Golden Globe Award in January, 2003 for Best Original Song.
U2 spent much of 2003 in the studio, working on new album with a new producer: Chris Thomas, who had previously worked with Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols. But after eight months together, the two sides went their separate ways and U2’s new album was delayed well into 2004.
Steve Lillywhite came on board in early 2004, and six months later U2 had a new album: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was released in October, 2004. Though the title sounds political, Bono admitted it was a reference to his father and the impact his father’s death had on Bono. U2 supported the album with more aggressive marketing, including an unprecedent relationship with Apple, which created a U2-branded iPod. Bono also kept up his fight against AIDS and poverty in Africa with the launch of The ONE Campaign in May, 2004.
In December, 2004, Edge learned that his daughter, Sian, had a serious illness so there was a delay and the Vertigo Tour began in San Diego in March, 2005. It was a smashing success, playing to sold out crowds around the world. 2005 also saw U2 get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and collect three more Grammy Awards. Late in the year, TIME magazine named Bono and Bill & Melinda Gates its Persons of the Year for their humanitarian work.
Recording for U2’s twelfth album, No Line on the Horizon, began in 2006. In June 2007, the band began new sessions with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, In March 2008, the band signed a 12-year deal with Live Nation worth an estimated $100 million (£50 million), which includes Live Nation controlling the band’s merchandise, sponsoring, and their official website. Recording on the album lasted through December 2008 in the US, the UK, Ireland, and Fez, Morocco, where the band explored North African music. No Line on the Horizon was released in February 2009 and received generally positive reviews, including their first five-star Rolling Stone review. The album debuted at number one in over 30 countries.
U2 suspended work on their next album late in 2013 to contribute a new song, “Ordinary Love”, to the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The track, written in honour of Nelson Mandela, won the 2014 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. In November 2013, U2’s long-time manager Paul McGuinness stepped down from his post and was succeeded by Guy Oseary. In February 2014, another new song, the single “Invisible”, was debuted in a Super Bowl television advertisement and was made available in the iTunes Store at no cost to launch a partnership with Product Red and Bank of America to fight AIDS. Bono called the track a “sneak preview” of its pending record.
On 9 September 2014, U2 announced their thirteenth studio album, Songs of Innocence, at an Apple product launch event, and released it digitally the same day to all iTunes Store customers at no cost. The release made the album available to over 500 million iTunes customers in what Apple CEO Tim Cook called “the largest album release of all time.” Songs of Innocence recalls the group members’ youth in Ireland, touching on childhood experiences, loves and losses, while paying tribute to musical inspirations; Bono described it as “the most personal album we’ve written.” It received mixed reviews, and some critics and consumers were critical of the digital release strategy, which involved automatically adding the album to users’ iTunes accounts without their consent. The band embarked on the Innocence + Experience Tour to support the record on 14 May 2015.
U2’s lyrics are known for their social and political commentary, and are often embellished with Christian and spiritual imagery.
Since the early 1980s, the members of U2—as a band and individually—have collaborated with other musicians, artists, celebrities, and politicians to address issues concerning poverty, disease, and social injustice.
In 1984, Bono and Adam Clayton participated in Band Aid to raise money for the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia.
In 1986, U2 participated in the A Conspiracy of Hope tour in support of Amnesty International and in Self Aid for unemployment in Ireland. The same year, Bono and Ali Hewson also visited Nicaragua and El Salvador at the invitation of the Sanctuary movement, and saw the effects of the El Salvador Civil War.
In 1992, the band participated in the “Stop Sellafield” concert with Greenpeace during their Zoo TV tour. ] Events in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War inspired the song “Miss Sarajevo”, which premiered at a September 1995 Pavarotti and Friends show, and which Bono and the Edge performed at War Child
In 2001, the band dedicated “Walk On” to Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In late 2003, Bono and the Edge participated in the South Africa HIV/AIDS awareness.
Product Red, a 2006 for-profit brand seeking to raise money for the Global Fund, was founded, in part, by Bono. The ONE Campaign, originally the US counterpart of Make Poverty History, was shaped by his efforts and vision.
In late 2005, following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, the Edge helped introduce Music Rising, an initiative to raise funds for musicians who lost their instruments in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.
More than thirty years on, it appears that U2 still has plenty of gas in its tank. The four original band members remain close friends and stellar musicians, and their collective ambition appears to be as strong as ever. U2 remains one of only a few bands qualified to wear the label of World’s Biggest Band. They continue to write music and explore new ideas on their own terms, and their future releases and tours will be no less anticipated than those of the past.