Stubborn 15 year old musicians, take note: It was Larry Mullen Jr., just 15, who was the author of an ad posted at Mount Temple Progressive School in Dublin, Ireland in 1976. The resulting gang that appeared in his kitchen was, in short order, pared down to four: David Evans who had a guitar he�d built himself, Adam Clayton who owned the only amp the band had and a bass he lied about playing, Mullen himself on drums and Paul Hewson... capable of what, exactly, no one was quite sure.
�The Larry Mullen Jr. Band� gave way to �Feedback�, then �The Hype�- though each incarnation proved increasingly problematic, with Larry trying to design accompanying posters and t-shirts. David Evans was now called The Edge, Paul Hewson would become Bono Vox, soon shortened to Bono. But it was Steve Averill, (then Steve Rapid- LV of The Radiators From Space-) who suggested a list of names for the band in advance of a talent competition. They performed as U2, and they won.
Their first three albums- Boy in 1980, October in 1981, and War in 1983- were vicious and unselfconsciously styled post-punk records, released out-of-synch with the burgeoning new romantics and a decade after their sound was popular with the masses. Solid songs layered over expansive, echoed soundscapes. No huge worldwide hits, but few major misses, while establishing a solid fanbase and good word of mouth in the US and the UK and a massive reputation as a stellar live act, solidified with live releases Under a Blood Red Sky and U2 Live at Red Rocks.
New wave was finally on the wane when U2 released their only album with some wayward leaning in that direction (The Unforgettable Fire in 1984), which did yield a clutch of good material (Bad, Pride) and marked the first of many collaborations between the band and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
Their musical obtuseness, along with hard work and talent, finally paid off for U2 in 1987. The Joshua Tree, released in March, yielded three Number One singles on both sides of the ocean, (With or Without You, I Still Haven�t Found What I�m Looking For, Where The Streets Have No Name), turning them into �Rock�s Hottest Ticket� (according to Time Magazine) and launched their first worldwide stadium tour.
The Joshua Tree tour was documented extensively and as new songs were being recorded, including contributions from Bob Dylan and B.B. King, the decision was taken to release a concert film/documentary and soundtrack in 1988, both under the title Rattle and Hum. The soundtrack/album was full of stellar new material (Desire, Angel of Harlem, Heartland, Love Rescue Me, All I Want is You). The film, however, was full of anything but- garnering bad reviews and casting a long shadow of doubt over the new music.
The Lovetown tour, co-headlined with B.B. King, was undertaken with dates throughout the UK and Europe, with the end of the tour scheduled for December 31st, 1989. Facing their last concert of the decade, Bono announced: �We have to go away and dream it all up again.� With the eighties ended on that note, there were rumors U2 might not return.
In the two years that followed, scenes like grunge and Britpop hit the music forefront, which only served to widen the gaping disparity between U2 and popular music. Without any regard for a timely �scene� to join, U2 proceeded to crank out an unflinching, scratchy, Berlin-hearted and Dublin-footed electronic rock opus for the masses- that was also, secretly, a �concept� record- on the epic journey of love and loss, that could be danced to as well. Achtung Baby- named after a reference in �The Producers�- spawned five hit singles (The Fly, Mysterious Ways, One, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Who�s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses), and the massive ZooTV tour.
The concept for the tour was �TV studio as concert venue�. The execution turned out to be, literally, a Zoo- two stages, giant TV screens, and hollowed out Trabant cars used for lighting. For two years, ZooTV stalked around the globe, giving the band an extended creative boost to record enough new material for another release in July 1993. Zooropa, which itself spawned three more hit singles (Numb, Lemon and Stay), was a step even further beyond Achtung Baby�s funked up electro-rock. What it was lacking in guitars, it made up with solidly-crafted, emotionally-weighted songs. ZooTV was given a facelift to include the new music, including the introduction of Bono as MacPhisto- a white-faced devil, complete with horns, dressed in a gold suit. The invigorated live set was broadcast live to the world and immortalized in the concert film ZooTV Live From Sydney.
The band would allow the shock of Zoo-era U2- wraparound shades, supermodel entourage, black leather pants (on The Edge!)- to resonate a while. Nearly four years would pass quietly, during which the band would release only one proper single (Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me from the Batman Forever OST) and a curious side project with Brian Eno- billed as �Passengers�- in 1995 (Original Soundtracks One- which was, curiously, neither a soundtrack album, nor part of a series).
It was early 1997 until they were heard from again as a proper band. Pop, the new album, was a bright, shimmering wrapper over darkened, unsettling music and profound lyrical content. Saturated with the pop music of the day, the band made no secret of wanting to make an album that could do battle on the top forty charts. They succeeded with solid singles (Discotheque, Please, Staring at the Sun, Last Night on Earth, Mofo, If God Will Send His Angels), marking the first album with producer Flood at the controls, with help from Howie B. The album garnered some of the best reviews of their career and hit the Number One chart position in over 30 countries.
PopMart, a two-year, six-continent trek, was the accompanying tour designed to bring the pop art message home. The boys in the band wore muscle shirts (except Larry, who provided his own), with Bono arriving onstage shadowboxing to the line �Looking for to save my soul�. The band had been behind schedule recording the album, but the stadium tour, including the largest video screen ever built and a forty-foot mirrorball lemon that transported the band from main stage to B-stage, was already booked. Opening night was raw (stopping mid-song, at one point, with Bono announcing �We�re just having a family row�), garnering the band some bad press, but the PopMart concept culminated in a great series of performances. It was during PopMart that U2 became the first major live act to play in Sarajevo since the eruption of the Bosnian war, in a radio broadcast that was beamed around the world. The end of the North American tour was also documented in the video PopMart Live From Mexico City.
With the exception of the release of The Best of 1980-1990 at the end of 1998, the rest of the decade provided only downtime. The Best Of� was far from being a comprehensive look at the band�s first decade, but it did give new life to Sweetest Thing, previously only heard as a Joshua Tree B-side.
The first U2 album of the new millennium was an introspective one- All That You Can�t Leave Behind, released in October 2000. With melancholy songs drawn from life experience, including the death of Michael Hutchence (Stuck in a Moment You Can�t Get Out Of) and the sudden illness of Bono�s father (Kite), the album still managed upbeat singles like Beautiful Day (which, the band later admitted, sounded �eerily similar� to The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha), Walk On and Elevation- the raucous song that shared its name with the ensuing tour. The Elevation tour was a stripped-down arena affair in the end, the band entering without fanfare and only the house lights on. The tour was the first major production to play in New York City after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, barely a month removed from the events. The eight-month jaunt merited not one, but two DVD releases: Elevation: U2 Live From Boston and U2 Go Home which documented their Slane Castle performances.
Within another long lapse between records, November 2002 would see only the release of the second of their �hits� compilations- The Best Of 1990-2000. Unfortunately, this decade didn�t benefit from the distance factor of the first �best of�- with the band going as far as including Beautiful Day and ignoring much of their 1990s catalogue of songs, opting to release Electrical Storm as the neglected b-side single.
In July 2004, an advance copy of the album that would become How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, slated for a November release, was stolen from a photoshoot. An all-out media assault followed- with the band publicly demanding the return of the stolen disc, and declaring they would preempt a bootleg release by selling the album as download-only immediately. Though that wasn�t necessary in the end, they had the support- having signed a promotional agreement with Apple for what Bono called �the most beautiful object art in music culture since the electric guitar�, the iPod. The deal included the release of a special limited edition red and black iPod music player, along with The Complete U2 Digital Box Set, purported to include the entire U2 catalogue (more than 400 songs)- with the set available only through Apple- instantly making 30 years of rabid U2 singles-purchasing redundant.
Vertigo, the lead single from How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, became synonymous with the iPod through its commercial/video and was also the namesake of the ensuing world tour. The Vertigo Tour turned out a nice mixture of arena-rock and stadium grandeur (one of their encores consisted of a ZooTV collage, complete with The Fly and flashing video screens) with a solid blending of new songs and classics. The band released three more singles from the record (Sometimes You Can�t Make it on Your Own, All Because of You, City of Blinding Lights), released a DVD of the show (Vertigo U2 Live From Chicago) and had finished up two-thirds of the tour by mid-2006.
For those keeping track, it�s been three decades, eleven studio albums, more than fourty singles, and countless posters and t-shirts, and U2 is still the biggest band in the world. They maintain their status by avoiding most major mishaps (averaging about one a decade) and releasing iconic albums that stay, somehow, out of step with modern popular music. Larry Mullen Jr., for your vision, we salute you.
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