Sometime in 1976, a 14-year-old posted a call for musicians on his Dublin school’s notice board. Six people responded to Larry Mullen Jr’s quest for a band fronted by him. Initially set up in his kitchen, Mullen was the drummer, with Paul Hewson on vocals, David Evans and his older brother Dik on guitars, Adam Clayton on bass, along with Mullens’ friends Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin.
The last two didn’t stay long and, eventually, Dik too made an exit. The culled band initially christened itself ‘Feedback’ before switching to ‘The Hype’. Mullen’s dream of leading the band, meanwhile, lasted only till Hewson walked in and blew everyone away with his raw talent.
Working their way through school events and clubs, the band achieved an international single only four years later, its first commercially successful album three years after that and it took another two years for them to make an impact on the concert scene. It was a slow burn, but it helped the band figure out what it stood for, what its core values were.
I got my first taste of the Irish quartet’s sound with the ‘Joshua Tree’ album in 1987, much like most others of my generation. It was a pathbreaking one with everlasting hits like ‘With Or Without You’, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ (remember the traffic-stopper of a video set on a building terrace?) and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. It was a smash hit, topping the charts in more than 20 countries and selling 25 million copies.
Bands scoring hit albums are not rare, but U2’s singular achievement has been to stay continuously relevant since ‘Joshua Tree’. Thirty-one years is a long time, enough for even major bands to fall by the wayside (think REM). But U2’s still around, still making music, still offering something new in each album. It’s latest album, ‘Songs of Experience’, for me, was slightly understated but emotive as ever and right for this time.
It showed that the band still has it. It proved that the band still matters, that it hasn’t slipped quietly into the dark waters of insignificance.
It’s easy to get complacent when ‘Time’ magazine names you ‘Rock’s hottest ticket’ (1987). But more than 25 years later, they made it to the ‘Rolling Stone’ cover as ‘the biggest band left on Earth’. That’s an accurate description: the band has sold more than 170 million records, its 360° Tour (2009-2011) was the highest grossing tour ever and played to an audience of 7 million, and it has won 22 Grammys and two Golden Globes.
But how has U2 managed to stay relevant? While people have come up with varied reasons – and I’m sure there’s some truth to all of them – for me it’s about the band staying true to its core. U2 always took a stand, politicisation underpinning its work rather than acting as a varnish. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is only one example of this. The band has a genuine ethos, not one carefully crafted to create a brand or to sell more records. U2 took the stands it did because it believed in them. Bono, in his individual capacity, has become a leading global activist for social justice, making a mark in Africa in particular.
The narrative that emerged from all this has been compelling, helped along by the timeless themes of U2’s work: love, history, societal stress, youth, innocence…
The band has never shied from going minimal when required or to try new things. While the 360° tour was lavishly mounted with innovative stage designs bringing the members closer to the audience, the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour was about smaller venues in keeping with the ‘Songs Of Innocence’ album theme.
U2 was among the first to embrace technology, using giant LED screens to shock and awe crowds in the early 1990s. The band has, as part of their shows, called the White House, telecast live images from a Sarajevo torn apart by civil war and linked to the International Space Station. The 360° tour featured the first ever concert streamed live on YouTube.
The sound, meanwhile, has continued to evolve. ‘Songs of Experience’ is nothing like ‘Joshua Tree’, yet its remains a distinctly U2 album. And because it is one, it reminds you of the trademark anthemic sounds even as The Edge’s guitar retains its, well, edge.
When I heard of the new album, I couldn’t help thinking it was aptly named. To me, it was just another step in its unbroken journey of learning, changing with the times, connecting through issues that matter and not just saying – but doing – something meaningful about them.