U2 Biography

Indisputably one of the most popular rock acts in the world, this Irish quartet’s achievements since the late 70s have been extraordinarily cohesive and consistent. U2 began their musical career at school in Dublin in 1977. Bono (Paul David Hewson, 10 May 1960, Dublin, Eire; vocals), The Edge (b. David Evans, 8 August 1961, Barking, Essex, England; guitar), Adam Clayton (b. 13 March 1960, Chinnor, Oxfordshire, England; bass) and Larry Mullen Jnr. (b. Laurence Mullen, 31 October 1961, Dublin, Eire; drums) initially played Rolling Stones and Beach Boys cover versions in an outfit named Feedback. They then changed their name to the Hype before finally settling on U2 in 1978. After winning a talent contest in Limerick that year, they came under the wing of manager Paul McGuinness and were subsequently signed to CBS Records Ireland.

U2’s debut EP U2:3 featured ‘Out Of Control’ (1979), which propelled them to number 1 in the Irish charts. They repeated that feat with ‘Another Day’ (1980), but having been passed by CBS UK, they were free to sign a contract outside of Ireland with Island Records. Their UK debut ‘11 O’Clock Tick Tock’, produced by Martin Hannett, was well received but failed to chart. Two further singles, ‘A Day Without Me’ and ‘I Will Follow’, passed with little sales while the band prepared their first album, produced by Steve Lillywhite. Boy, a moving and inspired document of adolescence, received critical approbation, which was reinforced by the live shows that U2 were undertaking throughout the country. Bono’s impassioned vocals and the band’s rhythmic tightness revealed them as the most promising live unit of 1981. After touring America, the band returned to Britain where ‘Fire’ was bubbling under the Top 30. Another minor hit with the impassioned ‘Gloria’ was followed by the strident October. The album had a thrust reinforced by a religious verve that was almost evangelical in its force. Later, it was revealed that the band almost disintegrated during the sessions for the album. The loss of a suitcase full of notes and lyrics led to Bono being forced to hastily write new words in the studio.

In February 1983 U2 reached the UK Top 10 with ‘New Year’s Day’, a song of hope inspired by the Polish Solidarity Movement. War followed soon afterwards to critical plaudits. The album’s theme covered both religious and political conflicts, especially in the key track ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, which had already emerged as one of the band’s most startling and moving live songs. Given their power in concert, it was inevitable that U2 would attempt to capture their essence on a live album. Under A Blood Red Sky (recorded at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, USA) did not disappoint and, as well as climbing to number 2 in the UK, it brought them their first significant chart placing in the USA at number 28.

By the summer of 1984, U2 were about to enter the vanguard of the rock elite. Bono duetted with Bob Dylan at the latter’s concert at Slane Castle and U2 established their own company, Mother Records, with the intention of unearthing fresh musical talent in Eire. The Unforgettable Fire, produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, revealed a new maturity and improved their commercial and critical standing in the US charts. The attendant single, ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, displayed the passion and humanity that were by now familiar ingredients in U2’s music and lyrics. The band’s commitment to their ideals was further underlined by their appearances at Live Aid, Ireland’s Self Aid, and their involvement with Amnesty International and guest spot on Little Steven’s anti-Apartheid single, ‘Sun City’.

During this same period, U2 embarked on a world tour and completed work on their next album. The Joshua Tree emerged in March 1987 and confirmed U2’s standing as one of the most popular acts in the world. The album, which became the fastest-selling album in history and topped both the US and UK charts, revealed a new, more expansive sound that complemented their soul-searching lyrics. The familiar themes of spiritual salvation permeated the work and the quest motif was particularly evident on both ‘With Or Without You’ and the gospel-tinged ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, which both reached number 1 in the US charts, confirming U2 as indisputably the most successful European act to cross the Atlantic for several years. They became the first rock band since the Who to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

After such a milestone album, 1988 proved a relatively quiet year for U2. Bono and the Edge appeared on Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl and the year ended with the poorly received double album and documentary film, Rattle And Hum. The portentous tone of the film did the band little favours, with Bono’s po-faced self-mythology attracting particular critical ire. The band also belatedly scored their first UK number 1 single with the R&B-influenced ‘Desire’. The single, which also reached the US Top 5, was one of several new studio tracks written for Rattle And Hum, which despite its indifferent critical reception went on to sell over 14 million copies. Further UK Top 10 hits followed with the Billie Holiday tribute ‘Angel Of Harlem’, the B.B. King duet, ‘When Love Comes To Town’, and ‘All I Want Is You’.

The challenge to complete a suitable follow-up to The Joshua Tree took considerable time, with Bono and The Edge declaring their desire to push the band in a new direction incorporating the latest developments in electronica and industrial music. To this end, in 1990 the duo collaborated on a loop-driven soundtrack to the RSC’s stage production of A Clockwork Orange. Later in the year, U2 appeared on the Cole Porter tribute album Red Hot + Blue, performing a radical reading of ‘Night And Day’. The band arrived in Berlin in November 1990, a year after the demolition of the infamous wall dividing the East and West sectors of the city. They set up base at Hansa Ton studios, birthplace of David Bowie’s seminal 1977 recording Heroes, and with regular collaborators Lanois, Lillywhite and Eno also present, began the painful process of forging their new sound. They returned to Dublin four months later with only a handful of completed tracks but with a more coherent sense of purpose, and sessions for the album were wrapped up during the spring and summer. In late 1991, U2 unveiled their bold, new sound with the remarkable lead-off single ‘The Fly’. The almighty clatter of the rhythm section and The Edge’s trashy guitar sound demonstrated that U2 had taken on board recent developments on the dancefloor, while Bono’s vocals moved from a dirty growl to a twisted falsetto in keeping with the song’s barely disguised air of menace. Of even more note were Bono’s self-mocking lyrics, which introduced the singer’s new alter ego and buried the painfully earnest rock god of the Rattle And Hum era. The single risked alienating the band’s fans but proved to be a triumph, entering the UK charts at number 1 and winning U2 a new, hipper audience, although their conservative fanbase in America was more circumspect.

The attendant Achtung Baby was an impressive work that captured the majesty of The Joshua Tree, yet also stripped down the sound to provide a greater sense of spontaneity. This was evident in the riotous sleeve collage designed by Anton Corbijn, an explicit rejection of the po-faced probity of the cover of The Joshua Tree. The work emphasized U2’s standing as an international rock act, topping the US chart and spawning a number of transatlantic hit singles, including ‘Mysterious Ways’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ and ‘One’. The latter, a tender, widescreen ballad, was the closest the band came to replicating their 80s sound and remains one of their most enduring songs. Elsewhere on the album, the quartet rushed headlong into an uncertain new decade with the ominous clatter of the opening track ‘Zoo Station’ and the hard-rocking ‘Until The End Of The World’, which saw Bono adopting a new stance by role-playing Judas at the Last Supper. The album’s subtext of sexual betrayal, meanwhile, drew on the fractured personal relationships of certain members of the band (The Edge had broken up with his wife shortly after the band returned from Berlin).

U2 then embarked on a remarkable worldwide tour which cemented their reputation as one of the most popular ‘stadium’ attractions of the era. Dubbed the Zoo TV tour, it featured the band performing against a backdrop inspired by the writings of ‘cyberpunk’ author William Gibson, with a huge bank of television screens blasting out live news bulletins, messages from the crowd and a dizzying array of images supplied by video art troupe Emergency Broadcast Network. During the shows Bono, dressed in wraparound shades and black leather and revelling in his alter-ego ‘The Fly’, would make live phone calls to targets ranging from politicians to fast food joints. Ironically, the band’s intended commentary on fame and mass media developed new angles when Adam Clayton was thrust into the spotlight because of his relationship with supermodel Naomi Campbell. On 19 June 1992, U2 performed at the Greenpeace-backed Stop Sellafield show in Manchester, England. The following morning the four members took part in a protest at the Sellafield site in north west England, dumping Irish soil allegedly contaminated by the nuclear power plant on the grounds. In January of the following year, Clayton and Mullen teamed up with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Mike Mills to perform at MTV’s Rock N Roll Inaugural Ball for the newly-elected US President Bill Clinton. The quartet dubbed themselves Automatic Baby.

In May 1993, U2 launched the new Zooropa tour in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Bono created a new alter-ego for the tour, MacPhisto, donning a gold lamé suit and devil’s horns in a post-modern nod to Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas years. The attendant shows featured an even wilder spin on the Zoo TV format, with Irish theatre troupe Manass appearing as U2 in caricature outfits, and nightly news bulletins from the besieged city of Sarajevo relayed by American reporter Bill Carter. A new EP was planned to promote the tour but the band found they had enough material to release the 10-track Zooropa. Recorded in spare moments between shows, the album included some memorable songs in the shape of the ballad ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close)’ and the shimmering ‘Lemon’. Veteran US artist Johnny Cash provided the vocals for the closing track, ‘The Wanderer’. Although the critics were less than generous with Zooropa the album still rocketed to the top of the US and UK charts. On 11 August that year, the band brought the fatwa-threatened author Salman Rushdie on stage during a concert at Wembley Stadium, London. In November that year, Clayton missed a concert in Sydney, Australia, and shortly afterwards called off his planned marriage to Naomi Campbell and resolved to give up drinking.

After such a frenetic period spent recording and touring, U2 announced in January 1994 that they would be taking a break in order to recover from the excesses of the previous three years. The following June they released the single ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’, taken from the Batman Forever soundtrack. In the mid-90s Bono devoted much of his time to writing songs for others. With The Edge he wrote the James Bond film theme ‘Goldeneye’ for Tina Turner and became involved in the Passengers project alongside the rest of U2 and Brian Eno (the 1995 release Original Soundtracks 1 spawned a couple of memorable ballads, ‘Miss Sarajevo’ and ‘Your Blue Room’.)

During this period, Bono established himself as a highly respected and shrewd political advocate for a number of causes. His verbal lashing of the French president Jacques Chirac at the 1995 MTV Awards in Paris created headlines. Obviously upset by the country’s recent nuclear tests, Bono came onstage smiling to accept an award. The audience were brilliantly fooled by his perfectly delivered sarcasm: ‘What a city’ (cheers and applause), ‘what a night’ (cheers and applause), ‘what a bomb’ (confused laughter and applause), ‘what a mistake’ (mixed response), ‘what a wanker you have for President’ (sporadic boos). Of more particular note is the singer’s tireless work in helping to solve the financial and health crisis in Africa. In 1999 he joined the Jubilee 2000 (later renamed Drop The Debt) movement, dedicated to erasing the public debt of 52 of the world’s poorest countries, many of them located in Africa. In his role as a Jubilee 2000 ambassador, Bono has met with Pope John Paul II, US president George W. Bush, former US president Bill Clinton, US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In 2002, he founded DATA (Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa). Four years later, he was named in the annual UK honours list as an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In 1996, U2 returned to the studio to begin work on a projected new album. The only release of note that year, however, was Clayton and Mullen’s version of the Mission: Impossible theme, which made the US and UK Top 10 and was later nominated for a Grammy Award. The following February the single ‘Discothèque’ debuted at UK number 1. This dance-orientated track set the tone for the coolly-received Pop, hyped in the media as the band’s attempt to record techno music. The album’s most traditional-sounding track, ‘Staring At The Sun’, was another big UK hit. On 25 April, the band launched their PopMart world tour at the Sam Boyd stadium in Las Vegas, USA. The set for the show featured the largest video screen on the planet, a 40-foot mirrorball lemon (which the band emerged from for the encore), and a 100-foot tall toothpick with an olive on top. During the subsequent 11-month world tour the show was beset by technical problems.

What many critics and fans regard as the musical renaissance of U2 began in October 1998 when a re-recorded b-side, ‘Sweetest Thing’, reached UK number 3. The single was followed by the release of the band’s first compilation album. In March 2000, the Bono-scripted movie The Million Dollar Hotel was released. The soundtrack included the new U2 track ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, featuring lyrics by Salman Rushdie. The same year’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind eschewed the band’s preoccupation with electronica to return to the epic rock sound they championed in the late 80s. The chart-topping ‘Beautiful Day’ won three Grammy Awards, including Song Of The Year, the following February. The album’s enduring appeal was confirmed when the band won four more awards at the following year’s Grammy Awards, including Best Rock Album and Record Of The Year (‘Walk On’).

Following the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono threw himself back into charity work. He was the only original vocalist invited back to perform on the 2004 re-recording of the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. During the same period U2 began heavy promotion of their forthcoming new studio album. The bizarrely-titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (apparently a reference to Bono) topped the UK and US charts in December. The UK chart-topping single ‘Vertigo’, meanwhile, received extensive media coverage when it was used to promote Apple’s i-Tunes download store. In March 2005, the band was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. At the following year’s Grammy Awards the band walked away with five trophies, including Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year (‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’).

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

RadioIO Radio