U2 was formed in the summer of 1978 while its members were still students at Dublin's Mount Temple School. Bono (vocals), the Edge (guitars, piano), Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums) and Adam Clayton (bass) played small venues in their native Dublin and the following year released their first record, a one-off three-track EP titled U23. By January 1980, U2 had built up a loyal following and the Hot Press (Ireland's leading rock magazine) Reader's Poll placed them at the top of five categories. In April 1980, U2 signed to Island Records and one month later released their first single, "11 O'Clock Tick Tock."
U2 began to work with Steve Lillywhite on their first album in August 1980. The single, "A Day Without Me," was released in the same month and by October the group was ready for its first European shows. The Boy album was released in October, along with a third single, "I Will Follow."
During November 1980, U2 travelled to the United States to play their first shows there. Back in Dublin in January 1981, U2 collected nine firsts in the Hot Press Reader's Poll. One month later, at the final sold-out show of the British tour, 700 people had to be turned away from London's 3,000 capacity Lyceum Ballroom. U2 spent the next three months touring the United States.
In June 1981, the first single off their second album, Octoberwas released. "Fire" was recorded at Compass Point Studios during a break in the U.S. tour. October entered the U.K. album charts at No. 11 after one week of release, the second single from the album, Gloria, also made the U.K. chart. European and American tours followed, culminating in the 5,000 capacity show at Dublin's RDS in January 1982.
The release of War in March 1983 marked a turning point in the band's career: the single "New Year's Day" was a U.K. Top 10 hit and the album entered the U.K. charts at No.1 and went to the Top 10 in the United States.
Recorded at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado during their U.S. tour, Under a Blood Red Sky was U2's first live album. Upon its release in November 1983, it topped the chart in the U.K. and reached platinum status by January 1984. Rolling Stone magazine's writer's poll voted U2 "Band of the Year" for 1983.
In December 1983, U2 undertook their first tour of Japan and it was during this trip that the group visited the Unforgettable Fire -- an exhibition of photographs of the bombing of Hiroshima - the impact of which was felt in their next album release.
U2 started work in May 1984 on their fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire, with new producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois at Slane Castle outside Dublin. The album was released in October and entered the U.K. charts at No.1 Further touring in 1984 and 1985 saw landmark shows at London's Wembley Arena, New York's Madison Square Garden and Dublin's Croke Park.
In July 1985, U2 performed at the charity benefit Live Aid and then returned to Dublin to begin work on their next album. They interrupted rehearsals in June 1986 to play on a six-date American tour, titled "A Conspiracy of Hope," to benefit Amnesty International. The tour also featured Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams, the Neville Brothers, Joan Baez and the Police.
In May 1985, a specially priced EP, Wide Awake in America, was released only in America. It featured live recordings of "Bad" and "A Sort of Homecoming."
The Joshua Tree, released in March 1987, established U2's stellar status. The album went straight to No. 1 on the U.K. charts and reached the same position in the U.S. by April. When the Joshua Tree tour kicked off in Arizona that same month, Time magazine placed the band on its cover, proclaiming U2 "Rock's Hottest Ticket." In eight months, U2 had played more than 100 shows, The Joshua Tree had sold in excess of 14 million copies and topped the charts in 22 countries.
In spring 1988 collected two Grammy Awards, for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance. The following October, U2 released the double album, Rattle and Hum, produced by Jimmy Iovine. The album earned the group two more Grammy Awards, this time for Best Rock Performance and Best Video.
For 1991's Achtung Baby, U2 re-enlisted the production talents of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. The album was recorded in various locations, including Berlin and Dublin and contained the hit singles "One," "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways."
Early in 1992, U2 launched an elaborate tour called "Zoo TV." During the tour, Bono adopted an alter-ego image, which he dubbed "the Fly," a signal of his disillusionment with his mega-pop stardom. The outrageous tour was followed up by the 10-track CD, Zooropa.
After an extended hiatus, U2 returned in 1997 with the electronica-influenced album Pop. The album spawned the hits "Staring at the Sun" and "Discotheque" and sent the group back on the road on one of the most expensive arena tours ever staged. The international PopMart tour featured the world's largest video screen (150 feet x 50 feet), a 35-foot Mirrorball Lemon, a 12-foot wide Stuffed Olive (on a 100-foot toothpick) and a single 100-foot high Golden Arch.
In October 2000, U2 released their first album in 3 years, All That You Can't Leave Behind. "Beautiful Day," the first single (and accompanying video) from the album, was released in late summer the same year.
Through a combination of zealous righteousness and post-punk experimentalism, U2 became one of the most popular rock & roll bands of the '80s. Equally known for their sweeping sound as for their grandiose statement about politics and religion, U2 were rock & roll crusaders during an era of synthesized pop and heavy metal. The Edge provided the group with a signature sound by creating sweeping sonic landscapes with his heavily processed, echoed guitars. Though the Edge's style wasn't conventional, the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. played the songs as driving hard-rock, giving the band a forceful, powerful edge that was designed for arena rock. And their lead singer, Bono, was frontman who had a knack of grand gestures that played better in arenas than small clubs. It's no accident that footage of Bono parading with a white flag with "Sunday Bloody Sunday" blaring in the background became the defining moment of U2's early career -- there rarely was a band that believed so deeply in the rock's potential for revolution as U2, and there rarely was a band that didn't care if they appeared foolish in the process. During the course of the early '80s, the group quickly built up a dedicated following through constant touring and a string of acclaimed records. By 1987, the band's following had grown large enough to propel them to level of international superstars with the release of The Joshua Tree. Unlike many of their contemporaries, U2 was able to sustain their popularity in the '90s by reinventing themselves as a post-modern, self-consciously ironic dance-inflected pop-rock act, owing equally to the experimentalism of late '70s Bowie and '90s electronic dance and techno. By performing such a successful reinvention, the band confirmed its status as one of the most popular bands in rock history, in addition to earning additional critical respect.
With its textured guitars, U2's sound was undeniably indebted to post-punk, so it's slightly ironic that the band formed in 1976, before punk had reached their hometown of Dublin, Ireland. Larry Mullen Jr. (b. October 31, 1961; drums) posted a notice on a high school bulletin board asking for fellow musicians to form a band. Bono (b. Paul Hewson, May 10, 1960; vocals, guitar), the Edge (b. David Evans, August 8, 1961; guitar, keyboards, vocal), Adam Clayton (bass), and Dick Evans responded to the ad, and the group formed as a Beatles and Stone cover band called the Feedback, before changing their name to the Hype in 1977. Shortly afterward, Dick Evans left the band to form the Virgin Prunes. Following his departure, the group changed their name to U2.
U2's first big break arrived in 1978, when they won a talent contest sponsored by Guinness; the band were in their final year of high school at the time. by the end of the year, the Stranglers' manager Paul McGuinness saw the band play and offered to manage the group. Even with a powerful manager in their corner, the band had trouble making much headway -- they failed an audition with CBS Records at the end of the year. In the fall of 1979, U2 released their debut EP U2:3. The EP was available only in Ireland and it topped the national charts. Shortly afterward, they began to play in England, but they failed to gain much attention.
U2 had one other chart-topping single, "Another Day," in early 1980 before Island Records offered the group a contract. Later that year, the band's debut, Boy, was released. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the record's sweeping, atmospheric but edgy sound was unlike most of its post-punk contemporaries, and the band earned further attention for its public embrace of Christianity; only Clayton was not a practicing Christian. Through constant touring, including opening gigs for Talking Heads and wet T-shirt contests, U2 was able to take Boy into the American Top 70 in early 1981. October, also produced by Lillywhite, followed in the fall, and it became their British breakthrough, reaching number 11 on the charts. By early 1983, Boy's "I Will Follow" and October's "Gloria" had become staples on MTV, which, along with their touring, gave the group a formidable cult following in the US.
Released in the spring of 1983, the Lillywhite-produced War was U2's breakthrough release, entering the UK charts at number one and elevating them into arenas in the United States, where the album peaked at number 12. War had a stronger political message than its predecessors, as evidenced by the UK, college radio, and MTV hits "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day." During the supporting tour, the band filmed their concert at Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater, releasing the show as an EP and video title Under A Blood Red Sky. The EP entered in the UK charts at number two, becoming the most successful live recording in British history. U2 had become one of the most popular bands in the world, and their righteous political stance soon became replicated by many other bands, providing the impetus for the Band Aid and Live Aid projects in 1984 and 1985, respectively. For the followup to War, U2 entered the studios with co-producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who helped give the resulting album an experimental, atmospheric tone. Released in the fall of 1984, The Unforgettable Fire replicated the chart status of War, entering the UK charts at number one and reaching number 12 in the US the album also generated the group's first Top 40 hit in America with the Martin Luther King Jr. tribute "(Pride) In The Name of Love." U2 supported the album with a successful international tour, highlighted by a show-stealing performance at Live Aid. Following the tour, the band released the live EP, Wide Awake in America in 1985.
While U2 had become one of the most successful rock bands of the '80s, they didn't truly become superstars until the spring 1987 release of The Joshua Tree. Greeted with enthusiastic reviews, many of which proclaimed the album a masterpiece, The Joshua Tree became the band's first American number one hit and its third straight album to enter the UK charts at number one; in England, it set a record by going platinum within 28 hours. Generating the US number one hits "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," The Joshua Tree and the group's supporting tour became the biggest success of 1987, earning the group the cover of respected publications like Time magazine. U2 decided to film a documentary about their American tour, recording new material along the way. The project became Rattle & Hum, a film that was supported by a double-album soundtrack that was divided between live tracks and new material. While the album Rattle & Hum was a hit, the record and film received the weakest reviews of U2's career, with many critics taking issue with the group's fascination with American roots music like blues, soul, country and folk. Following the release of Rattle & Hum, the band took an extended hiatus.
U2 reconvened in Berlin 1990 to record a new album with Eno and Lanois. While the sessions for the album were difficult, the resulting record, Achtung Baby, represented a successful reinvention of the band's trademark sound. Where they had been inspired by post-punk in the early career and American music during their mid-career, U2 delved into electronic and dance music with Achtung Baby. Inspired equally be late '70s Bowie and the Madchester scene in the UK, Achtung Baby was sonically more eclectic and adventurous than U2's earlier work, and it didn't alienate their core audience. The album debuted at number one throughout the world and spawned Top 10 hits with "Mysterious Ways" and "One." Early in 1992, the group launched an elaborate tour to support Achtung Baby. Dubbed Zoo TV, the tour was an innovative blend of multi-media electronics, featuring a stage filled with televisions, suspended cars and cellular phone calls. Bono devised an alter-ego called the Fly, which was a knowing send-up of rock stardom. Even under the ironic guise of the Fly and Zoo TV, it was evident that U2 was looser and more fun than ever before, even though they had not abandoned their trademark righteous political anger.
Following the completion of the American Zoo TV tour in late and before the launch of the European leg of tour, U2 entered the studio to complete an EP of new material that became the full-length Zooropa. Released in the summer of 1993 to coincide with the tour of the same name, Zooropa demonstrated a heavier techno and dance influence than Achtung Baby and it received strong reviews. Nevertheless, the album stalled at sales of two million and failed to generate a big hit single. During the Zooropa tour, the Fly metamorphosed into the demonic MacPhisto, which dominated the remainder of the tour. Upon the completion of the Zooropa tour in late 1993, the band took an extended break. During 1995, U2 re-emerged with "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," a glam-rock theme to Batman Forever that was produced by Nellee Hooper (Bjork, Soul II Soul). Later that year, they recorded the collaborative album Original Soundtracks, Vol. 1 with Brian Eno, releasing the album under the name the Passengers late in 1995. It was greeted with a muted reception, both critically and commercially.
Many hardcore U2 fans, including drummer Larry Mullen Jr., were unhappy with the Passengers project, and U2 promised their next album, to be released in the fall of 1996, would be a rock & roll record. The album took longer to complete than usual, being pushed back to the spring of 1997. During its delay, a few tracks, including the forthcoming first single "Discotheque," were leaked, and it became clear that the new album was going to be heavily influenced by techno, dance and electronic music. When it was finally released, Pop did indeed bear a heavier dance influence, but it was greeted with strong initial sales, as well as some of the strongest reviews of U2's career.
-- Stephen Thomas Erlewine