Formation and breakthrough (1976–1979)
U2 formed in Dublin, Ireland on 25 September 1976. Larry Mullen, Jr., then fourteen, posted a notice on his secondary school notice board (Mount Temple Comprehensive School) seeking musicians for a new band. Seven teenage boys attended the initial practice in Mullen's kitchen. Known for about a day as "The Larry Mullen Band," the group featured Mullen on drums, Adam Clayton on bass guitar, Paul Hewson (Bono) on lead vocals, Dave Evans (The Edge) and his brother Dik Evans on guitar, as well as Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin, two other friends of Mullen. Soon after, the group settled on the name 'Feedback', because it was one of the few musical terms they knew. Martin did not return after the first practice, and McCormick left the group within a few weeks
In March 1977, the band changed its name to 'The Hype'. Dik Evans, who was older and by this time at college, was becoming the odd man out as the rest of the band was leaning towards the idea of a four-piece; he was 'phased out' in March 1978. During a farewell concert in the Presbyterian Church Hall in Howth, which featured The Hype playing covers, Dik ceremoniously walked offstage. The remaining four band members completed the concert playing original material as 'U2'.
The origin of the name 'U2' is not clear. It is the name of a famous 1960s surveillance plane, the Lockheed U-2; however, the Dublin punk rock guru Steve Averill (better known as Steve Rapid of The Radiators From Space) claimed it was chosen by the band from a list of ten names created by him and Adam Clayton. In an interview with Larry King, Bono said "I don't actually like the name U2," and "I honestly never thought of it as 'you too'."
On Saint Patricks Day 1978, U2 won a talent show in Limerick, Ireland for which the prize was £500 and funding to record a demo; an important milestone and affirmation for the fledgling band. The band recorded their first demo tape at Keystone Studios, in Harcourt Street, Dublin, in April 1978. In May, Paul McGuinness, who had earlier been introduced to the band by Hot Press journalist Bill Graham, agreed to be U2's manager.
U2's first release, the Three EP.U2's early sound was influenced by bands such as Television and Joy Division, and contains a sense of exhilaration that resulted from The Edge's "radiant chords" and Bono's "ardent vocals". U2's first release, an Ireland-only EP entitled Three, was released in September 1979 and soon reached the top of the Irish charts. In December 1979, U2 performed in London, their first shows outside Ireland, although they failed to get 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.
Boy and October (1980-1982)
Island Records signed U2 in March 1980, and "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" became the band's first internationally released single that May. The band's debut album, Boy, followed that October. Boy has been praised as one of the better debuts in rock history. Despite Bono’s unfocused, seemingly improvised lyrics, the hopes and frustrations of adolescence ran through the album as a lyrical theme which touched on fear over sex, identity confusion, death and uncontrollable mood swings. The album included the band's first hit single, "I Will Follow,". Boy's release was followed by U2's first tour beyond Ireland and the United Kingdom. Despite their unpolished nature, these early live performances nevertheless helped demonstrate U2's potential, as critics noted that Bono was a very "charismatic" and "passionate" showman. U2 made their first appearance on US television on The Tomorrow Show, on 4 June 1981, performing "I Will Follow" and "Twilight".
The band's second album, October, was released in 1981. The album contained spiritual lyrics; Bono, The Edge and Larry made little effort to hide their committed Christian outlooks. The three band members had joined a religious group in Dublin called the 'Shalom Fellowship', which led them to question the relationship between the Christian faith and the rock and roll lifestyle. Although the Bible has remained a major source of inspiration for much of Bono’s lyric writing, October is U2's only overtly religious album. It is generally considered as being among their less successful work by fans and critics alike.
In February 1982, the band first met photographer Anton Corbijn, noted for his work with Depeche Mode and Joy Division. This was to be the beginning of a long relationship; Corbijn became U2's principal photographer and has had a major influence on their vision and public image.
War and Under a Blood Red Sky (1983)
Following the doubts of the October period, 1983 saw U2 with renewed purpose and the release of their third album War. The album included the song "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which expresses the band's reaction to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that the ability to use a range of powerful images, taking a song initially about sectarian anger, and turn it into a call for Christians to unite and claim victory over death and evil, showed that the band was capable of deep and meaningful songwriting. The album's first single, "New Year's Day", was U2's first international hit, reaching #10 on the UK charts, and almost breaking the Top 50 on the US charts. MTV placed the "New Year's Day" music video, on heavy rotation. This was to be instrumental in exposing U2 to an American mass audience.
For the first time, the band began performing to sold-out concerts in mainland Europe and the U.S. on their subsequent War Tour. The image of Bono waving a white flag during performances of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" became a familiar sight. U2 recorded the Under a Blood Red Sky album on this tour and a live video was released, both of which received radio and MTV play and helped expand the band's audience.
With their generally unfavourable record deal with Island Records coming to end, in 1984 U2 signed an unusually lucrative extension. Forgoing a larger initial payment, they instead negotiated the return of their copyrights such that they owned the rights to their own songs, extending their contract, increasing the royalty rate, and a general improvement in terms.
The Unforgettable Fire and Live Aid (1984-1985)
The Unforgettable Fire was the band’s fourth studio album and was released on 1 October 1984. Far more ambient and abstract than the hard-hitting War, it was at the time, the band’s most marked change in direction. The album took its name and much of its inspiration from an exhibition of paintings and drawings at The Peace Museum in Chicago by survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The band feared that following the overt rock of the War album and tour, they were in danger of becoming another "shrill", "sloganeering arena-rock band"; the success of the Under a Blood Red Sky album and video, however, had given them artistic—and for the first time—financial room to move. Thus, rather than become another formula band, experimentation was sought; as Adam Clayton recalls, "We were looking for something that was a bit more serious, more arty." The Edge admired the ambient and 'weird works' of Brian Eno, who along with his engineer Daniel Lanois eventually agreed to produce the record. Island Records boss, Chris Blackwell, initially tried to discourage them from their choice of producers, believing that just when the band were about to achieve the highest levels of success, Eno would "bury them under a layer of avant-garde nonsense".
The initial recording sessions were at Slane Castle, Dublin; held in a Gothic ballroom built specially for music, the sessions had a relaxed and experimental atmosphere. A far more atmospheric album than the previous hard-hitting War, The Unforgettable Fire has a rich and orchestrated sound and was the first U2 album with a cohesive sound. Under Lanois' direction, Larry's drumming became looser, funkier and more subtle, and Adam's bass became more subliminal, such that the rhythm section no longer intruded, but flowed in support of the songs.
The album's lyrics are open to many interpretations, which alongside its atmospheric sounds, provides what the band often called a "very visual feel". Bono had recently been immersing himself in fiction, philosophy and poetry, and came to realise that his song writing mission—which up to that point had been a reluctant one on his behalf—was a poetic one. The last two weeks of recording, however, were a panicked scramble to finish the lyrics, such that Bono felt songs like 'Bad' and 'Pride In The Name of Love' were left as incomplete "sketches". Typical of the album, "The Unforgettable Fire" track, has a rich, symphonic sound built from ambient guitar and driving rhythm; a lyrical "sketch" that is an "emotional travelogue" with a "heartfelt sense of yearning". Bono tried to describe the rush and then come down of heroin use in the song "Bad". "Pride (In the Name of Love)", the song closest to the established U2 sound at that time, is about Martin Luther King; the first single from the album, it was at that point, the band's biggest hit.
The Unforgettable Fire Tour saw U2 shows moving into indoor arenas in the United States, although in Europe they were not quite there yet. The tour commenced in Australia in September 1984 where translating the complex textures of the new studio-recorded tracks to live performance proved a serious challenge. One solution was programmed sequencers, which the band until then had been reluctant to use. They were used to overcome difficulties in live performance of sonically elaborate new songs such as "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Bad"; since then sequencers are now used on the majority of U2 songs in performance. Songs criticised as being 'unfinished', 'fuzzy' and 'unfocused' on the album, made more sense on stage; Rolling Stone, for example, critical of the album version of "Bad", described its live performance as a 'show stopper'.
U2 participated in the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium for Ethiopian famine relief in July 1985. U2's performance was one of the show's most memorable; during "Bad" Bono leapt down off the stage to embrace and dance with a fan. Initially thinking they'd "blown it", it was, in fact, a breakthrough moment for the band, showing a television audience of millions the personal connection that Bono could make with audiences. In 1985, Rolling Stone magazine called U2 the "Band of the 80's," saying that "for a growing number of rock-and-roll fans, U2 have become the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters."
The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum (1986–1989)
Following the Unforgettable Fire Tour, the band had been exploring American blues, country and gospel music in attempt to make up for the fact that up until that point they had 'no tradition', and that their music was from 'outer space'. Irish influences were also being explored with the band spending time with fellow Irish bands The Waterboys and Hothouse Flowers. The band felt a sense of indigenous Irish music being blended with American folk music' Friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Keith Richards not only encouraged the band to look back into the roots of rock music, but focused Bono on his skills as a song and lyric writer. The band wanted to build on The Unforgettable Fire's atmospherics, but also work for a more hard-hitting sound within the strict discipline of conventional song structures, rather than The Unforgettable Fire’s often out-of-focus experimentation.
Taking place in the middle of their 1986 album sessions, U2 were a headline act on Amnesty International's A Conspiracy of Hope Tour, but rather than a distraction to their album work, their tour experiences had the effect of adding extra intensity and power to their music, focusing the band on what they really wanted to say. Bono’s 1986 travels in San Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, where he saw first hand the distress of peasants bullied in internal conflicts, were a central influence on the album most noticeably on "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Mothers of the Disappeared". Antipathy towards America, including anger at American foreign policy in Central America, is juxtaposed against the band’s deep fascination with the country, its open spaces, freedom and what it stood for. The band aimed for music with a sense of location, or a 'cinematic' quality, with music and lyrics that drew on the imagery created by American literary writers that the band had been reading.
Named The Joshua Tree as a 'tribute' to, rather than a 'metaphor' for America, the album was released in March 1987. It debuted at #1 in the UK and quickly reached #1 in the U.S. It won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and a Grammy for the Best Rock Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocal. The rock & roll bolero "With or Without You" and the rhythmic gospel "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" quickly went to #1 in the U.S. U2 became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine (following The Beatles, The Band, and The Who), who declared that U2 was "Rock's Hottest Ticket". The album brought U2 to a new level of mega-stardom and is often cited as one of rock's great albums. The Joshua Tree Tour sold out arenas and stadiums around the world, the first time the band had consistently played venues of that size.
The documentary Rattle and Hum featured footage recorded from The Joshua Tree Tour shows and the accompanying double album of the same name included nine studio tracks and six live U2 performances. A total of seventeen songs are on the album, including two non-U2 tracks. "Freedom For My People" is a live excerpt by Adam Gussow and Sterling Magee, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" features Jimi Hendrix. Released in record stores and cinemas in October 1988, the album and film were intended as a tribute to American music. The film was recorded, in part, at Sun Studios in Memphis (along with The Point Depot, Dublin, Ireland), with tracks performed with Bob Dylan and B.B. King, and a song about jazz legend Billie Holiday. Among the live recordings on the album were the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" and a cover version of Bob Dylan's famous song "All Along The Watchtower". Despite a positive reception from fans, Rattle and Hum received mixed-to-negative reviews from both film and music critics.
Achtung Baby, Zoo TV, Zooropa (1990–1993)
The band began work on Achtung Baby in East Berlin, again with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois producing. In the initial sessions, conflict arose within the band over the direction of the album. While Adam and Larry preferred to keep a similar sound, Bono and The Edge, inspired by alternative and European dance music, advocated a change. Weeks of slow progress, argument, and frustration ended when Edge came up with a chord progression that the band quickly worked up into the song "One". In November 1991, U2 released the often experimental and distorted Achtung Baby. It was a more inward and personal record (Edge going through a divorce), and as a result, darker than the band's previous work. The band often referred to the new sound as "four men chopping down the Joshua Tree". Commercially and critically it was one of the band's most successful albums, and like The Joshua Tree, is often cited as one of rock's greatest. It played a crucial part in the band's early 1990s reinvention.
1992-1993s Zoo TV Tour was a multimedia event, and showcased an extravagant but intentionally bewildering array of hundreds of video screens, upside-down flying Trabant cars, mock transmission towers, satellite TV links, subliminal text messages, and over-the-top stage characters such as "The Fly", "Mirror-Ball Man" and "(Mister) MacPhisto". U2 used the show to mock the excesses of rock and roll by appearing to embrace these very excesses. Live prank phone calls to President Bush caused controversy, as did satellite uplinks to war-torn Sarajevo.
Recorded in 1993 during a break in the Zoo TV tour, the Zooropa album continued many of the themes from the Achtung Baby album and Zoo TV tour. Initially intended as an EP, Zooropa expanded into a full-fledged LP, and was released in July of 1993. It was an even greater departure from the style of their earlier recordings, incorporating techno style and other electronic effects. Most of the songs were played at least once in the 1993 leg of the tour through Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, with half the album's tracks becoming fixtures in the set.
Passengers, Pop and Popmart (1995–1998)
After time off—and side projects including the Batman Forever and Mission: Impossible soundtracks—the band released an experimental album in 1995 called Original Soundtracks No. 1. Brian Eno, producer of three previous U2 albums, this time contributed as a full partner including writing and performing. For this reason, and due to its highly experimental nature, the band chose to release it under the moniker "Passengers" rather than "U2" to distinguish it from their conventional albums. Commercially, it was a relatively unnoticed album by U2 standards and received generally poor reviews, although the single "Miss Sarajevo" featuring Luciano Pavarotti, and which Bono cites as one his favourite U2 songs, was a hit.
On 1997's Pop album, U2 were once again experimenting. Utilization of tape loops, programming, rhythm sequencing and sampling, gave much of the album a techno/disco feel. However, the diversity of material on the album is as broad as other U2 releases, with experimental tracks balanced with more traditional anthems and ballads. Released in March, the album debuted at #1 in 35 countries, and drew mainly positive reviews. Rolling Stone even went so far as claiming U2 had "defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives." Although highly regarded by some, many others, particularly American fans, felt that the album was a major disappointment. Frontman Bono later admitted that the band was hurried into completing the album before the impending tour, which the band booked before even heading into the recording studio, and that the album "didn't communicate the way it was intended to".
For the subsequent Popmart Tour, U2 continued the Zoo TV theme of decadence. The tour started in April 1997; the set included a 100-foot tall golden yellow arch, a large 150-foot long video screen, and a 40-foot tall mirrorball lemon. Both the Popmart Tour and the Zoo TV Tour were intended to send a sarcastic message to those accusing U2 of commercialism. The shows were also intended to be shining a mirror back onto the world, taking subtle advertising and messages we are exposed to every day and blowing them up. Although the shows left some concert-goers wanting more, U2's "big shtick" failed to entertain others, who were confused by the band's new image and elaborate sets. In fact, one NME critic later recalled a "ludicrous hullabaloo" that was a departure from "Planet Reality".
Aside from the mixed reactions to both the music and the shows, Popmart itself was something of an up-and-down ride for U2. Although it was the second-highest grossing tour of 1997 (behind the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon Tour) with revenues of just under $80 million (U.S. gross only; the tour grossed $170M worldwide), Popmart cost more than $100 million to produce. Also, having been booked before the release of Pop, the tour's early shows were negatively impacted by the band's choice to sacrifice rehearsal time in order to complete recording of their four-month-overdue album. Popmart was not without its highlight however; U2 was the first major group to perform in Sarajevo after the war. Bono later called the Sarajevo show "one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life." Larry Mullen, Jr. called it "an experience I will never forget for the rest of my life, and if I had to spend 20 years in the band just to play that show, and have done that, I think it would have been worthwhile."
Following the Popmart Tour, the band played a brief concert to an audience of about 2,000 in Belfast's Waterfront Hall in May 1998, three days before the public voted in favour of the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. Later that year, U2 performed on an Irish TV fundraiser for victims of the Omagh, Northern Ireland bombing which killed 29 and injured about 220 people earlier in the year. In late 1998, "The Sweetest Thing" previously a b-side from a The Joshua Tree single, was re-recorded and re-released as a single, and the band's first compilation record, The Best of 1980-1990.
All That You Can't Leave Behind and Elevation Tour (2000–2002)
All That You Can't Leave Behind, was released in October 2000, and was considered by many of those not won over by the band's 1990s experimentation, as a return to the grace of their 1980s sound. Regarded by many, including Rolling Stone magazine, as U2's "third masterpiece" alongside The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, it was once again produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. It debuted at #1 in 22 countries and spawned a world-wide smash hit single, "Beautiful Day," which earned three of a total of six Grammy Awards associated with the album. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of", "Elevation" and "Walk On" were other successful singles. The album also won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album in 2002 and garnered two Record of the Year awards in consecutive years.
The Elevation Tour saw the band performing in a scaled-down setting, returning to arenas after nearly a decade of stadium productions, with a heart-shaped stage and ramp permitting greater proximity to the audience. The September 11, 2001 attacks nearly led U2 to have to cancel the last third of the tour but the band decided to continue the tour nonetheless; and the new album's "Walk On" and "New York" gained added resonance. Just weeks after the September 11th attacks, U2 performed a series of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City, bringing firefighters and rescue personnel on stage at the end of the show in tribute. In later interviews, Bono and the Edge, would call these New York City shows among their most memorable and emotional performances. The tour ended up as the top concert draw in North America in 2001, grossing more than $143 million in ticket sales. Following the Elevation Tour, the band performed during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI. "Beautiful Day", "MLK" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" were played.
In 2002, U2 released their second greatest hits compilation, The Best of 1990-2000. Four tracks were reworked in studio, most of them from Pop, which the band said had been rushed to complete because of the pre-booked Popmart Tour. Two new songs were recorded - "The Hands That Built America", which was written for the film Gangs of New York, and "Electrical Storm".
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and Vertigo Tour (2003–2006)
Recording sessions for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb began late in 2003. However, in July 2004, a rough cut of the album was stolen in Nice, France. In response, Bono stated that should the album appear on peer-to-peer networks, it would be released immediately via iTunes and be in stores within a month, although no such pre-release transpired.
The first single from the album, "Vertigo", was released for airplay on 24 September 2004. The song received extensive airplay in the first week after its release and became an international hit. It was featured on a widely-aired television commercial for the Apple iPod. Apple, in a partnership with the band, released a special edition iPod bearing their namesake. The Complete U2, an iTunes-exclusive box set featuring previously unreleased content was released. Proceeds from the iPod and iTunes partnerships were donated to charity.
The album was released on 22 November, debuting at #1 in 32 countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. It sold 840,000 units in the United States in its first week. This was a personal record for the band, nearly doubling the first-week sales of All That You Can't Leave Behind in the US. In 2005, Bruce Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the last band for which he "would be able to name all of its members", in their first year of eligibility.
Using a similar setup and stage design as the previous tour, the band began the first leg of the Vertigo Tour in the United States in March 2005, followed by a European leg starting in June, before returning to North America between September and December. February and March 2006 saw the band play shows in Latin America. The tour featured a setlist that varied more across dates than any U2 tour since the Lovetown Tour, and a greater diversity of songs played each night including songs that had not been played since the early 1980s, including "The Electric Co." and "An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart". Sold out shows for March 2006 in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Hawaii were postponed due to a severe illness of an immediate family member of the band. The dates were rescheduled for November and December 2006. Much like the Elevation Tour, the Vertigo Tour was a large commercial success.
On 8 February 2006, U2 won Grammy Awards for each of the five categories they were nominated: Album of the Year for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Song of the Year for "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," Best Rock Album for Atomic Bomb, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "Sometimes..." and Best Rock Song for "City of Blinding Lights". "If you think this is going to go to our head, it's too late," said Bono as he accepted the award for "Song of the Year".
The band released an autobiography on 25 September 2006 entitled U2 by U2, pieced together from over 150 hours of interviews with contributing author/editor Neil McCormick. In continuing with the retrospective theme, the compilation album U218 Singles was released on 21 November 2006, containing 16 of the band's best-known songs, as well as two new recordings: "The Saints are Coming" with Green Day and "Window in the Skies". A single and double disc version of the album were released. The latter is limited edition and includes a bonus ten track live DVD filmed on the band's stop in Milan on the Vertigo Tour.
In October 2006 the band switched to Mercury Records after 26 years signed to Island Records, both of which are subsidiaries of Universal Music Group.