Progression must be one of the most debated terms in music. Especially in current musical terms "progressive" means that a band or artist stays as loyal to exploited 20 year-old musical themes as possible. However, when looking at the literal meaning of progression, or progress, no one can deny that U2 has been the most renewing bands of the past two decades.
The music of the four is far apart from the common rock & roll genre they are supposed to belong to. The unconventional setup of Larry Mullen jr's drumkit results in original rhythms, which never fall in the standard boom-cha-boom-boom-cha category. The warm, fast, driving basslines of Adam Clayton are ever present in the U2 songs. The Edge doesn't have an own unique style of guitarplaying, yet he manages to cope with almost any existing style there is. Real guitarsolos are rare in U2 songs, yet they are always guitar-based. And the high falsetto voice of Bono is one of the most distinct voices in history. His lyrics, often politically or religiously influenced have ranked him among the best rock-poets like Bob Dylan or John Lennon. And although none of the individual bandmembers can be considered a musical genius, the combination of the four results in a sort of magic rarely seen this side of the Beatles.
It all started in 1976 at the Mount Temple High School when drummer Larry Mullen jr pinned an ad to the bulletin board asking for musicians to join him in a band. Three kids that responded to the as were the extravagant Adam Clayton - who played a bit of bass but looked so cool that he was immediately accepted by Larry - and the two brothers David and Dick Evans, who both played guitar. The sibling rivalry in the band caused Dick to leave after a few weeks and another ad was put up on the board requesting a singer/guitarist.
The person who responded to the ad was one Paul Hewson, who had given himself the artist name Bono Vox (beautiful voice) and he claimed that he could sing and play the guitar. Frankly, at that time he couldn’t do either. Dave was impressed by Paul's artist name, and he wanted one as well. Paul came up with "The Edge", which has been Dave's name ever since.
At first they just played Rolling Stones and Beach Boys covers as "Feedback" but when they changed their name into "The Hype" they started writing their own music. The name "U2" was made up on the spot during a gig and they changed their bandname between the two halves of that show.
After winning he first prize in a talent show in 1978 they recorded a three track demo U2:3 with CBS-Sony, which went straight to number one in Ireland, but failed to impress the rest of the world and the record company. It wasn't until 1980 that they signed a contract to the Irish label Island recorded their first album Boy.
The music on Boy was a mixture of punk and rock and roll. Because of their aggressive attitude and their political lyrics the press compared them with bands like The Clash. They became a huge hit in Ireland and slowly they took over Britain and the rest of Europe as well. Their second album October followed the principle of its predecessor, but songs like the piano-based title track showed that they were more than just an aggressive punk-like band.
The third album, War was their big breakthrough. The album cover showed the same boy, which had starred on the first album, but three years older and definitely wiser now. The anti-war statement New Year's Day was a huge success all over the world, and an extensive world-tour followed. This was the first time they toured the United States as a major bill and this tour was documented by the Under a blood-red sky live album and video.
The song Sunday bloody Sunday, also from War, must be the most misinterpreted song in history, as it's political content (it's about the 1920s Easter rising in Northern Ireland) was a welcome excuse for the press to write U2 off as political rebels who wouldn't survive long in the hard world of show-business.
After three rather aggressive albums with producer Steve Lillywhite, they announced that they would record their next album with experimental producer Brian Eno and his protege Daniel Lanois. Their fourth studio album The Unforgettable Fire consisted of very atmospheric, mostly mellow songs, while the political and religious themes were still present in the lyrics. The single Pride (in the name of love) about Martin Luther King was their definitive breakthrough as a world-class act.
The seemingly never-ending tour ended with U2's appearance at Bob Geldoff's Live-Aid in 1985. After live-aid they disappeared from publicity for almost a year. They had a brief comeback at the Self-Aid concert and then participated in the Conspiracy of hope tour for Amnesty International, together with Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and Brian Adams.
It was rumoured that they were working on a new album, but no one could confirm these rumours. They could be easily as true as the rumours about Larry undergoing surgery in his hand and not being able to drum again, or the rumour that the band was falling apart.
In December 1986 silence was broken when The Edge wrote and played the score for the movie Captive. In a press conference he was asked if his solo-album reflected the new direction of the band. Without wanting to get into much detail The Edge claimed that the next album would be their best album to date.
The album premiered in London's Tower records on a midnight in March (of which nobody seems to remember the date) which was flooded by people eager to buy one of the most anticipated albums in history. The album went platinum within 48 hours of its release. The album proved to be just as good as The Edge had promised it to be. A collection of many different (mainly American) styles, once again produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
The title comes from a type of cactus-like plants that grow in the barren desert of Southern California. While on a photo-shoot with Dutchman Anton Corbijn in that desert they encountered one of these massive trees, in an area where nothing else would grow. The idea of such a beautiful thing, standing so tall in those barren circumstances impressed the band and they unanimously voted for this album title.
The cover of the gatefold sleeve, a black and white photograph of the band in front of this tree confirmed many people's suspicions that U2 was a dark and gloomy band. Larry Mullen: "…what nobody realises is that it was minus 20 out there! We were freezing, put any bastard out there and see if he's happy..."
Despite - or maybe because of - the dark appearance of the album, U2 became the "Rock's Hottest Ticket of the Year" and The Joshua Tree was one of the most-sold albums of 1987, only close second to Whitney Houston's Whitney album. (and who remembers that one nowadays?)
In 1987 U2 won two Grammy awards, for 'Album of the Year' and 'Best Rock Performance'
The following 170-date tour was the longest continuous rock-tour in history. A record they held until the Dire Straits went on their On Every Street-tour in 1991/92, only to be retaken by U2 again when they finished their three-year Zoo TV tour, which had started in the same year.
Anton Corbijn became one of the most wanted rock-photographers after his work for The Joshua Tree. He is still "court-photographer"for U2, but in recent years his distinct style has also changed the image of bans like REM, Depeche Mode and Metallica.
The first three songs on the album are probably also U2's best known songs (together with Pride and Sunday bloody Sunday). These three songs have all been released on single and were all huge worldwide hits.
The third single Where the streets have no name is the album opener with a long monotonous synthesiser intro before Edge's guitar slowly fades in and the rest of the band follows. It's a song about escaping from everyday life, not a new subject in Bono's lyrics and it also turns to be the start of a sort of current thread in the songs - many of the songs on the album appear to be about escape in some sort. (And on a trivial note: Escape was also one of the early working titles of the album)
The video shoot for this song was a spontaneous action to give a free concert on the roof of a shop in a small town in California. The police had to remove them, as the spectators were blocking the streets.
The second single of the album is the mellow I Still Haven't found what I'm looking for, which unintentionally became a gospel song, in both it's musical and lyrical theme.
The third song on the album was the single that preceded the album and is their biggest hit to date. With or without you is a song with a very recognisable theme about marriage. It has all the classic U2 ingredients, the warm bass of Clayton, the typical Larry Mullen rhythm, awkwardly fast paced for a ballad, Edge's high-pitched guitarwork and Bono's at times humming, yet emotional singing.
U2, and especially Bono has always been obsessed with the American way, and especially Reagan's explanation of it during the eighties. During the Unforgettable Fire tour in '85 Bono wrote a book of poetry, called A vision of two Americas of which two poems were used as lyrics on The Joshua Tree.
Bullet the Blue sky is the first of the two. An anti-America statement about neo-nazism, racism and the immense stream of refugees into America.
Running to stand still is a "Dublin story". Just an everyday Dublin heroine addict struggling with suicide, escape from this sort of life and the daily need for her shot.
It was the unexpected ballad on the album, piano based and a beautiful acoustic slide-guitar intro and U2's most fragile song since 1983's October.
The second side of the LP (which was still conventional format in those days, although the CD was gaining ground) starts with Red Hill mining town. A leading role for Bono's voice; this is the story of a small mining town where the inhabitants are leading a lifestyle they don't want, yet it's all they'll ever have. Another example of a part America with a not-so-American way.
In God's country was released as a fourth single from the album, but somehow it failed to break any charts. The single was pulled out again only weeks after its released and is one of U2's most rare singles. (Especially the CD format is worth a small fortune).
This short, uptempo song deals with the horrible situation in Ethiopia in '86, where millions of people died from starvation. Although all members of the band are Roman Catholics, these lyrics read as a direct question to God's sincerity. Although never confirmed this could be a reason for the single's deletion.
The next song, Trip through your wires is another song that is heavily influenced on American music. A relatively simple rhythm and melody, an harmonica and blues chords.
One Tree Hill is dedicated to Greg Caroll, a close friend of the band who had died in a motorcycle accident in 1986. The title comes from the largest of volcanic mounds in Caroll's home country New Zealand, which also happens to be the name of the town where the band first met him during the Unforgettable Fire tour. The song was released as a single in New Zealand in dedication to the memory of Greg Caroll.
With Exit the escape theme comes back once more (which is also present - though less prominent - in almost every other song). An escape from salvation, an escape from higher powers that can be either political or religious powers. The song builds slowly around Adam's bassline, while becoming louder during the first three lyrics before exploding in a guitar-fest… twice!
The last song on the album is another poem from A vision of two Americas. Mothers of the disappeared is about the heartbroken feelings of parents who get their children killed in incomprehensible wars in far off places. Although not literally mentioned in the lyrics, this song is about Vietnam and the humiliation and pain that still lives in the hearts of so many Americans.
During the writing and recording phase of the album the band was writing like they had never done before. So many new styles they encountered, so many new subjects they wanted to write about and in the end they ended up with almost 20 songs good enough to be on the album. They intended The Joshua Tree as a double-album, however the record company felt that this would be "too much" for one listen and that the increased sales-price would discourage people from buying the album.
This left the band with an ludicrous amount of no less than 7 superfluous songs, which were all released as B'sides to the first three singles. Edge: "for instance, we disagreed vehemently about what songs should go on the album. If Bono had his way, The Joshua Tree would have been more American and bluesy, and I was trying to pull it back. (…) Bono will argue that "the album is almost incomplete. With or Without You doesn't really make sense without Walk to the Water or Luminous Times. And Trip Through Your Wires doesn't make that much sense without Sweetest Thing."
The huge amount of B'sides made the first three singles popular collector's items and the market prices went up rapidly after the singles were out of print. Island Records even released three-pack sets in various countries as The Missing Tracks.
Fans still hope for a re-issue of The Joshua Tree with the track-order corrected and the extra songs included.
In 1988 U2 released an album, backed with a Hollywood film called Rattle and Hum (taken from a line in Bullet the blue sky). The film followed U2 during the Joshua Tree-tour in America with live songs, interviews and in-studio footage. The album consisted of several new tracks completed with favourite live tracks. The direction of U2 was clearly heading into the American sound and didn't sound refreshing at all.
After an almost two year absence the first sign of life from the band was the single The Fly, which, according to the band, sounded like "The Joshua Tree which is being cut". The single came off the album Achtung Baby, which showed a completely new direction. The influences ranged from dance and hip-hop to swing to blues, while it still contained that classic U2 feeling.
The Zoo TV tour that followed was one of the most adventurous and exceptional shows in the history of rock music. The stage setting consisted of 150 television sets, while six Trabants (East-German cars) were used for stage lighting. Bono: "During the Joshua Tree and Lovetown tours we felt that we were becoming everything we had ever vowed not to be. We were stars, we belonged to the rich and famous. With Zoo TV we have accepted that we are of the rich and famous, but at the same time, the show is a parody of ourselves."
The self-parody came every night before the encores when Bono would dress up as a demon-alike creature MacPhisto who would call up someone from stage. Whether it be a local taxi company, the White House, a direct satellite link with victims of the war in Sarajevo or placing a pizza-order for everyone in the stadium, n costs were saved to make it something really special. Edge: "That pizza-bill was enormous, but we sure had some fun".
During the Zoo TV tour they recorded their eighth studio-album Zooropa, which had the Zoo TV tour extended for another year, thus becoming the longest continuos tour ever.
In 1997, after once more a three-year absence they came with their ninth studio album Pop, which was supposed to achieve the same success as Achtung Baby, yet leaning much heavier on the dance-music. Many fans considered this too much, and for the first time in more than a decade sales were dropping (albeit marginally) and concerts didn't sell out straight away.
It comes to no surprise that the follow-up album, scheduled for release in early 2000, promises to gripe back to the Joshua Tree days.
Written by Bart Jan van der Vorst