I Will Follow/Twilight/An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart/Out Of Control/Stories For Boys/The Ocean/A Day Without Me/Another Time Another Place/The Electric Co./Shadows And Tall Trees
"The drums were recorded in the stairwell of the studio's reception area due my desire to achieve 'this wonderful clattery sound'. We had to wait until the receptionist went home in the evenings as the phone rang through the day and even occasionally in the evening" - Steve Lillywhite
I remember seeing U2 in December 1980 supporting Talking Heads at the old Hammersmith Palais. I knew nothing about them, but they appeared to have a huge, enthusiastic following. I had never seen a support band given such energetic, committed support and in such numbers. It must have been as a result of this raw, edgy debut album.
A track I recall from the gig was the opener, the catchy, riffy I Will Follow and singer Bono's charismatic posturing while singing it. I must admit, even then, I always took him with a bit of a pinch of salt. He didn't particularly do it for me, for some reason, but he obviously had something. All the tracks on the album have a considerable amount of post-punk-ish industrial guitar attack, pounding drums and throbbing bass and Bono's haughty but strong, throaty vocals. Twilight fits that description, full of searing guitar and relentless drums. The mysterious, intense An Cat Dubh has an Echo & The Bunnymen feel to it, with those typical post-punk vocals that are impossible to properly describe but instantly recognisable. The backing has hints of Patti Smith's Horses and also Siouxsie & The Banshees about it, too. Even the more sombre tacks like this still have a "who-ho-ho" anthemic chorus refrain in them. For me, there's a lot of Magazine in the riffing and drum sound at the end.
Into The Heart is a slowly building, haunting number the introduces that trademark twangy U2 guitar riff. They were definitely developing a guitar sound that was all their own and it separated this album from others of the same basic ilk. Out Of Control has more of a punky energy to it, with its rolling drums and stabbing guitar riffs. No twangy, jangly riffs on this one. Not until near the end, at least. Again, introducing it then was what was making them different, a regular punker would have carried on as it had begun.
Stories For Boys begins with a breakneck drum roll and some Jam-style bass, before that guitar sound kicks in again. This was an upbeat, punchy number, though and is a little-mentioned song when U2 are spoken of. I quite like it. The Ocean is an ambient short track that ends just as one is starting to enjoy it. A Day Without Me is a catchy melodic number whose upbeat tones are cut apart by yet more guitar virtuosity from David "The Edge" Evans. Even on this Bono has some "bah bah" singalong bits, he treats every song as if it is an anthem. Another Time Another Place is a true post-punk intense song of its time. So very 1980-81. Dark, brooding and just a little pretentious, but also atmospherically captivating.
The Electric Co. has a great kick off riff and some kick posterior drums from Larry Mullen Jr. (always my favourite U2 member). Again it has that rise on the refrain that makes it somewhat rabble-rousing. I remember seeing fans punching their fists in the air shouting "the electric co..." and thought it bizarre at the time. I guess I still would. I love the bit where the beat drops down and Bono sort of improvises. Again, this was something that lifted them above the mass of other bands. Shadows And Tall Trees maybe many people's favourite but I'm afraid I find it a bit dull, lacking the vitality of the rest of the album. It has good bits, even so, particularly the guitar/drum interplay in the middle and towards the end when they go all Doors-like. Overall, this was an impressive debut album, however. U2 were certainly on to something.
Gloria/I Fall Down/I Threw A Brick Through A Window/Rejoice/Fire/Tomorrow/October/With A Shout (Jerusalem)/Stranger In A Strange Land/Scarlet/Is That All?
"I remember the pressure it was made under, I remember writing lyrics on the microphone, and at £50 an hour, that's quite a pressure. Lillywhite was pacing up and down the studio... he coped really well. And the ironic thing about 'October' is that there's a sort of peace about the album, even though it was recorded under that pressure" - Bono
After an energetic, unique among post punk albums, debut from U2 in 1980's Boy, they repeat the formula with this album. It was, in effect "Boy Part Two". It had the same riffy, guitar-driven anthemic attack to it. It was quite inscrutable in places, with not a huge amount of fist-pumping rockers or obvious singles amongst material that I personally have always found a bit dark, atmospheric and brooding. For me. it has always been the least instant of the early U2 albums and the one that requires repeated listens. In many ways it is the band's most raw and edgy album, maybe their most innocently authentic, before the "stadium rock" stuff.
It was also the period when U2 were supposedly a Christian group, due, in some parts to Bono, Mullen and Evans' involvement with a group called The Shalom Foundation. It caused rifts within the group and any steadfastly-expressed religious attachments seemed to disappear quite soon after.
The intricate guitar sounds of the upbeat Gloria (not the Van Morrison/Them song) kick things off in excellent, rousing fashion. I Fall Down is sombre-ish, introspective, almost the very antithesis of the preening "New Romantics" posturing all around them in 1981. This was no Adam & The Ants, Duran or Spandau Ballet. For that reason, it took U2 a while to take off. At the time, they seemed very like Echo & The Bunnymen. The beguiling, fascinating brooding atmospheric rhythms and guitar of I Threw A Brick Through A Window would seem to exemplify that. It is a piece of glorious post-punkery. A lively, more typical early U2 riff heralds in the choppy rock of Rejoice, which has a great pumping drum and bass guitar sound too. Larry Mullen is superb on this track.
Fire continues the same vein, with some of those dubby white reggae Police-style guitar lines that were so de rigeur from 1978-82 all over it. Tomorrow begins with some Celtic-style Uilleann pipes and has Bono at his most plaintive lamenting the loss of his mother, whom he lost as a child, although it develops into some post-punk style rock by the end. October is a brief piano-led virtual instrumental interlude with minimalist, brief lyrics.
With A Shout (Jerusalem) is one of the album's most rocky numbers, in that early U2 style. This was the period when U2 flirted with Christianity and indeed, many at the time claimed them as a "Christian group". This was reflected in quasi-religious songs like this. Indeed, internal strife regarding their religious direction nearly split the group at this time, apparently. Bono was beginning to express pretentions within his lyrics that would dog him for the subsequent years of his career. Sonically, there were some real catchy intricacies in this song, and also in the haunting and haughty Stranger In A Strange Land. Scarlet is instrumentally mysterious and at times beautiful, with a nice piano, laid back guitar and drum sound. Bono's vocal is perhaps a bit to ethereal and plaintive. Is That All? is a punchy, choppy guitar and drum-driven lively number to finish with more of this dubby guitars.
There is nothing really uplifting in this album, though, it has to be said. It is actually a very bleak piece of work. It suits the darkening early evenings of October quite appositely.
Sunday Bloody Sunday/Seconds/New Year's Day/Like A Song.../Drowning Man/Refugee/Two Hearts Beat As One/Red Light/Surrender/40
"They (Kid Creole & The Coconuts) just happened to be in Dublin on tour, so we hung out with them and they came in and sang on 'Surrender'. So it was sort of random – this serious Irish rock band having the Coconuts on their album" - Steve Lillywhite
This was the last of U2's three "post-punk", raw, edgy, guitar bass and drum-driven authentic albums before they decided to experiment with ambient sounds, artless industrial thump and Americana. This is a pure, essential, spiky album. For me, U2 were at their best in this period. While October had seen them veer dangerously close to quasi-religious pretentiousness, this one was bang on the money - hard-hitting, to the point and relevant. There is a serious case for its being U2's best ever album. Maybe it was on this album that they achieved their longed-for "greatness", even more so than on The Joshua Tree. Bono is in protesting mood on this album, and, for once, it sounds totally convincing.
The rousing Sunday Bloody Sunday is well-known by most by now, with its martial drum sound and stabbing violin riffs. One of the great protest songs. A underrated good one is the bassily insistent Seconds which reminds me of something else, but I can never think of what. New Year's Day is superb, full of hooks, catchiness, great bass, delicious keyboards and overflowing with post-punk atmosphere. It is still such a great "winter" song. Helped no doubt by the snowy video that accompanied its release. Check out those guitar riffs half way though and beyond. Great stuff. David "The Edge" Evans at his best. I have always liked the powerful, muscular energy of Like A Song... . There were some awful, synthesiser-dominated albums being put out in the mid-eighties. This was the antidote to that. It was still "proper" guitar and drum based rock, thankfully. Great frantic guitar drum interplay at the end.
Drowning Man features acoustic guitar, a mournful vocal and some fetching keyboard riffs. Lovely bass from Adam Clayton too. Refugee sounds somewhat dated and clumsily clunky now, to be honest, although it is not without its good points, particularly Larry Mullen's powerhouse drumming. Two Hearts Beat As One is a typical U2 early eighties guitar and thumping bass-driven rocker.
Despite its odd backing vocal intro, Red Light is an addictive number with a brief bit of jazzy trumpet right at the end that fades too soon. Surrender is a chugging post-punk rocker with some convincing backing vocals used at the end and some absolute killer guitar. The anthemic 40 has that ambient feel that would be explored much more on subsequent albums - ethereal vocals, throbbing bass, deep, sonorous keyboards.
The albums from this one on would explore different soundscapes, while still retaining some of the best points from these early albums, but nothing came close to the essential energy of this.
The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
A Sort Of Homecoming/Pride (In The Name Of Love)/Wire/The Unforgettable Fire/Promenade/4th Of July/Bad/Indian Summer Sky/Elvis Presley And America/MLK
"We knew the world was ready to receive the heirs to The Who. All we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin, without a doubt" - Bono
I have always felt this album to be a sort of bridging, transitional one between the still raw-is authentic post-punk edginess of War and the polished, commercial The Joshua Tree. This album saw Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois brought in to produce a different type of sound, that retained the trademark guitar riffery and the anthemic delivery but also explored more abstract, ambient sounds. The feel was intended to be more serious, reflective and, oh dear, "arty". There had always been underlying airs of pretentiousness about the band, but after this I went into overdrive and U2, thereafter became a "Marmite" type of band. Love them or hate them. Bono was now in full flow when it came to making ludicrous pronouncements too, (see above) which certainly didn't help.
Personally, despite the reputations of the producers, I have always found the sound to be a bit muddy and muffled on the album. I have to say, it is not an album that has given me as much enjoyment as either "War" or "The Joshua Tree". Or the first two albums in their career, for that matter.
The opener, A Sort Of Homecoming is one which suffers a little from a murky, undefined production. Musically, it has a typically anthemic, rousing style to it and lyrically starts to express thoughts of Irishness and identity. Then we get one of the two true U2 classics on the album - the iconic typical U2 uplifting rock of Pride (In The Name Of Love), the band's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Everyone knows it. It's great. Wire is an unsung hero of the album. A track that harks back to the post-punk vigour and guitar attack of the first three albums. It has some excellent guitar work and a good vocal too, a great atmosphere to it. The Unforgettable Fire manages to merge both the glory of the old sound and some of the ethereal, mysterious airs of the new in a beautifully evocative yet at times inscrutable song. Some deep cello orchestration is introduced as the production gets "big" for the first time.
Promenade is one of the first of the "ambient" tracks that float around this album - airy vocals, throbbing bass, swirling keyboard sounds and those recognisable high-pitched repeated guitar notes underpinning. 4th Of July continues in the same vein. Even more stark and mysterious. I remember at the time thinking these two tracks were a bit of a waste of time. I can appreciate them a bit more now, but still feel they were a bit superfluous and that there was better material that could have replaced certainly the latter track.
So, something special needs to happen. It did. Bad is my favourite U2 track of all time. Majestically and slowly building up with that guitar sound, the bass, the slow regular thumping drums and Bono's finest vocal performance. Then there are the beguiling, perplexing lyrics. U2 never bettered this, even after any more years trying.
Indian Summer Sky is an interesting one. It has definite hints of Talking Heads' Remain In Light album, also produced by Brian Eno. The "so wind, blow through to my heart" line is the one that brings the Talking Heads comparison, for me. It is a good song, another of the lesser known but impressive ones. Elvis Presley And America is interesting in its insistent, understated way, but I have always struggled to know just what the heck it is about. It tries to "out-Bad" Bad at the end, though. Certainly it is a track that demanded repeated listens. MLK, another King tribute, is another somewhat throwaway, ambient track with the feel of unrealised potential about it. Its mournful synthesiser sounds hum deeply over Bono's haunting vocals. It is over too soon, however. Overall, despite the sporadic brilliance contained within this album, I feel it just slightly comes up a bit short.
The Joshua Tree (1987)
Where The Streets Have No Name/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/With Or Without You/Bullet The Blue Sky/Running To Stand Still/Red Hill Mining Town/In God's Country/I Trip Through Your Wires/One Tree Hill/Exit/Mothers Of The Disappeared
"The wild beauty, cultural richness, spiritual vacancy and ferocious violence of America are explored to compelling effect in virtually every aspect of 'The Joshua Tree'—in the title and the cover art, the blues and country borrowings evident in the music ... Indeed, Bono says that 'dismantling the mythology of America' is an important part of 'The Joshua Tree's artistic objective" - Anthony DeCurtis
After their two earnest, post-punk, riffy albums, followed by the melodically rocking War and then the more experimental, sometimes ambient The Unforgettable Fire, U2 continued their change of direction with this, their real breakthrough to huge commercial success.
No longer somewhat faceless post-punks, U2, bolstered by an impressive performance at 1985’s Live Aid now became a massive stadium rock band, with a charismatic singer everyone now knew (although he was somewhat derivative, and drew accusations of pretension, and being “up himself”). Paul “Bono” Hewson probably always had that in him, to be honest, but it now came well and truly to the surface. Bono had felt that he needed to express himself far more politically in his lyrics, after Live Aid and visits to famine-affected areas of Africa. He also felt he was comparatively ignorant of much of music’s roots, not knowing anywhere near enough about the blues, Americana, or even Irish roots music. He started hanging out at times with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E. Street Band and Ireland’s Celtic roots rock band The Hothouse Flowers. All of these didn’t seem to object to Bono’s earnest presence and provided, it seems, helpful counsel and influence on him. Brian Eno also arrived to aid producer Daniel Lanois and this massive album was, therefore, a cornucopia of various influences. It made for one heck of a mix and the result is known by everyone. U2 became one of the biggest bands on the planet.
Bono’s obsession with America was to override the whole album. It is strange how often artists that are so intrinsically left-wing in their politics, humanist in their outlook and generally possessed of a strong social conscience become so obsessed with a country that, at certain times and in certain places, displays a lack of those things. Maybe it is the musical heritage and the natural beauty that was most inspirational, but often it appears that the obsession manifests itself as ranting against America as a concept and the capitalism that built it. Strange.
Anyway, the first three tracks steer clear of those sort of conceits, on the whole, and are three copper-bottomed classics. The build up intro to Where The Streets Have No Name is so uplifting and powerful, one of rock’s best intros. The gospel-influenced I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For is simply as inspirational as it was no doubt intended to be and the slow, bassy throbbing undercurrent of With Or Without You is intoxicating. Everyone knows these tracks now, but it doesn’t stop them being a superb introductory triad to an album.
Bullet The Blue Sky is the first politically motivated track, full of searing guitar, Biblical references, an impassioned vocal from Bono and lyrics about American influence in Central America and governmental corruption. In many ways it is the best track on the album. Hard hitting and profound. Running To Stand Still has echoes of their earlier material with its mournful guitar sound. Red Hill Mining Town is majestic and stately, almost anthemic, perfect for stadium performances, while the riffy intro to In God's Country definitely harks back to the early days. The upbeat but bluesy I Trip Through Your Wires also shows a real instinct for a hook, that the band were coming up with now far more than before. One Tree Hill has that now typical guitar sound from The Edge employed so effectively on the previous album’s monumental Bad.
The mysterious, rumbling bass-driven Exit and the elegiac Mothers Of The Disappeared end what started off as quite a joyous album on a sombre, bleak, introspective note. In many ways the final half of the album is not very commercial at all - it is brooding and impenetrable at times, in contrast to the radio-friendly rock of the opening three tracks.
This is a beguiling, multi-textured album that belies its “monster” status, being deep, dark and inscrutable at many points. It still remains their best album, by far.
Rattle And Hum (1988)
Helter Skelter/Van Diemen's Land/Desir/Hawkmoon 269/All Along The Watchtower/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/Freedom For My People/Silver And Gold/Pride (In The Name Of Love)/Angel Of Harlem/Love Rescue Me/When Love Comes To Town/Heartland/God Part II/The Star Spangled Banner/Bullet The Blue Sky/All I Want Is You
"I was very keen on the idea of going wide at a time like that, just seeing how big this thing could get. I had always admired Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein for realising that music could capture the imagination of the whole world" - U2 manager Paul McGuiness
I remember all the fuss about this album and the accompanying movie, which was annoyingly pretentious - see the above quote. All of a sudden U2 were the "greatest band on the planet" and Bono could do no wrong. I had a girlfriend at the time who blathered on thus - "did you see Bono in Rattle And Hum? He went into a gospel church and sang with the choir, wow he was fantastic, they are the best band the world have ever seen and he is the best singer...". Yes, she really said that. Personally, the movie left me cold and the whole hype about it I found perplexing, to be honest. The gospel bit was uplifting, though.
This, the soundtrack album, is a strange affair - a mixture of collaborations, contrived tracks and a few live ones - it meanders all over the place. It supposedly highlights U2's undying love for Americana and the blues, something I (and most other people) had not noticed in their music up to this point. I have to admit I always found it puzzling when Bono exclaims in Silver And Gold - "ok, Edge - play the blues", and The Edge delivers a typically U2 guitar part that is certainly not the blues, wonderful although it is. Bono is also on somewhat embarrassing on-stage pronouncement form. Nobody at the time seemed to feel that way though and they lapped up "Charles Manson stole this song from The Beatles - we're stealing it back" and "for The Reverend Martin Luther King - sing!". I know the guy's heart is in the right place, but it just doesn't always work for me. I'm probably being far too harsh. After all, I agree with what Bono has to say.
Anyway, as to the album, which has received some brickbats over the years. It has some good moments on it, however. It is certainly not as bad as people say. It just has an air of self-satisfaction about it.
Van Diemen's Land I have always liked, although it ends to soon, ridiculously faded out before it properly ends - why I don't know. Desire is great however, with a thumping Not Fade Away/Bo Diddley rolling drum rhythm. Hawkmoon 269 is an insistent, slow building anthemic number that I have again always liked, particularly the gospelly backing vocals at the song's denouement. You know, I have always thought their solidly rocking live cover of Bob Dylan's All Along The Watchtower was great too. Angel Of Harlem is a superb, exhilarating horn-drenched Stax/Motown/Aretha Franklin tribute. It is very un-U2 but its great. It just a bit incongruous in their hands. They are not Bruce Springsteen. I never thought they had a love for Stax or Atlantic soul.
The other live tracks are actually pretty convincing - Helter Skelter is rousing and gets the blood pumping; despite the criticism from many, I love the gospel version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For; Bullet The Blue Sky is searing and bristles with righteous indignation while Silver And Gold is a good, rumbling, bassily evocative rock song, just not the blues. Pride (In The Name Of Love) is the stadium celebration it always should be. You can't really criticise them for these cuts, let's be fair.
Another great track is the proper rocking blues of their B.B. King collaboration, When Love Comes To Town, featuring some truly superb blues guitar from King. The song they wrote with Bob Dylan is slowly appealing but goes on a bit too long. Heartland is a low-key, slightly mysterious track that sounds as if it dates from The Joshua Tree period, and God Part II is a sort of updated re-write of John Lennon's God. It has a huge, pounding drum sound and is one of their rockiest-ever tracks, despite its somewhat unoriginal derivation. All I Want Is You is a bit drawn-out but it has some typical U2 guitar there, which was quite rare on this album.
You know, listening to this, as I said earlier, it is nowhere near as bad as it has been retrospectively made out to be. It just isn't The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby.
Achtung Baby (1991)
Zoo Station/Even Better Than The Real Thing/One/Until The End Of The World/Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses/So Cruel/The Fly/Mysterious Ways/Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World/Ultraviolet (Light My Way)/Acrobat/Love Is Blindness
"Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy, and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hifi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2" - Brian Eno
This was the album where U2's music changed completely. Produced by Daniel Lanois and (importantly) Brian Eno, they ceased becoming either a) a post-punk guitar-driven rock band or b) an ambient, atmospheric but occasionally very commercial stadium rock band. What we got now were contemporary, thumping, bassy, often mechanical dance rhythms backed by layers of (dare I say it) 'industrial'-sounding fuzzy, buzzy guitars. David "The Edge" Evans' trademark guitar still cut through occasionally and the Berlin-derived influence of David Bowie's "Heroes" and bits of Talking Heads' Fear Of Music was all over it as well. It was an intoxicating brew, but often an impenetrable one tailor-made for stadium bombast however, with flashing light systems and increasingly elaborate stage sets. One listen to the opener, Zoo Station, confirms that. It's great though, loaded with Bowie-esque late seventies guitars, weird noises and Cold War atmosphere. The influence of Krautrock bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk were never far away, either, or the "Madchester" scene dance-influenced rock bands like The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and The Inspiral Carpets could all claim an influence. U2 were becoming a "dance-rock" band.
Bono's lyrics and persona were now going into full pretentiousness overdrive and they lost many followers due to this and attracted quite a lot of scorn from many who said "I don't mind U2 but I can't stand Bono". His regular pronouncements on world issues were beginning to get tiresome, however earnest and well-meant. That is not to say that this album was not packed full with commercially-viable material, however. Just listen to the instantly appealing Even Better Than The Real Thing and the now iconic One as examples.
The beautifully bassy and mysterious, seductive vocals of Until The End of The World is one of my favourites. It contains great pulsating rhythms and "proper" drums (not programmed drum machines). It is U2 at their early nineties best. The best of this new incarnation. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses begins in a haze of buzzy guitars and suddenly launches into a huge anthemic chorus made for stadium fist-pumping. Yes, there was a sombre, introspective sound to this material but U2 always knew a good hook, and these hooks ensured Radio Two play. Throw in a few "hey heys" and "sha-la-las" and you ensure commercial success despite the bleaker parts of the new soundscape.
In the way that David Bowie changed his musical output many times, this change that U2 underwent was quite similarly noteworthy (although nowhere near as regular or different as Bowie's changes). They still did it, though, and it was a brave move from a group over ten years into their career. So Cruel is another slow number with a simply massive grinding bass underbeat and a yearning, song vocal from Bono, whose voice has become more characterful, less whiny, much fuller. "She wears my love like a see-through dress..." is a great line. A lot of the songs on here are love-inspired as opposed to gripes about the state of the world, another notable shift in approach.
A really dense, muffled dance beat is on The Fly, which surprisingly was a number one single. It was probably U2's least commercial single. No real hook to it, just a crashing sonic attack like a shift in a sheet metal factory. I love it though. It has some intoxicating guitar sounds. She Moves In Mysterious Ways has an absolute killer screechy but rhythmic intro and a sublime, uplifting catchy chorus. Now, I love heavy bass, but Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World has one of the heaviest I have ever heard in a rock context. Vocally, it has hints of Deacon Blue to me. Ultraviolet (Light My Way) is a sombre, intense and pounding rock number whose starkness is again interjected by a catchy refrain and some addictive guitar lines. Under it is the omnipresent huge bass that underpins this whole album.
Acrobat is a little-mentioned but seductive number with a bit of that old trademark guitar crying in under the muscular drumbeat. Love Is Blindness is the usual haunting closer, a plaintive lovelorn vocal over another rumbling bass line.
There is a strong argument for this being U2's best album. It is certainly the best of the "industrial" albums that followed this and for me, it out-does The Joshua Tree. War was excellent, of course, but it was of its time and genre. This is probably the most realised album and their true pinnacle.