The band formed in 1976 when the members were teenagers with limited musical proficiency. By the mid-1980s, however, the band had become a top international act, noted for their anthemic sound, Bono's impassioned vocals, and The Edge's textural guitar playing. Their success as a live act was greater than their success at selling records until their 1987 album The Joshua Tree increased the band's stature "from heroes to superstars," according to Rolling Stone. U2 responded to the dance and alternative rock revolutions, and their own sense of musical stagnation by reinventing themselves with their 1991 album Achtung Baby and the accompanying Zoo TV Tour. Similar experimentation continued for the rest of the 1990s. Since 2000, U2 have pursued a more traditional sound that retains the influence of their previous musical explorations.
U2 have sold more than 140 million albums worldwide and have won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band. In 2005, the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Rolling Stone magazine listed U2 at #22 in its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. Throughout their career, as a band and as individuals, they have campaigned for human rights and social justice causes, including Amnesty International, the ONE Campaign, and Bono's DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) campaign.
The band formed in Dublin on 25 September 1976. Larry Mullen, Jr., then 14, 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. It was, as Mullen put it, "'The Larry Mullen Band' for about ten minutes, then Bono walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge." The group featured Mullen on drums, Paul Hewson (Bono) on lead vocals, Dave Evans (The Edge) and his brother Dik Evans on guitar, Adam Clayton, a friend of the Evans brothers on bass guitar, and initially 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 technical terms they knew. Martin did not return after the first practice, and McCormick left the group within a few weeks. Most of the group's material initially consisted of cover versions, which the band said was not their forte. The original material the band did write demonstrated a sound influenced by their post-punk peers.
We couldn't believe it. I was completely shocked. We weren't of an age to go out partying as such but I don't think anyone slept that night....Really, it was just a great affirmation to win that competition, even though I've no idea how good we were or what the competition was really like. But to win at that point was incredibly important for morale and everyone's belief in the whole project.
— The Edge on winning the CBS competition
In March 1977, the band changed their name to "The Hype". Dik Evans, who was older and by this time at college, was becoming the odd man out. The rest of the band was leaning towards the idea of a four-piece ensemble and 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". Steve Averill, a punk rock musician and family friend of Clayton's, had suggested six potential names from which the band chose "U2" for its ambiguity and open-ended interpretations, and because it was the name that they disliked the least.
On Saint Patrick's Day in 1978, U2 won a talent show in Limerick, Ireland. The prize consisted of £500 and funding to record a demo, which was 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, an Ireland-only EP entitled Three, was released in September 1979 and was the band's first Irish chart success. In December 1979, U2 performed in London for 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.
The band's second album, October, was released in 1981 and contained overtly spiritual themes. During the album's recording sessions, Bono and The Edge left the band due to spiritual conflicts, and U2 ceased to exist for a brief period of time. Bono, The Edge, and Mullen had joined a Christian group in Dublin called the 'Shalom Fellowship', which led them to question the relationship between the Christian faith and the rock and roll lifestyle. The album received mixed reviews and limited radio play. It did not sell well outside of the UK, which put pressure on their contract with Island and focused the band on improvement.
Resolving the doubts of the October period, U2 released War in 1983. A record where the band "turned pacifism itself into a crusade, War's sincerity and "rugged" guitar was intentionally at odds with the "cooler" synth-pop of the time. The album included "Sunday Bloody Sunday," where Bono had lyrically tried to contrast the events of Bloody Sunday with Easter Sunday. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that the song showed the band was capable of deep and meaningful songwriting. War was U2's first album to feature the photography of Anton Corbijn, who remains U2's principal photographer and has had a major influence on their vision and public image. U2's first commercial success, War debuted at number one in the UK, and its first single, "New Year's Day", was the band's first overseas hit.
On the subsequent War Tour, the band performed to sold-out concerts in mainland Europe and the U.S. 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 live album on this tour and a live video was released, both of which received extensive play on the radio and MTV, expanding the band's audience and cementing the band's prowess as a live band. Their generally unfavourable record deal with Island Records was coming to an end, and in 1984 U2 signed a highly lucrative extension. They negotiated the return of their copyrights (such that they owned the rights to their own songs), an increase in their royalty rate, and a general improvement in terms, at the expense of a larger initial payment.
In , U2 released re-mastered and deluxe versions of Boy, October, and War.
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. But something just didn't feel right. We felt we had more dimension than just the next big anything, we had something unique to offer. The innovation was what would suffer if we went down the standard rock route. We were looking for another feeling.
— Bono on The Unforgettable Fire's new direction.
The Unforgettable Fire was released in 1984. Ambient and abstract, it was at the time the band’s most marked change in direction. 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". Thus, 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.
The Unforgettable Fire has a rich and orchestrated sound. Under Lanois' direction, Larry's drumming became looser, funkier, and more subtle and Adam's bass became more subliminal; the rhythm section no longer intruded, but flowed in support of the songs. Complementing the sonic atmospherics, the album's lyrics are open to many interpretations, providing what the band called a "very visual feel". Bono's recent immersion in fiction, philosophy, and poetry made him realise that his songwriting responsibilities—about which he had always been reluctant—were a poetic one. Due to a tight recording schedule, however, Bono felt songs like "Bad" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" were incomplete "sketches". "Pride (In the Name of Love)", about Martin Luther King, was the album's first single and became the band's biggest hit at that point, including being their first to enter the U.S. top 40.
Much of The Unforgettable Fire Tour moved into indoor arenas as U2 began to win their long battle to build their audience. The complex textures of the new studio-recorded tracks, such as "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Bad", were problematic to translate to live performance. One solution was programmed sequencers, which the band had previously been reluctant to use, but are now used in the majority of the band's performances. Songs on the album had been criticised as being "unfinished", "fuzzy", and "unfocused", but were better received by critics when played on stage.
U2 participated in the Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief at Wembley Stadium in July 1985. U2's performance was considered one of the show's most memorable and was a turning point in the band's career. During the song "Bad", Bono leapt down off the stage to embrace and dance with a fan, 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 80s," 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 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.
The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987. The album juxtaposes antipathy towards America against the band's deep fascination with the country, its open spaces, freedom, and what it stands for. It became the fastest-selling album in British chart history, and was number one for nine weeks in the United States. It won U2 their first two Grammy Awards. The album's first two singles, 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 number one in the U.S. U2 became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, which declared U2 "Rock's Hottest Ticket". The album brought U2 a new level of success and is cited by Rolling Stone as one of rock's greatest. The Joshua Tree Tour was the first during which the band played numerous stadium shows alongside smaller arena shows.
The documentary Rattle and Hum featured footage recorded from The Joshua Tree Tour, and the accompanying double album of the same name included nine studio tracks and six live U2 performances. Released in record stores and cinemas in October 1988, the album and film were intended as a tribute to American music. The film included tracks recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis and tracks performed with Bob Dylan and B. B. King. Despite a positive reception from fans, Rattle and Hum received mixed reviews from both film and music critics; one Rolling Stone editor spoke of the album's "excitement", another described it as "bombastic and misguided". The film's director, Phil Joanou, described it as "an overly pretentious look at U2". Most of the album's new material was played on 1989's Lovetown Tour, which primarily consisted of shows in Australia and Europe. With a sense of musical stagnation, Bono announced at an end-of-decade concert that U2 had come to the end of an era and had to "...go away and just dream it all up again".
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...Berlin became a conceptual backdrop for the record. The Berlin of the Thirties—decadent, sexual and dark—resonating against the Berlin of the Nineties—reborn, chaotic and optimistic...
— Brian Eno on the recording of Achtung Baby
In November 1991, U2 released their seventh studio album, Achtung Baby. Stung by criticism of Rattle and Hum, the band made a calculated change in musical and thematic direction, their most dramatic since The Unforgettable Fire. Sonically, Achtung Baby incorporated dance, industrial, and alternative rock influences of the time and the band referred to the album as the sound of "four men chopping down the Joshua Tree". Thematically, it was a more inward-looking and personal record; it was darker, yet at times more flippant, than the band's previous work. Commercially and critically, it has been one of the band's most successful albums and a crucial part of the band's early 1990s reinvention. Like The Joshua Tree, it is cited by Rolling Stone as one of rock's greatest.
The band initially worked on Achtung Baby in East Berlin, seeking inspiration and renewal on the eve of German reunification. Daniel Lanois produced the album with assistance from Brian Eno. In the Berlin sessions, conflict arose within the band over the quality of material and musical direction. While Adam and Larry preferred a sound similar to U2's previous work, Bono and The Edge were inspired by alternative and European dance music and advocated a change. Weeks of slow progress, arguments, and tension subsided when the band rallied around a chord progression The Edge had written, creating the song "One".
The Zoo TV Tour of 1992–1993 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 messages, and Bono's over-the-top stage characters such as "The Fly", "Mirror-Ball Man", and "(Mister) MacPhisto". The extravagant shows were intentionally in contrast to the austere staging of previous U2 tours, and mocked the excesses of rock and roll by appearing to embrace these very excesses. The shows were, in part, U2's way to represent the pervasive nature of cable television and its blurring of news, entertainment, and home shopping. Prank phone calls were made to President Bush, the United Nations, and others. Live satellite uplinks to war-torn Sarajevo caused controversy.
Quickly recorded and released during a break in the Zoo TV tour in mid-1993, the Zooropa album continued many of the themes from Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV tour. Initially intended as an EP, the band expanded Zooropa into a full-length LP album. It was an even greater departure from the style of their earlier recordings, incorporating techno influences and other electronic effects. In keeping with this intentional departure from their previous style, Bono stepped down from the mic for the final track on Zooropa, and invited Johnny Cash to perform "The Wanderer".
Most of the songs were played at least once during the 1993 leg of the tour, which extended through Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan; half the album's tracks became fixtures in the set.
It's not enough to write a great lyric; it’s not enough to have a good idea or a great hook, lots of things have to come together and then you have to have the ability to discipline and screen. We should give this album to a re-mixer, go back to what was originally intended, so that 'Mofo' is on top of the stickiest groove with a proper plastic attack, 'Do You Feel Loved' is done as a liquid bass line hook that carries the intimacies whispered on top of it, 'If God Will Send His Angels' should be diamonds and pearls.
— Bono on Pop
On 1997's Pop, U2 continued experimenting; Tape loops, programming, rhythm sequencing, and sampling provided much of the album with heavy, funky dance rhythms. Released in March, the album debuted at number one in 35 countries, and drew mainly positive reviews. Rolling Stone, for example, stated that U2 had "defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives. Others felt that the album was a major disappointment and sales were poor compared to previous U2 releases. The band was hurried into completing the album in time for the impending pre-booked tour, and Bono admitted that the album "didn't communicate the way it was intended to".
The subsequent tour, PopMart, commenced in April 1997. Like Zoo TV, it featured advertising influences and was intended to send a sarcastic message to those accusing U2 of commercialism. The stage included a tall golden yellow arch (reminiscent of the McDonald's logo), a long video screen, and a tall mirrorball lemon. U2's "big shtick" failed, however, to satisfy many who were seemingly confused by the band's new kitsch image and elaborate sets. The late delivery of Pop meant rehearsal time was severely reduced, and performances in early shows suffered. A highlight of the tour was a concert in Sarajevo where U2 were the first major group to perform following the Bosnian War. Larry Mullen, Jr. described the concert as "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. One month following the conclusion of the PopMart Tour, U2 appeared on the 200th episode of The Simpsons, "Trash of the Titans," in which Homer Simpson disrupted the band on stage during a PopMart concert.
All That You Can't Leave Behind is easy to relate to, full of solid songs that appeal to a wide audience with its clear notions of family, friendship, love, death, and re-birth. More Lanois than Eno on first impression, the sounds on this album come from a band that has digested the music it started to consume while making Rattle and Hum. This time they are neither imitating or paying tribute. This time it's soul music, not music about soul.
— Caroline van Oosten de Boer
Following the comparatively poor reception of Pop, U2 declared on a number of occasions that they were "reapplying for the job ... [of] the best band in the world". Since 2000, the band has pursued a more traditional sound while maintaining influences from their previous musical explorations. All That You Can't Leave Behind was released in October 2000 and reunited the band with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The album was considered by many of those not won over by the band's 1990s experimentation as a return to grace; Rolling Stone called it U2's "third masterpiece" alongside The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. The album debuted at number one in 22 countries and its world-wide hit single, "Beautiful Day" earned three Grammy Awards. The album's other singles, "Walk On", "Elevation", and "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" also won Grammy Awards.
For the Elevation Tour, U2 performed in a scaled-down setting, returning to arenas after nearly a decade of stadium productions. A heart-shaped stage and ramp permitted greater proximity to the audience. Following the September 11 attacks, the new album gained added resonance. In October, U2 performed a series of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City. In later interviews, Bono and the Edge called these New York City shows among their most memorable and emotional performances. In early 2002, U2 performed during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI.
The band's next studio album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was released on 22 November 2004. Sonically, the band was looking for harder-hitting rock than All That You Can't Leave Behind. Thematically, Bono states that "A lot of the songs are paeans to naiveté, a rejection of knowingness." The first single, "Vertigo," was featured on a widely-aired television commercial for the Apple iPod, in conjunction with the release of a special edition U2 iPod and an iTunes U2 box set. The album debuted at number one in the U.S. where first week sales doubled that of All That You Can't Leave Behind and set a record for the band. Claiming it as a contender as one of U2's three best albums, Bono said, "There are no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me." Using a similar setup and stage design as the previous tour, the Vertigo Tour featured a set list that varied more across dates than any U2 tour since the Lovetown Tour, and included songs not played since the early 1980s. Like the Elevation Tour, the Vertigo Tour was a commercial success. The album and its singles won Grammy Awards in all eight categories in which U2 were nominated. In 2005, Bruce Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In August 2006, the band transferred some of its operations to The Netherlands two months after Ireland capped its artists' tax exemption at €250,000. Since 2006, the band have been writing and recording new material, initially with Rick Rubin, and more recently with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The band's twelfth album is planned to be released in 2009. The album has been described as "hand-played but it's also electro. Bono has been quoted as saying that the sessions show a real departure from the themes of the last two albums, with "trance influences, and Lanois has said the album will push the limits of the sound arena much like Achtung Baby years earlier. A 3-D concert film, U2 3D, filmed at nine concerts during the Vertigo Tour, was released on 23 January 2008. On 31 March 2008, it was confirmed that U2 signed a 12 year deal with Live Nation worth an estimated $100 million (£50 million). The deal includes Live Nation controlling the band's merchandise, sponsoring and their official website.
Despite these broad consistencies, U2 have introduced new elements into their musical repertoire with each new album. U2's early sound was influenced by bands such as Television and Joy Division, and has been described as containing a "sense of exhilaration" that resulted from The Edge's "radiant chords" and Bono's "ardent vocals". U2's sound began with post-punk roots and minimalistic and uncomplicated instrumentals heard on Boy and October, but evolved through War to include aspects of rock anthem, funk, and dance rhythms to become more versatile and aggressive. The two albums were labeled "muscular and assertive" by Rolling Stone, influenced in large part by Lillywhite's producing. The Unforgettable Fire, which began with the Edge playing more keyboards than guitars, as well as follow-up The Joshua Tree, had Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois at the production helm. With their influence, both albums achieved a "diverse texture". The songs from The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum placed more emphasis on Lanois-inspired rhythm as they mixed distinct and varied styles of gospel and blues music, which stemmed from the band's burgeoning fascination with America's culture, people and places. In the 1990s, U2 reinvented themselves as they began using synthesizers, distortion, and electronic beats derived from alternative music, dance music, and hip-hop on Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop. The 2000s had U2 returning to a stripped-down sound, with less use of synthesizers and effects and a more traditional rhythm.
Bono's personal conflicts and turmoil related to family colour songs like "Mofo", "Tomorrow" and "Kite". An emotional yearning or pleading is another frequent conveyance, in tracks such as "Yahweh", "Peace on Earth", and "Please". The investigation of loss and anguish coupled with hopefulness and resiliency, which is central to The Joshua Tree, has motivated much of U2's songwriting and music. Some of this lyrical ideation has been amplified by Bono and the band's personal experiences during their youth in Ireland, as well as Bono's campaigning and activism later in his life. U2 have used tours such as Zoo TV and PopMart to caricature social trends, such as media overload and consumerism, respectively.
While the band and its fans often affirm the political nature of their music, U2's lyrics and music have been criticized as apolitical because of their vagueness and "fuzzy imagery", and a lack of any specific references to actual people or characters.
Since the early 1980s, the members of U2—as a band and individually—have collaborated with other musicians, artists, celebrities, and politicians to address issues concerning poverty, disease, and social injustice.
In 1984, Bono and Adam Clayton participated in Band Aid to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief. The initiative produced the hit charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?", which would be the first among several collaborations between U2 and Bob Geldof. In July 1985, U2 played Live Aid, a follow-up to Band Aid's efforts. Bono and his wife Ali, invited by World Vision, later visited Ethiopia where they witnessed the famine first hand. Bono would later say this laid the groundwork for his Africa campaigning and some of his songwriting.
In 1986, U2 participated in the A Conspiracy of Hope tour in support of Amnesty International and in Self Aid for unemployment in Ireland. The same year, Bono and Ali Hewson also visited Nicaragua and El Salvador at the invitation of the Sanctuary movement, and saw the effects of the El Salvador Civil War. These 1986 events greatly influenced The Joshua Tree album, which was being recorded at the time.
In 1992, the band participated in the "Stop Sellafield" concert with Greenpeace during their Zoo TV tour. Events in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war inspired the song "Miss Sarajevo", which premiered at a September 1995 Pavarotti and Friends show, and which Bono and the Edge performed at War Child. A promise made in 1993 was kept when the band played in Sarajevo as part of 1997's PopMart Tour. In 1998, they performed in Belfast days prior to the vote on the Good Friday Agreement, bringing Irish political leaders David Trimble and John Hume on stage to promote the agreement. Later that year, all proceeds from the release of the "Sweetest Thing" single went towards supporting the Chernobyl Children's Project.
In 2001, the band dedicated "Walk On" to Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In late 2003, Bono and the Edge participated in the South Africa HIV/AIDS awareness 46664 series of concerts hosted by Nelson Mandela. The band played 2005's Live 8 concert in London. The band and manager Paul McGuinness were awarded Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award for their work in promoting human rights.
Since 2000, Bono's campaigning has included Jubilee 2000 with Bob Geldof, Muhammad Ali, and others to promote the cancellation of third world debt during the Great Jubilee. In January 2002, Bono co-founded the multinational NGO, DATA, with the aim of improving the social, political, and financial state of Africa. He continued his campaigns for debt and HIV/AIDS relief into June 2002 by making high-profile visits to Africa.
Product Red, a 2006 for-profit brand seeking to raise money for the Global Fund, was founded, in part, by Bono. The ONE Campaign, the US counterpart of Make Poverty History, has been shaped by his efforts and vision. Bono has also teamed up with Yahoo! to promote the ONE Campaign, which Yahoo! has helped to re-develop.
In late 2005, following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, The Edge helped introduce Music Rising, an initiative to raise funds for musicians who lost their instruments in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. In 2006, U2 collaborated with punk rock band Green Day to record a cover version of the song "The Saints Are Coming" by The Skids to benefit Music Rising.
U2 and Bono's social activism have not been without its critics however. Several authors and activists who publish in politically left journals such as CounterPunch have decried Bono's support of political figures such as Paul Wolfowitz, as well as his "essential paternalism". Other news sources have more generally questioned the efficacy of Bono's campaign to relieve debt and provide assistance to Africa, with 20/20 declaring that "foreign aid often just makes politicians rich—but leaves their people poor".
Aside from musical collaborations, U2 have worked with several authors. American author William S. Burroughs had a guest appearance in U2's video for "Last Night on Earth" shortly before he died. His poem "A Thanksgiving Prayer" was used as video footage during the band's Zoo TV Tour. Other collaborators include William Gibson and Allen Ginsberg. In early 2000, the band recorded three songs for the The Million Dollar Hotel movie soundtrack, including "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," which was co-written by Salman Rushdie and motivated by his book of the same name.