U2 are an Irish rock band from Dublin formed in 1976. The group consists of Bono (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), the Edge (lead guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums and percussion). Initially rooted in post-punk, U2’s musical style has evolved throughout their career, yet has maintained an anthemic sound built on Bono’s expressive vocals and the Edge’s effects-based guitar textures. Their lyrics, often embellished with spiritual imagery, focus on personal and sociopolitical themes. Popular for their live performances, the group have staged several ambitious and elaborate tours over their career.
The band formed as teenagers while attending Mount Temple Comprehensive School, when they had limited musical proficiency. Within four years, they signed with Island Records and released their debut album, Boy (1980). Subsequent work such as their first UK number-one album, War (1983), and the singles “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” helped establish U2’s reputation as a politically and socially conscious group. By the mid-1980s, they had become renowned globally for their live act, highlighted by their performance at Live Aid in 1985. The group’s fifth album, The Joshua Tree (1987), made them international superstars and was their greatest critical and commercial success. Topping music charts around the world, it produced their only number-one singles in the US, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For“.
Facing creative stagnation and a backlash following their documentary/double album, Rattle and Hum (1988), U2 reinvented themselves in the 1990s through a new musical direction and public image. Beginning with their acclaimed seventh album, Achtung Baby (1991), and the multimedia-intensive Zoo TV Tour, the band integrated influences from alternative rock, electronic dance music, and industrial music into their sound, and embraced a more ironic, flippant image. This experimentation continued through their ninth album, Pop (1997), and the PopMart Tour, which were mixed successes. U2 regained critical and commercial favour with the records All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), which established a more conventional, mainstream sound for the group. Their U2 360° Tour of 2009–2011 is the highest-attended and highest-grossing concert tour in history. The group most recently released the companion albums Songs of Innocence (2014) and Songs of Experience (2017), the former of which received criticism for its pervasive, no-cost release through the iTunes Store.
U2 have released 14 studio albums and are one of the world’s best-selling music artists in history, having sold more than 170 million records worldwide. They have won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band, and in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Rolling Stone ranked U2 at number 22 on 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, Jubilee 2000, the ONE/DATA campaigns, Product Red, War Child, and Music Rising.
With their record deal with Island Records coming to an end, the band signed a more lucrative extension in 1984. They negotiated the return of the copyrights of their songs, an increase in their royalty rate, and a general improvement in terms, at the expense of a larger initial payment.
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 group were confident that fans would embrace them as successors to the Who and Led Zeppelin, but according to Bono: “something just didn’t feel right. We felt we had more dimension than just the next big anything, we had something unique to offer.” Thus, they sought experimentation for their fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire. Clayton said, “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 founder 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”.
For their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, the band wanted to build on The Unforgettable Fire‘s textures, but instead of out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitation of conventional song structures. Realising that “U2 had no tradition” and that their knowledge of music from before their childhood was limited, the group delved into American and Irish roots music. Friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards motivated Bono to explore blues, folk, and gospel music and focused him on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. U2 halted the album sessions in June 1986 to serve as a headline act on the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concert tour for Amnesty International. Rather than distract the band, the tour invigorated their new material. The following month, Bono travelled to Nicaragua and El Salvador and saw first-hand the distress of peasants affected by political conflicts and US military intervention. The experience became a central influence on their new music.
The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987. The album juxtaposes antipathy towards US foreign policy against the group’s deep fascination with the country, its open spaces, freedom, and ideals. The band wanted music with a sense of location and a “cinematic” quality, and the record’s music and lyrics draw on imagery created by American writers whose works the band had been reading. The Joshua Tree was critically acclaimed; Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times said the album “confirms on record what this band has been slowly asserting for three years now on stage: U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago—the greatest rock and roll band in the world”. The record went to number one in over 20 countries, including the UK where it received a platinum certification in 48 hours, making it the fastest seller in British chart history. In the US, it spent nine consecutive weeks at number one. The album included the hit singles “With or Without You“, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For“, and “Where the Streets Have No Name“, the first two of which became the group’s only number-one hits in the US. U2 became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, which called them “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”. The album won U2 their first two Grammy Awards, and it brought them a new level of success. Many publications, including Rolling Stone, have cited it as one of rock’s greatest.
The Joshua Tree Tour was the first tour on which the band played shows in stadiums alongside smaller arena shows. It grossed US$40 million and drew 3 million attendees.
In October 1988, the group released Rattle and Hum, a double album and theatrically released documentary film that captured the band’s experiences with American roots music on the Joshua Tree Tour. The record featured nine studio tracks and six live U2 performances, including recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis and collaborations with Dylan and B.B. King. Intended as a tribute to American music, the project received mixed reviews from both film and music critics; one Rolling Stone editor spoke of the album’s “excitement”, another described it as “misguided and bombastic”. The film’s director, Phil Joanou, described it as “an overly pretentious look at U2”. Despite the criticism, the album sold 14 million copies and reached number one worldwide.
Lead single “Desire” became the band’s first number-one song in the UK while reaching number three in the US. Most of the album’s new material was played on 1989–1990’s Lovetown Tour, which only visited Australasia, Japan, and Europe, so as to avoid the critical backlash the group faced in the US. In addition, they had grown dissatisfied with their live performances; Mullen recalled, “We were the biggest, but we weren’t the best”.
With a sense of musical stagnation, Bono said to fans on one of the last dates of the tour that it was “the end of something for U2” and that they had to “go away and … just dream it all up again”.
80s Studio albums
- Boy (1980)
- October (1981)
- War (1983)
- The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
- The Joshua Tree (1987)
- Rattle and Hum (1988)