Where To Start With... U2
As a measure of just how long U2 have been fixture on the landscape of popular music, here's a sobering thought: Peter Rowen, owner of the cherubic face featured on the cover of the band's 1980 debut album Boy, is now 43 years old. We'll let that sink in for a minute.
There are bands who have been around for longer, of course - The Rolling Stones are an obvious example, although even they have undergone one or two line-up changes over the years – but in the case of U2 the line-up today remains exactly the same as the one who stepped onto the stage of a Limerick talent contest in 1978 and won £500 for their efforts. Only ZZ Top have endured a longer run with the same core membership, but not even the bearded Texan trio can compare when it comes to record sales; with an estimated 150 million albums shifted over the course of their long career, U2 rank amongst the 20 most commercially successful artists of all time and have arguably spent most of the last three decades being the biggest band on the planet.
That kind of success hasn't come without its problems. Frontman Bono has long been an easy target for the band's detractors, which might seem unfair after a lifetime of activism and campaigning to end poverty, but even his fans have to concede that it's difficult to square being a countercultural icon and hanging out with the pope. However, for all the criticism levelled at the band over the years it's worth noting how rarely their music is the subject of complaint; in 2014, when somebody at Apple had the bright idea of not only giving away their most recent album Songs of Innocence for free, but inserting it into every iTunes user's library whether they wanted it or not, the backlash was as vitriolic as it was predictable. But while U2 copped the flak for Apple's bravado, the reviews pointed to an album filled with songs that exhibited a remarkable vitality for a band well into its fifth decade.
This week U2 return with a follow-up and companion piece to their 2014 album. Songs of Experience arrives in stores this week and contains 13 brand new songs that offer a counterpoint to those featured on its predecessor. Where Songs of Innocence documented the band's adolescence, the new album is written from a more seasoned perspective, with Bono's lyrics having reportedly been informed by a “brush with mortality” which, along with the rapidly changing political climate, set the album on a very different course just as it was nearing completion last year.
One of the most persistent criticisms about Songs of Innocence was that its production was a little over-polished, and whether or not the band have taken any notice of the reviews it does seem that U2 have made a conscious decision to remedy that this time around. Recorded in a rented Victorian mansion in Dublin's seaside suburb of Killiney, the band have aimed for a more 'live' feel to their new album and have recruited several producers to help achieve their aims, including Jacknife Lee, Jolyon Thomas, Ryan Tedder, Andy Barlow and longtime collaborator Steve Lilywhite.
You can find the video for 'The Blackout' - one of the album's highlights - below, and with the new album freshly on the shelves we went digging through their extensive back catalogue and picked out five pivotal moments in their career so far...
'Sunday Bloody Sunday'
After some modest success with their debut album and its follow-up October, U2's third album, War, arrived in 1983 and featured one of Bono's most overtly political statements to date. Written about the ongoing conflict over Northern Ireland and named after the infamous massacre in 1972 of 28 civilians, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' offered an early glimpse of the band's anthemic songwriting and landed them with their biggest hit up until that point.
'Pride (In the Name Of Love)'
U2's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire is probably the moment the band really began to make the transition into full-blown stadium fillers and while it didn't sell quite as well as its predecessor, it did contain a song which hints at the future of U2's sound. Complete with a typically powerful vocal from Bono and featuring glimpses of the delay-drenched guitars that would soon become the Edge's trademark, 'Pride (In the Name of Love)' was a harbinger of things to come.
'Where The Streets Have No Name'
We could have picked pretty much any of The Joshua Tree's first four tracks here, but we've gone for the album's opener because nothing quite distills the sound of 1980s U2 in quite the same way as this. The jangling guitars, somersaulting vocals and pounding, kinetic drums mark the moment when U2 really hit on a winning formula, catapulting them into the stratosphere of rock superstardom in the process.
Even if The Joshua Tree is considered the most important album in terms of U2's career trajectory, it is the follow-up, 1991's Achtung Baby, which remains arguably their finest work. The arrival of 'The Fly' signalled a shift in the band's sound that would go on to inform the songs on the next two albums, Zooropa and Pop, but more to the point it was the moment Bono put on a pair of sunglasses and decided never to take them off again.
Our final pick is one that will no doubt divide opinion amongst even the most dedicated U2 fans. 'Beautiful Day' isn't the most complex, or the most emotionally resonant, song that U2 ever released, but nevertheless it remains one of their biggest hits and after the band's experimentation with dance music on Pop, this is a song that marked a return to doing what they do best and became one of their biggest sellers.