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What made U2 one of rock’s biggest acts

  • Rock’s superstars come to Mumbai next week for their first gig in India
  • There are two albums that are a must if you want to explore their roots (Spoiler: The Joshua Tree isn’t one of them

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

It is likely that if you ask someone what their favourite U2 album is, they will say The Joshua Tree. Everyone—including those very rare few who may have just a nodding acquaintance with the band—loves what must be U2’s most celebrated album. All the tracks on that 1987 album, from the opener, Where The Streets Have No Name, to the last track, Mothers Of The Disappeared, have the potential of becoming earworms, instantly recognizable, and nudging you to sing along. It’s no surprise that The Joshua Tree was their grand, breakout album, one that catapulted U2, formed in Dublin as a high school band in 1976, to superstar status.

It was after The Joshua Tree that U2 began to earn critical acclaim as “the greatest rock band". Time magazine once called them “rock’s hottest ticket". But U2 had become a successful band much before The Joshua Tree. To date, U2 have released 14 studio albums, which have together sold more than 150 million copies. The band has fans worldwide, and, in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On 15 December, the Joshua Tree Tour 2019 stops at Mumbai, where they will play their first gig in India.

Big fans of U2 like most of the band’s discography, particularly the 10 albums that came out after The Joshua Tree, and those who have had a chance to watch their shows—arena-filling, spectacular affairs—experience giddy exhilaration. Those who make it to the Mumbai show are likely to be similarly delighted. Yet, there are some albums by the band that might not have got the attention they deserve. For instance, U2’s debut album, Boy, which came out nearly 40 years ago.

Like many bands in the post-punk era, U2—a quartet comprising singer Bono (Paul Hewson), guitarist The Edge (David Evans), drummer Larry Mullen Jr, and bassist Adam Clayton—faced their share of struggle. In their early years, they started by doing covers of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones; they failed auditions in their early attempts to record albums; and they had to make it in Ireland before getting noticed in England. But Boy was an appropriate beginning to their stellar career. The most characteristic thing about U2 is the grand soundscape—a sweeping panoply of The Edge’s processed guitarwork; the heavy rock rhythm of Mullen and Clayton’s rhythm section; and Bono’s anthemic, message-laden lyrics and vocals. Boy was the first demonstration of that inimitable array.

In the early post-punk years, many bands deviated completely from punk’s “we-don’t-give-a-fig" raw noisiness to adopt a more meticulously conceived sound. But U2 borrowed heavily from the punk idiom. Listening to the first track on Boy, I Will Follow, The Edge’s opening guitar riff sounds like you are about to listen to a dyed-in-the-wool, minimalistic punk band, but then (and soon) it morphs into a well-crafted shower of sound: the muscly rhythm section; Bono’s impassioned singing; and the lyrics (I was on the outside/ When you said, you said you needed me/ And I was looking at myself/ I was blind, I could not see….), straightforward, yet deep with meaning.

Bono had lost his mother when he was in his early teens and I Will Follow, as well as some of the other songs on Boy, are about looking back at the past and at adolescence. The dark An Cat Dubh (Irish for “the black cat") is quite likely a reference to a short-lived affair that a young Bono had after briefly breaking up with his girlfriend (who is, incidentally, now his wife). The Ocean, a softly wavering track from Boy, is short and enigmatic but it really is a sign of what the future of U2 would be: immaculately produced tight sound and lyrics with no sloppiness, both a hallmark of most of the band’s albums in the ensuing years.

For me, the other (early-ish) album by U2 that stands out from their consistently good catalogue is Rattle And Hum from 1988. Coming out just after The Joshua Tree, it’s an unusual album, comprising both studio as well as live tracks, and it was complemented with a documentary film on the band. Rattle And Hum has covers (a live version of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter; Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, also performed live; and a version of The Star Spangled Banner); and collaborations with Dylan himself (Bono and he sing together on the song Love Rescue Me), and with B.B. King, who plays and sings on the bluesy When Love Comes To Town. Rattle And Hum is a must-listen album for anyone who wants to explore U2’s influences, including Americana, blues, folk, and even gospel and soul. On one Rattle And Hum track, Harlem’s gospel choir, New Voices Of Freedom, collaborates with U2.

Since then, U2 have become a larger-than-life mega-band. Frontman Bono is one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists and activists, campaigning on many issues, including the war against poverty and AIDS, and has won numerous awards. The band’s shows, always extravagantly choreographed with special effects, are a multimedia sensation, and though U2 have not released any new albums since 2017 (that year’s Songs Of Experience, released as a companion to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, is their most recent), their popularity among fans is still at a high, cutting across demographics and geography. As a friend remarked recently, the only possible problem you can have with U2 is that everybody seems to like them.


Five tracks by U2 to bookend your week

1. ‘I Will Follow’ from ‘Boy’

2. ‘An Cat Dubh’ from ‘Boy’

3. ‘Helter Skelter’ from ‘Rattle And Hum’

4. ‘When Love Comes To Town’ from ‘Rattle And Hum’

5. ‘Hawkmoon 269’ from ‘Rattle And Hum’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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