U2 have been together for over two decades. Their long and eventful history is best described by their music, and often even by the album titles.
FormationThe band was formed in Dublin in October 1976. 14-year-old Larry Mullen Jr. posted a note on his secondary school bulletin board seeking musicians for a new band. The response that followed that note resulted in a 5-piece band, known at the time as Feedback, with Mullen on drums, Adam Clayton on bass guitar, Paul Hewson on vocals, Dave Evans and his brother Dik on guitar.
Bono was named after Bonavox (meaning 'beautiful voice'), a store that sold hearing aids, and The Edge got his name from Bono who thought it was an accurate description of his head.
After 18 months of rehearsals, Feedback changed their name to The Hype. The band performed with their new name at a talent show in Limerick, Ireland on 17 March 1978. One of the judges for the show happened to be CBS Records' Jackie Hayden; U2 won the contest, earning a £500 prize. Hayden was impressed enough with the band that he gave them studio time to record their first demo.
The Dublin punk rock guru Steve Averill (better known as Steve Rapid of the Radiators from Space) recommended that "The Hype stinks, at least as a name." Someone offered "What about U2? It's the name of a spyplane and a submarine, and it's got an endearing inclusivity about it."¹ (http://www.u2.com)
Some suggest the meaning of the name "U2" is based on their philosophy. They believe that the audience is part of their music and the concert and that "you too" (U2) are participating in the music.
Dik announced his departure in March 1978. So, The Hype performed a farewell show for him at the Community Centre in Howth. Dik walked off the stage, halfway through the set. The Hype had departed and endures as U2. For the first time, Adam, Larry, Bono, and The Edge were alone together. Dik later joined the Virgin Prunes, a fellow Dublin band. In May, Paul McGuinness became the band's manager.
With a local fan-base in place, U2 released their first single in September of 1979, which was titled U2-3. The single topped the Irish charts. In December of that year, U2 travelled to London for its first shows outside of Ireland, but failed to get much attention from the foreign audiences and critics.
Boy and OctoberIsland Records signed the band in March of 1980. U2 released Boy, the following October. That albums release was followed by U2's first tour outside the U.K. The band's second album, October, was released in 1981. Fans and music critics quickly made note of the band's spiritual lyrics. Bono, the Edge and Larry were committed Christians and made little effort to hide that fact. The three band members joined a religious group in Dublin called "Shalom", which led all three to question the relationship between the Christian faith and the rock and roll lifestyle. After nearly throwing in the towel on U2, they decided it was possible to reconcile the two by continuing to make music without compromising their personal beliefs.
WarIn 1983, U2 returned with apparently a newfound sense of direction and the release of their third album, War. The album included the song "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", which dealt with the situation in Northern Ireland. The album's first single, "New Year's Day", was U2's first international hit single, reaching the #10 position on the U.K. charts and nearly cracking the Top 50 on the U.S. charts. MTV put the "New Years Day" video into heavy rotation, which helped introduce U2 to the American audience. For the first time, the band began performing to sold-out concerts in Europe and the U.S. The band recorded the Under a Blood Red Sky EP on this tour. A video was also made.
The Unforgettable FireThe band began their fourth studio album with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois producing. The experimental The Unforgettable Fire (named after a series of paintings made by survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) followed in 1984. The album featured the tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., "Pride (In the Name of Love)". "Pride" became the first single from the album, cracking the U.K. Top 5 and the U.S. Top 50. A tour to support the new album followed.
Rolling Stone magazine called U2 the "Band of the 80s", saying that "for a growing number of rock-and-roll fans, U2 has become the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters."
Live AidThe Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief in July 1985 was seen by more than a billion people worldwide. Although U2 was not originally expected to be one of the main draws for the event, the band stole the show with a relentless 13-minute version of "Bad" in which Bono left the stage and walked down into the Wembley Stadium crowd to dance with a fan. U2 went on to a headlining spot on 1986's "Conspiracy of Hope" tour for Amnesty International. This 6-show tour across the U.S. performed to sold-out arenas and stadiums, and helped Amnesty International triple its membership in the process.
The Joshua TreeIn 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree. The album debuted at #1 in the U.K., and quickly reached #1 in the U.S. The singles "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" quickly went to #1 in the U.S. U2 was the third rock band to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine (The previous two had been The Beatles and The Who), declaring that U2 was "Rock's Hottest Ticket". The Joshua Tree tour sold out stadiums around the world. The band began to film and record various shows from the tour for the documentary and album Rattle and Hum in 1988 and released on video in 1989. That album became a tribute to American music, when the band recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, performed with Bob Dylan and B.B. King, sang about blues great Billie Holiday, and covered The Beatles. Despite a positive reception from the fans, it was widely lambasted by the critics for being pretentious and for attempting to place U2 in with the musical greats.
Achtung Baby, Zooropa, ZooTVAfter taking some time off, the band met in Berlin in late 1990 to begin work on their next studio album, again with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois producing. The original sessions did not go well, but the band eventually emerged from the studio with a new album under its belt. In November of 1991, U2 released the heavily experimental and distorted Achtung Baby. The album was enthusiastically received by fans and critics alike, with Rolling Stone magazine declaring that U2 had "proven that the same penchant for epic musical and verbal gestures that leads many artists to self-parody can, in more inspired hands, fuel the unforgettable fire that defines great rock & roll."
In early 1992, U2 began its first American tour in more than four years. The multimedia event known as the "Zoo TV" tour confused audiences with hundreds of video screens, flying cars, and characters like "The Fly". The tour was U2's attempt at mocking the excesses of rock and roll, by appearing to embrace greed and decadence - even at times, away from the stage. Some missed the point of the tour and thought that U2 had "lost it", and that Bono had become an egomaniac. Following the same theme, U2 went back into the studio to record their next album during a break in the "Zoo TV" tour. Zooropa was released in July of 1993.
After some time off, and a few side projects (the "Batman Forever" and "Mission: Impossible" soundtracks), the band returned under the radar in 1995 with Brian Eno under the moniker "Passengers", and released an experimental album called Original Soundtracks 1. The album, including a collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti, "Miss Sarajevo", was not largely noticed in the industry, and received little attention from the critics and public alike.
POP and PopmartIn early 1996, U2 began work on their next record. Pop was released in March of 1997. The album debuted at #1 in 28 countries, and earned U2 mixed critical praise. However, audiences and fans felt that the music industry had exceeded the limits of tolerance in promoting Pop, and the album was seen as something of a disappointment by many. U2, once again continuing the "Zoo TV" theme of decadence, hit the road in April, 1997, with its "Popmart Tour", which included a 100-foot tall golden yellow arch, large 150 foot long video screens, and a 35 foot tall mirrorball lemon. The "Popmart tour" was the second-highest grossing tour of 1997, with revenues of just under $80 million; but it cost more than $100 million to produce.
The band played a brief concert in Belfast in May of 1998, three days before the public voted in favour of the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. Also that year, U2 performed on an Irish TV fundraiser for victims of the Omagh, Northern Ireland bombing which killed 28 and injured hundreds more earlier in the year.
In late 1998, U2 released its first greatest hits compilation, The Best of 1980-1990.
All That You Can't Leave BehindU2 went back into the studio in early 1999, yet again with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois producing. After the overwhelming extravagance of the "PopMart" tour, critics and music industry insiders felt that U2 was trying to return to the days of The Joshua Tree in order to keep its audience of loyal fans. During these sessions, the band collaborated with author Salman Rushdie, who wrote the lyrics to a song called "The Ground Beneath Her Feet", based on his book of the same name. That song, and others, eventually appeared on the soundtrack to The Million Dollar Hotel, a movie based on a story written by Bono.
All That You Can't Leave Behind, released in late October, was received widely as U2's return to grace, and was considered by many to be U2's "third masterpiece" (after Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree, (Rolling Stone)). It debuted at No. 1 in 22 countries and spawned a world-wide hit single, "Beautiful Day", which also earned three Grammy Awards. U2 followed that release with a major tour in the spring of 2001. "The Elevation Tour" saw the band performing in a scaled down setting, on a heart shaped stage. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 nearly led U2 to cancel the tour, but they decided to continue. "The Elevation tour" was the top concert draw in North America. The band's 80 shows (of 113 total) in North America grossed $110 million, the second-highest total behind The Rolling Stones' "Voodoo Lounge Tour" in 1994. Following such an accomplished album, and a hugely successful tour, many fans felt that U2 had been successful in "re-applying for the job of the biggest band in the world", an application Bono had made a year earlier.
And BeyondAfter the tour had ended in late 2001, U2 performed three songs in New Orleans during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI. In an emotional performance of "Where the Streets Have No Name", the names of the victims of the September 11 attack, projected onto a backdrop, floated up towards the sky behind the band. At the end of the performance, Bono opened his jacket to reveal an American flag printed on the lining. That image would appear on numerous magazine covers and newspapers. A few months later, All That You Can't Leave Behind picked up four more Grammy Awards.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, a list of 150 songs circulated on the Internet, purported to be from radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications to its subsidiaries, with the recommendation that these songs be pulled from airplay (it was later revealed that the list was originally the work of a few specific station program directors, was not an official Clear Channel missive, and changed over time as it was redistributed). U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was on the list.
Bono continued his campaigns for debt and HIV/AIDS relief throughout the summer of 2002, which included a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, an 11-day tour of Africa with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and a moving (if somewhat long-winded) speech during the inauguration of Paul Martin as Canada's prime minister who pledged to help with the global crisis.
In late 2002, U2 released part two of its greatest hits collection, The Best of 1990-2000.
Dance artists LMC sampled "With or Without You" for their track "Take Me To The Clouds Above" which also features lyrics from "How Will I Know" by Whitney Houston. All four members of U2 had to clear the track, which was released under the title of LMC vs U2. Adam Clayton said of the track: "It's a good beat and you can dance to it. I especially like the bassline." The track went to the top of the UK singles charts in February 2004 and also went top 5 in Ireland and top ten in Australia.
In April 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed U2 in its fifty "greatest rock & roll artists of all time". The band was now considered firmly part of the group it had been lambasted for trying to enter during the late 80s.