The band was formed in Dublin in October 1976. Fourteen-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 six-piece band, known at the time as Feedback, with Mullen on drums, Adam Clayton on bass guitar, Paul Hewson (Bono) on vocals, Dave Evans (The Edge) on guitar, his brother, Dik Evans on guitar, in addition to Ivan McCormick on guitar.
Hewson was nicknamed Bono Vox (meaning “good voice” in Latin), after a hearing aid company’s advertising sign on the corner of Dame Street and South Great Georges Street in Dublin’s city centre. The sign is still in place today. The Edge got his name from Bono who thought it was an accurate description of his head. (Another theory on Edge’s nickname is that he is called after a hardware shop in Fairview, Dublin, outside of which he used to catch the bus home.)
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 March 17, 1978. One of the judges for the show happened to be CBS Records’ Jackie Hayden; they 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) suggested that “The Hype stinks, at least as a name.” Someone offered, “What about U2? It’s the name of a spy plane and a submarine, and it’s got an endearing inclusivity about it.”
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. Although, in an interview with Larry King, Bono is quoted as saying, “I don’t actually like the name U2; I honestly never thought of it as 'you, too'.”
Dik Evans announced his departure in March 1978. Preceeding him was Ivan. The hallowed sixth (others argue fifth) member was dismissed by Adam Clayton who told him that he was too young to play at the bars in which U2 was booked. The Hype performed a farewell show for him at the Community Centre in Howth. Dik walked offstage halfway through the set and later joined the Virgin Prunes, a fellow Dublin band. In May, Paul McGuinness became U2’s manager.
Now a four-piece with a local fan base in place, U2 released their first single in September of 1979, U2-3. It topped the Irish charts. In December of that year, U2 traveled to London for its first shows outside of Ireland, but failed to get much attention from the foreign audiences and critics.
U2 made their first appearance on US television on the The Tomorrow Show hosted by Tom Snyder. It aired on June 4, 1981. They performed “I Will Follow”, and “Twilight”, along with an interview.
Island Records signed the band in March of 1980. U2 released Boy the following October. That album’s release was followed by U2’s first tour outside the United Kingdom 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. (In recent years a book of sermons based on U2 songs has been published: “Get Up Off Your Knees” ed. Whiteley and Maynard, ISBN 1561012238).
In 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 song starts off by expressing the anger felt in Ireland over Bloody Sunday incident of 1972, but in successive stanzas moves through different imagery that disown that anger and place the song in a call for Christians to stop fighting each other. Though not regarded musically as one of the best U2 songs (they had yet to hit the musical heights that became their trademark later), it is generally regarded as one of the most fascinating examples of their linguistic abilities.
The album’s first single, “New Year’s Day”, was U2’s first international hit single, reaching the number ten position on the U.K. charts and nearly cracking the Top 50 on the U.S. charts. MTV put the “New Year’s 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 mainland Europe and the U.S. The band recorded the Under a Blood Red Sky EP on this tour and a live video was also released.
The 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)”, which became the first single from the album to crack the U.K. Top Five and the U.S Top 50.
The album represented a turning point in the band’s career, as Bono’s lyrics became more complex, subtle and experimental, the Edge’s guitar explored new sonic landscapes, and the rhythm section got looser and funkier. However, the material, although less overtly so, remained political. The album ends with “MLK”, a second song honoring the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Indian Summer Sky”, a social commentary on the prison-like atmosphere of city living in a world of natural forces; and the album title itself inspired by the title of a photo exhibit featuring images of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on display at the Chicago Peace Museum in the mid-80’s (Bono would later contribute a poem entitled “Dreams in Box” to the museum’s archives).
The centerpiece of the album is “bad”, a long, experimental song which, while never released as a single, provided the album’s defining moment: a cathartic exploration on the theme of heroin dependency - a problem particularly prevalent in the Dublin of the mid-1980s. During the tour to support the new album, Bono took to wrapping his microphone cable around his arm in imitation of a junkie looking for a vein.
The Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief in July 1985 was seen by more than a billion people worldwide. As Queen was the main artist, U2 was not originally expected to be one of the main draws for the event, but the band provided the show with one of its most memorable moments, a relentless thirteen-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 six-show tour across the U.S. performed to sold-out arenas and stadiums, and helped Amnesty International triple its membership in the process.
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.”
In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree. The album debuted at number one in the U.K., and quickly reached number one in the U.S. The singles, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, quickly went to number one in the U.S. U2 was the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine (The previous three had been The Beatles, The Band, 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 to record various shows from the tour for the documentary and album Rattle and Hum in 1988 and released it 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, and sang about blues great Billie Holiday. The band also covered the Beatles’ song, “Helter Skelter”, declaring “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, well we’re stealin’ it back.”
Live footage from the Joshua Tree Tour concerts at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, and McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado, featured prominently in the film. The McNichols’ footage, shot in black and white, included performances from the back catalog while color material from Sun Devil mostly comprised (then) current material. Two shows were filmed in Tempe. To ensure a full stadium, tickets were discounted to $5.00 a piece.
Despite a positive reception from fans, Rattle and Hum received mixed-to-negative reviews from both film and music critics.
After 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 following the inspirational completion of the hit song “One”, the band eventually emerged from the studio with renewed energy and 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 and roll.”
In early 1992, U2 began its first American tour in more than four years. The multimedia event known as the Zoo TV Tour masterfully confused audiences with hundreds of video screens, upside-down flying Trabant cars, mock transmission towers, satellite TV links, subliminal text messages, and over-the-top stage characters such as “The Fly”, “Mirror-ball Man” and “MacPhisto”. The tour was among other things 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 release during a break in the Zoo TV tour. The album was intended as an additional EP to Achtung Baby, but soon Zooropa expanded into a full-fledged LP and was released in July of 1993. Zooropa was an even greater departure from the style of their earlier recordings, incorporating techno style and other electronic effects.
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 No. 1. The album, including collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti, “Miss Sarajevo”, was not largely noticed in the industry, and received little attention from the critics and public alike.
In early 1996, U2 began work on the next record. The recording of this album was fraught with difficulty. U2 was once again attempting to change their musical direction, this time the band was experimenting with heavy post production, utilizing tape loops, programming and sampling. This gave the album a techno/disco feel. Pop was released in March of 1997. The album debuted at number one in 28 countries, and earned U2 mainly positive reviews. Rolling Stone Magazine even went so far a claiming U2 had “defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives”. 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.
One of the main problems the band had when the recording the album was the time constraint placed upon them by the impending Popmart World Tour. The band has admitted they were hurried into completing the album and say that a number of tracks on the album were not finished as well they would have liked. It is not surprising that all the tracks from the Pop album to feature on U2’s second greatest hits album, The Best of 1990-2000, (“Gone”, “Discoth簵e”, and “Staring at the Sun”) were all remixed for inclusion on that album.
With the Popmart tour, U2 once again continued the “Zoo TV” theme of decadence. The show hit the road in April, 1997; the set included a 100-foot-tall golden yellow arch, a large 150-foot-long video screen, and a 35-foot-tall mirror-ball lemon. It was to be U2’s most colourful show to date. The Popmart tour was the second-highest grossing tour of 1997 (behind the Rolling Stone’s Bridges to Babylon tour) 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 favor of the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. Also that year, U2 performed on an Irish TV fundraiser for victims of the Omagh, a 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.
U2 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, according to Rolling Stone). It debuted at number one 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, starting the second American leg of the tour at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The tour was the top concert draw in North America, where the band’s 80 shows (out of 113 worldwide) 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.
After the Elevation tour ended in late 2001, the culmination of U2's resurrection came when the band performed a spectacular three-song set in New Orleans, Louisiana, during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI. The undisputed highlight of the show was an emotional performance of “Where the Streets Have No Name” in which the names of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, projected onto a pair of backdrops, 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.
Bono continued his campaigns for debt and HIV/AIDS relief throughout the summer of 2002. 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 bass line.” The track went to the top of the UK singles charts in February 2004 and also went top five in Ireland and top ten in Australia.
A rough-cut of the band’s follow-up album was stolen in Nice, France, in July 2004. Shortly thereafter, Bono stated that, should the album appear on P2P networks, it would be released immediately via iTunes and be in stores within a month. No such pre-release of the album occurred, however, and the first single from the album, titled “Vertigo”, was released for airplay on September 24, 2004. The song received extensive airplay in the first week after its release and debuted at number 18 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart at number 46 on the Billboard Hot 100, at number one on the UK Singles Chart, and number five on the Australian ARIAnet singles chart. The album, titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was released on November 22 in much of the world and November 23 in the United States. The album debuted at number one in 32 countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the band’s native Ireland. It sold 840,000 units in the United States in its first week. This was a record for the band, nearly doubling the first-week sales of All That You Can't Leave Behind in the USA.
U2 promoted How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb heavily. They made appearances on TV shows like CD: UK and The Jonathan Ross Show in Britain and Saturday Night Live in America. In another first, the band allowed the single “Vertigo” to be used in a widely-aired iTunes television commercial; though the band did not receive any royalties for the use of the song; due to the commercial, the song was well known even before the release of the album. In a further partnership with Apple Computer, the band licensed a special version of the iPod music player with a U2 design (black faceplate with red click wheel, echoing the color scheme for the new album) and facsimilies of the bandmembers’ signatures etched on the back plate. The band made a video for the second North American single, “All Because of You”, while riding on a flatbed truck through the streets of Manhattan on November 22. They then played a free concert at a Brooklyn park, attracting over 3,000 fans who had learned of the show on various U2 fan websites.
In April 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed U2 in its fifty “greatest rock and roll artists of all time”. On March 14, 2005, U2 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.
In Europe, the next single released from the album – “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” - once again featured a Bono/Pavarotti performance on the B-side. The performance is a Jacknife Lee remix of “Ave Maria” sung by Bono with Luciano Pavarotti.The B-Side of the single also includes a remix of the hit “Vertigo” and a Jacknife Lee remix of “Fast Cars”, which is an album track available only on the UK and Japan versions and American deluxe editions of Atomic Bomb. The single will be available on 2-CD formats and a DVD single. The DVD carries a video of an exclusive live performance of “Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own” from the band’s Dublin studio, and a Trent Reznor remix of “Vertigo”.
The first leg of the Vertigo Tour kicked off in the United States, with the band performing 26 sold-out shows. The first leg started off in March in San Diego, California, and finished in May in Boston, Massachusetts. The band performed well-known hits, songs from the current album, and early rarities to adoring fans. The second leg was a summer European stadium tour, which started on June 10 in Brussels and finished on August 14 in Lisbon. The band will return to the United States in the fall and will finish up December 19, in Portland, Oregon. There are currently rumors of a United States stadium/European arena tour in the summer of 2006.
U2 have smashed Irish box office records with ticket sales for their 2005 Croke Park, Dublin concerts, after more than 150,000 were sold within 50 minutes. In Belgium, France and Austria the tickets were sold within 60 minutes.
U2's third single from the album, “City of Blinding Lights”, entered the UK singles chart at number two on June 12. They performed alongside Coldplay, Paul McCartney, and Pink Floyd, among others, in the Live 8 concert in London on July 2, 2005.
The U2 Vertigo Tour (European Leg) climaxed at the Estadio Jose Alvalade XXI, in Lisbon on August 15 after the band received the country’s most prestigious honor, the Order of Liberty from Portugal's President Jorge Sampaio regarding the band’s hugely influencial work for action in Africa and across the world concerning extreme poverty. Commenting on the award, which had never previously been awarded to a foreign music group, Bono said, “It is of course for the four of us a great, great honor. . . . if we really believed that an African life was equal to a European life we would not stand by with watering cans while an entire continent was bursting into flames.”
Before presenting the award, the President said, “Over the last 25 years you have shown that it is possible to combine the pleasure of artistic creation with civic and humanitarian intervention to help build a better world.”
No Line on The Horizon, the new studio album from U2, is the band’s twelfth studio. The album calls on the production talents of long-time collaborators Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, with additional production by Steve Lillywhite.