In 1976, in response to a postcard on a notice board at Mount Temple High School in Dublin, Paul Hewson, David Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen met and started practicing at Mullen’s house, calling themselves Feedback.
Originally playing cover versions at local engagements, the band eventually changed their name to The Hype and then to U2, during which time Hewson was nicknamed Bono (after the Bonavox Hearing Aid shop, off Dublin’s O’Connell Street – he was not pleased until he discovered that his new name also meant “good voice” in Latin), while Evans was given the name ‘The Edge’ by Bono because of the shape of his head.
The band soon won a talent contest sponsored by Guinness, which led to a record deal. U2 released their first record, the EP U2:3 in 1979, although it was sold only in Ireland. Their first live show on the UK mainland was at the Hope & Anchor pub in north London. Only nine people showed up – a situation probably not helped by being billed as V2 on posters and publicity material. . .
Success did not come overnight, and the first three U2 singles were flops. Although their debut album Boy (1980) wasn’t a huge hit either, their constant gigging started to pay off. Their second album October, released a year after its predecessor, made it to Number 11 in the UK charts.
By 1983, with the single New Year’s Day at Number 10 in the UK charts and a sold-out British tour under their belts, U2 released their third album War.
Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the album had everything – passion, glory, bombast and angst. Fuelled by these ingredients, it entered the UK charts at Number One.
A live album, Under A Blood Red Sky, was released in November ’83 and it was no surprise that the album was a big hit.
1984’s The Unforgettable Fire pushed back the boundaries of epic rock via the soundscaping wizardry of the innovative production duo of Brian Eno and Dan Lanois.
After Live Aid, Bono took a ‘fact-finding’ trip to Ethiopia, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and his experiences found their way into the themes of the band’s next album, The Joshua Tree (1987). The result was U2’s ‘coming-of-age’ record.
Songs such as Where The Streets Have No Name and With Or Without You were designed to be heard in U2’s new environment: the sports stadia and amphitheatres of their next tour.
In 1987, Larry Mullen was famously too embarrassed to tell his girlfriend that his band’s new album was going to be named after a cactus. He needn’t have been. By allowing tracks on The Joshua Tree (1987) to evolve out of spontaneous studio jams, incorporating grittier elements of roots R&B and primitive rural blues into their aural landscape, U2 successfully crafted a musical panorama as deep and wide as America’s vast open spaces.
Sweeping anthems like I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You perfectly articulated the yearnings of every individual approaching a spiritual crossroads in the decade of vulgar materialism.
The album turned U2 into global superstars as they finally learnt to combine their multi-textured sound with the kind of melodies that fans could sing as well as sway along to.
Paul ‘Bono’ Hewson
David ‘The Edge’ Evans