The 1983 song was released as the lead single from the album “War.” It was U2’s first international hit and changed their career forever. The song hit the United Kingdom charts at number ten and was their first song to be featured on the United States Billboard Hot 100. Rolling Stone magazine also featured it among their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
Although it’s one of their most well known tunes, many fans don’t realize that the song is actually about the Polish Solidarity movement.
And you could be forgiven, given that it’s called “New Year’s Day” and it was released in January 1983.
Here’s the song in question:
(Enjoy the haircuts!)
The lyrics in fact refer to the persecuted leader of the Polish Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa. Coincidentally, after the song was released Poland announced that they would abolish martial law.
In 1980 the Solidarity movement in Poland, under the leadership of future Nobel Peace Prize winner and president Lech Walesa, challenged the oppressive rule of the Polish government. In December 1981, the Solidarity movement was outlawed and Walesa and its other leaders were arrested and put in jail.
It’s believed that “New Year’s Day” initially started out as a love song, dedicated to Bono’s high-school sweetheart, Ali, whom he had recently married, but this changed.
“I must have been thinking about Lech Walesa being interned. Then, when we'd recorded the song, they announced that martial law would be lifted in Poland on New Year's Day. Incredible.”
Here’s the beginning of the song:
“All is quiet on New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
On New Year's Day.
I will be with you again
I will be with you again.”
As the song continues, it further documents the growing movement of people clamoring for freedom and justice throughout Eastern Europe in the early 1980s.
“Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers say it's true
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one.”
The themes of understanding in a time of global unrest were a focal point for the album “War,” whose title was inspired by the various worldwide conflicts at the time.
So, next time you hear “New Year’s Day” being played in a bar this time of year you’ll know the real story behind the song.
* Originally published January 2015.