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U2's Edge and Bono performing in Washington. Decades of Irish art and history contained in their songs. Photo by: Getty Images

Why U2 once mattered, and why U2 matter still

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U2's Edge and Bono performing in Washington. Decades of Irish art and history contained in their songs. Photo by: Getty Images

They were solitary Irish upstarts, a fledgling rock band in the post-punk new wave era - which they only lightly reflected – because they were pursuing their own signals from the outset.

Because they were Irish they were ignored at first, which gave them enviable space to learn and to grow.

In the early 1980’s U2 were in search of something. Greatness, obviously, but their appetite was so insatiable it made you look twice. Compare an early 80’s interview with U2 with any other rock band of the time and you’ll see how distinctive they were.

Hailing from a Republic on life support they were consciously and unconsciously in search of some grandeur. The saw how the romantic Irish landscape could encourage you to dream, but they also saw how quickly Irish society could throw its nets around you. Their sound grew out of the contrast, I suppose.

Edge’s big booming messianic chords, the band’s calling card, were there almost from the beginning, fueled by their hunger and also fueled by their less discussed interest in born again Christianity.

Like a lot of young Irish people of that era U2 were looking for a future, they were also looking for parole, and they were looking for a song to guide them to a new plateau. No previous generation had done it.

At the time I thought they were the strangest rock band I’d ever seen. To me Bono looked like a mix of bug eyed religious maniac and mountain goat. In those days he always seemed to be in search of a flag to raise and a summit to taper on. I was instinctively leery of his mullet and his ready answers.

U2 was the band that your older brothers liked. I would watch Bono’s odd physicality (he seemed to either dart about or more often move in slow motion, a trick I think he learned from the other great Celtic band Simple Minds) and contrast it with the other stars of the 80’s.

I don’t think I really understood U2 until I heard the wall of sound guitar of Pride (In The Name Of Love) the week it was released. That song drew a line under the past. It became a national event in Ireland at the time. It quickly became a mission statement of the Irish youth of that era, who knew it the moment they heard it. It also became a sort of national anthem even before the album it came from, The Unforgettable Fire, was released.

The black and white video that promoted Pride (In The Name Of Love) was a snapshot of the band and of all the young Irish of the era: all hesitation and defiance. Rarely do you see such a confluence of art and life. When the helicopter flies up over Dublin city at the end of the song it looks as if no one really lives there and nothing is going on. That was about right, frankly.

Although they have often listed the bands and singers who have inspired them, it’s hard to find a trace of U2’s influences in their early sound. That’s because in the end U2 have always been best at being themselves, their forays into alternatives (avatars and sounds) have rarely paid dividends.

There are so many things to criticize. Ireland’s small and you could argue U2’s juggernaut hurt emerging acts. Ireland has a band, you’re not it, go home, was and to some extent still is a common attitude there.

The band’s power chords and the big rousing choruses became less and less convincing over time too. To this day it’s still their reflex even when the mighty dreams the band once dreamed have long ago been tempered by experience. Formed by the era they erupted in, the shockwaves have carried on for twenty-five years in ways that to tell the truth have sometimes been as imprisoning as they were inspired.

Certainly the bands ironic embrace of corporate symbols like the golden arch in the PopMart tour wasn’t all that ironic. They’re not who they were, and none of us are, but U2 are even less so. Facebook deals worth millions, speed dials to the world’s top leaders, homes in France and elsewhere. Rock stardom brings you riches if it doesn’t necessarily bring you your dreams.

But the reason that U2 still matter now, the reason they will always matter, is that just like an angels trumpet blast they heralded a great change. They embodied that change too. Their history is inseparable from the nation they sprang from now. They were trailblazers – artists often are – but they were the shape of things to come too.

It worked both ways. For years Bono looked for a messiah but ended up deciding there’d already been one and that one was enough. That was one of his early and most heartfelt quests, but U2 is bigger than Bono, thankfully. The point of every great journey is come to home and finally understand the place.

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