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U2 are an Irish rock band from Dublin formed in 1976. The group consists of Bono (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), the Edge (lead guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums and percussion). Initially rooted in post-punk, U2's musical style evolved throughout their career, yet has maintained an anthemic sound built on Bono's expressive vocals and the Edge's effects-based guitar textures. Their lyrics, often embellished with spiritual imagery, focus on personal and sociopolitical themes. Popular for their live performances, the group have staged several ambitious and elaborate tours over their career.
The band formed at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in 1976 when the members were teenagers with limited musical proficiency. Within four years, they signed with Island Records and released their debut album, Boy (1980). Subsequent work such as their first UK number-one album, War (1983), and the singles "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" helped establish U2's reputation as a politically and socially conscious group. By the mid-1980s, they had become renowned globally for their live act, highlighted by their performance at Live Aid in 1985. The group's fifth album, The Joshua Tree (1987), made them international superstars and was their greatest critical and commercial success. Topping music charts around the world, it produced their only number-one singles in the US, "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For".
Facing creative stagnation and a backlash following their documentary/double album, Rattle and Hum (1988), U2 reinvented themselves in the 1990s through a new musical direction and public image. Beginning with their acclaimed seventh album, Achtung Baby (1991), and the multimedia intensive Zoo TV Tour, the band integrated influences from alternative rock, electronic dance music, and industrial music into their sound, and embraced a more ironic, flippant image. This experimentation continued through their ninth album, Pop (1997), and the PopMart Tour, which were mixed successes. U2 regained critical and commercial favour with the records All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), which established a more conventional, mainstream sound for the group. Their U2 360° Tour of 2009–2011 is the highest-attended and highest-grossing concert tour in history. The group's thirteenth album, Songs of Innocence (2014), was released at no cost through the iTunes Store, but received criticism for its automatic placement in users' music libraries.
U2 have released 13 studio albums and are one of the world's best-selling music artists in history, having sold more than 170 million records worldwide. They have won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band, and in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Rolling Stone ranked U2 at number 22 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time". Throughout their career, as a band and as individuals, they have campaigned for human rights and philanthropic causes, including Amnesty International, Jubilee 2000, the ONE/DATA campaigns, Product Red, War Child, and Music Rising.
Formation and early years (1976–1980)
The band formed in Dublin on 25 September 1976. Larry Mullen Jr., then a 14-year-old student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School, posted a note on the school's notice board in search of musicians for a new band—six people responded. Setting up in his kitchen, Mullen was on drums, with Paul Hewson ("Bono") on lead vocals; David Evans ("the Edge") and his older brother Dik Evans on guitar; Adam Clayton, a friend of the Evans brothers on bass guitar; and initially Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin, two other friends of Mullen. Mullen later described it as "'The Larry Mullen Band' for about ten minutes, then Bono walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge." Martin, who had brought his guitar and amplifier to the first practice but could not play, did not remain with the group, and McCormick was dropped within a few weeks. The group settled on the name "Feedback" because it was one of the few technical terms they knew. Most of their initial material consisted of cover songs, which the band admitted was not their forte. Some of the earliest influences on the band were emerging punk rock acts, such as the Jam, the Clash, Buzzcocks, and Sex Pistols. The popularity of punk rock convinced the group that musical proficiency was not a prerequisite to success.
In April 1977, Feedback played their first gig for a paying audience at St. Fintan's High School. Shortly after, the band changed their name to "The Hype". Dik Evans, who was older and by this time at college, was becoming the odd man out. The rest of the band was leaning towards the idea of a four-piece ensemble. In March 1978, the group changed their name to "U2". Steve Averill, a punk rock musician (with the Radiators) and family friend of Clayton's, had suggested six potential names from which the band chose "U2" for its ambiguity and open-ended interpretations, and because it was the name that they disliked the least. That same month, U2, as a four-piece, won a talent contest in Limerick sponsored by Harp Lager and the Evening Press. The prize consisted of £500 and studio time to record a demo which would be heard by CBS Ireland, a record label. The win was an important milestone and affirmation for the fledgling band. Within a few days, Dik Evans was officially phased out of the band with a farewell concert at the Presbyterian Church Hall in Howth. During the show, which featured the group playing cover songs as the Hype, Dik ceremonially walked offstage. The remaining four band members returned later in the concert to play original material as U2. As part of their contest prize, the group recorded their first demo tape at Keystone Studios in Dublin in April 1978, but the results were largely unsuccessful due to their nervousness.
Irish magazine Hot Press was influential in shaping U2's future; in addition to being one of their earliest allies, the publication's journalist Bill Graham introduced the band to Paul McGuinness, who agreed to be their manager in mid-1978. With the connections he was making within the music industry, McGuinness booked demo sessions for the group and sought to garner them a record deal. U2 continued to build their fanbase with performances across Ireland, the most famous of which were a series of Saturday afternoon shows at Dublin's Dandelion Market in the summer of 1979. In August, U2 recorded a three-song demo with producer Chas de Whalley at Windmill Lane Studios, marking the first of what would be many recordings there by the band during their career. The following month, the songs were released by CBS as the Ireland-only EP U2-3. It was the group's first chart success, selling all 1,000 copies of its limited edition 12-inch vinyl almost immediately. In December 1979, the band performed in London for their first shows outside Ireland, although they were unable to gain much attention from audiences or critics. On 26 February 1980, their second single, "Another Day", was released on the CBS label, but again only for the Irish market. The same day, at the end of an Irish tour, U2 played a show in the 2,000-seat National Stadium in Dublin. Although they took a significant risk in booking a show at a venue of that size, it paid off; Bill Stewart, an A&R representative for Island Records, was in attendance and subsequently signed the group to the label.
Boy and October (1980–1982)
In May 1980, U2 released "11 O'Clock Tick Tock", their first international single and their debut on Island Records, but it failed to chart. Martin Hannett, who produced the single, was scheduled to produce the band's debut album, Boy, but ultimately was replaced with Steve Lillywhite. From July to September 1980, U2 recorded the album at Windmill Lane Studios, drawing from their nearly 40-song repertoire at the time. Lillywhite employed unorthodox production techniques, such as recording Mullen's drums in a stairwell, and recording smashed bottles and forks played against a spinning bicycle wheel. The band found Lillywhite to be very encouraging and creative; Bono called him "such a breath of fresh air", while the Edge said he "had a great way of pulling the best out of everybody". The album's lead single, "A Day Without Me", was released in August. Although it did not chart, the song was the impetus for the Edge's purchase of a delay effect unit, the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, which came to define his guitar playing style and had a significant impact on the group's creative output.
Released in October 1980, Boy received generally positive reviews. Paul Morley of NME called it "touching, precocious, full of archaic and modernist conviction", while Declan Lynch of Hot Press said he found it "almost impossible to react negatively to U-2's music". Bono's lyrics reflected on adolescence, innocence, and the passage into adulthood, themes represented on the album cover through the photo of a young boy's face. Boy peaked at number 52 in the UK and number 63 in the United States. The album included the band's first song to receive airplay on US radio, the single "I Will Follow", which reached number 20 on the Top Tracks rock chart. Boy's release was followed by the Boy Tour, U2's first tour of continental Europe and the US. Despite being unpolished, these early live performances demonstrated the band's potential, as critics complimented the group's ambition and Bono's exuberance.
The band faced several challenges in writing their second album, October. On an otherwise successful American leg of the Boy Tour, Bono's briefcase containing in-progress lyrics and musical ideas was lost backstage during a March 1981 performance at a nightclub in Portland, Oregon. The band had limited time to write new music on tour and in July began a two-month recording session at Windmill Lane Studios largely unprepared, forcing Bono to quickly improvise lyrics. Lillywhite, reprising his role as producer, called the sessions "completely chaotic and mad". October's lead single, "Fire", was released in July and was U2's first song to chart in the UK. Despite garnering the band an appearance on UK television programme Top of the Pops, the single fell in the charts afterwards. On 16 August 1981, the group opened for Thin Lizzy at the inaugural Slane Concert, but the Edge called it "one of the worst shows [U2] ever played in [their] lives". Adding to this period of self-doubt, Bono's, the Edge's, and Mullen's involvement in a Charismatic Christian group in Dublin called the "Shalom Fellowship" led them to question the relationship between their religious faith and the lifestyle of a rock band. Bono and the Edge considered quitting the band due to their perceived spiritual conflicts before deciding to leave Shalom instead.
October was released in October 1981 and contained overtly spiritual themes. The album received mixed reviews and limited radio play, and although it debuted at number 11 in the UK, it sold poorly elsewhere. The single "Gloria" was U2's first song to have its music video played on MTV, generating excitement for the band during the October Tour of 1981–1982 in markets where the television channel was available. During the tour, U2 met Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, who became their principal photographer and has had a major influence on their vision and public image. In March 1982, the band played 14 dates as the opening act for the J. Geils Band, increasing their exposure. Still, U2 were disappointed by their lack of progress by the end of the October Tour. Having run out of money and feeling unsupported by their record label, the group committed to improving; Clayton recalled that "there was a firm resolve to come out of the box fighting with the next record".
After the October Tour, U2 decamped to a rented cottage in Howth, where they lived, wrote new songs, and rehearsed for their third album, War. Significant musical breakthroughs were achieved by the Edge in August 1982 during a two-week period of independent songwriting, while the other band members vacationed and Bono honeymooned with his wife Ali. From September to November, the group recorded War at Windmill Lane Studios. Lillywhite, who had a policy of not working with an artist more than twice, was convinced by the group to return as their producer for a third time. The recording sessions featured contributions from violinist Steve Wickham and the female singers of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. For the first time, Mullen agreed to play drums to a click track to keep time. After completing the album, U2 undertook a short tour of Western Europe in December.
War's lead single, "New Year's Day", was released on 1 January 1983. It reached number 10 in the UK and became the group's first hit outside of Europe; in the US, it received extensive radio coverage and peaked at number 53. Resolving their doubts of the October period, U2 released War in February. Critically, the album received favourable reviews, although a few UK reviewers were critical of it. Nonetheless, it was the band's first commercial success, debuting at number one in the UK, while reaching number 12 in the US. War's sincerity and "rugged" guitar were intentionally at odds with the trendier synthpop of the time. A record on which the band "turned pacifism itself into a crusade", War was lyrically more political than their first two records, focusing on the physical and emotional effects of warfare. The album included the protest song "Sunday Bloody Sunday", in which Bono lyrically tried to contrast the events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday shooting with Easter Sunday. Other songs from the record addressed topics such as nuclear proliferation ("Seconds") and the Polish Solidarity movement ("New Year's Day"). War was U2's first record to feature Corbijn's photography. The album cover depicted the same young child who had appeared on the cover of their debut album, albeit with his previously innocent expression replaced by a fearful one.
On the subsequent 1983 War Tour of Europe, the US, and Japan, the band began to play progressively larger venues, moving from clubs to halls to arenas. Bono attempted to engage the growing audiences with theatrical, often dangerous antics, climbing scaffoldings and lighting rigs and jumping into the audience. The sight of Bono waving a white flag during performances of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" became the tour's iconic image. The band played several dates at large European and American music festivals, including a performance at the US Festival on Memorial Day weekend for an audience of 125,000 people. The group's 5 June 1983 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on a rain-soaked evening was singled out by Rolling Stone as one "50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll". The show was recorded for the concert video Live at Red Rocks and was one of several concerts from the tour captured on their live album Under a Blood Red Sky. Both releases received extensive play on the radio and MTV, expanding the band's audience and showcasing their prowess as a live act. During the tour, the group established a new tradition by closing concerts with the War track "40", during which the Edge and Clayton would switch instruments and the band members would leave the stage one-by-one as the crowd continued to sing the refrain "How long to sing this song?". The War Tour was U2's first profitable tour, grossing about US$2 million.