Four Decades of U2: The Soundtrack of My Life

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Written By: Eric Allen

With so much speculation and innuendo swirling around U2 at the moment regarding the new album, tour, and rumored breakup, now seemed the perfect time to reflect on the band’s body of work and lasting legacy. I’ve read statements made by Bono himself regarding the band’s relevance and if the world needs another U2 album. As a self-professed fanboy of Bono, Edge, Adam, and Larry, I know for certain there is no other rock band more relevant than U2 to myself and millions of others around the globe.

With a musical canon which has inspired millions, I consider U2 to be my generation's Rolling Stones and Beatles. I know that’s a bold statement to make, but I stand by it as no other band has come close to having the impact nor maintaining the longevity as Dublin’s fab four. Now before you begin to throw virtual stones at me, let’s examine U2 from my perspective.

It all started in the early 80s when U2 began to slowly stream into my subconscious with their first music video on MTV, “I Will Follow.” I remember wondering what a U2 was, but the song and passion in Bono’s voice struck a chord within me, forcing me to seek out their music at my local record store. Unfortunately, all I could find was a lone single of that song, but I forced the record store clerk to special order a copy of the Boy album. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I never returned to buy that album. In fact, I didn’t buy my first U2 album until 1984, which was The Unforgettable Fire. However, I became a bonafide fan by listening to my college roommate’s vinyl LPs of War, October, and Boy, and by the time “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was released that fall, I had memorized every word, guitar riff, bass line, and drum beat to the band’s first three albums and live EP. I was also up at the crack of dawn, impatiently waiting for my local record shop to open on the day The Unforgettable Fire was released, skipping class to do so. You know the line We learned more from a three-minute record baby, than we ever learned in school” from Springsteen’s “No Surrender?” Well that always justified my priorities on days when a new U2 record was released.

By the time The Joshua Tree was released in the spring of 1987, listening to U2 wasn’t merely a daily ritual, but a way of life. Upon its release, I was working in a record store myself and witnessed the steady growth of anticipation for the band’s fifth full-length release. My co-workers and I had many discussions about how we could feel the excitement building around the forthcoming album, but that didn’t prepare us for the throngs of people who flocked in to buy The Joshua Tree on the first day of its arrival. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an overwhelming reaction. It was literally weeks before supply could keep up with demand. I’d played that album every day for months by the time I saw my first U2 concert in the fall of ‘87. After that show, I’d made a promise to myself that if there was any way possible, I’d see every tour U2 would embark upon, and throughout the years I’ve managed to keep that promise.

After the hoopla of The Joshua Tree finally began to subside, I began anticipating the release of Rattle and Hum. I recall thinking I’d died and gone to heaven when I heard a concert film accompanied by a soundtrack album was in the works. I remember getting goose bumps watching my favorite band on the silver screen during the film’s late night premiere. Although many panned it at the time, I reveled in the magic of reliving my first concert experience of my favorite band while watching the film as well as listening to its companion album.

The three year gap after Rattle and Hum seemed mind-numbingly long as I scoured the musical trade magazines for any scrap of info on the forthcoming album Achtung Baby. Remember, this was still before the days of home computers and Internet access which we now take for granted. But alas, November 1991 saw the release of what was to become my favorite U2 album of all time. U2 had reinvented themselves with Achtung Baby, which more than made up for the lengthy wait. I couldn’t believe my ears upon listening to the album in its entirety for the first time. The compact disc age was well underway by then, which was a good thing because if that CD would’ve had grooves, I’d have surely worn them out. I listened to “Zoo Station” through “Love is Blindness” and back again repeatedly in my music room, my car, and my headphones, all the while hearing some infinitesimal detail I’d missed previously. By the time the Zoo TV Tour kicked-off, I’d sang along to every song on Achtung Baby and could’ve sang them in my sleep. I’d spent the better half of 1992 counting the days until it was my turn to see ZOO TV at the end of that summer. During that show, I reconfirmed my vow to see every U2 tour from there to eternity.

By the end of 1992, rumors had begun swirling around the promise of a new EP, which resulted in the full-length album, Zooropa, during the summer of 1993. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback upon first listen, but over the years, “Zooropa,” “Lemon,” “Stay (Faraway, So Close!) and “The First Time” have claimed their place on my list of favorite U2 tracks. It’s funny to think back now how some fans declared the album to be the demise of U2’s career. I remember the same consensus reared its ugly head again five years later upon the arrival of Pop.

I recall considerable conjecture leading up to Pop before its release and how the album sounded like the most un-U2 album of the band’s career. While Pop definitely explored new territory, it was far from the musical debacle the press had made it out to be. Again, some of Pop’s tracks rank at the very top of my all-time favorites. Most notably “Mofo,” “Do You Feel Loved,” and “Wake Up Dead Man.” Pop was the ultimate lesson I learned not to believe any hype about an album before listening to it myself. Besides, a new album always brought another tour, and I don’t remember hearing anyone bitching about Pop during the PopMart Tour.

This brings us to a new decade. The new millennium saw the release of U2’s tenth album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. With radio mainstays “Beautiful Day,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” and “Walk On,” Bono and company seemed to have left their experimental days behind them. ATYCLB sounds like a collection of superb U2 singles compiled together instead of a thematically cohesive album to me, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing by any means. I’d hold any song on that album up against 90 percent of what passes for music today.

Four years later brings us to 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I remember seeing the iPod commercial and hearing “Vertigo” for the very first time. My heart palpitated, as I have to admit I was ready for U2 to rock by this time. Packed with such highpoints as “City of Blinding Lights,” “All Because of You,” “Original of the Species,” and the now classic “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” Atomic Bomb more than lived up to its name as it became the soundtrack embedded in my mind for all of 2005 and beyond, which was a good thing considering I’d have to wait more than four years until the next U2 record. Of course, seeing them live for the fifth time during the incredible Vertigo Tour helped to soothe my inner savage beast.

This catches us up to the present with U2’s latest output including the often maligned No Line on the Horizon and the most recent singles “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible.” Yes it’s true NLOTH didn’t include a single that was played to death on the radio, but is that such a bad thing? When I listen to Horizon, I find I’m relieved that “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Magnificent” still sound as fresh as when I first heard them. NLOTH may not be the band’s career defining album, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it has epic moments and rightly deserves an important place in the U2 catalog. Not to mention it reared the colossal 360° Tour (my best U2 concert experience to date, which you can read about here). However, my biggest point of contention with Horizon is the band’s last minute decision to delete “Winter” from its track list, as it’s not only one of my favorite U2 tracks, but it would’ve made a hell of an album closer.

As far as the two latest singles, I think “Ordinary Love” is an excellent ballad and “Invisible” more than whets my appetite for U2’s twelfth opus. I learned long ago not to judge any U2 album by the teaser release of a lead-off track. What if I had judged Achtung Baby by “The Fly” or Pop by “Discotheque” alone? I love those songs, but there are far better treasures to be found on either of those albums.

I’m not going to pretend that U2 hasn’t had hits and misses throughout the years, but I don’t judge any band or artist’s legacy on the merit of any one song or album. Besides, U2 has given me more highs than lows over the past four decades while providing the most memorable soundtrack to my life. I, for one, am looking forward to the next chapter with great excitement. U2 may have opened my ears to music, but their music opened my eyes to the world.