411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2011: U2
U2’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
When Larry Mullen Jr., at age 14, posted an ad on his school’s notice board looking for potential bandmates he could have hardly expected to have created (arguably) the world’s biggest band. Of course back in 1976, U2 weren’t U2, Bono was simple known as Paul and The Edge was plain old David Evans. It would take the band four years to settle on a name and to discover their sound.
1980 saw the release of Boy, U2’s debut album. As a record it was informed by their early punk influences. The guitar work was far from primitive but “I Will Follow” buzzed with fast riffage and quick vocals. The album’s bass lines were straight out of Joy Division’s playbook, not surprising as Steve Lilywhite produced the record, but even at this early stage U2’s unique style and persona was beginning to shine through – the heavy use of echo effects, the winding bass lines and the sparse but towering guitar sound. Boy’s soundscapes may feel flimsy when compared to their trademark walls of noise, but they were positively mammoth compared to their early eighties peers.
Oddly, despite its quite considerable quality, Boy first found real acceptance among the gay community with its sexually explorative lyrics and its driving camp pop guitar assault. It may not have grabbed the world’s attention, but it was a considered, artistic and addictive initial statement.
1981’s October felt stained and pedestrian by comparison. Far from a bad record, it instead represented momentum lost, featuring some nice guitar work without ever feeling essential. War saw U2’s fortunes change. They were overcome by inspiration in the form of political histrionics. Bono always had the knack for emotional sentiment but the political medium allowed him to explore grander themes on a greater scale. “New Years Day” was a master piece, a love song transformed into a hymn for the Polish Solitary movement. The bass bounded eternal and as U2 channel Depeche Mode as Bono cried “We Can Break Through“.
And breaking through is exactly what U2 did with a superb album and a follow up single by the name of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that forced the entire world to sit up and take notice. Edge’s guitar playing has often been mocked but on this track he forged a divinely simple marching riff that conveyed more emotion and intent than a thousand two handed fret board assaults ever could.
By 1984 U2 decided they needed artistic credibility to match their emerging commercial capital, turning to ambient avante garde master Brian Eno and the lord of sonics Daniel Lanois. The two men helped U2 forge The Unforgettable Fire and “Pride”; this was the genesis of U2’s commercial and stadium dominance.
The Joshua Tree followed and with it came a series of stunning tracks; “With Or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Where The Streets Have No Name, “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “In God’s Country” among many others. U2 with Brian Eno’s help had arrived on the stadium stage, conveying not just political outrage but wholly intimate emotion to the widest possible audience. What’s more Bono did it with a straight face, opening himself to ridicule but delivering each line with an irresistible sense of earnestness.
Following The Joshua Tree was never going to be an easy feat and, perhaps unsurprisingly, U2 side stepped the challenge with 1988’s forgettable Rattle And Hum, before unleashing Achtung Baby in 1992. Today U2 is considered musically conservative and it’s almost strange to view Achtung Baby as a risk, but this was a dangerous record, and more importantly it was the first sexy record U2 had released since War.
“Mysterious Ways”, “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and “The Fly” were instant camp classics. Bono was employing bold deep tones and high falsettos at will, and having a good time in the process. His mood appeared infectious. Edge was freed on guitar; firing off riffs left right and center and putting U2 firmly back on the dancefloor. Lanois and Eno made the album sound murky and futuristic as U2 suddenly regained the art house chops they’d abandoned on The Joshua Tree. Of course in the midst of all the frivolity U2 penned a little known song by the name of “One”. You might have heard of it, it was all serious and emotional and stuff (no seriously what else is there to say about that track that hasn’t already been said?).
The 90’s wouldn’t be kind to U2. Their art house chops were tested on Zooropa and they just about managed to strike the right balance between pop, kitsch and art. They didn’t quite satisfy in any one regard but they avoided failure thanks to burgeoning super producer Flood. They even outright succeeded with “Numb”. Pop shared a similar fate, bordering on embarrassment U2 increasingly misguided attempts artistic exploration at least provided hit singles “Discotheque” and “Staring At The Sun”.
For all U2’s 90’s woes Brian Eno did secure them one truly majestically moment in the form of “Miss Sarajevo”. A gorgeous track featuring Eno’s mellifluous atomspherics, Luciano Pavarotti’s bombastic brilliance and Bono at his straight faced best.
The 00’s saw U2 turned towards conservatism with two safe efforts in the form of All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. The albums may have documented a distinct artistic decline but they highlight U2’s remarkable penchant for penning perfect pop singles with a string of successful singles.
Today U2 are still one of the biggest bands in the world; out-grossing almost all of their peers as they continue to take their mammoth show on the road. 2009’s No Line On The Horizon was U2’s curious final note. It was an album of great contradictions; showcasing their ability to create subtle and engaging soundscapes (with the help of their three favorite superstar producers)with tracks like “No Line On The Horizon”, “Cedars Of Lebanon” and “Moment Of Surrender”. However, it also showed U2 veering dangerously into Dad Rock territory with “Get On Your Boots”, but still managing to forge gorgeous pop songs in the form of “Breathe” and “White As Snow”.
In short, we find U2 at a cross roads, but an intriguing one; a legendary band who have earned their Hall Of Fame status who are still looking for ways to push themselves, and who are still utterly unashamed to make fools out of themselves for their art.
Why U2 Was Selected:
Because they are brave, braver than anyone gives them credit for. U2 paintw in the broadest emotional brush strokes imaginable, taking intimate emotional issues and communicating them in a way that the entire world can not only empathize with, but enjoy too. Whether it’s a romantic struggle, a crisis of conscious or a political gesture U2 are never afraid to be ridiculed in conveying their message and their sound to the widest audience imaginable.
They set the template for stadium superstardom for every indie band that has followed. Simplicity, scale and honesty; it sounds simple but so few have pulled it off, and tellingly, so many bands have been compared to U2 but no one, not even Coldplay, has replaced them yet.
Finally, U2 were never afraid to ask for help and were never afraid to embrace modernism. Whether it was the burgeoning G-A-Y scenes of the early eighties and nineties or recruiting outcast innovators Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Flood; U2 never turned down an opportunity and they never consciously turned anyone away. U2 tried to have their cake and eat it too, they tried to connect with anyone and everyone. It was an impossible task, but they came as close to pulling it off as humanly possible. Proof positive that ambition and bravery are traits to be admired.