U2: Local Act, Global Horizons (Part I)

How did U2 become such a globally influential band?

September 12, 2009

How did U2 become such a globally influential band?

Have yous far to go?" asked the singer.

A cold, December night, 1980. We're offered a ride home outside the TV Club in Dublin. It's a warm gesture shown to two, cold-looking kids by a band whose first single has just broken the UK top 100.

Their concern for their audience seems real, heartfelt, but we opt to wait it out for my father. When he finally shows up, he gets an earful about these local lads, the band we're convinced will be the next big thing.

Nearly thirty years later, when my father picks me up from Dublin airport, the talk still turns to the local heroes. U2 are pretty much rock's only big thing these days. Even Bono knows that in the new millennium, "hip-hop drove the big cars."

Back in the late 1970s, disco was the music pulsing through the world's capitals, but Dublin was musically mute. The Irish capital was a dour, depressed place — a cultural backwater bypassed on the major tours of rock's biggest acts.

Yet as the fallout from London's punk rock explosion reached Dublin, garage bands began to spring up like mushrooms in the gloom. The problem was the absence of venues and a local music industry. Yet rock and roll offered an exotic escape route from a country split by religious traditions.

U2 began in a void: Bono later admitted to Bob Dylan that musically, the nascent band "had no tradition, we were from outer space." Their influences came from London (Bowie and the Clash) and New York (Lou Reed and Television) — places far beyond the young band's horizons.

U2's sound, and their sensibilities, sprang from the late 20th-century's teenage wasteland, the suburban sprawl common to every modern city.

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim recently documented the teenage Edge's burning passion for self-expression in a gray place where rock and roll was foreign, almost alien. His film, It Could Get Loud, observes the Dubliner's frustration that no one was playing the guitar in a way that spoke for him.

U2's music was an attempt to tear down the rock-god status of bands like Led Zeppelin, whose guitarist, Jimmy Page, also features in Guggenheim's movie. In their first flush of youthful idealism, U2 scorned rock stars as false idols. If punk sparked the band's negative charge, the positive flowed from a spiritual quest that led three of its members to a Christian prayer group called Shalom.

From the start, U2 were outsiders. Paul Hewson was the son of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. David Evans' parents were Welsh. Adam Clayton was the son of an English RAF pilot. Only Larry Mullen came from an "archetypical" Dublin clan.

Navigating North Dublin's adolescent world of gangs, drink and dope, the band's members showed an early talent for subversive reinvention, inhabiting a mythical mindscape they dreamt up called Lypton Village.

They conceived fresh identities too: David Evans became The Edge because of his angular face. The noise-box, nuisance son of the Hewson household became Bono Vox, taking the name from a hearing-aid shop on O'Connell Street.

"We just didn't like the world we were living in, so we started re-imagining it," said the singer.

Religion has always been the source of much tension, creative and otherwise, within U2. Bono spoke often of the strangeness of Sundays in his household, when his parents would attend separate churches.

The singer shared deep-rooted Christian beliefs with The Edge and Larry Mullen, and many early songs reflected the fervor of their faith. No stance could have made the band less cool. After all, for many young Dubliners at the time, the Catholic Church was a bastion of conservatism and hypocrisy, the antithesis of the wild promise of freedom inherent in rock and roll.

The Promised Land for Dublin bands was London, as it was for all those who aspired to be part of the UK music scene. A well-honed cynicism was as necessary an accessory as a black leather jacket.

U2's early songs, such as 'Gloria'—with its Latin exultations — were acts of defiance against all prevailing notions of cool. To sing of joy, hope, and peace in a country entrenched in violence was to bring on the brickbats. U2 relished the contradictions of using rock and roll to raise heaven rather than hell.

Their lyrics were rife with Biblical allusion. "Scarlet" urged the faithful to rejoice, "40″ cited Psalm 40 in the Psalms of David, pleading for peace in the homeland…"How long to sing this song?" In 1997, "Please" made a similar appeal to Northern Ireland's politicians at the time of the Good Friday Agreement.

By the time they wrote "Yahweh" in the early 2000s, their spiritual and political vistas were global. The hymn-like song was written with a proposed European cathedral of understanding in mind: The Eye of Abraham envisioned a common prayer ground where Jews, Muslims, and Christians would come together to worship.

"I had this idea that no one can own Jerusalem," Bono explained, "but everyone wants to put a flag in it."

Another song from the same album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, demanded "Love and Peace or Else," urging the sons of Abraham to "lay down your guns."

Rock stars threatening world leaders with Armageddon unless the fighting stopped was pushing the extremes of all U2's contradictions — but this was by now familiar territory.

"Right at the center of a contradiction, that's the place to be," Bono said recently.

This is the first of a three-part series on U2. Read Part II here.

Photo courtesy of 3ality Digital. Copyright U2Ltd All Rights Reserved.

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Takeaways

To sing of joy, hope, and peace in a country entrenched in violence was to bring on the brickbats. U2 relished the contradictions of using rock and roll to raise heaven rather than hell.

Back in the late 1970s, Dublin was a dour, depressed place — a cultural backwater bypassed on the major tours of rock's biggest acts.

U2's music was an attempt to tear down the rock-god status of bands like Led Zeppelin.

Bono spoke often of the strangeness of Sundays in his household, when his parents would attend separate churches.