"I want U2 to be a band that takes risks. I hate this idea of U2 as a nice safe band. . . . The rock rebel thing is very phony."
Column: off the record..., vol. 13-555
February 24, 2013
#U2War30 is one of the main U2-related Twitter hashtags at the moment as U2 fans have been celebrating War's 30th anniversary. It's been fun trying to find new ways to cover this album and the connection fans have with it. We have some fantastic War-related interviews coming in the next few days -- Steve Lillywhite and Steve Wickham -- so stay tuned!
U2's junior effort was probably the most critical album of their career. If War flopped, U2 faced being dropped by their label and having nothing to fall back on. Paul McGuinness shared in U2 By U2 that things were quite dire at the end of their tour with the J. Geils band in 1982: "We actually had run out of cash. We finished the tour on my American Express card, and when we got home I couldn't pay the bill and they took my card away. That was a really low point. Of course, everyone in Dublin thought I was some kind of rich English person who had loads of money to subsidize U2's activities. The reality was there was no money and I didn't even have a credit card anymore."
Adam Clayton also said in U2 By U2, "There was very little support from the record company and by the end of that tour in America we were way out of money. I think we could just about cover airfares to get people home. That was a bit of a brick wall, to realize that we'd come this far, we had two records out, we'd put a lot of work into it, and we couldn't even afford to pay the crew. At the end of that period, there was a firm resolve to come out of the box fighting with the next record."
Things were really that bad. After Bono and Ali got married, their house in Howth doubled as band rehearsal space. Edge said, "No one minded, because they were skint and, like the rest of us, either living at home or in some dodgy flat."
It's no wonder that Michael Abramson became a vital part of U2's story at this point. As the new vice president of promotion at Island Records at the time of War’s release, he went into overdrive to get them on mainstream radio in the U.S. Carter Alan explains in Outside Is America: U2 In The U.S.:
In an interview he (Abramson) told me, “U2 [at the time] was still an underground status – 75,000 units average for Boy and October. I felt [that] U2 was not a fluke, that these kids were going to be around a long time. They weren’t ready to take America by storm with the ‘big single,’ but I knew I could get their album played on any AOR (album-oriented rock) station in the free world."
Abramson hired several independent record promoters to supplement his own company’s resources, helping to ensure that U2 wouldn’t be lost in the crush of competing releases. Once the advance copies of “New Year’s Day” had been mailed, Abramson and his staff got on the phone, pressuring radio stations to give the single a shot. Their efforts prompted an immediate reaction as the song climbed onto the Radio and Records AOR chart (compiling the amount of national airplay for new releases) on February 18. A stunning video clip of the song was added to MTV’s list of promising acquisitions, soon making significant airplay gains at the television channel. Many album radio programmers who had been reluctant to play “New Year’s Day” were heartened by MTV’s decision to feature the clip and became convinced of the single’s potential. By April, Abramson and his staff won the battle at America’s rock stations. "New Year’s Day" peaked at number two on the Radio and Records AOR chart.
Alan goes on to explain in his book that it was because of the Radio and Records charting that "New Year's Day" came to contemporary hit radio (CHR) stations, thus allowing it to chart on Billboard's Top 100 singles list in early April. Despite almost two solid months of promotional effort by Island Records, Abramson admitted to Alan, "We couldn't get a cohesive handle on [promoting to] Top 40 as we did with AOR. It took all the energy everyone had just to establish and solidify the album radio play, and convince everyone that U2 was for real."
Island Records needed to recoup the money it had invested in U2, so it's no surprise that the label went into overdrive to plug War. Unlike record labels today, Island Records recognized U2's potential and did what it could to support them. For fans who know U2 only as one of the world's most successful bands, topping Forbes lists and the like, it's hard to think of a financially struggling U2. It's an understatement to say that War was a life-or-death album for U2.
This is why, 30 years later, we are taking the time to celebrate this release. As Adam said, they came out fighting with War, and that fight has continued ever since.
In the spirit of the occasion, here are some great YouTube videos from the War era:
U2 on Japanese TV show Best Hit USA
U2 on French TV's Les enfants du rock interview
Complete “New Year’s Day” from Les enfants du rock
Bono on The Late Late Show in 1983
And finally ... Here's some YouTube clips that, while not War-related, shouldn't be missed:
1985 Bono interview with Jack Cafferty on New York City's Live At Five news program
AMAZING fan-created, fan-edited multicam video featuring all tracks from U2: From The Ground Up fan club release.
Have a great week!