"I'm in an interesting position because I'm the drummer. . . . People say what they feel, and don't feel that they're messing with my art."
25 Years of War: Love on the Album War
Jim Henke tells @U2 what he thinks made War U2's 'first great album'
March 01, 2008
To mark the silver anniversary of the release of War, we asked Jim Henke, chief curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and former music editor for Rolling Stone magazine, to help us take a look back. Henke was there when U2 was setting out for America for the first time. He wrote the first profile of the band to appear in a major U.S. magazine and put these 50 states on notice with his Feb. 19, 1981, article "U2: Here Comes the 'Next Big Thing.'" Two years later, even though U2 had war on the brain, Henke's June 9, 1983, profile made the point that "Blessed Are the Peacemakers."
Henke would eventually write several stories about U2 for Rolling Stone while on staff from 1977 to 1992, including profiles, reviews and the Rolling Stone interview with The Edge in 1988.
There was a time when "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" were new releases, not the stadium-pounding anthems concert crowds expect to hear today. Twenty-five years ago, "40" was just showing up at the end of the set list, edging out standard closers such as "I Will Follow," "Out of Control," "11 O'Clock Tick Tock," "The Ocean," and even "Fire." And there was a time when a white flag and Bono didn't go hand-in-hand.
But Henke remembers U2 as being a band that was always serious and passionate. They were as serious about doing good as they were about being good, and with their third album of their career, they had made what Henke thinks was their "first great album."
When did you first meet U2?
I met U2 in late 1980. I had bought their early singles as imports and had really liked them. Then, after they signed their U.S. record deal, their record-company publicist called me and said they were playing in London and would I like to go see them? I said "yes."
Where did you first see them?
They were basing themselves in London for their U.K. shows, so when I arrived, I went to the flat where they were staying to meet them. They told me they were playing a gig that night in Coventry, England, and asked if I would like to go with them. I said "yes," and we all rode up to Coventry in a van. It was the four members of U2, one roadie, and Ali, who was then Bono's girlfriend. They were playing a gig in a college gymnasium and when I saw the show, I was blown away by their power and their passion. I then saw their London show. Then I came back and wrote the article for Rolling Stone.
How much contact did you have with U2 between the Boy and War albums?
After writing my first article, I pretty much stayed in touch with the band. I went to several shows on their first U.S. tour and I communicated with them and their managers -- Paul McGuinness in Ireland and Ellen Darst in the U.S. So, I had fairly regular contact with them and their organization.
What did you think of U2's second album, October? I don't recall an article by you on that album in the Rolling Stone Files book about U2.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the October album. Live, they were always great, but I just didn't think that October lived up to the promise of Boy. I had loved Boy because they took their punk influences and made them a little more mainstream. They were also very passionate about what they were doing and they were very serious about their music. And being a fairly serious person myself, I really admired that in them.
You obviously liked War, though.
I loved War upon hearing it. I thought that it contained everything that I liked about U2: the power, the passion, the commitment. I thought it was the logical progression from Boy. The album included great songs that became hits, yet it was not pap. It reminded me of the rock 'n' roll I grew up with in the '60s. As I said, I was a tad disappointed by October, but with War, I thought they had made a truly great album. And I liked the fact that they also tackled some political issues.
It seems like some were dismissive of Bono's efforts to address Ireland's troubles at that time, saying he didn't go far enough. I'm wondering if you thought War said enough about Ireland's political and sectarian strife?
I thought they addressed the issues their country was facing and did a good job of it. I have always liked the fact that U2 is a band that takes things seriously. And they took the conflict in Ireland seriously. I thought that was a natural progression for them to address those issues.
Did you think War was lacking some of the internal material, lyrically, that was more evident on Boy or even October?
Not at all. I think a lot of the songs on War can be seen as both personal and political. In "New Year's Day," for example, Bono sings "I will be with you again" in the refrain. In "Drowning Man," he sings about how "my love lasts forever." Love is a recurring theme throughout the record.
I think the difference is that the lyrics on War have expanded beyond the personal to broader themes. It's interesting, because when I first met U2 and asked them about the band's name, the obvious reference was the U-2 spy plane. But Bono told me that it meant, "You, too." That they were one with their audience. And I think the theme of love has been one that has been there from the start. But on War, it expanded and took on political themes, as well.
What was special about War compared with what other bands were releasing at the time?
To me, what made War -- and U2 -- stand out was that they had taken the DIY attitude of punk and the power of punk and made it a little more mainstream so it would appeal to a larger audience. But they weren't overtly commercial. They were making music that was edgy (excuse the pun!). And powerful. But also accessible. I also liked the fact that they were committed to a positive view of life. I think their religious beliefs informed their music and their attitude.
How had the band matured since you first heard them in London?
I think U2 continued to grow as a band. Their playing got better, the band got tighter. They were playing in front of larger and larger audiences, and their confidence onstage continued to grow. It was a natural evolution. They were quite young when they made Boy, so it's natural that they would grow over time. I mean, I thought they were great when I first saw them. But they got even better.
Let's say someone was going to listen to their first U2 album today, and they picked War. What do you think that person should know about U2 to help him get the most out of the album?
Well, U2 started out as a very young band. The guys were in their late teens and early 20s. They had been inspired by the punk bands of the late '70s, yet they were not snotty brats! By the time of this album, they were still quite young, but they managed to deliver a sophisticated album. It had power and passion, and they addressed many of the tough issues of the day. To me, this album was key in U2's development. They were still very young, but they were very serious about making good music.
Do you think any of the songs on the album have gained more cultural relevancy as time has passed?
I'm not sure that any of the songs on War have more cultural relevancy now, but I think that many of the songs stand up and are still great works. I would cite "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," "Two Hearts Beat as One," and "40" as songs that sound as terrific today as they did 25 years ago.
How should War rate in the U2 catalog?
To me, War is an important album in the U2 catalog. I think it took the promise of the Boy album and moved it to another level. I think it is the first great U2 album. I mean, I like the whole U2 catalog, but War stands out to me as the break-out album.
© @U2/Calhoun, 2008.