"Music expresses the inexpressible. All our songs are about that, about inarticulation."
U2 Lists: Top 10 Career-Defining Moments
February 17, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 35th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
Most successful bands at some point have a moment in their career when they ask, "What's next? Where do we go from here?" For a band as successful as U2, there have been quite a few notable turning points in their more than 30 years in the business that have determined not only their next musical direction but also their future as a band.
1. Signing A Record Deal And Meeting Paul McGuinness
In 1978, U2 won a talent contest and a prize of 500 pounds that allowed them to record their first demo. They also were introduced to Paul McGuinness, who became their manager, and as the "fifth member" of U2 has played a key role in shaping their career. They were signed to Island Records in 1980 and released their first single, "11 O'Clock Tick Tock," in May of that year.
2. October Album Recording Sessions
In 1981, U2 began working on their second album. At the time, Bono, Edge and Larry were members of a Christian group called "Shalom," and the album's theme and lyrics certainly reflected this. They questioned whether or not they would continue as members of U2, as their involvement in the Christian group was in complete contrast with the rock 'n' roll world they were part of. They made the decision to stay with the band and October was released in 1981 to mixed reviews.
3. Live Aid Performance: July 13, 1985
In 1985, U2 were one of many bands scheduled to play live charity gigs in London and Philadelphia to raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia. U2 were scheduled to play three songs that day, but during their performance of "Bad” Bono saw a girl in the front row being crushed by the crowd against the barrier and jumped down. Bono danced with her as the band played on, no doubt wondering what he was up to! As a result of his actions, their set was cut short and their time was up. It has been well-documented that after their performance the band felt they had wasted an opportunity, but U2 were remembered as one of the highlights of Live Aid and their performance emphasised the strong connection that Bono has with his audience.
4. New Year's Eve Concert: December 1989
As the 1980s came to a close, U2 were one of the biggest bands in the world, selling out stadiums and selling more than 25 million copies of The Joshua Tree. During the show Bono told the crowd that U2 need to "go away and dream it all up again." This fueled speculation that U2's days were numbered, sending fans into a panic. They had become a band stuck in a rut, a band that needed to reinvent itself and get as far away from the sound of The Joshua Tree as possible, and in particular Rattle And Hum, which had received a lukewarm response and portrayed the band members as very serious young men who were extremely critical of themselves.
5. Recording Of "One": Hansa Studios, Berlin
In 1990, U2 flew to Berlin to begin work on Achtung Baby. The recording sessions (as documented in From The Sky Down) were difficult. Bono and Edge were keen to explore the electronica and dance music that was coming out of the U.K. at the time; Larry and Adam preferred the traditional U2 sound, and questions about the band's future began to re-emerge. The writing and recording of "One" changed all that. Achtung Baby was released in November 1991, and was a complete re-invention for U2, sounding completely different from anything they had done before. When fans heard it for the first time they wondered, "Was this really U2??" (And I include myself in that group!)
6. Pop Era
In 1997, U2 released Pop, which was completed very quickly in advance of their forthcoming world tour. Bono later admitted the album didn't communicate "the way it was intended to." Like its predecessors, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, Pop was a very electronic/dance-themed album. It received mixed reviews from fans and critics, and sales were poor in comparison with other albums. It left the band at a turning point in terms of what their future musical direction would be.
7. "Reapplying For The Job Of Best Band In The World"
Following the disappointing sales of Pop and the mixed reviews, U2 declared that they were "reapplying for the job of best band in the world." Their follow-up album All That You Can't Leave Behind reunited them with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and was a return to their roots, which won over fans who preferred the more traditional U2 sound. It also was a change of direction in terms of their live shows. This time around it was scaled down, with just a heart-shaped catwalk in the center -- a far cry from the video screens of Zoo TV and the mirrorball lemon of the PopMart tour.
8. Bono's Activism
U2 showed they were a band with a social conscience through their involvement with organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Bono in particular has been heavily involved with projects such as RED, which is involved in the fight to eliminate AIDS in Africa, and project DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa), all of which have influenced the music U2 have makes and how the band members are received.
9. 360 Tour/No Line On The Horizon
No Line On The Horizon was released in March 2009. Reviews were mixed and sales were low by U2 standards, and it failed to produce a hit single. However, the tour that followed its release was one of the highest-grossing tours of all time. "The Claw” was the largest stage ever constructed, and again U2's live shows were a turning point for them, as they played to more than 7 million people, setting records for concert attendances.
10. How Do U2 Follow 360?
Following the 360 tour, there was plenty of debate about the future of U2. The Edge said, "It's quite likely you'll hear from us next year, but it's equally possible you won't." Bono questioned U2's relevance, and the rest of the band were of the view that perhaps Bono should shut up about U2 being irrelevant! Whether we hear from U2 this year or next year, there is no doubt it yet again marks a turning point for them.
© @U2/Foster, 2012.