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U240: Have U2 Changed the World? Part 1: Early Influences And Activism
August 09, 2016
U2 have always seen themselves as disrupters. Over a 40-year career, they have both shaped and been shaped by culture, often critiquing the times as well as adapting to a rapidly changing world. The result is a decades-long story that allows an unprecedented look into the heart and soul of a one-of-a-kind rock band. Continuing our coverage of #U240, this four-part series asks about the depth of U2’s impact on the world around them. In Part One I look at some of the influences that affected the formation of the band and suggest a number of ways U2 began early on to inspire their fans.
Early Cultural Influences
From the beginning, the band has used music and art to connect with fans on political, social and spiritual levels. This is no accident, but rather a consequence of the culture in which U2 formed. Adam, Larry, Bono and Edge grew up in the throes of the Troubles, a 30-year period of religious sectarianism and political dissension. From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, violence rocked Northern Ireland and spilled over into the Republic. In 1972, as the boys were entering adolescence, Belfast was a war zone, heavily restricted by British troops. Nearly 500 people — mostly civilians — died on the small island that year as a result of the conflict. In 1974, a series of bombs exploded in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 people and injuring over 300 (an event that was memorialized in “Raised By Wolves”). Later, throughout the recording of their first three albums in the early 1980s, bombings, executions and retaliatory attacks were common. The members of U2 spent their most formative years in the middle of a conflict that left the people of Ireland despondent and uncertain about the future.
Closer to home, the Dublin of U2’s youth was repressive, sterile and uninspiring. Emigration had drained the city of talent. Unemployment was high and expectations were low. Slums and tenement encampments led to experiments in urban planning, which in turn resulted in the Seven Towers and other housing projects near Bono’s home on Cedarwood Road. In a 2005 interview with Michka Assayas, he recalls, “Violence ... is the thing I remember the most from my teenage years and earlier ... [The projects] started very quickly to descend into a dangerous place.” Drugs also became a massive problem. Heroin was viewed as an antidote to inadequate housing, poverty, unemployment and crime. As U2 formed in the late summer of 1976, the teens couldn’t help but be impacted by the negative circumstances around them.
Other influences also shaped the adolescent band. While Edge and Adam grew up in fairly supportive homes, Bono and Larry suffered tragedies that propelled them forward into the arts. Bono lost his mother, Iris, when he was 14 years old, and has written numerous songs related to the experience (“Tomorrow,” “Mofo,” “Iris” and others). Larry faced death in his family twice as a teen. In U2 By U2, he reflects, “My sister died in 1973 and then my mother died in 1976. In some ways, both events defined the kind of person I’ve become. My mother’s death certainly catapulted me in the band’s direction.”
But even though there were substantial negative forces at play, other factors shaped U2 in strikingly positive ways. At Mount Temple Comprehensive, the school where each of the four boys met, they were free from the constraints of the religious sectarianism dominating Irish culture. Several teachers and counselors encouraged the quartet to develop not only their musical interests, but also to engage the world and pursue art as part of their everyday lifestyles. The school’s Christian education program also challenged students to be broadminded and accepting of those who believed differently — a stark contrast to other Catholic and Protestant schools of the day. In his 2012 essay “Boy To Man” Neil McCormick credits Jack Heaslip, the teacher-counselor who would eventually become U2’s “traveling pastor,” as the mentor of Bono’s holistic approach. He noted, “It is [Heaslip’s] openness that is reflected in Bono’s own faith and its practical interactions with the corporeal world.” Mount Temple’s progressive curriculum focused on the whole person — mind, body, spirit and soul — and staff members were as much mentors and guides as they were teachers.
School wasn’t the only place strong friendships developed. Oddly, the boys found solace on the chaotic streets of Dublin, particularly on the Northside near Bono’s home. Along with other friends, they formed a kind of gang called Lypton Village. Here, renaming the members functioned as an important artistic act itself: Paul Hewson became Bono; Dave Evans was rechristened The Edge; Derek Rowen took the name Guggi; and Fionan Hanvey was renamed Gavin Friday. Other members were Strongman, Guck Pants Delany, Dave-iD, Pod and Edge’s brother Dik. Larry and Adam were not as involved as the others, but received the monikers JamJar and Sparky, respectively.
Lypton Village emerged as a direct response to the cultural tedium of Dublin, becoming a place of creativity, spontaneity and expression, and also serving as a haven from the violence of the housing projects. Speaking with Assayas, Bono remembers, “The alcohol level in our neighborhood was so high, people going to the pubs a lot, and we were young, arrogant, and probably very annoying kids, but we didn’t wanna go that route. The pub looked like a trapdoor to somewhere very predictable, so we wouldn't drink. We used to watch Monty Python. We invented our own language, gave each other names, and we'd dress differently.” This rabble of adolescent malcontents wrote music, painted and created performance art on street corners, in buses or where ever they found themselves, all in an effort to subvert the sectarianism, violence and monotony of their environment.
Musically, the young teens were influenced by a variety of different artists. Uninterested in pop or disco of the 1970s, their heroes included Bob Dylan, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Eagles, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. And though Irish artists including Bob Geldof, Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott provided some local inspiration, Ireland’s conservative ethos didn’t allow for much musical expression; its isolation from the rest of Europe kept it culturally secluded.
There was, however, a small oasis of hope in Dublin. A new form of music was drifting across the sea on the airwaves of British radio. As punk slipped into the consciences of disenchanted Irish teens in the mid-1970s, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash kindled the spirits and fired the imaginations of U2. At the same time, BBC’s weekly TV show Top of the Pops featured chart-topping live musical acts, and British print sources including NME and Sounds fed an insatiable appetite for music news. In 1977, Niall Stokes founded the Dublin-based Hot Press, for which Bill Graham later wrote groundbreaking articles championing U2; each helped accelerate the band’s rise to fame. By the early 1980s, media played a critical role in shaping U2’s destiny, especially through a revolutionary new cable channel called MTV — the band received heavy airplay of its music video for “Gloria.” U2’s ongoing love affair with innovative media can be traced back to their earliest years.
One more significant experience shaped U2 in a substantial way. For three of U2’s members, Christianity became a direct influence on their musical development. Bono was the first to explore the faith, often hanging out with Guggi’s family and attending the church where Guggi’s father was a preacher. Edge also became involved at Bono’s urging, and Larry connected after his mother’s death. Their interest led them to join Shalom, a Christian commune that patterned itself after the church recorded in the biblical book of Acts. The three members of U2 found a home with this separatist community, and were attracted to the values of simplicity, self-denial, social justice and egalitarianism. Bono later reflected with Assayas, “I lived with no possessions. We were part of a community. Everyone helped each other out sharing what little money we had ... It was like a church that was really committed to changing the world.”
But tensions increased as U2 became successful. While the boys respected the counter-cultural way of living, the group began to pressure them to give up their careers in rock music. Adam and Paul McGuinness responded with equal pressure of their own. U2’s very existence was at stake and the struggle forced the band to examine its own reasons for making music. By 1981, the conflict had been resolved, and the three Christians parted ways with the commune, though still cherishing what they had experienced and learned. The several years spent with Shalom anchored a core set of principles — compassion, global awareness, vulnerability, hospitality, discipline, Christian commitment — that has influenced every one of U2’s albums and tours, but at the same time heightened the group’s suspicion of organized religion and rigid dogma. Shalom’s lasting impact on the band cannot be overstated.
All of these cultural influences can be readily seen in U2’s early recordings, concert performances and social activities — a strong inclination toward justice permeates the DNA of the band. In 1978, long before the release of their first record, U2 performed for the Contraception Action Campaign at a controversial gig promoting the free distribution of condoms in Ireland. That same year, they partnered with other musicians for Rock Against Sexism, and later played for a variety of small charitable activities. But the mid-1980s brought new impetus for U2’s activism, setting them on a course that would change the shape of rock ’n’ roll.
While U2’s first three albums contained both subtle hints as well as overt statements reflecting faith and cultural awareness, their growing social conscience was unabashedly evident on 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. With new sophistication and depth, the band probed weighty and controversial topics such as the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the devastating consequences of heroin addiction, and pacifism as an alternative to violence. Most notably, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s compelling spirit of peaceful activism. Bono told Rolling Stone in 2005, “We looked for a subject big enough to demand this level of emotion that was coming out. We had discovered nonviolence and Martin Luther King, not just in relation to his use of the Scriptures and his church background, but also as a solution to the Irish problems.” The album’s final track, “MLK,” offered a benediction: “May your dreams be realized.” Dreaming, a theme that would be revisited again and again, became a way for U2 to envision a very different world from the one in which they grew up.
Also in 1984, Adam and Bono joined forces with Bob Geldof’s Band Aid to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” focusing attention on an Ethiopian famine that had largely gone unnoticed by the world. The project, including a celebrity-filled music video, set new industry standards, sold almost 12 million singles, raised over $12 million for famine relief and inspired USA For Africa’s “We Are The World,” as well as the formation of Comic Relief/Red Nose Day. In 1985, the entire band partnered again with Geldof for Live Aid. This ground-breaking international humanitarian event was simulcast across the world, featured performances in London and Philadelphia, and launched U2 onto a global stage with its historic rendition of “Bad.” The charitable concert was a success (though critics, including Bono, have more recently recognized its flaws), eventually raising over $200 million for Ethiopia.
Soon after Live Aid, Bono and his wife, Ali, withdrew from the public eye and flew quietly to Ethiopia where they volunteered in an orphanage with the relief agency World Vision. It was a life-changing trip for the couple, serving as the impetus for a career-long interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and influencing multiple projects including The Joshua Tree (especially “Where The Streets Have No Name”), “Silver And Gold” (a song addressing Apartheid in South Africa), numerous philanthropic campaigns such as ONE, Drop The Debt and DATA, and calls to activism on the Vertigo, 360 and Innocence + Experience tours.
In 1986, Bono and Ali travelled to Nicaragua and El Salvador to witness firsthand the atrocities of the ongoing Central American conflict. In U2 By U2 Bono recalls how “Bullet The Blue Sky” came about: “I was angry with what I saw as the bullying of peasant farmers by big aeroplanes supported by American foreign policy and dollars ... I described what I had been through, what I had seen, some of the stories of people I had met, and I said to Edge: ‘Could you put that through your amplifier?’” “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” the final track on U2’s iconic Joshua Tree, was inspired by the same trip, and highlighted the loss of children and husbands who had been “disappeared” by corrupt regimes in Central America.
Also in this period, U2 partnered with Amnesty International for Stop the Torture Week and an American tour called Conspiracy of Hope, resulting in an unparalleled period of development for the humanitarian organization. In a 2006 interview with atU2.com’s Matt McGee, Amnesty’s Jack Healy reflected on the moment U2 committed to promoting his agency: “I knew the human rights movement really changed that day. It really did. No question. I knew what was coming. I knew what was gonna happen. I knew we were gonna grow.”
But though much of U2’s focus was international, they didn’t forget their homeland in the midst of global activism. In Ireland they supported and performed for Self Aid in 1986, a Live Aid-styled event designed to highlight the problem of chronic unemployment. It was the largest concert ever staged in the country.
With a solid presence in a worldwide music scene, four successful albums under their belt (Boy, October, War and The Unforgettable Fire), and a growing reputation for passionate live performances, U2 charted a course in their first decade that highlighted compassion, conviction and moral obligation. Driven by their faith and a strong desire to make a difference, Bono, Larry, Adam and Edge used albums, concerts and social causes to promote peace and justice across the globe.
But have they actually changed the world? I’ll continue to pursue that question in Part Two by examining the band’s second decade.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2016