The Secret Of U2’s Longevity
This article was updated on 11 June 2016.
From Dublin-boys with a dream to global superstars, U2’s success over the years is only eclipsed by how long they have maintained their position as leaders of rock.
Through constant hard work and sheer, incomparable talent, U2 have defined and redefined the music scene throughout their illustrious career. Bands come and go, but for 39 years U2 have had a permanent position in stadiums, in the charts and in our hearts. Heck, I don’t even have enough fingers and toes to count that many years.
It’s a testament to just how good U2 are that they are still at the top of their game today. But why? Why have U2 seen so much success for so long?
1976 was a long time ago folks. So long ago, in fact, I was barely a twinkle in my father’s eye. The day should stand out in music history though, as it was the year a group of young lads came together and formed the band Feedback.
Doesn’t sound familiar? It was through this young band that the origins of U2 began. Larry Mullen put a notice up in his Mount Temple Comprehensive school advertising for a band.
Six people responded, including Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton. Early members Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin didn’t last too long, and it was only a couple of years until Dik Evans, The Edge’s brother, went on to join The Virgin Prunes. The four-piece ensemble that we know and love today remained.
…’The Larry Mullen Band’ for about ten minutes, then Bono walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge. – Larry Mullen Jr. on the formation of U2.
Following a brief spell under the moniker The Hype, the band changed their name to U2.
Watch U2 perform this early and unreleased song, Life on a Distant Planet (The Magic Carpet) on Irish children TV in 1979
It wasn’t until 1978 that the band saw their first sign of success after winning a talent competition in Limerick. The prize was a pay-out of £500 and the chance to record a demo in a studio.
Their first official EP, U2 Three, was released a year later, and it was at this point that the world really was the proverbial oyster for U2 to grasp.
When you’ve seen the amount of success that U2 have had over the years it’s not hard to leave your early years behind you and embrace super stardom.
Not for U2 though. It’s very apparent in U2’s lyrics that they still hold their origins very close to their hearts. The social and political commentary featured in much of the band’s back catalogue is further heightened by the band’s life and experience growing up in Ireland.
Home Sweet Home
To describe U2 as being fond of their Irish heritage would be quite the understatement. The band have covered many themes in their music, but the one constant is their homeland Ireland. The emerald Isle is so significant in the lives of the four-piece that they still hold very strong roots there.
Of course the members of U2 own properties around the world, they have more money than you or I could shake a hefty stick at. But they have always kept their base in Ireland.
The political history of Ireland has always led to some of U2’s most profound songs. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Sunday Blood Sunday, the band’s ode to the infamous Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry. Ireland’s history has been very turbulent over the years, and U2 have embraced this through their music.
U2 singing Sunday Bloody Sunday in Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 1983
U2 have never forgotten where they come from. Their talent as musicians is unquestionable, but at their music’s core it’s the emotional weight behind it that puts U2 head and shoulders above their peers.
This emotion comes from U2’s love of Ireland and their empathy for its history. Without this love for their homeland U2 definitely wouldn’t be where they are today.
Quality Over Quantity
It’s pretty common these days for a music act to release a new album each passing year. If U2 had adopted this philosophy we would have 39 albums on our hands, and even I’ll admit that this might be one or two albums too many.
Thankfully U2 are massive advocates that quality is better than quantity, and throughout their career have taken the time to craft 13 great albums rather than rushing out a sub-standard product.
It’s not unusual for U2 to have a gap of 3 or 4 years between the release of albums. In fact, it was five years between the release of 2009’s No Line On The Horizon and their most recent record Songs of Innocence.
A good album should be both emotive and engaging for both the band and the fan, and this can’t be achieved if you’re rushing an album out just to pick up that annual cheque. I always say there are two aspects that make a good album; quality tracks that will make for some impressive singles, and being able to listen to the entire album, from start to finish, without any drops in quality.
U2 have taken the time to achieve this with every album release, and our record players (sorry, iTunes libraries…) should be grateful. This striving for quality also extends to U2’s live shows.
There’s a reason U2 is arguably the greatest touring band of our lifetime; their shows are phenomenal. The band go above and beyond the call of duty to give their fans their money’s worth. U2 have also been great live, with the quality of their music and vocals always being of the highest calibre.
However, things took a dramatic turn in 1987 with the Joshua Tree Tour. Following the world-wide broadcast of U2’s stand-out performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, the band moved from college rock heroes to a global phenomenon. The album and its singles stormed the charts on their release dates and and the subsequent tour forced U2 from arenas to stadiums. It was from this point on that the band earned the reputation as being the best stadium rock band on offer.
The band seemed to up the ante with each subsequent tour, most notably the sci-fi media overload that was the ZOO TV and ZOOROPA tour between 1992 to 1993, and the gargantuan PopMart tour which saw the band perform underneath a giant arch, transported in a mirror-ball lemon and in front of the largest-ever outdoor screen.
They finally took it to the extreme with their 3-year 360° Tour, in support of their 2009 album No Line On The Horizon. The tour consisted of 110 shows, and every date, stretching across the globe from Barcelona, Spain to Moncton, Canada, sold out.
— Music News & Facts (@musicnews_facts) July 19, 2015
110 shows in 3-years is a truly inspiring commitment, and just goes to show that U2 are as dedicated to pleasing their fans as they are to their own music.
One Big Happy Family
Bands may come and go, but U2 are without a doubt here to stay. In nearly four decades U2 have maintained an incredibly strong bond, and show no signs of it breaking. The band’s line up has never changed. Ever. No new member has joined, no existing member has left, the band have been, and always will be, the four-piece we all know and love.
This unity is key to U2’s success. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. know each other inside out, and their music is better for it.
This unity goes beyond just the four core band members. Most of U2’s close crew and personnel have been with the band since the early years. Tour Manager Dennis Sheehan, who recently passed away, worked with the band since 1982 – a year before the band broke the US with the album War. Edge’s guitar tech, Dallas Shoo, has been fulfilling his role at every show since 1987, and that is despite him managing one of the world’s most intrinsic live guitar rigs and being required to re-string over 40 guitars ahead of every show.
The 5th member of the band, their former manager Paul McGuinness, had been with the band since before they were signed in 1979. He resigned last year, handing over management assets to Guy Oseary and Live Nation.
Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have been producing most of U2’s iconic albums since The Unforgettable Fire in 1984. The hit producers have been behind albums that include The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and No Line on The Horizon.
Joe O’Herlihy, the band’s sound engineer, has been with the group since before they were signed. Having met the lads in 1978 at Dublin’s Arcadia Ballroom, he immediately hit it off with the band and they have been friends and colleagues ever since.
U2 seem to inspire commitment in all around them.
Even most of their fan base have been following the band without question for the past four decades.
Innocence & Experience
It’s only fitting that U2’s latest world tour is themed around the ideals of innocence and experience; the reasons for U2’s success rely very heavily on both their experience over the course of their career and the innocence of their early years.
The tour sees the band return to arenas for the first time in a decade, quite the shock considering U2 are the leaders of stadium rock.
The shows themselves loosely tell a story of innocence passing into experience. It speaks volumes that after nearly four decades U2 are still very contemplative of their own history. The structure of the show is very representative of U2’s own history.
The first “act” of the show features some of the bands earliest tracks and songs about their past. U2 never made a secret of their admiration of Patti Smith and The Ramones. It is telling that the band opens the current concerts by taking the stage to the sound of Patti Smith’s People Got The Power and kick things off with a rendition of their tribute to The Ramones, The Miracle (of Joey Ramones) and a string of fast-paced gems from their earliest days.
This is all performed underneath a single lightbulb, representing the intimate beginnings that the band started under. The second “act” represents the bands experience, and their loss of innocence. It’s more fitting to the U2 that we all know and love. The arena comes alive with the usual pomp and circumstance that the band is known for.
At this point in the show the group move from the main stage across the catwalk to the “experience” stage in the centre of the audience. It’s a spectacle of sound and vision when the stage set comes “alive”.
Under all the noise is a fragile narrative that shines light on U2’s quest for justice, peace, unification and questioning their faith. A song sequence that includes Sunday Bloody Sunday, Raised by Wolves and Until the end of the World culminates in Bono reading and ripping apart books on stage while pages of The Bible, Dante’s Inferno and Alice In Wonderland rain down from the arena’s ceiling onto the audience. Heavy stuff! A slightly different use of the old confetti trick compared to, say, a Katy Perry show.
The third part of the concert is a tour de force for the band. Performing on a relatively small stage in the middle of the arena, it shows U2’s strengths as individual performers as well as a unit.
Watch U2’s dramatic performance of Until The End Of The World during their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour in Paris, France
The Innocence & Experience tour brings U2 full circle. From humble beginnings to their position as arguably the biggest band in the world, U2 have seen and done it all. And to do it for as long as U2 have, you have to be pretty damn good.