The history behind the greatest rock band in the world

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U2 are an Irish rock band from Dublin. Formed in 1976, the group consists of Bono (vocals and rhythm guitar), the Edge (lead guitar, keyboards, and vocals),Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums and percussion).[1] U2's early sound was rooted in post-punk but eventually grew to incorporate influences from many genres of popular music. Throughout the group's musical pursuits, they have maintained a sound built on melodic instrumentals. Their lyrics, often embellished with spiritual imagery, focus on personal themes and sociopolitical concerns.

The band formed at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in 1976 when the members were teenagers with limited musical proficiency. Within four years, they signed with Island Records and released their debut album Boy. By the mid-1980s, U2 had become a top international act. They were more successful as a touring act than they were at selling records until their 1987 album The Joshua Tree which, according to Rolling Stone, elevated the band's stature "from heroes to superstars".[2] Reacting to musical stagnation and criticism of their earnest image and musical direction in the late 1980s, U2 reinvented themselves with their 1991 album, Achtung Baby, and the accompanying Zoo TV Tour; they integrated danceindustrial, and alternative rock influences into their sound, and embraced a more ironic and self-deprecating image. They embraced similar experimentation for the remainder of the 1990s with varying levels of success. U2 regained critical and commercial favour in the 2000s with the records All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), which established a more conventional, mainstream sound for the group. Their U2 360° Tour of 2009–2011 is the highest-attended and highest-grossing concert tour in history.

U2 have released 13 studio albums and are one of the world's best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 170 million records worldwide.[3] They have won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band, and, in 2005, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Rolling Stone ranked U2 at number 22 in its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".[4] Throughout their career, as a band and as individuals, they have campaigned for human rights and philanthropic causes, including Amnesty International, the ONE/DATA campaigns, Product RedWar Child and the Edge's Music Rising.

Formation and early years (1976–80)

The band formed in Dublin on 25 September 1976.[5] Larry Mullen, Jr., then a 14-year-old student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School, posted a note on the school's notice board in search of musicians for a new band—six people responded. Setting up in his kitchen, Mullen was on drums, with Paul Hewson (Bono) on lead vocals; David Evans (The Edge) and his older brother Dik Evans[6] on guitar; Adam Clayton, a friend of the Evans brothers on bass guitar; and initially Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin, two other friends of Mullen.[7] Mullen later described it as "'The Larry Mullen Band' for about ten minutes, then Bono walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge." Soon after, the group settled on the name "Feedback" because it was one of the few technical terms they knew.[8]Martin did not return after the first practice, and McCormick left the group within a few weeks. Most of the group's initial material consisted of cover songs, which the band admitted was not their forte.[9]Some of the earliest influences on the band were emerging punk rock acts, such as The JamThe ClashBuzzcocks, and Sex Pistols. The popularity of punk rock convinced the group that musical proficiency was not a prerequisite to being successful.[10]

In March 1977, the band changed their name to The Hype.[12] Dik Evans, who was older and by this time at college, was becoming the odd man out. The rest of the band was leaning towards the idea of a four-piece ensemble and he was "phased out" in March 1978. During a farewell concert in the Presbyterian Church Hall in Howth, which featured The Hype playing covers, Dik ceremonially walked offstage. The remaining four band members completed the concert playing original material as "U2".[13] Steve Averill, a punk rock musician (with The Radiators) and family friend of Clayton's, had suggested six potential names from which the band chose "U2" for its ambiguity and open-ended interpretations, and because it was the name that they disliked the least.[14]

On Saint Patrick's Day in 1978, U2 won a talent show in Limerick. The prize consisted of £500 and studio time to record a demo which would be heard by CBS Ireland, a record label. This win was an important milestone and affirmation for the fledgling band.[13] U2 recorded their first demo tape at Keystone Studios in Dublin in May 1978.[15] Hot Press magazine was influential in shaping the band's future; in May, Paul McGuinness, who had earlier been introduced to the band by the publication's journalist Bill Graham, agreed to be U2's manager.[16] The group's first release, an Ireland-only EP entitled Three, was released in September 1979 and was their first Irish chart success.[17] In December 1979, U2 performed in London for their first shows outside Ireland, although they were unable to gain much attention from audiences or critics.[18] In February 1980, their second single "Another Day" was released on the CBS label, but again only for the Irish market.[19]


Since their inception, U2 have developed and maintained a distinctly recognisable sound, with emphasis on melodic instrumentals and expressive, larger-than-life vocals.[176] This approach is rooted partly in the early influence of record producer Steve Lillywhite at a time when the band was not known for musical proficiency.[177] The Edge has consistently used a rhythmic echo and a signature delay[178] to craft his distinctive guitar work, coupled with an Irish-influenceddrone played against his syncopated melodies[179] that ultimately yields a well-defined ambient, chiming sound. Bono has nurtured his falsetto operatic voice[180]and has exhibited a notable lyrical bent towards social, political, and personal subject matter while maintaining a grandiose scale in his songwriting. In addition, the Edge has described U2 as a fundamentally live band.[179]

Despite these broad consistencies, U2 have introduced brand new elements into their musical repertoire with each new album. U2's early sound was influenced by bands such as Television and Joy Division, and has been described as containing a "sense of exhilaration" that resulted from the Edge's "radiant chords" and Bono's "ardent vocals".[181] U2's sound began with post-punk roots and minimalistic and uncomplicated instrumentals heard on Boy and October, but evolved through War to include aspects of rock anthem, funk, and dance rhythms to become more versatile and aggressive.[182] Boy and War were labelled "muscular and assertive" by Rolling Stone,[39] influenced in large part by Lillywhite's producing. The Unforgettable Fire, which began with the Edge playing more keyboards than guitars, as well as follow-up The Joshua Tree, had Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois at the production helm. With their influence, both albums achieved a "diverse texture".[39] The songs from The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum placed more emphasis on Lanois-inspired rhythm as they mixed distinct and varied styles of gospel and blues music, which stemmed from the band's burgeoning fascination with America's culture, people and places. In the 1990s, U2 reinvented themselves as they began using synthesisers, distortion, and electronic beats derived from alternative rockindustrial musicdance, and hip-hop on Achtung Baby,[183] Zooropa, and Pop.[184] In the 2000s, U2 returned to a more stripped-down sound, with more conventional rhythms and reduced usage of synthesisers and effects.[185]

Lyrics and themes

U2's lyrics are known for their social and political commentary, and are often embellished with Christian and spiritual imagery.[186] Songs such as "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "Silver and Gold", and "Mothers of the Disappeared" were motivated by current events of the time. The first was written about the Troubles in Northern Ireland,[187] while the last concerns the struggle of a group of women whose children were killed or forcibly disappeared at the hands of the El Salvadoran government during the country's civil war.[188] The song "Running to Stand Still" from The Joshua Tree was inspired by the heroin addiction that was sweeping through Dublin—the lyric "I see seven towers, but I only see one way out" references the Ballymun Towers of Northern Dublin and the imagery throughout the song personifies the struggles of addiction.[189]

Bono's personal conflicts and turmoil inspired songs like "Mofo", "Tomorrow" and "Kite". An emotional yearning or pleading frequently appears as a lyrical theme,[176] in tracks such as "Yahweh",[190] "Peace on Earth", and "Please". Much of U2's songwriting and music is also motivated by contemplations of loss and anguish, coupled with hopefulness and resiliency, themes that are central to The Joshua Tree.[39] Some of these lyrical ideas have been amplified by Bono and the band's personal experiences during their youth in Ireland, as well as Bono's campaigning and activism later in his life. U2 have used tours such as Zoo TV and PopMart to caricature social trends, such as media overload and consumerism, respectively.[184]

While the band and its fans often affirm the political nature of their music, U2's lyrics and music have been criticised as apolitical because of their vagueness and "fuzzy imagery", and a lack of any specific references to actual people or characters.[191]


The band cites The Who,[192] The Clash,[193] TelevisionRamones,[194] The Beatles,[195] Joy Division,[196] Siouxsie and the Banshees,[197] Elvis Presley,[198] Patti Smith,[199] and Kraftwerk[200] as influences. In addition, Van Morrison has been cited by Bono as an influence[201] and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame points out his influence on U2.[202] U2 have also worked with and/or had influential relationships with artists including Johnny CashGreen DayLeonard CohenBruce SpringsteenB.B. KingLou Reed and Luciano Pavarotti.[203]


Principal members

  • Bono – vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica (1976–present)
  • The Edge – lead guitar, keyboards, vocals (1976–present)
  • Adam Clayton – bass guitar (1976–present)
  • Larry Mullen, Jr. – drums, percussion (1976–present)


Main articles: U2 discography and List of songs recorded by U2

Studio albums

Concert tours

Main article: List of U2 concert tours

Dennis Sheehan was U2's tour manager for over 30 years until his death in May 2015.[247]