On February of this year U2’s watershed album “War” will celebrate its 36th anniversary. “War” was a revelation for many of my generation and the point where the band for the first time appeared on many a music fan’s radars. “War” was U2’s third album and their first overtly political recording. The success of the album gained the band international attention and allowed them to begin their ascent to the mega-stardom that awaited them a few short years later. It was the beginning of the band separating themselves from the Post Punk Class of the late ’70s and ’80s.
War resounded for so many listeners because it captured in a snapshot the world situation circa 1982. For those who have forgotten or were not born in that era the topics of the day were catchwords like; The Soviet Union, Solidarity, nuclear annihilation, oppression and brinkmanship. There was a significant chance the world could literally end tomorrow and we were dancing tremendously close to the edge of oblivion. U2 acknowledged the madness and fear of the situation and had the temerity to offer a personal and spiritual solution. Found throughout the work was a premise that if you could change human nature within your self and then the collective society, then and only then would war cease. The suggestion was that the world’s soul needed a transformation. That might sound a bit Pollyannaish; however, U2 delivered their plea to the better angels of our nature without pulling punches. They acknowledged change would not be likely or easy. War would thematically utilize obvious allegorical allusions about faith and belief but also journey into the greater world examining war’s impact both during and after it occurred.
War was certainly grittier than anything that had proceeded in the band’s discography. From the first note, it was a shock to the system when compared to the impressionistic and ad-libbed feel of October. That shock drew attention to what was going to follow throughout the album. But rather than be a screed that could be easily dismissed as hyperbole the album contained an inspired combination of elements. There was weaving in the recording the lyrical beauty of Edge’s reverb echo guitar that would become a band trademark, Bono’s earnest pleading for a change of heart along with Larry and Adam setting loose an unforgettable martial beat that would drive many to dance amidst a world in collapse.
War was recorded at Windmill Lane Studios, in Dublin Ireland from September to October of 1982 with Steve Lillywhite once again returning to produce. “War” would follow the 1981 release of October and be a private victory for the members of the band. After the recording of “October” various band members had suffered a crisis of faith when they attempted to square their personal Christian beliefs with being in a rock band. Edge had found it the hardest to justify what he was doing but had a “Road to Damascus” moment that crystallized his belief that the two things were not mutually exclusive. In addition, the band was recovering from the harrowing experience that had been the recording of “October”. The loss of Bono’s briefcase of lyrics just prior to entering the studio had forced the album’s content to be almost entirely improvisational. At some points, Bono was simply free-associating on the mic. For “War” the band had recommitted themselves to their endeavour and they were coming into the studio prepared to swing for the fences. Commercially the album was their first solid hit. It reached #12 in the US and was their first gold-certified record. For those who keep track of these things, War knocked Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” from the top of the UK charts becoming the band’s first #1 chart topper. ‘War” would go on to be a seminal recording that would be entered in a plethora of “Best of” lists including The Rolling Stone’s “The Top 500 Albums of All Time”.
On “War” what captured the listener then and now is the energy, vibrancy, soaring lyrical beauty and angry confrontation expressed. Very rarely has the mike been dropped on an introductory song as powerfully as it was by U2 with Sunday Bloody Sunday. The opening drum part is classic and unforgettable providing a definite style for the band that did not exist before. Where Boy and October had been impressionistic and filled with ambiguity, War was intentional and forthright. Sunday Bloody Sunday spoke specifically about the Irish Easter Sunday Uprising, but also universally to every tragic location throughout the world where pointless oppression was the main course. The song pointed out that our human nature was ultimate to blame, “the trenches dug within our hearts”. The lyrics also proclaimed Bono’s belief that right would win in the end. He wove the parallels of the Easter Sunday Uprising with that first Easter Sunday and Christ’s victory over death, “The real battle yet begun, to claim the victory Jesus won”. He spoke to the responsibility each individual has not to give into violence as the answer, “But I won’t heed the battle call.” How prescient is the lyric, “and it’s true we are immune when fact is fiction and TV reality”, to our current world situation? That lyric has grown more bone chillingly accurate as the years pass. Bono’s vocal encapsulated humanity’s impassioned cry demanding something better. Musically the song is jaw dropping from the first drum run, pathos-filled violin and spiralling guitar lick. It is such a brilliant track that it is no wonder it has stood the test of time in the playlists of the band in concert.
From the climactic drama that is Sunday Bloody Sunday, Seconds continues the attack. That raw drum that beats a tattoo into the skull was the perfect follower to Sunday Bloody Sunday. The track again was militaristic in tone but demanded civilization look at how dangerously events were spinning out of control. The song emphatically demanded we step away from the brink of disaster as it stressed the dangers of nuclear war where no one could possibly win. It questioned if the puppet masters really understood who was pulling the strings, “It’s the puppets who pull the strings…and they're doing the atomic bomb, do they know where that dance comes from?” I always loved the subtle hat tip to the song “October” of the prior album, with the refrain, “Fall, rise and fall and rise…” a take-off of the lyric in October, “Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall”. The snippet from the documentary “Soldier Girls” also took a swipe at unquestioning conformity in complying with the whims of our political leaders. Marry the brilliance of the lyrical and thematic constructs to the almost nihilistic, raw rhythm and sinisterly delivered vocal and yet another masterwork was on offer.
From the dark dread of Seconds, the album moves on to New Years Day’s brighter feel as it pleads for the freedom the leaders of the Polish Solidarity movement were demanding. This track originally was intended to be a love song for Bono’s new bride but turning into an anthem of sorts for anyone fighting against the odds to stop oppression. The song contains a magnificently unforgettable piano signature. Those first notes again had a gripping power that was unrelenting with inspired drums, gritty bass and that counterbalancing soaring guitar. Delivered was that swirling Celtic reel while Bono unleashed an earnest soaring vocal. His delivery expressed all the hope that on New Year’s Day all the wrong could be undone and a new better world could go forth. The lyrics would go on to point out what prevented that happening was the desire for power and greed, “and gold is the reason for the wars we wage…nothing changes on New Year’s Day”. Bono in the theme blends two threads, one the desire for freedom from oppression and the desire to be in the presence of his redeeming saviour “Maybe the time is right…maybe tonight…I will be with you again”. War was something unique for its time with the delivery of such an unrelenting impact on its three opening tracks.
Like a Song is a punchy punk selection with throbbing percussion punctuation. The song reads like a pledge vowing to not utilize aggression just for shock’s sake countering what the Punk movement had devolved into by that time. It excoriated the danger of groupthink where one is too blockheaded to think about the possibility of being wrong. Continuing on Bono points out that it is oh so easy to fall into an “us vs. them” mentality that gets one nowhere, “too set in our ways to try to rearrange, too right to be wrong in this rebel song”. The solution suggested was the adopting of a new heart and that real change would only happen when the change happened on an individual basis, “angry words won’t stop a fight, two wrongs won’t make it right, a new heart is what I need, Oh God, make it bleed”. The sonics of Like a Song presented drummer, Larry Mullen. on fire as he presented a total drum attack accentuated by Edge’s inspired guitar work. Mullen owns this song and it is an example of just how gifted he is on the drums. Like A Song was a culmination of punk simplicity that had a sledgehammer impact.
The evocative Drowning Man is the first song on the playlist that is devoid of a military feel. Here the forlorn violin of guest contributor Steve Wickham is front and centre. The track harkens back to the stark beauty found on “October”. It is a song that can leave no one in doubt about the Christian convictions of the band. The narrative presents a loving God offering his son the ultimate sacrifice for mankind’s wrongs as Christ crosses the sky for our love. “Take my hand you know I’ll be there if you can, I’ll cross the sky for your love, give you what I hold dear.” Bono wrote the song in part as an encouragement for Larry Mullen who was struggling to cope with his mother’s untimely death and Bono’s grief caused by his own mother’s death. Bono’s emphasis was that God is always there we must simply not let go of his hand, “ …and I understand these winds and tides this change of times won’t drag you away, hold on, and hold on tightly and don’t let go of my love”. Bono also paraphrases Isaiah 40 to show the ultimate victory over misfortune in the lyric “Rise up, rise up with wings like eagles, you run, you run and not grow weary.” The emotions evoked in this song are so personal for the band that the song has never been performed live. Even if you are not a believer the beauty of this song is spellbinding with it's atmospheric, eternally celestial aura that is expanded with the spiralling violin outré.
This lilting serene moment is broken by The Refugee which explodes with a cacophony of sound. There is a definite Latin American tinge to the underbelly of this sonic structure. The track continues the overarching concept of the futility and damage war does. It examines the people who are damaged the most, the refugees. Given our current geopolitical climate, today’s Middle Eastern and Northern African refugees could easily replace the original Vietnamese and Central Americans of the narrative. All of these refugees are fleeing war-torn areas and oppression. In either of these situations, the goal is to get to America where whether one likes to admit it or not, it is a better place then the hell the refugee inhabits and it is the Promised Land. The track captures the insanity of war and how the innocent get caught in the middle “She’s a pretty face but at the wrong time in the wrong place”. The angry incendiary guitar is a highlight of this track.
Two Hearts Beat As One was the band’s stab at a radio-friendly pop hit. They were pretty successful because it became a popular dance club song with a beat you could work up a sweat to as you pogoed around the dance floor. The outrageous bass line from Adam Clayton and schizoid guitar drove the song and made it an enticing earworm. It was thematically a love song with an underlying message of unity. It asked that society disregard colour, race or creed, declaring we all bleed red blood and must fight against preconceived perceptions. This song was an absolute monster on the radio of the day.
Throughout a number of the songs, the band utilized Kid Creole and the Coconuts backup singers, Cheryl Poirier, Adriana Kaegi and Jessica Felton. Red Light put the ladies efforts to good use as they produced a gritty despairing aura that made the red light district palpable to the listener. The song was about prostitution, the scourge of poverty, which was rampant in Dublin circa 1980. Presented is a guardian angel attempting to save someone fallen into the degradation of being on the “game”. The lyrics could also be interpreted as the redeemer offering his love to a world that refuses to accept it, “you say you don’t want my help but you can’t escape if you’re running from yourself”. Red Light is a prequel to Zooropa’s “Stay” and the movie “Wings of Desire” in its imagery. Edge’s buzzsaw guitar, the punctuating horn as narrator and the earnestness of Bono’s vocal again make for a striking track. Surrender saw the Coconuts once again provide fantastic backup vocals for this haunting track. Presented is the narrator Sadie for whom life has turned upside down and in desperation, she is looking to end it all, “She tried to be a good girl and a good wife raise a good family lead a good life it’s not good enough”. We are taken out on the ledge where she is tossing the dice to see what will happen, the angel's pause, it a 50/50 shot for which way things will go, “She’s got herself up on the 48th floor gotta find out, find out what she is living for”. Woven into the narrative is the idea of letting go and letting God when you get to the end of your rope, “If I wanna live I gotta die to myself someday”. The guitar work on this song is a prelude to what was to come on Bad that slow swirling builds to a climax and showed the strength of Bono’s lyric writing abilities.
40 is the perfect ending to an album that had the audacity to combine political commentary with deeply spiritual Christian themes and motifs. “40” is a paraphrase of Psalms 40 written by King David. The song asks for deliverance and a new song. The lyrics pray for an escape from the mess humanity has made of the world, and displays how perceptive the ancient songwriter David was in his Psalm. David knew and Bono reiterates that there is only one eternal songwriter who can provide that new song. Bono in the song points out that we still yearn for that song. “40” was recorded as a one-off after Adam Clayton had left the studio and Edge played the bass on the song when it was recorded. In concert, Edge and Adam switch instruments. This song for many tours became the closing selection for U2 concerts with the catchy lyrics, “I will sing a new song, how long to sing this song” reverberating from fans as they left the building. That in itself is a phenomenon that is something to experience. 40 is at its core uplifting and heartfelt to the nth degree, the final punctuation on a masterwork.
Unless you have lived under a rock for the last couple of decades, the story follows that the four lads from Dublin would continue to climb into the highest strata of rock hierarchy. However, up until War U2 was at best an iffy entity. The success of War would propel them forth allowing them to make the compelling The Unforgettable Fire, the blockbuster The Joshua Tree and their masterwork Achtung Baby, and on and on till today where U2 still sits high up in the tree of international mega rock stardom. War would be a feather in any band’s cap and possibly the masterpiece of a discography, but for U2 it is only the launch pad from which they accelerated into the stratosphere.
It has become the fashion to slag off U2 for some admittedly less impressive output as of late, and some attempt to draw a line over the magnificent works that have been created during their long career. However, even on their weakest efforts U2 still reveal a heart whose most earnest wish is for the betterment of mankind. “War” fully displayed that heart and their willingness to reveal what others would hide. There is inherent bravery throughout “War” that makes it an admirable masterpiece. I feel privileged to have encountered this album in my teen years, and every note still resonates. I almost feel sorry for those who can never experience the full impact this album had on those of my generation as U2 captured the zeitgeist of an era and encapsulated it on War.