U2 are an Irish rock band from Dublin, formed in 1976. The group consists of Bono (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), the Edge (lead guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums and percussion). Initially rooted in post-punk, U2's musical style has evolved throughout their career, yet has maintained an anthemic quality built on Bono's expressive vocals and the Edge's effects-based guitar textures. Their lyrics, often embellished with spiritual imagery, focus on personal and sociopolitical themes. Popular for their live performances, the group have staged several ambitious and elaborate tours over their career.
In 1976, Larry Mullen Jr., then a 14-year-old student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland, posted a note on the school's notice board in search of musicians for a new band. Six people responded and met at his house on 25 September. Set up in the kitchen, Mullen was on drums, with: Paul Hewson ("Bono") on lead vocals; David Evans ("the Edge") and his older brother Dik Evans 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. 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." Martin, who had brought his guitar and amplifier to the first practice but could not play, did not remain with the group, and McCormick was dropped after a few weeks. The remaining five members settled on the name "Feedback" for the group because it was one of the few technical terms they knew. Most of their initial material consisted of cover songs, which they admitted was not their forte. Some of the earliest influences on the band were emerging punk rock acts, such as the Jam, the Clash, Buzzcocks, and Sex Pistols. The popularity of punk rock convinced the group that musical proficiency was not a prerequisite to success.
We couldn't believe it. I was completely shocked. We weren't of an age to go out partying as such but I don't think anyone slept that night ... Really, it was just a great affirmation to win that competition, even though I've no idea how good we were or what the competition was really like. But to win at that point was incredibly important for morale and everyone's belief in the whole project.
In April 1977, Feedback played their first gig for a paying audience at St. Fintan's High School. Shortly thereafter, the band changed their name to "The Hype". 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. In March 1978, the group changed their name to "U2".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. That same month, U2, as a four-piece, won a talent contest in Limerick sponsored by Harp Lager and the Evening Press. The prize consisted of £500 and studio time to record a demo which would be heard by record label CBS Ireland. The win was an important milestone and affirmation for the fledgling band. Within a few days, Dik Evans was officially phased out of the band with a farewell concert at the Presbyterian Church Hall in Howth. During the show, which featured the group playing cover songs as the Hype, Dik ceremonially walked offstage. The remaining four band members returned later in the concert to play original material as U2. Dik joined another band, the Virgin Prunes, which comprised mutual friends of U2's; the Prunes were their default opening act early on, and the two groups often shared members for live performances to cover for occasional absences. As part of their contest prize, U2 recorded their first demo tape at Keystone Studios in Dublin in April 1978, but the results were largely unsuccessful due to their nervousness.
Irish magazine Hot Press was influential in shaping U2's future; in addition to being one of their earliest allies, the publication's journalist Bill Graham introduced the band to Paul McGuinness, who agreed to be their manager in mid-1978. With the connections he was making within the music industry, McGuinness booked demo sessions for the group and sought to garner them a record deal. The band continued to build their fanbase with performances across Ireland, the most famous of which were a series of Saturday afternoon shows at Dublin's Dandelion Market in the summer of 1979. In August, U2 recorded demos with producer Chas de Whalley at Windmill Lane Studios, marking the first of what would be many recordings there by the band during their career. The following month, three songs from the session were released by CBS as the Ireland-only EP U2-3. It was the group's first chart success, selling all 1,000 copies of its limited edition 12-inch vinyl almost immediately. In December 1979, the band performed in London for their first shows outside Ireland, although they were unable to gain much attention from audiences or critics. On 26 February 1980, their second single, "Another Day", was released on the CBS label, but again only for the Irish market. The same day, U2 played a show at the 2,000-seat National Stadium in Dublin as part of an Irish tour. Although they took a significant risk in booking a venue of that size, the move paid off; Bill Stewart, an A&R representative for Island Records, was in attendance and subsequently signed the group to the label.
In May 1980, U2 released "11 O'Clock Tick Tock", their first international single and their debut on Island Records, but it failed to chart.Martin Hannett, who produced the single, was slated to produce the band's debut album, Boy, but ultimately was replaced with Steve Lillywhite. From July to September 1980, U2 recorded the album at Windmill Lane Studios, drawing from their nearly 40-song repertoire at the time. Lillywhite employed unorthodox production techniques, such as recording Mullen's drums in a stairwell, and recording smashed bottles and forks played against a spinning bicycle wheel. The band found Lillywhite to be very encouraging and creative; Bono called him "such a breath of fresh air", while the Edge said he "had a great way of pulling the best out of everybody". The album's lead single, "A Day Without Me", was released in August. Although it did not chart, the song was the impetus for the Edge's purchase of a delayeffect unit, the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, which came to define his guitar playing style and had a significant impact on the group's creative output.
Released in October 1980,Boy received generally positive reviews.Paul Morley of NME called it "touching, precocious, full of archaic and modernist conviction", while Declan Lynch of Hot Press said he found it "almost impossible to react negatively to U2's music". Bono's lyrics reflected on adolescence, innocence, and the passage into adulthood, themes represented on the album cover through the photo of a young boy's face.Boy peaked at number 52 in the United Kingdom and number 63 in the United States. The album included the band's first song to receive airplay on US radio, the single "I Will Follow", which reached number 20 on the Top Tracks rock chart.Boy's release was followed by the Boy Tour, U2's first tour of continental Europe and the US. Despite being unpolished, these early live performances demonstrated the band's potential, as critics complimented their ambition and Bono's exuberance.
Bono and the Edge performing on the Boy Tour in May 1981
The band faced several challenges in writing their second album, October. On an otherwise successful American leg of the Boy Tour, Bono's briefcase containing in-progress lyrics and musical ideas was lost backstage during a March 1981 performance at a nightclub in Portland, Oregon. The band had limited time to write new music on tour and in July began a two-month recording session at Windmill Lane Studios largely unprepared, forcing Bono to quickly improvise lyrics. Lillywhite, reprising his role as producer, called the sessions "completely chaotic and mad".October's lead single, "Fire", was released in July and was U2's first song to chart in the UK. Despite garnering the band an appearance on UK television programme Top of the Pops, the single fell in the charts afterwards. On 16 August 1981, the group opened for Thin Lizzy at the inaugural Slane Concert, but the Edge called it "one of the worst shows [U2] ever played in [their] lives". Adding to this period of self-doubt, Bono's, the Edge's, and Mullen's involvement in a Charismatic Christian group in Dublin called the "Shalom Fellowship" led them to question the relationship between their religious faith and the lifestyle of a rock band. Bono and the Edge considered quitting U2 due to their perceived spiritual conflicts before deciding to leave Shalom instead.
October was released in October 1981 and contained overtly spiritual themes. The album received mixed reviews and limited radio play, and although it debuted at number 11 in the UK, it sold poorly elsewhere. The single "Gloria" was U2's first song to have its music video played on MTV, generating excitement for the band during the October Tour of 1981–1982 in markets where the television channel was available. During the tour, U2 met Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, who became their principal photographer and has had a major influence on their vision and public image. In March 1982, the band played 14 dates as the opening act for the J. Geils Band, increasing their exposure. Still, U2 were disappointed by their lack of progress by the end of the October Tour. Having run out of money and feeling unsupported by their record label, the group committed to improving; Clayton recalled that "there was a firm resolve to come out of the box fighting with the next record".
After the October Tour, U2 decamped to a rented cottage in Howth, where they lived, wrote new songs, and rehearsed for their third album, War. Significant musical breakthroughs were achieved by the Edge in August 1982 during a two-week period of independent songwriting, while the other band members vacationed and Bono honeymooned with his wife Ali. From September to November, the group recorded War at Windmill Lane Studios. Lillywhite, who had a policy of not working with an artist more than twice, was convinced by the group to return as their producer for a third time. The recording sessions featured contributions from violinist Steve Wickham and the female singers of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. For the first time, Mullen agreed to play drums to a click track to keep time. After completing the album, U2 undertook a short tour of Western Europe in December.
War's lead single, "New Year's Day", was released on 1 January 1983. It reached number 10 in the UK and became the group's first hit outside of Europe; in the US, it received extensive radio coverage and peaked at number 53. Resolving their doubts of the October period, U2 released War in February. Critically, the album received favourable reviews, although a few UK reviewers were critical of it. Nonetheless, it was the band's first commercial success, debuting at number one in the UK, while reaching number 12 in the US.War's sincerity and "rugged" guitar were intentionally at odds with the trendier synthpop of the time. A record on which the band "turned pacifism itself into a crusade",War was lyrically more political than their first two records, focusing on the physical and emotional effects of warfare. The album included the protest song "Sunday Bloody Sunday", in which Bono lyrically tried to contrast the events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday shooting with Easter Sunday. Other songs from the record addressed topics such as nuclear proliferation ("Seconds") and the Polish Solidarity movement ("New Year's Day").War was U2's first record to feature Corbijn's photography. The album cover depicted the same young child who had appeared on the cover of their debut album, albeit with his previously innocent expression replaced by a fearful one.
On the subsequent 1983 War Tour of Europe, the US, and Japan, the band began to play progressively larger venues, moving from clubs to halls to arenas. Bono attempted to engage the growing audiences with theatrical, often dangerous antics, climbing scaffoldings and lighting rigs and jumping into the audience. The sight of Bono waving a white flag during performances of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" became the tour's iconic image. The band played several dates at large European and American music festivals, including a performance at the US Festival on Memorial Day weekend for an audience of 125,000 people. The group's 5 June 1983 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on a rain-soaked evening was singled out by Rolling Stone as one "50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll". The show was recorded for the concert video Live at Red Rocks and was one of several concerts from the tour captured on their live album Under a Blood Red Sky. The releases received extensive play on MTV and the radio, expanding the band's audience and showcasing their prowess as a live act. During the tour, the group established a new tradition by closing concerts with the War track "40", during which the Edge and Clayton would switch instruments and the band members would leave the stage one-by-one as the crowd continued to sing the refrain "How long to sing this song?". The War Tour was U2's first profitable tour, grossing about US$2 million.
The Unforgettable Fire and Live Aid (1984–1985)
With their record deal with Island Records coming to an end, U2 signed a more lucrative extension in 1984. They negotiated the return of the copyrights of their songs, an increase in their royalty rate, and a general improvement in terms, at the expense of a larger initial payment.
U2 feared that following the overt rock of the War album and tour, they were in danger of becoming another "shrill", "sloganeering arena-rock band". They were confident that fans would embrace them as successors to groups like the Who and Led Zeppelin, but according to Bono: "something just didn't feel right. We felt we had more dimension than just the next big anything, we had something unique to offer." Thus, they sought experimentation for their fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire. Clayton said, "We were looking for something that was a bit more serious, more arty." The Edge admired the ambient and "weird works" of Brian Eno, who, along with his engineerDaniel Lanois, eventually agreed to produce the record. Their hiring contravened the initial recommendation of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who believed that just when the band were about to achieve the highest levels of success, Eno would "bury them under a layer of avant-garde nonsense".
"The Unforgettable Fire" has a rich, symphonic sound built from ambient instrumentation, a driving rhythm, and a lyrical "sketch".
Partly recorded in Slane Castle, The Unforgettable Fire was released in October 1984 and was at the time the band's most marked change in direction. It was ambient and abstract, and featured a rich, orchestrated sound. Under Lanois' direction, Mullen's drumming became looser, funkier, and more subtle, and Clayton's bass became more subliminal. Complementing the album's atmospheric sound, the lyrics were left open to interpretation, providing what the band called a "very visual feel". Due to a tight recording schedule, Bono felt songs like "Bad" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" were incomplete "sketches". The album reached number one in the UK, and was successful in the US. The lead single "Pride (In the Name of Love)", written about Martin Luther King, Jr., was the band's biggest hit to that point and was their first song to chart in the US top 40.
Much of the Unforgettable Fire Tour moved into indoor arenas as U2 began to win their long battle to build their audience. The complex textures of the new studio-recorded tracks, such as "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Bad", posed a challenge in translating to live performances. One solution was programming music sequencers, which the band had previously been reluctant to use but now incorporate into the majority of their performances. Songs on the album had been criticised as being "unfinished", "fuzzy", and "unfocused", but were better received by critics when played on stage. Rolling Stone, which was critical of the album version of "Bad", described its live performance as a "show stopper".
In March 1985, a Rolling Stone cover story called U2 the "Band of the '80s", saying that "for a growing number of rock-and-roll fans, U2 have become the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters". The group participated in the Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985. Their performance in front of 72,000 fans and for a worldwide television audience of two billion people was a pivotal moment in the band's career. During a 12-minute performance of the song "Bad", Bono leapt down off the stage to embrace and dance with a fan, showing a television audience the personal connection that he could make with audiences.
The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum (1986–1990)
The wild beauty, cultural richness, spiritual vacancy and ferocious violence of America are explored to compelling effect in virtually every aspect of The Joshua Tree—in the title and the cover art, the blues and country borrowings evident in the music ... Indeed, Bono says that 'dismantling the mythology of America' is an important part of The Joshua Tree's artistic objective.
For their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, the band wanted to build on The Unforgettable Fire's textures, but instead of out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitation of conventional song structures. Realising that "U2 had no tradition" and that their knowledge of music from before their childhood was limited, the group delved into American and Irish roots music. Friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards motivated Bono to explore blues, folk, and gospel music and focused him on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. U2 halted the album sessions in June 1986 to serve as a headline act on the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concert tour for Amnesty International. Rather than distract the band, the tour invigorated their new material. The following month, Bono travelled to Nicaragua and El Salvador and saw first-hand the distress of peasants affected by political conflicts and US military intervention. The experience became a central influence on their new music.
The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987. The album juxtaposes antipathy towards US foreign policy against the group's deep fascination with the country, its open spaces, freedom, and ideals. The band wanted music with a sense of location and a "cinematic" quality, and the record's music and lyrics draw on imagery created by American writers whose works the band had been reading.The Joshua Tree was critically acclaimed; Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times said the album "confirms on record what this band has been slowly asserting for three years now on stage: U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago—the greatest rock and roll band in the world". The record went to number one in over 20 countries, including the UK where it received a platinum certification in 48 hours, making it the fastest seller in British chart history. In the US, it spent nine consecutive weeks at number one. The album included the hit singles "With or Without You", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and "Where the Streets Have No Name", the first two of which became the group's only number-one hits in the US. U2 became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, which called them "Rock's Hottest Ticket". The album won U2 their first two Grammy Awards, and it brought them a new level of success. Many publications, including Rolling Stone, have cited it as one of rock's greatest.The Joshua Tree Tour was the first tour on which the band played shows in stadiums alongside smaller arena shows. It grossed US$40 million and drew 3 million attendees.
In October 1988, the group released Rattle and Hum, a double album and theatrically released documentary film that captured the band's experiences with American roots music on the Joshua Tree Tour. The record featured nine studio tracks and six live U2 performances, including recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis and collaborations with Dylan and B.B. King. Intended as a tribute to American music, the project received mixed reviews from both film and music critics; one Rolling Stone editor spoke of the album's "excitement", another described it as "misguided and bombastic". The film's director, Phil Joanou, described it as "an overly pretentious look at U2". Despite the criticism, the album sold 14 million copies and reached number one worldwide. Lead single "Desire" became the band's first number-one song in the UK while reaching number three in the US. Most of the album's new material was played on 1989–1990's Lovetown Tour, which only visited Australasia, Japan, and Europe, so as to avoid the critical backlash the group faced in the US. In addition, they had grown dissatisfied with their live performances; Mullen recalled, "We were the biggest, but we weren't the best". With a sense of musical stagnation, Bono said to fans on one of the last dates of the tour that it was "the end of something for U2" and that they had to "go away and ... just dream it all up again".
Achtung Baby, Zoo TV, and Zooropa (1990–1993)
Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy, and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hifi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2 ...
Stung by the criticism of Rattle and Hum, the band sought to transform themselves musically. Seeking inspiration from German reunification, they began work on their seventh studio album, Achtung Baby, at Berlin's Hansa Studios in October 1990 with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. The sessions were fraught with conflict, as the band argued over their musical direction and the quality of their material. While Clayton and Mullen preferred a sound similar to U2's previous work, Bono and the Edge were inspired by European industrial music and electronic dance music and advocated a change. Weeks of tension and slow progress nearly prompted the group to break up until they made a breakthrough with the improvised writing of the song "One". They returned to Dublin in 1991, where morale improved and the majority of the album was completed.
"The Fly" features hip-hop beats, distorted vocals, and a hard industrial edge that differed from U2's typical sound.
Achtung Baby was released in November 1991. The album represented a calculated change in musical and thematic direction for the group; the shift was one of their most dramatic since The Unforgettable Fire. Sonically, the record incorporated influences from alternative rock, dance, and industrial music of the time, and Bono referred to its musical departure as "four men chopping down the Joshua Tree". Thematically, it was a more introspective and personal record; it was darker, yet at times more flippant than the band's previous work. Commercially and critically, it has been one of the band's most successful albums. It produced five hit singles, including "The Fly", "Mysterious Ways", and "One", and it was a crucial part of the band's early 1990s reinvention. In 1993, Achtung Baby won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Like The Joshua Tree, many publications have cited the record as one of rock's greatest.
Bono in March 1992 on the Zoo TV Tour portraying his persona "The Fly", a leather-clad egomaniac meant to parody rock stardom.
Like Achtung Baby, the 1992–1993 Zoo TV Tour was an unequivocal break with the band's past. In contrast to the austere stage setups of previous U2 tours, Zoo TV was an elaborate multimedia event. It satirised the pervasive nature of television and its blurring of news, entertainment, and home shopping by attempting to instill "sensory overload" in its audience. The stage featured large video screens that showed visual effects, random video clips from pop culture, and flashing text phrases, along with a lighting system partially made of Trabant automobiles. Whereas U2 were known for their earnest performances in the 1980s, the group's Zoo TV performances were intentionally ironic and self-deprecating. On stage, Bono performed as several over-the-top characters, including the leather-clad egomaniac "The Fly", the greedy televangelist "Mirror Ball Man", and the devilish "MacPhisto". Prank phone calls were made to President Bush, the United Nations, and others. Live satellite link-ups to war-torn Sarajevo caused controversy. Zoo TV was the highest-grossing North American tour of 1992, earning US$67 million.
In June 1993, U2 signed a long-term, six-album deal to remain with Island Records/PolyGram. The Los Angeles Times estimated that the deal was worth US$60 million to the band, making them the highest-paid rock group ever. The following month, the group released a new album, Zooropa. Quickly recorded during a break in the Zoo TV Tour in early 1993, it expanded on many of the themes from Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV Tour. Initially intended to be an EP, Zooropa ultimately evolved into a full-length LP album. It was an even greater musical departure for the group, delving further into electronic, industrial, and dance music.Country musician Johnny Cash sang the lead vocals on the closing track "The Wanderer". Most of the songs were played at least once during the 1993 legs of the tour, which visited Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan; half the album's tracks became permanent fixtures in the setlist. Although the commercially successful Zooropa won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1994, the band regard it with mixed feelings, as they felt it was more of "an interlude".
On the final leg of the Zoo TV Tour, Clayton was unable to perform for the group's 26 November 1993 show in Sydney due to a hangover, causing him to miss the dress rehearsal for filming Zoo TV: Live from Sydney. Bass guitar technician Stuart Morgan filled in for him, marking the first time any member of U2 had missed a show. After the incident, Clayton gave up drinking alcohol. The tour concluded the following month in Japan, having sold 5.3 million tickets overall.Q's Tom Doyle called Zoo TV "the most spectacular rock tour staged by any band".
Passengers, Pop, and PopMart (1994–1998)
In 1995, following a long break, U2 contributed "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" to the soundtrack album of the film Batman Forever. The song was a hit, reaching number one in Australia and Ireland, number two in the UK, and number 16 in the US. In November, the band released an experimental album called Original Soundtracks 1, a collaboration with Brian Eno, who contributed as a full songwriting partner and performer. Due to his participation and the record's highly experimental nature, the band chose to release it under the moniker "Passengers" to distinguish it from U2's conventional albums. Mullen said of the release: "There's a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence. We crossed it on the Passengers record." It was commercially unnoticed by U2 standards and it received generally mixed reviews. The single "Miss Sarajevo" (featuring Luciano Pavarotti) was among Bono's favourite U2 songs.
U2 began work on their next studio album, Pop, in mid-1995, holding recording sessions with Nellee Hooper, Flood, and Howie B. The band mixed the contrasting influences of each producer into their music, in particular Howie B's experiences with electronica and dance music. Mullen was sidelined due to back surgery in November, prompting the other band members to take different approaches to songwriting, such as programming drum loops and playing to samples provided by Howie B. Upon Mullen's return in February 1996, the group began re-working much of their material but struggled to complete songs, causing them to miss their mid-year deadline to complete the record. Further complicating matters, the band allowed manager Paul McGuinness to book their 1997–1998 PopMart Tour with the album still in progress; Bono called it "the worst decision U2 ever made". Rushed to complete the album, the band delayed its release date a second time from the 1996 holiday season to March 1997, cutting into tour rehearsal time. Even with the additional recording time, U2 worked up to the last minute to complete songs.
The PopMart Tour stage featured a golden arch, mirrorball lemon, and 150-foot-long LED screen. The band emerged from the lemon during encores, although it occasionally malfunctioned.
In February 1997, the group released Pop's lead single, "Discotheque", a dance-heavy song with a music video in which the band wore Village People costumes. The song reached number one in the UK, Japan, and Canada, but did not chart for long in the US despite debuting at number 10. Within days of the single's release, the group announced the PopMart Tour with a press conference in the lingerie section of a Kmart department store. Tickets went on sale shortly after, but Pop would not be released until March. The album represented U2's further exploration of nightclub culture, featuring heavy, funky dance rhythms. The record drew favourable reviews.Rolling Stone stated that U2 had "defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives". Other critics, though, felt that the album was a major disappointment. Despite debuting at number one in over 30 countries, Pop dropped off the charts quickly. Bono admitted that the album "didn't communicate the way it was intended to", while the Edge called it a "compromise project by the end".
The PopMart Tour commenced in April 1997 and was intended as a satire of consumerism. The stage included a 100-foot-tall (30 m) golden yellow arch reminiscent of the McDonald's logo, a 40-foot-tall (12 m) mirrorball lemon, and a 150-foot-long (46 m) LED video screen, at the time the world's largest. U2's "big shtick" failed to satisfy many who were seemingly confused by the band's new kitsch image and the tour's elaborate set. The reduced rehearsal time for the tour affected the quality of early shows, and in some US markets, the band played to half-empty stadiums. On several occasions, the mirrorball lemon from which the band emerged for the encores malfunctioned, trapping them inside. Despite the mixed reviews and difficulties of the tour, Bono considered PopMart to be "better than Zoo TV aesthetically, and as an art project it is a clearer thought." He later explained, "When that show worked, it was mindblowing."
The European leg of the tour featured two highlights. The group's 20 September 1997 show in Reggio Emilia was attended by over 150,000 people, setting a world record for the largest paying audience for a one-act show. U2 also performed in Sarajevo on 23 September, making them the first major group to stage a concert there following the Bosnian War. Mullen described the show as "an experience I will never forget for the rest of my life, and if I had to spend 20 years in the band just to play that show, and have done that, I think it would have been worthwhile." Bono called the show "one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life". The tour concluded in March 1998 with gross revenues of US$171.7 million and 3.9 million tickets sold. The following month, U2 appeared on the 200th episode of the animated sitcom The Simpsons, in which Homer Simpson disrupts the band on stage during a PopMart concert. In November 1998, U2 released their first compilation album, The Best of 1980–1990, which featured a re-recording of a 1987 B-side, "Sweetest Thing", as its single. The album broke a first-week sales record in the US for a greatest hits collection by a group, while "Sweetest Thing" topped the singles charts in Ireland and Canada.
All That You Can't Leave Behind and Elevation Tour (1998–2002)
Following the mixed success of their musical pursuits in the 1990s, U2 sought to simplify their sound; the Edge said that with Pop, the group had "taken the deconstruction of the rock 'n' roll band format to its absolute 'nth degree". For their tenth album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, the group wanted to return to their old recording ethos of "the band in a room playing together". Reuniting with Eno and Lanois, U2 began working on the album in late 1998. After their experiences with being pressured to complete Pop, the band were content to work without deadlines. With Bono's schedule limited by his commitments to debt relief for Jubilee 2000 and the other band members spending time with their families, the recording sessions stretched through August 2000.
Released in October of that year, All That You Can't Leave Behind was seen by critics as a "back to basics" album, on which the group returned to a more mainstream, conventional rock sound. For many of those not won over by the band's forays into dance music, it was considered a return to grace;Rolling Stone called it U2's "third masterpiece" alongside The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. The album debuted at number one in 32 countries and sold 12 million copies. Its lead single, "Beautiful Day", was a worldwide hit, reaching number one in Ireland, the UK, Australia, and Canada, while peaking at number 21 in the US. The song earned Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and Record of the Year. At the awards ceremony, Bono declared that U2 were "reapplying for the job ... [of] the best band in the world". The album's other singles were worldwide hits as well; "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of", "Elevation", and "Walk On" reached number one in Canada, while charting in the top five in the UK and top ten in Australia.
Contrasting with the elaborate stadium productions of the band's previous two tours, the Elevation Tour was a scaled-down affair, featuring a heart-shaped ramp around the stage.
The band's 2001 Elevation Tour commenced in March, visiting North America and Europe across three legs. For the tour, U2 performed on a scaled-down stage, returning to arenas after nearly a decade of stadium productions. Mirroring the album's themes of "emotional contact, connection, and communication", the tour's set was designed to afford the group greater proximity to their fans; a heart-shaped ramp around the stage extended into the audience, encapsulating some concertgoers, and festival seating was offered in the US for the first time in the group's history. During the tour, U2 headlined a pair of Slane Concerts in Ireland, playing to crowds of 80,000. Following the September 11 attacks in the US, All That You Can't Leave Behind found added resonance with American audiences, as the album climbed in the charts and songs such as "Walk On" and "Peace on Earth" garnered radio airplay. In October, U2 performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the first time since the attacks. Bono and the Edge said these shows were among their most memorable and emotional performances. The Elevation Tour was the year's top-earning North American tour, grossing US$109.7 million, the second-highest figure ever for a North American tour at the time; in total, the tour grossed US$143.5 million globally from 2.18 million tickets sold.Spin named U2 the "Band of the Year" for 2001, saying they had "schooled bands half their age about what a rock show could really accomplish".
U2 perform during the Elevation Tour in Kansas City in 2001
On 3 February 2002, U2 performed during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVI. In a tribute to those who died in the September 11 attacks, the victims' names were displayed on a backdrop, and at the end, Bono opened his jacket to reveal an American flag in the lining.SI.com, Rolling Stone, and USA Today ranked the band's performance as the best halftime show in Super Bowl history. Later that month, U2 received four additional Grammy Awards; All That You Can't Leave Behind won Best Rock Album, while "Walk On" was named Record of the Year, marking the first time an artist had won the latter award in consecutive years for songs from the same album. In November 2002, the band released its second compilation, The Best of 1990–2000, which featured several remixed 1990s songs and two new tracks, including the single "Electrical Storm".
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and Vertigo Tour (2003–2006)
Looking for a harder-hitting rock sound than that of All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 began recording their eleventh studio album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, in February 2003 with producer Chris Thomas. After nine months of work, the band had an album's worth of material ready for release, but they were not satisfied with the results; Mullen said that the songs "had no magic". The group subsequently enlisted Steve Lillywhite to take over as producer in Dublin in January 2004. Lillywhite, along with his assistant Jacknife Lee, spent six months with the band reworking songs and encouraging better performances. Several other producers received credits on the album, including Lanois, Eno, Flood, Carl Glanville, and Nellee Hooper; Bono acknowledged that the involvement of multiple producers affected the record's "sonic cohesion".
"Vertigo", which the Edge described as "visceral rock 'n' roll", became a hit worldwide and was used in a cross-promotion with Apple.
Released in November 2004, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb received favourable reviews from critics. The album featured lyrics touching on life, death, love, war, faith, and family. It reached number one in 30 countries, including the US, where first-week sales of 840,000 copies nearly doubled those of All That You Can't Leave Behind, setting a personal best for the band. Overall, it sold 9 million copies globally. For the album's release, U2 partnered with Apple for several cross-promotions: the first single, "Vertigo", was featured in a television advertisement for the company's iPod music player, while a U2-branded iPod and digital box set exclusive to the iTunes Store were released. "Vertigo" was an international hit, topping the charts in Ireland and the UK, while reaching number two in Canada, number five in Australia, and number 31 in the US. The song won three Grammy Awards, including one for Best Rock Song. Other singles from the album were also hits; "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own", written as a tribute to Bono's late father, went to number one in the UK and Canada, while "City of Blinding Lights" reached number two in both regions. In March 2005, U2 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen in their first year of eligibility. During his speech, Springsteen said the band had "beaten [the odds] by continuing to do their finest work and remaining at the top of their game and the charts for 25 years".
The outdoor stage of the Vertigo Tour, pictured in June 2005, featured a massive LED screen.
U2's 2005–2006 Vertigo Tour was preceded by several complications. A sudden illness afflicting the Edge's daughter nearly resulted in the tour's cancellation, before the group decided to adjust the tour schedule to accommodate her treatment. Additionally, ticket presales on the band's website were plagued with issues, as subscribing members encountered technical glitches and limited ticket availability, partially due to scalpers exploiting the system. Commencing in March 2005, the Vertigo Tour consisted of arena shows in North America and stadium shows internationally across five legs. The indoor stage replaced the heart-shaped ramp of the Elevation Tour with an elliptical one and featured retractable video curtains around the stage, while the stadium stage used a massive LED video screen. Setlists on tour varied more than in the group's past and included songs they had not played in decades. Like its predecessor, the Vertigo Tour was a commercial success, ranking as the top-earning tour of 2005 with US$260 million grossed.
In February 2006, U2 received five additional Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year for "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own", and Best Rock Album and Album of the Year for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; the awards made the album and its singles winners in all eight categories in which U2 were nominated, spanning two separate Grammy ceremonies. The group resumed the Vertigo Tour that month with a Latin American leg, on which several shows were filmed for the concert film U2 3D. It would be released in theatres nearly two years later, and was the world's first live-action digital 3-D film. In March, the band postponed the tour's remaining shows until the end of the year due to the health of the Edge's daughter. On 25 September 2006, U2 and Green Day performed at the Louisiana Superdome prior to an NFL football game, the New Orleans Saints' first home game in the city since Hurricane Katrina. The two bands covered the Skids' song "The Saints Are Coming" during the performance and for a benefit single, which reached number one in Australia and throughout Europe. U2 issued an official autobiography, U2 by U2, that month, followed in November by their third compilation album, U218 Singles. The Vertigo Tour concluded in December, having sold 4.6 million tickets and having earned US$389 million, the second-highest gross ever at the time.
In August 2006, the band incorporated its publishing business in the Netherlands following the capping of Irish artists' tax exemption at €250,000. The Edge stated that businesses often seek to minimise their tax burdens. The move was criticised in the Irish parliament. The band defended themselves, saying approximately 95% of their business took place outside Ireland, that they were taxed globally because of this, and that they were all "personal investors and employers in the country". Bono later said, "I think U2's tax business is our own business and I think it is not just to the letter of the law but to the spirit of the law."
No Line on the Horizon and U2 360° Tour (2006–2011)
At 164 feet tall, the stage structure from the U2 360° Tour was the largest ever constructed. The tour became the highest-grossing in history, having earned US$736 million.
Recording for U2's twelfth album, No Line on the Horizon, began with producer Rick Rubin in 2006, but the sessions were short-lived and the material was shelved. In May 2007, the group began new sessions with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in Fez, Morocco, involving the producers as full songwriting partners. Intending to write "future hymns"—songs that would be played forever—the group spent two weeks recording in a riad and exploring local music. The Edge called it "a very freeing experience" that "reminded [him] in many ways of early on and why [they] got into a band in the first place. Just that joy of playing." As recording on the album continued in New York, London, and Dublin, the band scaled back their experimental pursuits, which Eno said "sounded kind of synthetic" and were not easily married with the group's sound.
No Line on the Horizon was released in February 2009, more than four years after How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, marking the longest gap between albums of the band's career to that point. It received generally positive reviews, including their first five-star Rolling Stone review, but critics found it was not as experimental as originally billed. The album debuted at number one in over 30 countries, but its sales of 5 million were seen as a disappointment by U2 standards and it did not contain a hit single. Following the album's release, the band discussed tentative plans for a follow-up record entitled Songs of Ascent. Bono described the project as "a more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage".
The group embarked on the U2 360° Tour in June 2009. It was their first live venture for Live Nation under a 12-year, US$100 million (£50 million) contract signed the year prior. As part of the deal, the company assumed control over U2's touring, merchandising, and official website. The 360° Tour concerts featured the band playing stadiums "in the round" on a circular stage, allowing the audience to surround them on all sides. To accommodate the stage configuration, a large four-legged structure nicknamed "The Claw" was built above the stage, with the sound system and a cylindrical, expanding video screen on top of it. At 164 feet (50 m) tall, it was the largest stage ever constructed. The tour visited Europe and North America in 2009. On 25 October 2009, U2 set a new US record for single concert attendance for one headline act, performing to 97,014 people at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. In May 2010, while rehearsing for the next leg of the tour, Bono suffered a herniated disk and severe compression of the sciatic nerve, requiring emergency back surgery. The band were forced to postpone the North American leg of the tour and a headlining performance at the Glastonbury Festival 2010 until the following year. After Bono's recovery, U2 resumed the 360° Tour in August 2010 with legs in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, during which they began to play new, unreleased songs live. By its conclusion in July 2011, U2 360° had set records for the highest-grossing concert tour (US$736 million) and most tickets sold for a tour (7.3 million).
Songs of Innocence and Innocence + Experience Tour (2011–2015)
U2 performing at the Apple product launch at which Songs of Innocence was announced in September 2014
On 9 September 2014, U2 announced their thirteenth studio album, Songs of Innocence, at an Apple product launch event, and released it digitally the same day to all iTunes Store customers at no cost. The release made the album available to over 500 million iTunes customers in what Apple CEO Tim Cook called "the largest album release of all time." Apple reportedly paid Universal Music Group and U2 a lump sum for a five-week exclusivity period in which to distribute the album and spent US$100 million on a promotional campaign.Songs of Innocence recalls the group members' youth in Ireland, touching on childhood experiences, loves and losses, while paying tribute to their musical inspirations. Bono described it as "the most personal album we've written". The record received mixed reviews and drew criticism for its digital release strategy; it was automatically added to users' iTunes accounts, which for many, triggered an unprompted download to their electronic devices. Chris Richards of The Washington Post called the release "rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail". The group's press tour for the album was interrupted after Bono was seriously injured in a bicycle accident in Central Park on 16 November 2014. He suffered fractures of his shoulder blade, humerus, orbit, and pinky finger, leading to uncertainty that he would ever be able to play guitar again.
U2 take a curtain call during a 7 November 2015 performance on the Innocence + Experience Tour(from left to right): the Edge, Bono, Mullen, Clayton
Following Bono's recuperation, U2 embarked on the Innocence + Experience Tour in May 2015, visiting arenas in North America and Europe from May through December. The group structured their concerts around a loose autobiographical narrative of "innocence" passing into "experience", with a fixed set of songs for the first half of each show and a varying second half, separated by an intermission—a first for U2 concerts. The stage spanned the length of the venue floor and comprised three sections: a rectangular main stage, a smaller circular B-stage, and a connecting walkway. The centerpiece of the set was a 96-foot-long (29 m) double-sided video screen that featured an interior catwalk, allowing the band members to perform amidst the video projections. U2's sound system was moved to the venue ceilings and arranged in an oval array, in hopes of improving acoustics by evenly distributing sound throughout the arena. In total, the tour grossed US$152.2 million from 1.29 million tickets sold. The final date of the tour, one of two Paris shows rescheduled due to the 13 November 2015 attacks in the city, was filmed for the video Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris and broadcast on the American television network HBO.
The Joshua Tree Tours 2017 and 2019, Songs of Experience, and Experience + Innocence Tour (2016–present)
The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 commemorated the 30th anniversary of the eponymous record. It was the highest-grossing tour of the year, earning $316 million.
In 2017, the group staged a tour marking the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, on which they performed the album in its entirety at each show. It was the first time U2 toured in promotion of an album from their back catalogue, rather than a new release. The Edge cited the same world events that caused the group to delay Songs of Experience for what he judged to be renewed resonance of The Joshua Tree's subject matter and a reason to revisit it. The tour's stage featured a 7.6K video screen measuring 200 ft × 45 ft (61 m × 14 m) that was, according to The Guardian, the largest and highest resolution screen used on a concert tour. The tour included a headlining appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in June. The tour grossed more than $316 million from over 2.7 million tickets sold, making it the highest-grossing tour of the year.
Songs of Experience was released on 1 December 2017. The first single, "You're the Best Thing About Me", is one of many songs from the album that are letters written by Bono to people and places closest to his heart. The personal nature of the lyrics reflects a "brush with mortality" that he had during the album's recording. In 2018, the group embarked on the Experience + Innocence Tour, beginning in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 2 May 2018. It grossed $126.2 million from 924,000 tickets sold, according to Billboard.
U2 announced that The Joshua Tree anniversary concert tour will visit Australasia and Asia in 2019, marking the band's first performances in Australia and New Zealand since the 360° Tour in 2010, and their first ever performances in South Korea and Singapore.