The Story of U2's 'War'* - U2 Feedback

Go Back   U2 Feedback > 'Zine (archived) > Content > About U2
Click Here to Login
Thread Tools Search this Thread Display Modes
Old 11-28-2005, 10:44 AM   #1
love, blood, life
HelloAngel's Avatar
Join Date: Sep 2001
Location: new york city
Posts: 14,534
Local Time: 06:29 PM
The Story of U2's 'War'*

By Teresa Rivas

"People say we take ourselves too seriously and I might have to plead guilty to that. But I don't take myself seriously, we don't take ourselves seriously—but we do take the music seriously."
-Bono, August 1983

"I joined a band to hit things."
-Larry Mullen Jr.'s reason for being in U2

"Ew, she's all bloody."
-My father's first words at my birth on January 16, 1983

With both "Boy" and "October" behind the band, 1983 would prove to be the year U2 would earn the critical and commercial acclaim that would be a hallmark of its success throughout subsequent reincarnations in the decades to come. Arguably the first five-star album from the group, "War" is a predecessor of the strength and versatility to come in "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby," among others.

But like any undertaking by the fledgling group—growing more and more comfortable in its own skin—the album would be another testing ground for its ability to endure.

"War" came early in 1983, a year close to my heart because I, too, arrived early that year. But, of course, there were other things shaking the world stage at the time. According to Information Please, 1983 marked the year Pope John Paul II signed into being changes made in the Second Vatican Council, the Supreme Court rejected a number of states' individual abortion restrictions, and Sally Ride, first woman astronaut, flew into space on the space shuttle Challenger's maiden voyage, which would be the first U.S. space walk in nine years.

Terrorist explosions killed 237 U.S. Marines in Beirut and America would invade Grenada. More than 125 million people watched the last episode of the television series "M*A*S*H" and the FCC allowed the first cellular phone testing in Chicago. El Niño disrupted global weather patterns and the world lost singer Karen Carpenter, along with playwright Tennessee Williams and the Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miró.

According to, "War" entered the U.K. charts at No.1 and the U.S. charts at No. 20, though it would eventually rise another eight spots and be U2's first gold album in the United States, later climbing to multi-platinum with over four million copies sold. In the Hot Press Reader's Poll, it was voted best album and best LP sleeve and in the New Zealand Rip It Up Poll, "War" was voted the No. 1 album. In the UK, a special picture disc of "War" was released featuring the black and white Peter Rowan cover (apparently unencumbered by previous fears of pornography in the United States over the "Boy" cover). In August 1991, the album was re-issued with red lettering on the cover instead of the pink color that was on the original issue as part of the Island Master series. Elsewhere in the world, a Japanese release of the album contained a comic book-style insert. In addition to the regular LP release in Sweden, 15 copies of a 12-inch red vinyl version were issued. "War" was also re-mastered as part of the MFSL gold Ultradisc in the United States, featuring a different version of both "Seconds," which was longer and has an extended "Soldier Girls" portion in the middle, and "Like a Song," which is also longer, according to fansite U2 Wanderer.

All this came after the grueling work of actually creating "War" was over. After being "outed" from the Christian closet on "October," there was increasing conflict between the devout trio in the band (Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr.) and the dictates that the Shalom group was imposing on them, and how they felt they could reconcile rock and roll with their beliefs. As Niall Stokes says in "Into the Heart," after the hurried composition of its sophomore album, it still felt unfinished, and with the members of the band developing musically, the time was right to move on. With the world seemingly moving from one crisis to another, and with the nihilistic ends of punk, U2 wanted to declare war on all it saw as phony, shallow, restrictive and pessimistic in the world, forces that held back real growth and change.

One of the most striking features of "War," noticeable even in the opening seconds of the album, is the drumming, recorded outside the studio, under a front staircase for the striking effect. Larry Mullen Jr.'s spectacularly original drum work is evident as a main facet on many of the album's songs, featuring prominently in the two break away singles, "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," although it’s easy to hear how Adam Clayton and Edge had also considerably tightened their playing in the time between the recording of "October" and "War."

"Sunday Bloody Sunday," is a song protesting the violence that ripped apart Ireland and killed innocent civilians as the Irish Republican Army and the British troops battled for dominance in the twentieth century. On the early morning of November 21, 1921, members of the IRA broke into the houses of 14 assumed undercover British agents and killed them in their beds as retribution for the systematic slaying of members of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. The British forces retaliated by opening fire on a crowd attending a football game, killing 12 people and injuring 60. The shock was repeated on another "Bloody Sunday" in 1972 when the Paratroop Regiment of the British Army fired on a civil rights demonstration and killed 14 innocent unarmed participants.

"It was only when I realized that the troubles hadn't affected me that they began to affect me," Niall Stokes quotes Bono as saying about the violence in Northern Ireland. But Bono has always prefaced the song during live performances, saying "This is not a rebel song," meaning that just because there have been injustices on both sides, the song is in no way meant to take the side of the IRA or and advocate of further violence. It is meant as a wish for peace and understanding in a region wracked by the alternatives. Yet for all the sadness and anger over Ireland's plight that inspired the song, it is a rare time indeed when Bono will give into wearing the flag of his native land. It has long been his habit to drape himself rather in the white flag of peace, because he feels uncomfortable resorting to the nationalistic notions, the borders and the irrationality that comes with a country's flag.

Bono said of the song in a 1987 radio interview on "Timothy White's Rock Stars:"

"It means so much to me, that song, because ... I'm not sure I got it right. I mighta got it wrong, I'm not sure. I originally wanted to contrast the day, Sunday Bloody Sunday, when 13 [sic] innocent people were shot dead in Derry by the British army, with Easter Sunday. I wanted to make this contrast because I thought that it pointed out the awful irony of the fact that these two warring faiths share the same belief in the one God. And I thought how... it's so absurd, really, this Catholic and Protestant rivalry. So that's what I wanted to do. In the end, I'm not sure I did that successfully with the words. But we certainly did it with the music. The spirit of the song speaks louder than the flesh of it."

It's also one of the songs that we may thank Ali Hewson for, Bono recalls that he was suffering from writer's block, especially with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” lyrics. The couple had just returned from their honeymoon and he remembers her, "literally kicking me out of bed in the morning" and putting "the pen in my hand."

"Very few people mention 'Seconds,'" Bono is quoted as saying in "Into the Heart." "It wouldn't normally be considered one of the big U2 songs, but I met the singer from Oasis, Liam Gallagher, recently. He came up to me and he was humming the bass line from 'Seconds.' He said, 'That's a bad groove, that's a bad groove.' And it is." The interlude in the middle is taken from a 1982 documentary "Soldier Girls," which, along with the upbeat, popish beat, lends a sense of eerie candor to the lyrics about coming nuclear war—perhaps a reflection of the glib attitude the world and its leaders seemingly had taken to such a threat. In an era dominated by the powerful hawks of Ronald Reagan and, closer to home, Margaret Thatcher, it may have seemed that the proliferation of weapons would indeed cut short everyone's future—by years or seconds. notes that Bono would introduce "Seconds" as a message to various powers that be, including "the President," "the Prime Minister," "the King and the Queen," Mrs. Thatcher, Gorbachev, and Ronald "Ray-gun."

In a 1983 Dallas radio show, Bono said:

"A song like 'Seconds' people thought was very serious—on the LP ‘War’ 'Seconds' – it's anti-nuclear, it's a statement. They didn't see the sense of humor to it, it's sort of black humor, where we were using a lot of clichés; y'know 'It takes a second to say goodbye', blah blah, and some people took it very seriously. And it is black humor, and it is to be taken sort-of seriously, but this song had the lines in it, 'I believe in a third world war, I believe in the atomic bomb, I believe in the powers that be, but they won't overpower me'. And of course a lot of people they heard I believe in a third world war, I believe in the atomic bomb, and they thought it was some sort of, y'know, Hitler Part II. And Europeans especially were (puts on outraged French accent) 'Ah non! Vive le France!' and it was all like, all sorts of chaos broke out, and they said, 'What do you mean, you believe in the atomic bomb?' And I was trying to say in the song, I believe in the third world war, because people talk about the third world war but it's already happened, I mean it's happened in the third world, that's obvious. But I was saying these are facts of life, I believe in them, 'I believe in the powers that be BUT, they won't overpower me'. And that's the point, but a lot of people didn't reach the fourth line."

Also, much to people's surprise, "Seconds" is Edge's first lead vocal—not "Van Diemen's Land" from “Rattle and Hum” or "Numb" from “Zooropa.” Bill Flanagan reported in "U2 at the End of the World" that this "sent a shock through the house when U2 did it live," because most people naturally assumed Bono sang the song.

In a 2000 Bass Player interview about "War," when Adam was asked about his "most famous riff" in "New Year's Day" he recalled, "That actually grew out of me trying to work out the chords to the Visage tune 'Fade to Grey.' It was a kind of Euro-disco dance hit, and somehow it turned into 'New Year's Day.'" When martial law was declared in Poland in 1981 by the head of the Polish communist party, some of the opposition leaders were arrested, including Lech Walesa, whom Bono says he must have been subconsciously thinking of when writing the lyrics, especially about his wife's inability to see him. Remarkably, after the song was recorded, it was announced that martial law would be lifted in the country on New Year's Day, according to Niall Stokes.

In that same Bass Player interview, Adam reflected on the breakthrough that "War" gave the band:

"When listening to 'Like a Song,' one of their lovelier, if often overlooked tracks, it seems easy to see that critical coalescing in their musical performances, that kind of final confidence that brings the song its ability to be both raw and well crafted, an angry announcement that does not shrink at its own insecurities."

The Edge told DJ and author Carter Alan in 1985, "Whereas I know some of the songs on the 'War' album could be re-recorded and improved on. With 'Drowning Man' it's perfection for that song. It's one of the most successful pieces of recording we've ever done." It has been speculated that the song, with the usual mix of eros and divine love, may be address to Adam, the only non-practicing Christian in the group, in the tone of a loving God, though we are also give glimpses of rage and a silent deity.

"The Refugee" is one of the songs it's hard to imagine would have been born without the influence America had on the band. While Bono was out gallivanting with Italian, black and Caribbean immigrants to the United States he was learning the singular sounds of their music along with the amount of they all had in common, a triumph over the sectarian stereotypes that are often assigned to minorities. At the same time there were new theories being proposed that the Irish had a broader cast of ancestors than previously thought, including emigrants from Egypt and North Africa, another boost for young Irish looking beyond their own borders for inspiration and connection to the world outside its borders. "The Refugee" can be seen as an experiment in this multicultural awakening, and while people may argue that it sounds affected and unlike the band, to me it strikes the perfect offbeat and unexpected cord.

With the dearth of obvious love songs in the U2 canon, "Two Hearts Beat As One," even if just from the title, stands out as an obvious example, as well it should, since it was one of two songs Bono wrote while on his honeymoon in Jamaica with Ali. Could he have also been reading John Keats: "Two souls with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one." He is quoted in "Into the Heart" as saying:

"I didn't really write that many love songs in the straight sense because I think—does the world really need any more silly love songs?. But this is one. And in many ways I do think that it's beautiful. We're trying to make it groovy and we ain't quite pulled it off. I think if we tried it in a different key, we might have discovered a sexier groove and it might have worked better. But we never did that. Whatever the jam was in I'd sing the song in that key. That's why there was a tightness in the vocals, which I find it hard to listen to now. I was screeching a lot of the time. But I think if a song like that had been delivered differently it would have more appeal to me now 'cos it's a good song."

If you're wondering where the female voices came from in "Red Light," they were in fact Kid Creole's Coconuts. The trumpeter, Kenny Fradley, was also enlisted to add to the song, although it was the girls, much like the girls of the red light districts abroad, that made the most surprising contribution to the song. "They wanted the lights turned down to do the recording and I think we had the studio lit in red, for effect," Niall Stokes quotes Bono. "I can't remember which, but one of them started to take her top off. She wasn't undressing. She just took her top off, but we weren't used to that kind of thing. I remember the temperature in the studio was at an all-time high. Everyone was running around looking for cold water. We were that naïve!" The more liberal sexual cultures that the band was suddenly exposed to on the road abroad brought them a sense of wonder and curiosity about things banned in Ireland. "A lot of the songs on side two of the album were inspired by New York and the friction of the city, the whole claustrophobic thing, how people were living on top of each other, how it affects them, their way of life, their characters. 'Surrender' and 'Red Light,' in particular, and even 'Two Hearts Beat as One,'" Bono told Kevin Knapp in September 1983.

"Surrender" may be a harbinger of things to come for U2 in its "Achtung" era—an announcement of ambivalence. In a 1987 Hot Press interview, Bono said, "Surrender is not what it used to be." When asked if there was a value in giving yourself and your ego away he said, "That goes back to the song 'Surrender.' I always believed in the Biblical idea that unless the seed dies, is almost crushed into the ground, it won't bear fruit. Again Lou Reed was telling me how he grew up in the '50s when machismo was a way of life and you did not give yourself away, in fact the opposite, and he said he found the '50s idea of cool a real strait-jacket in his life." Maybe it's this sort of attitude, of the value of taking chances that would later lead the band to its height of opulence and experimentation in years to come.

Bono's introduction to "Selections from the Book of Psalms: Authorized King James Version," reads in part:

"Years ago, lost for words and forty minutes of recording time left before the end of our studio time, we were still looking for a song to close our third album, ‘War.’ We wanted to put something explicitly spiritual on the record to balance the politics and the romance of it; like Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye would. We thought about the psalms ... 'Psalm 40' ... There was some squirming. We were a very "white" rock group, and such plundering of the scriptures was taboo for a white rock group unless it was in the 'service of Satan'. Or worse, Goth.

"'Psalm 40' is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and love replace the very strict laws of Moses (i.e., fulfill them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.

"'40' became the closing song at U2 shows and on hundreds of occasions, literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape t-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from 'Psalm 6': 'How long' (to sing this song)'. I had thought of it as a nagging question—pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. How long ... hunger? How long ... hatred? How long until creation grows up at the chaos of its precocious, hell-bent adolescence has been discarded? I thought it odd that the vocalizing of such questions could bring such comfort; to me too."

Recently revived as the closing bit for the Vertigo tour, "40" is again playing that role, of ending a night of energy and joy and hope with a quiet refrain, ambiguous and overarching, but for U2 fans, the answer we're rooting for is a long way off.

HelloAngel is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 11-29-2005, 12:47 PM   #2
TheRooster's Avatar
Join Date: Jan 2005
Location: Hiding out in the big city blinking
Posts: 391
Local Time: 05:29 PM
Another excellently done article. I love the quotes you find. I do wish that all the sources were at the end instead of interspersed throughout the article it kills the flow. I think thats how your Boy article was written. Looking forward to The Unforgettable Fire.

TheRooster is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 11-30-2005, 10:59 AM   #3
New Yorker
Yahweh_OMG's Avatar
Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: Geneva, Switzerland
Posts: 2,945
Local Time: 11:29 PM
Cool, nicely done.... thanks!
Yahweh_OMG is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 12-01-2005, 01:11 AM   #4
Rock n' Roll Doggie
doctorwho's Avatar
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: My TARDIS - currently located in Valparaiso, IN
Posts: 6,362
Local Time: 02:29 PM
This is a nicely written article, although I caught a few typos (e.g., "...the song is in no way meant to take the side of the IRA or and advocate of further violence." )

Typos can be forgiven, but one area that I feel needs clarification - even if it's a addendum by the author - is regarding the song "Seconds". In the quote, Bono transitions from talking about "Seconds" to discussing the lyrics for "A Celebration", which never appeared on an official U2 album (one would think this treasure would have made it onto the 80's "Best Of" b-sides release, but alas...). The way Bono's quote is worded, it's as if the words "I believe in the atomic bomb....", etc., are part of "Seconds", which is obviously not correct. I feel this should be clarified as the average U2 fan might not be that familiar with either song.

Lastly, I disagree with The Rooster's post. I love how you've stated the sources within the article. At times this can be cumbersome, but you've done this very elogantly. It flows with the text beautifully.

Well done!
__________________ always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific.
doctorwho is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 01-01-2006, 04:06 PM   #5
War Child
Layton's Avatar
Join Date: Oct 2002
Location: Ohio
Posts: 750
Local Time: 06:29 PM
Great article. Interesting how Bono seems to want to re-record half this album. He takes alot of shots for saying that Pop needs more work, but I think it's just the way he is about all of U2's albums.
Layton is offline   Reply With Quote

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Trackbacks are Off
Pingbacks are Off
Refbacks are Off

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 05:29 PM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.8 Beta 1
Copyright ©2000 - 2021, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.
Design, images and all things inclusive copyright ©