Like A Song…: U2’s War at 40
Looking back on the album that broke the band in the United States
Before February 28, 1983 – the day U2’s third album, War, was released – relatively few people had heard of the Irish rock band.
If they had, it was probably from hearing “I Will Follow” (from their 1980 debut Boy) or “Gloria” (from their 1981 follow-up October). Both had gotten some attention on college radio and musically astute FM stations, where they were nestled comfortably among songs like Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” and Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film.”
Odds are, though, even if a fairly knowledgeable listener mentioned U2 in 1982, they’d probably be asking someone, “Isn’t that the band that does ‘One in Ten’ or ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’?” Nope, that’s UB40. “Oh, sorry, I get them confused.”
But after February 28, 1983, few people confused the Irish rockers with the British reggae band.
VIDEO: U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
War’s opening track grabs listeners by the ears and demands undivided attention in the manner of the iconic chord that kicks off “A Hard Day’s Night” or those opening bars of “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Larry Mullen Jr.’s drum lays down a militaristic beat. The Edge’s guitar kicks in with a sound totally unique from almost everything else at the time (people hadn’t heard anything that stood out like this since Brian May blew everyone’s ears away on the first Queen album). Bono, his voice young and strong and coming into full bloom, howls in pain, frustration and disbelief at the horrors of unarmed civil rights protestors shot and killed by British troops. Adam Clayton’s bass provides the glue that holds it all together.
Damn, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is such a great song – and such a great way to kick off an album.
Kind of amazing that it wasn’t the first single. In fact, it was the third.
The first single was “New Year’s Day,” a song that grabbed radio by the playlists and became U2’s first real introduction to U.S. audiences. Like the opening track, it’s big, bold, brash, and ready-made for packing arenas. And like the opening track, a reflection on troubles in Northern Ireland, it has its political theme: the Polish solidarity movement. Listening to the powerful cut, it’s hard to believe Bono had begun writing “New Year’s Day” as a love song to his new wife, Ali.
VIDEO: U2 “New Year’s Day”
Politics is all over this album, of course, and the songs remain as relevant today as they were 40 years ago – perhaps even more so, which is as good a reason as any (and better than most) to give it another close listen.
“Seconds” takes on the horrors of accidental nuclear annihilation … “Like a Song…” decries the societal result of wearing badges and uniforms and flying flags (“But I won’t let others live in hell / As we divide against each other and we fight amongst ourselves”) … “The Refugee” tells the story of a girl who is told by her mother in the metaphorical morning that she will escape war and live in America; by the time the metaphorical evening rolls around, she’s still waiting.
Yet, as Bono told New Musical Express in 1983, “War is not a negative LP. I mean, I’m in love and there’s a lot of love on the album. A song like ‘New Year’s Day’ might be about war and struggle, but it is also about love. It is about having the faith to break through and survive against all odds.”
The biggest departure from the mostly political set is the album’s second single, “Two Hearts Beat As One.” Lyrically a pretty straightforward love song, sonically it’s a cornucopia of so much of what makes U2 so compelling. From Bono’s soaring vocals to Edge’s sharp guitar to Clayton and Mullen’s propulsive rhythm battery – no one can listen to this track and say that U2 isn’t a tight unit.
The album closes, coincidentally enough for this article, with “40,” a song that also ended every single show on the War tour and almost every U2 show through the end of the 1980s. If the album opens with a sense of hopelessness – “How long must we sing this song?” – it closes on a note of hopefulness: “I will sing a new song!”
Before long, many new songs would follow: The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree would be released in 1984 and 1987 respectively and U2 would be well on their way to global rock legend status.
War is where the U2 legend truly began.
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