May 17 – The Face Of Faceless Music?

New Age music is easy listening at its drowsiest. Defined vaguely as ambient, often acoustic music designed to promote relaxation and stress relief, it’s usually rather forgettable…and faceless. Today we look at one of the few exceptions to that, perhaps the single most successful artist in the field – and one we know from a couple of mainstream hits – Enya. Happy birthday to the lady who’s second to only U2 in terms of international success among Irish artists. She turns 61 today.

Enya was born Eithne Bhraonein, a hint at her Gaelic background, but Anglicized it to Enya Brennan. She’s grew up in Ulster, at the northern tip of the Republic of Ireland, right next door to the British-controlled Northern Ireland. Her dad was a band leader and her mom a music teacher, so there’s little surprise in Enya being musical. She sang in local competitions and church from a young age and learned piano readily. English also in school, she quickly became bilingual. She was most a fan of classical and church music, but didn’t mind some of the jigs her dad apparently would play. However, even as she was completing high school, she dreamed of following her mother’s footsteps… a career in music but teaching, rather than performing.

Her family had some other ideas and when two of her brothers and a sister joined the Celtic band Clannad, they talked her into joining as a keyboardist and backing vocalist. Her fine Mezzo-soprano voice and skill on the keyboards (primarily though she seems to be able to play a number of other instruments including bagpipes!) got noticed and the BBC commissioned her to do some music for a miniseries they were doing in 1985; so impressed were they that they ended up turning over the entire project’s music to her then signing her to a record deal. That helped her get signed to Atlantic Records in North America simultaneously.

Her self-titled debut album came out in 1987, consisting largely of the music she’d done for the TV show The Celts. No one knew exactly what to make of it – allmusic summed it up as “a combination of Celtic traditionalism and distinctly modern approach (which) finds lush flower here”; others called it “new folk.” Either way, it was different but popular. Eventually it would top her homeland’s charts and make the top 10 in the UK and Canada but that was only a hint of the popularity she’d soon achieve.

In 1988, the lead single off her second album, “Orinoco Flow” became one of the decade’s most surprising, and unique-sounding hits, finding a spot on pop and college radio as well as just about every office and grocery store in the Western World, it would seem. It was a #1 hit in both Ireland and Britain and got to #4 in Canada, #2 in Germany and even broke into the American top 30.

Her reputation among New Age fans kept growing but it was the last most pop or rock listeners heard of her until the tragic aftermath of the Sep. 11 attacks in 2001. For reasons unknown several TV stations began playing her ethereal and somber “Only Time” as a theme to coverage of the terrorism. It soon became a sort of pseudo-anthem of mourning and Enya decided to donate the earnings of it (the single had been released nearly a year earlier ) to the families of New York firefighters who had died in the attack. The song catapulted up the charts to #1 in Canada and much of Europe and #10 in the States, and perhaps feeling in need of relaxation, helped the album it was from, A Day Without Rain, begin to sell wildly. It ended up at 7X platinum in the U.S. and with at least 16 million sold worldwide, it’s considered the genre’s biggest-ever record.

Since then, Enya’s worked sporadically, putting out new albums in 2005, ’08 and ’15 but she says she spent a lot of the pandemic renovating a home studio and is going to have new new age music soon.

For all the millions of records sold, Grammys won (including Best New Age Record four times) and fame – scientists even named a species of fish found in the Orinoco River after her – not a great deal is known about her personal life. She admits to being a “private” person and says “I derive from religion what I enjoy.” She’s said she’s hesitant to get into serious relationships because she’s both worried men would want her more for her money and fame than herself. Not to mention she’s had bad luck, attracting a couple of stalkers along the way and having her home in Ireland broken into twice in short order, with one of the burglars attacking her housekeeper. Sounds like she might need to listen to her own music more than most people.

March 17 – Have A Pint & See What The Hype Was About

An Irish tale for the most Irish of days. If you were in Ireland on this day in 1978, you might have been downing a pint and finding out what all “the hype” was about . What more appropriate day for U2 to begin their ascent to world-domination than St. Patrick’s Day. And that was basically what happened that day when they won a talent contest which earned them a chance to record.

By that time, the group was whittled down to the four members we know, and were using the name everyone knows. They’d begun two years earlier, when Larry Mullen, the drummer (only 14 at the time) had decided having a band would be fun and put a note up on the bulletin board in school suggesting that. Six others came out – Paul Hewson, Adam Clayton, Dave Evans and his brother Dik, as well as Ivan McCormick and Peter Martin. Martin had a guitar and amp, but couldn’t play at all, so he was out. McCormick dropped out after a rehearsal or two (wonder what he thinks of that decision these days?), leaving a quintet that decided to call themselves The Hype.

The Hype began playing a few shows around Dublin, largely in schools, in ’77, being inspired by and playing largely punk. Lots of Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks covers, largely because they didn’t require gigantic amounts of skill on the instruments from the young musicians who were more or less learning on the fly. Soon, Hewson was beginning to take charge of the group, and had the nickname Bono Vox. Dave Evans became The Edge, depending on who you ask, either because of his angular facial features or the jagged way he played the six-string. Eventually, by the summer of ’77, the band was building a following, but Dik Evans quit to go to college. He’d form a new band there, Virgin Prunes, who actually put out two albums and at times opened for his brother’s band in the early days.

Fast forward to St. Paddy’s Day, ’78. Harp Lager, one of the great Irish brews, and a newspaper were holding a talent show at a pub in Limerick, the city which would give us The Cranberries a decade later. The prize was a decent 500 pounds (likely akin to about $4000 today) and, more importantly, some studio time to make a demo that Columbia Records would listen to. The Hype, which had just changed their name to U2 (liking the ambiguity- is it a jet plane? a reference to two other people? an invitation- “you, too”?) won.

They went into the studio a few weeks later and recorded some material, but by all accounts, it wasn’t very good. They were nervous, ill-prepared and likely felt rushed with limited hours to use the facility. Nothing came out of that, directly. However, they did get a boost and kept playing and their improving stage show got the attention of Paul McGuinness – what a perfect Irish name – who had connections in the music business. He became their manager, and soon got them more studio time that summer. In August, they recorded three original tracks- “Lose Control”, “Stories for Boys” and “Boy/Girl.” With McGuiness’ help this time, they signed with CBS (Columbia) and they put out the three songs as a 12” single, entitled U2-Three. The initial pressing of 1000 sold quickly and evidently some more copies were made, and it rose to #19 on their home Irish charts. CBS didn’t release it anywhere else though, and it would seem didn’t have a lot of faith in the band. That was the end of their association with U2. If you’re looking online for a vinyl copy of that single, there are some around for as little as $20. The decision not to carry on cost CBS…. well, more than $20!

Of course, U2 soon signed with Island Records who quickly got them back into the studio, where they re-recorded “Stories for Boys” and “Out of Control”, and had them as a part of their debut album, Boy. The other track, “Boy/Girl” more or less disappeared into the ether and was seldom even performed by the band live.

So, if you’re a fan of Ireland’s biggest band, top o’ the mornin’ to ya and take a moment to give a thanks to the brewery called Harp and a man called McGuinness from the land of Guinness.

March 16 – And U2 Make 12?

Everyone’s likely seen some half-decent bar bands in their day, but how many people get to see decent bar bands that go onto become the biggest act in the world? Well, on this day in 1981, about a dozen did, if you believe the entertainment urban legend, because that’s supposedly how many people were in attendance for a show by U2 in Anaheim, California.

The Irish lads had put out their debut album, Boy, a few months earlier and were touring far and wide to promote it. After playing some shows on their own side of the Atlantic in the fall of 1980, they did a quick tour of the northeastern states (and Toronto, Canada, a city they’d play three times on that tour alone) hitting cities like New York, Buffalo and Philadelphia in December but came back in early 1981 for a bigger North American tour. They started that set at the Bayou in Washington DC on March 3, and before wrapping it up on May 31 in Bruce Springsteen’s old stomping grounds of Asbury Park, NJ, had criss-crossed the continent playing an array of cities like Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, San Jose, Vancouver and more. The shows in Canada seemed to pay off – the album had risen to #4 on the charts there. Stateside however, while the album got a bit of notice, it was a slower process. Boy peaked at #63 on Billboard, and Rolling Stone only reviewed it in April, about six months after its release and after the bulk of this tour. (The magazine gave it a 3.5 out of 5 star rating, by the way, calling “I Will Follow” a “beguiling, challenging, perfect single” but noting that some of the other songs of “bass-heavy trance pop ramble without resolution.”)

On March 15, they played L.A., where radio station KROQ had been playing the lead single, “I WIll Follow” to death, in the words of one fan. The following night, Monday, March 16, they played a few miles away in the suburb of Anaheim at the Woodstock Concert Theater, which was really from all accounts a somewhat grubby bar, with a large pool table in the middle of the dance floor. Mike Muckenthaler worked the door of the club back then and told U2gig.com that it was largely used for heavy metal shows, especially after fans at a Social Distortion show got rowdy and turned management there against “punk.” U2 got booked, along with local opening acts Radio Music and Second Wind (“rock ballady in a Foreigner way” recalls Michael Marsh), largely because the owners of the club thought they would be kind of like A Flock Of Seagulls – new wave light.

So, we have a little known Irish band with one song on one radio station playing a major city Sunday, followed by a bar in a suburb on Monday. The Monday before St. Patrick’s Day no less. Not exactly the formula for drawing a big crowd! And so, the legend goes, the bar which could fit 400 held exactly 12 people to see U2 that night.

The legend may be partly myth, but it’s not too far off reality. Muckenthaler, who was working there and still has a flyer from it (admission: $3) recalls that there were indeed only a dozen “paid tickets.” However, the local acts and their roadies got to bring in friends, so there were more people there who didn’t pay, ones who were “comped” or on “guest lists”. LeRoy Lucian estimates there were 100 people there in total, Muckenthaler says the number was considerably fewer than that. What all seem to agree upon was that it was a dynamite, short set, with the boys playing “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” a second time in the show for an encore. A U2 fansite counted a total of only 20 different songs played during the entire tour – they were promoting their first record, remember. But what it lacked in quantity was made up for in quality. “It was like seeing the Doors at the Whiskey in the ’60s, before they took off,” Muckenthaler enthuses.

So it must have been, and so a dozen, maybe three or four dozen people got to experience something millions of fans would give their eye teeth to see only a few years later – U2 playing a small stage, in a bar small enough to buy a round for them – and everyone else! Two years later, they hit the singles chart in a big way with “New Year’s Day” and the rest as they say, is history. While the Woodstock, at the corner of Knott and Ball, ended up being replaced with a storage unit facility, U2’s career did not crumble. Fast forward three decades and you get to U2’s “360 Tour”, the most profitable tour in music history, grossing about $736 million dollars over 110 shows. The average attendance of those concerts: 66 110…give or take a couple on the “guest list.”! 

*** We’re going to be doing something a little different tomorrow… we’ll be having a post about a great, under-rated band from our friend Max at Power Pop Blog and meanwhile, we have a post about why music matters on his site. We hope you’ll check them both out and enjoy. ***

February 28 – Third Time Was The Charm For U2

With a title that seems eerily relevant still today, U2 found “third time’s the charm” on this day with the release of their third album, War this day in 1983. It quickly became their most-successful to date and helped them announce their presence in a big way on this side of the Atlantic.  It may not be too much of a stretch to say it not only turned around their career, it may have saved it.

After a promising start with 1980’s Boy, they followed up with a flat-out disappointing and problem-ridden (things like Bono losing the whole lyric script around when they were going into the studio) sophomore effort, October, that few seemed to like that much. October. That album had charted lower in their homeland than the debut, failed to even crack the charts in Canada after getting to #4 with Boy and outside of Ireland had failed to generate what could be considered a “hit” single. So forgettable was it that the NME , while panning this record, failed to even consider October when comparing it to their past efforts while Rolling Stone just called it “glib” in their upbeat review of this third album.

War was recorded in their hometown of Dublin in late-’82, the year of, among other things the Falkland Islands War. Bono describes the mindset of putting the album together : “everywhere you looked, from the Falklands to the Middle East to South Africa, there was war.” Not to mention the ongoing civil war (no matter what it might have been officially dubbed as) between the Protestant north and Catholic south in their Ireland.

The central theme and focus helped make War powerful, so too did the improving musicianship of the quartet. And a wee bit of expanding their reach. For instance, The Edge (who said he was channeling anger and self-loathing because of a rocky period with his girlfriend into the rockers) pulled out a slide guitar in places, played bass on their soon-to-be concert staple “40” and sang the opening to “Red Light”. That one, inspired by Bono’s unhappiness with prostitution, brought to the forefront when they visited Amsterdam, was unusual and catchy with some horns added in and background voices of Kid Creole’s “Coconuts”. Those ladies just happened to be in Ireland at the same time and producer Steve Lillywhite knew them so figured “why not?”

The standouts on the record however, were appropriately enough the trio of singles: “New Year’s Day”, “Two Hearts Beat As One” and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (which technically wasn’t released as a single in many countries but was played as one on radio.) The cumulative effect was to give them their biggest commercial and critical success to that point. The album was their first to hit #1 in the UK, knocking Michael Jackson’s Thriller out of the way in doing so, and getting to #4 in Canada and #12 in the U.S., where it’s currently 4X platinum. Overall, sales were better than triple what October had done. Of course, it was only a hint of the heights they’d soar to later in the decade.

While not every British critic was blown away by it, most American ones were and now, almost all see it as one of the high-water marks of new wave/post-punk. Rolling Stone, for example at the time rated it 4-stars, saying “their songs hustle along with the sort of brusque purposefulness more frequently associated with punk” (all the more resonant when considering the rather upbeat, lightweight pop on much of The Clash’s Combat Rock out around the same time). Later on, the magazine would rank it among the 500 greatest albums of all-time and as the fourth best U2 album, noting “impressive listening but more impressive, it deals with a difficult subject matter in a sensible way.” Words that would come to be a hallmark of the band over the following three decades, as it turns out.

January 1 – The Song For The Day

In 1983, appropriately enough U2 released the song named for the day on New Year’s Day!

The first single off their War album came out on Jan.1 and ushered in the era of major worldwide success for Bono and Co. As Rolling Stone put it, when listing it among their 500 greatest songs of all-time, it “lifted them out of the rock underground for good.” It also became their first top 10 hit in the UK and the first to chart at all in the U.S. (although it only got to #53 there, which seems rather remarkable now). It, along with “Sunday Bloody Sundayhelped War sell triple what either of its predecessors did.

The anthemic song is a live favorite of the band and fans to this day, and has The Edge taking an unusual place at the piano. Strangely enough, although the song began as a love song by Bono for his wife, it diverged into a strong political statement about the Polish Solidarity movement and jailed union-organizer Lech Walesa. Incredibly, as Bono told Rolling Stone later, “when we’d recorded the song, they (Polish government) announced that martial law would be lifted on New Year’s Day! Incredible!” It is, as is the single. 

We wish all of you a very happy, healthy and musical new year! Thanks for being here and reading.

November 20 – Twas The Season For Cranberries

Just in time for Thanksgiving, The Cranberries were dished up for the first time here . The Irish quartet hit the U.S. top 40 for the first time on this day in 1993 with perhaps their best song, “Linger.”

The song had been written, in an alternate form, by guitarist Neil Hogan early on in the band’s formative days, back when the singer was someone called Niall Quinn. He soon left, they opted for the diminutive sprite Dolores O’Riordan as singer and the rest is history.

She soon re-wrote the lyrics, drawing on a real life heartbreak she’d had when her soldier boyfriend had cheated on and dumped her. Surprisingly, she still termed the song a love song and said she liked that it took her back to a time of innocence.

The track was one of three they recorded in 1990 for a demo tape which got the attention of fellow Irish group U2’s label, Island. They re-recorded it for their debut album, the alternative classic with the longwinded title, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? . O’Riordan explained the title: “Elvis wasn’t always ‘Elvis’. He became Elvis. As did Michael Jackson and so forth. I thought, (so) we were born in a random place,(referencing Elvis’ origins in Tupelo and Jackson’s in the dreary Chicago suburb of Gary) why shouldn’t we be successful as well?”. In time they would be!

The initial single, “Dreams” didn’t do much of anything for them (wait you say, wasn’t that a hit too? Well, yes it was two years after its initial release, months after “Linger”) but this one with the longing lyrics and angelic voice caught everyone’s ear. It ended up making it to #1 in their homeland as well as Britain, and up to #4 in Canada. In the all-important U.S. market, it would “linger” on the charts (19 weeks on the top 40) and eventually climb to #8. It was their one and only gold single in the States. Praise flowed like Guinness at a Dublin pub for the song and the multi-octave, “arresting voice” which the L.A. Times considered “the driving instrument in this beautifully-understated debut.”

The Cranberries were one of the biggest-selling acts of the ’90s as we know, but wound down considerably in this century. They actually re-recorded “Linger” in 2016 with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on an album called Something Else, which tragically ended up being one of the last recordings made by O’Riordan who died accidentally in 2018 .

The band had some unreleased songs which were put out in 2019 as In the End, but no longer exist as an ongoing entity. They issued a statement saying “The Cranberries was the four of us. There’s no reason to do it without Dolores.”

November 18 – The Other Irish Lads With A #1 Hit

Cor’ blimey, what’s this world coming to?” One might imagine a lot of Brits with delicate sensibilities were asking that this day in 1978, as a punk rock song hit #1 in jolly ol’ England for the first time. Although some might suggest it wasn’t very “punk” at all. But there was no denying it was Irish in origin, which also was a first-ever in Britain. If the song itself seemed miles removed from the thrashing noise of say, the Sex Pistols, the band name seemed as threatening – the Boomtown Rats. The song was “Rat Trap.”

The Boomtown Rats had been around a couple of years by this point and had a huge following at home in Eire, and a growing one across the channel in the UK. “Rat Trap” was off their second, and most successful album, Tonic for the Troops. Interestingly the band produced the record with none other than Mutt Lange. Lange was far from a household name at that point, although he’d take some steps in that direction the following year working with AC/DC and producing Highway to Hell. The band was a six man operation, but clearly was the vehicle for Bob Geldof to express himself musically. He was not only the singer, but the sole writer of the majority of their tunes, including this one. Mind you, while there were six members, the album was really the work of a seven-man band. Saxaphonist Alan Holmes figured prominently into this and several other tracks, and came with a fine pedigree. In the early-’60s he’d toured with Gene Vincent and Little Richard, he hung out with the Beatles (playing sax on “Good Morning, Good Morning” for instance) and playing on a number of Kinks albums in the ’70s. Holmes’ not being an official member left him off-stage for the band’s appearance on Top of the Pops, so Geldof mimed the sax parts… with a candelabra. Apparently the musicians’ union wouldn’t let him pick up a sax on camera as “obviously I hadn’t done so on the record.”

While the song perhaps has some of the grim imagery of punk, it seems to hold out a bit of hope for the subject, Billy, to “put on the bright suit” and “head for the right side of town” and away from the seedy “Rat Trap” part of the city he lived in. Geldof says he wrote it “in the abattoir (where he had worked) in 1973, two years before the ‘Rats were around.” With the grimy but upbeat urban lyrics, tinkling piano of Johnnie Fingers and all that sax, the song reminded many, including Rolling Stone, of a Bruce Springsteen song. That publication found the album “inventive and melodically forceful” but far too “wiseass” lyrically, making them a campy and “classy version of the Tubes” , but selected this as one of the two worthwhile songs on it.

Rat Trap” knocked “Summer Nights” from Grease from the top spot in the UK – note the ripping up of Olivia and John pictures on Top of the Pops – and spent two weeks at #1 before Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” came along. It got to #2 in their homeland, Ireland, but was largely ignored elsewhere… unlike their next single. “I Don’t Like Mondays” again hit #1 in Britain, as well as Ireland and finally broke them into the North American market in a big way. Which would have made Geldof happy. Soon after he told the NME, “I wanted to be famous, because I wanted to use the fame to talk about things that bothered me.” And that he did only a few years later!

October 12 – That ‘October’, 40 Years Ago

It’s frequently mentioned that “sophomore” albums rarely match up to the initial one they follow. After all, the artists have theoretically had all their lives to put together the first batch of songs, than are often pressured to come up with a new album’s worth in a year or less. Frequently while also touring week in, week out, to promote the debut. It’s a challenge for the best of groups…and U2 is among the best. But they had difficulties following up their great 1980 entry, Boy. The result was October, which came out 40 years ago today, in 1981.

The then-young Irish lads had those issues to contend with plus a couple more unique to them. First off, all of them except Adam Clayton were quite deeply religious and were having conflicted emotions about mixing that with the idea of being rock musicians. Bono tried to address that somewhat by coming up with some big, religious -tinged songs like “Rejoice” and “With A Shout (Jerusalem)”. The closest thing to a hit single on the record, “Gloria” has part of a psalm, sung in Latin, in the chorus. Which may or may not have been Bono’s original plan…leading to the other problem they had.

Months into the preparation stage for the album, they’d gotten quite a few songs written and close to ready. Unfortunately, Bono carried around the lyrics in a briefcase, presumably so he could jot down new thoughts or edit existing ones while on the road. Unfortunate because the case disappeared from backstage one night while they were playing in Portland, Oregon, close to the end of their first American tour. Although they’d got one track (“Fire”, the first single) already recorded during a brief stay at Island Records’ Bahamas studio, the rest was waiting to be done. And with studio time already booked back in Dublin and in-demand producer Steve Lillywhite returning to work with them on it, there was no option of postponing it. They had to basically wing it.

I remember writing lyrics on the mic. At 50 pounds an hour (approximately $500 an hour now), that’s quite a lot of pressure. Lillywhite was pacing up and down the studio…he coped really well,” Bono later recalled. “The irony about that is there’s a sense of peace about the album, even though it was recorded under that pressure.” Suggestions abound that the album might have sounded quite different if that briefcase had stayed closed and stayed put in Portland.

What it did was build on the sound they created on the debut. There was still a lot of Edge’s guitar being the building block of most songs, but there was a bit more echo and delay being built in to it. And the Edge got to play piano on several tracks. They even brought in bagpipes for “Tomorrow,” an emotional piece about Bono’s mom’, “ death and funeral. What there wasn’t was a song as instantly-catchy as “I Will Follow”, the song that got them noticed from the previous record. Rolling Stone at the time graded it 3-stars, suggesting the guitar work was fine “drenched in echo and glory” but Bono was too serious. Furthermore, while they acknowledged the kids’ efforts at expanding sonically, “none of the strategies work as well yet as their basic power trio dynamics.” Melody Maker noted “their whole musical sensibility is shaped by a strong emotional bond to their homeland and its traditions,” something that doubtless declined through the decade as they became more popular and citizens “of the world.” Later reviews would remain similarly ambiguous. Entertainment Weekly, for example gave it a “B” years later, calling it “ambitious” but “erratic.”

The public were equally ambivalent. The lead single, “Fire” was a #4 hit in their homeland (Ireland) but didn’t get much notice outside of the British Isles; “Gloria” was a top 10 there too and a #15 hit in New Zealand but didn’t chart in North America despite decent levels of airplay on some college stations. Overall, the album did OK in a few lands…the UK for example, where it hit #11 – better than Boy – and went platinum, but not so well in many others. It didn’t make the charts at all in Canada after a surprising #4 showing from the previous one; in the States it’s their only studio album to this day to have missed the top 100. In the end though, it was a stepping stone towards greater records, which started arriving soon with their third album, War. 

October 3 – People Picked Cranberries

People were picking cranberries 27 years ago…at the record store at least! Irish band The Cranberries put out their second album, No Need To Argue on this day in 1994.

the quartet of singer Dolores O’Riordan, bassist Mike Hogan and his brother Noel on guitars with drummer Fergal Lawler had risen to international stardom in the previous year and a half with their debut, Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? and its hits “Linger” and “Dreams.” Their sound – melodic pop-by-way-of-jangly-alt-rock with Dolores’ multi-octave warble – was distinctive and popular, so neither they nor Island Records saw much need to change it up by very much. They brought back producer Stephen Street and had Dolores write most of the lyrics, as before. They did go to New York to put down some demos, but returned to London to record the finished product. Even though it came across rather like a sequel (as allmusic put it)- they even sat on the same sofa for the cover photo – it succeeded because the strongs themselves were varied and as a whole, stronger than the predecessor’s.

The one song which stood out, and was a departure from their earlier sound was the hard-rocking “Zombie”, an angry screed aimed at the IRA who’d been responsible for a bombing the previous year which had killed children. Other than that, there were more melodic tunes about romance, family, life in general and Irish poet W.B. Yeats.

Although one standout song on it is called “The Icicle Melts”, No Need to Argue didn’t exactly melt all the critics hearts upon its arrival. Rolling Stone gave it a mediocre 2.5-stars and closer to their home, the NME rated it only 4 out of 10. Entertainment Weekly were a little kinder, giving it a “B”. They noted it “thrives on the same Celtic flourishes and pretty, rambling arrangements” as the first album but “Noel’s guitar barks a little louder.” Later reviews would look at it more fondly. Q and allmusic both graded it 4-stars down the road, with the latter thinking “Zombie” was a miss (“the heavy rock trudge isn’t immediately suited for the band’s strengths”) but songs like “Ode to My Family” were among the band’s best. Immortal reviews noted Dolores “helped voice the struggle of a whole country” and “helped bring to light what the culture of Ireland was.”

Cultural travelogue or not, people loved it far and wide. Four hit singles came from it, “Zombie”, “Ode to My Family”, “Ridiculous Thoughts” and “I Can’t Be With You.” The “trudging” “Zombie” actually was their only #1 song ever in Australia and at #3 in their homeland, tied for their biggest hit there. It also put them on top of American alternative rock charts for the first time. The album itself hit #1 in Australia and Canada, #3 in the UK and Ireland and #6 in the U.S. It was multi-platinum almost everywhere, including 7X that in the States. In Canada, it won the Juno Award for the overall best-selling album of the year 1995. Billboard reports it is still among the 100 top-sellers ever, with over 17 million copies.

October 1 – U2 Fired Off An Unforgettable Hit

All we had to do was keep doing what we were doing and we would have become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin,” Bono declared looking back on U2 in the mid-’80s. Their fanbase and reputation was growing steadily through their first three albums. Yet, he adds “something just didn’t feel right. We felt we had more dimension…something unique to offer.” Thus instead of writing nine or ten more straight-ahead rockers and recording them in a modern studio to follow up War, they wanted to shake things up every which way. The result was The Unforgettable Fire, released this day in 1984.

Shake things up they did. For starters, as much as they liked Steve Lillywhite, the talented producer they were used to working with, they wanted someone with new ideas. They talked to Rhett Davies, who’d just done Roxy Music’s atmospheric Avalon but they didn’t really hit it off, so they turned to Eno (curiously enough a former member of Roxy Music, pre-Avalon.) Bono said something like “we knew what was right about our band, we needed someone to tell us what was wrong.” Eno was a good choice for that. He was in fact, not especially impressed with U2 at that point. But when he talked to Bono, he was charmed and liked the talk of changing gears. He agreed to record with them, and brought along his friend Daniel Lanois to be an engineer (Lanois took on more responsibility as time went by and became a co-producer.) And the first thing they decided was that they needed somewhere new to work, so they ended up in an old Irish castle where they did most of the recording through the summer of ’84.

The final result was a change indeed, although listeners wouldn’t have known it right away. The first single, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” wasn’t that different than the previous rock singles they’d been known for, even if Chrissie Hynde was adding her voice in the background. It rocked and was about a suitably socio-political subject – Martin Luther King Jr. Likewise, the album title refers to the bombing of Hiroshima in WW2, a very suitable follow-up to War. But that was about as far as the parallels would go.

While some of the other songs did tackle weighty subjects (“Bad” for example, was about heroin, which at the time was a scourge on their hometown of Dublin, as Bono would often tell crowds) the sound was decidedly more ambient, less frantic and less predictable than prior work…as one might expect when Eno enters the picture. He brought in a string section to compliment the title track for instance, and while it might have been somewhat about Japan and the war, the lyrics “don’t tell you anything”, Bono admits.

The result was an album that was at once recognizable yet utterly different for the fans. Critics weren’t sure what to make of it. Rolling Stone particularly didn’t like the new direction, giving it 3-stars but calling the title “perversely suggestive” since they thought the band “flickered and nearly floundered” amidst the “soggy” music. The NME was more positive, saying “the old four-square rock unit has been deconstructed. In its place there’s a panoramic soundscape, multiple textures.”

Fans took to it though. “Pride” became their biggest hit to that point, hitting #3 in the UK, topping New Zealand charts and being their first top 40 in the U.S. The second single, “The Unforgettable Fire” became their first #1 hit in their home of Ireland. The album itself was their second #1 in Britain and made #5 in Canada, #12 in the U.S.

Strangely, it was the first of their records to be put on 8-track tape, by then a dying format – indicative of their label’s belief in them and desire to get them into as many ears as possible. When all was said and done, The Unforgettable Fire sold similar amounts as War. It was 3X platinum in North America, double-platinum in the UK.

Of course, retrospectively, the album’s great tracks (like “Pride”, the title and “A Sort of Homecoming”) stand out well, some of the others have become irrelevant (anyone still listen to “Elvis Presley and America” these days?) but the album was a landmark. The different sounds, the ambient flourishes, the subject matter touching on the U.S., the collaboration with Eno and Lanois, even the ephereal infrared B&W photography on the cover all set the stage for the follow-up megahit, The Joshua Tree.

As it turns out, they managed to become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin… doing things differently.