January 30 – U2 Won New Fans & Taught A Little History

Today’s music history lesson is a real history lesson, and not a very happy one at that. This was the day of the “Bogside Massacre” in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, aka “Bloody Sunday” which inspired the U2 song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

Most of the island of Ireland, including Dublin (from whence U2 and Guinness beer arose) is a separate country, largely Catholic in nature. However, the island was partitioned in 1921, and Northern Ireland is considered part of Great Britain and is largely Protestant. These differences have caused decades of discontent with tension between the religions and between those who are allied to “Eire” vs. those loyal to the Crown in London. By the late ’60s, a movement had arisen in the north to cut the cord to the UK and join the rest of the island in a united Ireland and violent conflicts had become common. In August, 1971 Britain began a law called “internment without trial” for Northern Ireland, which allowed their police or troops to arrest people simply suspected of being violent or subversive, without charging them. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with the locals and between the time the law was passed and the end of the year, over 30 British troops were killed in street violence there, seven of them in Londonderry (or just “Derry” as the locals know it), the district’s second-largest city. Catholics tended to despise Protestants and vice versa; the British Army were present and essentially at war with the upstart IRA.

All this led to the Civil Rights March planned for this day. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association wanted to protest “internment without trial” and parade from the Catholic “Bogside” area of town to the city’s main public area, Guild Hall Square. The British government was willing to allow the march through the Catholic area of the city but ordered the Army in to prevent the protestors from getting close to the civic square. The day began reasonably well enough, thousands of protestors (estimates vary from 3000 to 30 000) started out calmly enough until they encountered a barricade of Army paratroopers and vehicles blocking their path. the majority of them turned and headed in the direction the government wanted them to, but some confronted the troops… and the bedlam and bloodshed began.

The marchers hurled insults and possibly a few rocks at the armed forces who in turn turned water cannons on and fired tear gas at the “rebels.” Knowing when they were beaten, the protestors turned around and ran away, presumably to rejoin the rest of the marchers. That should have been the end of it, but alas it wasn’t. The Army gave chase, shooting at the retreating mob, in the end hitting 26 of them, 14 fatally. Another pair were run down by the armored vehicles. Later studies showed at least 100 shots were fired by them after Army HQ issued a “ceasefire” order.

The result was inevitable. Violence escalated across Northern Ireland and the violent, terrorist to some, IRA grew immensely in popularity. The British government ordered an inquiry, The Widgery Tribunal, which did find soldiers acted in a way “bordering on the reckless” but essentially exonerated them. However, another investigation they launched in 1998, The Seville Inquiry, took a dozen years to complete but in the end slammed the Army.

It said they “lost control” and “concocted lies in their attempts to hide their acts”, discrediting soldiers’ stories about being fired at first (something no witnesses, including journalists present ever corroborated and was not backed by any physical evidence.) It concluded that those shot weren’t posing “a threat of causing death or serious injury” to the soldiers and said the incident was unjustified. The Londonderry coroner of the day also concurred, saying “it was quite unnecessary… it strikes me the Army ran amok that day and shot people without thinking.”

As a result of the inquiry, Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the British actions.

Not surprisingly, the slaughter enraged many artists too. A number of plays and books have been written about it and only two days after it happened, Paul McCartney had written and recorded a song about it , “Give Ireland back to the Irish.” The BBC promptly banned it.

Also not surprisingly, it had a major impact on the members of U2, who were school kids at the time. The politically-outspoken band wrote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in summer 1982 for their third album, War. The album came out in early 1983 to critical accolades. Rolling Stone suggested “the songs here stand up against anything on The Clash’s London Calling” and gave it a 4 star out of 5 rating and it enhanced their reputation and profile in North America. War went on to be their biggest album to that point, being certified multi-platinum in the US and Canada as well as in the UK. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released as a single in March of that year and while not as big a hit as “New Year’s Day”, it became one of their signature songs. The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame picked it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock’n’Roll” and Time listed it as one of the top ten protest songs of all-time. U2 play it at almost every concert, typically with Bono opening the song by shouting “this is not a rebel song.” Bono apparently re-wrote the original lyrics The Edge had written to make it less specific to the events of the one day. Drummer Larry Mullen explained why in a 1983 interview: “We’re into politics of people, we’re not into politics. People are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying ‘why? what’s the point?’… let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shouting at each other and sit around the table and talk about it.”

That day hasn’t come to fruition yet, but at least Northern Ireland is a calmer place of late. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 acknowledged the differing concepts of what Northern Ireland could be and gave it some level of autonomy as well as the right to secede entirely from Britain if it chose to. The violence of the IRA has largely subsided and been evolved into political discussions so there’s hope there’ll never be a repeat of the events of Bloody Sunday. And perhaps, in a small way, we have U2 to thank for that.

Sometimes rock is more than just music.

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January 1 – An Appropriate Dose Of Irish Optimism To Kick Off ’23

It’s become a New Year’s tradition here in my household, and on A Sound Day. A new year, and let’s ring it off with a great song from 40 (!) years ago – “New Year’s 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 Sunday” helped 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. Bono at one time started lyrics involving his love for his wife Ali, but the song took a different, political tone in the studio. “I must have been thinking about Lech Walesa being interred…we improvise, and the things that came out, I let.” A good thing, as it turns out. 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. I wish you all a happy and healthy, as well as tuneful 2023! . 

December 14 – No Arachnophobia In Pogues Apparently

Happy 64th birthday to Peter “Spider” Stacy, one of three permanent members of The Pogues during their 35 year, on-again, off-again tenure.

While Stacy is English, the Pogues are ferociously Irish. He even suggested the name, The Pogues, taking it from an anglicized version of the Gaelic phrase Pog Mo Thein, (often spelled pogue mahone here) which means basically “kiss my arse!”. He met Shane MacGowan (the usual lead singer) and formed the band around 1981, and they originally planned to share singing duties, but after a few shows MacGowan took the bit and ran with it, so Stacy was assigned backing vocal duties (except for times when MacGowan was a bit too “under the weather” to show up or the couple of years he was fired from his own band, at which times Stacy was again the lead vocalist.) With less singing to do, Stacy learned to play the tin whistle, and once in awhile add to the sound by “banging a pub tray against his head for percussive effect.” While they are decidedly punk in being rough-around-the-edges and having controversial lyrics, their instrumentation is more out of a 19th-century Dublin pub- accordions, whistles, banjos, mandolins, and apparently a few trays! they’ve put out seven studio albums, three of which are gold in the UK plus a greatest hits compilation which went platinum. The biggest of their studio albums was 1988‘s If I Should Fall From Grace With God which went to #3 in Britain…largely due to this, umm, Christmas carol.

The opening line is ‘Christmas Eve in the drunk tank,’” their then-manager points out. “You know you’re not getting an ordinary Christmas song when it starts like that!” The song is “Fairytale of New York”, most definitely not your ordinary Christmas song. But if you’re tired of shopping, pushing and shoving through crowds, forced revelry and ugly sweaters at the office and crass advertising, it might be the perfect antidote to songs about being home for Christmas or cheery reindeer and snowmen.

A call-and-answer kind of duet, it involves a couple, the man in the drunk tank, fighting with/flirting with his wife, whom he at one point calls an “old slut on junk.” She responds by calling him… well something the GLAAD lobby deems pretty incorrect these days!

If it seems unlikely, the fates conspired to make it even more improbable. They were with Stiff Records in 1985, and had the esteemed Elvis Costello producing their record. (Some stories say the song came about when Costello bet MacGowan he couldn’t write a hit Christmas song, but like a lot of things in their history, their memories see a tad foggy!) However, the label ran into a financial iceberg and jettisoned a lot of the cargo, and The Pogues had to find and negotiate another deal. Along the way, Elvis began to like their bassist, Cait O’Riordan a lot, and dislike the rest of the band more. He quit producing the record and Cait quit the band to be with Costello. She was not only the bassist but the intended female half of the intended song. Enter super-producer Steve Lillywhite (who worked wonders years before with another Irish group – U2)… who had a wife who was a great singer/songwriter, Kirsty MacColl. Voila – new voice to play off against MacGowan in the drunk tank! He says of her “Kirsty really made that record. She had the character down perfectly… (and) was a great laugh.”

So the song finally got made and the album released nearly three years after it began. The surprise Christmas song won the bet for MacGowan, if indeed there was one. It rocketed to #2 in Britain (their best showing there) and became their second #1 hit on their home island. However, unlike their first chart-topper, “Fairytale of New York” made the top ten again in 1991… and more recently, has charted as high as #2 again in Ireland come holiday time. Across the Irish Channel, the Brits love it as well and ITV viewers in 2012 voted it the “Nation’s Favorite Christmas Song.”

The Daily Telegraph tried to decipher its appeal. “In careening wildly through a gamut of moods from maudlin to euphoric, sentimental to profane, mud-slinging to sincerely devoted in the space of four glorious minutes, it seemed perfectly suited to Christmas.”

The Pogues are currently broken up or on hiatus, but Stacy and O’Riordan did get them back together briefly for a show in 2018. Currently he lives far away from Eire, in New Orleans, and does some acting on the side when tin whistle talents aren’t in demand.

October 30 – U2 Left Behind ’90s Experimentalism

It was time to put the 20th Century to rest, the U.S. was seeing the Clinton presidency come to its end…and U2 decided to ditch the ’90s as well. Twenty years ago they put out their tenth studio album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, arriving this day in 2000. And while not exactly War redux, it was certainly a return to the basics that made them so popular in the ’80s as opposed to a continuation of the sometimes odd musical experimentation they’d had on the previous trio of albums, Achtung Baby (and mainly) Zooropa and Pop.

Pop took the deconstruction of the rock & roll band format to the nth degree,” guitarist The Edge says, adding they wanted a return to more basic guitar/bass/drums-oriented songs. As well, for the first time in nine years, they went back to the producers they knew well that had delivered the goods for them in the past, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. That pair had guided the band in the studio through their most successful period, from The Unforgettable Fire through Achtung Baby.

The result was an 11 song set that returned to more conventional territory…and to strong praise for the band. While The Edge’s edgy guitars weren’t as blazing as they had been two decades prior, there was no shortage of catchy rock songs exploring a vast array of feelings, from the bold, upbeat lead single, “Beautiful Day” through the frustration of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” to the gentler optimism of “Peace on Earth.” The latter, along with a song entitled “New York” and the cover, apparently showing the band in an airport later had some convinced it was written about the 9/11 attacks…but, seeing as how the record came out almost a year before that, well, that seems improbable!

Critics who’d not necessarily cared for the band’s electronica experiments of the second half of the ’90s generally were impressed. Entertainment Weekly graded it an “A” saying it was “startling” and a “welcome reversal of fortune” for the quartet. Rolling Stone graded it 4-stars and declared it the band’s “third masterpiece” after The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Three years on, they’d rank it among the 200 greatest records of all-time, suggesting it was “full of ecstacy, mourning and release”. Across the sea in the UK, the NME rated it 7 out of 10 and Q posted it as a 4-star release.

Fans agreed. It hit #1 in the UK, the band’s own Ireland, Australia and Canada, where it was their seventh. In the States, it stalled at #3, but still went 4X platinum, contributing to worldwide sales topping 12 million. Strangely, the album’s missing the top spot in the U.S. was probably based on lukewarm response to the singles. “Beautiful Day” only got to #21, and other released missed the top 40 altogether, whereas in Canada, four singles made it to #1: “Beautiful Day”, “Walk On”, “Elevation” (a #1 in Ireland too) and “Stuck in a Moment…” Two of those songs got U2 into the record books, and books about records. “Beautiful Day” won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 2001, and “Walk On” took the same award in ’02, making it the first album to ever launch two “records of the year”. Seems it was a good thing that conventional rock sound was one of the things U2 couldn’t leave behind!

In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the album, U2 are released several new editions of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2020, including heavy vinyl LP versions and CD box sets with photos from Anton Corbijn and a concert DVD from the subsequent tour.

October 2 – It Was Cranberry Picking Season

People were picking cranberries 28 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-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 songs 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.

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.