With their third album War in early 1983, U2 fully arrived on the international music scene and has remained on the top echelon ever since. A commercial success for the band, the album topped the U.K. charts and reached #12 in the U.S. Further, it found the band forging their definitive sound for the first time under the guidance of producer Steve Lillywhite, who introduced the band some new recording techniques. Among these was the incorporation of a “click track” to keep perfect time, an idea that drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. was initially against. However, he did relent and the album ended up being a real showcase for Mullen.
The album got its title from the band’s perception of the world at the time, or as lead vocalist Bono put it; “War seemed to be the motif for 1982.” The title was also a concerted effort by the band to branch out into “heavier” theme, as they felt that critics had taken the music from their first two albums, Boy and October, lightly. Being an Irish band, U2 was in a unique position to address the troubles in Northern Ireland, and hit that head on with this album. Still, U2 was cognizant that such heavy themes could backfire with mainstream listeners, so they also worked hard to compose melodic and more direct tunes.
Lead guitarist The Edge uses far less delay and echo than previously and experiments with differing guitar textures throughout, adding to the overall sonic atmosphere of passion. As a counter-balance, bassist Adam Clayton provides the “glue” musically with simple, strong, and direct bass lines. With these carefully balanced dynamics, U2 found their formula for success throughout the rest of the decade.
War by U2
|Released: February 28, 1983 (Island)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite
Recorded: Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, May 17–August 20, 1982
|Sunday, Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Like a Song…
Two Hearts Beat As One
|Bono – Lead Vocals
The Edge – Guitars, Piano, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr. – Drums
Although all songs on War are credited to the entire group, in reality certain tunes were largely composed by individuals. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” was composed by The Edge, and has remained one of the most indelible tunes of the band’s career. From its opening martial drumbeat, featuring a heavy hat and beat by Mullen to the simple, raw guitar variations accompanied by some strategic violin by guest Steve Wickham, the song is a unique musical experience. Add the passionate vocals (including some great backing vocals by The Edge), which describe the Bloody Sunday events of 1972, and you have a rock and roll classic.
The other popular “hit” from the first side, “New Year’s Day”, was originally written by Bono as a love song to his new bride but later morphed into an ode to the Polish Solidarity movement. Clayton’s distinctive bass line drives the song while The Edge alternates between the signature piano line and several guitar textures, including an actual rock guitar lead. Overall, the song portrays a great atmosphere with the optimistic fantasy of unity and theme of starting over, and became the group’s first Top Ten single in England.
The rest of side one contains solid tracks which compliment each other nicely. “Seconds” contains another wild beat by Mullin above a strummed acoustic guitar. Although a little unfocused and a bit busy, the song is original and entertaining. “Like a Song…” sticks to the formula on the first side, although it does get pretty intense as it progresses. “Drowning Man” is acoustic and haunting – almost jazzy – with trance electric guitars above strummed acoustic and deeper sounding vocals by Bono.
The best pure pop song on album (and perhaps of any early-era U2) is “Two Hearts Beat as One”. While still just slightly unfocused and edgy, this tune is held together by the superior composition and pure performance by the whole band, especially Bono on vocals. A propulsive bass line by Clayton and a fantastic counter-melody by The Edge during the chorus push this song to the top level of any U2 classic. The song became a hit in several nations as well as a rare staple of the dance floor for U2. “The Refugee”, on its surface is a new wave motif, almost to the point of absurdity. Yet it is still oddly entertaining based mainly on the odd guitar textures by The Edge.
The album’s closing tracks include a couple featuring the background chorus from the group The Coconuts. “Red Light” is the closest to a pure rock song on this album, with Bono singing in more contemporary manner and more rock-oriented guitar riffing, a sound that U2 would morph towards in the future, starting with Achtung Baby in the early 1990s. “Surrender” is danceable, almost post-disco and could be a decent pop song in its own right with rapid verse lyrics and sustained chorus. The album concludes with “40”, which was written and recorded right at the end of the sessions, allegedly in less than an hour. With Clayton having already left the studio, The Edge plays both the electric and bass guitar, while Bono based the lyrics on Psalm 40 from the Bible.
U2 toured relentlessly in support of War, starting in December 1982 (prior to the album’s release) through most of 1983. The tour spawned a concert film Live at Red Rocks and an accompanying EP, Under a Blood Red Sky, which further increased the band’s exposure and live appeal.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1983 albums.