1982-1983: Ronnie Reagan is president of the US, Maggie Thatcher is prime minister of the UK, Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov is general secretary of the communist party of the Soviet Union. The second Cold War is in full swing, and the media is feeding the public's fear of nuclear war. The Lech Wałęsa-lead Solidarity movement was recently crushed by the Polish communist party, and Poland is under martial law. The USSR continues its attack on Afghanistan. The UK is at war in the southern hemisphere over the Falkland Islands. Unemployment in the US is over 10%, and the Reagan administration is ignoring the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Inflation and unemployment are also high in the UK. And in Ireland, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and other breakaway groups are continuing paramilitary efforts to oust British rule from Northern Ireland.
Pop music in the early 80s seemed to be ignoring world events. The top pop bands in the US and UK were Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Michael Jackson, all making catchy, harmless pop tunes that seemed to clash with what was going on the in world. The best selling single in the US in 1982 was Olivia Newton-John's "Physical," and in the UK it was "Come on Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners. And then in early 1983 four young lads from Ireland went in the opposite musical direction of their contemporaries and released War, which knocked Michael Jackson's Thriller off of the top spot in the UK charts.
U2's War was not only their breakthrough album in terms of sales, but also the start of their political activism which would remain paramount to the band throughout their career. The first track, the now classic "Sunday Bloody Sunday," describes the narrator's disbelief in the events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland in which 27 unarmed protesters were shot by British Troops. The song starts with Larry Mullen's militaristic drum march followed by The Edge's now famous repeating guitar riff. The lyrics were originally written by The Edge with some reworking by Bono. Between the verses and chorus you can hear a shrill electric violin scratching, adding to the intensity of the song. The violinist is Steve Wickham, who approached The Edge at a bus stop and asked if they needed a fiddle on their album. The song ends with the line, "to claim the victory Jesus won," which is Bono's attempt to contrast Bloody Sunday with the hope that Christians find through the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. To this day "Sunday Bloody Sunday" reminds a prominent and important protest song.
Sunday Bloody Sunday.mp3
War was also my first exposure to U2. As a ten year old in central Wisconsin in the spring-summer of 1983, I was blown away by the video for "New Years Day," the third track on the album. I can see my big brown eyes, agape at the television, saying "who is this?" to myself. Fortunately, as my meager allowance did not budget for CD purchases, the Oshkosh Public Library had CDs for loan and I picked up War and Live Under a Blood Red Sky and quickly dubbed them. For me what really drives this song is Adam Clayton's exploding baseline. According to Allmusic.com, Bono wrote this song with the Polish Solidarity movement in mind. This song was the first major hit for U2, peaking at 10 on the UK charts, and two on the US mainstream charts (based on radio airplay), and remains a staple of U2's live set. Although my imagination has the boys riding horseback through snowy Ireland, the video was actually shot in Sweden.
I wanted to embed the "New Years Day" video here, but Universal Music Group has requested that YouTube disable the embedding link. Bastards. Watch the video here.
The second track "Seconds" features The Edge on lead vocals for the first two verses, and another killer baseline by Mr. Clayton. This song is about fear of nuclear proliferation, and the second Cold War. About three quarters through the song you can hear a sample of "I wanna be an Air Force Ranger" from the movie Soldier Girls, a US documentary about women in the military.
And it wouldn't be a U2 album without a grandiose love song. "Two Hearts Beat As One" was the second single released from War (after "New Years Day"), and peaked at number 18 in the UK and 12 in the US, largely due to its disco-infused beat which made it a great track for dance clubs.
Two Hearts Beat As One.mp3
Damn, there are so many great songs on this album, and its sounds just as good today as it did in 1983.
Buy: War (1983, reissued 2008)
Incidentally, the angry little dude on the War album cover is the same lad from the Boy album cover (and the Best of 1980-1990 album cover). Peter Rowen is the younger brother of Bono's friend Guggi , and was eight years old at the time of the War photo shoot. He also appears in the "Two Hearts Beat As One" video. Rowen is now a successful photographer in Dublin. Read a 2006 interview where he talks about his childhood album cover fame. Apparently the band paid the child in candy bars. Cheap bastards.