When U2 Aimed Big on Third Album, ‘War’
U2 had been building toward War since their first album, Boy, was released three years earlier in 1980.
That debut set the stage for one of the planet's biggest and best bands by tying its post-punk musical attack into a loosely structured concept album about innocence and idealism. It's a formula that served the quartet well over the years but was still in its nascent form when U2 started recording their third album, War, during the latter part of 1982.
Their previous album, 1981's October, tried to do for religion what Boy did for childhood: namely, distill the core essence of a single theme into a bigger, bolder statement for fans whose listening habits leaned closer to Sex Pistols and the Clash than those you'd normally associate with kids and spiritual matters.
But October sounded flat and hollow, and just a little on the preachy and pretentious side as the band tightened Boy's sharpest corners and, in essence, dulled its sound to a colorless blur of ringing guitars, overly earnest singing and some Latin thrown in for good measure. War was more or less a reaction to all that ... or at least a blazing return to the fiery punk shapes that inspired the debut.
There was one other thing: War sounded like it was ready for arenas. In a few short years, U2 would be headlining them. Their third album, released on Feb. 28, 1983, is the big reason they got to that point.
Like its predecessors, War was recorded at Windmill Lane Studios in the band's hometown of Dublin and produced by Steve Lillywhite. And like U2's first two albums, the third LP centers itself on a theme: In this case, as the record's title boldly declares, the 10 songs are about war. From the martial drums that usher in the opening song, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," to the final hymn-like prayer that drifts through the closing "40," War aims big.
In between those bookends, U2 form the template that became the basis for their signature sound: big, declarative, arena-shaking ... and just a little bit heavy-handed. Everything that made them stadium-filling stars in the next decade is here; so is ammunition for the band's detractors – from Bono's self-serious proclamations to the way the songs carry themselves as the definitive word on their subjects.
Watch U2 Perform 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'
Still, there's no denying the power of War's overall reach. The album's best songs – "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," "Two Hearts Beat as One" – helped shape the direction rock music was headed in the '80s. The Edge's stabbing guitars influenced a generation of guitarists looking to add some gravitas to their playing. Bono's soaring vocals did the same for singers and the songs themselves raised a political consciousness that still resonates in music today.
Even the smaller moments – like the American Dream quest that runs through "The Refugee" – point to the larger themes U2 pursued on subsequent albums. There's a roughness here that became more polished and nuanced later. You can still hear the band's punk roots running through the tracks, and they give those jagged guitars and Bono's world-conquering vocals a ragged charm that fits the record's theme.
War became the first U2 album to crack the Top 40 (it made it to No. 12), thanks to the constant exposure the band received from MTV's full-force embrace throughout 1983. The live record culled from performances on the career-making tour in support of War, Under a Blood Red Sky, helped seal their image and legacy when it was released in November. MTV was all over that too, airing clips of Bono already in total command of the stage and his persona.
From here, things got bigger, better and more complex. The following year's The Unforgettable Fire took them into new sonic landscapes, which led to The Joshua Tree and then Achtung Baby.
When it all got too big and too busy and just too much, U2 tried to scale back to what they first achieved on War. But a record like this comes only once in a great band's lifetime: when they're hungry and young, and they have nothing to lose. There's no going back to a milestone like this.