February 7, 2013

30 Years of War

This month marks the 30th anniversary of U2's album War.

[I'll pause a moment to to let that set in...]

1983 was a crucible year for popular music; Punk was dead, New Romanticism was waning and ultimately morphing into Synthpop, and New Wave was emerging.

There were records released in 1983 that would become iconic by the decade's end such as Synchronicity (The Police), and Murmur (R.E.M.), as well as solid releases from Duran Duran, The Cure, The Eurythmics, Madonna, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Billy Idol, and Culture Club that would birth some of the most beloved singles of that huge shoulder pad and large-framed glasses era. Of course, many of those same songs would now be regarded by some as vapid epic cheese. Alas...

For their part, U2 released their distinctive third album in 1983. Coming off the commercial, and somewhat artistic, disappointment that was October (1981), U2 were still hungry for the chart-topper and to live up to the promise so brilliantly displayed in their debut album, Boy (1980). As Niall Stokes so elegantly summarizes in the liner notes of the 25th anniversary remastered album, the early 1980s marked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, the Falklands Islands crisis, the actions against the Solidarity movement in Poland, and, of course, the ongoing "Troubles" in Northern Ireland with the corresponding IRA bombings in the U.K.

Looking out at the world U2 replied with War. Bono was quoted in Hot Press Magazine as saying "We wanted an album that would separate us from our contemporaries".  And yet, although written with an anti-pop sentiment the album would ultimately be propelled by two massive pop-rock hits in "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Of course, these songs were not the bubblegum pop of many of their peers. They were pop, for sure, but with a solid progressive rock core.

War is, in my opinion, an album with two epic songs ("Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day"), one really great song ("Two Hearts Bleed as One") and another gem ("Drowning Man") that deserved far, far more attention than it ever received. And all U2 fans adore "40", although that is primarily concert-related, as it was the closing song for their live shows for many years. Outside of the live context "40" has nowhere near the same power, as any U2 concert bootlegger can attest, if they are being honest.

For all of its power and bombast, I never listen to War front-to-back. It certainly has a very strong A-side but it also has a rather weak B-side. "The Refugee" and "Red Light" are almost painful to hear. "Surrender" begins with promise only to be ruined by corny back-up singers and a cowbell. To my taste their oft-maligned "Christian rock" sophomore album October is a superior listening experience. Indeed, "40" sounds like a holdover from the October recording sessions.

Not to take anything away from War, its place among the albums of 1983, and its important role as a milestone in U2's development. It was an important arrival for the band but also an end-point. After the welcome release of the live mini-album Under a Blood Red Sky later in 1983, which featured songs from the War tour, U2 went away and began sowing the seeds for U2 Version 2.0. That evolution would, of course, result in The Unforgettable Fire (1984). But that's another story; one I will share in 2014.

Until then, enjoy this marvellous clip from the concert album Under a Blood Red Sky.

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