Depending on how you look at it, U2’s third album, “War”, was either a beginning or an endpoint. For me, it was really both. As a beginning, it was my continuous listening to this record that initiated my life-long fandom and appreciation for the band. With several highly played and visible hits, the band reached a much broader audience as many of us jumped on the bandwagon. That said, I think this album also represents the end of the simplistic and raw sound that propelled the band to initial fame. Also produced by Steve Lillywhite, this is the last album before they changed producers and greatly expanded on their sound, never to look back again. For those who only know U2 in their current state, I often encourage them to check out their roots from this simple beginning.
That isn’t to say that “War” isn’t also a step forward, because it certainly is. The overall quality of the songwriting and performance builds notably over “Boy” and “October”, and they had three highly appreciated singles that serve as the foundation of this album. The record opens with the militant anti-war song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Based on the continued violence in Northern Ireland, this was the most overt attempt to date for Bono to insert himself in the middle of a challenging political issue; it most certainly wouldn’t be the last. “New Year’s Day” is probably the most enduring song from the album, with the haunting imagery of the cold and isolation of war, amplified by beautiful piano and guitar from The Edge. “Two Hearts Beat As One” is probably my favorite of the three prominent hits from this record, the intensity of the pace and the driving guitar from The Edge really elevates this track.
As great as those three songs are, what really lifts this record are some of the other lesser-known songs. Sometimes I have to ask myself, do I like them better because I know them more, or do I know them more because I like them better? Perhaps some of both, but there are several other powerhouse songs on this album. “Seconds” is yet another really intense anti-war song that I love, and I love the blast of Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums on “Like A Song…”, accompanied by Bono’s passionate vocals as always.
Two other songs stand out on this record for me. I find that the warming melody of “Surrender” really balances the record, and it may be the prettiest song on the album. The guitar and backing vocals just really blend remarkably well. The last song of the album, which became a consistent set closer, is the song “40”, which is based on the 40th Psalm, from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. It is truly an impactful blend of faith and music. Early in their days, U2 struggled with the choice of music fame or following the passion of their faith, and I love how they chose to blend the two in this song.
And since we mentioned this song as a set closer, we can’t discuss this album without talking about what has to be the most memorable concert I did NOT attend, regretfully. It was June 5, 1983, and I was in 10th grade. Even though it was June, it was a cold and miserable day in Colorado, filled with rain and clouds. The band had been planning this event for months as a concert to perform and film at Red Rocks Amphitheater, pictured on this blog, and the weather was so awful they waited until mid-day before ultimately deciding to perform. Only about half of the fans actually attended, and I will always regret not being there myself. I wasn’t quite far along enough in my discovery of U2 to prioritize this show, but quickly heard from friends who attended what a magical night it was, performing under the light of bonfire and in a misty, mystic, drizzly haze.
If you have ever witnessed the performance of “Under a Blood Red Sky”, you will see both a video and accompanying live album that is truly spectacular in sight and sound. Along with the Beatles’ show in 1964, it is probably the most historic show ever performed at Red Rocks, and one I will always regret not attending, even as I celebrate the greatness of the moment. Taking the best from “War”, along with “Boy and “October”, the band closed the show with “40”, slowly winding down as each member individually left the stage, until only Larry Mullen Jr. was left on the stage pounding out the recurring rhythm to the unison chant of the fans singing “How long, to sing a new song…”. The legend of the band was cemented that night, forever.