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How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

u2On November 22, four years since their All That You Can't Leave Behind album revived the market for rock music and the topped charts in 32 countries, Island Records release U2's 11th studio album. Its title: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.       

Recorded over 18 months in Dublin and the South Of France, it sees U2 primed for the future. Built on classic Edge guitar riffs and haunted by the passing of Bono's father in 2001, the album captures the band in blistering form. The lead track Vertigo has already topped charts around the world, and sold more in a week than any download in US history.  

From the beginning, U2 were marked out by their drive. A band before we could play conceded Bono in early interviews, they formed in 1978 after Larry Mullen pinned a musicians wanted ad to the notice board at Temple Mount School in Dublin. Inspired by punk, but insulated from the movements standoffish code of cool by the Irish Sea, Bono, Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton built a local reputation based on the passion of their performances. Even so, an early Irish release, the U23 EP on CBS in 1979, proved a one-off, and they would wait until the following year to sign a longterm deal with Chris Blackwells Island Records, releasing their first widely available single, the anxious post-punker 11 OClock Tick-Tock  in May 1980.       

In collaboration with producer Steve Lillywhite, a trio of albums followed. Boy (1980), October (1981) and War (1983) showcased a band growing in confidence and songcraft, and while U2 struggled to reconcile the liberal politics, evangelical Christianity and rocknroll spirit that raged within, the results were seamless. When War's opening single New Year's Day became their first UK Number 1 hit in March 1983, it seemed U2 had finally found a stage big enough for their epic music. Even their live album, Under A Blood Red Sky, released in November of the same year, entered the Billboard Top 30.        

u2But U2 would get bigger, and so would their sound. Drafting ambient guru Brian Eno and his production protgege Daniel Lanois and setting up camp in the stately ballroom in Dublin's Slane Castle, they wreathed a new batch of songs in gorgeous atmospheres. The Unforgettable Fire album (1984) delivered another massive hit in Pride (In The Name Of Love) and a nine-month tour that took in a mammoth 54 US dates before climaxing with a keynote appearance at Live Aid's Wembley spectacular in July 1985.  

U2 were hypnotised by America, and America was about to return the compliment. Named after the arid, evocative national park outside LA that proved the final resting place of country-rock legend Gram Parsons, 1987's Joshua Tree album applied the Unforgettable Fires sound palette to even better songs and the rewards were instant. With Or Without You and the gospel-flavoured, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, topped the the US singles chart. With grammys for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Performance, the album clocked up 20 million sales.       

U2 were changing, growing more comfortable with their emerging status Bono wrote with Dylan and spoke out for Amnesty International, the Edge penned a score for the Olly Reed movie Captive, while the imperial Joshua Tree tour (89 American dates this time) spawned the movie Rattle & Hum. The album of the film of the tour featured tracks recorded on the hoof, including three at the legendary Sun studio in Memphis under photographs of previous inhabitants Elvis and Johnny Cash. Desire, a pared down boogie with a volcanic Bo Diddley beat, preceded the album in September 1988 to become the band's first British Number 1 single.  

Convinced that this was as far as they went down this particular road, U2 entered the 1990s in flux. Bono and Adam had turned 30, while the relentless touring of the previous decade had frayed everyones nerves. Decamping to Hansa Studios in Berlin to dream it all up again, they fell into two camps  the hats (Bono, The Edge) versus the haircuts (Adam, Larry)  and clashed over influences including acid house, industrial rock and My Bloody Valentine. Out of turmoil came Achtung Baby - a dark, playful record that reinvigorated the band while testing the elasticity of their fans. It was, declared Bono with tongue only half in cheek, the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.       

Enthusiasm for the album grew, out came the dressing-up box and they set about reinventing the rock tour. With a 130-foot video wall juxtaposing 24-hour hard news, shopping channel chaff and bespoke slogans (PUSSY, RACIST, EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG) the Zoo TV tour would make merry with the absurdities of the media age. From the stage via satellite link Bono would visit wartorn Sarajevo, a fans front room in Nottingham and, as tension built in the run up to the 1992 Presidential Election, lodge messages with the Bush White House. Between February 1992 and December 1993 the Zoo concept would play a staggering 162 shows, and, as Helena Christensen and Christy Turlington cavorted backstage, lend U2 an unprecedented whiff of glamour.     

u2In the middle of Zoo's European leg they recorded the haunting Zooropa (1993). They persuaded Johnny Cash to sing a song on it, The Wanderer. Passengers: Original Soundtracks I a collection of pieces inspired by 14 art movies featured a star turn by Luciano Pavarotti. Crowning this heady period, Pop (1997) cloaked its heavy lyrical payload in state-of-the-art dance rhythms produced in collusion with DJ Howie B. And no sooner had they finished it than U2 were on the road again, taking the dayglo PopMart tour to South America and Sarajevo where the thumping rave-rock of Mofo and Discothque thrilled a new generation of U2 fans.  

At this stage, 20 years into their lifespan, U2 would have been forgiven for seeking the quiet life, perhaps taking advantage of their recently acquired status as Freemen Of Dublin to graze sheep on the citys Stephens Green. Outside of the group, dance music, hip hop and R&B had stolen rocks thunder. Even if U2 fancied the challenge, it wouldnt be easy to steal it back.       

Into this came 2000's All That You Can Leave Behind, a record about fidelity and hope tested to the limit. It played by the new rules of chart pop (Spice Girls producer Biff Stannard contributed), but revived the epic, ringing guitars of the War era (Steve Lillywhite was back too). Its reward was to be seven Grammys and ten and a half million sales, while the 113-date, emotionally changed Elevation tour that came in its wake took $110 million the third highest grossing ever.  

In 2004, Bono lobbies the G8 and the White House over the AIDS crisis in Africa and speaks at the Party Conferences on the blight of world poverty. More remarkably, after 26 years U2 are in one piece and making the music of their lives. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb places them squarely in the centre of things. If youre U2, its the only place to be.

U2 - Atomic: Then and Now
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