Born from rage, U2's War was intended to "give people a slap in the face". It ended up making U2 superstars

U2 War
(Image credit: U2 - Aaron Rapoport/CORBIS OUTLINE/Corbis via Getty Images / War artwork - Island Records)

The early '80s proved to be a frustrating time for U2. While hugely positive reviews for the Dubliners' debut album Boy tipped the band for future greatness, their momentum slowed somewhat after the release of 1981's October. While it became the quartet's first Top 40 album in the UK, peaking at number 11, it failed to make much more of an impact than its predecessor elsewhere. 

There were a few reasons for this, the chief one being that October was a much more obtuse and unusual record than Boy. U2’s debut was rough and ready, but still had anthemic moments such as I Will Follow and The Electric Co, and while October started similarly with the drive of Gloria, it was a weirder, more experimental and insular record overall, dominated by jagged post-punk and folk influences. This may have been the result of the minimal amount of time the band had to prepare, with producer Steve Lillywhite calling the recording of the album “completely chaotic and mad”: songs were finished in the studio, with Bono's lyrics often improvised on the spot.  

Ahead of the album's release, U2 played what Bono considers one of their worst ever performances while supporting Thin Lizzy in front of 18,000 music fans at Slane Castle in August '81. The aftermath of October emerging was also far from ideal, with the band aggrieved at the lack of radio play for its singles and what they perceived as a lack of financial support from Island Records. This all fed into an air of deflation around the band. 

The difference between artists that go on to become generationally definitive, and those who fade into obscurity often pivots on how they react to setbacks. U2 chose to go to War.

Having completed the October touring schedule U2 hired a cottage and began to work on material together. There was a brief time away from each other when Bono married his childhood sweetheart Ali and headed off to Jamaica for a honeymoon in August 1982...and even then he spent much of his time composing lyrics, one set, imagined as a love song for his new wife, going on to form the basis of New Year’s Day. The Edge too crafted much of the music for War while away from his bandmates.  

This was a new approach from U2, who usually would rely on jam sessions in the studio for material to come together. There were other changes too. Drummer Larry Mullin Jr. was told by Lillywhite that he should use a click track, something he had been adamantly against in the past, and it wasn’t until the drummer randomly bumped into former Sly & the Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark, who used them religiously, that he backed down. The result fed into the overall sonic feel of War.

“When I listened to the music in time with the click track, I knew I had to bring it down to the real basics,” Mullin told U2 online blog AtU2.

In fact, the entire sound of the band was streamlined, simplified and beefed up, leading to a more hard-hitting record. The Edge’s use of chiming, ringing delay pedals was pared back too to make the songs punchier and more riff driven. U2 were aiming for a blunter album, with Bono describing War as a “slap in the face” to the NME in 1983.

“War seemed to be the motif for 1982,” he said. “Everywhere you looked, from the Falklands to the Middle East to South Africa, there was war. By calling the album War we’re giving people a slap in the face and at the same time getting away from the cozy image a lot of people have of U2.” 

It’s fair to say that War is the moment where U2 really, truly discovered their inner voice of activism through music. Lyrically, much of the album is related to causes that concerned the band. Seconds is about the threat of nuclear war, The Refugee contrasts the experiences of Irish-American and African-American immigrants. And then there was Sunday Bloody Sunday, a song which became one of U2’s most well-known songs, but which represented an enormous risk in 1982. The idea of a song with its origins in the horror sparked by the Bloody Sunday massacre, where 14 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British Parachute Regiment soldiers in Derry on January 30, 1972, at the height of The Troubles, was hugely controversial whilst the situation in their homeland remained such a powder keg. 

"We all had a hand in that song, because it's probably the heaviest thing we've ever done, lyrically,” The Edge told NME. “It's hard for us to justify a title like Sunday Bloody Sunday, and we are aware of that. We realise the potential for division in a song like that, so all we can say is that we're trying to confront the subject rather than sweep it under the carpet.

"We thought a lot about the song before we played it in Belfast and Bono told the audience that if they didn't like it then we'd never play it again. Out of the 3,000 people in the hall about three walked out. I think that says a lot about the audience's trust in us." 

Bono has spoken of not knowing how to address the audience when playing the new song for the first time, with his now iconic introduction “This is not a protest song.” just coming out of him. Whatever it was that sparked it, Sunday Bloody Sunday, with Mullin's militaristic drums, The Edge’s eerily creaking guitar riff and Bono’s bluntly impassioned vocals, propelled U2 to a completely different tier to where they had been previously operating. It wasn’t the only song to do so. 

War’s first single was the aforementioned New Year’s Day. It started life as a tribute to Bono’s wife, but had lyrically morphed into a song about the Polish Solidarity Movement.

"I must have been thinking about (leader of the Solidarity Movement) Lech Walesa being interned,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 2012. “Then, when we'd recorded the song, they announced that martial law would be lifted in Poland on New Year's Day. Incredible." 

Musically the tinder for the song was far less highbrow, the iconic bassline from Adam Clayton that drives the song was actually the bassist's attempt to play Visage’s 1980 synth pop hit Fade to Grey. He got it badly wrong, but the rest of U2 loved what came out, so it stayed and, married to the equally seminal piano part, it became one of their most impressive musical statements. Soaring, chilling, atmospheric and with a chorus that burrows deep down into your brain, for many New Year’s Day is the greatest song of U2’s career. 

New Year's Day was released as a single six weeks prior to War, and became the band’s first UK top 10 hit, and first single to chart in the US. After the song's success War followed, knocking Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the UK album chart: in the US, it peaked at a very respectable number 12 on the Billboard 200.  

Going back to War 40 years after its release ,it still sounds like the work of a band with the bit between their teeth, determined to put the disappointments of a year before way behind them. Obviously, both Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day are mammoth, monumental, iconic and omnipresent songs, but all of War has aged spectacularly.

Two Hearts Beat As One is a less revered single, but as it shuffles and struts, it's as anthemic a rock song as anything on the album, Red Light is a slinky number that superbly utilises the backing vocals of Kid Creole's Coconuts and the parping trumpet of Ken Fradley, and closing track 40, written and recorded in a mere 40 minutes on the final morning the band had in the recording studio, with The Edge playing Adam Clayton’s bass after he exited the session in exasperation, is a gorgeous dream pop soundscape. 

As U2 headed out on the road to tour War, the success of the record saw them playing to larger and larger audiences, their show becoming bolder and more theatrical as it went. The sight of Bono waving a white flag during performances of Sunday Bloody Sunday, scaling lighting rigs and scaffolding, have come to define the era, and helped U2 become the hottest live act on the planet.

It all culminated in their electrifying rain-soaked performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado on June 5 1983, only one-third full according to reports due to the horrendous weather conditions, recorded and later released as Under A Blood Red Sky, one of the finest live albums of all time.  

War has gone on to sell over 11 million copies worldwide, and U2 have gone on to be... well, U2. All the success that would come to pass in the next couple of decades can be traced back to those frustrated young men in 1982, and their refusal to be swept under the music industry rug. In that respect, U2’s third album may very well be their most important. So, here’s to the 40th anniversary of a true landmark album. 

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.