Even at the tender age of 16, the Dublin boy born Paul Hewson had a flair for the post-modern. He and his friends were part of a self-styled “surrealistic street gang" called Lypton Village. One of their favorite past times was giving people nicknames, as it was considered strange to stick with the name you were born with. Hewson got tagged with the nickname Bonavox, which was taken from a local hearing aid shop and roughly translated to “good voice.” He used the name Bono Vox at the beginning of the band’s career, before eventually just switching to Bono. In case you’re curious, it’s been widely reported that even his bandmates and his wife called him Bono.
What about The Edge?
In the mid '70s, Mount Temple Comprehensive student Larry Mullen Jr. posted an open call for musicians on his school’s bulletin board. Hewson, Dave and Dik Evans and Adam Clayton answered, and they started jamming on Rolling Stones covers. After a while, Dik left and the rest of the band told Hewson that he can’t play guitar, so he should consider singing. Bono later introduced his band mates to the gang, and named Evans The Edge “based on his head, his jaw and an insane love he had for walking on the edges of very high walls.” Clayton’s nickname was Sparky and Mullen’s was Jamjar. You can see why they didn’t want to keep them.
So it’s always been the same four guys?
But by the time they settled on U2—named for a famous American spy plane—everything was set in stone, making U2 one of the few long-running groups to never have a line-up change. U2 are a famously stable bunch. Bono has been married to the same woman for decades and they’ve had the same business manager since the beginning. Which is not to say that there hasn’t been drama.
Drama? These guys?
Yeah, but it’s primarily aesthetic. U2 need to be both loved by the masses and respected by the connoisseurs. This leads them to toy with their sound, while still finding ways to blend these experiments into the stadium-sized anthems that uplift the masses. This has mostly worked to their benefit. They’ve been both popular and critically respected longer than any band in the history of rock music, and they have enough hit singles, multi-platinum albums and record-breaking tours under the belt that they could probably purchase Ireland if they felt the need. More importantly, they’ve made several inarguably classic albums and pop standards. All but the most hard-headed U2 fans, though, will admit that for all their triumphs, there’s been plenty of missteps along the way.
Like what? Have they made some bad albums?
Hey, if you keep busy for three decades, you’re going to have some misfires. After slugging it out on the college radio charts at the beginning of the ’80s, U2 broke through with hit singles like “With or Without You” and “Pride (in the Name of Love)”, becoming megastars. In 1988 they released the documentary film Rattle and Hum, which documented the tour for their breakout album The Joshua Tree. As the AV Club put it, “Having finally been handed enough rope to hang themselves, the members of U2 made a movie charting their awkward transition from beloved cult band to backlash-ready stadium-rock ego factory, showing U2 covering Bob Dylan, jamming with B.B. King, and recording at Sun Studios. U2’s eagerness to place itself in the rock pantheon was at best premature, and at worst, unseemly, annoying, and pompous.” Overreach is a thing with these guys. Get called the greatest band in the world often enough and it’s easy to believe you can do it all. To their immense credit they’re always willing to try something new, but sometimes it’s clear that they just have no handle on what they’re trying. Like dance-pop. Though they can effectively use samplers and keyboards to goose their rock songs, when U2 tried to make the sort of actual dance-pop that would get played at raves on 1997’s Pop, the result was a funkless mess, though “Mofo” is worth it for Bono’s primal exorcism of his mother issues.
Why does this sound familiar?
Every so often U2 think they can get away with anything, and release another ill-fitting mess of a song, like “Get On Your Boots,” without question their worst single. The album “Boots” comes from, No Line on the Horizon, is one of the most mixed bags in the U2 catalogue. Awkward, experimental tracks (some of which feature preposterously terrible lyrics, like “Unknown Caller” sit right beside anthems like “Moment of Surrender,” which is U2 at its transcendent best. The news that U2’s next album will feature production from will.i.am. seems to confirm that the band refuses to accept they can’t make music for the club, and is reason to worry.
Okay, I’ll avoid those. But what should I check out?
New fans should start with 1987’s 25-times platinum The Joshua Tree, which is the apex of the spiritual longing and oceans of echoing guitar approach from their early years, and with 1991’s Achtung Baby, which saw the band reinvent their sound with tweaked-out guitars and keyboards that often sounded like a computer malfunctioning and lyrics that explored heartbreak, disillusionment and what exactly it costs to be a world-saving rock star. Once you’ve digested those, hardcore U2 fans have their picks for sleeper albums and deep cuts that trump the better known work. Check out 1993’s Zooropa, which is probably their darkest and weirdest album and contains their most wrenching, bleakest ballad, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” and their 1980 debut Boy, which is still one of their most quick-footed and passionate albums, proving right from the start they had a way with a ringing, delay-pedal enhanced guitar riff.
So, I hear they do a lot of charity work?
That’s the thing about Bono. Plenty of people think he’s an insufferable egotist, but he at least puts his immense ego to good use. U2 have supported more charities than we can count, but Bono’s main passion is for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and helping Africa recover from its extreme poverty and AIDS pandemic. In 2004 Bono co-founded the ONE Campaign, a political action group which brings together charitable groups like OXFAM America and World Vision with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advocate on behalf of the world’s poor. Bono has been criticized for working with too many corporations and controversial political figures (including former President George W. Bush) to achieve his goals, and has also been accused of turning complex issues into trendy cause célèbre. But he remains as committed to his causes as ever, and ends every U2 show with a plea for his fans to join ONE. For his efforts, he has been knighted and won a Noble Peace Prize. No slouch, The Edge also has a charitable organization, Music Rising, which has supported musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina.
But why does Bono always wear sunglasses?
He’s claimed it’s because his eyes are sensitive to light. We think it’s because who’s going to tell him he can’t?