‘The Unforgettable Fire’: U2’s Blazing Rock Statement
In May 1984, U2 convened at Slane Castle in Dublin, where the gothic ballroom was chosen as the location for early sessions on what became ‘The Unforgettable Fire.’
In 1974, Iwakichi Kobayashi, a 77-year-old Japanese survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, walked into the offices of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation in the city. He was delivering a drawing of what he had witnessed, and it started a wave of public contributions about that apocalyptic day in World War II. It led to the publication of a compilation of images three years later, and then to an art exhibit in the early 1980s. It was titled “The Unforgettable Fire.”
In late November 1983, U2’s worldwide tour in support of the War album took them, for the first time, to Japan. During their stay, they went to visit that exhibition. Its title would inspire the late 1984 album with which they took a dramatic new direction and continued the process of becoming one of the premier rock attractions in the world.
The months following the release of War had been exhausting but eventful. In May, “New Year’s Day” had followed its success everywhere else by reaching No.53 in America. If not a stunning peak, it was a sure sign that U2’s distinctive rock attack was beginning to impact on pop radio programmers there as well.
U2’s day at the races
In August, they were the headline attraction for 25,000 passionate fans at the open-air festival A Day At The Races, in Phoenix Park, Dublin. In the middle of a run of festival dates, U2 had fun with their setlist, mixing a little of “Let’s Twist Again” into “Two Hearts Beat As One” and then some “Give Peace A Chance” into “11 O’Clock Tick Tock.” For a final encore of the already anthemic closer of the War album, “40,” they were joined by Annie Lennox.
That multi-faceted War tour of 1983 saw the band matching the muscular sound of the album with similarly grand-scale performances. But a signal change of pace was just around the corner. With bootleg concert recordings now exchanging hands for large sums, U2 brought this era to a conclusion by answering the public demand for their first live album and video.
The album was Under A Blood Red Sky, produced by Jimmy Iovine and recorded at three shows on the ‘War’ itinerary, in Boston, Germany and at a rain-soaked Red Rocks in Colorado. Soon afterwards came the sister release on video, Live At Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky.
Both captured the closing of a chapter, and both were phenomenally successful. The album soared to three million sales in the US alone, and the video stayed on the American chart for three years. Rolling Stone later described the band’s watershed performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the film as one of the “50 Moments That Changed The History Of Rock’n’Roll.”
Reconvening in gothic surroundings
The first half of 1984 brought the opportunity to take stock, and to consider the more textured, atmospheric sound that the quartet sensed should be their next departure. In May, they convened at Slane Castle in Dublin, where the gothic ballroom was chosen as the location for the early sessions on what would become The Unforgettable Fire.
The band’s admiration for Brian Eno as a musician of unassailable originality and imagination made him the producer of choice for the project. When he recommended his engineer, the relatively unknown but already experienced Canadian studio hotshot Daniel Lanois, the alliance was complete.
In July, when Bob Dylan played at the Castle, he had a certain on-stage guest in the form of Bono. In August, the album sessions were completed at Windmill Lane, and the band took time to announce the formation of their own Mother Records label, created to give new, mainly Irish talent a significant platform. The first such were Dublin’s own In Tua Nua.
Before the end of that month and nearly five weeks before the new record was even available, U2 set off on what would be the first of six legs of the Unforgettable Fire world tour. Such was the demand that there were two separate legs each in North America and Europe. The starting point was Christchurch, New Zealand, the first of 19 Antipodean dates that included five each in Melbourne and Sydney. The opening single, “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, was unleashed in September, and soon assumed towering proportions.
If the train was already rolling, then by the time the album was released on October 1, the locomotive was roaring like thunder. A 21-date European run was illuminated by the fireworks of a spectacular response to the new album, which went double platinum in the UK and triple in the US. Fire roared straight to No.1 in Britain, and where War had toppled Michael Jackson’s Thriller at the summit, now they succeeded David Bowie’s Tonight.
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The beauty of Eno and Lanois’ understanding of the U2 essence was in allowing the band’s motivation to burn as brightly as ever, but now in the context of a more sophisticated, nuanced sonic backdrop. “Wire,” for example, came out spitting flames in a perfect four-way mesh of Bono’s fiery vocals, Edge’s kaleidoscopic guitars, Clayton’s funk-friendly bass and Mullen’s frenetic drums. Released from the formality of rigid structures, pieces such as “4th Of July” were free to roam, and “Bad” had the confidence to build to a lofty yet pensive crescendo.
‘The band of the 80s’
On November 25, in the few days in between the end of their first European tour for the album and the start of the first North American one, Bono and Adam performed on the original Band Aid recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”
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In the spring of 1985, U2 officially made arena status, on another huge run of US shows that included a Madison Square Garden headliner. For Rolling Stone magazine, they were now officially “the band of the 80s,” and few could argue with the designation.
Buy or stream The Unforgettable Fire.