12. War – U2



Some may be surprised to find listed here a U2 album that many don’t even consider the best U2 album. That label almost always is applied to Joshua Tree and I can’t argue with that claim. Even CCM Magazine’s Top 100 albums of all time listed Joshua Tree much higher than War. But in retrospect, and given the general parameters of this countdown, U2’s War is the best and most important album.

For those who experienced the “War” tour can attest to the passion, praise and profound personal impact those concerts provided. Part rock and roll show, part worship experience. There was a genuineness to the event that seemed to fade as the band became rock stars over the following years. The innocence of the first two albums had begun to fade, but the “heart on the sleeve” militancy was still there.

Born out a friendship with limited musical abilities U2 went on the be the biggest band in the world. Humble beginnings in Dublin, Ireland led to worldwide fame and acclaim. Four lads who individually could not carry a band formed a group that truly personifies the sum is greater than the parts. Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam have remained the only members of the band since the release of their first single in 1979.

Drummer Larry Mullen is quoted as saying that his original hoped were to name the group, The Larry Mullen band, but minutes after Bono entered the room all of those hopes were dashed. Larry, Bono and Teh Edge would all soon become involved with a charismatic Church in Dublin and that original connection would have influences that would last until today.

The spiritual roots run very deep in Ireland, especially during the time. But for the most part in showed itself in political agendas. But for Bono and the boys it showed itself in compassion, mission and pacificity. One critic would state that U2 take pacifism to a military level. No matter what critics of the band state about Bono and the bands spiritual position, it remains true that the images and content used even until today are deeply rotted spiritual ones.

I was first introduced to U2 during my sophomore year in High School. The famed KROQ was playing “I Will Follow” and I was immediately drawn to the bands sound as it did not fit the synth/pop new wave sound the permeated the rest of the music industry. Kind or reminded me of The Clash without all the angst. Something positive and even borderline spiritual.

At that time I was always searching for bands with mainstream success that had Christian leanings, members or content to share with my unsaved friends so that I could also introduce them to directly Christian music like the Andy McCarroll and the Resurrection Band. Bands like Simple Minds, The Call and even Ian Cussick were early favorites.

I bought the band’s debut “Boy” the week it came out and also a little button with the album cover and the words U2 and Boy on it. Back in those days it was very popular for fans of a band to buy buttons and wear them on their jackets. This was most common amongst fans of ska, punk and new romantic music. Highlights from the album include: I Will Follow, Out of Control, The Electric Co. and Into the Heart.

Boy was produced Steve Lillywhite, a very progressive and “up and coming” producer who had worked with bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Lillywhite brought a distinctive sound, a wall of ethereal noise and limited breaks between songs as one folded into another. Even early on it was obvious this band was about Bono’s passion and charisma.

I was hooked.

“October” was released a year later and I bought it the week it came out as well. At first I did not like it as much, but over the years it has become one of my all time favorites. To call it “worshipful” would be an understatement. The story goes that while the band was recording the album a briefcase with the lyrics were stolen from their hotel room in Portland, OR. Bono is said to have “improvised” much of the content and this is why the spiritual and Christian themes deeply rooted in his soul came out in the recording process.

Like Boy did with “I Will Follow,” October starts with the more blatantly spiritual song, “Gloria.” The song can be taken no other way than its spiritual content. Even the Latin phrases are blatantly Christian in their content. In fact the verses reveal a man so awestruck be an encounter with God he remains unable to speak and asks the Lord for the words.

In te domine
Oh, Lord, loosen my lips.

I try to sing this song
I, I try to get in
But I can’t find the door
The door is open
You’re standing there, you let me in.

In te domine
Oh, Lord, if I had anything, anything at all
I’d give it to you.

The innocence was fading and these young men were becoming adults and struggling with this ominous task. They started to realize their frailties and this shows in another more directly Christian song, “Rejoice.”

And what am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say?
I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me.

I rejoice.

Other highlights from “October include: I Fall Down, Fire and Stranger in a Strange Land. The album was once again produced by Steve Lillywhite and contains more of the same ethereal sounds of the previous album.

With “War” everything seemed to change for the band. Lillywhite remained in the production booth, but this time the production was stripped way back and the sounds were closer to a live rock and roll band. Only “Achtung Baby” would be as raw sounding as “War.” Though many find the album to be a protest album of sorts, it is a protest album with a heart and an alternative. It’s easy to shout from the rooftops regarding the evils of the world, it is another to offer an answer with the same bold conviction. It is for that reason I believe “War” deserves its placement here on this list.

The live concert tour that supported this album included The Alarm as the opening acts and was an evening dedicated to bold proclamations. But the most bold moments came when Bono would hoist a white flag, march in military formation and declare a peace that only Jesus could provide. The evening would end with a young man Bono pulled from the audience playing three chords taught quickly to him by Bono to the song “40.” One by one the band members would leave the stage leaving this impromptu performing leading 15,000 fans in song singing together, “How long to sing this song?”

At one point during “Two heart Beat as One” Bono stopped the song midway as a small fight had broken out in the front row of the audience. Bono sat down on the edge of the stage, spoke to both young men and made them shake hands and embrace before continuing with the rest of the concert.

At another point in the concert Bono disappeared as the band played “New Years Day.” The spotlight finally found him on the complete opposite side of the auditorium on the second story walking along the edge railing. He was being held up by the crowd the was sitting in the front row of the second level. At one point he began to lower himself from the second level to the ground floor. He eventually dropped down onto the crowd that gathered below him. They all kept him afloat with their hands above their heads. He pointed to the stage and slowly but surely he was transported hand by hand across the entire bottom floor to the stage on the far side.

Where October came across like an existential and abstract artwork like a Monet, “War” is more direct and in your face and looks and sounds more like a cover of Life Magazine. October was the shadow and War is the reality.

As for the album itself it starts off in a very raw fashion with drum and guitar. This more stripped down feel would carry through most of the record. The drumming set a military type tone to a very anti-military type lyric.”Sunday Bloody Sunday” hearkens back to an event in Northern Ireland in 1972. Several protesters were shot and killed by British authorities including many teenagers. This event escalated the tension between the British and Irish, which had religious implications with the Protestants and Catholics on the differing sides. Bono refers to the events but broadens to the concept of war in general.

I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
‘Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.

Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.

Sunday, bloody Sunday.

The phrase “how long to sing this song” would come in the albums closing song, “40” and serves as the ultimate theme of the project, working as bookends of a sort. Bono addresses the impact on families and communities before offering a glimmer of hope and exclusively tying it into where that only hope resides.

The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won

Sunday, bloody Sunday
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

At first glance “Seconds” is straight forward anti-nuclear proliferation protest song. Written at the height of the Cold War and the increase in China’s military presence, this song could easily be reworked today to include other nations. But once again Bono couches the message with Biblical imagery that is unmistakable.

Lightning flashes across the sky
East to West, do and die.
Like a thief in the night, see the world by candlelight

“New Years Day” was the only song to chart in the US despite many fans, even casual fans, would assume many other songs from the album were “hits.” But in actuality the only song to chart in the Top 100 was “New Years Day” with several others charted on the “rock” chart only. “New Years Day” remains a staple during their live shows quite possibly due to the universal nature of the songs solidarity theme.

If the theme of the album is to be “protest” then “Like a Song” is a protest against complacency and selfishness. Bono pleads with his listeners to stop the labeling of one another in hopes of demonizing the so-called enemy.

And we love to wear a badge, a uniform
And we love to fly a flag
But I won’t let others live in hell
As we divide against each other
And we fight amongst ourselves
Too set in our ways to try to rearrange
Too right to be wrong, in this rebel song
Let the bells ring out

Again amidst the protest and defiant content Bono realizes the only answer to these problems resides not in governments or treaty’s but in a heart that is changed.

Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right.
A new heart is what I need.
Oh, God make it bleed.
Is there nothing left?

On a musical note I should point out that this song may not contain Mullen’s finest drum work (I believe it does) but his hardest and loudest without a doubt! The song closes with a great drum and guitar interchange that is powerful and angry.

“Drowning Man” is the only song on the album that would work well “Boy” or October.” With more of an atmospheric sound to the both the music and the vocals Bono cries out…

Hold on, hold on tightly.
Hold on, and hold on tightly.
Rise up, rise up with wings like eagles.
You run, you run.
You run and not grow weary.

Hold on, and hold on tightly.
Hold on, hold on tightly
This love, lasts forever.
Now this love lasts forever.

Again, for anyone with a Biblical background the content is quite clear where the hope for rescue resides.

“Two Hearts Beat as One” is about as honest and passionate a love song as a punk band can muster. There is no bravado here, but rather an uncomfortable unknowing and anticipation. This is not a “c’mon baby” song but a song written by someone searching for the right words but is at a loss. So, in a sense, it is a protest against the norms of self-driven love and sexual dominance of the music scene.

I don’t know
How to say what’s got to be said
I don’t know if it’s black or white
There’s others see it red
I don’t get the answers right
I’ll leave that to you
Is this love out of fashion
Or is it the time of year?
Are these words distraction
To the words you wanna hear?
Two hearts beat as one.
Two hearts beat as one.
Two hearts.

It’s hard to say exactly who takes on the role of speaker in “Red Light.” The song about a prostitute that refuses help seems odd on the record but seems to work both musically and lyrically as the I take it to be God who is protesting the ways in which someone would need to make a living and reaching and willing to give her real love. This is actually quite radical when one considers the limited ministry effort to reach this person and yet God is calling out to them and willing to show them true love.

“Surrender” continues the war dominated theme where the greatest offensive weapon is to lay down your life for a friend. Victory is preserved by surrendering to something greater and more important than self. Here the war is not fought with gun, tanks and politicians but a battle fought in the soul. This is a spiritual battle that wages that is not seen by our eyes. The good works of the main character “Sadie” does not satisfy her nor bring her relief. Finally in the songs final words Bono provides the answer.

It’s in the street gettin’ under my feet
It’s in the air, it’s everywhere I look for you.
It’s in the things that I do and say
And if I wanna live I gotta die to myself someday.

The album closes with the worshipful “40” with the lyrics taken directly from Psalm 40.

I waited patiently for the Lord.
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song…

How long to sing this song?…

You set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.
Many will see, many will see and hear.

I will sing, sing a new song…

How long to sing this song? …

The interesting note behind this song was that bass player Adam Clayton had left the recording studio one evening as the band realized they really did not have a “finishing” type song for the record. They hurriedly wrote out the lyrics borrowing from Psalm 40 and adding the albums first song’s refrain of “How long to sing this song?” With Adam’s absence The Edge played both bass and electric guitar on the album. So now in concert as they have nearly always finished their concerts with the song, Adam plays electric guitar and The Edge bass.

I understand that many, in fact quite possibly some following these postings, will claim a different record should have been included. Others will try to claim the band should not be included at all. To claim the first is understandable as many amazing U2 albums could received serious consideration. To claim the latter is to miss completely what an important band and important and deeply Christian of an album War truly is.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on August 24, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Can’t believe this hasn’t been commented on yet. Gotta tell you how much I agree with this choice. Sure, Joshua Tree is their masterwork, but War is their most emotional and transparent work. It blends the political and spiritual like no other album I’ve ever heard. While it is still raw and frenetic, it is much more mature than Boy and Gloria, both in musical arrangement and lyrical presentation. There isn’t a stinker on this album.


  2. Posted by paul on October 22, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    While I really liked this album, for some reason “October” will always be my favorite. Maybe because of the overtly Christian lyrics on some cuts, I don’t know. War is a really great album.


  3. This was the first U2 album that I loved and it really got me very into U2. I first got hooked by hearing “New Year’s Day” on the radio and I was hooked by the Bassline of that song, so I had to get the whole album. Once I had it I played it almost every day for awhile on my walkman and walked around Campus listening to it to try to chill out from my studying. Not a bad song in this album!


  4. […] When you think about the "big names" in Christian music history, who comes to mind? Petra?The 77's? Maybe you go back to Larry Norman, Keith Green or Steve Taylor, or more recent groups like DC Talk or Jars of Clay. Perhaps you think of Christian faith-influenced albums by artists like Bob Dylan or U2. […]


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