Released : 1983
There was a time when U2 didn’t split public opinion almost down the middle – latter day saints, or earnest kings of hypocrisy, takes like that – but if the controversy around them had a seed, it was in just one song.
To the cynical, the band’s third album War was a craven attempt to bridge themselves into a vast American market and it’s significant Irish expat community; to their followers it was the first time the symmetrical power of The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. had been fully let off the hook by producer Steve Lillywhite. Either way in the smorgasbord of early eighties’ politics they began to take sides, playing a No Nukes benefit show and laying down songs like New Years Day – about the Polish Solidarity movement – and Sunday Bloody Sunday.
The latter is a simple song attempting to deliver a complicated message. It’s about peace but directly addresses war and bloodshed. It’s about unity as a universal goal, rather than a direct appeal to communities to put down their guns. And it looks to religion – the lyrics “Mother’s, children, brothers, sister torn apart” and “We eat and drink, while tomorrow they die” are both biblical references – but recognises that opposing faiths are often sources of division and mistrust.
Musically Sunday Bloody Sunday is a march under a white flag – symbolism Bono would use unashamedly when U2 played live – with Mullen’s drums echoing that of a military tattoo, whilst The Edge throws out dystopian riff after dystopian riff. As is the nature of treaties to a ceasefire, it was shot at from both sides, but it would become the very basis of the quartet’s public image. Call it naivety – they sometimes have – but in act repeated throughout their career it saw them doing the right thing, but attacking the job with the nuance of a sledgehammer. There was a time when U2 didn’t split opinion, but it was never after this.