'A Slap in the Face'

15 Jul 2008
Was how Bono described 'War', the band's third album, in 1983. In an extract from his liner notes for next week's release of the remastered edition, Niall Stokes recalls how the album set U2 apart from their contemporaries.

'War sounded a rallying cry against everything that was cynical, solipsistic and escapist. "It was a slap in the face," Bono said to Hot Press not long after the album was released. "We wanted an album that would separate us from our contemporaries." And it did: again produced by Steve Lillywhite after the band's search for a different producer had run aground, for the most part War was a loud, aggressive, deliberately in your face rock opus that aimed to tackle the demons that stalked the planet head on.

It opens with a huge, pounding machine-gun snare drum sound courtesy of Larry Mullen, announcing a record of quite extraordinary seriousness. "I can't believe the news today," Bono sings, and with those dramatic opening lines we are plunged straight into the heart of darkness. By any standards, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is a big song, both in sound and in sentiment. It draws on two incidents in which Irish civilians were butchered indiscriminately by Her Majesty's forces - the first in 1920 and the second in 1972 - and turns the emotional resonance of those outrageous acts of coercion into a plea for peace. "I won't heed the battle call," Bono insists, "It puts my back up/ Puts my back up against the wall." Imploring us to wipe those tears away, and in doing so to renounce violence, the song ends with a reference to the Christian ideal of redemption, striking a profoundly optimistic note in spite of the trenches, dug within our hearts...

An extraordinary opening double whammy is completed by 'Seconds'. At a time when the Soviet Union was engaged in imperialist expansion and the US was consigning the lessons of Vietnam to the dustbin of history and embarking on its own dubious interventionist military adventures, even before the Chernobyl disaster nuclear paranoia was an understandably ever-present state of mind and 'Seconds' captured it. With a thrumming acoustic intro, Adam Clayton's staccato bass to the fore, and Edge on lead vocals, there is a well-nuanced pop feel to the track, but the theme is as far from radio fodder as you can get. "USSR, GDR/ London, New York, Peking," Edge free associates, before concluding, "It's the puppets/ It's the puppets/ Who pull the strings." Staring into the void, ironically this is U2's best pop moment to date, one that was way ahead of its time too in the use of a sample from the 1982 TV movie Soldier Girls where others might have stuck a screaming guitar solo.

'New Year's Day', the third track in, was another triumph. The opening piano riff is haunting, unforgettably so, and it sets things up beautifully for a song of love and longing, inspired first by Bono's partner Ali, to whom he had recently been married, and also by the deeply disturbing political events in Poland that had led to the internment of Lech Walesa, and his separation from his wife, Danuta. For an album that was fashioned in an anti-pop frame of mind, War was curiously strong on pop virtues and thus it was no real surprise that 'New Year's Day' - with its memorable melody, abundant hooks, inventive guitar and impressive emotional heft - provided the band with their first UK top 10 hit and also saw them debut on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song went on to become one of their most played live tracks of all time, a tribute both to its innate power and to the immense importance it holds for U2 fans, as the band's crucial breakthrough single....'

Extracted from the sleeve notes to the remastered edition of War, released worldwide on July 21st.


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