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Rattle and Humble

U2 looks back on two decades of innovation


In this story:

'Rock 'n' roll is politics'

Changing image, changing music

Working through disputes


DUBLIN, Ireland (CNN) -- In 1977, a 14-year-old Larry Mullen Jr. posted a flyer at his high-school in Dublin, seeking other students to start a band.

Who showed up to audition in his living room? Paul Hewson, Dave Evans and Adam Clayton answered his call to make music. Mullens was the only one at the time who could play an instrument proficiently, the drums.

But the others would pick up instruments ... as well as some nicknames.

Watch how U2 made the music video for 'Beautiful Day' at a futuristic looking airport

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Vocalist Paul Hewson took on the moniker Bono. Guitarist Dave Evans decided he'd rather be called the Edge. Adam Clayton, like his mate Larry, retained his name, then learned the bass.

Thus was born in Mullen's home the band U2 -- well, almost. The Irish teens didn't choose that name right away; after calling themselves the Hype and the Feedback, the quartet settled on U2, an obvious play on the words "you too" -- a sort of thank-you to the audience.

What to call the band was nearly an afterthought, because music, in all its forms, has always come first for U2. Despite the name changes - whether you're talking about the band or its members music has always come first. The group's ever-morphing sound has been credited for its longevity. The band's music has become deeper and richer over the years, as has Bono's voice.

"I think I sound like a girl (in the early years) ... singing a little too high, so I find them hard to listen to," he said. "But I love to play the songs live because I feel now I could sing in a way I couldn't back then."

'Rock 'n' roll is politics'

The four released their debut album "Boy" in 1980, and followed that with "October" the next year. Their international breakthrough would come with 1983's "War," with singles "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Years Day" commenting on troubled Northern Ireland peace process.

Rock 'n' roll should send a message, said Bono.

"I like this idea that rock 'n' roll is politics," Bono said. "Elvis Presley, the way he moved his body -- that was a political statement. He attempted to cross black music into a white audience, which was essentially early rock 'n' roll."

But the songwriting process isn't so deliberate, the Edge said.

"We've never been a band to use ideas over and over again," the Edge says of U2  

"We don't sit down and say, 'Let's right a political one about something really worthwhile,'" he said. "You just sit down, the music comes out and it tells you what it needs to be."

Changing image, changing music

By the time U2 released "The Joshua Tree" in 1987, band members were international superstars, renowned nearly as much for their political and social causes as they were for their songs. Staying "outside" -- progressive -- was their priority.

"It's always been the case for us that our music has been on the outside of what's going -- even albums like the 'Joshua Tree' in the mid-'80s, which became a very successful album, it was completely separate from everything that was going on," said the Edge.

U2 made the covers of Time, Rolling Stone and other major publications in the '80s. In 1986, band members were invited to join Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and others for the Conspiracy of Hope Tour benefiting Amnesty International. They found themselves a staple on MTV.

They also found themselves in the musical mainstream, and that wasn't always so comfortable.

"Having had the huge success of the 'Joshua Tree,' and then making the 'Rattle and Hum' movie (1988), which was the story of that tour, we really got the feeling that we had ended up becoming almost caricatures of ourselves as far as the media was concerned," the Edge said.

"We didn't like to feel like we were stripped of all the humor that we ... were about."

U2's next album, "Achtung Baby" (1991), marked a shift in style, showcasing funkier beats and intimate love songs. Singles included "Mysterious Ways," "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses."

"'Achtung Baby' is really the sound of four men chopping down the 'Joshua Tree,'" Bono said, "sort of defacing our public image."

Working through disputes

Not everyone was keen on the musical departure, the Edge said.

"Within the group there was some real disagreements about making that record -- a lot of doubts as to whether that was something that we as a group should or could do," he recalled.

With the exception of "Pop," Daniel Lanois has helped produce every U2 album since "The Unforgettable Fire"  

"In the end, I think only the best material made the record. And Bono started to experiment in a completely knew way of writing lyrics that became a new way of how he writes records now."

Experimentation is a group effort, said producer Daniel Lanois, who has had a string of collaborations with U2, beginning with 1984's "The Unforgettable Fire."

"I've seen the creative energy in the U2 camp shift around," said Lanois, who also had a role in the upcoming "All That You Can't Leave Behind," to be released in the United States on Tuesday.

"It's kind of a team effort," Lanois said. "If that person disappears, someone else will pick up the torch and take it to the next level."

U2 band members say they have achieved a level of success they could have only dreamed of in Mullen's living room 23 years ago.

"I don't think any of us would have imagined we'd still be together after so many years," the Edge said. "The chemistry, the spark that made us think in the very beginning that we might become successful, is still there. And that's the thing that keeps us interested in what we might be able to do."

Salman Rushdie's words become U2 lyrics
January 22, 1999
U2 strikes $50 million deal for 'Best of' albums
September 8, 1998
Bono helps promote Belfast peace agreement
May 19, 1998
U2's new 'POP' culture
March 7, 1997

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