Listen To This Eddie: How U2 Became One Of The Greatest Stadium Rock Bands

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Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

U2 are the greatest stadium rock band in the history of rock bands and stadiums. Other artists might be more effective at bringing their music to the masses in the smaller confines of clubs, dance halls, theaters, festivals and even arenas, but nobody puts on a finer performance in the world’s football and baseball palaces than these four musicians from Ireland. As magnificent as their records are, it’s this ability that’s helped them retain their place, nearly 40 years into their career, as the biggest band in the world.

I’ve personally seen U2 bring down the house in two different NFL stadiums over the years. The most recent occasion took place this last weekend at Soldier Field in Chicago. For the first time in their career, the band is doing something that most never thought they would: They’re looking backwards. U2 is currently on the road, airing out their most classic album The Joshua Tree and the show is amazing. Really, you owe it to yourself to check them out if they come to your city, and they just announced a whole slew of new dates too, so it’s still a possibility

U2’s current Joshua Tree run is a lesson in spectacle. While the stage itself doesn’t quite measure up to the tremendous dimensions of “The Claw” on their 2011 tour, the visual elements are breathtaking. The football field-sized 8K screen lend almost a three dimensional feel to the performance. But for as engrossing at the Anton Corbjin shot images of lonely highways and desert landscapes are, they fall short of matching the charisma of the actual members of U2. Bono in particular has an indefinable way of making even the biggest venues seem intimate. The way he sashays around the stage, and addresses the crowd in between songs as individual people; as old friends. It’s a skill that’s been hard won over thousands of performances throughout the years. But how did U2 become so good at doing something so uniquely spectacular? To find the answer, you have to go back, all the way back to the beginning.

1980—1981: The Boy Tour

Though they already had performed more than a hundred shows over the past two years, including their 11 O’Clock Tick Tock tour through Ireland and England in May and June of 1980, the Boy tour was the first chance that North American audiences got to see U2 in the flesh. Their first show on American soil took place at the Ritz in New York City on December 12, 1980. They were scrappers at this point, bringing intensity to a set list that ended with one of their all-time classics “I Will Follow.” Most importantly, they made a good impression on Frank Barsalona, the head of the Premiere Talent Agency and one of the most powerful men in the music industry. As U2’s manager Paul McGuinness recalled, “Trying to get U2 signed to Premier Talent was the reason for my trip when I flew to New York for the very first time in 1980… through the 1980s in North America Frank guided U2 to becoming one the great live act they are now.” He further explained: “He taught U2 and myself something that has stood us in good stead ever since — that an artist has two parallel careers: one on record and one live. The fact that record success came later for U2 was compensated for by their much quicker rise to fame as one of the great live attractions.”

1981—1982: The October Tour

In many ways, The October tour was a continuation of the Boy tour before it, but with newer material thrown into the set. U2 was playing nearly all the same venues, but continuing to hone their craft and put together a compelling performance. It was during a festival gig in Europe on this run that Bono accidentally happened upon a move that became something of a calling card of their live shows for years to come. “Bono was doing his usual thing of diving into the crowd and all that,” The Edge recalled in U2 By U2. “On one occasion, he grabbed this flag and started waving it around, and everyone went nuts. I said to him afterwards, ‘That was actually quite interesting. It’s such a strong visual.’ The white flag seemed like a beautiful symbol with a connection to the album, ‘Surrender’ being one of the songs, and they became a big feature of the tour.”

1983: The War Tour

Here’s where it all started coming together. The album War, featuring the all-timer singles “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was far and away the biggest hit that the band enjoyed up to this point in their career, but they still felt like they could attain more, especially in America. In 1983, they plotted their most extensive run through the US yet, with a special, filmed performance planned to take place at the gorgeous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. U2 had almost every dollar to their name riding on that gig, which they intended to film and release as a concert documentary. Then, on the day of the show, a downpour of rain nearly caused the whole thing to come apart. Undeterred, Bono took to the radio to implore fans with tickets to try and brave the weather and make it out. Despite the freezing mist and less than stellar turnout the show proceeded as planned and has gone down as perhaps the best performance of U2’s career. Perhaps even more consequentially, it was the recording of this show Under A Blood Red Sky, that convinced Brian Eno to work with them to create their next album

1984—1985: The Unforgettable Fire Tour

The Unforgettable Fire tour was U2’s first sustained run through arena-sized venues. It was also the band’s first dalliance with digital sequencers in a live setting, which were necessary to recreate some of the sounds that Eno used on their most recent album. It was a watershed moment, with new levels of press, new amounts of exposure and all new levels of pressure, but the rewards that came from playing some of the most hallowed venues in the US far outweighed any of the costs. “We played Madison Square Garden for the first time and that felt like sort of a landmark,” Bono recalled. “You heard about Led Zeppelin playing there and The Who performing there. The building felt like home the first time we played there and it still does.” This run also marked the first time they headlined prominent, massive outdoor spaces like the Milton Keynes Bowl in England and Croke Park in Ireland.

1985: Live Aid

It’s impossible to discuss U2’s live show without at least mentioning Live Aid. The Irish rockers were by no means the most notable name on the bill of that super festival that included the likes of a reunited Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney, but they did more than anyone this side of Queen to deliver a performance that remains etched into history. Their abbreviated set was marked with the kind of high-risk move that most artists wouldn’t think to attempt while broadcast live all over the world, when Bono decided to abandon his bandmates and walk down below the stage and congregate with the people during “Bad.” It was beyond ballsy, and provided the festival with the kind of signature moment that it so desperately needed. It also proved to the band itself that they were capable of connecting with a crowd of 70,000+ people.

1987: The Joshua Tree Tour

The Joshua Tree stands as perhaps U2’s greatest album and their extensive, 111-date tour to promote that work is one of the most interesting and awe-inspiring runs they ever embarked upon. It was marked by superior production, including their first-ever use of a video screen, unprecedented crowds, and a series of nasty injuries for Bono. Before the tour even started during rehearsals, Bono cut his lip open when he fell on a spotlight that he was carrying around. He later severed three ligaments from the clavicle after a fall at a gig at R.F.K. Stadium in Washington D.C. Despite the injuries, crowds came away delighted to hear and see the biggest band in the world at that point pour their souls out of canonical-defining material like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” and “With Or Without You.” They also did a few more adventurous things like open for themselves a country-western outfit named The Daltons, stage a “Free The Yuppies” concert in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and regularly perform the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me, during the show, including once with Bruce Springsteen at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.

1992—1993: The Zoo TV Tour

Everything about the Zoo TV Tour screamed excess and that’s just how the band wanted it. With a bit of conceptual help from Eno, U2 hit the road with a multimedia show designed to satirize the larger media apparatus. The stage featured dozens of screens that flashed a rapidly changing mix of live and pre-recorded video. Bono himself experimented with several different personas onstage including The Fly, a swaggering rock and roller in the Jim Morrison mould, Mirror Ball Man, a televangelist type in a shiny silver lame suit, and of course who could forget MacPhisto, a sort of parody version of the devil. “The music tells you what to do, and in the end that’s what you gotta do,” the singer told Rolling Stone about their outlandish choices on this tour. “The music tells you what clothes to wear, it tells you what kind of stage you should be standing on, it tells you who should be photographing you, it tells you who should be your agent. You might see the glasses as a mask, but Oscar Wilde said something like ‘The mask tells you more about the man.’” That same ethos has held true for every tour they’ve embarked on since this one.

1997—1998: The PopMart Tour

This is perhaps the one time in U2’s live career where they sacrificed substance to style. Like the Zoo TV run before it, PopMart was designed to say something about the larger culture, in this case, rampant consumerism. Unlike Zoo TV however, the concept came off as a little overwrought, and at least in the early goings, the elaborate set designs got in the way of the show itself, like the time they whole band got trapped in the mechanical lemon they were supposed to emerge from for the encore… twice. It was an embarrassing moment to be sure, but one that Bono was at least able to look back at and laugh about in later years. “I still miss our lemon,” he said in Breaking Through: The Bono Story. “That was a beautiful, psychedelic kind of funky [thing].” It was no coincidence that the their next tour tours were far more dialed back on the production end of things than this one.

2001: The Elevation Tour

The celebrated arrival of their “return to form” album All That You Can’t Leave Behind came with a stripped-down return to world’s arenas. In modern-day U2 terms, the stage setup was downright Spartan, featuring a basic video screen and a heart shaped walkway that the band could use to get closer to the masses. They weren’t necessarily chastened by PopMart and Zoo TV, but recognized that maybe they needed to get back to the core of who they were. “We’re back, re-applying for the job,” Bono told the Observer. “And the job is best band in the world.” Of course the modesty didn’t last forever, and U2 brought this particular run to a close with a rousing halftime performance at the Super Bowl. There was also the incredibly cathartic hometown show at Slane Castle.

2005—2006: The Vertigo Tour

If the Elevation tour was U2’s application to become the biggest, best band in the world, The Vertigo tour behind How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was their first days back on the job. The presentation itself wasn’t too different from their last live run, hitting mostly arenas and utilizing a long catwalk, but they threw in a bit more pizazz by way of a spectacular backdrop of LED light curtains. “The desire for me as a performer has always been to break down the barrier between the them and the us,” Bono said at the time. “We discovered there’s other ways of breaking down the barrier. First and foremost is the mental–your own attitude. The stage design and video art, but also the re-interpretation of material.”

2009—2011: The 360 Tour

U2’s 360 Tour remains the highest grossing live concert event in human history, pulling in an incredible $736 million dollars. It’s hard to imagine what could ever top it. It’s going to take a lot of years as well as a whole bunch of inflation before any other entity comes even close. The band spent a whopping two years on the road, hitting stadiums across the globe in their self-designed “Claw,” a 164-foot LED-lit monstrosity that allowed them to play to all sides of the crowd and break attendance records at nearly every stop of that run. The costs to build the stages were so exorbitant that there’ll probably never be another tour that comes close to matching it on the production level. Bono described it as “intimacy on a grand scale,” and that description probably nails it better than any other. U2 360 reigns as the greatest stadium rock spectacle ever conceived and executed.

2015: The Innocence + Experience Tour

How do you top something like the 360 tour? The simple answer is you can’t, so U2 didn’t even try. The band decided to return to the more modest confines of basketball arenas in 2015, where they typically staged multi-night residencies around major metropolises. While they couldn’t measure up to the eye-popping display of their last live excursion, U2 gave their fans their money’s worth, most notably using a 96-foot long video cage that hung over a catwalk that extended from the main stage to a smaller B-Stage in the middle of the floor. For those who missed it when it first came around, the band expects to deploy a similar setting when they embark on their next run to promote Songs Of Experience. “We feel like that tour wasn’t finished,” The Edge told Rolling Stone. “We’d love to finish that tour. I would imagine it’s gonna be with very similar production components… but we like that tour and that project wasn’t completed. It is still alive in our minds creatively.”

2017: The Joshua Tree Tour (Redux)

It all comes down to this. A return to Joshua Tree. In terms of spectacle, it carries everything you might expect from a U2 show at this point: jaw dropping technology, fantastic sound, and larger than life scale. It also is imbued with passion performances, superior musicianship, and the band’s yearning to connect with the crowd on a macro and a micro level. When it comes to a stadium setting, no one comes in more prepared, or more comfortable to deliver a show that you’ll be talking about for decades to come. It’s old hand for them now, but the knowledge and the skills to pull it all off are more than hard-won.

Bootleg Bin

Just over a week ago, the world lost an icon of rock and roll when Gregg Allman succumbed to his battle to liver cancer. I already wrote a tribute to Gregg, and a sendup to one of the greatest live recordings ever committed to tape, At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band. I feel it’s important however, to remember that in the later years of his life, Gregg Allman wasn’t some travelling museum piece, hawking his hits for a quick cash grab. The road was as much his home as Macon, Georgia or Daytona Beach, Florida, and his favorite place to crash was the Beacon Theater in New York City. In his later years, Allman and his band would hold down regular residencies at the Beacon that became famous for their unmatched passion and zeal. The Beacon run, and the Allman Brothers end as a group ultimately came on October 28, 2014. “Never did I have any idea it could come to this,” Gregg said before the finale. “Now we’re gonna do the first song we ever played.” Speech ended, he and the Allmans tore into an incredible rendition of “Trouble No More,” from their debut self-titled album.