- 10 Jan 22
39 years ago today, U2 released 'New Year's Day' – the lead single from their third studio album, War. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Niall Stokes' insights into the story behind the iconic song...
With the emergence of the Solidarity movement, from 1980 onwards the communist regime in Poland was being challenged effectively for the first time since the Iron Curtain had been erected. Following a series of strikes, martial law had been imposed, in December 1981 by the head of the Polish Communist Party, General Jaruzelski. Solidarity became a proscribed organisation and its leaders were arrested, among them Lech Walesa.
“Subconsciously I must have been thinking about Lech Walesa being interned and his wife not being allowed to see him,” Bono commented. “Then, when we’d recorded the song, they announced that martial law would be lifted in Poland on New Year’s Day. Incredible.”
Adam had come up with the bass figure at a soundcheck. The Edge developed the piece on the piano. Now, the band were five, maybe six tracks into recording War and Bono still hadn’t got down the lyrics. “It was an unsettled time,” Adam recalled later. “You looked around and there were conflicts everywhere. We saw a lot of unrest on TV and in the media. We focused on these.”
Turning those themes into a song was another story.
“It would be stupid to start drawing up battle lines but the fact that ‘New Year’s Day’ made the Top 20 indicated a disillusionment among record buyers with the pop culture in the charts,” Bono said. “I don’t think ‘New Year’s Day’ was a pop single, certainly not in the way that Mickie Most might define a pop single, as something that might last three minutes and three weeks in the charts. I don’t think we could have written that kind of song.”
What they did write conformed to the basic chart model in one respect at least. It is a love song, doubtless written by Bono with his new wife, Ali, in mind. But the impressionistic political backdrop infused the track with a sense of separation and longing that captured the mood of the time in an unexpected and hauntingly enduring way.
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