- 12 Mar 21
38 years ago today, U2's third studio album, War, knocked Michael Jackson's Thriller off the top of the UK albums chart – becoming the band's first No.1 album there. The album would ultimately spend a total of 148 weeks on the chart. To celebrate, we're revisiting Liam Mackey's review of War – originally published in Hot Press in February 1983.
The Armageddon Time is definitely upon us, the evidence darkening doorsteps and television screens in Beirut, Belfast, London. Washington, EI Salvador, Afghanistan, Dublin, Moscow, Baghdad, Teheran, Warsaw, Port Stanley – there can be few places on this small planet which remain untouched, either directly or indirectly, by the Plague.
In this flickering light peace can appear to be a temporary condition, an aberration, a simple twist of fate – here today, gone tomorrow. In the 1980s the new, officially-approved symbol of peace shows the earth bisected by two nuclear missiles, nose to nose – to be capable of the ultimate destruction is to rest easy in your bed tonight.
It's against this blood-soaked backdrop that U2 release their third album, a record which bears witness to its time and context with a mixture of fear, courage and hope. In the face of prejudice and deep-rooted embitterment, whose physical language is expressed in the bomb and the gun, this record waves a white flag, not of toothless surrender, but of sanity.
The cynical may scoff and deem the act a useless, even fatuous, exercise, but the cynical are already doomed, having prematurely pronounced the death sentence on themselves. Agreed, no one can claim, as in daze of yore, that rock 'n' roll music is going to change the world – to believe that is to fall into the same trap that caught the most passionate and well-intentioned of the celebrated sixties' idealists. But to accept that nothing can be said or done, is to be even more culpable. Obviously, we all need our palliatives, which is why people as diverse as Duran Duran and The Dynatones gain credence and currency in different hearts and charts, but the fact remains that rock 'n' roll, because of its universal popularity with the generation which is in the best - if not, indeed, the only position to do something to help cure the disease, can be a vital force.
U2 are aware enough to know this to be true, intelligent enough to know that to pretend to have all the answers would be false. I don't know which side I'm on/l don't know my right from left/or my right from wrong" sings Bono on 'Two Hearts Beat As One', but it's clear he's certain that two hearts are better than one - and that, we must all concede, is the only starting point from which anything productive is likely to ensue.
U2's War may be important because it raises real-life issues which all too many of the band's contemporaries choose, for various reasons, to ignore, but it's also vital in terms of the band's own development. As such it is a major leap forward, conceptually and technically, quickly persuading this listener to the view that it totally eclipses their previous two albums. I'll even go a step further and proclaim War among the major albums of the last few years and, in the Irish context, the most stunning and completely realised set since the Radiators' heinously ignored Ghostown.
Indeed, there are a couple of tracks here which broach subjects and ideas that were also tackled in The Radiators' epic set. 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', the opening track, is a title with a particularly acute resonance for people living on this island. It's obviously an emotive subject, the events of the two days which have equal claim to the title being amongst the most cold-blooded and tragic in our history. Principally because of that, the Bloody Sundays of Croke Park and Derry, have come to serve as further ammunition for those who feel that the retaliation must continue, the fighting must go on, resulting in an endless saga of eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth mutual tragedy.
U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' takes the widescreen view, as over a powerful riff and machine-gun drumming, criss-crossed by skipping violin, Bono cries: "And the battle's just begun/There's many lost but tell me who has won/The trenches dug deep within our hearts/Our Mother's children, brothers sisters torn apart".
The message that hearts have been hardened, that battle lines drawn so many years before are being manned anew by successive generations is punched home in 'Like A Song': "Too set in our ways to rearrange, too right in our wrong in this rebel song". In other words, nothing but the same old story.
'The Refugee' on top of side two is a song which personalises the effects of war, sketching in a few vivid lines the sad plight of a young girl who watches as her father goes off to fight "but he doesn't know what for". The soundtrack is awesome, Bono's vocal a stuttering rage over a visceral, African-influenced, sonic storm - a radical departure for the band.
Indeed U2 break moulds right throughout this album. Much has been made of '83 being the year in which the guitar supposedly fights back, but it's unlikely that many will deploy the instrument with the resourcefulness and imagination demonstrated by The Edge on tracks like 'New Year's Day' and 'Red Light'. Whether utilising electric or - as in the excellent antinuclear song 'Seconds' and elsewhere on this album - acoustic guitar, The Edge's contribution is crucial to the shaping of U2's startling new music.
There are influences of course - definitively urban New York funk informs the pulsing 'Two Hearts Beat As One' for example - but ultimately U2's debts are utterly subservient to their own unique musical vision. If confirmation were needed, War offers watertight evidence of the band's standing as a genuinely original force in contemporary music.
Despite reviewing this album under less than optimum circumstances (it's a cassette copy bereft of information and there's a deadline hanging over my head - send flowers and messages of sympathy to this address, etc.), I'm still convinced that in War, U2 have fashioned an album of major import. And knowing from experience that U2 records get better with repeated listenings, I can only urge you, regardless of your opinion on the band to date, to take a listen to this album.
For my money, this is a flag truly worth rallying around, this is the beat surrender to succumb to.
Browse the extensive Hot Press U2 Collection here.