On May 1, U2 tweeted a pro-choice sentiment supporting the repeal of an Irish amendment concerning abortion — and unsurprisingly got some blowback for it. While the group’s left-leaning ideology has never been a secret, last week's mini-controversy was just another example of the band’s willingness to stick up for what they believe in, regardless of the consequences.
Ever since U2 put a scowling boy on their War record cover with the title splashed across it in blood-red typography, U2 and their outsized frontman Bono have projected a social consciousness that few bands have matched. This has been a double-edged sword since the 1980s, as the real-world benefits of Bono’s commitment to causes such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, and unemployment have sometimes been overshadowed by Bono’s public image, which skeptics say can verge on messianic.
Yet even as U2’s political side has landed them in hot water, their willingness to stray so far away from “business as usual” for rock continues to resonate, and it has paved the way for other bands and celebrities to publicly champion their own pet causes. Here's a crash course in their most political and philanthropic moments:
1983: U2 Voice Their Political Consciousness With “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
U2's religious beliefs nearly ended their career before it began. Specifically, three of the members’ evangelical Christian beliefs made them briefly consider leaving rock music altogether. Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen all belonged to a group called the Shalom Fellowship, which drilled into them the idea that the rock lifestyle and Christian values were incompatible. Thankfully, when Bono broached the topic of leaving the band with their manager Paul McGuinness, he was frank about it: “God doesn’t believe in breaking contracts.” Still, that didn't stop them from grappling with big questions in their work in the early 1980s, which touched on both global politics and higher meaning. Enter “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from the band’s third album War, an urgent recounting of Northern Ireland’s armed conflict, The Troubles. Though they'd never again write a song quite like it, this is where U2’s political consciousness began in earnest.
1984: U2 Participates in The Original Lineup of Band Aid, Asks ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’
Spurred by televised footage of Ethiopian famine victims, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is one of the earliest and finest examples of the mid-’80s phenomenon of celebrity charity songs. Though it’s a tough listen in 2018 with its dated production, “Christmas,” which featured Bono and bassist Adam Clayton as well as many of the biggest stars of the day, was unquestionably for a good cause — and it led to the first Live Aid concert seven months later. (Not to mention endless re-dos of “Christmas” with new crops of celebs as recently as 2014.) Still, the song helped create the archetype of sanctimonious, out-of-touch celebrity philanthropy — perhaps best spoofed in a 1992 episode of The Simpsons about an elaborate hoax from Bart that results in an ego-bloated charity single featuring Sting, “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well.”
1986: U2 Performs at Self Aid, Sets Eye on Irish Unemployment
“We’re Sending Our Love…” er, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” only got the ball rolling on mid-’80s stars joining together to change the world. In 1986, U2 shared a stage with prestige artists like Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, and the Pogues as well as now-astonishingly-obscure new wave bands like Cactus World News, Blue in Heaven and Auto Da Fé. The result was a patience-testing 14-hour concert, though it included memorable moments, like U2 covering Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” and naturally, laying into “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
1992: U2 Teams Up With Greenpeace to Protest a Nuclear Factory
U2 started to align themselves with Greenpeace in the late ‘80s — and the hot topic of those days was Sellafield, a nuclear reprocessing plant across the Irish Sea in northwest England. “As the father of two girls, I am disgusted it is still going on,” The Edge was quoted as saying on the deck of Greenpeace’s vessel — and they followed through, appearing with Public Enemy, Kraftwerk and Big Audio Dynamite at the Stop Sellafield concert in 1992, a stop on their Zoo TV tour. At the time of this writing, the Sellafield plant is still open, and online traces of this concert remain rare — though there are a few battered VHS tapes floating around Amazon and eBay, if you’d like to channel a residual righteous anger yourself.
1998: U2 Donates a Single’s Proceeds To Benefit Child Victims of Chernobyl
“Sweetest Thing,” a B-side apology to Bono’s wife, Ali Hewson, for having to work in the studio on her birthday, was never a major U2 track until it was re-recorded as a single in 1998 and promoted by the label with a series of chocolate bars. “Sweetest Thing” did have, well, a sweet intention at the time — proceeds went to Hewson’s favorite charity, Chernobyl Children’s Project International.
2000: U2 Dedicates “Walk On” to Burmese Activist Under House Arrest
When U2 were being awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin in 2000, their curiosity was piqued by a fellow honoree who was physically absent from the ceremony: Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese activist whose work had landed her in house arrest. The guys wanted to know more, so they did their research and penned this affecting tune thanking Suu Kyi for her sacrifice. The result won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 2002, and one of its lines — “The baggage you can bring is all that you can’t leave behind” — ended up titling one of the band’s most well-regarded later albums. (Suu Kyi has since become a target of criticism for inaction over the persecution of the Rohyinga minority group in Myanmar.)
2002-2006: With DATA, The ONE Campaign and Product RED, Bono Sets Sight on African Needs
Since at least 1999, Bono has become increasingly interested in raising awareness of the humanitarian plights facing African nations. And in a moment that may seem like science fiction in the era of Trump, Bono got big support at the time from President George W. Bush, who invited Bono to speak on the White House lawn after unveiling a $5 billion aid package. Bono went on to co-found a variety of companies focused on African aid, including Product Red (which raises awareness of HIV/AIDS); The One Campaign (which fights extreme poverty); and DATA (or, Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa), which aimed to allete debt crises. Not everyone was totally on board with his mission: In an op-ed in the New York Times, Paul Theroux painted the singer along with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as “mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.”
2017: Shaken by Brexit and Trump’s America, U2 Rewires 'Songs of Experience'
While every modern-day U2 album has its peanut gallery of haters for what's perceived as more preachy boomerisms, Songs of Experience earned its gravity. The twin seismic world events of Brexit and the 2016 US election had left Bono rattled; he also had an unspecified “brush with mortality” while recording Experience. As a result, there was something slightly wounded and deflated about the band’s usual bravado, and it made the album one of the band's most vital records in years — it's as if the youthful vigor of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” grew up, found itself paying bills and a mortgage, and suddenly wasn’t so sure the world could be saved through rock.