Over 75 million albums and twenty years since their formation at Dublin's Mount Temple High School in 1978 - at the instigation of Larry Mullen who pinned an ad to the bulletin board - there's little denying that U2 have cemented their reputation as a classic rock 'n' roll band. Moreover, by learning to roll with the punches down the years, together they have shared the memorable victories, and rare defeats, of an extraordinary career thus far. Remarkably, two decades on, they remain intact. No-one has ever left U2, no new member has ever joined.
In the tradition of the late '70s, U2 were a band before they could actually play, although all four members testify to the raw chemistry and unique spirit of the group being there from the outset. Burning with the intense energy of punk, the nascent U2 reacted against the burgeoning blank attitudes of their doomy, raincoat-wearing new wave contemporaries, emerging with wide-eyed hope.
Their first one-off Irish release, the U23 EP for CBS Records in 1979, was supported by a self-organised tour that left no-one doubting that U2 were driven men. Despite no offers of a major record deal following a round of London showcase gigs, the tour culminated in a sold-out show in front of two thousand fans in Dublin - a rare achievement for a band that, to all intents, remained unsigned. Further bolstering their reputation, in January 1980, the band topped five categories in the readers' poll of Irish rock magazine Hot Press. In April of that year, U2 signed to Island Records, releasing their first single, 11 O'Clock Tick Tock, the following month.
Over the next three years, U2 went from strength to strength, chiefly due to their relentless touring and blistering live performances which regularly found Bono going to often extraordinary lengths to capture the audience's imagination: scaling PA stacks without the aid of a safety net; teetering along the lip of theatre balconies; turning his back to the front rows and then free-falling into a sea of hands. Their first three Steve Lillywhite-produced albums - Boy (1980), October (1981) and War (their first UK No.1 in 1983, yielding the breakthrough hits New Year's Day and Two Hearts Beat As One) - defined a widescreen rock that clearly didn't have a roof over its head.
Furthermore, U2 were fast being regarded as the most politically motivated band since The Clash. At a Belfast show, before the first public airing of the provocative Sunday Bloody Sunday Bono bluntly announced "If you don't like it, let us know..." . What became clear was that U2 - on both political and emotional levels - were beginning to connect with a far wider audience worldwide. In the wake of 1983's Under A Blood Red Sky, a live document of the group's landmark performance at Colorado Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the writers of Rolling Stone magazine named U2 Band Of The Year.
Early in 1984, U2 made the surprising announcement that experimentalist Brian Eno (David Bowie, Talking Heads) and his protege Daniel Lanois were to produce their fourth studio album. Recorded in the suitably cavernous ballroom of Slane Castle, near Dublin, The Unforgettable Fire offered a new, expansive, cinematic U2 sound as evidenced in Pride (In The Name Of Love), their biggest hit up to that point in both the UK and the States. The seemingly never-ending tour that followed witnessed the band sell out New York's Madison Square Garden and make their pivotal appearance at Live Aid in 1985 before, in 1996, they headlined Amnesty International's Conspiracy Of Hope Tour.
The following year, U2 were touted as "Rock's Hottest Ticket" on the cover of Time magazine, following the release of their fifth album The Joshua Tree, which won the distinction of the fastest-selling UK album ever by going platinum within its first 48 hours on sale. The staggering success of the record - fuelled by hits With Or Without You, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and Where The Streets Have No Name - would far exceed even the band's own expectations, as it reached number 1 in twenty-two countries with worldwide sales of fifteen million copies. By 1987, awarded with Grammys for ‘Album Of The Year’ and ‘Best Rock Performance’, U2 were quite simply the biggest rock band in the world.
What followed was U2's grandest gesture yet. Rattle And Hum - a Hollywood-funded film chronicling The Joshua Tree tour, directed by Phil Joanou and accompanied by a Jimmy Iovine-produced double soundtrack album of live tracks and new studio material - emerged in October 1988. The project traced U2 cutting their own, individualistic path down through the roots of blues and rock 'n' roll: collaborating with BB King on When Love Comes To Town; scoring their first UK number one single with the rootsy Desire.
By the end of the '80s, however, it seemed U2 had looked so deep into the past, they'd forgotten about their own future. At the close of their Lovetown tour of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, U2 performed four triumphant homecoming shows in Dublin. On one night, December 30th, 1989, Bono made a strong, symbolic hint that the band were on the verge of significant change.
"This is just the end of something for U2," he announced to an estimated radio audience of 500 million, tuning in via the BBC and RTE. "It's no big deal, it's just that we have to go away and dream it all up again."
At the close of that decade, few could have predicted the transformation that U2 would undergo with the dawning of the '90s. Ready for the laughing gas, U2 travelled to Hansa Studios in Berlin and re-emerged in November 1991 with Achtung Baby , before launching the Zoo TV live experience, widely lauded as the Sgt. Pepper of rock tours. The momentum of all of this propelled them through Zooropa - a planned single to be recorded in touring breaks that grew to an EP and eventually became their eighth album in 1993. Following that, in 1997, came their ninth album Pop and the lemon-scented sensory overload of the accompanying PopMart world jaunt.
As the millennium draws ever closer, U2 are alive, well and living in Dublin.