The Stories Behind 29 U2 Songs

U2 album cover
U2's Boy album contained hits like "I Will Follow" and "Out of Control."
Publications International, Ltd.

September 1976: A 14-year-old drummer posts a notice at school that he's looking to start a band. Rehearsals are held in his parent's kitchen in Dublin, and The Larry Mullen Band is born.

The name didn't last, but more than 30 years and 22 Grammys later, the band, which would eventually be called U2, has proven it has what it takes to stay on top.


The keys to U2's longevity include respect for each other and their fans; the ability to continuously reinvent themselves and their musical style; and powerful music with a message.

But the meanings of most U2 songs are subject to interpretation. Bono is a genius at writing ambiguous lyrics, allowing listeners to decide what each song means to them. Read on to take a musical journey with the band that Time magazine once named "Rock's Hottest Ticket."


1. I Will Follow (1980)

This peppy 1980s tune, released on the Boy album, is still as fresh today as when it debuted nearly three decades ago. The song is charged with Edge's gritty guitar riffs and a pounding drum beat by Larry Mullen, Jr., still played with the intensity of an 18 year old. According to Bono, the lyrics are about the unconditional love between mother (or God) and child. Whatever the child does, whatever his or her faults, a mother (or God) still loves her child.


2. Out of Control (1980)

Another toe-tapper from Boy, "Out of Control" has the distinction of being the first song the guys heard played on the radio. Bono wrote the lyrics in the wee hours of the morning following his eighteenth birthday. "It was one dull morning/I woke the world with bawling/I was so sad/They were so glad . . ." The song is about being born -- or rather objecting to it -- and feeling that you have no control over your life.


3. Gloria (1981)

No, it's not a cover of fellow Irishman Van Morrison's 1960s hit. This one comes from U2's sophomore album, October, which was heavy-laden with references to religion and spirituality. Bono has said he had a difficult time writing the lyrics, so he turned it into a psalm, complete with verses in Latin. The music is quite edgy considering the subject matter, which is what makes it classic U2.


4. Tomorrow (1981)

Most U2 lyrics are pretty heavy. But with "Tomorrow," from October, Bono was truly speaking from the heart. When he was 14, his mother suffered a brain hemorrhage at her father's funeral and died a few days later. Bono would later state that the melancholy lyrics to "Tomorrow" were a description of her funeral.


5. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983)

From the War album, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is a powerhouse in the U2 canon, performed on every major tour since its debut. It's a classic U2 protest song about the troubles in Northern Ireland. Larry's militaristic drumming and Edge's abrasive guitar drive the song, while Bono's powerful lyrics cry out "How long, how long must we sing this song?"

The song, which reached number seven on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart in the 1980s, has now become a global plea to end the violence that threatens the world today.


6. New Year's Day (1983)

This song, inspired by the solidarity movement in Poland, reached number two on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. It was also the first U2 video to get major airplay on MTV, giving the band the exposure that would get them named "Band of the Eighties" by Rolling Stone magazine just two years later. During live shows, Edge takes control on this song, playing guitar and keyboard simultaneously in parts and also singing backup vocals.


7. 40 (1983)

Also from War, Bono based the lyrics of this bass-driven song on Psalm 40. Although the song was only released in Germany, it is a fan favorite that has frequently been used to close shows. When a show ends with "40," guitarist Edge and bassist Adam Clayton switch instruments, and the band members leave the stage one by one -- first Bono, Adam, then Edge, leaving Larry alone onstage to perform a brief (but kickin') drum solo, as fans chant the chorus.


8. Pride (In the Name of Love) (1984)

Released on The Unforgettable Fire album, this song about Jesus ("one man betrayed with a kiss") and Martin Luther King, Jr., reached number two on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. Bono gave his all recording "Pride," shouting the lyrics from the depths of his soul.

But don't rely on Bono for a history lesson; the lyric referring to Dr. King ("Early morning, April four/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky . . .") is incorrect -- King was actually killed around 6:00 p.m. Bono has since realized his mistake and now sings "Early evening, April four" in live shows.


9. Bad (1984)

From The Unforgettable Fire album, "Bad" was never released as a single, but it's a fan favorite that sometimes closes shows. As always, the lyrics are subject to much debate, but according to Bono, the song is about drug addiction, specifically heroin, which ran rampant in Dublin in the early 1980s and had taken hold of one of his friends.

Ever the perfectionist, Bono feels the song could've been better if he'd "finished" it. Most fans think it's a masterpiece as it stands.


10. With or Without You (1987)

This perpetual crowd-pleaser, released on the Grammy Award-winning album The Joshua Tree, was U2's first number-one song in America. Some feel the song is about Jesus ("see the thorn twist in your side"); others think it's about romantic love and longing for someone you can't be with.

The song is rife with symbolism, in both the lyrics and the music. Adam's bass is the pulse. Larry's drumming is the heartbeat. Edge's guitar chords represent the agony of a heart breaking. And Bono's voice and haunting lyrics are the personification of love and longing and the agony of unrequited love.

When his voice cries out, you know he's not just reciting the words but truly feeling the pain of loving someone he can't be with . . . and you feel that pain with him.

11. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (1987)

No dual meaning here -- U2's second song to top U.S. charts, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," is a gospel song about searching for and understanding one's spiritual beliefs. U2 even took a gospel choir with them to sing backup vocals during The Joshua Tree tour.

Bono often says he's not satisfied with some of his recorded lyrics, so he tends to "rewrite" them during live performances. For example, the original lyric: "You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/Oh my shame . . ." is now sung: "You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross/Took my shame/You took the blame . . ." The change is ever so slight, but it makes the song much deeper and more meaningful.

12. Where the Streets Have No Name (1987)

Although "Streets" didn't crack the top ten in the States, it's a fan favorite that was frequently used to open shows on The Joshua Tree tour. The lyrics were inspired by a trip Bono and his wife took to Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, during which they volunteered at a refugee camp orphanage. With Edge's distinctive scratchy chords, Larry's enthusiastic drumming, and Adam's deep bass holding it all together, even the band admits it's much better live.

13. Desire (1988)

With "Desire," released as the first single from the album Rattle and Hum, Bono parodies and criticizes evangelical preachers, politicians, and the greed ingrained in the landscape of 1980s America. But the lyrics can have a more carnal interpretation as well.

Either way, the song was a hit, reaching number one on both Billboard's Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts. The song also won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, and it was U2's first song to reach the top of the charts in the U.K.

14. Angel of Harlem (1988)

With "Angel of Harlem," U2 racked up another number one on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. Recorded in Sun Studios in Memphis, Elvis's legendary music engineer Cowboy Jack Clement pitched in on this one, and it was all captured on film in the "rockumentary" Rattle and Hum.

The song chronicles the band's arrival in America for their first tour in 1980 ("It was a cold and wet December day/When we touched the ground at JFK . . ."). It is also a tribute to Billie Holiday, the "Angel of Harlem."

15. All I Want Is You (1989)

Bono has said that "All I Want Is You," from Rattle and Hum, is dedicated to his wife, Ali. The poetic and symbolic lyrics describe his desire for true, unconditional love, and the promises his lover makes show the depth of her feelings. The song closed the Rattle and Hum movie, and much to the surprise of fans (because it seldom closes a live show), it was the last song played on the Vertigo tour, when it closed the show in Honolulu in December 2006.

16. Mysterious Ways (1991)

In the 1990s, U2 took a new musical direction, attempting to "chop down The Joshua Tree" by reinventing themselves with a funkier, more experimental sound on the album Achtung Baby. It must have worked because "Mysterious Ways," powered by Edge's abrasive guitar riffs and Bono's enigmatic lyrics, scored U2 another number one on both Billboard's Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts.

Fans disagree over the song's meaning -- some feel it's deeply spiritual, with references to John the Baptist, while others believe the lyrics are more sexual in nature, and others just think it's a funky dance groove.

17. One (1992)

Such a simple title, such a powerful lyric. Tensions were running high while recording Achtung Baby, and the band was reportedly on the brink of breaking up. "One" is the song that brought them back together, essentially saving the band.

The lyrics can be interpreted in several ways: a gay son coming out to his father; a relationship in which a couple loves each other but have hurt each other too much to stay together; or Bono's rocky relationship with his own father.

Whatever the meaning, the song reminds us that all humans are equal and that we need to help those less fortunate: "We're one, but we're not the same/We get to carry each other, carry each other." "One" topped Billboard's Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts and has been played at every U2 concert since its debut on the ZooTV tour in 1992.

18. Numb (1993)

U2 got even more experimental with the album Zooropa. "Numb," the first single from that album, reached number two on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. Edge takes lead vocals on this song, speaking the lyrics in a monotone voice with backup vocals by Bono and Larry Mullen, Jr. -- a very rare occurrence for the drummer. Bono has said the lyrics symbolize information overload from the constant barrage of media coverage.

19. Stay (Far Away, So Close) (1993)

"Stay" is another example of a fan favorite that did not chart well, not breaking the top ten on any U.S. chart. The song, which appears on Zooropa, was written for the Wim Wenders' film Far Away, So Close.

The song's meaning is debatable, but one take is that it's about a guardian angel who feels helpless that he can watch over the living person but not really help them. Or perhaps it's about somebody caught in an abusive relationship. Fans love it, but it hasn't been played on tour since 2001.

20. Please (1997)

"Please" appeared on Pop, the band's most experimental and dance-oriented album to date, which band members agree needed a few more weeks to really polish it. "Please" is a song about terrorism and the troubles in Northern Ireland, but the song and its prophetic lyrics ("September, streets capsizing . . . /Shards of glass, splinters like rain . . .") took on new meaning following 9/11.

In recordings from the Popmart tour, Bono pours out his heart and soul, crying out "please, please," almost desperate, begging. But then, just as your heart starts to break for him, you hear the ping of Larry's drumstick against the cymbal as "Streets" takes off. It's like a security blanket or the voice of an old friend, and with the reassuring sounds of an old favorite, fans know all will be okay.

21. Beautiful Day (2000)

With the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 once again reinvented themselves, ditching their dance-oriented experimental phase and returning to their roots, albeit with a harder, rock-based sound. "Beautiful Day," the first single from the multiplatinum, Grammy Award-winning album, is a reminder that no matter how bad life can get, we should always be thankful for what we have.

The song went to number five on Billboard's Modern Rock chart, and it secured three more Grammys for the Dublin lads -- Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Rock Performance.

22. Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of (2001)

"Stuck," the second single from All That You Can't Leave Behind, reached only number 35 on U.S. charts. Nevertheless, this in-your-face number earned the boys another Grammy for Best Pop Performance.

Bono wrote the lyrics as a conversation he wishes he'd had with his friend Michael Hutchence to prevent the INXS singer from committing suicide in 1997. The lyrics are somewhat argumentative with Bono shouting: "You've got to get yourself together/You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it. . . ." Still, the words are very powerful and uplifting, reminding the downtrodden that "It's just a moment/This time will pass."

23. Elevation (2001)

"Elevation," also from All That You Can't Leave Behind, climbed to number eight on Billboard's Modern Rock chart and won the band a Grammy for Best Rock Performance. This crowd-pleaser is even better live, so it's not surprising that it appeared in every concert on the Elevation and Vertigo tours.

With Adam's head-bobbing bass line, Edge's grinding chords, and Larry's powerful drumming, "Elevation" is a rockin' tune that makes fans (and Edge) want to jump up and down during live shows. Some feel the song is simply about passion and sexuality. Others feel there is a deeper meaning and that Bono is referring to his spirituality when he sings the tune.

24. Walk On (2001)

"Walk On" scored U2 another Grammy for Record of the Year. This song was supposedly inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, a nonviolent Burmese political activist who has been under house arrest off and on since 1989.

But many people feel the song is a tribute to someone nearing the end of his life (possibly Bono's father), who realizes that love is really the most important, and only, thing to take on his journey. ("You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been/A place that has to be believed to be seen . . ." and "Home . . . I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home.")

During the Elevation tour dates after 9/11, the band took NYC firefighters and police officers on tour with them and brought them onstage during this song, which adopted a special meaning after the terrorist attacks.

25. Vertigo (2004)

"Vertigo" was the first single from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which is harder and more upbeat than their previous efforts. No mixed messages with this U2 powerhouse -- "Vertigo" is an adrenalized rocker about an evening at a nightclub.

The song reached number one on Billboard's Modern Rock chart, garnered the band two more Grammys (Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song), and was featured in a commercial for Apple's iPod. The fellas had so much fun playing the song that it was played at every concert of the Vertigo tour -- sometimes twice!

26. Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own (2005)

U2 racked up two more Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Rock Performance with "Sometimes," which is a tribute to the somewhat distant relationship Bono had with his father, who passed away in 2001. The song reaches a climax when, from the depths of his soul, Bono cries out, "You're the reason I sing/You're the reason why the opera is in me . . . ," and fans are often moved to tears by his display of raw emotion.

27. City of Blinding Lights (2005)

U2 cleaned up at the 2005 Grammys, taking home five awards including Best Rock Song for "City" and Album of the Year and Best Rock Album for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Inspired by Bono's love for New York City and the band's love for their fans ("I miss you when you're not around"), this peppy, upbeat song quickly found a home as the opener on the Vertigo tour with Adam playing the opening notes on the keyboard.

28. The Saints Are Coming (2006)

U2 teamed up with Green Day for this cover of a 1970s punk rock song by The Skids. "Saints," one of two new songs on the compilation album U2 18 Singles, was recorded in the legendary Abbey Road studios in London where The Beatles recorded most of their albums.

The song, which mentions New Orleans, storms, and flooding, took on new meaning when the two bands played it live when the New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome for the first time following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This energetic and mighty rocker reached number one in Australia, Canada, and all over Europe, but didn't receive much airplay in the States.

29. Window in the Skies (2007)

Another new song from U2 18 Singles, this cheerful, snappy tune was also recorded at Abbey Road studios and has a slight "Beatles" sound to it. Although it didn't fare well on U.S. charts due to lack of airplay, it reached the top ten in many other parts of the world and became an instant fan favorite.

Some argue that the lyrics are about romantic love, but most die-hard fans agree that this one is all about God's love and the grace, redemption, and forgiveness we receive by accepting his gift.


Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen

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