Top 5 U2 Songs That Helped Define the 1980s

Although formed in 1976, U2 came of age during the 1980s. The band absolutely dominated the decade, earning back-to-back No. 1 records on the Billboard 200 (for The Joshua Tree and its 1988 follow-up, Rattle and Hum) and numerous Top 10 hits across the globe. During an era obsessed with music videos, digitized recordings, and synthesizers, the boys flew a different kind of flag, pledging their allegiance to the power of earnest, larger-than-life pop-rock.    

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U2 was everywhere during the 1980s: MTV, Live Aid, even the cover of Time magazine. The band’s omnipresence—paired with an overly serious demeanor that some critics interpreted as self-righteousness—would lead to a backlash during the decade’s final stretch, prompting the bandmates to reinvent their image and sound for Achtung Baby. Even so, U2 is one of the most iconic bands of the ’80s, stocked with songs that articulated the decade’s trends and textures. 

Here are five tracks that defined not only the band, but the decade that launched them, as well.

5. “Bad

U2 memorably played this song at Live Aid, stretching its original runtime to 12 minutes. While a global audience of 1.5 billion people watched, Bono left the stage midway through the performance and ran down to the audience of 72,000 fans, where he embraced three different women. U2’s stage time was limited to 20 minutes, and by the time Bono returned to the microphone, more than eight minutes had already elapsed. When “Bad” eventually came to a triumphant close, the guys didn’t have enough time to play their final song, “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

Bono’s bandmates weren’t happy with the frontman, but “Bad” was an amazing television moment that simultaneously magnified the band’s fame while also highlighting its relationship with its audience. Few bands during the 1980s managed to walk that fine line as well as U2. 

4. “Pride (In the Name of Love)

Bono wrote the lyrics for “Pride (In the Name of Love)” about civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., then added them to a chord progression U2 had improvised while warming up before a gig in Hawaii back in 1983. An anthem about activism, love, and martyrdom, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” became U2’s biggest hit for three years, until “With or Without You” topped the charts in three different countries in mid-1987. 

3. “I Will Follow

When U2 debuted in 1980 with Boy, the sweeping soundscapes that would eventually fill albums like The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree had yet to be developed. The guys were still in the middle of their post-punk phase, and their early songs seemed to favor sharp corners over softly rounded edges. “I Will Follow” captures that angular sound at its best. It’s the first track on the band’s first album, and its guitar riff—a hammering, two-string pattern that sounds like it’s coming straight from the garage—is perhaps the best introduction to any act during the 1980s.

As the decade progressed, the lingering punk textures of the 1970s would fade away from the mainstream and be replaced by genres like synth-pop, hair metal, and heartland rock ‘n’ roll. Every time U2 played “I Will Follow” live, though, the song sounded fresh, like the beginning of a relationship that has yet to move past the honeymoon phase. 

2. “Where the Streets Have No Name

These days, the sound that U2 created with The Joshua Tree—a sincere, soaring mix of ringing guitar arpeggios and cavernous reverb—doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary. It’s been co-opted by everyone from contemporary Christian bands to adult contemporary acts. In 1987, though, The Joshua Tree sounded positively otherworldly. Very few bands had managed to create such ethereal, electrifying music using organic instruments, and songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” became harbingers for the music that would follow in U2’s wake, from British acts like Coldplay to American stadium-fillers like The Killers. With a slow-burning, two-minute introduction that gives way to a galloping verse, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the sound of U2 hitting its stride.

[RELATED: What Do the Lyrics to “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2 Mean?]

1. “With or Without You

During the 1980s, the ballad reigned supreme. A well-placed ballad could turn a hair metal band into a group of chart-topping heartthrobs. It could turn a newcomer like Whitney Houston into a global phenomenon with massive crossover appeal. For U2, it delivered the band its first No.1 hit. “With or Without You” sounded great on the radio in 1987, where it shared the same airspace as Heart’s “Alone” and Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.”

Unlike those tracks, the song didn’t feature vocal acrobatics or flashy, Liza Minnelli-worthy bombast. It didn’t even feature a guitar solo. Instead, “With or Without You” hit its peak during the final post-chorus, then moved into a gorgeously restrained outro. U2 would have plenty of melodramatic moments during the coming years, but “With or Without You” wasn’t one of them. Few power ballads during the 1980s hit their mark better than this one. 

Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns

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