The 1980s Story Behind ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’

This is week 3 of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘.

Timeless tracks are often regarded as having a wholesome, nostalgic warmth that can remind you of your blissful youth or force you to question if you were born in the wrong era. However, every so often, there is a timeless track that brings to the surface deep, dark scars of political unrest, yet still regarded as poignant for defining its times. It’s important to note that in music, it’s not always sunshine and tie-dye rainbow shirts. There’s a frightening irony in the fact that Dublin’s most treasured rock band’s third single from their album War doesn’t just define a particularly dark side of the politics of the 80s, but of a decade earlier and decades since. 

Though protest songs can be (and often are) a memento of their time, sometimes they can be as relevant in the now just as they had been in the past. Easter Monday 2021 came and went, seeing some of the most horrific acts of violence, gangs and disputes in Northern Ireland in recent years. The destruction caused by petrol bombs and the marching of loyalist bands through streets and towns proves that music and events can haul you back to different times and not necessarily pleasant ones. Needless to say, it can sometimes be terrifying how much the present can reflect the past… or does anything really change? 

U2’s frontman, Bono, had a picture to paint for the listener in ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, which contrasted the 1972 instant massacre of 13 Irish citizens by British paratroopers in Northern Ireland with the peacefulness of Easter Sunday—a day in which both Protestants and Catholics share celebrations on. The sad irony of this track is that 2021’s Easter did not see a uniting, peaceful celebration of two divides but rather a reminder of the remnants of what is often referred to as “The Troubles”, a three-decade-long conflict and its unfortunate, seemingly timeless, endurance. The events of today are at odds with U2’s hope for what was their tomorrow. 

Since at least the 15th Century, Western European ground has seen horrific bloody battles between Northern Ireland and England. Yet, arguably, nothing as socially and politically provoking as the period of “The Troubles”, influencing some of the biggest protest songs to appear in the industry from the likes of John Lennon—who was famously criticised for his lack of political strength in his own ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. 

U2 would notoriously give goosebump-inducing performances of their version, holding the capacity to make your hairs stand on end, which made them a household name. Though initially intending to condemn the IRA— a militant group who were persistent on removing British troops from Northern Ireland— Bono later changed the song to represent a nonpartisan condemnation. This meant highlighting the adversity of war without siding with either and opting for a non-violence approach. It was common for Bono to wave a white flag at live performances as a strong emphasis on his universal peace message. 

Though live versions of this song are countless, even appearing in the end credits of the 2002 documentary-style film Bloody Sunday, those did not seem to even touch the cusp of the power and emotion of their recording in 1987 for their Rattle and Hum movie. This Denver recording took place on the same day as the Enniskillen killings (more commonly known as the Remembrance Day bombing), which seen the bloodshed of 13 people in Northern Ireland from a bomb detonated by the IRA. U2 were nothing short of exasperated by the news and so proceeded to give one of their most moving and heart-rending performances. 

Bono discusses U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ for the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s special exhibit, ‘Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics’ and how he remembers his childhood: “All I remember is arguing about religion as I grew up,” he began, before saying that his father had an interesting perspective, “What is Ireland but a place that keeps my feet from getting wet?” Bono’s dad would say to him, “Am I on the side of the British? No— but it’s not worth fighting for.” 

It’s clear that the views of Bono’s father resonated within him. This resulted in one of the greatest, politically moving rock songs of all time, yet even though it takes a neutral, pro-peace standpoint, there was inevitably some room for misinterpretation— as seen with many protest songs. Contextualising and delving deep into the meanings behind a song’s themes are essential in preventing the spread of misconstrued political messages. 

In the ‘Louder Than Words’ interview, Bono talks of Gerry Adams, the president of the Irish Republican political party, Sinn Féin, from 1983 to 2018. He speaks of Adams having U2’s War album pinned up on his office wall and would continuously hype up ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ to people and in Bono’s words would say that the song: “…is reminding everyone of the injustice the British did to us.” However, Bono says that Adams later found out that they were non-violent and that they took a different, peaceful approach at the time. Bono claims that things changed for U2 with the Sinn Féin community and those who supported their views. 

U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was a revolutionary milestone and significantly original for a political song, breaking the mould and idea that in politics, you either need to sway one way or the other when instead— you can meet somewhere in the middle. This is also a song whose tension builds as the song progresses, different from any other song they had done before and have done since. Christopher Connelly of the Rolling Stone Magazine in a 1984 article claims: “This is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for smart people — even if it is played a tad too fast.” 

With its simplistic structure conveying a complex message, using a militaristic drum beat and an electric violin— the instrumentation only magnifies the emotion entangled in an important message and not just in the studio, but from the moment they step onto a stage. Perhaps this will inspire more people of today to pick up a guitar to convey a message instead of a bomb and march about a stage instead of the streets.

Image Source: “File:Bono U2 360 Tour 2011.jpg” by Peter Neill is licensed under CC BY 2.0