When U2 Released ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ a Rebel Song That Wasn’t
There's more to U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" than meets the eye.
On the surface, the song addresses the "Bloody Sunday" of Jan. 30, 1972, when British soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd of civilian protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 26 people. The Irish Troubles had started in the late '60s, and by 1972, U2's members were old enough to remember the conflict they saw around them. "I was 11,'" Bono wrote in his 2022 memoir, Surrender. "And I still feel the nausea."
But "Sunday Bloody Sunday," released as a single on March 21, 1983, wasn't intended to glorify the continuing violence taking place in Ireland, as some people believed. "It's a very special song because it's the first time that we ever really made a statement," drummer Larry Mullen told Rolling Stone in 1983. He compared it to Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side," another song about the morality of war.
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" starts with the Edge, who emphasized in the Rolling Stone interview that he didn't want to take sides in the Troubles; he just wanted them to end. "All religion seems to do is divide," he said.
Working with the Edge's initial sketch, Bono rewrote some of the song's more political lyrics. "'Sunday Bloody Sunday' was not just dangerous subject matter to be singing in the sense of the obvious pitfalls if you were a kid from the south," Bono said. "It was actually dangerous in the sense that on hearing it, some people wanted to hurt us. Some people from both sides of the sectarian divide."
There was also the fact that in 1982, when sessions for the band's third album, War, began, U2 had yet to crack the Top 10 in either the U.K. or the U.S. "To be honest, U2 were not the band you'd put your money on in those days," producer Steve Lillywhite recalled to Music Business Worldwide in 2021. "But one thing that Bono has more than anyone else I've ever worked with is a dedication and a drive that is just ridiculous. He will push himself further and harder than anyone."
Listen to U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'
Chris Blackwell, who at first was hesitant to sign the band to his label Island Records, also realized it was best to let U2's drive steer the course. "I did not have any influence on them at all," Blackwell wrote in his 2022 memoir, The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond. "They did everything themselves."
But Blackwell did influence the song in some ways. He offered GoldenEye, the luxury resort he owned in Jamaica, where he grew up, as a honeymoon destination to the newly married Bono. The singer absorbed the local reggae sounds, which inspired the ascending melody heard in the song's chorus. But more was needed. Lillywhite told the band a good song requires a hook. In "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the hook comes not from the usual place, but from the drums.
"There is a particular violence built into the snare drum, and the rat-a-tat of a military tattoo was exactly what we were looking for with the opening of 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,'" Bono wrote in 2022. Lillywhite encouraged Mullen, who had a habit of rushing the tempo, to try playing alongside a click track. It took an entire day of practicing for the drummer to finally hit the sweet spot. "All of sudden, he got it," Lillywhite recalled to NPR in 2008. The final contribution added to the track was a fiddle part by Steve Wickham, who has also worked on albums by Elvis Costello, Sinead O'Connor and the Waterboys.
While "Sunday Bloody Sunday" didn't even dent the charts as a single, the song became an immediate concert favorite and helped push War to become the band's first No. 1 album in the U.K. and just missed the Top 10 in the U.S. Bono often clarified as he introduced the song onstage, "This song is not a rebel song." "It seemed the right moment to get the word out that we were not prepared to have our song co-opted to further continue the suffering of innocents like those who lost their lives or loved ones on that dark January day," he later explained.
On Jan. 30, 2022, exactly 50 years after Bloody Sunday, Bono and the Edge released an acoustic version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" without the familiar drums and with new lyrics: "Here at the murder scene / The virus of fiction, reality TV / Why so many mothers cry / Religion is the enemy of the Holy Spirit guide / And the battle just begun / Where is the victory Jesus won?"
Watch Bono and the Edge's 2022 Version of 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'