Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Three). “I Can’t Believe the News Today …”

Derry is a small town in Northern Ireland, the home to approximately 100,000 people.  Derry has a dark past.  In 1970, the British Army had entered Northern Ireland to keep the peace at the height of The Troubles.  On the 9th August, 1971, Internment had been introduced by The British Government and the Unionist Government in Northern Ireland.  In the small hours of the morning, those suspected of being IRA members were subjected to their houses being raided and being put in prison with no trial, completely bypassing the judicial system.  On the 30th January 1972, British soldiers shot twenty six unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and The Northern Resistance Movement.   Fourteen people were killed.  Thirteen were killed outright whilst another man died four and a half months later due to the injuries he sustained.  Many of the victims were shot whilst fleeing from the soldiers, whilst others were shot trying to help the wounded.  Two protestors were also injured when they were run down by army vehicles.  This bleak event in the history of Northern Ireland became known as Bloody Sunday.

Move forward eleven years and Northern Ireland was still in the grips of The Troubles.  A young band from Dublin begins to play a song.  Starting with a militaristic drum beat which evokes image of soldiers and guns and almost makes the listener feel as though they were there on Bloody Sunday even before the vocals begin, this song is Sunday Bloody Sunday and the band is U2.

Sunday Bloody Sunday, from U2’s third album War (1983), grew from a guitar riff written by guitarist the Edge in 1982.  Whilst singer Bono and new wife Ali Hewson were on their honeymoon in Jamaica, the Edge was in Ireland working on the music for what would become the War album.  Following an argument with his girlfriend and a period of self doubt over his abilities as a songwriter, the Edge channelled his frustration into what would become Sunday Bloody Sunday, writing the first draft of the song’s lyrics.  Bono rewrote the Edge’s lyrics, which started with the line “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA, UDA”, fearing that the original lyrics would be misinterpreted to be sectarian thus placing them in danger.  Instead of the original potentially volatile opening line, Sunday Bloody Sunday starts with the line, “I can’t believe the news today”, evocative of the prevailing response to the violence in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.  Thus, with this still powerful opening line, Sunday Bloody Sunday became U2’s equivalent of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967), which starts with the line, “I read the news today, oh boy”.

Despite the way in which Sunday Bloody Sunday is often perceived as a protest song, something heavily disputed by the band, the song actually takes the viewpoint of somebody outside of the violence who is horrified at the cycle of violence in the province and the effect it has on people.  Sunday Bloody Sunday links together the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 1920, where British troops fired into the crowd at a football match in retaliation for the killing of British undercover agents.  The band has said that the song is not specifically about either event.  Sunday Bloody Sunday is more a condemnation of the glorification of violence, common with those involved in it and those supporting it in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.  In an interview with Lucy White in 1983, Larry Mullen Jr said of the song:

“We’re into the politics of people, we’re not into politics.  Like you talk about Northern Ireland, Sunday Bloody Sunday, people sort of think, ‘Oh, that time when thirteen Catholics were shot by British soldiers’; that’s not what the song is about.  That’s the incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it’s the strongest way of saying, ‘How long?  How long do we have to put up with this?’  I don’t care who’s who – Catholics, Protestants, whatever.  You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying why?  What’s the point?  And you can move that into place like El Salvador and other similar situations – people dying.  Let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it … There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc.  Well, so what!  The real battle is people dying, that’s the real battle”.

At a concert filmed the night of the IRA Enniskillen bombing on the 8th November, Bono backed up this viewpoint, saying:

“I’ve had enough of Irish-Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years coming up to talk to me about the resistance, the resistance back home.  And the glory days of the revolution.  FUCK THE REVOLUTION!  They don’t talk about the glory of killing for the revolution.  What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and children?  Where’s the glory in that?  Where’s the glory in bombing a remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day?  Where’s the glory in that?  To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead.  Under the rubble of a revolution.  That, the majority of people in my country don’t want.  No  more!”

The song also links the events of both Bloody Sundays to Easter Sunday, paraphrasing religious text from Matthew 10:35 in the line “Mothers children; brothers, sisters torn apart” and twisting 1 Corinthians 15:32 to fit around the theme of Bloody Sunday in the line “We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”.  The chorus of Sunday Bloody Sunday, the opening track on War, is echoed in the album’s closing track 40, which is a heavily based on Psalm 40.

The chorus of “How long, how long must we sing this song …” rhetorically pleads with those involved in the killing of innocent people and the glorification of such atrocities over the course of The Troubles.  What became known as The Troubles lasted between 1960 and the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 but in reality, Ireland has seen bloody clashes since the 1600s and continues to see sporadic violence, such as the Massereene Barracks Shooting in 2009.

Throughout Sunday Bloody Sunday, disturbing images of violence abound.  In verse two of the song, “Broken bottles under children’s feet” refers to the combatants’ use of Molotov Cocktails during The Troubles and “Bodies strewn across the dead end street”.  These lines are followed by Bono’s insistence that he affiliates with no side in the conflict and that he and the band are simply against violence:  “But I won’t heed the battle call, It puts my back up, Puts my back up against the wall”.  Later in the song, we see the lines “And the battle’s just begun, There’s many lost but tell me who has won”.   Between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed as a result of The Troubles.  “The trench is dug within our hearts, And mothers, children, brothers, sisters Torn apart” Bono continues, telling of the devastating effects of death, political and religious difference and imprisonment.  The lines, “Cause tonight, we can be as one, Tonight, Tonight” end this section of the song with a powerful cry for unity and an end to the bloodshed and misery.

In the final verse of the song, Bono tells of the effect of media manipulation on conflicts with the lines “And it’s true we are immune, When fact is fiction and TV reality”.  The band itself grew up in Dublin, Republic of Ireland where the violence of Northern Ireland didn’t impact them in terms of seeing it firsthand but more through media coverage, relating back to the song’s opening lyric, “I can’t believe the news today”.  Therefore, much like most other people listening to the song, he is taking the viewpoint of simply seeing second hand accounts of the violence.  Bono has said of the day of Bloody Sunday in an article for The New York Times in 2010:

“It was a day when my father stopped taking our family across the border to Ulster because, as he said, the “Nordies have lost their marbles”.  And we were a Catholic-Protestant household”.

The band end the last verse of song on a religious note, neatly linking the events in Northern Ireland to Easter Sunday and calling for an end to the violence with the lines, “The real battle just begun, To claim the victory Jesus won on …” before returning to the chorus for the full effect of the “How long …” refrain.  This refrain has been used to great effect in concert during The Troubles and other conflicts around the world, often being played as the final song of the set, with the audience continuing to sing it long after the band have left the stage.  Also greatly effective in live performances was Bono waving a white flag whilst performing the song, both as a call for peace and to ward off unwanted politically-motivated attention for the song.

U2 have returned to the subject of The Troubles several times throughout their career, most notably on the song Please, from 1997’s Pop album. The song is about the ongoing Northern Ireland Peace Process and in particular, the lack of resolution from the talks.  When Please was released as the fourth single from the album, the sleeve featured pictures of four Northern Irish politicians – Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Ian Paisley and John Hume.  In the song’s fourth verse, we find the lines “Your holy war” referring to The Troubles and “Your northern star” referring to Northern Ireland.  These lines are followed by an allusion to car bombs in the lines “Your sermon on the mount, From the boot of your car”.

In the final verse of Please, Bono sings: “September … streets capsizing … Spilling over, down the drain … Shards of glass splinters like rain, But you can only feel your own pain … October … talking getting nowhere … November … December … remember, Are we just starting again?”  These lines juxtapose the difficulties in coming to a peace agreement with images of violence in The Troubles, which were still continuing.

Please could be seen as the sequel to Sunday Bloody Sunday, perhaps approached with more maturity but also more cynicism.  Bono has now gone past the point of screaming for peace and sounds positively exhausted, at his wit’s end pleading with those involved in The Troubles to find a resolution.

Around the same time as Bono penned the lyrics for Please, he and the Edge collaborated with Christy Moore on the equally mournful and pleading North and South of the River, also influenced by The Troubles.  The song was recorded during the Pop sessions and released on the B-side of the album’s second single, Staring at the Sun in 1997.  The band played the song live for the 1998 television benefit for the victims of the Omagh bombing.  To date, this is the only time the song has been played live.

For their All That You Can’t Leave Behind album, released in 2000, the band were inspired by The Troubles once again.  Peace on Earth was directly influenced by the Omagh bombing on the 15th August 1998.  The car bombing was carried out by the Real IRA, an IRA splinter group who opposed the IRA’s ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement.  The bomb killed 29 people and injured about 220 others, making it the highest death toll from a single incident during The Troubles.  Telephoned warnings had been received approximately 40 minutes before the incident but the details conveyed by those responsible were inaccurate and as a result, the police had inadvertently moved people towards the bomb.

During the song, Bono pays tribute to the victims of the bombing, reading out several of the names of people killed in the highly moving verse:  “They’re reading names out over the radio, All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know, Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Breda, Their lives are bigger, than any big idea”.  Similarly, the song makes reference to the funeral of victim James Barker in the lines “She never got to say goodbye, To see the colour in his eye, Now he’s in the dirt”.  The Irish Times had quoted James Barker’s mother as saying, “I never realised how green his eyes were”.  Peace on Earth gained further meaning in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks when the band performed the song as an encore, usually coupled with Walk On from the same album, during their Elevation Tour.

After the anger and frustration of Sunday Bloody Sunday and the emotional appeal of Please, Peace on Earth, although also political, finds Bono at crisis point.  In Peace on Earth, Bono expresses that ‘Peace on Earth’ is simply a saying that is thrown around with no actual meaning.  As much as the singer despises war, he finds the concept of people saying that there will be peace on Earth difficult.  Peace on Earth is Bono attempting to come to terms with the seemingly impossible nature of peace.