In 1978, the pioneering punk-rock band The Ramones performed in Dublin for the first time. And all four members of U2 were there.
Frontman Bono sang about that moment in "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)," the first track on the band's 2014 "Songs of Innocence" album, making it sound like a religious experience: "I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world."
"The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" is also the customary opening song on the band's Innocence + Experience Tour, which comes to Madison Square Garden in The Ramones' hometown, New York, for eight shows beginning Saturday.
It was Ramone's commitment to his material, despite its simplicity, that impressed Bono most. "This was a really important moment in the last 25 years," he wrote in a 2001 Time magazine eulogy for Ramone, who died of lymphoma at the age of 49, "because suddenly imagination was the only obstacle to overcome. Anyone could play those four chords. … You have to be able to hear it more than you have to be able to play it. Suddenly, the grasp becomes more important than the reach."
Or, as U2 bassist Adam Clayton said in his induction speech when the group entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, "We didn't know the blues or soul or R&B or country but we did know that together we had a chance to change the world by making a noise. This was punk and it saved [me]."
U2 is not usually thought of as a punk band. But they came together in the punk era. They cite punk icons such as The Clash and Patti Smith, as well as The Ramones, as primary influences; on the current tour, they have been inserting portions of The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and The Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" into their own songs.
Looking over the course of their consistently non-conformist career, you could argue that they are not just a punk band, but are, in fact, the ultimate punk band.
The popular notion of punk, of course, is that it's abrasive and nihilistic (two qualities that don't fit U2). And some of it is, of course. But punk is not just that. It's about staying true to yourself, no matter what the consequences are, and not letting anything — the judgment of others, or your own insecurities or artistic limitations — keep you from saying what's on your mind.
And U2, over the past 35 years, has done those things as well as anyone.
Though other bands — most, notably, perhaps, Coldplay — have been influenced by their music, U2 has never really been part of any movement. Especially when they first emerged internationally, in the early '80s, there was no one like them — dead serious, politically outspoken, almost messianic in their intensity. Then, after they got huge, they got weird and experimental in the '90s, adding electronic beats and modern pop-culture references to their music, and making their tours into big, arty spectacles. (Remember the giant lemon of the 1997-98 PopMart Tour?)
Even now, they're taking chances, and occasionally suffering the consequences. When "Songs of Innocence" came out in September, it was automatically added, at no charge, to all personal iTunes libraries throughout the world. Some felt the move was arrogant and invasive. In an interview with Los Angeles radio station KROQ, Bono defended it by saying "the punk rock thing to do is annoy people and get in their faces."
Another thing that separates U2 from everyone else is the band's unity. From Day One, it has always been Bono, Clayton, The Edge on guitar and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums, and all four credited as co-writers. It's unprecedented in rock history for a band to be around for so long and accomplish so much with absolutely no lineup changes.
But that goes back to punk, too. "We were a band before we could play," wrote Bono in the Time eulogy for Joey Ramone. "We formed our band around an idea of friendship and shared spirit. That was a preposterous notion before The Ramones."
U2's all-for-one, one-for-all philosophy makes them a throwback to a time when musicians were all essential to the band's sound, and more interested in helping their bands succeed than launching their solo careers. (Inducting U2 to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen cleverly called them "the last band of whom I would be able to name all of its members.") But though they are respectful of rock history — 1988's "Rattle and Hum" in particular, with its Beatles and Bob Dylan covers and its B.B. King collaboration, was an ardent embrace of it — they have always, primarily, looked forward instead of back.
And that's an important lesson for young rock bands of today, none of whom could play eight shows over two weeks at Madison Square Garden. You can make some money by imitating other successful bands or catering your sound to Top 40 radio. But it's nearly impossible to build a long-term career that way.
It's not totally these young bands' fault, of course. Rock doesn't dominate the world of popular music the way it once did: Pop, country and hip-hop all seem to offer easier roads to commercial success. (It's the likes of Taylor Swift and One Direction and Jason Aldean who are doing most of the big shows this summer, though admittedly some rock acts, including AC/DC and the Foo Fighters, are still filling huge venues, too).
But the first step, always, has to be creating something — a sound, a sensibility, an attitude — of your own. Having a long list of hits doesn't hurt, but the thing that is most responsible for ensuring that a U2 tour will be successful is the band's uniqueness. Their stubborn, punk-like, sometimes obnoxious but more often inspiring uniqueness.