On "Pride," U2 Honored a Great Man As Only They Can

U2 performing at Live Aid in 1985
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For as long as they've been a band, U2 have always sung from the heart - even if that means giving up things understood by the head. One of their best early examples was "Pride (In the Name of Love)," a soaring single from fourth album The Unforgettable Fire (1984). Almost nothing about the song went as intended - but it remains one of their most defining tracks, as well as the song that essentially broke them into the mainstream in America.

The bones of the song were conceived during a soundcheck on tour the year prior. What started as a basic instrumental jam led by guitarist The Edge turned into something more impactful when one of the members played a wrong note, leading them into a new series of chords that they filed away for later use. Bono, aware of the band's growing live status and determined to give the song a message like so many of their other big tracks at the time, initially conceived "Pride" as a reference to U.S. president Ronald Reagan's literal pride in the American military. But after reading books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, he was inspired to explore the civil rights movement through two of America's best-known figureheads - one man known for non-violent resistance, the other preaching a doctrine of Black equality "by any means necessary," both men taken in their prime by armed gunmen.

READ MORE: March 1987: U2 Releases "The Joshua Tree"

Of course, the final lyrics to "Pride (in the Name of Love)" are slightly more abstract than most historical accounts, something that frustrated frontman Bono as he tried to hone his lyrics. Ultimately, The Edge - as well as producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois - persuaded him to keep the "simple sketches" he had crafted. Bono would later discuss how that style may have helped the meaning resonate with audiences who did not actually understand the words. "I looked at how glorious that song was and thought: 'What the fuck is that all about?' It's just a load of vowel sounds ganging up on a great man," he'd later write in the band's official book in 2009. "It is emotionally very articulate - if you didn't speak English."

Ironically, the song's most pointed historical detail is actually wrong. The third verse begins with a reaction to King's assassination: "Early morning, April 4 / Shot rings out through the Memphis sky." In fact, King was actually shot and killed on the evening of April 4, 1968, a correction that Bono has since made when performing the song live. The track became the Irish band's fifth Top 10 in England as well as their first Top 40 hit in America, and "Pride" would become a concert staple at nearly every one of the band's shows since - including a special performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration of Barack Obama, the country's first Black president.

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