THIS is the tale of three conflicts and three U2 songs, through the eyes of The Edge.
The guitarist tells how Sunday Bloody Sunday defied the odds to become a peace anthem during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
He recalls how One brought the spirit of unity to the people of war-torn Bosnia at U2’s 1997 concert in the capital Sarajevo.
And he describes how his visit to Kyiv last year with singer Bono led them to recast Walk On as a rallying cry for Ukraine.
“This is the greatest act of all . . . STAND UP FOR FREEDOM,” goes the band’s rewritten version in support of Volodymyr Zelensky and his fellow countrymen.
All three songs appear on the new U2 album, a collection of intimate, acoustic re-recordings of classic and lesser-known numbers, some with dramatic changes to music and lyrics.
During the Covid lockdowns, The Edge had time on his hands to conceive and mastermind this labour of love.
The resulting 40-track Songs Of Surrender serves as an aural companion to Bono’s heart-on-sleeve memoir, simply called Surrender, which appeared late last year.
So, in anticipation of the album’s release this week, I’m meeting the guitarist born David Evans 61 years ago but known even to close family and friends as Edge.
I’m joining him for breakfast in a discreet corner of a famous London hotel. (He has porridge and a cappuccino, by the way.)
Last time we met one clear blue autumn day in the South of France, I recall squinting into the low Mediterranean sun as he, more sensibly, wore big aviator shades beneath his trademark beanie.
This morning, the woolly hat is present and correct but I can also see those expressive, smiling eyes as he sifts through the mists of time.
Edge well remembers the first time U2 performed Sunday Bloody Sunday north of the Irish border.
Their planned setlist included a bold new song which focused on the 1972 shooting of 26 unarmed civilians by British soldiers in Derry.
“We were sensitive about writing a Bloody Sunday song because we’re from Dublin,” says Edge.
“We refused to allow our record label to release it as a single.
“We told them, ‘We don’t want anybody to say we’re capitalising on The Troubles commercially.’”
He remembers as if it was yesterday the moment he, Bono, Adam Clayton (bass) and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums) stepped on to that Belfast stage in front of a boisterous crowd.
“I knew when Sunday Bloody Sunday was to be the next song but, before we started playing, I waited for Bono to introduce it.
“What he said was very simple, ‘This is a song about Northern Ireland and if you guys don’t like it, we’ll never play it again.’
“Then we went into the song and the place went wild.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The anthem includes the immortal lines: “How long, how long must we sing this song? How long, how long? ’Cos tonight we can be as one, tonight.”
By the end of their Belfast performance, the crowd were singing along as one and, it has since been reported, no more than three people decided to walk out.
Edge continues: “At that time. we didn’t give ourselves much opportunity to explore Bloody Sunday as a historic event.
“It was a more general song to support peaceful protest against violence, which was our stance for the whole of The Troubles.”
But, now in 2023, with more than 40 years of experience behind them, the new, wistful version is, he says, “a more in-depth expression of what we were feeling back then.”
The “how long must we sing this song” message seems as pertinent today as ever, wherever the conflict.
“And the battle just begun/Where is the victory Jesus won?” pleads Bono in a rewritten final verse.
Next The Edge turns his attention to the Bosnian War and how U2 highlighted the plight of ordinary caught up in the Siege Of Sarajevo.
He says it was common by that stage of their career for “people to seek us out.
“In this case, it was a crazy American called Bill Carter, who was working in Sarajevo. He got it into his head that if he could only get to U2, he might bring more attention to the situation.”
As a result, U2 began broadcasting satellite transmissions of interviews with Bosnians during their shows.
Then, 19 months after the war ended, U2 played to 50,000 in Sarajevo on September 23, 1997, as part of the Pop Mart tour.
They were the first major foreign act to go back to the battle-scarred country.
In typical Bono style, he set the tone by calling out to the crowd: “Viva Sarajevo! F*** the past, kiss the future!”
This explains why a new documentary exploring the return of music to Bosnia after hostilities ceased, both homegrown and international, is titled Kiss The Future.
Edge says: “At one point, we were actually trying to play Sarajevo during the war but management and others intervened and said, ‘This is not a good idea.’
“We said we would play at the earliest opportunity and it was wonderful to fulfil our pledge.
“It meant such a lot to us and our crew.
“All the crew were given the opportunity not to go if they felt unsafe but they all went.”
Looking back on the show 26 years later, Edge says: “We didn’t understand or appreciate how big it was.
“In that crowd would have been people who were firing bullets at each other just a few months before.
“It was a powerful experience and good to feel that our songs had the potential to be unifying.”
Edge remembers that the penultimate encore, One, the third track on Achtung Baby, brought the house down.
The words “One love, one blood, one life” struck a chord among an audience where almost everyone had lost someone.
“Of all our songs, One has the gravitas to do that,” says Edge, before revealing an intriguing twist.
“But the irony is that we wrote it for ourselves. It came as we were struggling to hold on to unity in the studio while making the album in Berlin.
‘Stand up to this bully’
“Bono and I were desperately trying to get Larry on board for more funky and cool music but Larry, in particular, was not happy about it.
“So this song One arises and it’s a sort of classic. We all went, ‘This is a gift . . . this is a song for our band and yet it connects on a wider level.’”
This brings us to the new recording of Walk On, a 2001 single from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
It was originally written for the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time.
But now, with revised lyrics, it has been retitled Walk On (Ukraine).
The opening line refers directly to former comedian, now President, Zelensky and his valiant stand against Russia’s brutal oppression. “And if the comic takes the stage/And no one laughs.”
Edge explains: “We’d actually performed the new arrangement, and liked it, but with the old lyric on a Christmas TV show in Ireland.
“Then we were in the studio the week the war kicked off and felt the song could do with an update.
“We were blown away by Zelensky, the politician of the moment globally but who had been an actor and stand-up comedian in his previous life.
“And it seemed so incredible to us that a stand-up ended up being the person, on a very personal level, to stand up to this bully (Putin).
“He is making a stand for democracy and freedom and putting his physical wellbeing on the line,” says Edge, before quoting Zelensky’s early quip: “I want ammunition not a ride.”
Less than three months into the war, the president invited Bono and The Edge to Ukraine, resulting in their impromptu 40-minute concert in Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk metro station.
Edge says of the trip on May 8, a Sunday: “It was hugely inspiring and horrifying in equal measure.
“The sirens started going off as our train arrived in Kyiv.
“We later found out that rockets had hit the city just as we were pulling in.
“When we stepped off the train, the penny dropped for me when I was handed a bulletproof vest.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to wear this because I don’t think it’s warranted at this moment.’”
Edge will never forget his and Bono’s show for 100 people in the city’s subway.
“That was incredible,” he says.
“We just brought an acoustic guitar, which I actually gave to one of the security people attached to us when we left. So, it’s still in Ukraine.
“Just the opportunity to reach out with our songs was so powerful.
“We got to play Walk On to this small crowd and we finished with Stand By Me.”
Edge affirms that his short time in Ukraine had a profound effect on him.
“We went to locations around the city occupied by the Russians for a number of weeks and saw the aftermath . . . it was horrific,” he says.
“We met people from these towns and visited the sites of mass graves.
“We found it very traumatic.”
With the war still raging and no end in sight, I have one last question for The Edge. Would he like to return to Ukraine one day?
“It’s pretty great to think that U2 could play a proper concert in Kyiv after the war is over,” he replies.
“But it is just too early to know if that will be possible.”
If they do make it, I safely predict three of the songs on their setlist.