“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a song by Irish rock band U2. It is the opening track from their 1983 album War and was released as the album’s third single on 21 March 1983 in Germany and the Netherlands. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is noted for its militaristic drumbeat, harsh guitar, and melodic harmonies. One of U2’s most overtly political songs, its lyrics describe the horror felt by an observer of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, mainly focusing on the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry where British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters, bystanders, and children. At the same time, the lyrics reject hate and revenge as a response, as noted in the line “There’s many lost, but tell me who has won.” Along with “New Year’s Day,” the song helped U2 reach a wider listening audience. It was generally well received by critics on the album’s release.
The song has remained a staple of U2’s live concerts. During its earliest performances, the song created controversy. Lead singer Bono reasserted the song’s anti-sectarian-violence message to his audience for many years. Today, it is considered one of U2’s signature songs and is one of the band’s most performed tracks. Critics rate it among the best political protest songs, and it has been covered by over a dozen artists. It was named the 272nd-greatest song by Rolling Stone on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” grew from a guitar riff and lyrics written by the Edge in 1982. While newlyweds Bono and Ali Hewson honeymooned in Jamaica, the Edge worked in Ireland on music for the band’s upcoming album. Following an argument with his girlfriend, and a period of doubt in his own songwriting abilities, the Edge—”feeling depressed… channeled [his] fear and frustration and self-loathing into a piece of music.” This early draft did not yet have a title or chorus melody but did contain a structural outline and theme. After Bono had reworked the lyrics, the band recorded the song at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. During the sessions, producer Steve Lillywhite encouraged drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. to use a click track, but Mullen was firmly against the idea. A chance meeting with Andy Newmark of Sly & the Family Stone – a drummer who used a click track religiously – changed Mullen’s mind. The opening drum pattern soon developed into the song’s hook. A local violinist, Steve Wickham, approached the Edge one morning at a bus stop and asked if U2 had any need for a violin on their next album. In the studio for only half a day, Wickham’s electric violin became the final instrumental contribution to the song.
U2 were aware when they decided to record “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that its lyrics could be misinterpreted as sectarian, and possibly place them in danger. Some of the Edge’s original lyrics explicitly spoke out against violent rebels but were omitted to protect the group. Even without these lyrics, some listeners still considered it to be a rebel song—even one which glorifies the events of the two Bloody Sundays to which the lyrics refer.
Commercially, the single had its biggest impact in the Netherlands, where it reached number 3 on the national charts. In the US, the song gained significant album-oriented rock radio airplay, and together with the earlier “New Year’s Day” helped expose U2 to a mainstream American rock audience.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” has been performed more than 600 times by U2. It was first heard by a live audience in December 1982 in Glasgow, Scotland, on a twenty-one show “Pre-War Tour.” The band was particularly nervous about playing the song in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Introducing the song there at the Maysfield Leisure Centre, Bono stated “It’s not a rebel song.”, attempted to further clarify this point by reciting the entire second verse (“Broken bottles under children’s feet …”), and added as a final note, “If you don’t like it, you let us know.” The crowd overwhelmingly enjoyed the song; the Edge recalls that “the place went nuts, it drew a really positive reaction.”, also saying that “We thought a lot about the song before we played it in Belfast and Bono told the audience that if they didn’t like it then we’d never play it again. Out of the 3,000 people in the hall, about three walked out. I think that says a lot about the audience’s trust in us.” The band remained apprehensive, however. Even by the song’s sixth performance, Bono was introducing the song with the statement “This song is not a rebel song.”