The brilliant protest song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is one of the songs that put the legendary Irish rockers, U2, on the map. It is considered to be one of the all-time greatest protest songs by music aficionados and is ranked number 272 on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The song is essentially mimicking the chaotic atmosphere of a conflict zone with its militaristic drums, “edgy” (pardon the pun) guitar riffs, and graphic lyrics describing the violence in great detail. While the specific instance depicted in the song is Bloody Sunday, the infamous shooting that took the lives of thirteen young men, that took place in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has become an anthem for those of all nationalities living in conflict zones across the globe. Structure and intricacies set aside, the meaning behind “Sunday Bloody Sunday” can be summed up in a simple yet eloquent question: “Why must we fight?”
“I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
We can be as one, tonight.”
The first verse describes the feeling that a person gets upon viewing images or footage of a disturbing event, in this case the shooting of 26 protesters and the deaths of 14 men and teenaged boys (all but one were unarmed). Bono and the Edge illustrate the emotions of appall and disbelief that one first sees or hears of a dreadful tragedy, that feeling when you know you will never forget what you have just heard. These first two lines are followed up with the phrase “How long must we sing this song? How long?”. Bono and the Edge are questioning man’s reoccurring tendency to use violence to resolve our differences.
“Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.”
The second verse paints a vivid image the aftermath of the conflict. People commit violent acts against each other in an attempt to resolve their political and social issues, but in the end it only brings more pain. In retaliation, people act towards each other with even further violence, thus bringing more pain and suffering. In the third line Bono says “I won’t heed the battle call”, meaning that he will not act in such a way for this very reason. But since many do heed the battle call, the cycle continues on. The final phrase “puts my back up against the wall” embodies the hopelessness of the situation as people continue to hurt each other, even when they can not hope to achieve anything through destructive means.
“And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won?
The trenches dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
The third verse describes the impact of violent conflicts on those who, although not directly involved in the riot, may have connections to those who were. “The battle’s just begun”, meaning that although the initial conflict has ended, the pain of the aftermath never will. The wives, mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, and friends of the fourteen lives that were lost to Bloody Sunday will never forget – the emotional battle has just begun. Bloody Sunday inflicted an eternal wound that will never heal. Although families may move on and even forgive the years taken away from the loved ones they lost will never be returned.
“And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality.
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.”
I find the final verse most disturbing in particular, despite the fact that it is not nearly as graphic or gory as the previous verses. What the final verse describes is the desensitization of violence to the masses due to the media. People are disconnected from what they read in the papers or see on the news. I’m not saying that people are unsympathetic to the victims of conflict, but the impact is not the same. All too often people will hear of a tragedy of some sort and think to themselves “Oh, that’s awful! How could anything so terrible happen?” and then simply turn the page or change the channel. Rarely do people learn from what they see or hear in the news, so the cycle continues. Children grow up learning to be prejudiced towards specific groups – whether for religion, race, political opinions, sexual orientation, occupation, social class, lifestyles, forms of self-expression, or any other traits that are said to “define” us, but really have nothing to do with how we interact as a species. They will grow up thinking that they are “fighting for what is right”, but when is killing with anger ever right? The rest of us do nothing to make an effort to end violence, and when we do they are often overlooked, taken for granted, or even scoffed at.
No matter how long or intricate I try to make my rants, I could never sum up the essence of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as simply and clearly U2’s own Larry Mullen Jr. :
“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 13 Catholics were shot by British soldiers’; that’s not what the song is about. That’s an 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 places 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.”
-Larry Mullen, 1983
Or, in the words of Bono:
In order to make a change without adding to the world’s suffering, one must be able to capture the attention of the world without destructive forces. Already, peaceful protest is becoming more prominent throughout the world.
U2, like many other artists, uses music as a form of peaceful protest. They are able to create an atmosphere of rebellion without invoking violence in a live rendition of the song.
And here is a more recent performance – and acoustic version – in which they make the message more universal to other conflicts around the world occurring now.
Thank you so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed! Please keep in mind that these interpretations are my own and if you have any questions, comments, or corrections please let me know in the comments. Once again, thanks so much and remember that we all have a voice, use it to make the world a better place.