[Ed. note: This is the 15th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
When the video for U2's "New Year's Day" made its debut in early 1983, MTV was only about 15 months old and was a basic cable television station that broadcast music videos presented by video jockeys out of a studio in New York City. While we all know how revolutionary an all-music cable station was, what's often overlooked is that MTV was the first station in America, on radio or television, to broadcast music 24 hours a day to from coast to coast. Because of this, MTV was an incredibly powerful tool for any band looking to expand its audience. The right sound, the right look, the right video could be the difference between selling dozens or selling millions of records.
U2's first video, "I Will Follow," was a very simple affair with the band performing in front of the Boy album cover. Their second video, "Gloria," was another performance video. This time, the band was on a barge in Dublin's Grand Canal Basin. These videos were not unlike many of the videos that other bands were making at the time. And while the songs were interesting and unique, the visual accompaniment was little more than just something to look at while the music played.
With their third video, U2 established a visual identity that they would build on. Set on a stark, snow-covered hillside, "New Year's Day" contrasted images of peacefulness and war. The band is isolated, its singer earnestly assuring that he "will be with you again." This is the blueprint that would captivate legions of fans around the world. With "New Year's Day," U2 became U2.
I don't remember when I first saw the video for "New Year's Day," but I do remember being struck by its seriousness. It was not at all like the videos I had been seeing for Hall and Oates, Phil Collins and Men at Work.
Opening with a moving aerial shot of barren trees, the driving bass line, serene piano and euphoric howl seem to echo across the snow-covered hills. The drums come in as the band on horseback rides through the woods, their instruments strapped to their backs. White flags, the visual symbol of the War album, fly over each of them.
As the first verse begins, the band is standing on the snowy hillside. They are all bundled up from head to toe except for the singer, who bravely stands bareheaded in a defiant stance. A white flag is planted in the snow as if to stake their claim.
In the lead-in to the chorus, the piano turns to rapid bursts of guitar that are matched with quick flashes of cannon fire. A burst of violence in the peace. The singer counters with the assurance that "I will be with you again."
An army marches through the second verse as the singer sings of a "blood red sky" like the one that looms behind the band. "We can break through" as a tank rolls over a trench. More images of war as the singer vows, hand on heart, to "begin again."
Black-and-white images of soldiers on horses segue into the band again riding through the forest with their white flags and instruments. The bass, piano and drums replay the introduction of the song before a screaming guitar solo.
Into the middle eight and the hillside is now dark, with the band performing around a fire. The singer assures us that he "will be with" us "again" while we see the band ride off on horses into the woods in slow motion.
In four minutes and 17 seconds, the band rode into my home, planted its white flag and rode off, leaving this 7-year-old boy stunned. I didn't know what I had just seen, but it would capture my full attention every time that it came on. I didn't know enough to be a fan of something, or that it would have been possible to ask my parents to buy me the new U2 record, but that was the start for me. It would be several years before I really got into U2 as a whole, but that was the start.
Thirty years later, the song still pulls my full attention as soon as I hear Adam Clayton's opening bass run. I still get a thrill when I see that snow-covered hillside.
(c) @U2/Cropp, 2013.