This is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. An exhibit dedicated to the civil rights leader was on display at the Chicago Peace Museum in 1983 when the band visited.
Bono is speaking about those throughout history who have died because they preached of the equality of all men and practiced nonviolence as the only way to achieve their goal of having this equality universally recognized.
MLK is the primary example of nonviolent resistance as the only way to bring about changes in civil rights. But there are allusions to others; Christ for example.
The song is about singular "people" (including Christ as man) that lived their life with pride. Not in a boastful way, but with the pride a person has when their thoughts and actions are motivated by their understanding and full awareness of the dignity and sanctity of ALL human life.
The song is a tribute or illustration or reminder to us, of martyrs to this ideal. It speaks to how they lived their life with an inner Pride in all of humanity and that this Pride is really an expression of God's love for all of humanity. These people did what they did because they were trying to spread this message of God's love for all of mankind.
This began as a song about US president Ronald Reagan. Bono had lyrics written condemning Reagan for an arrogant pride that led to nuclear escalation, but it just wasn't working. "I remembered a wise old man who said to me, don't try and fight darkness with light, just make the light shine brighter," Bono told NME. "I was giving Reagan too much importance, then I thought Martin Luther King, there's a man. We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger."
King was killed on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4, 1968. Bono sings "early morning, April 4," but King was actually killed in the evening. Bono has acknowledged the mistake and sometimes sings it as "early evening, April 4."
(lead singer of The Pretenders) sang backup. She was married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds at the time and was thanked on the album as "Mrs. Christine Kerr."
The band got the idea for this at a soundcheck in Hawaii on their 1983 US tour. The engineers recorded all U2's soundchecks for this very purpose.
The recording process was very difficult. They experimented with many unworthy takes before scrapping it, taking a break, and nailing it after starting from scratch.
At the Chicago museum where they saw the Martin Luther King exhibit, there was also a display about victims of the Hiroshima bombing called "The Unforgettable Fire," which would inspire the track of the same name and provide the album title.
This was released as a single a month before the album. It was their first Top 40 hit in the US.
When this came out, Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, invited the band to the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. They made their visit during their 1984 US tour.
This was a perfect song for the stadiums they were playing. They would stop playing toward the end and let the crowd sing the last chorus.
The last song on The Unforgettable Fire
," another tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Ewan McGregor sings a line of this in the "Elephant Love Medley" section of the movie Moulin Rouge. Bono also appears on the soundtrack, singing "Children Of The Revolution" with Gavin Friday. That song was written by Marc Bolan and originally recorded by his band, T-Rex.
Part of this was used on the 200th episode of The Simpsons, "Trash Of The Titans." On the show, U2 played some of this at a concert in Springfield. The song was also used in an episode of Miami Vice on the two-hour premiere the second season.
In the '80s, Bono said this was "The most successful pop song we've ever written." He added, "You can see there is a certain craft to the songwriting. I use the word "Pop" in the best possible sense; pop for me is an easily understood thing, you listen to it and you comprehend it almost immediately. You relate to it instinctively. A lot of the album isn't like that at all."
The Edge (Q
magazine, December 1998): "Because of the situation in our country nonviolent struggle was such an inspiring concept. Even so when Bono told me he wanted to write about King. At first I said, 'Woah, that's not what we're about.' Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there's no argument. It just was."
This song appeared in the movie Elizabethtown
when Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is visiting the site of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination.
In 2010, Dierks Bentley recorded this for his 2010 Bluegrass album Up on the Ridge. His take on the song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals.
U2 began their Joshua Tree Tour in Tempe, Arizona, where the governor was opposed to Martin Luther King Day being made a US federal holiday. By the time the band headed back to Tempe to close out the tour, they were receiving death threats for supporting the proposed holiday. Things took a serious turn before their gig at Sun Devil Stadium when someone claimed he would shoot Bono on stage if he sang the King-inspired song. Bono recalls in the band's book U2 by U2: "One night the FBI said: 'Look, it's quite serious. He says he has a ticket. He said he's armed. An he said if you sing 'Pride (In The Name Of Love),' he's going to shoot you.' So we played the show, the FBI were around, everyone was a little unnerved. You just didn't know, could he be in the building? Up in the rafters? On the roof? During 'Pride,' I was singing the third verse, 'Early morning April 4, a shot rings out in a Memphis sky.' I just closed my eyes and sang. And when I opened my eyes, Adam was standing in front of me."