The astounding popularity of the rock group U2 raises this question: How has an Irish band that sings of the strife in Northern Ireland (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”) and the horrors of heroin addiction (“Running to Stand Still”) been able to achieve the same iconlike status enjoyed by Bruce Springsteen?

Evidence of the group’s dominance is everywhere.

As part of one of the most eagerly anticipated concert tours in years, U2 tomorrow will open a five-night, sold-out engagement at the Brendan Byrne Arena. Demand for tickets was so great that many hopeful fans waited all night in the rain at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic and at Ticket Master outlets throughout the metropolitan area.

At the group’s opening concert in Tempe, Ariz., tickets that sold for $ 15.50 at the box office were reportedly scalped for $ 150 or more, and ticket brokers said they had not seen demand like this since Springsteen’s last tour, in 1985.

In recent weeks, U2 has been featured on the covers of Time (which referred to the band as “rock’s hottest ticket”) and Rolling Stone.

“The Joshua Tree,” U2’s new album, sits in the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s list of best-selling albums, it’s the first time one of the group’s albums has achieved this lofty position. Meanwhile, “With or Without You,” the initial single from the LP, holds down the No. 3 slot on the Top 100 list.

These are heady accomplishments for a group that just a few years ago could muster only a cult following.

Formed in Dublin in the late Seventies, U2, lead vocalist Paul “Bono” Hewson, guitarist Dave “the Edge” Evans, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. received much critical acclaim for the 1980 album “Boy” and for their first American tour, during which they performed in small clubs along the East Coast.

The follow-up albums “October” and “War,” as well as a constant touring schedule of larger venues, slowly began to increase their following, and U2 was voted “band of the year” in the 1983 Rolling Stone critics poll. But it wasn’t until the release of “The Unforgettable Fire” in 1984 that the group won mass audience acceptance in the United States.

Appearances at Live Aid and in Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour solidified U2’s place in the highest ranks of the rock-and-roll world.

Today, when radio airwaves are filled with the good-time sounds of pretty boy rockers like Bon Jovi and Europe, and when the raunchy Beastie Boys and their nasty rap are filling concert halls across the country, the serious-minded, some critics say dour, members of U2 wouldn’t seem to have much of a chance.

But U2, born out of England’s punk-rock movement, succeeds because of its music, which challenges listeners to explore their innermost feelings and beliefs and urges them to take action.

When the four musicians banded together in a Dublin high school, the goal they set for themselves was simple: to create songs that said something, that inspired thought. This standard has been maintained on all of U2’s studio and live albums, which are filled with music that is tough, stirring, and hopeful.

The quartet has used songs such as “New Year’s Day” (about Poland’s Solidarity movement), “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), and “Mothers of the Disappeared” (about repressive governments) to stir political consciousness and to urge social commitment.

What they don’t do is preach. Two songs on the new album, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” clearly point out that, like so many of their fans, they, too, are still searching for answers.

Nor do they set themselves up on a pedestal. Showing concern that they will be forced to live up to the virtues of their music, Bono recently said: “It would be a lie to live this idea that we are the saviors of rock-and-roll…. That’s too much weight to carry around your shoulders.”

The Edge echoed Bono’s comments when he said before the band’s recent show in Las Vegas: “We don’t want to equate praise of the music with praise of ourselves as individuals.”

With each album, U2 also has offered something new musically. The stirring, martial anthems “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” with their rat-ta-tat drums and ringing guitars, gave way to the moody, atmospheric music of “The Unforgettable Fire.”

On the new album, the members of U2 explore country, blues, and gospel music for the first time. “Running to Stand Still” and “Trip Through Your Wires” are flavored with country guitar and bluesy harmonica, while “One Tree Hill” concludes with a stirring gospel chorus.

But U2’s greatest strength is exhibited when it hits the stage. A live U2 performance is a moving and communal experience.

Early in the group’s career, Bono relied on broad theatrical gestures to drive home the band’s musical message and to break the barrier between performer and audience. Waving a white flag, he would climb to the top of the speakers, and once he dove from a theater balcony into the arms of anxious fans below.

Realizing such moves were unnecessary, not to mention dangerous, U2’s charismatic leader tamed his act during the 1984-85 tour. What he relied on were his dramatic vocals and an occasional hug of a fan to spread the group’s musical messages.

One need look no further than the opening show of U2’s current 18-month worldwide trek to see that the bonds the band members forge with their audiences are strong and special. Opening night in Tempe could have been a disaster, but the band seized the moment and turned it into a triumph.

A heavy schedule of rehearsals had left Bono with an extremely sore throat. Hoarse and unable to hit some notes, he asked the fans “to help me out with some singing tonight.” The audience responded, transforming itself into a giant choir. This kind of audience participation has long been cherished by the band, and they look for it in every performance.

Reinforcing the fans’ faith in U2’s seriousness and sincerity are the number of good deeds the band members have undertaken in the past few years.

They aided famine-relief efforts by participating in the Band Aid and Live Aid projects. It was their commitment to Amnesty International that got the Conspiracy of Hope tour off the drawing board and onto the road. Bono participated on “Sun City,” the antiapartheid recording and video project.

After learning that the governor of Arizona had rescinded the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, the group considered canceling shows scheduled in that state. The members decided, however, that it would be much more effective to use the stage to issue a statement of protest. At the opening show in Tempe, Bono paused briefly during “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which describes King’s social achievements, and said, “I think the people of Arizona know what they need to do.”

There also have been less-publicized events, such as Bono’s trips to Ethiopia and Central America to gain firsthand knowledge of troubles in those lands.

Now that U2 has reached a pinnacle of success, it’s imperative that the four members not get distracted by the hoopla. But a recent statement by Bono would indicate there’s no danger of that happening.

“We feel there’s a rare spirit to the band, and we’ve spent the last seven years trying to develop it and protect it at the same time,” he explained. “Our ambitions are not for fame and fortune. It’s the songs we serve and the music. That is our complete goal.”

The Record/ Barbara Jaeger

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