U2 developed "City of Blinding Lights" from a song called "Scott Walker", an outtake from the band's 1997 album Pop. This incarnation, written as an homage to the singer of the same name, was only an outline when the recording sessions for Pop concluded. The group reworked it in preparation for their 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind, but the song was still unfinished when that album was released. They rewrote the song for their 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Bassist Adam Clayton said, "There was a melody and a groove that ultimately didn't go anywhere and we kind of threw out everything, found chords that worked with that melody and built it back up, new drum parts, new bass parts, new guitars."
Bono performing in 1983. The song's theme of innocence was partially inspired by a photograph of the singer taken during the same era.
A photographic exhibition in the Netherlands by longtime band photographer Anton Corbijn served as a thematic inspiration for the song. Lead vocalist Bono saw an image of himself boarding a helicopter, taken in 1982 during filming of the music video for "New Year's Day". A journalist asked him what he would say to his younger self if given the chance; Bono replied, "I'd tell him he's absolutely right and stop second guessing himself." He explained his comments later, saying, "I realized how much I'd lost ... that way of looking at the world. There was such a clarity to it, but it was so defiant in a way."
The chorus was inspired by U2's first concert in New York City following the September 11 attacks during their 2001 Elevation Tour. When the lights illuminated the audience during a performance of "Where the Streets Have No Name", the band saw tears streaming down the faces of many fans. Upon seeing this raw release of emotion, Bono shouted, "Oh you look so beautiful tonight"; later, the band integrated the line into the chorus. The fans' passion, along with the resolve of the city following the attack, were the primary inspirations for many of the song's other lyrics.
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