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U2 Reappraised, by Andrew Mueller
Andrew Mueller , July 9th, 2008 14:04

Now the biggest band in the world, it is easy to forget that U2 were once hardly any more popular than Crispy Ambulance or A Certain Ratio. Andrew Mueller looks back at the three albums that could have broken them but instead made them.


For all that U2 are now – and, it feels, have been forever – immovable fixtures in the rock and roll pantheon, it is astonishing, especially in these impatient, one-strike-and-you’re-out-looking-for-a-real-job times, how long it took them to assemble a great album. Released between 1980 and 1983, their first three Steve Lillywhite-produced outings – now reissued with glossy booklets, chunky slipcases, essays by assorted luminaries, extra discs of extra stuff and endearingly wry liner notes by The Edge – are all flawed, at various measures between woefully and heroically. Though U2 were, we now know, only one more swing of the pick from striking gold, with 1984’s sumptuous Brian Eno-produced The Unforgettable Fire, they only occasionally sounded, on any of its predecessors, like they were entirely certain that they were prospecting in the right place.

Boy, recorded when the band were barely out of their teens, certainly starts arrestingly. It’s telling that ‘I Will Follow’ is still, nearly 30 years later, a staple of U2’s live set – it’s their ‘High Voltage’, their ‘Satisfaction’, the template from which they wrought much of their subsequent catalogue. Everything that would ever inspire and infuriate millions is right there, right away: Edge’s screeching, effects-slathered guitar, Larry Mullen’s ferocious, propulsive drums, Adam Clayton’s (at this stage, anyway) Jah Wobble-ish bass, Bono’s frantic pleading for meaning, for redemption, for something to make sense. Almost anything would feel anti-climactic after such a spectacular opening, and indeed Boy does. ‘Out Of Control’ and ‘Stories For Boys’ are competent, post-punky tear-ups, and the Martin Hannett-produced non-album single, ‘11 O’Clock Tick Tock’, which appears on the bonus disc, is an intriguing hint of an alternative U2 history, but too much of Boy sounds like what it was: the desperate strivings of a desperately young group of whom too much was expected too soon, not least by themselves.


The conventional wisdom about second albums – that you get your whole life to make your debut, then rather less to record a follow-up – has rarely rung truer than in the case of October. U2 acknowledge as much on this reissue. The sleeve notes by long-serving amanuensis Neil McCormick amount to one of the more damning reviews they’ve ever suffered: though acknowledging, correctly, that October is where U2’s signature sound really began to flourish, McCormick observes, equally astutely, that “It’s just a pity they barely have a proper song to hang all of this on.” U2 were a famously unhappy camp at this point, rent by the involvement of three members (Bono, Edge, Mullen) in a charismatic Christian sect, uncertain as regards whether the Lord considered what they were making a joyful noise. Only ‘Gloria’, its inherent pomposity paid off by its transcendent sincerity, stands on unquivering legs; all in all, October occupies a unique role in the U2 story as the only instance of them fucking up by not being ambitious enough. The live tracks and BBC sessions on the bonus disc, however, recall a band capable of formidable furies, if only they could find a way to bottle them.

War was the work of a band finally unashamed to admit that they wanted to be huge

Which they did, in patches, on War. In a telling remark in his sleevenotes for last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of The Joshua Tree, Bono lamented the insular meekness of many of U2’s contemporaries, despairing of post-punk rock & roll as “starting to stare at its own shoes, with its gothic death cults and indie whingeing”. War was the work of a band finally unashamed to admit that they wanted to be huge – that they couldn’t, indeed, see the point of not being. On War, U2 set unabashedly about making a soundtrack for the times, and though it was undeniably a harbinger of ensuing hubris – Live Aid, Rattle & Hum, all that business with the white flag – it remains, on its own merits, a gripping postcard from a tense and paranoid age. ‘New Year’s Day’, ‘Like A Song’, ‘Two Hearts Beat As One’ are at least as claustrophobic as they are anthemic.

It’s also too easily forgotten what a brave song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was, in this context. At a time when Northern Ireland’s Troubles had earned colossal international attention, and still further squalid glamour, with the IRA hunger strikes of 1981, faintly sympathetic Republican noises would have been easy and profitable things to make for an Irish band doing well in the United States (an understandably bewildered Larry Mullen once recalled that, at around this point, American audiences were throwing money onto U2’s stages, apparently intending that it be delivered to the IRA). ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, borne by Mullen’s martial drums, Edge’s unforgettable descending riff and the frenetic violin of Steve Wickham (later of The Waterboys), always introduced live with the admonishment “This is not a rebel song,” was sufficiently courageous to articulate the view of the Troubles held by a silent majority on both sides of Ireland’s border: approximately “Knock it off, the lot of you.” The song has, for that reason, proved remarkably adaptable: the solo version played by Edge at Sarajevo’s Kosevo stadium in September 1997, with a chorus of several thousand mournful Bosnian voices, is among the peak highlights of your correspondent’s gig-going experience.

There is, of course, little reasoning with the legions whose temples throb and faces empurple at the mention of U2’s name, and I should know – I used to seethe among them, once. It was 1991’s Achtung Baby that sent me into the about-face which led, eventually, back to this trio, which I admire still for the same reasons that I admire the band who made them: they’re nakedly imperfect, unafraid of their confusions, and – in the very least pejorative sense of the word – trying.