“Never has any rock ‘n roll band been so polarizing an entity, so adored and abhorred, so blessed/cursed with the ability to inspire and capacity to infuriate as U2.” – Andrew Mueller, Uncut magazine.
That is true, I think because they live only the rock ‘n roll part of the sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll lifestyle, are sometimes serious to the point of being preachy and because Bono is often accused of being sanctimonious and pompous. None of which speaks at all to whether or not they make great music. And so you know what, fuck all that. They do.
The exact same four guys have been together in this band since 1976. For the record, that’s a remarkable 41 years of somehow magically getting along, not succumbing to drugs, bitter infighting or lawsuits. (See – just about every other band.) So haters, give them that much credit at least.*
By 1976, the rock scene was fairly well splintered. Along with albums by the more established Sixties and Seventies mainstream bands, the Ramones released their first influential album. I would argue that what we now call “Classic Rock” was being listened to largely by the twenty-something set. But what about teenagers who needed something to listen to other than their older brother’s record collection?
In that same year, a fourteen-year-old student named Larry Mullen Jr., who was attending Dublin’s** Mount Temple Comprehensive School posted a note seeking other musicians for a band. Six people responded and set up in drummer Mullen’s kitchen to jam and see if this would amount to anything. Present were bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist David Evans, and singer Paul Hewson. (David’s older brother Dik was there along with a couple other schoolmates.)
They played songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction,” drawing in some interested neighborhood kids. “We were ‘The Larry Mullen Band’ for about ten minutes, then Bono (Hewson) walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge.”
Initially, they settled briefly on the band name of Feedback, then the Hype. (There’s currently at least one U2 tribute band out there called Feedback.) The guys started playing live in early 1977 with their repertoire consisting largely of covers like Bowie and the Stones which they did not believe to be their forte. Mullen had learned how to drum not only by being in marching bands but also by listening to groups like Sweet and Slade. For the other guys, it was a mixed bag of musical skills.
They played for about a year as The Hype, changing their name to U2 in early 1978. Not only was it the name they disliked the least, it also had an inclusiveness (you too) that the band liked. Adam thought they needed a name that was “slightly mysterious, wouldn’t pin them down to anything or any place in particular.” (If you want to credit anyone for U2’s getting gigs in the early days, credit Adam Clayton. He worked the club owners and his network like a salesman.)
That same year, U2 – now, with Dik off to college, a four-piece – won a talent contest in Limerick, a good 200 km SW of Dublin. (They had previously won a school talent contest with a set consisting of “Show Me the Way,” a parody of the Bay City Rollers (!) and a medley of Beach Boys hits.)***
“We couldn’t believe it. I was completely shocked. .. But to win [Limerick] at that point was incredibly important for morale and everyone’s belief in the whole project,” said David Evans, AKA The Edge. The story goes that Bono gave Evans his nickname, inspired not only by his sharp features but also the way he ‘observed from the edge.’
Paul Hewson was part of a gang of friends (the Village) who liked to give each other nicknames. They used to pass a hearing aid store called Bonavox so “Bonavox of O’Connell Street” he became. He wasn’t really keen on the nickname till he was told that bono vox was Latin for good voice. (Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton have the stage names of, respectively, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton. (“How come they don’t get cool names?” wondered my son.)
By this time, the band had started writing original material and in fact did their first demo around this time. To put the period into context, punk was now the dominant force and New Wave (Elvis Costello, Police, Blondie, etc.) was becoming popular.
U2 claimed influences such as Buzzcocks, the Jam, Clash and Sex Pistols. And The Who. “Live at Leeds was a very important record in my life,” said Bono. I find it interesting in reading about the band that despite Dublin’s rich history of R&B, these four guys’ musical libraries included neither that nor blues. This, despite their countrymen and predecessors Rory Gallager, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy.
“Our record collections,” says Bono, “started in 1976 with Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith and the Clash and The Jam.”
The Irish fortnightly Hot Press was founded right around this time (June 1977) and was pivotal in helping U2 get noticed. Prior to Hot Press‘ publication, it was difficult for Irish kids to read about local music, much less hear it on the radio. The magazine not only touted the band but the magazine’s Bill Graham (not the Fillmore Bill Graham) also introduced them to Paul McGuinness who managed them from 1978 to 2013. (He currently manages PJ Harvey.)
McGuinness, a Trinity college guy, was a good manager with big ideas for world, not just Ireland, domination. He got them to record a three-song EP called U2-3. Lyrics are credited to Bono; music to U2. For most of their recorded output, they have credited the songs to the entire band which I think was a wise move. This is 90% of what bands fight over.
This first song is called “Stories for Boys,” which the band re-recorded for their debut album Boy a couple years later. I could have gone with that one but I like the rawness of this EP version. Some elements of their sound were there but Edge was playing more traditional rhythm guitar prior to getting heavily into the “chimy” stuff he’s become known for.
To these ears, for guys who could barely play a couple years prior, the band is sounding reasonably tight. (I listened to a shitload of U2 in preparation for this series and I came away a big fan of the Mullen/Clayton rhythm section. They are the engine.)
The band leveraged the singles into a gig or two in London and some more around Dublin. But they were by no means a force and hardly made a splash outside of Ireland. But in early 1980, they played Dublin’s National Stadium – a boxing venue – where they were seen by an A&R rep for Island Records. (Does anybody need an introduction to Island? They were Bob Marley’s label and probably did more to introduce the world to reggae than any other label.)
And on meeting the Island rep, U2’s career was off – as a sales guy I used to work with was fond of saying – like the bride’s pajamas.
In May 1980, still widely unknown, the band recorded their first major label release, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock.” Bono got the title from a note a friend left on his door when he wasn’t home. This song was produced by Martin Hannett who also produced Joy Division.
Hannett was scheduled to produce U2’s first album but wasn’t up for it, crushed as he was by the suicide of Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis. Hannett, a key part of the Madchester scene, himself died at 42 due to substance abuse problems:
The song failed to chart but these first few tunes established U2’s unique sound. And in the summer of 1980, the band got together with producer Steve Lillywhite to work on their debut album.
That album would not catapult them to worldwide fame. But it was to be an excellent showcase for their sound and provide them with at least one song that is one of their most-played to this very day.
Sources: Wikipedia; Unforgettable Fire: The Definitive Biography of U2, Eamon Dunphy; U2 The Complete Story, Uncut Magazine.
*Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen has made it sonewhat of a personal cottage industry to slag off U2 and especially Bono. Liam Gallagher recently jumped on the U2 hate bandwagon but his brother played “Don’t Look Back in Anger” with them just a few months ago. If there are two bigger wankers in music than the Gallaghers I’d hate to meet them.
**In what can only be described as a massive oversight, I’ve yet to get to Ireland. I must get some points for living not too far from Boston. Bono called it their “second home” when I saw them on their Innocence + Experience Tour in 2016. My son went to Ireland for a visit last year. Nice vibe, he says, good music, lots of pubs, much blarney. In short, great place for me to retire. 😀
***If anybody anywhere has a tape of this, call me. (867-5309).