Just want to acknowledge here the passing of another one of my musical heroes, Walter Becker. I’ve already written a Steely Dan series so I’ll let that be my statement on Mr. Becker, his fine, underappreciated guitar playing and his wonderfully twisted, cynical world view.
“Everywhere I look I see evidence of a Creator. But I don’t see it as religion, which has cut my people in two.”- Bono
“I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me” – “Rejoice”
Bono himself felt the effects of the religious division in Ireland. His father was Catholic and his mother Protestant. I don’t know how the situation is today, but when his parents got married in the Forties. intermarriage was very much frowned upon. Bono himself was raised Protestant and despite being a popular figure at school, always felt a lack of belonging, an understandable sense of being torn between two worlds.
The band was pretty prolific in their songwriting and had by now developed a backlog of some 40 songs to choose from for their debut album Boy. (Lest we forget, this was still the era of vinyl onto which one could cram maybe 43 minutes.)
According to Wikipedia, producer Steve Lillywhite “employed unorthodox production techniques, such as recording Mullen’s drums in a stairwell, and recording smashed bottles and forks played against a spinning bicycle wheel. Thematically, the lyrics reflected on adolescence, innocence, and the passage into adulthood, themes represented on the album cover through the photo of a young boy’s face.”*
Boy kicks off with one of U2’s very best and most popular tunes ever, “I Will Follow.” (I love this song.) The lyrics of the song are about a mother’s unconditional love for her child. This resonated with Bono as his mother Iris had died just a few years earlier when he was 14. Felled, actually, by a brain hemorrhage as she was leaving her own father’s funeral.
“I Will Follow” also has spiritual overtones and it will come as exactly zero surprise to anyone reading this that Bono, Mullen and The Edge are avowed Christians. Clayton, not so much:
Boy sold something like 200,000 copies which, while not Joshua Tree numbers, is pretty damn good for a debut album. The record established not only the band’s overall sound but the unique bell-like quality of Edge’s guitar.
I must say here as a guitarist that while I have been much more influenced by the Hendrix’ and Clapton’s of the world, I like the palette that Edge uses to give the band its primary colors. He doesn’t have the virtuosic soloing ability of the Sixties and Seventies guitar gods. But he has an instantly recognizable sound that works perfectly in context of these songs and gives the band a compelling sound.
The band followed up with a tour of (mostly) the UK with some other parts of Europe and a couple of stops on the East Coast of the US. Their repertoire of recorded material was so limited they sometimes had to do songs twice.
College radio started to pick them up. WBCN in Boston, a groundbreaking FM underground station, was one of the outlets that was key to their US success. In fact, I believe one of the earliest (with Unforgettable Fire) books ever written about them was Outside is America by Carter Alan, still a Boston DJ. (The book is now only available as a print-on-demand.)
I won’t detail every album U2 did. But their second album, October, is significant as it could well have been their last album and might have never been made at all. For one thing, a briefcase full of Bono’s lyrics went missing somewhere around Portland, Oregon. For another, Bono, Edge, and Mullen had gotten involved in a Charismatic Christian group called the Shalom Fellowship.
According to Uncut, “[the three band members] were all undergoing severe crises of guilt and indecision – a “faith vs. music” conflict of interests, exacerbated by Shalom’s insistence on total commitment – and Bono and Edge both left the band for a short period. … Midway through sessions for [October], U2 ceased to exist.” This was no idle thing but a real crisis of faith for these guys.
For quite a while, Adam was the odd man out while the other guys read their Bibles in the back of the tour bus. (“Are we now a Christian band?” he wondered.) But the guys eventually came away with the decision that they could reconcile their faith with rock ‘n roll.
The recording of October continued apace. The spiritual themes come through loud and clear with the refrain of ‘Rejoice’ occurring on several songs. The album’s kick-off song is “Gloria” and while it is a far cry from the Van Morrison song, Bono said this:
“And of course, “Gloria” is about a woman in the Van Morrison sense. Being an Irish band, you’re conscious of that. And I think that what happened at that moment was very interesting: people saw that you could actually write about a woman in the spiritual sense and that you could write about God in the sexual sense. And that was a moment. Because before that there had been a line. That you can actually sing to God, but it might be a woman? Now, you can pretend it’s about God, but not a woman!” (Huh? – ME).
Gloria in te domine
Oh Lord, if I had anything
Anything at all, I’d give it to you
I, I’d give it to you, to you
Give it to you
Released in October of 1981, the album got mixed reviews and sold much better in the UK than in the US. It didn’t hurt that the newly launched MTV arrived a few months earlier. MTV boosted bands; bands boosted MTV. It was symbiotic.
Before we leave this album, here’s another song I dig from it called “With a Shout (Jerusalem).” Again, a religious theme but mostly some bitching playing with Clayton laying down some ferocious bass. One thing I’ve always liked about U2 is their intensity. The band said that in their music they wanted to achieve a “cinematic, big screen, Panavision sound.”
In late 1982, U2 – still working to make their name in the States – opened a bunch of shows for J. Geils. (Seriously? I know, right?) The guys knew they’d have to work hard to overcome being an unknown post-punk, alt-rock Irish band in front of a crowd known for getting off on blues ‘n boogie.
Wisely, their sound guy – who BTW had also worked with Rory Gallagher – got to know Geils’ sound guys who allowed him to hook up some equipment Edge needed. (The main act never wants to be overshadowed and sometimes, mysteriously, the opening act doesn’t get a good sound check.) Overall they went down well with Geils fans which helped raise their profile.**
But after the October tour, the band started wondering where exactly they were headed. Like the best and most resilient bands, U2 put their heads down and decided they had to work on putting out the best album they could. This was a make-or-break moment for them. Searching for a theme for the album, they thought that “war seemed to be the motif for 1982.”
And so with producer Steve Lillywhite at the helm, they went into the studio and produced a terrific album called, simply, War.
Next: Before and after The Joshua Tree.
Sources: Wikipedia; Unforgettable Fire: The Definitive Biography of U2, Eamon Dunphy; U2 The Complete Story, Uncut Magazine.
*The boy’s name is Peter Rowen, son of Bono’s Village mate Derek Rowen. Derek, nicknamed Guggi, went on to play in the band the Virgin Prunes from whence sprung singer Gavin Friday. Peter is now a Dublin-based photographer.
**My chiropractor – who is an avid reader of this blog – attended one of these Geils/U2 concerts in Atlanta. He advises me that not only were a fair number of people there to see U2, some of them actually left after their opening stint and never even saw Geils.