I think the thing that most immediately struck me the first time I heard U2 was the sound. The drums were huge, leaping out of the speakers and into your face right out of the gate on "I Will Follow," the opening track of their 1980 debut album Boy. The jangling yet edgy guitars likewise cut across the big boom of the drums like a razor.
But what really got my attention were those cool sounding bells, which I assumed at the time were made by a xylophone. Those damned bells just really grabbed me at the time, and they didn't stop at "I Will Follow." By the time you were halfway through the first side of Boy (back when vinyl albums came in two sides), the bells were back on "An Cat Dubh" and "Into The Heart," providing a lighter sort of counterpoint to the dark minor chords of the appropriately named Edge's guitar, and the higher register of Bono's achingly passionate vocals.
As much as U2's sound may have — initially at least — resembled many of the other darker sounding neo-psychedelic alternative rock bands of its day (at the time I likened them most to Echo & The Bunnymen), there was still that sort of intangible quality that made them really stand out from the pack.
Maybe it was Steve Lillywhite's bottom-up, drum heavy production. Maybe it was those damned bells. I don't really know. But from the get-go, it was clear that these young Irish upstarts were a band to be reckoned with. Just how much so would become apparent enough in the years to come.
Above all else though, U2 was a rock band first and foremost. At least on those first three glorious records they were. By the time of their third album, 1983's War, they had also honed their chops to the point of being a damned formidable one. I saw U2 that year for the first time on back to back nights, in two venues that couldn't have been more different in size, shape, and scope.
The first of these was a blistering show before a capacity crowd at Seattle's 3000 seat Paramount Theatre. This was also where I first became aware of Bono's unique ability to connect with a crowd on a personal level, with that same sort of magical alchemy that comes as second nature to all the great rock performers — from James Brown to Iggy Pop to Bruce Springsteen.
That night, Bono effectively erased any barriers between audience and performer, allowing the crowd to carry him through on their collective backs. There was absolutely no fear or distance in that performance, and right there I knew instinctively that I was witnessing the sort of greatness that would be around for years, if not decades. In a rather famous story, someone also stole Bono's lyrics that night, and the band would not play Seattle again until years later during the Zoo TV tour.