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.
Later that night, I hopped a plane to catch U2 the next day at California's 1983 US Festival, where the young band stole the show on a day where no less than David Bowie, The Pretenders, and Stevie Nicks also performed before something like half a million people. The set was much the same as the one they had performed the previous night at the Paramount, although they threw in cover versions of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and Echo & The Bunnymen's "The Cutter" in the encores.
Bono didn't steal his way into the audience for any crowd-surfing on this night. Instead, he chose to scale the huge lighting towers on the massive festival stage all the way to the very top, waving a victory flag once he made it. It was an amazing, death-defying sort of sight to behold. I've also heard that it scared the living shit out of his fellow band members, especially the Edge.
The bottom line is that U2 was, above all things, a rock band back then. One that in fact was staking its claim, even that far back, to be one of the great ones. Long before the Eno/Lanois-produced atmospheres and anthems of albums like Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, and years before Bono had any political designs on ruling the world through his various philanthropic endeavours, what U2 did at its core was make a populist connection through the power of rock music.
It can even be argued that in the process of becoming the biggest band on earth, U2 have never really managed to reconnect with the inner rock band of those first three albums, although I give them credit for giving it a hell of a try on 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
Last month, Universal Music reissued those first three landmark U2 albums, Boy (1980), October (1981), and War (1983) in deluxe double disc packages. There is also a box set of all three records available exclusively through Amazon.com. All three of the packages are for the most part beautifully done, although you can also expect to pay through the nose for them with a suggested retail price of $29.98 each.
As collector's sets though, all three of these are very nice pieces. Each is housed in a hardbound box, with a removable, fold-out cover that reveals a nice booklet with loads of pictures, and newly written liner notes. What will be of interest to collectors who already own the original albums are the bonus discs, each of which feature rarities, B-sides, and live tracks. The actual value of these bonus tracks varies on each disc, but we'll get to more about that in a minute.
Of the three albums, the one I was most excited to get my hands on was Boy, as my own copy of the original, environmentally correct digi-pak CD has gotten a bit dog-eared over the years. Boy also remains one of my favorite U2 records to this day, because what you hear on this album is a band of young bucks hungry to make their mark on the world.
The digital remastering job on the deluxe version is also strictly top-shelf. Although vinyl purists will inevitably complain (and justifiably so) that the transfer process tends to lose some of the original warmth, the sound here is crisp and clear. Steve Lillywhite's big, booming production — especially when it comes to Larry Mullen's drums — loses little of its original power here, and Edge's guitar sounds as razor sharp as ever. Most of all, those damn bells ring as sweet as I remember when I first heard this great album.
The bonus tracks here are also, for my money, the best of those found on the three reissued albums. You've got the alternate take of "I Will Follow," some vintage early live versions of songs like "Out Of Control" and "11 O'Clock Tick Tock," and a couple of previously unreleased tracks like "Saturday Night" and "Speed Of Life." For my money, Boy ranks as the best of the three deluxe reissues.
1981's October is widely viewed as something of the weakest link in the original trilogy of U2's early albums, and for the most part I'd have to agree with that assessment.
Still, when reconsidered on this new remaster, it becomes apparent that maybe October should have gotten a fairer shake. For one thing, "Gloria" is nearly as powerful an opening track as "I Will Follow" was for Boy. A deeper listen reveals that songs like "I Threw A Brick Through A Window," "Rejoice," and "I Fall Down" all hold up remarkably well.
For the bonus tracks on October, they wisely focus on the live stuff, as this was the period where U2 began to really gel as a live band with some very powerful performances. So you've got some great concert stuff here, including "I Will Follow," "Gloria," "The Cry/Electric Co.," and "11 O'Clock Tick Tock." There's also some rarities like "J.Swallo" and "Trash, Trampoline, and The Party Girl."
Surprisingly, the deluxe treatment of 1983's War is the least satisfying of the three U2 reissues. I say surprising, because in my opinion War was really U2's first big breakout record. No, it didn't have quite the same impact as the mega-selling Joshua Tree did, but it certainly helped to pave the way for that breakthrough, being responsible for first moving the band out of theatres and into arenas as it was. Of the entire U2 catalog, War is also arguably the band's best out and out rock album.
If Boy introduced the world to these angry and hungry young men, and October seemed to be a somewhat tentative sounding follow-up, War showed U2 as a newly energized band armed and ready to take on the world. The first time I heard "New Years Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," there was absolutely no question in my mind that U2 was here to stay.
The band hadn't just polished its sound, but refined its message as well. On this album, U2 was, for the first time really, operating as a finely tuned, well greased machine, with a little something extra in the engine.
Where the deluxe edition falters is in the extras. More than half of the bonus disc is taken up by the 12" dance remixes of songs like "New Years Day" and "Two Hearts Beat As One." Extended dance versions were of course all the rage at the time. Hearing them now, it's easy to see how they would have worked in an eighties New Wave sort of disco setting, but for that same reason they just sound terribly dated here.
For anyone who misses what eighties remix king Arthur Baker did to Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark," you might appreciate these. The only thing that really saves the bonus disc is the inclusion of live versions of "Fire" and "I Threw A Brick Through A Window/A Day Without Me" and a couple of rarities like "Treasure (Whatever Happened To Pete The Chop)" and "Endless Deep."
Taken as a complete set however, the U2 reissues are a great way of remembering U2 when they were, above all else, a great rock band. For that reason, I'd recommend the Amazon deal on the boxed set (if you can afford it at least). If I were to pick a single disc however, I'd say Boy is your best bet here.