We recently heard that U2 would be getting their own Sirius XM Radio station this year. At the same time, we were thinking since our INXS anthologies (Part I, Part II) did so well that we needed another one. U2 makes a perfect choice. They have a great body of work and reinvented themselves many times. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. formed a band in 1976. They went from a post-punk college radio-friendly band to one of the biggest in the world and one of our favorites. We saw them together for the Zoo Station tour which was pretty amazing. They have affected us both in very different ways. We have broken up their albums Pre-Achtung Baby and Achtung Baby and Beyond.
U2-3 (1979) – DJ
I had never heard this EP although “Out of Control” and “Stories for Boys” are revisited on Boy. The only other track “Boy/Girl” was not released anywhere else. “Out of Control” is one of my favorite early U2 songs and hearing this version was a treat, it’s so much faster than their subsequent release. Mullen Jr. kills the drums and The Edge is also aggressive. I think it’s great but Bono’s singing is weird, he is much smoother on Boy. It’s too bad because the music is phenomenal. I would say the same for “Stories for Boys” although Bono seems more in control.
MG: I was not even aware of this EP until doing research for this post. “Boy/Girl” is a good track, although a bit simplistic lyrically. It reminds me of early Police – more of a punk rock feel to it.
Another Day (1980) – DJ
Their second single, which was a non-album track, was “Another Day”. I had never heard this tune before. I was totally surprised by this track and I loved it. Wow, the drumming from Mullen Jr. is aggressive. This may be the most “New Wave” track U2 has ever done. If you haven’t heard it I would take a listen.
MG: Another bit of early U2 I had not heard until catching this song on the extended version of Boy. The subtle processing on Bono’s vocals definitely steers it towards New Wave. If someone played this for me with no prior knowledge, I might not even pick-up that it was U2.
Boy (1980) – DJ
So of the two of us, I was the one that was not really a fan of U2 until Achtung Baby and that was unfortunate. I knew a few kids who were obsessed with them but I just wasn’t. Some of it was just not being exposed to this early stuff. “Pride – In the Name of Love” was probably the first U2 song I heard often enough and I was not a fan of The Joshua Tree, so it made no sense for me to back catalog. Of course, as I fell in love with them later I eventually did go back. Boy is their first fully formed album and like R.E.M.’s Murmur, it’s a very solid debut. I was surprised when I learned that U2 was influenced by Joy Division and if it wasn’t for Ian Curtis’s death, their producer Martin Hannett may have produced this album and it would have been very different. Steve Lillywhite produced it and his influence is all over the place. He gets a lot out of Mullen Jr.’s drums – can you tell I love great drumming? The music is tight and raw. The album leads off with an all-time U2 song about Bono’s mother’s death, “I Will Follow”. It’s a great lead song, you can hear all three musicians play on this. The album has a lot of lyrics about growing up, death, the ability of having choice. Bono’s lyrics seem immature and not fully formed, he uses literary resources for some of the songs such as “The Ocean” and “Shadows and Tall Trees”. “Twilight” is about a boy turning into a man, although the lyrics to some may suggest otherwise. “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart” run in together and make a perfect pair. Outside of the already mentioned “Out of Control” above, “Electric Co” is another top song for me. There is something to be said about a band first exploring their sound and what Lillywhite got out of the music was amazing. I would listen to this album all day over Joshua Tree. It has to be one of the best albums coming out after the post-punk movement. I wish I had known it at the time.
Bonus: The original cover was trashed before the North American release as some people thought a boy with his shirt off could be pedophilia. The album is literally called Boy and has many themes of growing up. Instead, the cover used some press releases of the 4 band members in a stretched mosaic. Not quite as arty.
MG: For years I was of the opinion this album was one of the great debut rock albums of all time. Having listened to it fully several times for this, I might knock down my estimation a peg. It’s still a really good album, but I fault it for starting so strong with “I Will Follow” and then dropping the momentum with “Twilight”, “An Cat Dubh” and “Into The Heart”. They aren’t bad songs, just together a collective soft spot on the album. For that reason I’d say it notches below a debut like Murmur.
October (1981) – Mike G
Like many U2 fans, I’d be lying if I said I picked up October when it was released in 1981. I only became aware of the band after their American radio hits from the War album. Sometime after The Unforgettable Fire came out, a friend of mine gave me the October album and urged me to give it an honest listen. I was a pretty devout Catholic at the time and my friend was also very dedicated to his Christian beliefs. After listening to October a few times, I started to think of U2 as a Christian band. I don’t know if they were intending to become a “Christian Band”, but from reading about the creative process, they did intend to make a song about spirituality, as they were grappling with their religious beliefs vs. the lifestyle of a rock band. The songs are more cohesive than Boy, with more varied compositions, and definitely work together to create a theme of spiritual retrospection. “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” always stood out to me as a haunting song about someone engaging in an internal struggle to make a moral choice. The echoing drums on the song help give that feel of someone’s choices coming back to them. “Tomorrow” is a song that gives me the chills every time I hear it. Before now, I never knew it was about the death of Bono’s mother when he was a teenager. Lyrically, it’s a standout for him, and the use of bagpipes gives it an ethereal feel. The song closes with the upbeat “Is That All?”, featuring a riff that the Edge steals from himself from Boy’s “The Electric Co.” The song starts with the lyric “to sing this song makes me angry, I’m not angry with you” and has Bono musing on what it all means – either in a relationship or just life in general.
Back then, I listened to October so much I broke the cassette. I bought two replacement copies after that – one to give back to my friend and one for myself. Yet, as time went on, and I became an even bigger fan of the band, I never replaced the album on CD, so it had been many years since I sat and listened to the album start to finish. I no longer see as much of the Christianity in the album as I did back then – interesting how one’s frame of reference changes the meaning of music – but the spirituality and emotional introspection is still there. You can feel with this album that the band had a perspective and a vision, and it was definitely a creative leap forward for them.
Bonus: Right before recording this album, while on tour Bono lost a briefcase containing many of the lyrics he had written. He had to improvise some of the lyrics in the studio, which may be why his vocals seem a little less confident, compared to Boy and War.
DJ: I clearly don’t have the connection to October as you do, actually I don’t have one at all. I don’t really enjoy this album. “Gloria” is one of my all-time favorite tracks and I had no clue what Bono was saying for years, nevermind that it was religious. Outside the next 2 tracks “I Fall Down” and “I Threw a Brick Through a Window”, which sounds like 80’s Simple Minds, I can’t say I enjoy another track. It does feel rushed.
War (1983) – DJ
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” blasts out to start U2’s third album War. It may be one of the best starts of any album. U2 had written an album about growing up, one about their spirituality and now they turned to more political writing. It’s the album that put them on everyone’s radar and got them their first profitable tour. Bono’s lyrics have matured. I have real trouble deciding if Boy or War is my favorite early U2 offering. Not a bad song on either one. A protest song opening the album is an interesting idea. Their other big hit “New Years Day” ended up being about Polish solidarity. I like those two hits well enough but they have been overplayed for me, it’s the rest of the album that gets me jazzed up. “Seconds” for instance about nuclear war is interesting because The Edge gets to sing early on. “Two Hearts Beat as One” is a nice enough song as well and shows a softer side of the band and could this be their first love song, that isn’t about God? I notice Clayton’s bass on this one clearly. My favorite song on War by far is “The Refugee” this song blisters like the earlier Boy tracks. It’s aggressive. It’s got a cowbell! The only song on the album not produced by Steve Lillywhite. Surprisingly I have read other reviews of this album where “The Refugee” is their least favorite track. Outside of the hit singles, I didn’t hear War at the time so a song like “The Refugee” came at me just recently and it’s awesome. I know some critics hated this album at the time and a lot of them have backtracked since. “Surrender” is another great song that showcases The Edge’s guitar work. “40” is a great album ender and it often ends their live performances. I love the title, it took 10 minutes to write, 10 minutes to record, 10 minutes to mix, and 10 minutes to play, so they called it “40”.
Bonus: The Coconuts from Kid Creole & the Coconuts were in Dublin when U2 was making the album and they asked them to participate in some of the recordings. “Red Light”, “Surrender” and “Like a Song” have their backing vocals.
MG: This may be my favorite album in their catalog. Musically it is a big leap forward, and Bono sings much more assertively and with a wider range. My sister had War on vinyl, and I initially liked the singles, but it was years later before I bought the album myself and appreciated the greatness of all the tracks together. “The Refugee” and “Seconds” are excellent tracks, but my favorite might be “Two Hearts Beat As One” – which I never took as a true “love song” despite the title. Oddly, over the years my least favorite track has become “New Year’s Day” – not sure why, maybe due to radio overplay.
Under a Blood Red Sky (1983) – Mike G
Looking back it is interesting that the band decided to release a live album after only three studio albums and a handful of radio hits. At only eight songs, it’s one of the shortest live albums I own, but still one of my favorites. Bono really breaks free as the frontman for the group, and he accomplishes what many vocalists can’t – singing live vocals as good, if not better, than his studio sound while also making small changes that are unique to the performance. I’ve seen U2 live twice, and he and the rest of the band were amazing both times. This disc starts with a rendition of “Gloria” that elevates it – I love it much more than the studio version. The album introduced many U2 fans to “11 O’clock Tick Tock”, which was not widely available at the time, and was recorded in our neck of the woods (shout out to Boston, MA). With its large population of Irish ancestry, U2 was embraced by Boston early on and their live performances here are legendary. “I Will Follow” has a pumped-up intensity that enhances Bono’s lyrics. If I had to point to a weak spot on the album it would be “Party Girl”. I’m assuming it was included because it was another non-album song – only available as a B-side to the single “A Celebration” (also never on an album). Supposedly the band never liked “Party Girl” – and it doesn’t give them much to do musically when played live. It is followed, however, by a blistering rendition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, where Bono famously introduces it with “This is not a rebel song!”. He is referencing the co-opting of the song by many Irish-Americans who assumed it was written in support of the IRA-led revolution in Ireland. The band has always asserted it was not in support of rebellion and was written in protest of violence in general.
Bonus: The original recording of “The Electric Co.” included 27 seconds of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”. The band didn’t get permission to use the song and had to pay $50,000 to Sondheim and agree to remove that portion of the recording from all future album printings.
DJ: A really great live album. “Party Girl” I agree is completely weak. The companion video Live at Red Rocks is amazing. Could be one of the best concert videos I have seen up there with Depeche Mode 101. “The Electric Co” is so powerful and is the version on this album. Early U2 live has so much energy and is raw – boy imagine seeing them at the Paradise in Boston?
The Unforgettable Fire (1984) – DJ
The Unforgettable Fire is the first move away from the classic era U2. The change is in the sound and to a certain extent Bono’s lyrics. U2 decided to go with the producing team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and when I think of these two I think a more of an ambient sound – songs that don’t have a hard stop. A great example is “4th of July” which is just an ambient instrumental from Clayton and The Edge that was just a spontaneous improvised track. To me, this is Eno being Eno and I find the song distracting to the album. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was the first U2 song I became familiar with, still not enough for me to purchase the album. It’s a decent song, Bono’s tribute along with the later non-essential track “MLK”. Most of this album is pretty good, I don’t mind the change of focus of U2 how long can you go on doing the same thing? Most bands mature and change. It doesn’t always work but for U2 it did. “Bad” a song about heroin addiction is an amazing track and the live version is even better. It made U2 become worldwide phenomena after their 12-minute performance at Live Aid. “Bad” is a crisp track where Bono’s voice is clear and the music is strong but not as loud and this will be a harbinger of future U2. “Indian Summer Sky” and “Wire” are two other superb tracks where the ambiance works. Bono continued to write about social issues, heroin addiction, racism, and the prison-like quality of the city. “Elvis Presley and America” is the only real clunker outside “4th of July”. Eno wanted lots of improvisation and that doesn’t always work. Overall a good album, a few really good songs, and a couple failures. In some ways, it’s a bridge album for what is up next. I purposely did not talk about “A Sort of Homecoming”, Mike may have more to say about that one, but I do like the song.
Bonus: In 1985 U2 put out an EP Wide Awake In America with 4 tracks, great live versions of “Bad”, and “A Sort of Homecoming” and two unreleased tracks, “Three Sunrises” and “Love Comes Tumbling”, both tracks don’t need to be searched out.
MG: It was a bold move to change producers and their sound, as you describe. I agree there is some filler, and the production choices don’t always work. I played this cassette quite a bit when it came out, but now over the years I rarely listened to this start to finish. There are some really good tracks here, though – my standout being “Wire”, featuring outstanding guitar work from Clayton and Edge. It may have suffered from overplay, but “Pride” is a band-defining anthem that will always be in U2’s top 3-5 songs.
The Joshua Tree (1987) – Mike G
I distinctly remember the anticipation in early 1987 leading up to the release of The Joshua Tree in March. It was a personal anticipation for me and a U2-fan friend, and it was a big marketing push by their label Island records (it was the first album ever to be released on vinyl, cassette, and CD simultaneously). I picked it up on cassette and I played the crap out of side A, which had all their radio hits. Years later I would come to appreciate the less-radio friendly, but more lyrically interesting songs on “Side B” (of course by that point I was listening on CD). But U2’s mega-success exploded based on those four singles, the first of which was “With Or Without You”, which became their first #1 song in the US. It’s one of those songs, even when it first came out, that I can appreciate the greatness of, but just never grabbed me. They would have a second consecutive #1 single with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for”, a song I loved to the point where I overplayed it. Listening to this album now after just listening to their first five, I can hear how the rest of the band was pushed back in the production, to feature Bono and his vocals more prominently. It works for these songs and the album, but it would have been nice to give the musicianship a little more daylight on certain tracks. The exception is my favorite track, “Bullet The Blue Sky”, which is dominated by some of the hardest of The Edge’s guitar work and prominent drums from Larry Mullen Jr. The song criticized America’s role in supporting violence and unrest in Central American countries like El Salvador. “In God’s Country” is also led by nice riff by The Edge and Adam Claton’s bassline notably helps drive this song. I did not get to see the band for their tour of this album, so it was awesome to get to see them live doing their 30th-anniversary concert in 2017 where they played the whole album. They sounded amazing.
Bonus: The original title for the album was Two Americas, as many of the songs had an American theme/focus. Having spent a great amount of time in the US touring and such, Bono saw a “mythic America” and a “real America” that politically wasn’t always doing the right thing under Ronald Reagan’s policies.
DJ: I have been railing against this album for years, I hated it at the time, mainly the three major hits. Where are the early aggressive drums? Seems like Bono’s tour-de-force more than anything. In later years I don’t hate the hits although not my cup of tea. The rest of the album is pretty good. “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “In God’s Country” are great. “One Tree Hill” is pretty good too. The last 2 tracks to me are clearly filler.
Rattle and Hum (1988) – Mike G
Rattle and Hum came out just as I was starting to date (or trying to) and a number of the songs took on special meaning because of that. I had not yet seen U2 in concert, so I was excited about the film documentary and to see their live performances on the big screen. I drove with a friend nearly an hour to a theater in Concord NH that advertised having Dolby surround sound. The second time I saw it in the theater was on a first date. When my date broke up with me about six weeks later, the song that closes the album “All I Want Is You” became so emotionally charged for me I couldn’t listen to it for over a year (I know – melodramatic, but you know how first love goes). Anyway, as an album, there are several tracks I love, but it definitely lacks cohesion. Some of that is due to the mixing of new studio tracks and live recordings, which I actually like as a concept, but I can see not working for everyone. “Desire” and “God Part II” are my favorite studio songs and would make my top twenty U2 songs. For the live stuff, “Silver and Gold” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” (especially with the “Star-Spangled Banner” intro) are both excellent. The live musicianship and Bono’s vocal intensity are on full display with these two. I also enjoyed the live covers – the lead-off song “Helter Skelter” and “All Along the Watchtower”. This is an album I tend to listen to from start to finish, so I’m good with everything here, but I’ll concede there are a few tracks, “Heartland” and “Love Rescue Me” in particular, that are underwhelming, despite Bob Dylan’s vocals on the latter. I wish there was an expanded version that included all the live songs in the movie because I love the version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that’s in it.
Bonus: Despite me seeing it twice in the theater, the movie only grossed $8.6 million at the box office. The album, though, was a huge success – reaching # 1 in the US, the first double album to do so since Bruce Springsteen’s The River in 1980.
DJ: Another one that is not a favorite, very spotty, jumping all over. I do enjoy “Desire” and even “When Love Comes to Town” with BB King. “God II” is interesting as it’s a sequel to Lennon’s “God”, a great song. The live “Bullet the Blue Sky” is tremendous as well. “All I Want is You” although not personal to me is devasting, very emotionally charged. Is there not a deluxe version of this album?