What does U2 sound like?
For a question that seems so absurd to ask-surely, everyone knows!–it’s pretty hard to answer. Not because the band has been around for over three decades and experimented with a number of styles. Its that the answer is tautological: U2 sounds like U2. Its commercial success and attendant ubiquity has done something to it: it’s transcended pop music.
Of course, Bono, The Edge, Larry, Mullin, Jr. and Adam Clayton weren’t born fully grown, as their first three albums, all reissued in remastered form last week, attest. Boy, October, and War come out together today in a super-deluxe box set which cheekily leaves room for collectors to add an extra disk of their own, as if it’s being left to the listener to judge whether The Joshua Tree belongs here. (It doesn’t, but Under the Blood Red Sky would fill the hole.)
These three disks capture U2 as the scrappy band of early 80s strivers, desperate to launch themselves into the rock Pantheon, to be important. That is, this is early music that sounds eager to be grown up.
If you listen very carefully for the miscues, the also-rans, and the moments of overt bluster, you can slice through the overly familiar U2 style and hear some strains of raw youth.
But try as you may, you’ll never hear hits like "I Will Follow," "Gloria," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," or "New Year’s Day" for the first time. It’s just not possible to listen to Bono’s voice, The Edge’s guitar, Mullin’s drumming, or Clayton’s bass and not know every inch the sounds they’re making. There is no sonic wayback machine, no way to un-hear the U2-ness-never terrible, not always great, just crushingly oppressive-that you know so well.
Try now to listen to contemporaries to whom U2 was compared in these years. If you’re already familiar, you will see how ludicrous it seems to compare these albums to Crocodiles or Heaven Up Here by Echo and the Bunnymen; or to Script of the Bridge by Chameleons.
For completely different reasons it would seem absolutely impossible to compare them to the Police circa Synchronicity II. But then, they, too, were a form of Uberpop.
Most big pop bands reach this point, where the weight of what they have achieved — musically and culturally — makes it impossible to hear them again for the first time. You can’t listen to "Borderline" without echoes of that interminably godawful version of "American Pie" (and vice versa). Looking back on the biggest names — the Beatles, the Stones, ABBA, Elton, Bruce, the Beach Boys — it’s the same story. An album like Yellow Brick Road just sits there, defying us to dislike it, a giant pop culture mountain that you can’t go over or around — you’d have to blast your way through it. But who has that much dynamite? Anyway, familiarity breeds familiarity — the path of least resistance is to accept the rock of pop as is, without question.
But back to U2. As though to help with this very listening conundrum, the reissues come with all sorts of bells and whistles meant to cut through the mental red tape and invigorate some neurons that have lain dormant for 20 years. Each has an extra disc of B-sides, live tracks, and other rarities, many of which will be brand new to all but U2 completists. Added to Boy are some of the band’s earliest singles, the first EP, and live material from concerts in 1980 and 1981 featuring Bono breathless, the band clattering but focused. Liner notes from rock writers who earned their stripes loving and hating U2 during these formative years (Paul Morley, Neil McCormick, Niall Stokes) wax on the formative trials endured and victories won by the band on the way to Greatness.
If you get the box set, you’ll even be rewarded with a poster featuring images of the band from this early era, sporting all manner of wild hair, wardrobe, and even a bit of makeup (Adam Clayton’s perm still confounds).
Yet all this extra pomp and circumstance might actually make the listening tougher. With each listen, Bono’s strident pseudo-revolutionary lyricism, the cinematic scope of the Edge’s guitar lines (which do ultimately seem to point most strongly to eventual U2 producer Brian Eno’s work, another mirror facing a mirror), and the more-than-arena-ready rhythm section feel strangely locked in, as if limited not by the band’s repetitive use of certain sounds or tropes, but by the expectations of pop music, already latent in the band in these three albums. And it’s the magic of pop that the band’s incredible success can pull those aspirations out of the early work and twist it to match the 20-20 hindsight. If you are of a certain age and believe that U2 "broke" with Joshua Tree, in either sense of the word, you may have been right at the time. But this box set proves that in retrospect, such notions are bunkum.
Boy and October, released within a year of one another, fared well on the US charts and the band became and MTV mainstay just as the network (and cable) was getting huge. And U2 seemed perfect for the small screen, with a battery of 4-minute epics visualized as Cold War Dr. Zhivago outtakes, strident barge-bound performances, or frenetic trips around Montmartre. Yet beyond that, the band’s positivist thrust was just more thrillingly pop than the moody shadow play of most new wave contemporaries (compare Bono’s woozy gyrations in the video for "I Will Follow," to the art-school spook of the Cure’s "The Hanging Garden," and it’s no question who would end up with the branded iPod).
If you think of U2 as the marriage of post-punk and traditional rock, you’ve got the Edge on one side of the aisle and the rest of the band on the other. Yet without the Edge, the band would have sounded pretty lame. His guitar lines make songs, yet those songs wouldn’t have been hits if they hadn’t already been strident, cocksure anthems, pinioned by thunderous drumming and drive-all-night straight-ahead basslines. No disco-ey Gang of Four funking around here. October revealed more overt Christian themes, another distinguishing mark. "Gloria," is a song whose title, anyway, harkens to another famed Irishman, Belfast-born Van Morrison, who rode the bluesy swagger of "G-L-O-R-I-A!" to renown with his early band, garage-y Them. U2 put an ecclesiastic spin on the snarling three-chord rocker of yore; with the soaring moans of Bono leaving no doubt that his was praise music.
Then came War, in 1983, which built on what had been a predominantly cult audience and went to #12 on the US charts. The band sings about a vague kind of revolution, and about redemption, and spins a kind of positivist new wave that would lift not only U2 out of the mopey doldrums of the early ’80s genre, but signal its demise. The war anthems ("New Year’s Day," "40," "Seconds") are balanced nicely by love songs ("Two Hearts Beat as One"). And here is also where you can find the greatest markers of what would come next. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" laments the pointless (religious) squabbling of the Irish troubles, without coming down on any side. Follow-up "Seconds" is more judgy, this time condemning nuclear war. "Like a Song…" sums it up nicely:
"And we love to wear a badge, a uniform, / And we love to fly the flag. / But I won’t let others live in hell …"
And suddenly the space between Bono prancing with a white flag and his meeting with UN officials seems like nothing. Early U2 isn’t a premonition, it’s prologue. The political pronouncements, the soul and Americana revivalism, even those damned Fly sunglasses are all part of the same story, and it’s all here.