U2 go back to where it all began, with expanded reissues of their first three albums, ‘Boy’, ‘October’, and ‘War’, tracking their ascent from playing Dublin’s pubs to headlining Red Rocks Arena.
Bono waits a whole eight songs before mentioning ego. Startling, yes, but nothing compared to how supremely confident U2 sound on their debut album. Despite singing “like a girl” (the frontman’s recent assessment) and his largely improvised lyrics lacking precision, the man born Paul Hewson attacks the songs with a zeal that would later be seen as arrogance. Larry Mullen Jr beats the drums with all the military precision of a kid who once played in a marching band. Adam Clayton slips in, nearly unnoticed, with his laidback bass playing holding the sometimes fragile, occasionally unfocused songs together. But the real revelation is the guitarist, whose playing ranges from the high-speed thrashing of his punk idols to the reflective, chiming chords now synonymous with The Edge.
Together they propel opener ‘I Will Follow’ into the stadium anthem hall of fame — a mission statement on a par with ‘We Will Rock You’; lend ‘Twilight’ the brooding mystery and flourishes of light it demands; embrace the eerie atmospherics of Siouxsie and the Banshees on ‘An Cat Dubh’; explore sonic textures and landscapes on the cinematic ‘Into The Heart’; and act their age with the careening ‘Out Of Control’. The unstoppable ‘Stories For Boys’ reasserts their unbridled enthusiasm, the cocky ‘A Day Without Me’ makes that prophetic mention of ego, ‘Another Time, Another Place’ marches with the persistence of an army, ‘The Electric Co.’ might be the closest the Dublin foursome get to The Clash, and introspective closer ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ reveals a startling maturity to these four boys who are so much more than the sum of their influences. As Bono wrote on Rolling Stone’s website a few weeks ago: “I’m proud of this little Polaroid of a life I can’t fully recall.”
Pride surely isn’t what he associates with ‘October’ — a snapshot of a life he’d rather not recall. The work of an unprepared band on the verge of meltdown — Bono and Edge’s faith questioned the rock ‘n roll lifestyle — U2’s second album has been notably absent from their hits compilation and setlists. But as tentative as its predecessor is brash, with Bono left floundering after his lyrics were stolen, the 11-track collection has perhaps been judged too harshly.
‘Gloria’ — three chords and the gospel — is a punk rock hymn to be sung in stadiums; the shape-shifting ‘I Fall Down’ hints at a new direction by throwing some keyboards and a pop sensibility into the mix; and the soaring ‘With A Shout’, with its impassioned refrain of “Jerusalem”, allows the entire band to show off — Bono gets spiritual, Edge’s guitar sears, Clayton’s bass rumbles threateningly and Mullen goes marching; and the stark piano-led title track, leaving the vulnerable singer nowhere to hide, is easily the most poignant two minutes in the band’s career.
But the despairing ‘Tomorrow’, with its appropriately funereal Uillean pipe intro, is the album’s real heart and soul. The primal scream of a man (Bono) trying to make sense of a traumatic childhood memory (his mother’s funeral), is moving in its intensity and confusion (“Somebody’s knocking at the door/ There’s a black car parked at the side of the road/ Don’t go to the door”).
The spell doesn’t last. ‘Rejoice’ is but a sketch of a song as ill conceived as the cover photo; ‘Scarlet’ is little more than three minutes of sparse music built around Bono repeating the word “rejoice”; ‘I Threw A Brick Through A Window’ takes a good riff to nowhere in particular; and ‘Is That All?’ is early U2 by numbers, the work of a group mimicking the sound but not the creativity of their debut, the work of a group low on confidence. Even Bono, it seems, has moments of self-doubt.
Unsurprisingly those moments are brief. “We had let things drift a little bit and it was time to get back to the original vision we had for the band,” Edge remembers in ‘U2 by U2’. “We were determined the next album would be more to the point, tougher and more hard hitting.”
‘War’, released little than a year later, is just that. The band are on fire, Bono dives into the Big Issues (nuclear war, the IRA, refugees, street hustlers, peace) as if he’s murdering a pint of Guinness, and it’s got ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and ‘New Year’s Day’. Even with its iffy fiddle playing, the former — all machine gun drumming, angular guitars and pained vocals — is easily the most powerful song about sectarian violence. Ever. Whether it’s the desperate version from ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ (“this is not a rebel song”), the furious rendition captured on ‘Rattle & Hum’ or the haunting acoustic reinterpretation favoured recently, it remains a sure fire knockout. And what ‘New Year’s Day’ lacks in political baggage it makes up in sheer artistry — from the instantly recognisable piano intro to the stratospheric guitar solo, the lighter anthem is a master class in crowd seduction.
The eight other tracks aren’t bad either. Featuring a rare Edge lead vocal, the ticking time bomb of ‘Seconds’ is as good at capturing Cold War anxieties as Sting’s ‘Russians’; the galloping ‘Two Hearts Beat As One’ hints at the majesty and scope of ‘The Joshua Tree’; ‘Surrender’ simultaneously manages to sound both strident and mysterious; and, even with that damned fiddle’s return, the haunted ‘Drowning Man’ remains the album’s overlooked classic.
The disco-influenced ‘The Refugee’ not so much, proving — almost 15 years before ‘Pop’ — that these white boys can’t dance. But the faux-funk is long forgotten by the time ‘War’ closes with the crowd-swaying ’40’ and its prophetic refrain of “I will sing a new song”. Within a year, the four Irishmen would undergo a dramatic change on ‘Unforgettable Fire’, but that’s a story for another day — or the next batch of U2 reissues.