The earliest music and indeed live shows by U2 are a world-removed from the bombastic style over substance era which began, arguably, with their appearance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in July 1985.
They certainly had come a long way in just six years, with their initial release being a 3-track EP on 12” vinyl, in a cheap record label sleeve, with a pressing limited to 1,000 copies, available only in Ireland (and for the most part, only in Dublin). The band were making a great impression on the local scene but struggling to be heard above everything that has happening in the UK in 1979 as post-punk/new wave became the flavour of the day for the industry bosses, albeit only as a way of trying to gain some critical credibility as the big monies were still being made from MOR chart fodder and disco (it’s worth remembering that CBS was the home to Abba as well as The Clash).
But, as David Byrne would come to sing, ‘How Did We Get Here?’
The abbreviated version is that they formed in 1976 while all still at school, going through a few personnel and name changes in the early years. They began life as a covers band, gradually incorporating more new wave/post-punk songs into their sets. In March 1978, they became a four-piece and took the name U2 and around the same time won a talent contest for which the prize was £500 and studio time to record a demo. They began to be hyped by Hot Press, a new fortnightly-published Irish music magazine and then approached by a 27-year old named Paul McGuinness who offered to be their full-time manager with the promise of booking gigs and studio time.
The band members were just 16-18 year old at the time and there is absolutely no doubt that without these developments, they would likely have sunk without much of a trace beyond the Dublin scene. Word of mouth that they were a great live act, with an energy not unlike many of the new UK bands who were making waves, ensured the youth of Dublin turned out in ever-increasing numbers. By August 1979 they were largely performing their own numbers and felt confident enough to return to the studio, determined that the mistakes made after the initial effort on the back of the talent contest the following year wouldn’t be repeated.
The said demo was three tracks and it was enough for CBS Ireland to show some interest. They offered to issue it on 12” vinyl but hedged their bets somewhat by making it a cheap release with just a generic sleeve and a run of 1,000 copies.
The initial 1,000 copies sold out quickly, and in due course the 12” would be re-pressed on at least seven occasions as well as appearing in 7” format, this time in a picture sleeve
Known as U2-3, it sold enough copies to go Top 20 in Ireland, leading to interest in the UK, with a London show in December 1979 being their first performance outside of Ireland. That particular show didn’t go well and so it was back to Ireland to think things over. The manager suggested a second single, which CBS Ireland were OK about releasing but without any further long-term commitment, as well as a tour which would culminate in a 2,000 capacity show in Dublin, one which would subsequently go down in local legend as one of the all-time great Dublin gigs.
Island Records swooped in as CBS continued to hum-and-haw. The rest, via a one-off single recorded in May 1980 with Martin Hannett, is history:-
The debut album, Boy, was released in October 1980. It included newly recorded versions of two of the songs that had appeared on the first release.
There is something about the early U2 releases which hinted they had something of a future, but I imagined at the time it would have been akin to so many other of the bands which emerged in the late 70s, namely a bright beginning followed by a fizzling away after a few albums. I had them down as being the Irish equivalent of The Skids…..