I’m old enough to remember when U2’s first three albums — 1980’s Boy, 1981’s October and 1983’s War — were only available on vinyl. Well, you could get them on cassette too, but anyone with a decent tape deck was smart enough to know that you could dub your own cassettes (on tapes of better quality) for a fraction of the price you’d pay for a new cassette. So anyone who knew anything had these albums on vinyl.
I remember thinking at the time that if only U2 had a producer who could bring its sonic qualities to a sharper focus, it’d really be on to something. The band’s passion was simply unmatched, even at a time when the post-punk explosion yielded acts with pure desire at their core. By the time U2 hooked up with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for 1984’s breakthrough, The Unforgettable Fire, the band had finally found what it was looking for. Namely, someone who understood enough about mixing and dynamics to sharpen the Edge’s searing guitar riffs, turn Bono’s voice into a veritable battle cry and give the rhythm section the propulsion it really needed.
Yet thanks to some intensive remastering, these reissues actually sound great, especially the vinyl versions, which come on 180-gram slabs of wax. The packaging is phenomenal too, as each album includes a thick set of new liner notes, with an essay about the album, lyrics and production notes, and numerous photos and even drawings.
Right out of the gate, U2 delivered one of its best songs (and a staple in live sets) with “I Will Follow,” the opening track on Boy. With its tinkling keyboards, it always sounded a bit thin. But here, it resonates and shows how the band was, as Paul Morley puts it in the liner notes, “opinionated and romantically excessive.” A love song that’s not a love song, the tune’s more about devotion and pride than romance. And it still hits home, as does much of Boy. “Out of Control” is good sloppy fun, as is “The Electric Co.,” a raucous tune that would also become a concert favorite.
October is often seen as a disappointment, simply because it’s so unformed. The band hadn’t written enough songs as it went into the studio and really had to scrape the album together. To me, however, that’s a strength. The music here isn’t calculated. The album opens with “Gloria,” a passionate ballad that sounds much warmer in its re-mastered form (though you can still detect a bit of static in the vocals). “Tomorrow” aims for something epic in scope, and though it misses the mark, it’s still an honorable attempt, as is the Clash-like “Fire.”
The band really hit its stride with War. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” a song about being torn in different directions by Ireland’s violent past, stands as one of the band’s finest lyrical achievements (“And it’s true we are immune/When fact is fiction and TV reality”). “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat as One” are just as inspiring and anthemic. After the more introspective October, War is a real call to arms and blazes with a fury that’s almost punk rock in nature.
While U2 would go on to make albums that are arguably better than the first three, there’s something compelling about Boy, October and War, brash and inconsistent though they are. Sure, the band’s politics and musical approach have evolved, but the raw energy here is almost more admirable than the self-righteousness that permeates its current material.