We listened to U2’s early demos and were floored by what we heard.
In 1980, U2 seemed to emerge as a fully-formed musical entity with their debut album, Boy. This is not to say that they reached mega-stardom and started filling stadiums right away (Boy reached No. 63 in the U.S. and No. 52 in the U.K. charts). Almost no one, it seemed, had heard of this band prior to their first album coming out. And yet somehow they managed to release a well-produced, thematically coherent, near-concept album for their debut – a gutsy move that gave the world a glimpse of how ambitious this band would be.
In retrospect, it’s pretty understandable that U2 was not lumped in with the punk bands of the the day in the early 80’s, given that U2 worked hard to encourage the image that their musical output started with 1980’s Boy. Perhaps U2 thought it would be more impressive if they were a game-changing rock band that materialized, as if out of nowhere, similar to The Beatles’ near-instant ascent to stardom 3 years after forming. (Never mind the clunky, formative years – we’re all polished and ready to go, so pay attention to us now.)
U2’s early sound fit pretty clearly into the same mold as contemporaries like Echo & the Bunnymen and the Psychedelic Furs. They didn’t exactly radiate punk aesthetics, either – the band’s look in those early days was a mix of suit jackets and “Flock of Seagulls” hair teased to the high heavens.
Bono himself would proclaim just a few years ago that U2 were “more punk rock now than when [they] started”. Bear in mind that this is the same band that did the most unpunk thing possible in 2014 – forcing a free copy of their album, Songs of Innocence, on everyone who had an Apple account, whether they wanted it or not.
That’s some interesting evidence against U2 ever having been an actual punk band. But is that really all there is to say on the subject? Well… without spoiling things too much, I think that you should probably make sure you’re sitting down and that there’s nothing breakable nearby if you decide to read on and find out what we have come to think.
So, Did U2 Start as a Punk Band?
Reasons to think that U2 were once a punk band:
- Ok, here’s the thing: U2’s early demos have punk rock influences written all over them – a non-album cut from 1978 called “Street Missions” sounds way too much like The Stranglers with Richard Hell singing to be a coincidence – because it isn’t
- Another early demo called “Another Day” has almost enough crunchy guitar heft and jerky start/stop rhythm to sound like it could’ve been recorded by The Vibrators
- Band members have name-dropped Patti Smith, Television, The Jam and other early punk bands as influences numerous times over the years
- The boys in U2 had close ties with Steve Averil of The Radiators, considered by many to be Ireland’s first punk band
- U2’s most obvious influence in their early days was most likely the Scottish punk/post-punk band, The Skids
Reasons to think that U2 were never a punk band:
- If you’ve only ever listened to their proper studio albums, it’s justifiably easy to dismiss U2 as fake punks and poseurs (but really though – check out the early demos linked above)
- Their overall sound on the vast majority of their recorded output is decidedly and uncontroversially post-punk in nature
- Their late 80’s mega-stardom and MTV fame would seem like they disqualify U2 for the “punk rock” label
- Forcing their mediocre 2014 album on practically the entire world through a deal made with a giant global corporation is pretty much the antithesis of real punk
This might come as a shocker given what we’ve stated above… but U2 were actually pretty clearly a proper punk band in their very earliest incarnation. We’re inclined to say that, yeah, at one point very early on in their existence had we seen U2 play live we’d have figured they were a punk band. Those very early U2 demos really speak for themselves. We were pretty shocked when we heard them too – in fact, those demos are literally all of the weight on the scale in favor of U2 having started out as a punk band.