U2's status in the punk community is one of vicious malcontent. The band suffers seething stares and savage slandering by those who watched the band become geriatric arena pop with their later releases and view frontman Bono's social and political activism as nothing more than a front for an overinflated ego. However understandable those opinions may be, it's hard to take away from the importance and general brilliance of their earliest output, as well as the light affiliations those songs carried. In the early 1980s, U2's grand ambitions and an arena-emboldened sound were restrained by classic punk influences (the Ramones, Joy Division, the Clash, Patti Smith) that granted them a closer connection to the post-punk movement than they would ever get.
Their long-time label, Island Records, brings a few of those old albums back into the limelight with deluxe reissues of their first three full-lengths: 1980's Boy, 1981's October and 1983's War. Each respective album is remastered vividly by The Edge and contains a bonus disc of B-sides, live or alternate versions and otherwise previously unreleased tracks, as well as liner notes with full lyrics, short essays from the members or others, old promo shots and various scrawlings and single/EP covers.
Boy was a strong debut for the band. Bono's voice was a versatile force that yelped and floated around The Edge's distinct guitar tones, which had already begun to take its noticeable shape. Boy's leadoff track, "I Will Follow," became the album's biggest hit, and rightly so -- the song balanced a cautiously upbeat flair with a more desperate mood and Bono's driven, energetic delivery for the chorus. A bit of urgency and transfixing transitions mark "Stories for Boys," making it one of the album's more standout moments. Boy is aptly titled, however; a certain naivety plagues the album a bit, and that's what's always kept it from being a considered a definitive selection to their top five or so. Other songs occasionally wander and stray a bit ("Into the Heart"), and Boy's second half is generally lacking, but the album bears the ability to redeem itself with shimmering and effective, compelling buildups and rigid paces ("Out of Control").
The bonus disc for Boy offers three previously unreleased songs from the band, as well as a couple B-sides and live and alternate versions. Opening with a slightly altered mix of "I Will Follow," the hit is livened with more clear acoustic layering and bizarre clicking and clacking noises. "11 O'Clock Tick Tock," the band's first single for their new label (at the time), preceded the recording and release of Boy, and was a comparatively raw and unbridled affair when compared to the material that followed. Meanwhile, the previously unreleased "Speed of Life" falters a bit, relying too much on a noodly guitar section. "Saturday Night" is next, also previously unreleased, and picks things up a bit; Bono's occasional "ohhhh" resonates well, while The Edge more effectively weaves tones and riffs within each other, echoing, bouncing and sauntering well. "Boy-Girl" is pretty superb, a moderately stripped down number, jaggedly uptempo and Bono unafraid to let his voice crack and yelp (as it also does on the slightly faster single version of "Stories for Boys," and the B-side "Twilight"). The previously unreleased "Cartoon World" -- in a live setting -- has sort of an anticlimactic vibe to it, as well as a strange recording, and consequently ends the disc on a weird note, but it's not bad.
The album that quickly followed, October was a bit of a sophomore slip. Critics cited the band's overambitious and ill-led mind to simply progress instead of letting the songs speak for themselves. With much of the album, which didn't garner much radio play and largely revolved around ideas of spirituality and religion, leaving behind the adolescent themes of Boy, the band are lost in pomp and theater that really do overtake the songs. But that's not to say October was all sour apples; The Edge manages to refine his approach here and it would go onto help define later catalog staples. "Gloria" works as a riff-rollicking and breezy -- despite its four-minute-plus running time -- opener, while "Rejoice" was one of the band's best songs to date, with swirling and atmospheric layers that work better than anywhere else on the album, topped off with a big, shouted chorus. The title track comes in the form of a piano ballad and proves U2 should've utilized this setting more often; the more minimal approach blesses the band with overtones of melancholy they would barely brush the hairs of again, and they do it in a tidy 2:21. Not much else is entirely noteworthy though; even "Scarlet" is a mere tired retread of "Rejoice."
Consequently, October's bonus disc is occasionally passable and otherwise fluid. It begins with a batch of live versions of October songs, then segues into a trio of BBC session versions. A couple rare tracks make up the middle, with the knotty "A Celebration" bearing some tastily ripe fruits of the band's labor, though its weak fadeout produces an abrupt finish. I always appreciated the quirky acoustic jaunt "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl" (which appears on the B-sides companion disc to the compilation The Best of 1980-1990). After, several more live versions and a plodding "Common Ground" remix of "Tomorrow" wrap things up; the only track quite of note here is "I Will Follow" live from the Boston Paradise Theatre in `82 -- The Edge describes the band as having a sense of euphoria due to it being their first show in the U.S. outside of a club and that seems accurate.
Of these three, War is, of course, the best. War was U2 at their most overtly political thus far, yet kept a focused and emotional edge to everything. It spawned the gigantic "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," as well as "Two Hearts Beat as One," songs that rank easily up there amongst the band's best singles. "Seconds" set the listener upon the brink of nuclear disaster with an aura that fit the theme perfectly, complete with lavish acoustic strums and haunting moans put against an energetic and consistent bounce. Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. used a click track for the first time, and his new confidence and poise shows in cuts like "Like a Song...," where he sounds huge and commands the paced track well, and his juggernaut, thumping fills in "The Refugee," where Bono sounds particularly demented in his delivery, perhaps imitating the dictators he indirectly condemns throughout the album. The staccato strikes in the chorus by The Edge in "Two Hearts Beat as One" give the song a certain, subtle serration that really completes it well. "'40'" is War's most laid-back and optimistic offering, lightened by soothing vocal layers and careful acoustic brushes, but it's also a compact and tidy closer in and of itself. Overall, War's 10 songs were a hearty and determined quality over quantity practice, where the band's creative tendencies and passions converged into a palatable mixture that cemented the album amongst U2's best.
The best album here, however, is ironically accompanied by the worst bonus disc; War's second disc is comprised of the smallest number of tracks of the three (12) and yet various versions of "New Year's Day" and "Two Hearts Beat as One" make up 58% of it. Both easily rank up among the band's best songs, but hearing how many different ways Bono can howl "IIIII will be with you againnnn" really diminishes the song's emotional resonance after several times. One is unsure of how great a desire there is to hear how "New Year's Day" might've sounded in a European dance club in the mid-`80s (thanks, Ferry Corsten, for your extended vocal and vocal radio mixes) -- the same for which could be said for "Two Hearts Beat as One." You have to be surprised that there weren't various cuts of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to fill in gaps. Granted, the disc does have the somber, piano-heavy and mostly instrumental "Endless Deep" (originally on the "Two Hearts Beat as One" single and later on The Best of 1980-1990). But for such a great album, not a whole wealth of enjoyable stuff is included.
Nonetheless, Island's deluxe reissues overall offer seriously in-depth looks into the recording process and the material that sprouted from those years with these reissues of Boy, October and War. Diehard fans of U2's first full-lengths would likely do well to explore the offerings here; those who never forgave them for later blunders may not be rewarded quite as well, but would at least receive a fresh look at the inner workings of what once gave their boldness and brood a careful and precocious balance.