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"I hang out with every set. . . . From the penthouse to the pavement but under the pavement."

-- Bono

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Another Time: The inside story of U2's very first record

An eye-witness account by the man who produced it, Chas de Whalley

Record Collector, September 01, 2004
By: By Chas de Whalley

 

I first met U2's manager Paul McGuiness sometime in February 1979. He was on a trip to London doing the rounds of the record companies with a briefcase full of dodgy tapes to play. It was my job as CBS A&R department's talent scout to listen to those tapes, pass polite judgement on them and then show him the door. I obviously didn't do it as well as I could, because he was back a month or two later with half a dozen more by half a dozen different artists. One was a song which, he told me proudly, was being used by the Irish Milk Marketing Board in its new advertising campaign and was available for release in the U.K. if I was interested. It was sung by a fey girl with an acoustic guitar. Suffice to say I passed on it.

Then, almost as an afterthought, Paul mentioned a young rock band he was managing who had been tearing up Dublin's trendy Grafton Street and had just recorded some demos in Eamonn "Crackerjack" Andrew's studios. Paul handed me a cassette with the titles of the tracks written in biro. The band used to be called the Hype, he said, but they'd changed the name to U2. I would like to say I then suffered an epiphany and was blown away by the pure power and passion which came out of the speakers. But I can't. U2 sounded like a thousand other wannabe new wave acts and made no real impression on my jaded ears. But, as he showed me photos of four scrawny teenagers with pop-art pretensions, and told me how they'd won a CBS-sponsored talent contest at home (of which I was totally oblivious, such was the degree of dialogue between Dublin and London), Paul McGuiness talked an extremely good game. There was even something in there about a TV appearance.

If half of what he said was true then it was clear that this U2 mob had legs on them. So I said I'd talk to my boss about going over to see U2 play in Dublin as soon as was practical.

My boss was Muff Winwood, formerly bass player with the Spencer Davis Group, originator of the world-bearing bassline on "Gimme Some Loving" and the producer of such hits as Sparks' "This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us" and Dire Straits' epic "Sultans of Swing." If this was a mafia movie then Muff was a made man. But word had come to him from those on the dons on the fifth floor that CBS' man in Ireland, Jackie Hayden, was raving about U2 too.

Sensitive to the fact that his team had missed out on the Undertones only a few months before, Muff approved my trip to Dublin -- provided that CBS' other A&R scout Howard Thompson came too. Howard already had hits to his credit -- Eddie & the Hot Rods at Island and Motrhead at Bronze (and was soon to sign the Psychedelic Furs and Adam & the Ants). So Muff was clearly looking to him for a seasoned second opinion.

Which is how Howard and I ended up on a gloriously hot June afternoon, standing in the garden of a top Dublin ad agency getting quietly off our faces on free champagne and meeting some really oddball Irish media types. Paul had whisked us to the party directly from the airport. It was Strawberry Time, he explained, and Dublin marked it like London celebrated the arrival of Beaujolais nouveau. Except there were joints going round. Needless to say, 25-year-old rock 'n' roll party animals that we were, Howard and I inhaled and the rest of the day passed by in a dream. Until...

Suddenly we were in McGonagles, a dark, chintzy, beneath-the-plastic-palm-trees type of a place with a proscenium stage and a crowd that was significantly smaller than we expected. That was because the door policy was strictly over 18, said Paul apologetically. Most of U2's fans were schoolkids. But it would still be a good show. He promised that. The state that Howard and I were in, we probably didn't care.

U2 finally hit the stage. They were loud and brash, fast and frenetic, jerky and quirky in a sort of post-Skids way. The crowd loved them, jamming up against the front of the stage and pogoing ferociously. But only one thing about the band really stood out for me -- and that was the lead singer, the boy the world would soon know as Bono. He put everything into the show. He wasn't yet climbing on top of the amps and hanging from the rafters in the way that would endear him to American audiences in a couple of years' time. But he came close, running, jumping and standing still, using every inch of the stage and fearlessly throwing shapes like was already in a stadium and needed to make an impression on the fans in the back of the bleachers.

And what shapes were they? Straight out of Jacobean tragedy. As a student I had seen Ian McKellan give a mighty performance as the agonised incestuous brother in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore -- and it was as if Bono had stolen all of McKellan's moves and was trying them out for size in front of me. I later discovered that he had had acting lessons, but the way that he moved through songs like "Out of Control," "Shadows and Tall Trees," and "Twilight"? It wasn't method, it was magic!

I was completely blown away. I hadn't seen star quality like this since the first time Paul Weller and the Jam had played the Nashville two years previously, when I'd been writing for Sounds.

I leaned over and shouted in Howard's ear, "This guy's amazing. He's either going to be the next sensational Alex Harvey or he's going to be David Bowie." I believe Howard grunted in reply.

Back in London, I came up with what I thought was a wizard wheeze. We regularly gave new bands a day's free time in the smaller of CBS' three studios at Whitfield Street at a cost to the A&R budget of around 100. Paul had told me that he could get two days in Dublin's most prestigious studio Windmill Lane for the same money. So I put the following proposition to Muff. Why didn't I go over there and demo U2 and at the same time the business affairs department could strike a deal which would allow us to release the demo as a single on CBS Ireland and thereby secure us an interest in the band without having to make that final commitment?

I knew Paul was up for it because he believed the world's biggest record company would give U2 the biggest shot. In the days before the independent sector had grown to be a force to be reckoned with, this was an accepted wisdom among ambitious managers. Whether the deal he agreed to was quite so wise is open to debate. It must have been worked out on a beermat while the lawyer was in the loo, because U2 ended up locked firmly into CBS -- admittedly for Ireland only, but almost certainly on a derisory royalty -- for the next five years. But Paul needed a release to kick U2's career into second gear. So the whole thing was signed, sealed and delivered in a matter of days and I got the go-ahead to make that record.

The second time I saw U2 was at the Community Centre in Howth, a little place just up the coast from Dublin. In the audience were about 40 or 50 obvious rock fans, many trying desperately to be punks, being watched with some amusement by small clusters of mums and dads and grannies who stood or sat at tables round the edges of the hall, tiny tots playing at their feet.

I now had a much better handle on what U2 were all about. In order to get to know the band better and discuss what songs we would record, I'd spent the afternoon with them round, I think, at Adam Clayton's parents' house. It was a very nice place in a quiet suburb of Dublin and it was clear that at least one of the band came from a good solid middle-class background. But as they laughed and joked over cups of tea, Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton proved they already had a well-developed sense of purpose. They knew where they were coming from and, to an extent, where they were going.

They told me how they'd been playing their songs almost from the beginning after a disastrous gig in which somebody had come up to them and said, "you're a good band, lads, but you're doing covers and nobody wants to hear covers done badly!" So, said Bono, who was fast emerging as U2's spokesperson -- and big thinker -- "we started mixing the instruments with primary colours to see what worked and what didn't."

They were also intensely idealistic. Punk had caught their imagination, but it wasn't the Clash's revolutionary rhetoric or the dark undercurrents of the Stranglers or the Banshees which had inspired them. Instead, Bono spoke about innocence and integrity as being part of the new rebellion. There was something deeply spiritual about him even then -- but if you'd told me at the time he was a closet God-botherer I'd have been really surprised.

It was at the Howth gig that the Edge finally caught my attention. He was playing the Gibson Explorer which he'd told me earlier he'd bought in a pawnshop in New York while on a family holiday. He also told me that it was a bugger to keep in tune. Maybe that had something to do with his guitar style, which was unusual to say the least. He didn't have his Memory Man echobox yet -- that wasn't going to appear until after the "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" sessions U2 did with Martin Hannett for their first Ireland single in mid 1980. But while virtually every other guitarist in those days was either still feverishly riffing or crashing out big five-fingered chords, the Edge was already experimenting with that open-string droning thing with which he later revolutionized the sound of rock.

All I can recall of Adam, on the other side of the stage, was his shock of curly blonde hair and a smile which said Cat and Cream-he was clearly very proud of himself. And Larry? He was hidden away behind his cymbals. But who wanted to watch the drummer anyway when Bono was once more going for broke out front? Bobbing and weaving and whooping and suddenly revealing what I hadn't even yet grasped: that he had a voice like an angel, capable of soaring high above the best of the band and swooping down to earth again like the man on the flying trapeze. By the time I went backstage to say goodbye I was a convert.

We reconvened on August Bank Holiday Saturday 1979. U2 played a free show under corrugated iron that afternoon at the Gaiety Green, then Dublin's equivalent of Camden Market. Naturally the place was rammed and the band were called back for at least three or four encores. Then we moved across town to Windmill Lane where we were booked from six in the evening until midnight.

We had chosen to record set favourites "Out of Control," "Stories For Boys" and a new song, "Boy/Girl." The Edge, Larry and Adam set up their gear in the main studio room while the engineer, whose name was Bill and played jazz piano in his spare time, put a microphone up in the control room. This was so that Bono could sing guide vocals which the others would be able to hear in their cans as they played but wouldn't end up spilling into their respective backing tracks. Only you wouldn't have known they were guide vocals by the way Bono went for them -- giving it the full monty, arms flailing, legs pumping, willing his mates on the other side of the big plate glass window to pull out all the stops.

Which they did, of course. But recording tape can be an unforgiving medium and on playback, cracks began to open up in U2's sound. Neither Adam or Larry were the world's best timekeepers and, without the fuss and fury of a live show to hide behind, their tempos were not to be trusted. "Stories For Boys" and "Boy/Girl" were just about OK. But there was -- and still is -- a long 24-bar section two-thirds of the way through "Out of Control" where everything breaks down to a simple bass-drum figure and then builds slowly up again. Whether it was through nerves or exhaustion, Larry would lose the groove at this point, Adam would be unable to find his way back in and the whole thing would fall apart.

As this was by far the best song they had -- and it needed to sound as coherent as possible -- so I made them do it again and again until they finally got it right. Poor Larry was almost in tears and, if Bill Graham's excellent book on these days, Another Time Another Place, is to be believed, Bono was ready to stick one on me too. Only he was too polite. All I remember is him saying incredulously: "But Larry has lessons from one of the best drummers in Dublin! How can he be out of time?"

We mixed the songs the following night, with Paul passing me joints which I gratefully accepted. Whether his plan was to help me pull down great ideas out of the ether or to get me so out of it I'd let him and the rest of the band call the shots, I don't know. Either way we all agreed that the songs had to be as tough as possible and, in a bid to copy the Ruts' superbly throaty "Babylon's Burning," we slapped vast amounts of flanger all over the Edge's guitar tracks.

But even as I sat with Bono at the airport the next day, drinking coffee with the master tape on the table between us, I knew that the flanger hadn't done any good. And that I'd failed them (not to mention my own audition as a producer) by coming up with nothing more than a set of so-so demos. Certainly not the stuff of which big hits were made. At least not by London standards.

And probably not by Paul McGuinness' standards either, since he had all three songs remixed by the Boomtown Rats' soundman Robbie McGrath, before CBS Ireland put U2 3 out four weeks later. Whether it made any difference is questionable, since by then U2 were so hot at home that the first 1,000 copies sold out in a day and the EP shot to No. 1 in the Irish charts. Rough Trade imported a handful into the U.K. and suddenly the British music press began to pick up a pulse.

At this point I perked up again. Maybe I had made some dodgy demos but U2 were clearly far from a dodgy group. I now really, really wanted to sign them and badgered Muff to go to Ireland and take a look himself. This time, U2, who were growing tighter and more confident by the gig, were playing the Baggot Inn, the place was heaving and representatives from EMI and A&M were also in attendance. But it was Muff and I who took Paul and Bono off to a wine bar afterwards to talk turkey. And I think that, if it had been possible, CBS would have struck a worldwide deal with U2 that night.

Only Paul McGuinness, clearly emboldened by the interest he was getting from virtually every record company in London, suddenly upped the ante by announcing that he wanted CBS to buy U2 what Phonogram had bought the Boomtown Rats -- a house outside London into which the band could move and there they would base themselves as they broke the U.K. It would have meant advances in the region of 100,000, and in those days only bands who were going to happen "straight out of the box" merited that kind of money. U2 were simply not yet that good. Understandably Muff backed off.

But it wasn't all over yet. Nobody else was up for the deal Paul wanted, either. So, when U2 came over to play a short tour of London clubs that December, to cash in on rave reviews in Sounds and Record Mirror, we decided to try one more time to record something to impress the CBS hierarchy. The day before they were due to take the ferry home, the four bedraggled U2 boys trooping into CBS Whitfield Street to cut two more tracks.

This time the band had their parts honed and it was Bono who needed to be worked on. His voice was shot after half a dozen gigs in almost as many days and he spent the whole time hitting back the honey and lemon. I remember suggesting some double-tracking and places where he should whisper the lyrics as well as sing them (a tested David Bowie/Tony Visconti trick) in an attempt to put some extra texture into his thin vocals.

We cut two songs but only one ever came out. That was "Another Day," a typical U2 set-filler of the time, which ended up on the A-side of the next single. The other was "Pete the Chop" and it was by far the most "poppy" thing I'd ever heard them do, but I was sure it would tip the balance in the CBS boardroom. Imagine my disappointment then when Bono called up the day before engineer Walter Samuel and I were to mix the tracks to say that the band hated it and wanted it buried. So we did nothing to it, which is why I don't have a tape of the song and, when they searched their tape store a few years ago, CBS (now Sony) couldn't find one either. (In fact, the song appeared as "Treasure (Whatever Happened to Pete the Chop" on the B-side of "New Year's Day" - Ed., Record Collector)

All I have from that session is a copy of the 7" in its picture bag, and the poster which Paul put in the package which hit my desk shortly after the single was released in February 1980. By that time CBS London had passed on U2 and the Irish office was reluctant to support an act which HQ didn't want. On the back of the poster is a scrawled note. It reads: Things are so bad now that CBS Ireland are charging me for these records so only one enclosed. They are also refusing to advertise it or pay for the bag... Best wishes to you, Paul & U2.

I doubt whether Paul took his CBS experience personally. But I did. And it wasn't long before I was out of there, jumping before I was pushed no doubt, but still astonished at the company's inability to recognise U2's raw talent -- when it was right there under their noses.



© Record Collector, 2004.

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