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U2 Three at Forty: Three Years in The Making



 U2 Three Banner

Photos by Aaron Govern

We all have an affinity for anniversaries – whether those relate to our own birthdays or our friends and families' birthdays, weddings, deaths, or those less personal to us but which have historical links to our interests and likes.

And as U2 fans will know, U2-related anniversaries are often more important on a personal level. Maybe it’s the purchase of your first U2 record, CD or cassette. Or maybe it’s attending your first U2 concert. In recent years, U2 has recognised some of their own significant anniversaries. The band marked the 20th anniversary of The Joshua Tree in 2007, and then again in 2017 when the album turned 30. Then the band took The Joshua Tree on the road, playing it in its entirety to live audiences in the U.S., Europe, and soon in Australia and Asia.

Earlier this year, U2 recognized the 10th anniversary of No Line On The Horizon with re-releases of the album. It is likely we will see more celebratory releases in the coming years, particularly in 2026 when the band become 50 years old!

In 2016, the ATU2 team celebrated the band’s 40th anniversary with fans around the world by hosting parties in Cleveland and Dublin. This included an interview with Ivan McCormick, who confirmed he attended the now infamous Saturday afternoon get-together of six young men in Larry Mullen’s kitchen on Rosemount Avenue in Dublin. Ivan wrote about the event in his diary when he was 13. The six in attendance were Ivan, Adam, Edge, Bono, and Edge’s elder brother Dik Evans. Fans in Dublin have celebrated the band’s formation ever since.

The Early Days of U2

On or about September 23, 1979, the release of U2’s first record was a low-key affair. CBS Ireland released a three-track single/EP called Three with the songs “Out Of Control,” “Stories For Boys” and “Boy/Girl.”  Unfortunately, the precise date of this first-ever U2 release has yet to be definitively determined.

There were a number of key events leading up to the three-year period between that fateful afternoon rehearsal in the Dublin suburb of Artane in September 1976 and the release of Three in Ireland in September 1979. In September 1976, the band’s first name was Feedback, but was quickly changed to The Hype, a name the fledgling band would use for the next 18 months, until March 1978 when it changed to U2 after winning a talent contest in the city of Limerick in West Ireland. Adam was 18 years old and Bono would turn 18 a few months later. The Edge and Larry were both 16. Although the band was performing some live shows, they were few and far between in 1977 and the early part of 1978.  The band spent most of the time rehearsing on Wednesday afternoons at their school, Mount Temple Comprehensive School, with the help of their music teacher Mr. McKenzie. Those rehearsals and concerts created a focus for the four band members who were at different levels of academic expectation, with only the Edge ever likely to go to University. Adam had left school and Larry and Bono were struggling. Bono had to attend another year at Mount Temple after failing Irish Language, a prerequisite for progressing in further education.

Early in 1978, the band appeared on two TV programmes on Irish national TV station RTE. They appeared on the show Our Times and played The Fooland then played another show, Young Lines and played “Street Missions. The shows were not performed live but were mimed. These recordings precede what is generally regarded as the band’s first known demo recordings in a professional studio. It is generally accepted that those recordings occurred in April 1978.

It is known that both “The Fooland “Street Missionswere recorded in their second demo session in November 1978 at Keystone Studios with Barry Devlin, who was the bass player with Irish band Horslips. The mystery of these TV studio recordings – how they were organised and who they did them with – remains to this day, but they were likely recorded “live” in the TV studios on the day of recording the TV programme and then played on playback for U2 (or The Hype as they were known at the time) to mime to when the TV recording was made later in the day.

The band began playing more live shows early in 1978, also playing in larger venues. The 1977 shows primarily were attended by schoolmates, friends and family. They ventured outside Dublin city and into the suburbs to play gigs at the Crofton Hotel and the Howth Community Centre Youth Club. Those shows and others they played at the time no doubt enabled U2 to improve their musical chops. Nevertheless, the band did not have much stage presence, which is hardly surprising given their lack of longevity, youthfulness and experience.

From their early days, Adam Clayton took on the responsibility of securing gig opportunities, usually as a support act. In his role as The Hype’s de-facto manager, Adam created and printed business cards advertising that fact. In early 1978, in a typically wonderful and amusing Adam moment at this time of life, he managed to get a mention in the New Musical Express that year, with a cheeky ad that he placed himself in the classified section congratulating The Hype on “an amazing show” in Howth attributing the writer as being “Brian” – his own father, no less!

Adam advert

Moving onwards to March 1978, The Hype became aware of a talent competition in Limerick. The city was holding the Limerick Civic Week ’78 Competitions sponsored by the main Dublin newspaper Evening Press and Harp Lager/Guinness. The Pop Group competition was held at the Stella Ballroom in Limerick on 18th March 1978, and the first prize was a trophy, the considerable amount of £500 (currently equivalent to USD $2450) and a demo recording session with CBS Ireland with prospects of a recording deal. The band played a show in Dublin at midnight on March 17th and just a few hours later took the train from Dublin to Limerick along with their Lypton Village friends and acolytes (mainly Virgin Prunes and associates). The band played three songs of which The Edge recalls in U2 By U2, their 2006 memoir, as being “Life On A Distant Planet” (akaThe Magic Carpet”), “Street Missions and “The TV Song”. Whilst the first two songs have been known to be recorded as demos, the latter has not.

U2 Limerick with Trophy

(Note the band with trophy and misspelled names, a clipping from the Dublin Evening Press, 20th March 1978).

The Stella Ballroom still exists to this day but is now a bingo hall, which commemorates U2’s success with a plaque with a quote from Adam Clayton:

Stella Ballroom outsideStella Plaque

This was undoubtedly the first significant moment for U2 in the three-year period between the formation of Feedback in September 1976 and the release of Three in September 1979, providing them with a giant leap to their eventual superstar status. A write-up in the Evening Press was very complementary and is likely to be the first major press piece on U2:

Limerick Evening Press

The band played their set amongst a variety of acts with differing musical styles – both good and bad according to various eyewitnesses – and were chosen as the winning act. Panelist Jackie Hayden was the Marketing Manager for CBS Ireland and became the first person to record U2 in the recording studio with their first demo recording in April 1978 at Keystone Studios in Dublin. On the day of the competition – March 18th 1978  they changed their name from The Hype and entered as U2 Malahide before formerly adopting the conventional U2 within a few days, this name given to them in suggestion by their eventual graphic designer, Steve Averill.

Following the demo session with Jackie Hayden, Adam Clayton had wanted to further increase the profile of U2 and was looking to get the band more opportunities with gigs. However, his experience and knowledge of insiders in the music industry was limited. Bono suggested to Adam that it would be a good idea to invite Bill Graham of the Irish music magazine, Hot Press, to their next rehearsal in hope of some write-up. Adam arranged the invite and Graham attended a Wednesday afternoon rehearsal in Mount Temple. He offered them a single piece of advice: “find a good manager.” Bill suggested Paul McGuinness, with whom he attended Trinity College, who was looking to manage a ‘baby band’ following an unsuccessful period of managing an Irish folk act called Spud.

Adam contacted Paul McGuinness, and after several phone calls, visited him with the three-song demo tape containing songs such as Inside Out, Night Fright (a variant on an early song and also known as Live My Life Tonight and Concentration Cramp all containing different lyrics but the same principal melody), and Hang Up!. The demo tape was enough for McGuinness to meet up with the entire band at a headlining concert on May 25th 1978 at The Project Arts in Dublin. Shortly afterwards, he agreed to take them on as clients, and remained their manager for almost 36 years until his retirement in 2013.

Under Paul McGuinness’s expert direction, the band rehearsed in earnest and played more frequent concerts. In September 1978, U2 employed the services of Joe O’Herlihy, who remains their longest-serving collaborator and employee. They met having hired sound equipment from him for their shows at their second ever concert in Cork on September 23rd 1978 at the Arcadia. In November 1978, the band entered Keystone Studios with Barry Devlin to record another set of songs for their second demo tape. This time the songs recorded were “Street Missions,” “Shadows And Tall Treesand “The Fool”. All of these were eventually released in 2004 with the launch of The Complete U2 under the title of Early Demos.

Following a busy period of concerts during September to December 1978, the band entered 1979 with a series of concerts mainly in two legendary venues: McGonagles (where they played at least 25 known concerts from April 1978 to July 1979) and then the Dandelion Market (where they played at least 10 known concerts from May 1979 to December 1979). McGuiness was trying to build the status of the band during this period and was attempting to attract the attention of record companies despite the relative amateurishness of the two demo sessions recorded to date. By now the band had attracted a notable cult following in Dublin, attracting a key number of fans in the process and a healthy, devoted audience.

The Birth of Three

The band had been novel in playing shows such as the Jingle Balls concerts during the summer of 1979 in McGonagles, and they knew they needed to gain interest from labels in the UK. Despite support from Jackie Hayden at CBS Ireland, the branch in Dublin had neither the budget nor infrastructure to sign an Irish band for album deals. Hayden at least had the foresight to involve the London-based CBS U.K. A&R manager, Chas de Whalley. De Whalley was suitably impressed with the Jackie Hayden demo to come to Dublin to see U2 with the plan to record some demos with them, despite himself never having been behind a recording desk before!

In September 2004, Chas de Whalley did an interview with Record Collector magazine discussing the 25th Anniversary of Three. In that interview he mentions meeting Paul McGuiness as far back as February 1979, when the latter was visiting London and doing the rounds of record companies with a number of different acts that he had recordings of, in the hope of gaining further interest in them. According to de Whalley, McGuinness did not have any U2 demo tapes with him but mentioned to de Whalley that he was managing an up-and-coming Dublin band, that he had some demos of them and that they had won a talent competition in Limerick almost a year prior. De Whalley felt enthused enough to go to Dublin to see U2 play during the summer of 1979, and was able to convince Muff Winwood of CBS U.K. to approve the trip.

De Whalley saw U2 at McGonagles at one of their last shows there, and explained of the show:- “I was completely blown away. I hadn’t seen star quality like this since Paul Weller two years previous … this guy’s amazing [of Bono], he’s either going to be the next Alex Harvey or he’s going to be David Bowie”. On his return to London, he wanted to record U2 and CBS had a small studio for the purpose of recording new bands in Whitfield Street in Soho, but he realised the cost of recording there would be the same as going to the newly-opened but much more modern and prestigious Windmill Lane studios in Dublin. Chas approached Muff Winwood for the go-ahead of recording new songs as demos, but also suggested to sign them to CBS UK if they were found suitable. Muff agreed to this plan, so that a successful outcome would be satisfactory to both parties: with U2 signed to the world’s largest record company, and this demo session with de Whalley as the first real chance for U2 to kick their career into a higher gear.

Unfortunately, there are no photos published of U2’s recording session with Chas de Whalley at Windmill Lane, and no date officially recorded of the session. However, we can gather from his interview with Record Collector in September 2004 that the date is almost certainly Saturday 4th August 1979 (as Chas refers to them recording it on the August Bank Holiday Saturday), with further mixing occurring at Windmill Lane on Sunday 5th August 1979, with Boomtown Rats soundman Robbie McGrath.

The songs recorded that Saturday evening in Windmill Lane are now well known - Stories For Boys, Out Of Control and Boy/Girl. De Whalley recalls that Edge, Larry and Adam set up their gear in the main studio room, whilst Bono was set up in the control room. The recordings are not perfect – de Whalley had no experience and neither did the band. Later, the band acknowledged they were lacking in tempo – notably the drums in “Out Of Control”, which Larry Mullen frankly discusses in U2 By U2 are substandard, saying “Out Of Control has some timing flaws in it. One part of the song was meant to have a one bar break. For whatever reason, it turned out to be three and a half beat break in a bar, which is a little strange. The recording session went something like this: ‘Larry’s not playing the same part/it's a different tempo/it’s speeding up and slowing down. I was told much later that a CBS record executive said the band was great but the drummer was crap and should be fired as soon as possible. How right he was. A rare and candid quote by Larry, but to be fair he was still just 17 at the time of the Windmill Lane session in August 1979, and with an inexperienced band and a producer who had never produced before, this was understandable. The Edge seems to have different memories, and states in U2 By U2, it being recorded at Keystone Studios (the songs may indeed have been recorded there on Saturday 4th August and then remixed on Sunday 5th August at Windmill Lane, though the Chas de Whalley interview suggests otherwise).

After the recording, the session was listened to by all at CBS U.K., but the option of being signed by London was not in the offering, at least with Larry in the band, and U2 – loyal as expected to their bandmate – refused to do so. Instead they took up the option to release the session in Ireland only. This deal was quickly signed, and Paul McGuinness negotiated that CBS Ireland have the option to two singles (the second single being the Chas de Whalley produced Another Day released in February 1980), and the release in Ireland-only to the CBS Ireland label for all and any future recordings through to 1985 – which they duly did from the spring of 1980 when U2 signed to Island Records, with the release of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” through to the last CBS Ireland U2 release of “The Unforgettable Fire” single in April 1985.

Jackie Hayden suggested a unique and affordable approach to the commercial release of U2’s first recordings. He suggested to Paul McGuinness that their first release would be conventional, a 7” single in a picture cover, but with an additional 1000-run limited-edition, numbered 12” single/EP with each track from the demo being released on both formats. This was accepted by manager and band alike, and various assignments were put in place, with Peter Rowen (youngest brother of Virgin Prunes vocalist, and Bono’s childhood friend and member of Lypton Village, Guggi) being photographed for the front cover and other promotional material. In addition, Bono had the superb idea of contacting U2 supporter and up-and-coming DJ, Dave Fanning, who had a show on the newly-opened nationwide RTE FM2 radio station. Fanning had seen the band several times during 1979 and invited Bono onto his show for five days in a row. Fanning wanted to play the newly recorded tracks from the session, but with the added novelty of asking listeners to the show to vote for their favourite track to be on the ‘A’ side of the single/EP. 

Fanning’s listeners chose Out Of Control for the ‘A’ side, and the second and third choice for the ‘B’ side was Stories for Boys and ‘Boy/Girl. The lead track was written by Bono on his 18th birthday  10th May 1978 – and was a response to the death of his mother who had died in 1974, suffering a brain haemorrhage a few days after her father’s funeral; it also reflected the rage in him growing up in the monotonous and black-and-white life of Dublin in the 1970’s, where the economy was flatlined and opportunities of escaping the rat race of the ‘9 to 5’ lifestyle of others was unlikely. The song had become a firm fan favourite during 1979 at their Dublin shows, and the second pick Stories For Boys was written in 1979, and like Out Of Control” its first known live performance is at the Dandelion on July 28th 1979. The last song, Boy/Girl was the most recent song written only in July 1979, and has not been re-recorded since (the other two songs have been re-recorded and produced by Steve Lillywhite in July and August 1980 at Windmill Lane for the debut album, Boy.) The first verified performance of “Boy/Girl is at the August 11th 1979 afternoon show at the Dandelion.

With the single recorded, record company and sleeve and formats chosen, and song order picked by the listeners of the Dave Fanning show on RTE 2FM, it was just a matter of weeks before U2’s debut was released.

So what is the specific date that the single came out? It is not so easy to determine 40 years on, and with so many facts being absent, and memories of those involved in the releases being uncertain in any case. There is some uncertainty, as even U2’s official website states it is Sunday September 22nd 1979, with nearly all other websites being unanimous in mentioning the date being Thursday September 26th 1979. Frustratingly, contemporary adverts in Hot Press do not refer to a date, nor is there any specific mention of a date in Hot Press magazine interviews and news clippings at the time, and furthermore the actual promo poster merely states “Out Now”. In the absence of any evidence such as adverts or clippings, it seems unlikely that September 22nd is correct; it was a Sunday, and Ireland’s shopping hours forbade Sunday opening (similar to the neighbouring U.K., which did not permit Sunday trading until 1994). And September 26th is a Thursday, and whilst possible, it does seems an unlikely date for the convention of releasing records at that time.

There is a reasonable assumption to suggest that the official release date would be September 23rd, a Monday, the start of the shopping week, and the traditional release date for singles and albums until recently when the date moved to Fridays for physical and digital releases in Ireland and the U.K. The purpose of the Monday release date was in order to compile the weekly Official Charts in Ireland and U.K. through to the following Sunday when record shop sales were recorded at the counter, data collated and the charts for that week announced. (Author’s note: If anyone bought the record that week and can remember what date it came out – or even better, have still retained their purchase receipt with date on – please get in contact).

Due to the band being Dublin based, and with their main support being in Dublin, the release hit the various and numerous city centre shops in the main, such as Golden Discs, Freebird Records and Advance Records, but also extending to the main record shops in Ireland’s major cities such as Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Wexford. Furthermore, it had a limited release via Rough Trade records in London via postal purchases only.

In September 1979 fans were able to purchase Three on two formats: on 7” (catalogue number CBS 7951) and the 1000-numbered limited edition (catalogue number 12 CBS 7951), personally hand-numbered by Jackie Hayden, with the latter sold at £1.49. Following the release U2 were busy performing at numerous shows to promote the single, mostly with them playing gigs in and around Dublin, before playing a showcase concert at the Cork Opera House on 22nd October 1979, a show recorded and broadcast by RTE 2FM later in the year. Overall the release was a remarkable success in U2’s short career, in a period of three years of growth from that Saturday afternoon in Rosemount Avenue. Within weeks of its release Three sold steadily, reaching number 19 in the Irish Singles Charts in November 1979, with the 12” limited edition selling out entirely.

For those fans who are collectors, the Three release remains a desirable item to collect, with inevitable focus on a numbered 12”, which generally commands a value on auctions websites in the region of $2000 to $3500. Some copies have sold in excess of $5000 in recent years. No doubt like lots of record releases, copies will have been bought, played and now lost in the midst of time. Though more numerous in its availability the original 7” single is also another collector’s item, and the genuine article will be enclosed in an original paper sleeve manufactured by the Rathmines-based printing company, Grafotone, and is generally valued at between $200 to $300. In addition, a limited print promo poster, produced and given to record stores, commands significant value, as these would have mainly been disposed of, with few getting into the hands of fans. Since then, Three has been released in several different formats and types, notably by CBS Ireland in the years from 1982 to 1985, in coloured 7” vinyl and cassette format.

Three Promo PosterThree Promo Poster and 12 single

So congratulations, Three, and happy 40th anniversary. Sláinte!


(c) @U2/Govern, 2019