Celebrating the 40th anniversary of U2’s debut in New York City
This is what we did in 1980: We saw bands, and we interviewed bands.
What a treasured and fortunate existence. I was 18, and through a combination of deliberate calculation, proximity to Manhattan, good timing and happy accident, I found myself pretty deeply imbedded in the alternative and Anglo-import music scene in New York City. I was working as a journalist (for Trouser Press, a UK weekly called Sounds, and a few other major and minor publications), and was (very) regularly interviewing bands for a show on WNYU called MusicView.
This story is about an interview I did at the Gramercy Park Hotel on December 6, 1980. Almost all the visiting bands I spoke with stayed at the Gramercy Park or the Iroquois, though some of the more thrifty ones stayed at the Seville or the George Washington (two places that were, essentially, SROs). Very rarely, I interviewed a group big enough to stay at the Plaza, the Sheraton, or the Omni Berkshire.
In fact, I was set to interview this particular band twice: Once for a small feature for Trouser Press magazine, and a second time for WNYU. My friend Mike Dugan would be running the reel-to-reel recorder the WNYU interview. That evening, the band would be making their New York City debut, playing a somewhat hastily set-up show at the Ritz on 11th street, where they would be co-headlining with a workman-like hard rock act called the Jesse Bolt Band.
I was already fairly familiar with this group. A few months earlier, my friend Arthur Brennan had summoned me to his dorm room to play me a few new import 45s. This was 1980, and this is what we did. Some people cheered sports, gathered in coffee shops to discuss Scorsese, or cruised the aisles of NYU’s Bobst Library for hushed and rapid encounters in the closed-off study hutches. Heck, some people even studied. But this is what we did: we sat around our dorm rooms and played each other new import 45s. And on this particularly day, Arthur was especially keen to play me “11 O’clock Tick Tock” by U2. Arthur knew that I was very responsive to the open, chiming landscape of Post Punk, and that I was especially fond of the Skids, whose chiming, Celtic/martial sound had clearly influenced this new act.
Although I found the band Arthur played me inferior to the Skids, there was clearly something aspirational going on here. I use this word very intentionally. On “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” you could hear something that aspired to the dynamics, the thunder and lightning and far away gazes, of classic rock. This was notably different from other Post Punk acts we admired (like the Au Pairs, Pylon, Delta 5, A Certain Ratio, etcetera) who seemed intent on establishing their own genre, built out of the shards of Punk Rock. But although U2 were clearly working with the same tools as the Skids, PiL, or 154-era Wire (to name the three acts who were, very obviously, U2’s prime influences), it felt like they very much wanted to build a house that could stand alongside, say, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd or Moody Blues.
I had been listening to U2’s debut album, Boy, a lot. It had come out about five weeks earlier. It sounded (here’s that word again, but it works) aspirational. True, other new-ish alternative acts were integrating classic rock guitar tones and techniques into their sound (namely the Skids, the Ruts/Ruts DC, Killing Joke, Go For It–era Stiff Little Fingers and Generation X, especially on their second album, Valley of the Dolls). But U2 seemed to be reaching for something larger, something that both looked backwards – to Thin Lizzy, SAHB, and Floyd – yet had a keen sense of the space and stardust of the artier end of Post Punk.
On the sidewalk in front of the Gramercy Park Hotel, early on the afternoon of December 6, 1980, a young man, barely a year older than me, with a fantastic puff of dark hair, extends both his hands, greeting me like an old and treasured friend. His name is Bono, and this is his first day ever in New York City.
And this was something else that was different about this band. Bono was only 20. U2 were one of the very few bands I had interviewed who were, more or less, the same age as me, of the same generation, and this felt quite radical. I was used to everyone being five or seven years older – even Ian McCulloch was three years older than me – and that seemed like a lot at the time. Even if I admired and identified with acts like the Soft Boys, the Damned or the Stranglers, they felt like a different generation entirely.
Bono seemed excited to meet me, and immediately after we were introduced, he pulled me aside to share a story. In the early afternoon daylight—the sky was high, bright and white-ish blue, what my old friend Tom Carolan used to call a “College Football Sky”—Bono told me about arriving in New York City late the night before. Excited at having landed in a place he had heretofore only known in books, films and magazines, he had headed out to explore. “I walked around in Greenwich Village, I mean I had been hearing about the Village my whole life,” Bono explained, grinning. “So I wandered into a pub. It was absolutely packed. I looked around and realized there was nothing but blokes in there! I had never been in a place like that in my life.”
I did not attach any particular rock star vibe to Bono and the Edge. In fact, I can say that the whole encounter felt distinctly less “monumental” or rock star-ish than my encounter with the Boomtown Rats, who I had interviewed not long before at the same hotel. And honestly, I cannot recall that much of the interviews themselves, aside from the fact that Bono projected an intense, almost joyful sincerity, and he looked you in the eye, I remember that.
What was most remarkable was what happened after both interviews were finished.
As Mike Dugan and I were saying our goodbyes in the Gramercy Park lobby (the WNYU interview had been the second one), Bono suddenly and excitedly said, “The Edge went to 48th Street this morning, and bought us some new acoustic guitars. We haven’t tried them out yet. Do you guys want to come to the room and hear a few songs?”
Mike and I said yes. I would love to say that we thought, “OhhhhhDamn the Bono and Edge are going to perform just for us,” but it wasn’t anything like that. It really wasn’t. U2 just were not that well known yet, not at all. I will be bloody honest and say that Mike and I were probably more excited when (following his interview at WNYU) Andy Partridge had shown us how to make a Mobius Strip, and how to effectively design a paper hat (he really did that).
We followed Edge and Bono through the lobby, dripping with faded class, and up the gilded, ever-so-slightly shabby elevator. We went to the room they shared.
The Edge and Bono sat down on their respective beds, facing each other, each cradling their new guitars. Mike and I found spots on the floor; I put my back against the wall, wedging myself between a radiator and a TV. I distinctly recall thinking to myself, “You better remember this really clearly, in case they become the biggest band in the world, because if that happens, in the future this will make for one hell of a story.” I really did think that. Those thoughts actually went through my head.
Alas, I don’t remember a single song that U2 played during the four-song concert they performed in their hotel room for two NYU students. I do recall that none of the songs were on Boy, and for some reason I remember that one of them had some lyrics about wheels on a bus, or something like that. That’s pretty much all I remember, aside from the fact that it did actually happen.
And that was exactly 40 years ago. Of course, John Lennon was assassinated two nights later, just 64 blocks north of our dorm. And that was one of those mnemonics, a giant one, one of those moments when we say time stops, even though we know it doesn’t. And forty years before that, I mean precisely forty years before that, Hitler approved plans for Operation Barbarossa, the Reich’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and in the United States, the Philadelphia Story and the Marx Brothers Go West was released. And exactly forty years from now, well, who knows. Because life, you see, is like going to a really exciting movie and falling asleep pretty quickly, and you wake up at the beginning of the closing credits. But you remember a little of what flashed before your fluttering eyes. And you think, you know, this is what we did in 1980: We saw bands, and we interviewed bands.
And Bono and the Edge sat on their beds in a hotel room and played some songs for my friend Mike and me.
AUDIO: U2 at The Ritz 3/7/81