This is where it all began. 30 years ago this past September, four Irish teenagers — Bono Vox, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. — recorded three songs in Windmill Lane Studios for their first official release. Titled Three and sold exclusively in Ireland under CBS Records, the EP represented the first step on the path of success for U2.
By this point, U2 had already been together for three years and were steadily building a reputation in Ireland. It seemed like they were set to take off when the band won a talent contest in 1978 that offered a prize of studio time to record a demo. Unfortunately, when the session began, no one in the band knew what the hell they were doing. Edge put his guitar at an incredibly low volume, Bono had adopted an awful English accent, and a young Larry Mullen, Jr. was pulled out of the studio by his father because he had exams the next day.
While it was a squandered opportunity, U2 luckily got another chance a year later. This time around, they were a little more prepared. During the interim year, the group landed Paul McGuinness as their manager, gained support from Hot Press Magazine, and opened for punk rockers The Stranglers. They caught the attention of an A & R scout from CBS London named Chas De Whalley, who came in with demo money and produced the EP despite a lack of experience. Although the band still wasn’t playing very well, the songs they wrote were strong enough to support their weaknesses.
“Out of Control” was chosen as the A-side for the EP by listeners on the Dave Fanning Rock Show on RTE station. Almost as soon as the track starts, it has “U2 anthem” written all over it. By this point, Edge had gotten his Memory Man Echo Unit and had started to develop his trademark sound. In this case, it really makes the song since the rest of the band were still finding their feet. Mullen, Jr, had trouble playing in time, Clayton’s bass was extremely simple, and Bono… well, let’s just say his singing voice wasn’t all that yet. But the song has a real kick to it and a boundless amount of energy that feels contagious. Bono’s lyrical exploration was already moving in an introspective direction. Written on his 18th birthday, he said the song was about hitting that age and “realizing… the two most important decisions in your life have nothing to do with you — being born and dying.”
“Stories for Boys” has more of a groove to it than the A-side. Containing a fully expressed sense of excitement, the song deals with escapism from the everyday. While not fully developed, it technically shows more promise than either of the other two songs. Whereas “Out of Control” feels mostly like Edge was in charge, “Stories for Boys” is the sound of the band clicking and playing as a cohesive unit. “Boy-Girl” is the least memorable track on the EP. Dealing with the relationship between (no surprise here) a boy and a girl who are maturing into adults, the song is more like a rough sketch than a fully thought out track. The lyrics don’t go anywhere and the instrumentation is just average at best. It’s not shocking that when U2 were re-recording songs for their first album, Boy, it was the only one out of the three to not make the cut.
Limited to 1,000 copies for Ireland, the EP made a surprising splash in the Irish Singles Charts, peaking at number 19. Sadly, CBS UK passed on U2, only offering a record deal if they fired Larry Mullen, Jr. The drummer was still having trouble playing in time but the rest of the band stuck by him. The EP did help them increase their fanbase in their home country even more and was followed by a tour in England. The resulting success of that tour led to a deal with Island Records. The rest is history.
Even though the music isn’t really there, the potential of U2 can be heard in all three songs. Well… okay, not “”Boy-Girl”. But “Out of Control” and “Stories for Boys” would go on to be very good album cuts for their debut in 1980. “Out of Control” has been an occasional part of the band’s set list, all the way up to this decade. The sound made on Three isn’t that of one of the world’s biggest bands. It’s the sound of a group that had endless enthusiasm for their music and knew success was within reach.