In the decade or so preceding War, the world saw a decline in rock & roll as bands became more and more self-indulgent, with five-minute guitar solos and ten-minute drum solos that served no real purpose. The Ramones’ 1976 self-titled debut is generally considered the first proper punk record, and it brought everything back to basics, stripping down rock to the barest of essentials and upping the tempo considerably. Spread out over 14 tracks, Ramones clocks in at an economical 29 minutes, but it feels a hell of a lot longer than that since every song is more or less the exact same thing. (Guitarist Johnny Ramone plays nothing but barre chords on the entire album — he hated solos.) Still, the energy of it is what makes it captivating more than 35 years later, and it had a huge impact in the late-’70s.
It was a renouncing of excess, and it struck a chord with those who didn’t approve of rock’s increasing self-indulgence. It was a reset button, and many took advantage of the sudden opportunity to start things over. Aspiring musicians realized that it didn’t matter how well you could play or sing if you could get people to connect with the energy and emotion of your music, and kids flocked to their garages in droves to make a racket. Other punk albums would follow in the late ’70s, including The Clash and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in 1977, and the subsequent wave of punk-influenced bands are now commonly classified as “post-punk.” Examples of post-punk bands include Joy Division, New Order, Television, The Cure and, in their early years, U2.
Yep, U2 might be known as globe-trotting megastars now, but they started as a lowly bunch of punk-influenced high school buddies in Ireland who wanted to make some noise. Their first album, Boy, was released in 1980, when all four members were either 19 or 20 years old. It’s a good album that’s well worth checking out if you’re a fan. Even though their stadium-sized ambitions are already evident (they sort of bite off more than they can chew in that regard), it’s much simpler and more grounded than what would follow. By the time they recorded War, their third record, alternative was almost ready to emerge from the womb after enjoying a brief pregnancy in the form of punk.
My generation, commonly referred to as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y, consists of those born between mid-1981 and 2001. The oldest members graduated from high school in 2000, and most of the class of 2000 were born in 1982, but some would have been born in mid- to late-1981, as well. The most pivotal recording in my generation’s history was R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe,” which was first released in July of 1981 on the microscopic Atlanta-based label Hib-Tone. R.E.M. was the first alternative rock band, and though ten years later Nirvana, Nevermind and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would become alternative’s most identifiable band, album and song, respectively, “Radio Free Europe” set everything in motion.
R.E.M. re-recorded “Radio Free Europe” after signing with the much larger indie label I.R.S. for their debut album Murmur, which was released on April 12, 1983. It was the first alternative album, and U2’s War was released just six weeks prior, on February 28. It’s not hard to view War as something of an umbilical cord in the pregnancy metaphor: it’s the last attachment between the punk mother and alternative infant. In fact, U2 has always played a rather unique role in the rock & roll family. No other band that I can think of has so clearly had its feet planted in both the rock & roll and alternative camps, somehow sharing features of both parent and child. I would even go as far as to say that they are the stitching holding together the entire narrative framework. And though U2’s first two albums are worth looking into (especially Boy), it’s War that really sets everything in motion; it’s a remarkably sudden shift into high gear.