In March 18, 1981 (right when ‘Boy’ came out), U2 was doing some free concerts at west coast colleges. I was told it was their second day in the US ever but that may not have been correct. They’d played a free concert at UCLA the day before and were now at San Jose State University where I was finishing up work on my journalism degree. The free concert was headlined by Romeo Void, a local punkish band and U2 was the opener.
The fabulous Christine McGeever suggested I go. We were writing for one of the school papers and she was going to interview them after the concert. Christine’s taste in music was uniformly impeccable. She had previously asked me if I wanted to go see a new band she was interviewing and I didn’t go and they turned out to be The Police. This time, I went.
The Student Union at San Jose State had a ballroom (a grandiose term for what it was) upstairs that comfortably held roughly a thousand people. Between the time the concert was booked and it was actually performed, U2’s first album, Boy had come out and the single I Will Follow was getting some airplay. This, of course, was back when things like “air play” and “singles” mattered. As the time for the music to start grew near, the place got crazy. It’s hard to imagine now, but U2 was seen as an artsy punk band at the time and the fact that they were from Ireland was a curiosity as well. I wore my usual Hank Williams Jr Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound t-shirt but the place was packed with mohawked, dog collared punks.
From the moment the first note was struck by The Edge, this would be remembered as “The Night That No One Would Remember If Romeo Void Existed or Played a Note.” According to the published setlist, they played 15 songs. I remember it being more than that and that they played “I Will Follow” at least twice if not three times. The Student Union was built on big rubber piers for earthquake safety. One of the common dances of the day was the “pogo”. So there were roughly two thousand people in a room meant to hold less than a thousand and most of them were jumping up and down in unison and crashing into one another. You could see the speakers on the stage start to sway and guitars falling over. People from the crowd climbed up on stage and became human ducttape to hold the speakers in place. I remember it being loud and crazy and I remember the crowd begging for more U2 until halfway through Romeo Void’s set.
After the concert, Christine and I went backstage. I don’t recall us having any press passes or any ID. We were just told to go back after the show and U2 would talk to us and Christine could write her usual excellent ‘up and coming rock band’ story. It was billed as kind of a press conference but in a moment that felt truly Spinal Tap-ian, we were the only ones there. The U2 guys were obviously very young (Bono was 21) and exceedingly polite. Surprisingly, they weren’t in much of a hurry which was unexpected. They seemed to be happy that we’d heard of them and that we were interested in the music. Christine asked her questions for her story. We asked them how they liked California and if it was what they expected. They said they liked the palm trees but were expecting to see Ronald McDonald walking down the street. Bono had a small tape player. I asked him what was on it. He said he didn’t write music but carried the tape player so he could hum tunes into it and as he came up with lyrics, he’d match them up. He turned on the tape player and I could hear him humming over the drone of what I’m sure was a jet engine.
To be honest, as Christine and I walked back to the newspaper office, I felt that I’d been to an event that was wild for San Jose State University but the crowd was much tamer than what we experienced at Mabuhay Gardens on any Saturday night when the Dead Kennedys played. Since at the time, rock was on its way out and punk was in, U2 in its very early formation was being marketed as punk. So instead of feeling like we went to an incredible rock show, it felt like watered down punk which really wasn’t fair to U2.
That said, you could not deny the power of the music and the performance. There were no thousand dollar sunglasses. It was kids with longish greasy hair and jeans and t-shirts who were playing a very tight brand of rock music that was at odds with the almost purposely unprofessional punk bands of the moment.