Cover Stories: U2, ‘Boy’
There was a time when how you recognized the boy to the left identified one's level of U2 fanaticism. Those who answered "the kid from War" were MTV-level fans; those who said "I don't know, the little kid on Family Ties" might have owned The Joshua Tree on cassette, tops.
And then there was this guy: "That's the original cover of Boy. I picked it up as an import before the band's American label changed the cover. Lame." Those were the guys you wanted to hang out with -- if they owned U.K. editions of Boy, there was no telling what else was lurking in their stacks.
The cool guy's assessment was on the mark: The American cover was lame – a high contrast photo of the band's four members stretched like Silly Putty and stacked like the Brady Bunch. Nothing about the sleeve made sense. It reflected neither the music nor the title. The album was named Boy, for crying out loud, not Super Stretchy Face and the Face Stretchers.
The boys in U2 were genuinely that – just boys – when they entered the studio to record their first album. Drummer Larry Mullen was all of 18 years old and Bono was at the tail end of 19. His best friend, Derek Rowen (otherwise known as Guggi), was just a bit older. In the book U2 By U2, the singer explains how their youth shaped the album:
Myself and Guggi had made a pledge as kids that we would never grow up... and in a certain way we pulled it off, both of us. You can be so powerful for the things that you don't know. I probably had a hunch then that we might lose some of our uniqueness, and our first album was perhaps trying to lay claim to the power of naivete... I had a sense that this was subject matter no one else in rock and roll had ever explored -- the end of adolescent angst, the elusiveness of being male, the sexuality, spirituality, friendship.
The result was a remarkably strong debut and U2 manager Paul McGuinness set his sites on breaking the band in America. Although the band came out of post-punk (Joy Division producer Martin Hannett was slated to produce Boy, but dropped out after Ian Curtis's suicide), McGuinness reckoned that U2 were a perfect match for U.S. audiences, as rock bands were passé in Europe but still faring well in the States. The manager booked a three month tour for the band and sent early (U.K.) copies to college radio stations around the country.
The cover of the British edition is credited to Steve Averill with photo by Hugo McGuiness. But in U2 By U2, Bono lays claim to the concept: "I had a very clear idea of what the cover should look like: a child's face coming out of white, like a photograph before it's fully developed, which is really an amazing metaphor... I was just approaching it thematically and wanting to look at that moment when you're developing... It's U2 in development."
The advance copies did their job, lighting up college radio request lines. When the tour stopped in Boston, the band found themselves the star attraction -- the audience left after their opening set, leaving the headliner to play to an empty club. When they got to San Francisco, they found that the gay community had embraced the album. "I really couldn't fathom it at the time," Bono wrote. "But I look back now and see that it's full of homo-eroticism: 'in the shadows, boy meets man.' That's not all they found out. Larry Mullen, again in U2 By U2:
In San Francisco, there was a gay activist journalist working of a magazine called Mother Goose, he was a big fan of U2. I think it was him that mentioned that many of the gay community believed that the boy on the cover had some gay connotation, and that the little boy was me. So when we went to San Francisco there was quite a bit of heat on me. I was seriously wigged out. It was very hard to be comfortable with that kind of attention. My first reaction was to be very pissed off. I was being described as a gay icon. 'What's that?' Eventually, I woke up and thought: 'That's brilliant. I'm really flattered.'
Boy's boy is not Mullen. He's Peter Rowen, the younger brother of the aforementioned Guggi, Bono's best friend. Still, there's enough of a resemblance there that one can see where that rumor came from. But "the boy on the cover had some gay connotation" -- that one is a bit perplexing.
In order to understand how people might make such a leap, we have to set our brains to 1980. Children and sexuality (particularly homosexuality) were a hot topic in the news cycle. Some thought that homosexuals were child molesters, a malicious stereotype perpetuated by Anita Bryant's 1977 "Save Our Children" anti-gay movement. Thanks to the law of unintended consequences, Bryant's efforts to overturn laws preventing discrimination against gays gave rise to NAMBLA, an organization founded in 1978 with the stated goal of ending "the extreme oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships."
So in 1980, an album cover featuring a bare-chested boy and containing songs like "Stories For Boys" hit U2's American label's hot button. A bunch of youthful innocents, the boys accidentally wandered into a potential brier patch. Bassist Adam Clayton picks up the story:
There was a controversy about the album sleeve in America. I didn't really know what the word 'pedophile' meant. That was probably the first time I'd heard it. And I didn't understand the concept of homo-eroticism, for that matter. It was explained to me that there were people who liked to have sex with children, and that the picture of Peter Rowen (Guggi's brother) on the cover might be construed to be sexual. So obviously when people put it that way, it was a fair enough point. Se we changed the sleeve to a weirdly abstract photo of us, put through a photocopier and stretched.
The original photo wasn't completely abandoned, however, just moved to the inner sleeve of the album. Rowen returned again for the cover of 1983's War, and no controversy ensued. Perhaps times had changed a bit, or maybe the album's theme didn't lead moral watchdogs to infer sexuality. Or maybe U2 were just big enough by '83 to not have to compromise.
Rowen appeared again in what appears to be a War outtake on the cover of 1998's The Best of 1980-1990. When Boy was re-released in 2008, the original cover was restored. He's a photographer now, based in Ireland. U2 has used his work for t-shirts and posters.