Fifty-two years ago, Paul David Hewson was born to sing for us. By the time he reached his 18th birthday, he had a new name — Bono, dubbed so by his BFF Guggi (Derek Rowen) as part of the ritual of nicknaming within their Lypton Village street gang — and he had written U2’s first single: Out Of Control.
Out Of Control appeared first on U2-Three, a 3-song EP available only in Ireland upon its 1979 release. In 1980, it would wrap up the A-side of U2’s first studio album, Boy (which featured Guggi’s little brother, Peter, on non-U.S. covers). I didn’t get around to discovering Boy until many years after my Achtung Baby entry into U2, and didn’t pay much attention to Out Of Control until seeing U2 perform it on the U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle DVD in 2003. I don’t know what took so long, but the song eventually, rightfully grabbed hold.
It was a rudimentary attempt at songwriting for Bono, who was determined not to front a cover band, and yet he nailed it — at just 18, he wrote an anthemic, emotional, universal power song that still ignites an arm-pumping crowd 34 years later. He had things to say, and U2 was how he was going to say them. The song is about waking up on your 18th birthday and realizing that the bookends of your life, your birth and your death, are out of your control. He voices a crying child’s involuntary arrival to joyful parents (“I was so sad, they were so glad”) and awareness of his fated exit (“One day I’ll die, the choice will not be mine”). It’s in the same vein as another awesomely distressing lyric, by way of Freddie Mercury and Queen: “Mama, I don’t wanna die. I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” These are the big, existential, angsty ideas of someone just crossing the threshold into adulthood, though that rite of passage was forced prematurely on Bono when his mother died suddenly when he was just 14 years old.
Bono talks about the song in U2 By U2:
It was the morning after my 18th birthday I wrote ‘Out Of Control.’ Monday morning, eighteen years of dawning, I said how long? / It was one dull morning, I woke the world with bawling. They were so glad, I was so sad. There is a birthday song for you: objecting to being born. It is funny, it is teenage, I know, but it is an interesting idea for a song. And realizing that you have no say in the two most important things that happen to you: when you arrive and when you depart the planet. ‘I was of the feeling it was out of control …
Lyrically, “out of control” relates to the unconsciousness of birth and the inevitability of death, and hints at the spiritual question of whether we really have any control over what happens in between. But the music brings in another sense of being “out of control” — it’s wild and raucous and defiant, like Bono as a teenage boy. It’s early U2, before they’d completely shaken the punk identity that inspired their creation, and that high-voltage sound is even more pronounced on the U2-Three version. The song is incredibly fun on the surface, and incredibly burdensome beneath. Our lives are entirely out of our control, and that realization is, itself, outta control.
This song is the favorite for so many reasons. But mostly, it’s just fascinating that all the Bono-isms have been there from the beginning. The non-verbal vocalizations — Bono’s ohs and whoas and heys and howls that are sometimes frolicking (Fast Cars’ “waoh, wooh!”) but mostly entreating or yearning (Moment of Surrender’s “oh oh ohhh ohhh ohhh ohhh,” With or Without You’s “ohhhh ohhhh ohhhh ohhhh,” Electrical Storm’s “hey-eyyy eyyyyy eyyyyyy”) — show up as a playful mid-song “ohh wey ohh wey ohh wey ohh wey ohhh.” Even the scat-singing we know now as Bongalese is there in the form of breathy whispers that we can’t quite make into words.
I decided the day of my first 360 show, in Charlottesville, VA, that I needed to hear Out Of Control live. On a shower break from the GA line I sat at my brother and sister-in-law’s kitchen table and quickly Sharpied out the simple statement: “U2 IS OUT OF CONTROL.” I didn’t get to hear it that night but, as a Stage 1 hoarder, I kept the sign. When U2’s U.S. tour dates picked back up in 2011, the sign ended up accompanying me to all of my 360 shows. The sign even made an appearance in between the two legs, on U2.com’s front page the day they announced the rescheduled U.S. dates after Bono’s back injury. U2 pulled out Out Of Control for six shows on the entire 360 tour, plus their Glastonbury performance. I was fated to hear it at the July 5 show in Chicago. It was, indeed, outta control.
Happy Birthday, Bono. “You take my heart away.”
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