Who was the boy featured on the cover of U2’s early albums?

28 February 2024, 11:00

U2's War album: released on 28th February 1983
U2's War album: released on 28th February 1983. Picture: EyeBrowz / Alamy Stock Photo

Who is the mysterious “boy” that appears on the Irish band’s debut album? And why does he keep appearing in the U2 story?

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Radio X

By Radio X

Before the big hats, the giant lemons and the stadium-sized shows, U2 were a simple but passionate post-punk band from Dublin.

Formed in 1976 and known for a while as The Hype, the quartet of Bono Vox (aka Paul Hewson), The Edge (aka Dave Evans), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr changed their name to U2 in March 1978 and quickly set about becoming one of Dublin’s most popular bands, thanks to their incredible live show.

U2 in 1980: The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr
U2 in 1980: The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr. Picture: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns/Getty

In September 1979, U2 released their debut 12” - the U2 3 EP, which (naturally) featured a trio of songs: Out Of Control, Stories For Boys and Boy-Girl.

U2 3 EP
U2 3 EP. Picture: Press

Issued only in Ireland on their new label CBS, the cover art features three photos of a young, angelic looking boy to illustrate the songs of innocence that featured on the EP.

The boy was Peter Rowen, the younger brother of Derek Rowen aka Guggi, an Dublin artist and member of The Virgin Prunes, a band who were friends and collaborators with U2.

When the time came for U2 to release their debut album on 20 October 1980, young Peter Rowen was again pressed into service, with his a stark black and white shot of him staring into the camera, arms behind his head illustrating the LP’s title: Boy. The photos were taken by Hugo McGuinness and Rowen was paid in Mars bars!

Posted by Peter Rowen Photography on Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The image summed up the songs, which were about the change in life from innocence to experience - as the song I Will Follow says: “A boy tries hard to be a man / His mother takes him by his hand / He stops to think he starts to cry / Oh why?” Another shot of Rowen was used when I Will Follow was issued as a single.

Peter Rowen appears on the cover of the Two Hearts Beat As One single
Peter Rowen appears on the cover of the Two Hearts Beat As One single. Picture: Alamy

The US arm of Island Records didn’t get the symbolism and worried that a photo of a shirtless child might invite accusations of pandering to paedophilia - which seems like an over-reaction.

If the label didn’t understand the concept, they would by the time of U2’s third album. Their second, October (1981) featured a rather bland photo of the band as its cover art, but the follow-up, released in 1983, would continue the theme established by the debut.

U2 - War album cover
U2 - War album cover. Picture: Press

The Boy was back to appear on the cover of War - in the same pose, staring into the camera, but this time he was older, his lip is cut and he appears to be stood in front of a brick wall. His stare is no longer innocent - he’s almost accusing the onlooker, like he's being put against the wall as a prisoner. The powerful image was used as a backdrop during U2’s 1983 tour dates.

Rowen told the New York Post that the shoot was done at photographer Ian Finlay’s house: “His wife made soup, which I didn’t like. When we returned to town, Bono was driving and came close to running into the back of another car!”

He went on: “I gather the whole idea of Boy was the innocence of youth. War shows a much more disturbed-looking child, and I guess shows what the world can do to a child — a loss of innocence.”

Similar shots of Rowen were used on the single sleeves for Two Hearts Beat As One and New Year’s Day and some outtakes from the original Boy shoot were pressed into service when U2 issued The Best Of 1980-1990 in 1998.

U2 - The Best Of 1980-1990
U2 - The Best Of 1980-1990. Picture: Press

Ironically, Peter Rowen became a professional photographer himself, and shot U2 at their show at Slane Castle in 2001. “The band wouldn’t have known I was there,” he recalled. “At one point, Bono was lying on the stage right in front of me, which was kinda funny.

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According to his website at www.peterrowen.com, Rowen has worked for Channel 4, Heineken, Guinness, Lexus and many other corporate and newspaper clients.

You can check out Peter Rowen's work here