The story behind the boy featured on the cover of U2’s early albums

20 October 2019, 13:00 | Updated: 20 October 2019, 13:01

U2 Boy album cover
U2 Boy album cover. Picture: Press

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

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 Dublin, Ireland - Larry Mullen Jnr, The Edge, Bono and Adam Clayton
U2 in Dublin, Ireland - Larry Mullen Jnr, The Edge, Bono and Adam Clayton. Picture: Sheila Rock/Shutterstock

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 in 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
U2 - I Will Follow single cover
U2 - I Will Follow single cover. Picture: Press

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.

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.

View this post on Instagram

@u2 #u2 #u2edge #u2live #theedge

A post shared by Peter Rowen (@peterrowenphotographer) on

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

But Rowen’s opinion of U2 was marked recently when the band came out in support of amending Ireland’s abortion laws before the country’s referendum in May 2018.

On his Facebook, Rowen - a Christian - posted: “Horrified to see U2 using their voice to promote something that’s so obviously wrong! Shame on them … as Christians we’re called to be light in a world that’s growing ever darker. It’s very sad to see this band come to this.”

View this post on Instagram

@u2 #u2 #theedge #songsofinnocence

A post shared by Peter Rowen (@peterrowenphotographer) on

You can check out Peter Rowen's work here