It's well known amongst U2 fans that the band was besotted with Joy Division. In fact, all four guys--still teenagers, still unsigned--showed up in the studio where JD was recording Unknown Pleasures and watched with fascination. That visit made them determined to work with producer Martin Hannett.
Then Ian Curtis died. Suddenly, working with Hannett wasn't so much in the cards anymore and U2 ended up using Steve Lillywhite for their debut album and two more beyond that. Steve still works with them.
But back up for a second: what would have a young U2 sounded like had they gone with Martin Hannett? That's one of the great what-ifs of modern rock.
When I was invited to hang out with Steve in Singapore as he worked with a local band called The Sam Willows, he told me that he believed things would have been very different for U2 had Curtis not died. He reiterated this opinion in a recent radio interview. From Radio.com:
“[U2] had a producer who produced the very first U2 single called ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock,’ which I think is a great song if anyone remembers that,” Lillywhite explained. “And then, Ian Curtis committed suicide. Martin Hannett, who was the producer, decided not to produce the U2 album.”
Lillywhite says Hannett’s close ties to Curtis made working on what would become U2′s 1980 debut, Boy, “too much for him” to handle emotionally.
“U2 went back to their list of their producers. I was second on the list. Thank goodness [Ian Curtis] committed suicide,” Lillywhite said, seemingly joking.
And yes, I can confirm that having had the story told directly to my face, he was joking about it.