The teenage years are huge, raw and dramatic. Hormones drive all that rawness to the surface and beyond, making (it comes as no surprise to parents with teenagers) everything – discipline, moralism, sex, food, music – immediate, dramatic and skin deep in way that’s both intensely powerful and utterly trite.
Boy by U2 was the perfect album to reflect that teenage reality. And it’s thirty years old today.
Boy introduced America to four 20-ish guys from Dublin – Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Dave “The Edge” Evans and Paul “Bono” Hewson – who seem improbably young today:
They’d gotten together as teenagers (initially with Evans’ older brother Nik) in 1976 – and quickly discovered that they stank at trying to play covers, and started writing their own songs. After a year and a half of gigging around Dublin, the band won a contest sponsored by CBS records in 1978, and used the proceeds and exposure to CBS management to produce a three-song “extended play” record and a few singles that were largely heard only in Ireland and, with their first “big” single, “I Will Follow”, the UK.
“I Will Follow” is, of course, the album’s instantly recognizable, iconic anthem – and, really, the template for much of U2′s next ten years. It’s anthemic – you can’t not shout along. It’s ambiguous – is it about faith, or love, or politics, or…who can tell? (It’s actually about the death of Bono’s mother in 1974, but really, like all art, it’s about whatever the listener wants it to be about).
“I Will Follow” is just one of many cut from the same cloth: ”The Electric Co” featured a Bono vocal that veered down the thin line between glorious and histrionic…:
…and “Out Of Control”, an infectious call-and-answer between Bono and Edge that set up three decades of one of the most distinctive lead/harmony pairings in the history of rock and roll.
So what was important about Boy? Other than being an album that gloriously captured all the joy, angst and brio of of being, well, boy?
Bono, the singer? The guy had pipes, all right – but his singing was often sloppy and undisciplined. He’d grow, by War in 1982, into one of rock’s most powerful singers – but on Boy, the promise of the future was liberally mixed with sloppiness on the one hand and unpolished histrionics on the other. Larry Mullen was a powerful, physical drummer – perhaps the band’s most conventially-capable musician in its early years, but not especially a standout.
Adam Clayton – reportedly the least proficient musican in the band when it had started? As U2 rose to prominence, stories circulated about how the band had built much of its stripped down, minimalist style around Clayton’s developing skill on the instrument. True or not, it shows in the arrangements on Boy; the bass lines really tie the songs together, powerful in their simplicity. My theory’s always been that the simplicity started out as lack of development – and evolved into style.
That would certainly explain The Edge. Also a newbie when the band started, Evans wasn’t, and has never been, a guitarist with raw pyrotechnic technique, along the lines of a Van Halen or a Randy Rhodes. He wasn’t one with a deep, developed style spanning genres, like Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler or Nils Lofgren. And despite the first review in Rolling Stone, which compared his style with Neil Young in terms of unpolished ambiance, he wasn’t a raw, ragged improviser. What he is – or what he was starting to develop into, thirty years ago today – was a meticulous student of the tonal and harmonic possibilities of the guitar, its chordal structures, and the colorations of the guitar’s instrument/special effect/amplifier chain. Evans used the guitar sometimes as harmonic coloration (“Shadows and Tall Trees”, “An Cat Dubh”), sometimes as a borderline-percussion instruments (“I Will Follow”, “Electric Co”), in a way that was much, much more analytical and meticulous than Young, much less dependant on his own dexterity and fingerboard acrobatics than any of the guitar deities of the era or since. The Edge of the Boy era didn’t change the way people looked at the guitar just yet – that’d come in a couple of years, on War, The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree (of which more in two, four and seven years, respectively). What would be instrument-changing by the middle of the decade still seemed lo-fidelity in 1980.
The album sounds like it was recorded in a garage – early reviews pointed out its raw, unpolished sound. It was a bit of an illusion – while far from overproduced, the album’s rawness was intentional and studied and, in its own way a work of art that’d become part of a vital idiom of the music of the next decade.
Because in a very real sense, and in more than one way, it was a template for the entire “Second British Invasion” of the eighties, of which U2 was one of the lynchpins.
And many of those groups – from the big, dramatic arena-rockers like Big Country, Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel, to more eclectic groups like Irish folk-punks The Pogues and girl-group memorialist Kirsty MacColl – had their sounds defined by producer Steve Lillywhite – who produced Boy, which became his first big international success, if you discount his work on Peter Gabriel’s Melt.
And the sound that Lillywhite would make into his trademark, at least through the eighties and into the nineties – big, raw, passionate, meticulously unpolished, clean yet cacaphonic – would define U2′s archetypical sound (as it did that of his other protegès) to the point where the band felt the need to escape it in the next decade, via its collaborations with Brian Eno and others through the nineties, before returning to him in the early ’00s. Lillywhite was, along with Jimmy Iovine, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Quincy Jones and Keith Forsey, one of the iconic producers of one of the great eras in pop music.
So in a real way Boy was not just U2′s debut, but the debut of the eighties’ style of anthemic, passionate arena-rock as we came to know it.
We didn’t know it yet, of course.