Music, News & Commentary

35 YEARS SINCE — U2'S 'BOY'

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Boys. The vast majority of popular music over the last decades has been aimed largely at this demographic — including those who are still there mentally. Much of this has been posturing and hip thrusting, aggressive and misogynistic; beta males imagining themselves as the alphas on stage, or on their stereos.
Few young musicians, aiming at that very same heartland, have had the courage to articulate the pains and confusions encountered in that shadow world between boys and men; to adopt a pose of delicacy in the midst of all that testosterone. When U2 launched onto the scene with its debut Boy in October 1980, most would recognise that few had sung that world better.
The story is by now well known; how burgeoning drummer Larry Mullen put an ad about looking to start up a band in Dublin, circa late 1970s. Dublin’s Mount Temple Comprehensive School, hitherto famous for not much, was about to become the home port of the biggest band in the world. But, no one knew that in 1980, when Boy was knocked out in the Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. Maybe the execs at Island Records, who took a punt on the lads, had an inkling. But biggest band ever?
The eventual four that would be, and remain, U2 — Mullen, The Edge (Guitar), Bono (Vocal) and Adam Clayton (Bass) — must have made a geeky group. Pasty young Dubliners shooting for glory, so earnest and pompous, yet delving into the emo world of adolescent angst, they must have seemed, to those that didn’t love them, as stuck up dickheads. Bono with his daft name and gelled up wall of hair, The Edge with an even dafter name and his distant, sparse riffs, and heads-down personas of Mullen and Clayton could have been tossers. They probably were. But they found their way out of it. And Boy was surely their roadmap.
I Will Follow, the opening track is a statement of the band’s honesty about its journey into the confronting world of the adult male. Rather than strut in there, they whimpered into the light, saying not that they are strong and tough buggers, but only that they will follow. Perhaps a reference to their Christianity, or perhaps to the death of Bono’s mother whilst he was a teenager, the song flipped the rock male strut on its arse and sung it for what adolescence really is: fucking scary.

Similarly Twilight is a cry from the heart of adolescence; “My body grows and grows / It frightens me you know……In the shadow boy meets man.”
At Cat Dubh (The Black Cat) and Into the Heart, often run into the one song, circle issues of sexual awakening and disappointment and the desire to escape back to a simpler world of the child. On the former track, The Edge’s wailing, drifting guitar sounds cat-like, perhaps an invented effect for just this song. That it would develop to become his signature style could not have been known then. A little bit of history being made in that song, perhaps.
“Monday morning / Eighteen years of dawning,” bellows Bono in Out of Control, “It was on dull morning / Woke the world with bawling / It was so sad / It so bad.” Already things for the feisty lyricist and singer were getting wobbly. Stories for Boys is a complex, stream of consciousness (one is tempted to say ‘Joycean’ in honour of another noted Dubliner) trip through the hero literature and Boys Own drivel that has intimidated the bejeezus out of boys for decades.
By The Ocean, the pop sensibility evident in Bono’s lyrics is becoming so stretched as to be gossamer thin. This piece, an arty evocation of a young man sitting at the water’s edge, pondering the vastness in front of him and questioning why more won’t listen to his words, acts as the centre point of an album that is the opposite of the rock and post-punk genres.
Apart from The Ocean, it’s strange to hear the driving, punchy music over such delicate and heart-felt lyrics. The band was apparently moved by others who went there, such as Joy Division (Joy Division producer Martin Hannett was supposed to produce Boy but dropped out after the suicide of Division’s singer and lyricist Ian Curtis), and so are a large part of the evolution of aggro punk and prog rock posings to a more gritty and honest relationship with the self, and the other selves out there in the audience.
The Ocean is like a ceasefire in the war U2 is waging on themselves through its charging music and chanting hooks. It stills the core of the album to a small point in the heart of the listener. The sound of water lapping, what sounds like a fretless bass providing a rubbery, dreamlike quality, The Edge’s echoey guitar, and Mullen’s heartbeat. It’s only a minute and a half long, but it’s the soul of the album.
It all rumbles up again A Day Without Me and Another Time, Another Place, with the same thematic line and post-punk texture. The Electric Co is an angry cry against the “treatment” for being a young man — electro shock therapy — and the last track Shadows and Tall Trees takes its title from William Golding’s depiction of male savagery, Lord of the Flies; say no more.
Boy didn’t rate so well on the charts. It reached only 52 in the UK and 63 in the US. No slouch for a debut, but no barnstormer either. Its best selling single I Will Follow, gained no more than a tentative foothold internationally, barely making the top 20 in the US. But it has since been recognised as one of the more influential debuts produced in the history of popular recorded music. Clearly eclipsed by what the band churned out in subsequent years, it stands as a fitting platform for a band that has become noted for its intelligence and its search for truths.
Boy moved the post-punk sound closer to the centre of the pop market. U2 was to take it much, much closer, to the very heart of popular music. The groundwork laid down by those like Joy Division and Siouxsie and The Banshees was readily built on by the Dublin foursome and taken to the mega stadiums —  the band’s 360 tour in 2009-2011 is the best attended and highest grossing concert tour in history — and to god-like status in unit sales (around 170 million and counting).
This is an album that lyrically takes a direct look at a difficult subject, and embellishes it with a belting backdrop. Many must have noted the quality of this band of serious young triers. A great debut, but an even greater example of artists wrestling with themselves and not afraid to talk/sing about it. While the band became rock royalty, the sense that it was all for something bigger than mere pop music largely remains. Boy is lasting proof that U2’s art is bigger than the band. 

One response to “35 YEARS SINCE — U2'S 'BOY'

  1. To me, the first three albums by U2 – Boy, October, and War – formed a great trilogy. And then I completely lost interest in their work subsequent to those three albums.

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