Tuesday, 2 October 2012
89 Boy -U2
Purchased : June 1988
Tracks : I Will Follow / Twilight / An Cat Dubh / Into The Heart / Out Of Control / Stories For Boys / The Ocean / A Day Without Me / Another Time, Another Place / The Electric Co / Shadows And Tall Trees
This was the first of a couple of purchases from an unlikely source. One Saturday morning in June 1988 I discovered that the newsagents on Harehill Road in Littleborough ( eternally referred to by my mother as "Greenwoods" even after Helen had made the acquaintance of the daughter of a subsequent proprietor back in 1975 ) had started stocking a few LPs. They were all mainstream and at least a couple of years old but were still in their cellophane and going cheap ( £3.99 I think ). My copy plays a bit too quietly which I wouldn't have expected from a 42-minute album so I'd be interested if anyone else found the same.
My interest in early U2 had survived despite a great ambivalence about the band beginning around 1983 and fully blossoming with 1987's wildly over-rated "The Joshua Tree" ( not helped by hearing all its singles on the jukebox every time I ventured into The Red Lion ) . "Boy" was their first LP released in October 1980 and had hung around the lower reaches of the album charts for the following couple of years despite only having reached number 52 and containing no hit singles. The music press that I read seemed a bit unsure what to make of them, an Irish band clearly coming out of the New Wave yet featuring a guitarist rubbing shoulders with all the old hairies in the Sounds polls.
"Boy" was originally intended to be recorded with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett after his work on debut Island single "Eleven O Clock Tick Tock" ( still in my opinion their best '45 ) but the death of Ian Curtis left him too cut up to fulfil the engagement so Banshees producer Steve Lillywhite was brought in as a replacement. "Boy " isn't a concept album as such but from the cover onwards ( featuring the young brother of one of perennial also-rans The Virgin Prunes ) there are recurring themes of childhood and loss of innocence. The band had come together at school and The Edge and Mullen were still in their teens when this was recorded.
There's an oft-cited tale of Bono buttonholing Tony Wilson at Granada TV in 1980 and, not being the most shrinking of violets even then , declaring that U2 were going to fulfil Joy Division's potential or words to that effect. It's hard to know why Bono thought the two bands were similar. Joy Division were older and English. Ian Curtis was a nihilistic commentator on both the internal and external worlds while Bono turns even a song about the death of his mother into a rousing celebration. Musically U2 are a negative image of JD; the latter band had an inventive rhythm section to compensate for a technically limited guitarist, in U2 the exact opposite is the case. I suspect it was more that Bono wanted U2 to be taken as seriously as Joy Division and - laughable as it seems now - pick up some of their student audience. John Peel for one wasn't buying.
The album kicks off with the aforementioned song about Bono's mother ( who had died six years earlier ) " I Will Follow", still a staple of their live act. It immediately makes their post-punk roots clear with a heavy debt to PiL's Public Image in Edge's circular main riff, Mullen's drumming and driving bassline. Of course Lydon 's lot had also covered the same subject matter on 1979's Death Disco ( still the most bizarre single ever to grace the Top 20 ). On top of that Steve Lillywhite plays the same glockenspiel he used on the Banshees's Hong Kong Garden. What sets it apart is Bono's inimitable holler and his determination to draw a positive from tragedy with a reaffirmation of faith. The glockenspiel and Mullen's toy soldier drumming style reinforce the childhood theme with the former sounding more like tinkling glass as the mother-son bond is shattered.
There are many different ways in which to lose one's childhood innocence and the terrifying "Twilight" appears to outline the worst. With lines like "An old man tried to walk me home" and "In the shadow, boy meets man" it can only be detailing an abusive encounter and the fury with which all four attack the tune only reinforces this interpretation. Musically it's on a Banshees template but they find an extra gear beyond anything Bromley's finest produced. Mullen and Clayton set a fierce pace the latter approaching Peter Hook in the descending bassline on the chorus. Bono splutters rather than sings the second verse but it's The Edge's track, endlessly inventive , sometimes hovering behind Clayton before unleashing another white-hot line like an avenging St Michael. Around three minutes in he seems about to leave the range of human hearing altogether. I'd forgotten just how good this track is.
"An Cat Dubh" is Gaelic for "The Black Cat" . The song is reportedly inspired by a short fling of Bono's during a brief separation from his girlfriend Alison. It's more obviously a song about losing your virginity to a predatory female. The song falls into two distinct parts. The first is the song proper based around Clayton's approximation of the Gimme Some Lovin bassline with The Edge prowling in the background and that glockenspiel punctuating the action like pangs of Catholic guilt afflicting the perpetrator. Bono's lines often end in a mewling squawk and Edge uses his trusty echo devices to the same end. There are one or two moments that sound alarmingly like early Toyah but we soon pass to the second, instrumental passage . Here we reach stasis , Mullen largely drops out apart from some intermittent cymbal work while Clayton sticks on a single note pulse reminiscent of The Green Manalishi. Edge plays big Blondie-ish chords while a long sustained note sounds underneath.
The tension is broken by Bono's re-entrance and we're into "Into The Heart" - there is no established point where one track ends and the other begins. It really is a coda rather than a separate track with no new music beyond Mullen picking up the beat again. A remorseful but resigned Bono regrets not being able to get back in the shell and there's a graceful fade-out.
"Out Of Control" owes rather a lot to The Skids's The Saints Are Coming even down to filching the "how long" hook at a similar point in the song. Twenty-five years later they'd repay the debt with a big-selling cover in collaboration with Green Day. Bono's lyric is all about being 18 and questioning the workings of fate although the rousing music doesn't suggest he's getting too hung up about it. The chorus is defiantly tuneless with only Edge's backing vocals carrying the melody.
Side Two's opener "Stories For Boys" bears witness to more larceny with The Cure's Jumping Someone Elses's Train the main victim and the pounding drums of the chorus lifted straight from Rick Buckler on A Bomb In Wardour St. The lyrics seem a fairly straight homage to the sources of adolescent inspiration with the telling line "Sometimes the hero takes me, sometimes I can't let go". Some would say that's still the case with Mr Vox.
Despite the filching it's still an exciting track with Mullen's thrashing to the forefront.
The storm abates for a couple of minutes on the brief, low-key "The Ocean" a confessional of childhood egomania ( although you suspect it's not been entirely left behind ) sealed by a gratuitous reference to Dorian Gray as if to link with Irish genius of the past.
"A Day Without Me" returns us to Joy Division as this song is widely reported as having been inspired by Curtis's suicide. That can't be entirely true as they demo'ed the song in Dublin almost a year before his death but the lyrics were substantially different so there might have been some influence there. Whether Curtis or not the song is written from the perspective of a suicide beyond the grave observing the lack of impact on "the world I left behind". Without being condemnatory in the lyric , the band's perspective is obvious in the rousing optimistic melody and anthemic coda. This was the first song recorded with Lillywhite and that shows with Clayton's bass well down in the mix and Mullen sounding like a drum machine except for a few fills. By contrast the amount of phasing on the guitar seems a little excessive.
"Another Time Another Place" suggests an Only Ones influence in its title , a guitar solo ( rare for The Edge ) of similar length and euphoric subject matter ( though in U2's case it's through sex rather than drugs ). The song structure is relatively complex with a heavy but medium-paced rhythm for the first half then a headlong crash reminiscent of the Banshees in the second. Bono mixes up sex and religion again with a speaking-in-tongues section at his/the song's climax while Edge's nagging motif's hold the structure together impressively.
"The Electric Co" is an ironic pun as a title because there was a children's educational programme of that name but the song is actually about electro-convulsive therapy being applied to an aquaintance of the band. It's the one track where they let their passion get the better of them losing its structure halfway through and becoming a raucous mess. The most interesting thing musically is the similarity of Edge's main riff to Mike Rutherford's on Follow You Follow Me.
"Shadows And Tall Trees" is the one track where they do seem to be trying to sound like Joy Division with Mullen playing a simple version of a Steve Morris scatter pattern and Edge largely relegating himself to a quiet acoustic. Bono's rather wayward vocal deals with the teenage angst of a self-absorbed boy ( as it's one of their earliest songs it may be straight from the horse's mouth ) but the lyric is most notable for the entertaining bathos of the line "Mrs Brown's washing is always the same" . What does he expect - how many Dubliners have a complete change of clothes each week ? Although it threatens to rouse itself on the bridge to the chorus ( where Mullen throws in one of his old tattoos ) the chorus is completely flat and as a whole the song is rather dreary and tuneless ( Candidate rather than Love Will Tear Us Apart ).
Since starting this blog I'd say this post is the one that's led to the greatest personal re-appraisal of an LP. I do feel now that I've neglected it a bit. Perhaps that was because shortly after me buying it the group re-emerged at their Rattle and Hum worst. Now it's simply impossible not to admire U2 despite them taking the Mike Love fork ( that's not necessarily an insult ) for the last dozen years. No other rock band in history has maintained its original line-up for so long ( I know Rush have had the same members since 1975 but it's not the original cast and they were completely inactive for four years ) and it does now colour one's perception of their work.
"Boy" is derivative and not fully-formed in places so it's not quite a classic. As the first step on a long journey it's more than worthwhile.