Even U2 had to start somewhere. Before they were stadium-storming men of the world, Bono, David “The Edge” Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. were four Dublin lads with a love of punk rock and a drive far outweighing their nascent talents. They were years away from assuming the title of World’s Biggest Band, and yet their debut, Boy, has the feel of an audition.
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Released 30 years ago today (October 20, 1980) in the U.K., Boy bears little resemblance to the later U2 albums that would change the face of rock. There are no songs about god or politics, and the Edge had yet to really discover the magic of delay — the guitar effect he’d make the centerpiece of his signature sound. Clayton’s bass and Mullen’s drums are closer to how they sound today, and Bono was already singing for the folks in row Z, but from top to bottom, this is very much a beginner’s album.
Packed with prickly guitar sounds, strident beats and lyrics about the terrors of growing up and the grief Bono felt after losing his mother at 14, Boy is basically U2’s emo album. While producer Steve Lilywhite mostly stays out of the way and lets the group careen through its songs — minimalist post-punk numbers with an obvious debt to English predecessors Joy Division — there’s a spirit to these performances that foretells greater things to come. Bono certainly thought so.
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“There’s a certain spark, a certain chemistry, that was special about the Stones, The Who and The Beatles, and I think it’s also special about U2,” he told Rolling Stone in February 1981, when he was still going by the name Bono Vox.
It would take a few albums for U2’s abilities to catch up to its ambition — and for the public to catch on. After Boy peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard 200, producing no hit singles, the following year’s October stalled at No. 104. With 1983’s War, U2 stepped up its anthem game, while 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire established much of the sonic architecture that’s propped up subsequent works. It all came together on 1987’s massive The Joshua Tree, the first of U2’s seven chart-topping albums.
Read on for a track-by-track take on this, a dark and bristly debut from a band now known for bringing bright lights and optimism to the stadiums of the world.
“I Will Follow”
Fittingly, the first song on the first U2 album is certified roof-raiser stuffed with rumbling bass, insistent guitars, glockenspiel, and lyrics written about something very specific (the mother-child bond) yet delivered in a way that anyone can sing along and insert his or her own meaning. It’s a big-room showstopper from a striving band not long for clubland.
Even if Bono isn’t singing about pedophilia, as that interloping “old man” in opening verses suggests, the young protagonist in this coming-of-age tune has landed in a dark place. Short of a well-crafted pop song, “Twilight” is a solid atmosphere piece allowing the Edge to showcase what, at the time, amounted to his versatility. There are pointy post-punk licks, churning metal bits, and even a shrieking solo. Growing pains abound.
“An Cat Dubh”
Bono gets worked up, Clayton supplies remedial thump, and the Edge spins a spider web of a guitar figure. Together, they explore the mysteries of sex—a topic so scary the song had to be titled with the Gaelic phrase for “the black cat.”
“Into the Heart”
An extension of the previous track, this sketch of a song features some of the Edge’s sparsest playing on the album. His riffs are the wispy clouds over Bono’s head as the singer holds fast to the childhood feelings he’s not ready to lose. “I can smile,” he sings. “I can go there.”
“Out of Control”
Bono awakes on his 18th birthday and unwraps a great big existential crisis. It’s a gift that keeps giving, in that “Out of Control” is the most punk-rock tune on Boy and a welcome jolt after the previous two songs. Amid all the raging, there’s a hushed middle section seemingly built for the kind of onstage pontificating Bono would make his thing.
“Stories for Boys”
The rhythm section carries this one—Mullen with some spirited hi-hat work and Clayton with one of those driving, melodic lines invented by Joy Division’s Peter Hook. The Edge, meanwhile, plays a spy-movie riff appropriate for the lyrics, all about Bono’s obsession with fictional male heroes society has groomed him to admire.
One good thing about Boy: It ebbs and flows. After a couple of fast and direct ones, the band gets nebulous with a skeletal Edge guitar part and faint drum pattern. As for Bono, he’s ankle-deep in the sea, thinking about Oscar Wilde.
“A Day Without Me”
Over a couple of Edge guitar tracks—one a nervous wobble, the other a piercing cry—Bono imagines what Joy Division’s Ian Curtis must have been thinking in the lead-up to his May 1980 suicide. The song is neither mournful nor celebratory—just an effort to understand.
“Another Time, Another Place”
A stomping martial beat and icy riff power this aggressive song about a failed romance or an emotionally unsatisfying sexual experience. It’s teen angst presented as military parade, complete with some incomprehensible German ranting from Bono near the end.
“The Electric Co.”
A sort of response to the Ramones’ “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” this rail against controversial psychiatric practices killed in concert, where Edge’s cool delay-laden lead riff (the recipe for many a great Flock of Seagulls song) and scratchy punk chords really took flight.
“Shadows and Tall Trees”
The album’s musically and emotionally mixed-up closer opens with acoustic strumming and unspools into a meandering electric jam perfectly suited for the lyrics. It’s like Bono and the boys making it up as they go along—which is fitting, since it’s another tune about fumbling through adolescence and asking yourself questions like, “Do you feel in me anything redeeming?” Bono wouldn’t have to wait long for validation.