As debuts go, U2’s Boy ranks up there with the most wide-eyed, ambitious of them all. Produced by Steve Lillywhite and released in October of 1980, Boy introduces us to Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton with a sort of Irish stew of punk, pop and rock grandeur.
If U2’s first record tells us anything about the band, it’s that they don’t dream small. Boy isn’t their most grandiose album, of course, but there are signs of what would serve as the underpinnings of every record from The Joshua Tree to Pop all through their first kick at the can. The tunes are anthemic, big, magnificent, muscular pop-rock songs, built with all sorts of Edge magic, Bono showmanship and, of course, glockenspiel.
In terms of themes, Boy explores frustration and adolescence through Irish eyes.
Musically, this is the nothing short of the start of the development of one of the world’s biggest rock bands. It is U2’s Big Bang, complete Clayton’s “can’t-play-bass” easiness and Mullen Jr.’s puncturing, loud drumming.
But Boy is and always has been, at least in this writer’s mind, Edge’s coming-out party. The recipe is, in retrospect, simple: take the guitars out of Public Image Limited, Can, Magazine, Gang of Four, and Echo and the Bunnymen and toss them in a blender. Strap the muddle on an eerily calm David Howell Evans, born in Essex, and you’ve got an emerging Edge.
The determination of Edge’s playing is apparent from the opening notes of “I Will Follow,” U2’s first “big hit” in the United Kingdom. Apart from the glockenspiel (played by Lillywhite) and the studio magic, this is the sound of 18-year-olds with but a few exceptions. Bono’s lyrics, for one thing, stand out. And the abrupt tempo change, complete with what appears to be the clattering of bottles, lets the vocalist get deeply theatrical.
“Twilight” is a bit of a rattling song, with layers of vocals and lots of big noise. Edge is in his element with a riff that sounds like it could fit anywhere on Achtung Baby (dig that solo!), but it’s Clayton who lays down a thick-as-Murphy’s bass line that really starts to come into its own at about the 1:45 mark.
The ambitious sensibilities come into play with “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart,” a pair of tunes that simply can’t be played apart without breaking any major laws. Once again, Clayton deals out a terrific bass line and Mullen Jr.’s robust playing carries things along with “An Cat Dubh.” The track pushes into anthemic terrain before swinging into an extended jam that slows down and backs nicely into the affectionate “Into the Heart.”
Tracks like “Out of Control” and “The Electric Co.” offer more glimpses at U2’s building fondness for big, bass-driven stuff. And “A Day Without Me” is a time capsule of sorts, built on Edge’s Gibson Explorer and finding a nearly pugnacious Bono calling down a landslide in his ego.
Listening to Boy today in full knowledge of where U2’s journey has gone so far is an invigorating experience. It is both a fond nod back to a band filled with just the right mix of fortitude and naïveté and a heartening look ahead to the band that, in all honesty, never really lost their way home.