Paul Hewson and David Evans. If you’re not a U2 fan, you might not know who they are, or you might recognize them under their aliases. But for the rest of us, those baptized and initiated into the cult of U2, they are gods. We await every release as if our lives depended on them, queue up just to get a chance to catch a glimpse of them, and memorize every word they wail. Even when they misstep, we revel in their errors as if they were intentional. We laud their humanitarian efforts, forgive their excesses and despite their largesse, further elevate them to higher states of ascendancy. They are arguably the best voice and best guitar player ever put together. It can be debated, but you’re in for one long argument. Keith is great and Mick iconic, but not necessarily a classic voice. Harrison with Lennon or McCartney might give them a run for their money, but the Irish boys have the longevity. They have been icons of arena rock through three decades. They are Bono and the Edge.
Every story has to start somewhere and U2’s starts with Boy. Looking back on it now, who would have ever thought that the little Irish band who won a contest sponsored by Guinness would be selling out every show they play, no matter what the size of the venue. Boy wasn’t a huge splash, merely a ripple, but those ripples cascaded into tidal waves, affecting everything in its path. From the first song, the still fresh “I Will Follow,” U2 exhibited a huge presence in the face of overwhelming odds. The Edge’s muted echo guitar, backed by Larry Mullen, Jr.’s percussive tinkling and then monstrous drumbeats, opens up into a full sound theretofore almost unheard. Inspired by punk, which was far tinnier, more aggressive and strained, and by the legends of their own country such as Van Morrison, U2 put together a band that would become the blueprint for arena rock in the ’80s. Even though at this time they were still playing dives, Bono’s voice and the Edge’s guitar were powered for massive coliseums. When Bono sings the last round of “your eyes” on “I Will Follow,” we picture him as we tend to now, as a smaller figure on a huge stage, yet owning it all.
I distinctly remember going into a small record store in my hometown to pick up the little known Wide Awake in America EP and having a lengthy conversation with the store clerk. He was in high school and I was merely thirteen, but he talked to me like I was a peer. And why? Because of my purchase, I was announcing myself as one of the initiated. He asked if I owned Boy, which I didn’t at the time, and he suggested I pick it up if just for “Stories for Boys.” The track easily became one of my all-time favorite U2 songs. Bono’s voice is at its full-throated wailing best, and the Edge’s guitars were processed and controlled mania. Even the two oft underrated members, Larry Mullen, Jr., the eternal vampire (does that guy ever age?) and Adam Clayton, the lord of the low end, tore the hell out of that song, a mere three minutes of rock and roll mastery. The Edge doesn’t take a huge guitar solo, he merely plucks a string at a time, creating atmosphere rather than stealing the spotlight. It was a trend that would continue and set the Edge apart from most other guitarists for years. He was never afraid to just sit back and let the music take over, no matter how simple it could be, just notes bending through drum and bass.
U2 have since gone on to become larger than life, mega rock stars that have worked with major producers and have enjoyed stellar album sales over the last 26 years. The producer of Boy, Steve Lillywhite, had credits to his name before joining with the Irish band, but nothing gave him as much cred as his album tenure with U2. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would follow (no pun intended), but Lillywhite helped U2 define their sound. The Stones have been around longer, but as such have had more nadirs in their career. The Beatles are the only band to have more success in one album release to the next. Okay, so Boy may not be held in the same esteem as Please Please Me or Aftermath, but “I Will Follow,” “Stories for Boys” and “The Electric Co.” sure make a strong case. Their second album, October, would feature the anthemic “Gloria” and the somber title track, but would also stumble at the sales gate. But three years later, another album, its title also made up of only three letters, would vault U2 from promising band to iconic superstars, and Bono’s got the white flag to prove it.
The Alarm- Declaration
Them featuring Van Morrison- The Angry Young Them
Big Country- Big Country