College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981, 2

boy

2. U2, Boy

Trouser Press wrote: “Raw, quivering messages from the heart. Defiant expressionism at a time we could use it.”

Well, credit Trouser Press with the prescience of astute early adopters in this instance. It’s not that U2’s debut album wasn’t without other champions at the time–it ranked at a respectable number eighteen on the highly influential Village Voice year-end poll–but to give it runner-up ranking demonstrates a unique level of confidence in the four scruffy gents from Ireland. To be even-handed about this, it’s not as if the capsule review gave any indication that U2 had the potential to become one of the biggest rock bands in the world at some point in the future. Instead, those couple of sentences simply provide a terrifically accurate read on what that album must have sounded like to anyone who approached it with attentive ears and an open intellect.

By now, that U2 style of music has gotten so entrenched in the bustling garden of pop music that it takes some significant mental rejiggering to conjure up a time when a new U2 album sounded like nothing else that had come out before, not quite. Hell, Boy didn’t even really sound like the prior U2 efforts. Okay, so Edge’s chiming guitar and Bono’s up-and-down roar was present from the very first song of their debut EP, 1979’s Three. But the tones were a little more insistent, a little more piercing. That quality was compounded on one of the two singles that preceded their first full-length. Shaped by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” is tough, jagged, edgy and points to what Boy could have been. Hannett was expected to produce U2’s debut album, but he was distraught over the suicide of Joy Division leader Ian Curtis and backed out. Steve Lillywhite, producer for Siouxsie and the Bashees and Peter Gabriel, stepped in to take his place. The distinctive U2 sound, more or less, was the result.

The band hadn’t quite nailed down the anthemic quality that would help them fill stadiums, but songs like “I Will Follow” and “A Day Without Me” absolutely indicate a band that was trying for a bigger sonic thunder than the average club could contain. The Edge may not have had quite as many tools in his kit, but he clearly knew how he wanted to play guitar (so many times over the years, he has kicked out some rough variation of the opening line of “Twilight”) and the rhythm section of Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums was already as clean and steady as a metronome. A song like “Out of Control” may not indicate a band on the precipice of continually pushing against the potential limitations of operating with little more than three chords and the truth, but it’s surely evidence that they know how to play together, how to draw from one another’s strengths and fill in for little weaknesses. It was only on a slower song, such as album closer “Shadows and Tall Trees,” that the band betrayed the growth they still needed.

Things, it’s fair to say, only got better from there. With their next album, October, the band started to get some chart attention for their singles: “Fire” was a top forty song in the U.K. and went all the way to number four in their Irish homeland. The attention increased with 1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. After that, they took almost three years to release their next album, a surprisingly long time for an up-and-coming band in that era of music. Despite the questionable strategy, it seemed to work out fairly well for them.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. (tie) The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat
3. (tie) The Clash, Sandinista!

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