- 18 Nov 20
October, and kingdoms rise… The tenth month of 2020 saw two U2 anniversaries. Their debut album Boy, in all its bright and shining glory, turned forty, and it’s twenty years since the release of the 12 million-selling All That You Can’t Leave Behind. To mark the occasion, Pat Carty pulled them both down off the shelf and joined the dots...
“Myself and Guggi had made a pledge as kids that we would never grow up.”
Bono was looking back, trying to find the key to what made Boy such a special and unique thing.
“We didn’t want to be like adults,” he reflected, “and in a certain way we pulled it off. I probably had a hunch that we might lose some of our uniqueness, and our first album was perhaps trying to lay claim to the power of naïveté.”
It’s a nice idea, and if you’re determined not to grow up, a rock n’ roll band is the place to do it. Tom Waits was right when he howled “Nothin’ out there but sad and gloom/ I don’t wanna grow up,” but, then again, so was Percy Bysshe Shelley with his, “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; nought may endure but mutability.”
Boy, U2’s debut album, is now – sing this with me – 40. It is a record that captures the confusion, and the naïveté, of adolescence like few, if any, others. It is a snapshot of boys trying hard to be the men they would eventually become.
All of twenty years separates it from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a record that speaks to confusion of a different stripe – as well as hard-won wisdom, and twenty years separates our now from that then. But there are commonalities; in the shadows, boy meets man. So let us first fast forward, to another time, another place, all the better to look back.
The Last Of The Rock Stars
However you and I might feel about Pop (1997) now – and any record that has ‘Do You Feel Loved’, ‘Staring At The Sun’, ‘Please’ and ‘If You Wear That Velvet Dress’ on it can hardly be classed as bad – it seems U2 don’t like it.
“We wanted to make a party record, but we came in at the end of the party,” is how Bono has characterised it. The general consensus is that it could have done with another month or two in the oven, although the real problem might have been that there were too many cooks gathered around the kitchen (or even The Kitchen). The tour had been booked, however, so out it went into the world.
Whatever about its artistic merits, it remains one of the band’s least successful records commercially, and by the time they got the Popmart tour out of their system, they were ready to take a step back from the blips, the beeps and the Day-Glo.
Among U2 fans – or many of them at any rate – there was a sigh of relief. They wanted the band they had fallen in love with back.
“We’d really taken the deconstruction of the rock n’ roll band format to its absolute Nth degree,” was how The Edge put it. “We felt we wanted to hear the band again.”
They first released the compilation, The Best Of 1980-1990, in 1998, as a kind of stop gap. It was a reminder of the old, open-hearted U2, before they’d hidden their good intentions beneath the cloak of irony. And then, they took their sweet time in hazarding their next step. They had learned a lesson and were not going to rush this one.
They reunited with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the production team behind their three greatest records – and the first thing the rest of us got to hear from the sessions was ‘Beautiful Day’, released as the lead single on the 9th of October, 2000. It was a step back to where they once belonged: here was a big, sky-scraping song that could have slotted onto that first decade compilation in a way that nothing on Pop really would have.
Apparently, there was some argy-bargy within the band about the single, with Bono suggesting that it was just a bit too U2-y. This was the kind of Edge guitar sound that hadn’t really been heard since the first three albums. Then again, as manager Paul McGuinness pointed out, why not play to your strengths?
The Edge has referred to it as a U2 Coca-Cola riff, the kind of thing he had trademarked with the opening bars of ‘I Will Follow’, although there’s still plenty of the 90s techniques the band had adopted going on in the background – just listen to its opening glow, or those massed voices that take over after the middle eight. You can also hear the bright, radio friendly sheen that Steve Lillywhite added to the production when he was called in to assist.
Muso talk like this is all very well, you might say – the main thing is that when U2 play it live and the big riff and chorus come in, everybody jumps up and down. Like loons. Mission accomplished. It was a huge hit, peaking at No.1 across Europe – including the UK – and went on to win three Grammys all on its own, and you can’t argue with a hit. And before the cool kids try to argue with it anyway, they should remember that this is a song that Michael Stipe of REM has pointed to as one he wishes he had written. Case dismissed.
The album All That You Can’t Leave Behind followed on October 30th, and – driven by the soaring success of the first single – it rocketed to the top of the charts all over the world (with a few odd exceptions, including the US, where it peaked at No.3). It is now celebrated, in a new, expanded, special 2020 edition.
Bono liked to joke that this was the record where they reapplied for the job of best band in the world, and they may just have pulled it off. Put aside the fact that it was a huge commercial success – 12 million copies and counting – and concentrate instead on its contents. Here was what the band felt Pop had been missing: finished songs fit to stand beside the big ones from the eighties and early nineties that they will always be known for.
This Hurt Will Hurt No More
Songs like ‘Walk On’, ‘New York’ and most especially ‘Grace’ deserve a place on any self-respecting U2 playlist. But two of my own favourites – sitting at the album’s centre – are less celebrated. ‘In A Little While’ is a beauty in its simplicity. The Edge pulls another of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of instantly memorable riffs out of the air, only this time he plays it straight, with what seems like very little signal processing going on.
There are four producers credited, including Richard Stannard and Julian Gallagher alongside Eno and Lanois: Stanard, who had worked extensively with The Spice Girls, added a loop to Larry’s drums before the band were happy with it and Bono sings one of his “sorry, missus” lyrics. You can almost imagine Mrs Bono rolling her eyes towards the ceiling.
His vocal performance is what really carries the track, made all the more remarkable when you hear that it emerged out of the haze of a disastrous hangover. I always imagined this as a song that Al Green could have gamely tackled. It is also the tune that Joey Ramone listened to more than any other, as he lay dying.
There are reports that The Edge thought ‘Wild Honey’ a little too close to ‘Ob-la-Di, Ob-La-Da’ for his liking; Brian Eno said the song reminded him of Van Morrison. Let’s go with Eno on this one, as it does have some of the carefree soul that the best Morrison records exude. Mullen doesn’t like it, but that’s okay, as this is freewheeling in the same way that the Prince was on ‘Raspberry Beret’. It sounds like U2 arsing around and having a laugh, and is all the better for it. “We thought it would be fun to include it,” Daniel Lanois told Niall Stokes for U2: Songs and Experience, “a nice, simple, clear song with a lovely sentiment.” Bono has spoken about a lack of joy on Pop; they had relocated it here.
Before we, uh, leave it behind, it is worth taking a look at the extras in the new package. Besides some choice B-Sides and outtakes like ‘Levitate’ and ‘Summer Rain’, there is ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, where the band took a lyric from Salman Rushdie’s book and crafted something beautiful around it. Both it and ‘Stateless’ – described by the singer as a kind of “sci-fi blues” – are taken from Bono’s acquired taste of a movie, The Million Dollar Hotel.
Perhaps the best thing on the extra disks is ‘Big Girls Are Best’, a Pop leftover wherein Bono praises the more voluptuous section of the female population, as the band get all the way down behind him. Some girls are bigger than others and that suits our man just fine. “He’s talking about women who aren’t stick insects,” Edge said. “It’s pretty tongue-in-cheek and throwaway.” They should have included its genuine, grinning joy on that troubled album.
The Elevation tour that followed the album’s release was akin to a lap of honour for a band that were truly back on top, winning again the fans who had jumped ship, while they were busy trying to learn how to dance. It sold out all over the place and grossed a tidy $143 million dollars, proving that they had certainly passed the audition for their old job.
The audio of the show from Boston is included in the box, but it was the two stops in Slane in 2001 – extraordinary gigs both – that linked All That You Can’t Leave Behind back to where they had come from in more ways than one.
Who’s To Say What It Is Will Break You
For all its joyous music – there aren’t many things as loveably daft as the moles-digging-in-holes ‘Elevation’ in the U2 canon – there is a shadow of mortality hanging over this record. ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ - a great soul/gospel song to rival the directness of ‘In A Little While’ and another Grammy winner in 2002 - was written as an imagined conversation that Bono never got to have with his tormented friend, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who died by suicide in 1997. Added to that tragic backdrop, Bono’s dad, Bob Hewson, was gravely ill while the band were at work recording. After he passed away, Bono dedicated ‘Kite’ to him at the Slane gig and it’s clear that that his illness was playing on his son’s mind when he wrote the lyric, “Who’s to know when the time’s come around/ Don’t want to see you cry/ I know that this is not goodbye.”
As well as essaying the new, U2 also reached right back at Slane, playing ‘I Will Follow’ on the first night, and ‘Out Of Control’ on the second, perhaps the two best known songs from the debut album Boy, which was released four decades ago, on October 20th, 1980. It remains one of their greatest records – I know people who swear blind that it is their greatest – and stands as the first time they put in an application for that “best band in the world” position.
Any band worth talking about at all must treat their debut album as their shot at the title, their spin on the big wheel of fate, a foot to be shoved in the door, an application for a seat at the big table. There aren’t many bands that managed it as successfully, and as on their own terms as U2 – but then the ‘2 were different from the kick off.
Even before the album arrived, you could hear the confidence in Bono’s voice, when he went on Dave Fanning’s radio show in 1979 to premiere the tracks on the U2 3 EP and carefully distanced himself from other bands of the time. He was there, ostensibly, to let the audience to pick the lead track, although it was more a case of you can have any colour you like as long as it’s ‘Out Of Control’. [It should be noted here that since I wrote this I heard directly from the horse's mouth - Fanning's mouth - that he's not sure if this was the case, and 'Out Of Control' definitely got the most votes.]
You can hear that self-belief on the finished album too: Boy was confident enough to dispense with the studied cool of contemporaries like Echo & The Bunnymen, allowing itself instead to be almost gauche in its openness.
That confidence is exemplified in the already unique sound of Edge’s guitar, replete with the chiming, echoed patterns of Coca-Cola riffs like ‘The Electric Co.’ and ‘I Will Follow’ – ancestors of ‘Beautiful Day’ in their own way. You can hear it in Larry’s drumming, playing in the songs rather than against them. You can even hear it in Adam Clayton’s bass. He’d probably be the first to admit that he had a way to go yet to achieve proficiency, but he displays subtle and inventive touches.
Bono’s voice had a distance to travel too, before he would achieve the soul-baring heights of ‘One Tree Hill’ or ‘In A Little While’. But he was heading in the right direction: it would only take that voice five years to get from here to the memorable falsetto on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. His steady, incremental development as a singer is something he does not get enough credit for.
All That You Sense
The voice he had as a teenager, however, was perfectly suited to delivering the themes the band explored on Boy – from sexual awakening in ‘An Cat Dubh’ to his naked ambition on ‘The Ocean’. “I felt the world could go far,” he sings unabashed, “if they’d listen to what I say.” Bono had already started the landslide of self-belief in his ego that would ultimately fuel his ascent.
One can find grief here too as the absence of Bono’s mother looms large over both ‘Out Of Control’ and ‘I Will Follow’, a sentiment that would be transferred to his father for ‘Kite’. Juxtapose all this with how Adam Clayton described All That You Can’t Leave Behind: the record, he said was written “about the journey we’d been through as a band, as men in relationships, as sons of mothers and fathers. It was about the baggage that you have to live with, the sense of loss.”
Put it another way: Boy navigates the confusion of adolescence while All That You Can’t Leave Behind tries to negotiate the equally tricky bollards of maturity.
I sat in a lecture once about Homer’s Odyssey, as the good professor tried to explain to the 18 year-old me why Odysseus was the perfect human character. Yes, he got into all these crazy adventures and threw the leg over Circe, but he was also a husband, a father, and a son, he knew about life because he had lived it and experienced both its joys and its pains.
I’m far from trying to claim demigod status for U2 – but this was where the band were at, individually and collectively, on All That You Can't Leave Behind. The rounded lives they had lived as husbands and fathers and sons were there, embedded in their art but visible still for all to see.
Boy is the perfect title for their first album, but All That You Can’t Leave Behind could have just as easily been called Man. Both records are soundtracks that play over the tannoy in stations we must all pass through.
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Taken from the Hot Press U2: 80-00-20 Special Edition, available to order at the link below.