Imagine, if you will, an alternate reality. In this alternate reality, U2 failed to take the enormous stylistic left turn required to conquer the world, and instead carried on with more of the same after reaching a commercial and creative apex in the mid 80's, and thus, fell victim to the inevitable law of diminishing returns. To this end, U2 carried on making the same type of bombastically naïve records they trademarked in their formative years, never headlined anywhere bigger than a 10,000 seat arena, and eventually fell into disgrace when Nirvana killed the old music dead. In this reality, U2 plodded on for a bit before they split up and made largely ignored solo records.
Think... that's how close it could've been for U2. Instead, as we all know, they invented stadium rock, before turning into some kind of leftfield, weird art music project for most of the 90's, and conquering the world in the 00's as an institution. Until recently, U2 meanwhile, have fiercely resisted the temptation to become a nostalgia act : it is only with these releases and last years "Joshua Tree" set that U2 have started to look like historians. Not for them, the Greatest Hits tour, or the We're-Playing-The-Whole-Of-An-Ancient-Album tour. Until last year, U2 have always been pushing forward.
Taken on their own merits, "Boy", "October" and "War" are good, but not great albums. The sound of a band growing into itself. On "Boy" the songs sound like the products of cramped rehearsal rooms, of snatched moments forged on and off stage, of people exploring themselves and barely scratching the surface of the possibility. The original LP is a classic of its kind, a left-field assortment of songs that told us U2 could go in any direction they wanted to, with influences write large such as the American Art Rock of the 70's, of Television and the Ramones and Talking Heads and also, very definitely, their own people, their own identity, doing only what greats have ever done, in terms of making them sound like more than the sum of the parts, of a product of their environment yet also, definitely their own men. The production is brash and light and the band sound oddly confident (which is almost, but not quite arrogant) in their abilities. "Boy" is an embryo of an album, and thus, perhaps an underlooked addition to their work : it hints clearly at the band they would become whilst telegraphing where they have been. Debut albums rarely came so assured, or competent, in those days.
The bonus disc - as with all the extra tracks on these packages - are unfortunately a unforgivable disappointment for the knowledgable U2 fan. Whilst it thankfully compiles all the bands non-album songs of the era, it cruelly neglects to include both the first demo tape, and the legendary Boston 1981 concert is present only in small fragments as they were later used as b-sides : (both this demo, and the full 60 minute concert, were recently digitally remastered and released on the iTunes only "Complete U2" Box Set so their exclusion is frankly unforgivable). There is certainly space on the discs, with some careful sequencing, to include all the available stuff, and this release is a halfway house that pleases nobody. Quite why it is missing is baffling and a little insulting to fans who prefer the old fashioned age of the physical product. Also missing - though this would've required a third disc - is a televised Dublin 1980 concert which contained several unreleased songs, or the oft-bootlegged early demos. Of the unreleased stuff on the second "Boy" disc, there is a virtually indistinguishable alternate mix of "I Will Follow", two pretty good songs that should've come out at the time ("Speed Of Life" and "Saturday Night"), and a live version of "Cartoon World" from the aforementioned Dublin concert. Overall, whilst the extra disc is an interesting curio, it is sequenced non-chronologically that presents a frustrating experience to actually sit down and listen to, and fails to make much sense, as the band travel backwards in time towards the discs conclusion. The omission of a large amount of previously-released material when there is ample space across the two CD's is also at best baffling, and, at worst the sound of a band missing an open goal to create an overall satisfactory package. Maybe they're holding this stuff back for another box set or reissue in 2018. Thanks guys!