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U2 - 'Boy' / 'October' / 'War' (Reissues)   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Saturday, 02 August 2008

Bafflingly incomplete and expensive... welcome to the world of retrospective millionaire rawk!

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!

October”, the second album, is perhaps U2’s strangest record : hastily written and recorded, it sees Bono as an evangelical Christian, espousing the virtue of God over a curiously uncohesive musical backing. Some of the songs here are clearly the sound of a band racing against the clock to create enough material for an album, and it is, therefore, the weakest U2 album in their canon. There are some unrecognised moments of genius (such as the title track itself), but these are few and far between. The bonus disc is also, once again, rather underwhelming. All the non album songs of the time are included (aside from an alternate mix of the title track that was on a compilation release), as well as an assortment of live b-sides, and a third of a rather brilliant concert the BBC recorded in London in December 1982. The whole show is worthy of release, and the discs again have ample space to contain the material, so quite why it isn’t included is a mystery. The bonus disc is topped off with a superior BBC Radio Session - which easily eclipses the original LP recordings but misses 1 of the 4 numbers recorded - and somewhat incongruously, a 1996 reworking of album track “Tomorrow”. This 1996 recording sits miles apart from the original in style and production, and sounds like the work of a different band, thus breaking the spell and seal of history set by the previous contents. The bonus disc is, sadly, again the sound of a band failing to satisfy their fans with a half-way house that satisfies no one and leaves out huge chunks of available music in favour of blank space. Well done, millionaire rock stars, with a value-for-money ethos.

War”, meanwhile, is the third U2 album, which saw them at the cusp of fame. The album is sonically a progression which has barely dated, the song writing is sound but painfully earnest and boringly sincere, and the band are clearly creating their own identity, their own personality, and have their own rare voice in the world. There are four or five truly classic songs on the main album, including the played-to-death “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (which repeated exposure to has now made me sadly numb and immune), and in true U2 style, it sounds very much like no one else, yet also unique to that particular record. If the band had split at this point, they’d go down in the annals of history as a band that were almost huge. And probably reformed a few years ago as a pension plan.

Nonetheless, “War” is certainly a fine and assured album that is imperfect only in its naivety. It’s almost as if Bono felt he could cure the worlds ills with a stunning melody and an effective lyrics. Oh, youth. Nonetheless. as an album “War” is a product of its time,a reflection of youthful ideals, and well worth getting if you are a fan of the band.

The bonus disc, again an assortment of single-only b-sides, live fragments, and extra stuff is a boring listen, for one reason and one reason alone. Of the 12 songs on there, four of them are remixes of “New Years Day” (presented in one half-hour chunk of boredom, including two rather dated 1999 remixes by Ferry Corsten), followed by a quarter-hour of dated 12” mixes of “Two Hearts Beat As One” which explore the endless possibilities of the echo box and syndrum to their very limits. It turns what could have been an interesting listening experience into a barren plain of boredom. There’s an unreleased track - average b-side fodder “Angels Too Tied To The Ground”, and a couple of live songs, but ultimately, it’s a uneven and frustrating compilation produced without care or thought for what actually sitting down and listening to it in one go might be like.

In addition, there are some alternate mixes that were issued on a 1993 remaster that are omitted, as are 5 well-circulated demo and rehearsal recordings that could easily have fitted on the disc to create a more satisfying and cohesive listen. Given that these albums have each shifted several million copies each, I have to be honest and say that most people who buy these reissues already have the albums - and that seems a little exploitative to put together an underwhelming and inexhaustive selection of extra tracks at such a high price, especially when there’s copious amounts of extra space on the discs themselves. These reissues are worthy, and I’m glad they were released, but they could’ve been so much more than they currently are, and been produced in a fashion that satisfied the bands knowledgable and large fan base. Close, but no cigar.


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