I Will Follow
1977–1984: Collector’s Box Set
Uncut: The 100 Greatest Debut Albums (2006) (number: 59)
Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 2012 edition (number: 417)
Here's a mind-bending 'what if?' moment. This, U2's debut album, was originally to be produced by Martin Hannett, but at the last minute he withdrew, distraught over the recent death of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Imagine how the universe-gobbling careers of the four boys from Dublin would have fared in the hands of the Mancunian experimentalist. Luckily Hannett's replacement, Steve Lillywhite was (like Eno and Lanois seven years later) to help steer them to a sonic identity that made them stand out from the crowd. In the days of grey raincoated new wave, the band's sound was stadium-sized.
A lot of this was also down to The Edge's ringing, Echoplex-ed Gibson Explorer. From the two-note delay-drenched start to I Will Follow, underpinned by Larry Mullin Jr's massive gated drums, theirs was a sound that had ambitions way beyond the smokey clubs of Dublin. Of course none of this made sense without the gigantic ego of Paul David Hewson. The re-christened Bono Vox was the focal point that marked the band for glory. On the band's first polytechnic-touring promotion of the album in the UK he was already climbing PA stacks, mixing it up with his adoring public and generally acting like the world was his; it just didn't know it yet.
In interviews of the time the band hinted that their collective christianity had informed the writing. Certainly the hit I Will Follow displays the themes of faith and belief. But overall the album marks the passage from childhood to adulthood, and all its attendant uncertainties and anxieties. Hence the title. In this sense, lyrically, the songs are too immature to pass muster. It would take a few more years before Bono's words matched his vaulting ambitions and messianic zeal. Also, musically, it lacks a satisfying variety, with most songs fitting the same skittering four-four pattern shaded by the Edge's minimal chords, arpeggios and ringing harmonics. Only the morose sketch, The Ocean, the mid-tempo pairing of An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart or the closing Shadows And Tall Trees exhibit life beyond the bluster. Oddly it's on the latter number that they most resemble Hannett's beloved Joy Division. They weren't above a little plagiarism too; the opening riff of Stories For Boys bearing more than a passing resemblance to The Dead Kennedy's Holiday In Cambodia. Still, for a debut it still contained a fair number of their early defining live moments. A song like Out Of Control was hand built to be stretched, embellished and bludgeoned about on stage. And one thing was for sure: they really knew how to fashion some great intros. The Electric Co. never quite delivers on its promise, but the riff is still utterly mighty.
Of course it was to take two more Lillywhite-helmed albums to really make the world aware of what the band themselves already knew. But all the warning signs were here in this brave, life-affirming cry of youthful defiance.