This article originally appeared in the March 17, 1981 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Unlike mod or ska or heavy-metal — revivals that have amused British pop fans in the wake of the Sex you-know-whats — psychedelic doesn’t conjure up a precise musical style. Since the word is defined in terms of a rather temperamental drug, everyone’s got his own smart idea of what it means. Sure, all of us can name psychedelic artifacts, but few are musical and none are definitive: The foolish cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request sticks in the mind as psychedelic longer than any of its foolish contents. Unlike the romanticized idea behind British punk, psychedelia isn’t about inventing from scraps as much as it is about dicking around with a given form. Punk was about verbs (“create,” “destroy”); psychedelia was about adjectives (“spacey,” “far out”). It’s playful, removed, indulgent; it needs a subtext to bounce off. It doesn’t spring full-blown out of nowhere: Every moment in the arty Sgt. Pepper is rooted somewhere in the genuinely artful Revolver. In this sense, dub is the most “psychedelic” music around, leisurely toying with our perception of a known piece of music, forcing new aspects to our attention.
It goes without saying that none of the so-called psychedelic bands in the British Isles is as adventurous as the blessed-out, ganja-addled Big Youth or the acid-eating Syd Barrett or the alternatively weird Brian Eno. (But this is to be expected from a place where the Psychedelic Furs are hilarious trash-meisters and the most formally outré combo calls itself the Pop Group.) The only thing, then, that unifies the reconstructed heavy metal of U2, the featherweight pop of Teardrop Explodes and the hard rock of Echo and the Bunnymen is there pre-professionalism. These aren’t young men grabbing their instruments and heading off into parts unknown. They’re staking out turf and squatting. This is nothing new: most post-punk successes are triumphs of assimilation and polish rather than exploration and invention. Yet as oppressive as Joe Strummer can get (and he’s becoming more and more like a drunken poli-sci grad student drooling down your jacket at a department cocktail party), we still don’t know what the next Clash record will sound like; or what the new PiL will bring; or who’s on the Talking Heads these days.
So at the Paradise a week ago, when U2’s bass drum broke and lead singer Bono filled the dead air by noting that in Ireland only “show bands” play two sets a night, I suppressed my request for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” with great difficulty. Oh those cursed post-punk realities: rock n’ roll is just music, equipment fails, and two sets a night. What’s a young band to do? Boys being boys, U2’s answer is to go heavy metal while editing out all the gross parts that offend liberals. They lead guitarist, who goes by the name The Edge, substitutes metallic, echoey figures for leaden chords. Bono can show off his lung power as much as he wants but no mentions of rape and pillage, please. Sweetened with bells and xylophones, widened with reverb, it’s the Pistols meet the Byrds as produced by Phil Spector. When these trick substitutions work, as they do on much of U2’s debut, Boy (Island), and its first singer, “11 O’clock Tick Tock,” you’re sucked in and buoyed up at the same time. This momentum, found in “I Will Follow” or “Out of Control,” crushes and sentiment that a lead singer might have to express. In U2’s case, the grand theme that pervades Boy is the distance between boyhood and manhood, appropriate for a band whose ages span 18 to 20. You only notice its puffy, strident treatment when you’re forced to: on the softer songs the group aims (like all metallurgists) for “ethereal” and ends up with “overwrought.”
In performance, though, U2 strives toward “powerful” and often gets there. The band may have heavy metal’s sense of what an epiphany is—elephantine dynamics, bellowing vocals—but U2 is more genuinely chaotic than nay heavy metal band would ever let itself be. This isn’t just true of the headlong dive-into-the-fray of telegraphic guitar, bass, and drums that sets up “Stories for Boys” or “I Will Follow,” it’s true of the group’s stage demeanor, too. Bono gesturing wildly with his hands while swooping across the stage (Connie Francis as a whirling dervish) or bassist Adam Clayton dipping and bopping: their enthusiasm is as unfeigned as their abandoned footwork. The Edge, as classically disheveled as lead guitarists get, spent most of the evening in a trance. He snapped out of periodically, swaying fiercely while singing backup, and then returned to his daze, the only place, it seemed, from which he could comfortably wrench the majestic arcs that are the crux of U2’s appeal.