The Story of U2’s 'October'* - U2 Feedback

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Old 10-24-2005, 08:05 AM   #1
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The Story of U2’s 'October'*

By Teresa Rivas

"It's best to do it under stress. Maybe I have a few lines in my mind, or words or images. I play around with them, fill up a track, move on, fill up another track. Then I go back with [Steve] Lillywhite, and maybe Larry or Adam, and see a train of thought."
—Bono in a July 1983
Trouser Press interview about the frantic scramble to rewrite the lyrics to "October" after they were stolen from a show in Portland, Oregon.

Why have we neglected "October"? No matter if you love or hate U2's sophomore album, you must admit there's a dearth of attention to this very Christian, very frantic record.

Well, of course, time is the great equalizer; it heals all wounds, buries all feuds and even pulls the brightest stars toward obscurity. So one would expect that "October" wouldn't be as talked about as some of U2's newer albums, there are a number of strikes against it—it's old news; the band wasn't as famous as it is today so there is simply less record of the time to look back on; the U2 of the '80s isn't the U2 some fans love today, it wasn't as focused or as mature; the album's too overtly Christian for some tastes.

Perhaps it's useless to speculate but "October" still seems to be one of U2's most obscure records. Everyone's buzzing about "Boy" these days because of the throwbacks the recent Vertigo Tour has done. "War," it may be argued, is one of a trinity of pillars supporting the U2 canon, along with "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby," a popular success also held in critical acclaim. “The Unforgettable Fire” may seem neglected as well until you consider that "Pride (In the Name of Love)" comes from this album, a quintessential song that even the uninitiated would have trouble overlooking, as well as "Bad" and the title track. The next album, of course, rocketed the band to superstardom, and no album that followed could escape the glare of the spotlight (with the possible exception of the quasi-soundtrack without a movie, "Passengers").

"October" has no place on the Best of compilations aside from a hidden track at the end of the first collection. Some may argue that the relative insignificance is justified—the album just didn't survive on the heels of such confluent events like the heady tours on two continents, Bono's hurriedly rewritten lyrics, and the majority of the band's escalated ties to Christianity. Yet, love it or hate it, there is no denying that if there were no “October,” there would be no U2 as they are today. Even if it appears that this album played a small part in the band’s evolution, it still provided success in the United Kingdom, proving U2 wasn't a one-hit wonder. It gave the band breathing room between the intensity of its first and third albums (even if the actual production of the album was no autumnal stroll) and propelled the band members toward the moods and ideas that would make them into the U2 of legend. And it has a story to tell.

It was 24 years ago, when Pope John Paul II was wounded in a failed assassination attempt, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists, and AIDS was first identified. Salman Rushdie published "Midnight's Children", IBM debuted its first personal computer and MTV came to the airwaves with an all music video format—"Video Killed the Radio Star" was its first. In the United States, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president and in July nominated Sandra Day O'Connor, from Arizona, to be the first woman on the Supreme Court. And U2 was touring America.

It was in March 1981 that things, so to speak, fell apart. After a Portland show, three women talked with the band backstage and walked off with Bono's briefcase containing $300 and all the lyrics he had written for their second album, slated to be recorded in three months, according to

That may have brought things to a head, but it was not all the band had to worry about. “Boy” was voted Best Album, Best Debut Album and Best Album Sleeve in the Hot Press Irish National Poll Results. It peaked at No. 52 on the UK album charts and No. 63 on the US charts, according to But the tours on two continents took a lot out of the band—it was in no shape to try scramble around trying to put together an album with all that preparation lost on top of the pressure of ensuring that "Boy" was not just a blip on the radar screen. In addition, bassist Adam Clayton felt isolated from the group as his friends as Bono, Edge and Larry Mullen, Jr. grew more attune to their religious beliefs. Deeply committed to the Shalom Christianity group, the three rose early every morning for prayer and seriously considered forgoing a musical career if they could not reconcile it with a Godly lifestyle. Members of Shalom were living in Portrane, near Dublin's north beach. Bono would be baptized in the sea there and they were living in a caravan in a field with others who also prayed, fasted, and put pressure on them to leave the band. U2 almost met its end along that rocky coastline, when Edge told Bono he was going to leave the band, and Bono agreed he would be willing to go too. After two weeks, Edge decided he could be both a Christian and U2's guitarist and the band stayed together, but there is a sense of that uneasiness in the record, according to Niall Stokes in his "Into the Heart: The Stories Behind Every U2 Song."

The first song on the album, "Gloria," is a testament to the band members' faith and sets the tone, which will also betray the confusion in the band at this tumultuous juncture. "On 'October' I became more aware of the third part of myself—the spiritual nature—and I could have chosen to lock it away, and some would have preferred it that way, but I allowed it out," Bono said in a 1984 interview published in U2 Magazine. "'Gloria' is about trying to express such things, an insight into the moment when a song is written. A lot of our contemporaries were just throwing a lot of dark images together and pretending it was deep. But there was no real door open to the inside, to what was really happening."

"'October’ was a struggle from beginning to end," The Edge said in 1992 Musician interview by Bill Flanagan. "It was an incredible hard record for us to make because we had major problems with time. And I had been through this thing of not really knowing if I should be in the band or not. It was really difficult to pull all the things together and still maintain the focus to actually finish a record in the time that we had. You could hear the desperation and confusion in some of the lyrics. 'Gloria' is really a lyric about not being able to express what's going on, not being able to put it down, not knowing where we are. Having thrown ourselves into this thing we were trying to make some sense of it. 'Why are we in this?' It was a very difficult time."

And of course, the eternal question persists—who's he talking about? About God, a girl or both? As usual, interpret how you please, you'll find evidence to back it up either way, especially with all the Latin translations.

"I Fall Down" is a song that Stokes submits only makes sense in retrospect. He relates a story in "Into the Heart" that during the “October” tour, U2 were playing the Ritz in New York when a girl got on stage and, as Bono has always taken to dancing with the audience during songs, did so with her. She introduced herself as Julie and began dating one of their road crew. Bono doesn't go as far as saying that he wrote the song for Julie before he knew her, but perhaps it's a good case of life imitating art.

"I Threw a Brick Through a Window" doesn't mention anything about a brick, or of the target other than a reflective surface, but you do get the sense of fury and frustration that became so definitive during the outrage of "War." It is in a sense a window into the hostile confusion of the times, of living in a violent Ireland at a time when anger was fought with hatred. While some of Adam and Larry's work on “October” and arguably on this song would have been more comfortably situated on “Boy,” the direction of production and the themes are part of the darkness in this album. Being Christians doesn't preclude anger or questioning at the ugliness in the world.

"In 'Rejoice' I said, 'I can't change the world, but I can change a world in me,' Bono said in a February 1982 U2 Magazine interview. "Music can possibly direct you and change you as a person. I think the ultimate revolution is the one that goes on in a man. I'm not saying, 'join the revolution, be like us'... where you go is your decision." Bono has recalled that there was a kind of religious fervor at Mount Temple Comprehensive School during 1976 that resurfaced around the time of “October”—things starting to coalesce, including their involvement with the Shalom Christians. However, as the Edge can clearly be heard in both "Rejoice" and other songs on the album, like "I Threw a Brick Through a Window," there was a struggle lyrically for expression, a floundering that was often saved by his ever-more distinctly played guitar, according to "Into the Heart."

In July 1981 "Fire" gave U2 its first British chart single, according to a 1987 Island Records bio of the band, and helped the group go back to the studio with some hope. "As I recall, ‘Fire’ was our attempt at a single. God knows where our heads were at," Bono said in "Into the Heart." "There was something good about it—I just can't remember what it was." Bono jokingly accredits the problems with the song to the fact that the band was recording in Nassau, in the Bahamas, and it isn't hard to figure out why such great bands make such bad records there—because who would want to work in paradise? At least they got the thrill of a single out of it—and even Bono might suppose there is something to a cheap thrill.

"Lots of people want us to be mouthpieces for different things." Bono told John Neilson from Creem in April 1982. "But I figure I can only be a mouthpiece for myself. It is saddening, though, the things that are going on in my country. Fifteen miles from where I walk the dog is craziness and murder being committed in the name of God—in the name of lots of issues. It's bad—very, very bad. It makes no sense to me. 'Tomorrow' was an attempt to look at that situation or a certain situation around that." Yet, home is home, something that no one can escape, no matter how bleak the situation. That duality is another problem to grapple with when you're young and touring around the world—what you have left behind will always be calling you back, but repulsing you with its hatred. "We were all affected by traveling and being away from home, which was a recurrent theme on ‘October,’" Bono said in a March 1982 Trouser Press interview. "Like 'Tomorrow'—I never thought much about home until I was away from it."

The eponymous track "October" is much like a microcosm for the album, its simple, stripped-down nature feels like the empty woods at the end of fall, and Edge's piano is one of his simplest and finest early melodies, a perfect match for the song, it's hard to believe he hadn't tinkered with it in years. Bono summed it up when he told Stokes, "October…it's an image. We've been through the '60s, a time when things were in full bloom. We had fridges and cars, we sent people to the Moon and everybody thought how great mankind was. And now, as we go through the 70s and 80s, it's a colder time of the year. It's after the harvest. You can see things and we finally realize that maybe we weren't so smart after all, now that there's millions of unemployed people, now that we've used the technology we've been blessed with to build bombs for war machines, to build rockets, whatever. So 'October' is an ominous word, but it's also quite lyrical."

That uneasy truce with religion comes up again in "With a Shout." It may be said that after an inside, disillusioning look at the music business during its tour, it would be easier to part ways—the undeniable religious tones in the entire album are in the spirit of that rebellion.

Yet, no matter how bleak or trying life in Ireland may be there were still reminders of what life was like other places. Bono related the story of a young border patrolman whom the band met on the road, who became a part of "Stranger in a Strange Land," to Stokes. "We were going to Berlin, we were all in the back of a van in our sleeping bags and we had to travel through the corridor between East Germany and West Berlin. And we were stopped by this border guard. The song was just a little portrait of him. He was our own age, with short hair, in a uniform and his life was pretty grim and he was seeing these guys in a rock 'n' roll band passing through. I had a feeling that he realized how much we had in common, and yet it was all over so quickly."

"Scarlet" was another title the band had considered for "October." Perhaps it was just a piece that Bono didn't write (or rewrite) lyrics to, but despite its minimalist appearance, it is a quiet moment that allows you again to hear Edge's burgeoning piano work and Adam's bass.

"Bono points to 'Is That All?' on ‘October’ as outlining his approach," reported U2 Magazine in May 1982. "That's the point I'm trying to make—is that all? I can sing you a song to make you happy, I can sing you a song to make you angry—but is that all? I think music can be more than that, it can be more than the sum of its parts.'"

And on that revealing if hurried thought, "October" ends and U2 is set to launch onto a world stage that will embrace them for another two decades. The band came through this crucible with heart and passion, for what it's worth.

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Old 10-24-2005, 10:45 AM   #2
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This is one of the most enjoyable articles that i've read in a while. Thank you so much for sharing it

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Old 10-24-2005, 11:18 AM   #3
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Teresa rocks!!
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Old 10-25-2005, 10:32 AM   #4
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Another great story. I can't wait for War.
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Old 10-25-2005, 11:08 AM   #5
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Thank you - great perspective on an overlooked album
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Old 10-25-2005, 06:50 PM   #6
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glad you guys liked it. the histories are great fun to write, so it's good to know the feeling's mutual.
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Old 10-26-2005, 05:45 PM   #7
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Great article! Very informative. I'd love to know where you got all the quotes. Also, I'm surprised you didn't mention (but maybe it wouldn't have fit) that the original lyrics were finally found not too long ago in a Portland attic and returned to the band. Wonder what they'll do with them....
Thanks for a great piece!
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Old 10-27-2005, 12:28 PM   #8
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October!!! of my favorite U2 songs ever..

Great article!
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Old 11-05-2005, 12:44 PM   #9
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that was well written and really enjoyable. thanks!
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Old 11-26-2005, 10:59 AM   #10
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Excellent article thanks very much.
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Old 01-18-2006, 05:12 PM   #11
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I just got OCTOBER, and searched, and foudn this article.

Nice job

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