40 Years Ago: U2 Avoid Break Up and Release ‘October’
U2’s second album almost didn’t happen – for a couple of reasons. One of them was because U2 nearly broke up.
As good Irish lads, Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. had all been raised in the Catholic Church. As young rock stars they had been drawn into a religious group called the Shalom Fellowship, which resulted in all three members questioning the balance between Christianity and rock ’n’ roll in their lives. U2 manager Paul McGuinness prevented Bono and the Edge from leaving the band.
“He just sat down with them and said, ‘If you really want to teach the world, make the world a better place and all that, much better to do it from a position of strength, [rather] than from sitting in a basement in Dublin talking about it,’” producer Steve Lillywhite told The A.V. Club.
Another reason October nearly didn’t exist was because of a briefcase that contained Bono’s soul, at least in the form of lyrics, phrases and plans for the band’s future. While on tour in Portland, Ore., the band accidentally left it behind after a gig. It was returned to the singer in 2004, when Bono re-discovered its contents.
“The thing that did come across was that this really was the precursor to the War album,” Bono told the people who found the briefcase. “There was only one song that I could vaguely make out, which was an early precursor to 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.’ … What happened was, as a result of losing this notebook, we diverted to October. That’s what happened. So, had I not have lost that, we would have just gone straight into making War.”
Watch the Music Video for 'Gloria' by U2
Instead, U2 entered Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios – the same place they had made debut album Boy – in July of 1981, with costly recording time booked and a lack of fully formed ideas. Some of the musical structures were in place, but Bono was writing lyrics hastily, even improvising some of them.
“I remember the pressure it was made under,” Bono said in 1982, “and writing lyrics on the mic and at £50 an hour, that’s quite a pressure.”
Because of the circumstances, the two factors that nearly prevented the album from happening, helped make October what it would become: a foggy, inward-looking album with religious overtones. Bono sings in Latin on propulsive opener, and single, “Gloria.” He references Psalm 46 in the lyrics of the sparse title track. The word “rejoice” surfaces more than once. Lillywhite recalled the religious atmosphere in the studio.
“These strange people would come in, and they would go off for some sort of meetings,” the producer said. “There were certainly Bibles in the studio. This was the only time ever, really, the only album where... it was really prevalent. The faith side of their life on this album was up front.”
The album is deeply spiritual, but also somber, perhaps most specifically on “Tomorrow,” which details the funeral of Bono’s mother, who died when he was a boy. But October’s dark tone wasn’t only due to personal tragedy.
Listen to 'Fire' by U2
“October, it’s an image. … I think we’ve been through the ’60s, you know, and we’ve been through a time where … things were in full bloom,” Bono said while on tour. “We had fridges and cars, we sent people to the moon and everybody thought how great mankind was. And now, as you go through the ’70s and through the ’80s, it’s a colder time of year. And it’s after the harvest, the trees are stripped bare and you can see things.
“We’ve finally realized, now, maybe we weren’t so smart after all,” Bono added, “now that there’s millions of unemployed people, now that we’ve used the technology that we’ve been blessed with to build bombs for war machines, to build rockets and whatever. October is an ominous word, but it’s also quite lyrical.”
It might have been because of that “colder” tone and the album’s reverb-drenched sound that October didn’t get a warm reception when it was released on Oct. 12, 1981. The album failed to gain as much support as Boy in Ireland and the U.S. (although it hit No. 11 on the U.K. charts). It didn’t even go platinum until 1995 and remains one of the lowest-selling studio LPs in U2’s career.
Although reviews at the time, and since, have been mixed as to the merits of October, the record has built a sort of cult following in the ensuing decades. That’s partially because it offers a different side of U2: before the quartet became the biggest band in the world, before they wanted to be the biggest band in the world – when they weren’t even sure if they wanted to be a band at all.