- 12 Oct 21
40 years ago today, U2 released their second LP, October. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Neil McCormick's original glowing review, published by Hot Press in October 1981
A celebration is in order. A smile, a tear, an emotional response to an emotional situation. To passionate friends: this music gives birth to a swelling gladness within me. U-2 have kept a promise.
That U-2 are important to me, to a lot of people reading and writing for Hot Press and to many more besides cannot (nor should it need to) be denied. The reasons why they are important should be understood. It begins with their music which has a power to move that most rock music has forgotten; it is the guitar chords U-2 strike within you; U-2 really do play their songs in the key of life. It is the life within the group, the people, their personalities, their skills, the combination that makes them special.
But caring about a group does not mean you must be faults. U-2's debut LP "Boy" was a magnificent record, epic in scope and personal in touch. I waited for their second LP. I worried slightly, and finally "October" came. I played it and felt "good". And that reaction was disappointing. A week later the LP has grown and grown, expanding towards "great", rushed on by the explosion of superlatives. Celebrate!
From the growing cry of the opening song "Gloria", from a wistful echo to a glorious shout, it is made clear that U-2 have at last openly embraced in their music the Christian faith that has been running in more subtle form through the lyrics of "I Will Follow", "An Cat Dubh', and "Shadows..." and which has been the mainstay of three members' lives, singer Bono, guitarist The Edge and drummer Larry. "We don't want to be the band that talks about God," said Bono at the end of last year. So instead they sing about God. "0 Lord, if I had anything/Anything at all/I'd give it to you" he sings on "Gloria". What they have is their music ...
"October" is a Christian LP. People will react to this fact in different ways: snide, disappointed, alienated, unconcerned, overtly happy. I accept it because at the core of U-2 is honesty, and therefore, the only way their music can continue to be successful is if they are honest. And honesty is ...
"I try to stand up but I can't find my feet/I try to speak up but only in you I am complete/Gloria in eo Domine ".
"October" is a musical and spiritual growth for U-2, a passionate and moving LP for me. U-2 have evolved constantly, songs changing and growing over a period of time. "Boy" was an incredibly impressive LP because it caught a group who had grown for five years. "October" is the product of one more year, and so it isn't a leap into the unknown, rather a step forward, and a refinement of ideas.
Musically, The Edge's picturesque playing improves as time gives him the skills to equal his imagination. The guitars throughout are superb; slicing, scratching, charging, plunking, always echoing the song's feel. Larry's drumming has taken a plunge off the high-diving board of possibilities, integrating discords, funk, Phil Collins thudding patternwork and things that go bump in the dark, making the drums the most immediately impressive part of the sound. Adam's basswork remains simplistic, but he too has taken new funk rhythms in his stride, adding twists that are, as ever, a fully integrated part of the whole. And Bono's singing has become more confidently modulated, capable of being harder and softer without cracking. Lyrically he has become more basic, without losing his flights of almost subconscious poetry - his words still provide the basis of a picture, which the group and listener fill in.
"October" divides into its two sides, together making up a unified whole. Side one is the most immediately impressive, opening up with the inspiring "Gloria" and continuing through four more tracks of driving dance music.
"I Fall Down", opening with piano and evolving into a rolling rhythm, echoes the self-questioning of "Gloria", concerning one of the album's central themes, the struggle within yourself to remain good - a battle between good and evil that, fortunately, has wider interpretations than just Christian ones. "I Threw A Brick Through A Window" is the most immediately outstanding track, touching on funk, effectively using echo and hammered drums. Here the self-doubt in the song "No one is blinder than he who will not see/No one is blinder than me" is given the uplifting optimism of Bono's call to "Be my brother/There is another way out of here". The song has a passion both epic and personal, it is a call founded in a desperate wish to communicate.
"Rejoice" is the album's second theme. It does. " What am I to do/Just tell me what am I supposed to say/I can't change the world/But I can change the world in me/I rejoice!" The guitar and drums turn this into the most exciting anthem U-2 have come up with. Built on affirmation, it leaves the fearfulness of "Out of Control" firmly in the past.
The side closes with "Fire", the last single dealing again with a personal struggle, edged with optimism. And it is the contradiction in their positive attitude to the struggle that strikes such an emotional response in the listener. Side one is a powerful battle, but it is never depressing, nor shallowly uplifting.
Side two is less immediate. It advances the basic theme of the struggle to a more positive celebration of God, and in doing so forsakes the swift thrust of side one.
It opens with "Tomorrow", a musical adventure that will suprise you. Using haunting uileann pipes to provide a traditional Irish atmosphere, it unfolds a tale of family loss, a mixture of emigration and death, that eventually become a cry for Jesus, with U-2 powering in on top of the pipes. It is one of the most successful and impressive folk/rock combinations I have heard because it relies more on feeling and association than on purism.
"October", the title track, fills the place occupied on "Boy" by "The Ocean", and probably intentionally so. Once again it is a short song dealing evocatively with nature, but it moves from "The Ocean's" adolescent desire to change the world to U-2's more mature acceptance of their Christianity. The Edge plays a drifting piano while Bono sings sadly of shifting seasons, until he adds, "But you go on ... and on".
"With A Shout- is cartoon world U-2 - the album's weakest track, it is a shout of pain and joy that unfortunately sounds like U-2 playing a U-2 song with a badly written chorus. It exploits few of the tensions and dynamics in evidence elsewhere, and the use of a horn section seems purely technical rather than soul-felt.
"Stranger In A Strange Land" more than makes up for it, however. A complex, sad, powerful travelogue that catches the distance and strangeness of being alien to a place, grasping at the insights it gives you, It could be about the north of Ireland, America, England, emigration or simply the experience of being distanced by your own feelings. Bono's delivery of "I wish you were here/To see what I can see/To hear ... I wish you were here" is filled with poignancy. It is his perpetual call. It is what the album wants to achieve.
The final two songs are inarticulate in the most positive way. An optimism pervades both, which takes the emotions up. "Scarlet" says "rejoice" with a sleepy magic, while "Is That All" grows from the staccato guitar originally used in "The Cry" and asks, unbelieving, "Is that all you want from me?', a response to the offer in Gloria, "If /had anything ... I'd give it to you".
The album logically closes with tracks that lift you out of the emotional confusion U-2 charge into elsewhere. "October" ends in celebration.
Is that all? "October" is an LP of exciting, emotional, spiritually inclined rock: the most uplifting rock LP of the year, a modern dance that studies no trends, relies on no false aura of cool. It is a Christian LP that avoids all the pedantic puritanism associated with most Christian rock, avoids the old world emotional fascism of organised religion and the crusading preaching of someone like born-again Bob Dylan. It is fortunate that the main spiritual issues dealt with can be related to a wider frame of reference than Christianity: man's struggle to know and control himself and his own nature is something that comes to everyone in some guise. And its celebratory sound has the same positive touch as gospel music, it rejoices, and that feels good.
Well, is that all I want from U-2? No. U-2 can touch and involve as the best art should do, but I cannot relate to all their words because often they respond to the basic problems of life and youth with the catch-all of having a saviour. With a group like The Jam, I can respond with intellectual as well as emotional interest. I can only relate to what U-2 sing in a broad rather than specific sense.
But it is broad enough for me to become happily lost. U-2 are running with the wind, accelerating at the speed of life, breathing in an air of magic, shouting out. "I can't change the world", they sing, but they can and do add something to my world.
They rejoice. I celebrate. Passionate friends.