E-Minor Earnestness: The Importance of U2’s October
There was a time, not too long ago, when the church had a Music Problem. Check that—there have been lots of times when the church has had a Music Problem, but this is the one I remember. This particular Music Problem was born with the rise of so-called “Jesus Music” in the 1970s (if you’ve seen the Jesus Revolution film you’ve got some context). Jesus Music became Contemporary Christian Music, and many in the established church in the United States decried the perceived nefarious influence of “pagan” music on a format formerly reserved for pipe organs and hymnals.
For me, a teenager who appreciated hymns, CCM, and, well, the other stuff, this meant I received photocopied pages from a well-intentioned lady at my summer job, all about the Satanic messages in rock music.
I felt I had a good understanding of my faith and a good head on my shoulders, and these diverse genres (the other stuff included) could coexist in my ears. I thanked the lady, read the articles, and made counterpoints in my head. I’ve been moved to worship by many secular songs, I thought. I’ve experienced a very basic joy of living through good music, regardless of its genre. And besides, I added, there’s U2.
I became a fan of the Irish quartet when my big brother let me copy his cassette of War, U2’s third studio album. I loved the urgency in the music, born of punk rock, and the earnestness, born of a decidedly post-punk worldview. The pounding drums from the teenage-looking Larry Mullen, Jr. shook me in the same mystic way that pounding drums have shaken adolescent boys since the dawn of time, the same way that moves well-intentioned ladies to declare that rock is the devil’s music. The ringing, soaring guitars of the mysteriously-named Edge evoked an emotional response in a boy that did not yet read poetry—goodness, I barely read prose back then. But it was the lyrics that were the linchpin. Because—and this is essential—the lyrics were Christian.
Rarely is such a swirl of emotion, spirituality, and nerve expressed in such real-time: in chiming electric guitar E-minor chords, in gentle autumnal piano, in a Latin praise chorus, and in an overflowing wail of weather-worn joy. Mark Geil
It’s right there in what became the U2’s first breakout hit, “Sunday Bloody Sunday:” an invocation of the name of Jesus, and a juxtaposition of the victory of Easter Sunday with the Troubles of our own bloody Sundays. Whatever lingering inner conflict I carried from the nice lady at work or the preachers who anguished over the number of unbuttoned buttons on Amy Grant’s album covers, it all crumbled in the face of U2. The band became my unassailable counter-argument: the non-CCM, very mainstream, very loud, and very Christian case-in-point.
What I did not know at the time was that the very same tensions I faced here in the US were happening for years as well over there in Ireland, and almost brought the dissolution of U2 long before War ever came to be. To hear the story in real-time, you have to listen to the band’s second album, the one that a lot of people overlook, October.
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The making of October is the stuff of legend. The band’s proper debut, Boy, occupied a particular space that could not be replicated on a sophomore record: it was a first-person exploration of the end of adolescence. October, then, would have to chart new territory, and its creation would have to compete with the relentless touring of an Irish band trying to make a name for itself around the world. Two particular stories from that creative process stand out.
Story One: The band that has improbably maintained its original lineup since 1976 actually broke up during the recording of and touring for October. While in high school, three members of the quartet had become part of a fellowship in Ireland called Shalom. As the band’s success grew, leaders of Shalom came to embody the “secular rock naysayers” of my own youth, and essentially gave the band an ultimatum: It’s either God or this rock music thing. At various times, Edge and Bono quit the band. Larry quit Shalom. U2, on occasion, ceased to exist. The band that I contend has been used by God as part of the faith journey of me and millions of others were dissolved for the perceived purpose of being used by God.
Story Two: We’ve all experienced the lost file. You forget to hit “Save,” the computer crashes, and hours’ worth of paragraphs that feel like pieces of your soul are irreparably gone. That’s what happened (in analog form) to Bono. He’d been writing while touring and had a notebook full of lyrics for their next album when, at a tour stop in Portland, it went missing, presumably stolen from his dressing room, never recovered.
Back home, the band convened at their former high school, trying to cobble together what was lost before entering the studio. There wasn’t much to go on when it was time to record the album. Bono recalls writing lyrics at the microphone, feeling the pressure of the ticking clock (and the studio rental fee of fifty pounds per hour).
Combine these stories and you’ve found the DNA of October. The band has decided that reconciling art, calling, and vocation is possible, even in the world of post-punk music, and they’ve had to rather hastily find the words to express it.
To borrow a lyric likely written at the microphone, the band asked, “Where do we go from here? Where to go?” The shouted, wailing answer? “To the foot of He who made me see. To the side of a hill—blood was spilled—we were filled with a love. Jerusalem.”
Given all that, what does October actually sound like? It’s glorious. It’s a polished sort of raw, with producer Steve Lillywhite allowing unbridled rock power to coexist with ethereal layers in a way that befits the unfinished feel of the songs. The opener and most well-known track, “Gloria,” fades in. Who fades their album in? Side two opens with the sound of Edge tuning his guitar before Uilleann pipes take over. One song, “Scarlet,” had a single lyric, repeated thrice—“Rejoice”—sung not with raised hands and a Sunday morning smile, but with fortitude and intention.
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I had a pastor for a time who incorporated a call for evangelism into every single sermon. No matter the topic of Biblical text, he would at some point use it—however tenuously—to motivate us to share our Christian faith with others.
You might not say October is evangelistic by nature. While the lyrics do include lines like, “Oh Lord, If I had anything, anything at all, I’d give it to You,” nothing directly implores the listener to turn to Jesus. However, I contend that it’s more evangelistic than some of those sermon applications. People criticize Bono for his earnestness, which is easy to intermingle with hubris, but behind the sunglasses he is, and has at least always seemed, genuine. In his 1981 Hot Press review of the album, Neil McCormick wrote: “’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.”
There, on this wonderful album, are the tense realities of early adulthood and the conquer-the-world earnestness of adolescence, and an unabashed, perhaps naïve, determination willing to shout it all to anyone who might be wandering by—not necessarily to proselytize, but to simply express what is bubbling over inside.
Few would list October as their favorite U2 album. It’s likely that casual U2 fans have never listened to it. If you look at the list of all the songs U2 has ever played live, only one song from October features in the top forty (“Gloria”). “Is That All?” has never been played live. But I love this record. Rarely is such a swirl of emotion, spirituality, and nerve expressed in such real-time: in chiming electric guitar E-minor chords, in gentle autumnal piano, in a Latin praise chorus, and in an overflowing wail of weather-worn joy.
October is not U2’s best album, but U2 would not exist without it.