U2– The Lost Classics: “October”

In honor of the recent re-releases of U2’s first three albums, and in eager anticipation of their upcoming studio release, The Hurst Review is pleased to present the first in a three-part series highlighting some of the overlooked and underappreciated entries in one of rock’s most distinguished catalogs. In this installment: Their recently re-released second album, 1981’s October.

Coarse, rough around the edges, and seemingly unfinished, October is generally written off as one of the weaker, lesser U2 albums– a party line that might have more to do with expectations than quality, as the album is certainly different from the rest of their body of work, but by no means deserving of its slight stature. Certainly there’s no other U2 album like it– and certainly it has a very different feel than the one that came before it, Boy, which enjoys much more acclaim than its follow-up– and that difference involves much more than the introduction of pianos or uilleann pipes into the band’s palette. It probably has much more to do with the conditions under which the album was recorded; following a near-breakup, U2 was forced to bang out their second album in a short amount of time, pressured to deliver on the success of their debut, and, to top it all off, Bono’s notebook, containing all the album’s lyrics, was stolen, leaving him to more or less improvise these songs in the recording booth.

The resulting music is so vastly different from anything else U2 has done, before or since, that it’s no wonder the album is a bit of an outcast even within their own canon. Notorious for their perfectionist tendencies, U2 tends to make albums that are polished, sleek, and very carefully crafted. Not so with October; never before and never again would Bono and his mates deliver such a rough, Edgy, gloriously flawed set of songs, one that feels as tossed-off and of-the-moment as their other albums feel meticulously planned and executed. It’s the only U2 album to ever feel more like a rough draft than a much-revised final draft– so it’s no wonder the album is sometimes seen as a bit slight.

In reality, though, it’s not a minor album in the least, nor does its roughness make it less enjoyable; actually, it’s among the grittiest, most energetic and wonderfully ramshackle albums the band ever cut, with songs like the charging anthem “Gloria” and relentless rockers like “Rejoice” and “Fire” ranking among the band’s most ferociously gripping rock numbers, and acoustic songs like the rousing “Tomorrow” and the wistful “October” showing sides of the band we don’t see very often even today. With this spontaneous and unpolished studio craft, the record is almost disarming in its vigor and its messiness, and, along with Boy and War, it remains the best, most unvarnished showcase of U2’s kinetic energy as a rock band.

That alone is enough to qualify the album as truly underappreciated, but what makes it a lost classic is the songs. Far from slight and far from naive– two common knocks against the album as a whole– Bono’s songs reveal a man desperately trying to keep faith in the midst of spiritual crisis, a man thrust into the spotlight and thus beset by insecurity and fear. It’s a very different Bono than the one we’ve come to know today, and the rushed, off-the-cuff nature of the songwriting here, though lacking the elegance and poetry he would develop on later albums, is all frayed nerves and sharp edges, songs filled with doubts and contradictions and the kind of honesty that such desperate conditions tend to create in an artist. When Bono sings, “O Lord, if I had anything/ Anything at all, I’d give it to you” in “Gloria,” it becomes clear that this is a very real and very honest set of confessions from a songwriter who’s trying his best to please God but not sure if he’s quite up to snuff– and as such, it’s genuinely moving. The sketchy quality of the writing only makes it more powerful, as the music matches Bono’s nervy, anxious emotions.

As a memento of a very particular place in U2’s development as a band, this album is pretty much unparalleled, but its grit and its disarming honesty– those things that generally get the album relegated to minor U2 status– are the very things that made it timely in 1981, and timeless in 2008.

Advertisements

Tags: , ,

11 responses to “U2– The Lost Classics: “October””

  1. Doug Kimball says :

    Josh,

    you’ve done it again. I just glanced at the “old” (not re-released) copies of Boy and October in the bookstore this weekend and pondered getting them. I have never bought them, and only got War within the past year or so. Sounds like I better correct this deficiency in my catalog. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Josh Hurst says :

    You’re very welcome, Doug– always happy to hear from another convert!

    And for what its worth, much as I love October, I’d probably still call Boy the superior album in most respects, so make sure you hear it as well; I chose not to write about that one because it’s already considered to be a classic, and doesn’t really need me to defend it! But all three of those early albums are essential. (And also for what its worth, the October re-release is the only one on which the bonus disc actually warrants paying for the extra material.)

  3. Scott Watts says :

    Josh,
    Can you comment at all on the apparent differences between the masterings of these with the original CD release (that would perhaps influence my decision to purchase more than the quality of the bonus material)?

  4. Josh Hurst says :

    Well, the only one I can comment on is the October one; the other two have pretty weak bonus discs, from what I hear, so I figured I wouldn’t bother. As for the October remaster, I think it sounds really good, and better than the original CD release, but not astonishingly so– really, I always thought it sounded pretty good in its original CD form, and this one improves on it only a little.

  5. Scott S says :

    Well, you know I like to bitch Josh, so I will. Not about the review though. I thought that was very good and October does indeed have a few of my favorite U2 songs including, Glora, Rejoice, Fire, and October. And it is nice to have some re-mastered sound to these first 3 albums. The “extras” though? Definitely not for anyone beyond a fairweather. The two live performances are among the most common bootlegs around for U2 (I actually bought both of them over a decade ago at record show), a lame remix, and a few toss-aways. Its too bad that the boys were so cheap and didn’t go the dvd route. But what can you do? U2 will never be mistaken for Pearl Jam in this category.

  6. Doug Kimball says :

    Just picked up Boy and October. Let the education begin!

  7. jmucci says :

    Another good review. By the way, do you know when the reissue of “The Unforgettable Fire” is coming out? (I’m sure there must be one coming). And are they going to re-release “Rattle and Hum” or any of the 90s albums?

  8. Josh Hurst says :

    I’m unaware of any specific plans for any of those albums, but I’m sure they’ll at least to Unforgettable Fire and Achtung at some point.

  9. Peggy says :

    This is surely going to sound over-emotional to anyone who doesn’t know me, but I love Boy and October so much, I usually cry when I listen to them. The good kind of misty eyed of cry. They are so innocent of all that came after, the good and the bad. Its just U2 in the raw. That is why these albums should not be missed for the simple reason that they complete the full picture of U2.

    Boy is clearly the superior album best cranked loud. October is more awkward but the least glossed over for that and best when when you are in a more contemplative mood.

    Both are essential, absolutely essential. Just be sure to give them multiple listens. I was shocked by the difference between them and the Joshua Tree for instance, so you will need time to adjust. Once you do, then you will see what I mean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: