Carter Alan is known as the first disc jockey in the United States to play U2's music. In his book, Outside It's America - U2 In The U.S., he writes about the challenges U2 faced as they were just breaking into the U.S. market, as well as what life on the road was truly like for the band early on because he lived it with them. Given his unique perspective as a friend and supporter of U2 since the beginning of their career, @U2 asked him to share his thoughts about the 30th anniversary of October.
It's been 30 years since October was released. How do you feel this album has stood the test of time?
I believe it has remained a curio to the world and a jewel to hard-core U2 fans. Even though the band had to rush it and never really "finished" October, there are enough great moments in melody and performance to warrant continuing listens -- especially since other parts of the U2 catalogue are highly overplayed on radio, etc. (Yes -- I am guilty!) The sonic drive in "I Threw A Brick Through A Window" and "Gloria" continue the sound laid down in Boy, while the title track and "I Fall Down" have the hush of "The Ocean" and "Shadows And Tall Trees" in them. But the most important aspect of October was what was going on with the band at this point. They did almost throw in the towel as three-quarters of the group became committed Christians.
You mention in your book that American radio received U2's sophomore effort in different ways: where album-orientated (AOR) stations and college radio embraced the noncommercial feel to the album while mainstream radio felt there wasn't a hit to be found on it. Why do you think there was such a difference of opinion?
That difference in opinion continues to this day. Mainstream radio, especially pop stations, still look for the most commercially viable songs out there. In other words they look for songs that resonate with the most people possible. These songs appeal across formats to be accepted by even passive listeners. Those stations did not have a real U2 hit until "New Year's Day" and the slam-dunk was years later in the single "With or Without You." AOR and alternative stations (there were only a few of the latter at the time) served their listeners by looking for more "album tracks" and going off the page (and away from strictly-single releases). When you found a great band, you tried to stick with them, no matter what twist and turns they took (and U2 took a lot of them!).
Bono has said many times that had this album been released in today's music industry climate, U2 would have been dropped. Yet in 1981, their label continued to support them as they built their fan base. Was it their ability to win over audiences during their live shows that saved them from being dropped, or did the label believe they had the potential to be good recording artists? Was an element of lucky timing involved?
It was a mixture of those things, but also a combination of the personalities involved behind the scenes. Because U2 was a band that could convince in a live setting, its manager was able to show label execs that there was much potential in this group. Also, Paul McGuinness' intelligence and engaging personality eased and fostered the relationship between band and label; soon he had a bunch of record company "heavies" solidly on the band's side. Chris Blackwell, Ellen Darst, Bob Regehr: These were some of the early believers at Island that fought against any ideas to drop the band. Certainly U2 did its job onstage, but the backfield was covered as well.
(Editor's note: Regehr was the senior vice president of artist development and publicity at Warner Bros. Records and died of cancer in 1984. Warner Bros. Records was a subsidiary of Island Records at the time. Darst began with U2 as a member of the Warner Bros. artist development staff in 1980. She later became the director of Principle Management's New York office until 1993.)
October's main theme is faith, and at the time there was a concern that their spiritual beliefs could jeopardize their career as a rock band. The band was quick to reframe the spirituality topic to be one of artistic exploration. You wrote that U2's spiritual side was too important to conceal. Do you think they were really prepared to unveil it on this album?
One of the essential aspects of Christian faith is that God does not want you to hide your belief under a blanket, but to let the light shine in a dark world. It goes against a Christian's nature, especially a new "born again" believer, to put this newfound joy on a back shelf. For a band that sings from the heart and its realm of experience, how could they not write about that, especially when they were questioning whether or not being in a rock band was something they should even be doing? You have to remember that "Christian Rock" was a virtual non-entity at the time, so the idea of a loud rock 'n' roll band playing songs about Jesus was quite unusual.
As the person who first played U2 on radio in America and who has been a fan since, what would you tell someone who doesn't already own October about why they should own it?
If you call yourself a U2 fans and you don't own this album, you are not worthy! Hah! Just kidding. If you liked Boy, this is an easy album to like. The old side one sounds sonically very similar. On side two, the ideas are there being worked out in the studio, but the band didn't have the time to complete the thoughts. It's kind of like a live stream-of-consciousness jam session or a jazz release in that regard. If you appreciate the heart and soul of a band that really seems to give a damn about conditions and people around them and the world, this might be the place where that consciousness really took root. Get the two-CD reissue, though, because the second disc of B-sides and live material from Boston is tremendous. Plus, you really need to have a copy of that non-U.S. single that bridged the gap between October and War: "A Celebration" and the song that became "Party Girl."
Carter Alan is currently the afternoon DJ at WZLX-FM in Boston, Mass.
(c) @U2/Lawrence, 2011.