To really understand October, @U2 went to one of the experts. Producer Steve Lillywhite kindly spoke with @U2 by phone to reminisce about U2’s sophomore effort and to shed some light on what makes October so special. He began by recalling Dublin’s atmosphere during the recording sessions at Windmill Lane:
“I seem to remember Dublin in those days, and especially on the October album it was always raining. And it was always very dark and it was pretty bleak. Dublin had not yet become the international playground it ended up being earlier this century. It was a city but it was a village. People were very insulated still. They didn’t have mobile phones. Just to get a telephone fitted took about six months of bureaucracy. It was very nationalized. And of course the Catholic church had an incredible grip on the whole country.”
Do you think that was part of the reason why they chose to take a more spiritual route with this particular album?
Well, it was … and I think it’s been well documented with the losing of the lyrics. They pretty much exhausted all their songs on Boy and they had a good three or four years to make sure they had some really good tunes for Boy. And then, of course, they were touring Boy and they used to play “I Will Follow” twice because they didn’t really have enough songs, and they didn’t have any extra songs. They just had the songs off the album. So when it came to doing October, they didn’t really have very long to prepare it.
Add to that the fact that Bono had … When you say they had lyrics that he lost, I think it’s probably more accurate to say they were his musings, do you know what I mean? Because very often you can write a poem and then come in and sing it, and Bono’s done this, but it doesn’t work. So I don’t think they were finished lyrics to finished songs. They definitely weren’t, but where his head was at at the time when he was on the road. They were his writings, you know, which would have been morphed into lyrics. At least they were a starting point. So what we had when those were stolen, we really didn’t have — they were looking for something to talk about. And the religious side, I think it’s funny because (pause) history has said at the time it was one of their dings in their meteoric rise. Just listening to it this morning, it has a continuity about it that’s very attractive. I actually feel pretty proud of that album.
Do you think that when the album first came out 30 years ago, you had the feeling it had that continuity through it?
(Laughs) No. Because we had done Boy, and then the band went on the road and sort of turned into a bit of a rock band, and then they came back and it wasn’t the sort of big rock follow-up that people might have expected to consolidate on the success of their touring. They made it difficult for themselves and, I must admit, I went on the October tour and … saw them play some of these songs. …(A) couple of months into the tour, some of these songs were sounding fantastic live — much better than the recording because they had never gone out and played them live before the recording. So, I was a little depressed.
And then, it’s funny, I was talking to Edge a few years later saying, “Ah, the trouble with October is that I would have loved to (have) recorded it after you had been on the road.”
And he said, “Well, it would have been a different record, Steve, because what we have is a special sort of snapshot of time of where the band were at” because it was a transitional period of going from boys to men. That’s probably what it was. There was a crossroads there and they had to decide which road they wanted to take, and I think October is them standing at the crossroads. I think that’s probably true. It is them standing at the crossroads and having to make big choices in their life: Whether they were going to be men or they were going to just hide. I think we all know the answer to that because they became real men.
It’s interesting you would say you were depressed after hearing the songs live and going on tour with them, because in liner notes of October’s remaster, Edge talks about your “unfailing optimism” and “can-do attitude” and that’s what helped them through the recording.
Oh, really? I never read them! I think that’s just my personality. Anyone you know who knows me will say that I’m often … that’s part of my job. My job is to give them the strength to carry on and give them the strength to push it through. … I try not to bring my problems to the table. I’ve decided to do the record, so we have to do it. I knew some of the songs were good. When you’re involved in the record, you never try to think, “Is this going to be a big seller?” You just try to make the best thing you can do with the tools that you’re given. I know that when I sat there listening to the song “October,” it just blew me apart. I just love that song.
For Bono to just have the only lyric as “rejoice,” (in “Scarlet”) that’s so brave, and would anyone do that now?
It was particularly exciting to see “Scarlet” come back into the fold with the 360 tour. Did that surprise you?
YES! IT DID! Wasn’t Jay-Z rapping on it as well? He was doing something on that as well?
When they first did it in New Zealand last year.
I read about that and thought, “Oh my God! I wish I’d been there!” It’s a great guitar riff and I’ve always said, “A great U2 album has great Edge.” Because Bono will always sing really well. He’s a great singer. But Edge, when he is in top form, there’s nothing better in the world. The guy is a genius.
Well, going back to the song “October,” that was just a simple piano medley. With this album, they were using the bodhran, the uillean pipes and different instruments you typically wouldn’t see a rock band or a punk band using. What influenced them to use those particular instruments?
I think, or maybe they felt, that thing of, “We’re Irish; we’re proud of our culture. What can we use from our culture to help our record?” I can’t remember really. I think we wanted to expand the sound a bit and these were the available tools to help expand the sound. Maybe if we were in England, we would put a brass section on it or something like that, but we were in Ireland and the uillean pipes and bodhran and stuff like that just seemed to work. But again, they never make it easy on themselves because typical rock radio in America does not really play songs with those instruments or play songs they sing in Latin. We can laugh about it now, but my overall impression was that everything was very serious. That was what it was like in those early days. They really hadn’t discovered the sort of irony and they were still growing. They were not men yet. We forget this, but they really were boys and they were keeping everything very close to their chest.
Bono sang things like, “Lord, loosen my lips,” and wanting to go back to Jerusalem. What was going through your head when those lyrics came out?
(Laughs) I think it's more a case of, “Oh, thank goodness — he’s got some lyrics,” because in those days he did have problems finding what to write about. And of course, the Bible has been such a powerful part of their life that I think it’s always a good thing to fall back on. So when Bono can’t think of the right line, … he knows (the Bible) so well and maybe people don’t know this, but he’s a real scholar. In fact, they all are.
Adam included at this point?
No, no. I’m talking about the three, really. But Adam’s spiritual journey is just as valid and no one would ever question the spiritual part Adam’s been living, but there are many ways to kill a cat, as they’d say. Everyone has their own spiritual path. Adam’s is different, but it really touches the other three’s in a really similar way actually. Just because of the Christianity — they are all on the same path. To be a great band and to stay together for all this time, Adam was never really on the outside. Maybe there was that time when they had to make the big choice whether they were going to stay with the religious sect in Ireland or they were going to be the band, but you know all about that anyway.
Right. What role did you play in trying to inspire the direction that the album appeared to be taking?
To be honest, I’m just sort of just me. As Edge said in the liner notes that you so kindly just told me about, I try and keep the thing going. I try to have enthusiasm. Not just blind enthusiasm: enthusiasm for the right things. I try to find some good in everything so I can accent that rather than say, “This song is bad” or “Those lyrics don’t work.” I’ll try to find a part of the lyric that does work and say, “That’s really good — let’s expand on that.” I never criticize. I always find the good thing that’s in there and help accentuate that. It’s just my personality that seems to be conducive to that sort of thing.
Which is probably why they keep including you album after album: because it would appear they need a bit of Lillywhite in there.
I did say to Bono relatively recently, “I know I’m sort of a nice guy, but you know lots of nice guys. Why do always ask me back?” And he said, “Steve, one thing: You have clarity,” which I thought was a very nice thing to say.
It’s easy in hindsight to think that you knew you had the next big thing in front of you. I wonder if you had any idea to the future success of this band back in ’81, and what future did you think they had as you worked with them on October?
I think at the time there was a handful of bands and you would have been right if you thought that Echo and the Bunnymen or Teardrop Explodes would probably do better than U2. Those other bands had some very good talent, but what they didn’t have was the dedication that U2 had. Really, you need to have both. I did know that Bono was a frontman who really connected. He always has been someone who was never interested in the guy in the front. He was just interested in the guy at the bar who didn’t like them. That was the guy Bono wanted to impress. He didn’t ever preach to the converted; he wanted to sing to the cynic and convert the cynic. Bono is a fantastic achiever. He is forever wanting to do things he can’t do and he has no fear of failure either. He’s very much a big-idea person.
Did I think they’d be? It’s difficult. You get so involved in making an album that you don’t know really at the time if it’s going to be huge or if it’s going to flop. You just do your job really and hope that some power greater than yourself can help you finish it.
If you could go back and do anything differently with October, would you?
I would. I think the slap bass is something that a few bass players around that time were trying to do, where you use the thumb and you just slap it. I seem to remember Adam doing that, and we did a little bit of it on “Gloria.” I thought it was fun, but maybe I wouldn’t do that.
I think sonically the way I recorded Boy was a little bit more exciting than the way I recorded October. We always wanted to take the audience on a journey and make each record its own separate thing in terms of the sound and the style of music. I think if you just make the same album every time, you don’t have a long career. No bands can do that. And I do that now, and this is one thing I’ve learned with other bands who do more than one album: to try to look at the big picture and think, “How can we make the overall sound of this different to the overall sound of the last album we did with them?” So we don’t always succeed, but I think with October, time has actually been quite kind to that album.
How do you feel October was the launching pad to what would become War?
Actually, they had to have that little knock back in their career because I think when War came along, they absolutely thought, “OK, we need to make the record now that we tour. We’re going to go out, we’re going to tour for six months, we need to make an album we can stand behind that rocks.” I think we all came to the conclusion actually that one of the biggest compliments at that time an American could say to you was, “You guys rock!” And I think they wanted to show that they actually could. So War was a very different mental state for the band. It was much more, “Let’s get energy into this,” whereas on October the energy was internalized. But on War … well, when we get to 30 years on that one we’ll have another conversation and I’ll let you all know about that one!
Do you feel like October is the lost U2 album in their discography? A lot of fans have it at the bottom of their favorite-albums list.
I think they’ve made so many good albums something has to be at the bottom, but I think it’s more an album for a special occasion. It’s an album where you put it on when it’s cold and you feel very insular and you just want to sit there and meditate on your own. It’s really a very good record for that.
Would you consider that its redeeming quality?
Yeah. It’s an introverted album. It’s not an extrovert album. It’s at that crossroads where boys turn into men and you can sense the anguish they were going through, and all these are very good redeeming qualities. It’s a snapshot of where these guys were at the time, and for that, if you’re a fan of U2 it’s a fascinating insight to where they were — where we all were really.
You can follow Steve on Twitter at @sillywhite and listen to him on occasional Tuesdays as he hosts a two-hour program on East Village Radio.