Photo: Island Records

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

It’s almost difficult to imagine a time when U2 wasn’t the biggest band on earth. But when the Irish quartet released its second album, 1981’s October, accepted invincibility was still far away. Although the record received plenty of rapturous reviews—“This October will last forever,” crowed Sounds—a Rolling Stone review called the album “barely coherent,” while NME said the LP “confirms the suspicion that [U2’s] ‘intensity’ was a simple matter of ‘density.’” Despite two separate North American tours, totaling 55 concerts, October also didn’t exactly set sales records: The LP spawned no charting U.S. singles and initially spent just 15 weeks on the Billboard Top LPs and Tapes chart, peaking at No. 104, and took until 1995 to go platinum. (In the U.K., it fared somewhat better, with a chart peak of No. 11 and the single “Gloria” landing at No. 55.)

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As time wore on, October became one of the least-regarded albums in U2’s oeuvre—overshadowed first by 1983’s War and its hits, and, later, due to the rest of the band’s juggernaut catalog. Yet nearly 35 years after its release, October‘s murky intimacy and spiritual questioning are touching and striking, which makes the album as compelling as the band’s 1980 debut, Boy.

“At that point, Boy had been an enthusiastically well-received opener, but it didn’t have a big hit single,” Steve Lillywhite, who produced October, as well as Boy and War, tells The A.V. Club. “’I Will Follow’ was a good song, but it was hardly like the homecoming… They hadn’t done what Bruce Springsteen had done or anything like that. They were still young as well—I mean, my God, they came off the road having traveled America and become very different people. They had that choice of going inwards or going outwards, and the album is probably a reflection of them going inside themselves.”

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October does feel like eavesdropping on a serious conversation, or reading a diary accidentally left open to a deep confession: Philosophical questions of faith and identity dominate the lyrics, and the emotions are very much on the surface. But sonically, October also feels cloistered. Recorded at Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios—where the band made Boy—the album is full of muted, plangent tones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lillywhite says “one of my overall images of this album, looking back, was that it was always raining, it was always dark, it was always grim.”

That dour tone conversely gives October much of its charm and emotional resonance. The haunted, Uilleann pipes-augmented “Tomorrow” is a fragmented sketch of Bono’s mother’s funeral. “I Fall Down” is a conspiratorial, piano-sprinkled rumination on the interconnectedness of relationships. The title track is a skeletal piano composition that Lillywhite calls “the hidden gem” on October. “It’s so beautiful, and if anything sums up the autumnal feel of the time—the wet, rainy, damp, drizzly, cold Dublin—that song really does.” These subdued moments also serve to amplify the uplift of October‘s guitar-forward bookends: Opener “Gloria” boasts pealing sound effects, squiggly bass burbles, and stacked vocals—inspired by Edge’s choral background, Lillywhite notes—while the barnstorming “Is That All?” ends the album by nicking the riff from the Boy song “Cry.”

Still, “one of the reason I like [October] is also one of the reasons why it wasn’t that successful, because it wasn’t so sharply defined,” Lillywhite says. “Like old Doris Day photographs, where they’re nicely blurry. It’s a blurry-type sound… It’s quite washy, I put a lot of reverb on it. It’s a very echo-y album. Every album we wanted to make different-sounding, so on War we made it a lot more up front and in your face. I’m not one of those analytical-type people. But looking back [at October], I go, ‘Why did I put it so echo-y?’ It was what it was.”

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Lillywhite says he played October for the first time in 35 years prior to this interview—and, among other things, this listening session yielded the discovery that “Bono was trying to discover himself in a lot of ways” on the album. “I think Boy was self-explanatory. It was Boy; he was a boy. Sometimes when you’re a boy, it’s pretty easy. October was the transition period from boy to man, because War was a man’s album. Because October didn’t do so well, he wanted to reflect his more outwards [side] to people. He felt, ‘If I’m going to do this—we are a rock band, we play live to rock audiences—I want to make an album that reflects more of a brash side of me. I’m a man now.’ October is a transition album, it’s an album for a time of your life.”

Much about the experience of recording October speaks to the idea of change, growth, and finding your voice. For starters, Lillywhite points out that, at the time, it was still rare for Irish rock bands to actually record their albums in their home country. In fact, Boy was the first international rock album to be made in Ireland. “Recording studios in Ireland in those days were completely set up for recording traditional music,” Lillywhite says. “To get a rock sound out of them, I had to go through hoops to try and get that.” Yet even as the members of U2 retreated to a known place to create, they were also having their eyes opened by the unfamiliar—especially what they saw and experienced while touring America.

“On the one hand, they had this great view of America as being the great wide open, this wonderful freedom that they had never experienced being in Ireland,” Lillywhite says. “And on the other hand, though, what comes with that is the responsibility of having to look after yourself, which, of course, they’d never done either. In Ireland, whether it be the church or the state, you were looked after. All of a sudden, coming to America, you had the temptations, but you had to reject most of it. For them it was, I think, ‘What do we do?’”

That sense of disorientation certainly crops up literally on “Stranger In A Strange Land”—which features a fragile Bono croon and Adam Clayton’s funky bass ripples—and on “Rejoice,” which nevertheless revels in discovering personal strength amidst the chaos. But October‘s arrangements could also be unsteady: “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” has a lengthy bridge dominated by scattered instrumental solos—some piercing Edge licks, the occasional Clayton bass thrum, and Larry Mullen Jr.’s splattered-but-steady drumming—but seems unsure how to end. In a way, this also reflected the band’s personal uncertainty and growing pains.

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“The band had not turned into the wonderful hosts that they have since become,” Lillywhite says with a laugh. “Bono has just turned into the perfect party host. In those days, he was extremely awkward. Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Dublin… Bono was not middle class, if you could put people into class structures in Ireland at that time. I mean, Edge and Adam were possibly middle class, and Larry and Bono were working class. Adam was the one who was by far the most outward-talking. The rest of the band were not very good at talking, put it that way. Their personalities hadn’t really developed, because in Ireland, at that time, it was a very religious, closed society.”

October is easily U2’s most religious-conscious album, with overt references to Jerusalem and Mount Zion, and a single (“Gloria”) based on a hymn. But rather than proselytizing, the record searches for communion and connection—sometimes desperately—and yearns for reassurance about faith. In fact, the members of U2 weren’t confident enough to proper define their spiritually yet either. This insecurity led to some of October‘s most poignant moments: For example, the oceanic “Scarlet” only has one lyric—the word “rejoice”—that Bono sings almost like he’s in a trance, buoyed and comforted by the sentiment and its possibility.

The record’s religious focus was no accident: At the time, Bono, Edge, and Mullen were dedicated to a rather strict Christian group known as the Shalom Fellowship. In the book U2 By U2, the band members recalled the depth of their involvement—how Bono and Edge even left the band at one point, as balancing rock ’n’ roll and religion felt impossible—and how they ultimate decided to leave this particular religious circle instead. Lillywhite credits the band’s now-retired manager, Paul McGuinness, for keeping them in music.

“He just sat down with them and said, ‘If you really want to teach the world, make the world a better place and all that, much better to do it from a position of strength, [rather] than from sitting in a basement in Dublin talking about it,’” he recalls. “I think that was when they really said, ‘Okay, this is how we want to do it. We can do it via a rock ’n’ roll band, we don’t have to do it via a more passive route,’ which is what these people who they were hanging out with wanted.”

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Looking back, Lillywhite is suspicious of the sect’s motives, and suspects that they were jealous over U2’s burgeoning rock stardom more than they were looking for sincere fellowship from the band. And while the producer wasn’t privy to the band members’ inner religious turmoil, he was aware of faith’s importance in their lives. “These strange people would come in, and they would go off for some sort of meetings,” he says. “I was very much into the rock ’n’ roll thing at that time. I was having hit records, and I felt pretty bulletproof in terms of my ability to do it. So I was a little bit oblivious to all that, although there were certainly Bibles in the studio. This was the only time ever, really, the only album where… it was really prevalent. The faith side of their life on this album was up front. But that’s fine.”

Adding to the religious crisis was Bono’s paralyzing writer’s block, which (as the story goes) arose after a briefcase with journals and notes for October disappeared after a show in Portland, Oregon. This made the studio sessions a bit fraught, as the vocalist recalled in a 1982 Melody Maker interview: “I remember the pressure it was made under, and writing lyrics on the mic and at £50 an hour, that’s quite a pressure.” Today, Lillywhite hears remnants of this stress when he listens to “Is That All?” in particular: “Bono basically [is] blaming everyone else for his lack of lyrics. It’s like saying, ‘You don’t want me to try anymore? Is that all I can do?’ It made me laugh. I hadn’t realized at the time. He’s the nicest man in the world, but probably at that time he was going, ‘I need to blame someone. I can’t have all of it.’ He was feeling so guilty that he hadn’t maybe written the best lyrics of his life.”

Lillywhite also has a slightly different perspective on the creative impact of the lost lyrics—and Bono’s songwriting in general—he’s gleaned from working closely with U2 over the years. “For him, the lyric writing and the melody and the sound all came at the same time,” he says. “Even if these poems and these journals had turned into lyrics—even if he hadn’t lost them—whether they would have become the lyrics to the album, I’m not sure. Knowing him at the time, he wasn’t that sort of a writer. Most of the famous people I’ve worked with actually, [especially artists such as] Dave Matthews [and] David Byrne, they write in tongues as they’re singing, and then they evolve the words from that. In fact, Bono even has a word for his not-finished lyrics: a language called Bongolese is what we call it.”

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The contents of Bono’s missing briefcase were returned to him in 2004, after being discovered in the attic of a Pacific Northwest rental house and kept safe for many years. (In another mythology-busting confession, it turns out the bag apparently wasn’t stolen by zealous fans, just left behind by the band, recovered by the venue’s sound technician, and then forgotten.) Among the papers were scribbles relating to October and, perhaps more incredibly, references to War-era stage costumes and the future hit “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” In an AtU2.com interview with Danielle Rhéaume, one of the women who helped facilitate the briefcase exchange, Bono ruminated on what he saw while reading the scrawled notes and phrases—which he called “hieroglyphics”—of his younger self. “What happened was, as a result of losing this notebook, we diverted to October,” he recalls. “That’s what happened. So, had I not have lost that, we would have just gone straight into making War. …[The hieroglyphics] wouldn’t mean much to someone else, but they were clues for me. That’s all they were, but they were important clues. So important that, without them, we made a completely different album than the one we were preparing for.”

It’s futile to ponder “What if?” questions now, but the idea that October perhaps wouldn’t have existed without the briefcase disappearing is intriguing. If anything, it underscores how much of a stepping stone the album was for U2, an unexpected emotional catharsis the band perhaps wasn’t aware it needed. The subconscious influence didn’t end there, either: On October, the band also started to tentatively explore areas it would explore in greater depth in the future—the tone of “Scarlet” presaging The Unforgettable Fire’s sprawling seaside sonics, for example, or the spiritual explorations hinting at 1987’s The Joshua Tree. More than that, October not becoming a blockbuster kept U2 hungry and eager to press on with touring, which let the band both hone its live performances and gain confidence.

“A lot of people would go to America and burn out,” Lillywhite explains. “A lot of their contemporaries would go on the road and the first two or three gigs, they were fantastic. But they would stay up all night and by the third week, they were going through the motions. Where U2 never did that, they kept themselves very together… Every night Bono put all his energies into performing, rather than into partying.

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“That was what really drove them. As I say, they were a great band, but if you put money on them, they were not the favorites of their contemporaries to become the biggest band in the world. You’d say, ‘Oh, Echo And The Bunnymen, they’re the band that are going to do it, because they’ve got the handsome lead singer with a beautiful voice.’ But of course, they burned out, and U2 were the slow, steady, let’s do it. And they did it.”

Through the years, the band has always kept October close to its respective hearts. Although “Gloria” has been a common chestnut dusted off for shows, the title track’s re-emergence on the 2015 “Innocence + Experience” tour (where it was played live for the first time since 1989) was a nice surprise. Three-plus decades later, the Edge’s sparse piano melody felt even more melancholy, while Bono’s vocal delivery was mournful and weighed down by his years of experience. This time around, however, he was emboldened by anguish rather than cowed by it—a song originally emerging from youthful despair now enriched by grief.

When Lillywhite listens to October, he sees the album with equally clear eyes. “It was one of the two or three blips in their career where the trajectory has not been upwards. I think Boy did better than October. Having said that, there is a time and a place to listen to that album and I think it really does reflect where we were.

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“I suppose nowadays you don’t get albums that do that anymore,” he continues. “You don’t get albums that show the true emotion of the artist, because even if an artist is feeling really down or there are problems, it’s not reflected in their art anymore. The art is always about, ‘Let’s get it as commercial and as hooky as possible.’ That’s an interesting thing as well. You don’t get many big artists going through that sort of… You’re not living their emotions like we did in those days. October, for good or worse, is a great documentation of the time.”