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30 Years of October: 5 Questions with Neil Storey

@U2, October 10, 2011
By: Matt McGee / @mattmcgee

 

If you browse through the @U2 news library, you'll eventually come across Neil Storey's name. Look especially in articles related to U2's early days. He was in charge of PR at Island Records from 1974 to 1985, and was one of four people at the label -- along with Nick Stewart, Annie Roseberry and Rob Partridge -- responsible for getting U2 signed to its first international record deal in 1980.

So, as we continue to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U2's October album, Neil Storey was a natural choice for our "5 Questions with…" interview series. And, even though our five questions turned into a couple more, he kindly answered them all via email recently.

@U2: How aware were you of things happening in the studio, like Bono losing his lyrics shortly before recording began?

Neil Storey: In that the band were recording in Dublin and we worked out of St. Peter's Square in London, we -- and the we refers to Rob Partridge and myself who ran the Island press office -- weren't particularly aware or concerned with what I'd term the minutiae of recording.

Yes, word had reached us, either via Paul McGuinness or Bill Graham of Hot Press that this had happened. Bono had lost a notebook which had contained lyrics. But in saying that, I think it was more a case of ... Oh, that's happened and we'll / they'll get through it. It certainly wasn't anything we made public at the time. It was part and parcel of us knowing what was going on with the band in that the press office was, more often than not, Paul's first stopping-off point when he came in to London.

We were certainly very aware that the band was probably in the studio a bit earlier than perhaps they (or Paul) would have liked in the sense that they weren't really ready to make the second album. In that respect, it was more like a tentative release date had been set to capitalize on the burgeoning success that they'd had with the Boy record and suddenly that deadline started looming -- so, there was a bit of pressure!

We also saw a fair bit of Steve Lillywhite. Don't forget he had begun life as a tape-op at the Hammersmith studios (The Fall Out Shelter), which was at the back of the building in St. Peter's Square. So we'd also learn what was going on or not, as the case may be, via him. But again, and with the many acts we were close to, what we knew and what we publicized were two very different things.

Were you aware of all of the faith-related struggles that Bono, Edge and Larry were going through?

The faith aspect of the band was something that we knew about from day one or maybe even before then. Frankly, it was as inconsequential as, say, Bob Marley smoking ganja -- it was part of the band's makeup. And absolutely no big deal.

Nevertheless, there was a feeling in certain quarters at Island that it might be an issue. Goodness only knows why, but there was that feeling. I mean, it was hardly as if the three of faith, for want of a better phrase, kept it totally to themselves. Think you'll find they played Greenbelt more than once, plus I (and Rob) spent a lot of private time with them. There was a very close relationship between ourselves and many, many things were discussed, this being just one thing.  

With regard to faith-related struggles, that was and wasn't something that was discussed. What was discussed with Rob and myself was Bono worrying internally about what he should say if asked question X or Y by journalist Z. And, the advice offered was very simple. Be you. Ultimately, he was interviewed by Dave McCullough -- then writing for Sounds -- and the story broke.

The interview was, really, more like an on-the-record chat as opposed to the anodyne interviews one sees nowadays in this day and X-Factor age. Dave was a huge supporter of U2, similar to the likes of Paul Morley, Gavin Martin and Mike Gardiner -- other very supportive journalists of the time -- and knew the band pretty well. Ultimately, the article that ran, I think a front page in Sounds but I may be wrong there, centered more on Bono / U2 / Christianity than anything else. Bizarrely, we in the press office copped more internal Island flak than from anywhere else. And yes, Bono was on the phone a lot at that time, worrying about what it may have done to their image but, again, the advice offered remained the same: You're you. None of this is a big deal.  

Put in the context of 2011, it was similar to someone coming out and announcing, "I'm gay." In other words ... so what? Nonetheless, in the context of then it was looked at by certain people as, "Oh, crikey, U2 have just marginalized themselves."

This -- and we knew this, it's not hindsight -- was absolute bollocks. I was going to more U2 gigs than anyone else at Island, and I could feel the connection between band and audience. Yes, of course, there was that small element that connected on a faith -- call it what you will -- level but, for the overwhelming majority it was the music that they could reach out and touch. And, you could feel that growing. It was an indefinable something that was happening and, even then, the band, in my view, were bigger than this stuff that was written about.

It was a bit like one had gathered snow at the top of the hill, rolled it into a small ball and lobbed it over the edge. It was slowly starting to roll down that hill and gathering as it went. It was unstoppable, even then.

I vividly remember a conversation with Larry in the kitchen at his sister's house during the recording of The Unforgettable Fire record and talking about the shows and saying, "It won't be long until Wembley now." And him looking at me and saying, "I don't think so." Even then, they couldn't see how big this was going to be. Those around them could, but, inside the bubble, it was harder to look out or look back from any distance.

There's a story that's gone around saying that Island didn't like the album cover photo that U2 submitted for October, sent someone to Dublin to let the band know, and then backed down when U2 objected to the label getting involved like that. How much of that is true?

Absolutely true!!!

I'm not totally sure who it was who was sent over to Dublin to proffer the news that Island  -- or, rather, the powers that be -- didn't like the cover; possibly Paul Henry, a marketing bloke, or maybe even Bruno Tilley, an art bloke at the time. In any event, they returned with the tail firmly between their legs!

The attitude in the U2 camp was, and rightly: This is our record, thus it's the cover we've decided on. No debates. They had complete artistic freedom, thank goodness.

What did you personally think about the album cover?

It wasn't the finest Island record sleeve of all time for sure but it was what it was. Frankly, what counted was the music contained inside.

There was a similar "controversy" over The Unforgettable Fire sleeve, too, but perhaps that's a tale for another time.  

What was it like trying to promote the October album?

The album, if I remember correctly, debuted on the album charts at No. 10 in the U.K. In that the first record hadn't charted at all, that wasn't a bad result and it was off the back of virtually zero radio play too, don't forget. In other words, this chart-placing was off the back of the work that the band were doing live, their growing audience and the way we handled the press campaign. Simple as that.

In terms of Island per se, the press office led the way with regard to U2 for the first three records, and one could make a pretty decent argument for that being the case with the fourth, too.

For what it's worth, while they were gradually picking up fans at radio -- much to do with sterling work being done in the regions by the likes of Tony The Greek (Tony Michaelides, who was based in Manchester), who secured them their first TV slots, for example -- U2 and national U.K. radio were uneasy bedfellows until much later in the day, no matter what radio people will claim nowadays.

The first person I remember playing anything off this second record to was Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press. I honestly can't remember who'd given me the tape -- it was either Larry or Paul -- and Niall was in London and tipped up at St. Peter's Square. I think we had a vague plan to go out to dinner and then go and see a band, something like that. Anyhow, I had my car parked outside the office and so, before we went off to wherever we were going, I locked him in it and put this cassette of "Fire" on repeat play at exceedingly high volume. He liked it!  

"Fire" came out as a single and charted off the back of the fan-base sales, from which the group secured a place on Top Of The Pops that same week -- the most important music TV show in the U.K. They did the show, their first U.K. national, prime-time, TV show … and the record went down the charts. Now, that never, ever happened to any record or any band! But it did to U2. They (and Paul) were devastated. And I do remember a big internal Island inquest into why that could have occurred. Looking back, it's probably fair to say that the band weren't really ready for that particular TV show. The chart-placing was slightly false in that sales had come from their rabid fan-base who would quite literally by then wait for the shops to be open to snap up a new U2 release. As a consequence, sales were dropping alarmingly as the week went on. Thus, it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise to see the record drop even though they'd appeared on TOTP.

In retrospect, it'd probably have been better going with "Gloria" as the first single but maybe it wasn't ready soon enough. Honestly can't remember. The "Gloria" video was an absolute belter, though. Watch it today and it still has that spine-tingling feel to it.

Speaking of videos, how did the advent of MTV impact your promotional plans?   

MTV was a U.S. phenomenon and thus had very little impact on what we were doing in the U.K. until much later. It was obviously crucial within Paul's plans, thus ensuring that a U2 video made it on to MTV was a vital component in the global promotional toolbox.

Looking back on it now, what are your thoughts about the album itself?

The difficult second record made under more pressure than any other record they made with the exception of probably the War album. Same then as it sounds now. To be honest, I can't claim to revisit that album or, indeed, the first with any degree of regularity. And, besides, I always preferred hearing the songs played live. The moment in a show when, for example, they unleashed "Gloria" and the crowd went nuts and almost became part of the band was always a real highlight. It showed the purity of power that they had … and still have, of course.

From time to time, though, a song such as "Gloria" will appear via the random button on my iPod whilst driving and straight after the opening notes you think ... Hell, that's a really great song. And, I think that's the marker: Is it or is it not a great song? Because if it is, it'll stand the test of time.

On that record there are some great songs just as there are on the first record, on War, on The Unforgettable Fire, on Achtung Baby, on basically all of them.

October is perhaps not as cohesive a record as, say, The Joshua Tree, but we should never forget that it was their snapshot in time and of that time.

(Neil Storey photographed by Kristian House in New York.)

© @U2, 2011.



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