"This image of 'the unforgettable fire' applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of 'A Sort of Homecoming,' but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin."
Like A Video: U2's October interview
October 28, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 3rd in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
October is a wonderful month. It's a month of contrasts and collisions. Where I live, in California, it can be 100 degrees and raining or 40 degrees and foggy. It's a season in which there are still roses in my garden but also trees that are turning yellow and red. October is about change, movement, transformation.
I think that's why I'm drawn to the album October, and especially the song of the same title. "October" is a song of contradictions; it's a parable of the temporal and the eternal, of the unstable and the unchangeable. In this month's "Like A Video" I'm honoring the 30th anniversary of U2's second record with some comments about the album, the song and the spirit of October.
In a video interview (see below) from a concert in Hattem, Netherlands, in 1982, U2 were asked what the meaning of October was. "October is an image," said Bono. He continued:
"We've been through the '60s, we've been through a time where things were in full bloom. We had fridges and cars, and we sent people to the moon. Everybody thought how great mankind was. And now, as you go through the '70s and the '80s, it's a colder time of year; it's after the harvest, the trees are stripped bare and you can see things. We've finally realized, maybe we weren't so smart after all, now that there's millions of unemployed people, now that we've used the technology that we've been blessed with to build bombs for war machines. October is an ominous word."
Even in their early years, U2 began to identify themselves not as a band with a political or religious agenda (as some wanted them to), but as four young artists who were committed to reflect on the endless contrasts and contradictions that come with living in a global community. Not content with the purposeless anger of the punk movement or the sentimental romanticism of the hippie scene, U2 set out in a different direction. One Dutch reviewer on U2Tours.com commented about the Hattem concert: "The gig was something I would keep in my mind until today. I never had seen a band like U2 in this punk rock and new wave time in the early '80s. For me and many others U2 was something completely new with an energy and emotion spreading out to the audience."
When asked in the Hattem interview whether the band was pessimistic, the 22-year-old Bono adamantly responded, "It's not pessimistic at all. This band stamps on pessimism. We're anti-cynics. October is an optimistic record because through it there's a joy. I say rejoice. I'm sick and tired of hearing bands on a stage complaining; there's a bitterness in them. We say fight it. Rejoice! Don't let it bring you down."
When I was 19 years old, I visited London in the summer of 1981 (just after the Hattem interview). Youth were rioting regularly, shop windows were smashed, cemetery graves were desecrated and broken open, and curfews were routine. I was too young and naive to know that U2 was marching through Europe carrying a white flag of joy, peace and love - not just as abstract concepts, but as real answers to the Troubles and other impending and urgent problems. It would be a few more years before a group of American high school students introduced me to this band that had such an intentional message and a mission.
By the time I learned to know and love U2, many of the themes that had germinated on October were common in their music. In the mid-'80s the band routinely sang of love as an option to violence, called attention to the plight of those less fortunate across the globe, and championed the causes of the oppressed with the just voice of a biblical prophet. And through it all, there was a sense of something constant, divine, eternal.
Those who read the Bible might readily see a fair amount of imagery in U2 songs that has been adapted from the ancient Hebrew hymnbook, the Psalms. "October" is no exception. "Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us" (Psalm 46). U2's modern paraphrase retains the same themes of both transience and permanence: "October / And kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall / But You go on / And on." I think the Hebrews would have approved.
Finding themselves at the center of dire social, political and economic times in their home country of Ireland, U2 were a collective voice of optimism, and a resilient spirit of opportunity and hope. The album October is a convergence of lament ("Tomorrow") and praise ("Rejoice" and "Scarlet"), even more relevant now than when it was released. Not just the name of a month, October - both the album and the song - is a study of cultural collisions and contradictions, providing autobiographical commentary from a band riding the undulations of a shifting culture. Thirty years later, U2's message of hope in the midst of despair, love in place of violence, and faith through times of uncertainty, continues to capture the hearts of a whole new generation of listeners.
Watch and listen to that spirit in this video interview from 1982, conducted in Hattem, Netherlands, prior to the concert there on May 14. I edited and compiled this from several videos on YouTube posted by TheAtomix2009. (Note: this is archival footage and includes imperfections.)
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2011.