Thirty five years ago this week I turned 20. I had just started University a few weeks before. With birthday present Record Tokens (my very favourite present still!!!!) I made one of the most meaningful LP purchases of my entire life; U2’s October album.
There was quite a buzz about U2 in Ireland at that time. They had played my new Queen’s University’s McMordie Hall (now known as the Mandela Hall) at the start of that year and I had caught a little of the footage when shown on BBC TV, though I was far more interested in Stiff Little Fingers who were shown in the same series. There were also rumours that they were Christians which seemed pretty cool to me, a recent convert myself!
I can remember deciding to buy October in Boots on Royal Avenue. I brought it back to my room in Union Theological College, a room I would live in for six years and I actually do remember setting the needle down on side one. The sound of Gloria filled that wee room and, it has to be said, my heart, my mind and my soul. I guess my life would never be the same again.
These songs cut right into my spiritual journey, into my vocation as a communicator of Christianity, in a plethora of settings. I was plunged into a deep well of quotes, images and ideas and twenty years later I would get the privilege of writing one of the best selling and received books about the band; Walk On; The Spiritual Journey Of U2.
It all started with October. Gloria, Tomorrow, With A Shout (Jerusalem) all grabbed the attention of my soul. I arrived at Queen’s University to study theology having had my life turned around by a God encounter a couple of years before. I was twenty years old and this music opened up ways that I could communicate that faith, initially in the privacy of my college room.
October vibrated with a faith that was committed and yet vulnerable, honest in frailties but confident in hope. Words like Rejoice and Jerusalem, ideas of worship and theology were not common in mainstream rock music. U2 were not in some Christian ghetto but as Steve Turner would say at Greenbelt some years later were involving themselves in the conversation of the rock world. Turner would go on to say that they didn’t only get involved in such a conversation but began to change the very vocabulary of the conversation; Simple Minds song Sanctify Yourself just one example of such.
In many ways, for me, this juxtaposition is where I have lived ever since and of course U2 have travelled down three decades of spiritual growth along with me. Perhaps everything of my faith is still articulated in U2 records, live shows and interviews. Perhaps Walk On is my own spiritual memoir through U2 songs!
As Bono wrote the almost half baked lyrics of October he was struggling with his faith and vocation and thus aware of his own fallibility. It is a humble way to carry the conviction of faith also present. Conviction of Creed can very easily cause an arrogance of faith that becomes Pharisaic and no friend of Jesus. Here in the full flush of belief U2 are caught in a vortex of struggle which keeps them grounded. These songs fly naively and land with a thud sometimes in the very same songs.
This is also the album most infused with the Shalom Fellowship that Bono, Larry and Edge were very involved with in their early days. There were many such fellowships in Ireland, north and south, at that time. Most of these kinds of groups are forged in a youthful idealism. Such groups broke away from traditional Churches and attempted to return to the spirit of the fledgling house churches of the New Testament.
It is no coincidence that such a phenomenon appears just a few years after the hippy sixties. The freedom of that decade caressing with the charismatic movement birthed an exuberant, communal and organic form of Christian fellowship that in most of its incarnations burned pure and bright for a short period before either falling apart as Shalom did or became a little more mainstream as many others did.
When I spoke to school friend of U2 and fellow Shalom member William MacKay, as I researched Walk On, he spoke of the spontaneity of the October recording sessions. William spoke of how the studio was filled with other members of Shalom and how the sessions would break into worship.
When Neil McCormick, another school friend, but not Shalom member, wrote the CD booklet notes for the Remastered October release in 2008, he mentioned how the rehearsals for the songs were done in their old school Mount Temple and I wonder if this is what William has memories of. Whatever, October is a document of that phase of Christian history. Nowhere else in mainstream music is there a record that best records the Charismatic House Church movement.
In the big picture of U2’s career October is the least important album. It sits between one of the best debut albums ever made, Boy, and the album that would begin U2’s conquering of the world, War.
It was an album strewn with difficulties; it was rushed, the aforementioned spiritual turmoil and the fact that Bono lost the lyrics. The songs come across almost half finished though Van Morrison’s spiritual streams of consciousness lyrics of the same era throws them some forgiveness. Whatever, it is not U2’s greatest artistic moment but in its uniqueness, exuberance and Christian context it is an essential place in U2’s story and very important in the story of many of the rest of us; me in particular!