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New Zealand Herald OCTOBER 21, 2011 - by Graham Reid
U2: SWINGING AN AXE AT THE JOSHUA TREE
Twenty years ago, U2 headed to Berlin to record their first truly challenging album. Graham Reid considers the inevitable anniversary reissue.
After the excitement of Beatlemania began to pall in early 1965, The Beatles realised if they were to survive they had to do something more than write chirpy pop. Fortunately they had that combination of talent, opportunity and wealth to push their musical boundaries for that remarkable album trilogy of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's, all released (along with the groundbreaking single, Strawberry Fields Forever) in eighteen months from late 1965.
Few artists enjoy that rare combination - or have the desire for a significant change of musical direction. Bowie did - notably with Low, "Heroes" and Lodger - as did Radiohead and Wilco with OK Computer (1997) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) respectively.
Perhaps the most courageous band, with the biggest audience to lose from a sudden change, has been U2 who - after the critical drubbing for the album/film Rattle And Hum in 1988 - went to Berlin, teamed up again with producer Brian Eno and turned away from the stadium anthems that had formed the backbone of their albums The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree.
Just as The Beatles tapped the mood of their era - esoteric exotica and psychedelia, in their case - U2 also locked on to what was happening around them in the discomforting era of Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and the Gulf War.
There were internal ructions in the band about their direction, Public Enemy were making headlines, and DJs, remixers and heavy rock-electronica acts like the Nine Inch Nails were entering the mainstream.
In Berlin's Hansa Studios (where Bowie and Iggy Pop had resurrected flagging careers) U2 began an album as different as it was abrupt. Out went chest-baring ballads and in came electrostatic; swaggering confidence was replaced by uncertainty; iconic became ironic; Bono's messianic pose was cast off for the leather-clad, shades-wearing caricature of The Fly; optimism was pushed aside by darker moods, chaos embraced... and the result was Achtung Baby in 1991.
U2 kept the stadium-option open with the ballad One, but Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses and Mysterious Ways - which could have been archetypal Joshua Tree songs - were given a studio duffing up in line with the brittle and abrasive approach they brought to material like Zoo Station (the crackling opener with searing guitar, arresting distortion and clanking drumming) and The Fly.
On its twentieth anniversary, this album - U2's most challenging, critically essayed and acclaimed - gets multiple reissues.
There is the album re-presented; a deluxe version with a disc of B-sides, remixes and covers (The Stones' Paint It Black and Creedence's Fortunate Son); and a six-CD/four-DVD edition with the remastered album, its Zooropa sequel, remixes and B-sides, an alternative Achtung Baby, videos, a doco and the Zoo TV live film shot in Sydney. And there's the album and remixes over four vinyl records.
Only Lotto winners and obsessives might go for the super-deluxe edition so, given many have the original, attention turns to the fourteen extra tracks on the double-disc version.
Lady With The Spinning Head sounds like very bent Oasis in Morocco; Blow Your House Down is a straight-ahead rocker with a dirty glam foot-stomp and keening guitar; Lou Reed's Satellite Of Love is less persuasive than when Bono duetted with Lou's image on the big screen on the Zoo TV tour; the Temple Bar remix of Wild Horses neatly strips it back to a more familiar ballad with Springsteen-like breadth; those covers are effectively rendered in the Achtung Baby ethic but aren't up to much; and the broody instrumental Alex Descends To Hell would have fitted neatly on the album.
The extra disc could be read as a lost U2 album from this exciting period. And Achtung Baby remains a defining artistic achievement. Although recently they have mostly reverted to type, it shows what a creative urge money, power, will and desperation can be.
Makes you wish they'd be "ready to let go of the steering wheel", as Bono sang on Zoo Station, again.