INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Q FEBRUARY 2007 - by Mark Blake
Sunglasses + Soundbites = U2 reinvented.
The moment Bono splats himself on the makeshift "windshield" onstage has long been a highlight of any U2 show. It accompanies the final bars of The Fly, a UK Number 1 hit and the song on 1991's Achtung Baby that best exemplified U2's radical new direction.
The song had its origins in the first Achtung Baby sessions at Berlin's Hansa Ton Studios in November 1990, with Daniel Lanois and Eno producing and Flood (aka Mark Ellis) as engineer. As bootlegs of work-in-progress were leaked to the public, the band returned to Ireland, decamping to a house on the coast to resume work, in January 1991. Flood had recently been working on Depeche Mode's Violator album, and been approached to work on the new U2 record at a Depeche show in New York. While he recalls a "united front", Edge and Bono were the two band members pushing hard for a new sound, while Larry Mullen, Jr and Adam Clayton "knew what they didn't want".
One song, titled Ultraviolet, ended up being split in two. Part became the album track Ultraviolet (Light My Way), the rhythm track finding its way into The Fly. "The idea for The Fly rather than the song itself came from Berlin," explains Flood now. "All the guitars and the main melody came when we went to Ireland."
The Fly's lyrics were inspired by what Bono described as the "single-line aphorisms" he'd found in a piece of work by the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer called Truisms. Bono began crafting his own aphorisms to use as lyrics - "every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief" - and effectively created The Fly character, "a possibly drunk bar-room philosopher" to deliver these soundbites, later describing the tracks as "the sound of a man calling home on a pay-phone from Hell".
Flood was entrusted to create the treated vocal and oppressive beat that so clearly moved the band away from the U2 of Rattle And Hum. The dense sound of the finished track seemed to distil lunacy and paranoia around U2 by the end of its previous decade, played out against such personal issues as Edge's disintegrating marriage and the broader impact of the first Gulf War.
The Fly was debuted onstage at Florida's Lakeland Arena on 29 February 1992, the opening night of the Zoo TV tour. Wearing a pair of oversized goggle-style sunglasses, Bono could assume the persona of an egomaniac rock star, effectively becoming The Fly. "I thought, Let's give them a megalomaniac," he recalled. "As soon as I put on the sunglasses I could feel myself turning."
A live mainstay up to and including the recent Vertigo tour, The Fly was notably absent from the U218 Singles collection, while Edge has previously claimed, "the song hasn't stood the test of time".
"I think it has stood the test of time," counters Flood. "Even now, it stands out on Achtung Baby as being different. It's not a great song, but for U2 it's a great reinterpretation of a classic riff song." And more than any U2 track from that era, The Fly was the song that redefined the band for the '90s.
Achtung Baby (Island, 1991): The glorious revolution
For all its perceived failure Rattle And Hum sold twelve million. Even so, if U2 were to survive the '90s without surrendering to nostalgia, it was time for a revamp. So, they took song fragments to post-Wall Berlin, rehired Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and, in typical U2 fashion, waited for a miracle. The result was not merely reinvention, but artistic rebirth. Bono called Achtung Baby "Sly & The Family Stone meets Madchester baggy", and, uniquely, he was understating the case. Inventive but traditional, heroic but intimate, funny but moving: U2 had a platform for the remainder of their career.