Uncut NOVEMBER 2004 - by Stephen Dalton


With Achtung Baby and their mammoth Zoo TV world tour, they went from earnest stadium puritans to hedonistic post-modern cyber-rockers. In this Uncut special, we celebrate U2 - the brothers of reinvention.

Tokyo, late 1993, somewhere in the fast-forward blur of the dying 20th century. As the biggest, loudest, most expensive and technically ambitious rock tour in history hurtles towards its grand finale, Bono slips his usual entourage of minders and managers.

Cart-wheeling through the "world capital of Zoo TV" with long-time U2 stylist "Fighting" Fintan Fitzgerald, the singer is hammered, scrambled and more than a little lost in translation. After an all-night drinking session in subterranean techno clubs and after-hours hostess bars, Bono and Fitzgerald greet the dawn in an apartment full of semi-naked Japanese girls. One offers the singer sex and heroin, in no particular order. He declines both, curls up and falls asleep. When he wakes up, a full-sized python is coiled around his leg. He bolts upright, shakes himself and heads out to find a taxi.

"This has got to stop," Bono groans back at his hotel, "I've pushed it too far. I could have been arrested, surrounded by prostitutes and heroin in some Yakuza crack den!" So he goes to bed. But his dreams are multi-channel nightmares full of Nazis and devils, Bill Clinton and Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Naomi Campbell. To steal a phrase from cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, Bono's latest literary hero, it's like freebasing television. Stranger still, it's all true.

U2 have been on this trip for three years. When it began, they were painfully sincere Christian rockers saving mankind from sinful temptation. Now they are wealth-flaunting, model-shagging, leather-clad space lizards drunk on their own narcissism and hypocrisy.

Bono tries to change the channel but it makes no difference. On every station, across a million TV screens, he finds only his own demonically grinning face. Satan's very own spin doctor, cackling insanely as the flames rise up to consume him...

The area around Hansa Ton studios is unrecognisable today from the wasteland it was just a decade ago. The former Nazi ballroom and birthplace of Bowie's legendary 1977 album "Heroes" now looks out onto the glitzy new metropolis of skyscrapers, cinemas and shopping malls that is Potsdamer Platz. A gigantic fuck-off message from the capitalist West: we won; you lost. Tough luck.

But in November 1990, when U2 checked in, Hansa sat on the edge of the rubble-strewn no-man's-land that once divided East and West Berlin. The street was still lined with Trabants, those boxy East German runabouts made from reinforced cardboard that would become a U2 mascot. Where the Wall had stood just twelve months before was now a Mad Max panorama of scrap metal and mud inhabited by a ragged band of techno-tribal travellers. A "surreal junkyard", as Bono called it.

Back the, U2 were in a no-man's-land of their own. As ever, they were trying to throw their arms around the New World Order, aiming to zap the zeitgeist on their new album. They just didn't know where to start.

But with the Cold War crumbling and Germany on the verge of reunification, Berlin seemed like a stimulating location. Arriving on the last ever flight into the vanishing West Berlin, U2 threw themselves into a rowdy street demonstration. From the dour faces around them, it seemed nobody was too happy about the fall of the Wall. Only then did the band realise they had joined a march of hardline communists demonstrating against reunion. "We could just see the headlines," Bono joked later. "U2 Arrive To Protest The Destruction Of The Wall."

The levity did not last long. Bono and The Edge were reaching towards some nebulous new U2 that would somehow incorporate drum machines, house rhythms and industrial guitars. Both had whetted their appetites earlier in 1990 with a crunchy, loop-driven soundtrack to the RSC's stage production of A Clockwork Orange and U2's velvet-dark, futuristic overhaul of Cole Porter's Night And Day for the AIDS charity album Red, Hot + Blue. Their new listening habits included cutting-edge noise merchants My Bloody Valentine, KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails - plus the young pretenders of Seattle, Detroit and Madchester.

But Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr just weren't hearing it. Literally in Mullen's case - so uninvolved was he in the early sessions that, at one point, after days of hanging around, he was forced to call the band's Dublin office from his Berlin hotel to get the studio's address. Once there, he vented his frustration.

"When we came to Berlin we were suddenly, musically, on different levels and that effected everything," Mullen admitted to Bill Flanagan in his book U2 At The End Of The World. "Some people in the band were quicker at finding the route than others, and it caused immense strain. No one knew what the fuck anyone else was talking about."

Producer Daniel Lanois shared Mullen's misgivings. One of his feuds with Bono lasted two days and almost ended in fisticuffs. "I really thought they were going to have a fight," studio producer Flood later told Hot Press magazine. "But this was just a product of the fact that this was such a hard record to make."

Dropping in sporadically to the same studio where he had worked on Bowie's "Heroes" fourteen years before, co-producer Brian Eno helped loosen the musical gridlock. He proposed a grammatical system to give shape and momentum to U2's new direction.

"Trashy", "throwaway", "dark", "sexy" and "industrial" were their new guiding principles. "Earnest", "polite", "sweet", "righteous" and "rockist" were all negative labels. Sounding like '80s U2 was verboten.

The city's shabby, scrambled, bohemian ambience also proved crucial to the mood of the album that eventually became Achtung Baby. "Berlin itself," Eno wrote in Rolling Stone, "became a conceptual backdrop for the record. The Berlin of the '30s - decadent, sensual and dark - resonating against the Berlin of the '90s - reborn, chaotic and optimistic - suggested an image of culture at a crossroads."

Lyrically, the songs Bono hatched in Berlin were informed by the collapse of The Edge's marriage to Aislinn O'Sullivan. After seven years together, the pair separated immediately after the Berlin sessions. Later, when asked to pinpoint the album's key themes, the guitarist began with "betrayal".

"That was one of the saddest things," Bono told Hot Press. "I was their best man, and we all went through that. But that was only part of it. There were lots of things going on internally within the band and outside it, and I was working through all of that." Adam Clayton agreed that one broken marriage was not the album's sole source of tension: "Everything started to disintegrate with that record."

Of course, U2 are masters at dramatising their own myth, of blowing up mini dramas into grand soap operas of media-friendly hype and blarney. But according to the Daily Telegraph music columnist Neil McCormick, a long-time friend of the band and author of a recent book titled I Was Bono's Doppelgänger, the birth of Achtung Baby was more fraught than most.

"I think the process was genuinely torturous," McCormick tells Uncut. "But to be honest it's not that unusual. Making a U2 record is not a bundle of laughs, it's more like a war of attrition. Recently, on their new album, Chris Thomas, that great producer of The Sex Pistols, walked out after a year! A year! They wear people out, and they wear each other out, because they demand a lot of each other."

But by painstaking degrees, Achtung Baby came together. Ironically, the turning point of the Berlin sessions was a self-improvised ballad that came together in less than half an hour. Even now, One remains the most achingly beautiful song in U2's canon, beloved of everyone from Axl Rose to Noel Gallagher. Over a softly glowing ember of mournful guitar, Bono plays the spurned lover, crawling through the ashes of love with bitter sarcasm as his only defence: "Did you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head?"

Building into a ravaged gospel lament, One is a master-class in spent fury. It has been variously interpreted as a post-mortem on Edge's marriage, a commentary on the troubled love life of Bono's Dublin painter pal Guggi, a metaphor for German reunification and a tense dialogue between a father and a son with AIDS. Bono has also claimed it is about the band finally pulling together in the bitter Berlin winter.

Perhaps all these readings are true. But in March 1991, as U2 headed home to Dublin with barely two finished songs to show for five months of work, it was a flickering beacon of hope.

Completed in Dublin during the spring and summer of 1991, Achtung Baby marked the first and greatest of the ironic, post-modern, Dadaist reinventions that would propel U2 through a decade of confusion. It may contain the band's most personal and introverted lyrics to date, but it also tapped into the seismic social, political and musical shifts that were shaking the world at the end of the Thatcher-Reagan era.

During the record's long gestation, Nelson Mandela was released, the first Gulf War began and ended, and the World Wide Web made its low-key debut in Switzerland. On the eve of its release, the Soviet Union collapsed, revolution shook the Eastern Bloc and civil war boiled over in the Balkans. Meanwhile, Primal Scream released Screamadelica, Nirvana unleashed Nevermind, and Ecstasy culture went mainstream. Times were clearly a-changin'.

"It's really a record of that moment in time," says McCormick. "The end of the brash, bright, over-confident '80s and the start of something darker and more ambiguous. This is almost too grand, but it's the end of the Soviet era, the Berlin connection, the sense of breakdown and new possibilities."

In August 1991, an ugly spat between U2's label Island and the situationist sample band Negativland almost threatened to overshadow the new album. But when they topped the charts with The Fly just weeks later, U2 drowned out any negative headlines. Hatched in the subterranean grime of some dystopian future metropolis, the album's first single signalled a bold trash-funk rebirth, with Bono's Kafka-esque metamorphosis explicitly mocking his pious public image. In black leather and insectoid shades, he became a kind of anti-Bono, protesting that his famous conscience was now "a pest".

With a lyric partly inspired by the sardonic slogans of artist Jenny Holzer, The Fly was both a confession and a celebration of fame's Faustian pact with sin and excess. "It was written like a phone call from Hell, but the guy liked it there," Bono later explained in Rolling Stone. "People thought we were just mocking rock'n'roll stardom and all that, but actually I was just owning up to it. I was owning up to the side of yourself that is a megalomaniac.

The Edge likened the singer's new alter ego to taproom conspiracy theorists with their secret, paranoid knowledge of dirty deeds in high places. Bono called him a hybrid of Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim Morrison and disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. "When I put on these glasses, anything goes," he told Rolling Stone. "I've learnt to be insincere. I've learnt to lie. I've never felt better." The Fly taught Bono the importance of not being earnest.

Released in November 1991, Achtung Baby opens with a lascivious snarl of industrial guitar that instantly places it far from the sepia-toned moodscapes of its predecessors. Zoo Station, a headlong rush into the future which later became the opening fanfare for the band's live Zoo TV concept, sounds metallic, urban and nocturnal. It's named after West Berlin's main transport hub, where U2's underground line begins.

Although trailed as U2's response to club culture, the album's disco credentials seem a little spurious thirteen years later. "I told somebody I thought it was a dense record," Bono quipped to Flanagan, "and word got around that we were making a dance record."

A smart one-liner, but Achtung Baby certainly contains more programmed drum loops and liquid grooves than its predecessors, reaching out to clubland with rhythm-friendly tracks like Even Better Than The Real Thing and Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?. Superstar plate-spinner Paul Oakenfold was soon drafted in as a remixer and, later, as tour DJ.

"U2 came to a club I was DJ'ing at in Ireland, and we got on," Oakey tells Uncut. "I became a fan of U2 through the album The Joshua Tree. Where The Streets Have No Name and With Or Without You were actually two songs that were played in Ibiza during the summer after the album came out, and they were both very popular. So I got into U2 though that experience. I certainly don't want to take any credit for lightening them up in the '90s. I just think they're very passionate and they had something to say. I respect that."

But for all its surface hedonism, Achtung Baby did not abandon the agonised Christian soul-searching of U2's past; it simply adapted it to a fast-forward world of technology and temptation. A fallen world, perhaps. This difference is most evident on Until The End Of The World, the album's most straightforward and muscular rocker, where Bono is no longer role-playing Jesus but Judas. Revisiting the Last Supper and the betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the song's narrator regards a world-changing act of treachery with bored disdain: "In my dream I was drowning my sorrows / But my sorrows, they learnt to swim." Partly inspired by Brendan Kennelly's Book Of Judas, the song appeared in the 1991 sci-fi movie of the same name by the German film director Wim Wenders, a friend to and key influence for the band.

Achtung Baby is full of veiled sexual metaphors, mostly sadomasochism, bondage and oral sex. Bono argues the record was made in the shadow of the '80s AIDS epidemic, documenting grown-up desires rather than adolescent fantasies. For the best known of the three videos made for One, director Mark Pellington used slow-motion footage of dying buffalo based on the work of artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS just months after the album's release. Likewise the late Keith Haring, whose designs were adopted to customise one of the Zoo TV tour's Trabants. U2 would later cause outrage in Ireland by handing out Zoo condoms at the shows.

Marital breakdown is a key theme of the album, and the trip-hp torch songs So Cruel and Love Is Blindness (originally written for Nina Simone) bleed loveless desolation. The hypnotic Mysterious Ways is more playful and upbeat, a woozy serenade to a belly-dancing moon goddess, while Acrobat addresses the narrator's guilt-ridden hypocrisy as an artist and a lover: "I must be an acrobat to talk like this and act like that."

In less guarded moments, Bono admitted the album's subtext of sexual betrayal may also have reflected his own bumpy marriage to wife Ali. "I've had my problems in my relationship," he told Flanagan. "It's tough for everybody. I think fidelity is just against human nature... I may or may not be writing about my own experience."

The album's colourful sleeve collage by Anton Corbijn, with its brash juxtaposition of images and infamous full-frontal shot of Adam Clayton, seemed to signal a new mood of playfulness and flippancy in U2. Likewise the role-playing of Bono's Fly persona, overdosing on shiny, shallow celebrity - "Let's slide down the surface of things." Then there was that apparently throwaway title, borrowed from the 1968 Mel Brooks comedy The Producers.

"It's quite an exciting package, but it's also false," argues McCormick. "The album is a dark examination of our times. It's not ironic, it's not postured, it's not remotely affected. All the irony is in the packaging. There's black humour in there but it's actually making a really dark statement about temptation and the nature of the human soul."

"It's probably the heaviest record we've ever made," Bono told Rolling Stone. "There is a lot of blood and guts on that record... there is a lot of soul. I think it shines even brighter amidst the trash and the junk." Memorably, the singer also calls the album "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.

Bono halts mid-song, turns round and drinks in the blinding blur of video images standing thirty feet tall behind him. "Heyyyy!!!" he leers in his reptilian Rat Pack scowl. "Some of this bullshit is pretty cool!"

It's a classic piece of well-rehearsed U2 spontaneity, but the crowd go ape-shit. Not only has Bono finally got the joke about his own absurdity, he will share it with three million people in 1992 alone.

Achtung Baby may have been ambivalent and bittersweet, but the planet-straddling mega-tour it spawned was a Godzilla-sized orgy of superstar excess and multimedia overload. With a vast techno-future cityscape inspired by William Gibson, the show feature thirty-six TV screens and gigantic video walls blasting out live news bulletins, satirical loops and messages from the crowd. Canadian video-art terrorists Emergency Broadcast Network were enlisted to supply a splurge of images. Radical rappers Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy played support and provided the show's signature tune, Television - Drug Of The Nation. Bono began calling up politicians and pizza joints from the stage, sucking the real world into U2's hyperreal media meltdown. With lizard leathers and wraparound shades, drag queen make-up and karaoke Elvis moves, U2 finally learnt to embrace and subvert their own ridiculous image. "Rock'n'roll is ridiculous," Bono told NME. "It's absurd. In the past, U2 was trying to duck that. Now we're wrapping our arms around it and giving it a big kiss... You have to accept the bold type and caricaturing that goes on when you become a big band, and have fun with it."

U2's appropriation of sleazy, superficial sci-fi glamour was seen by some hardcore fans - especially in the US - as a brazen sell-out to commercial razzle-dazzle. But in reality it was a complex performance-art commentary on fame and its high-tech temptations in the multi-channel post-modern world. The Zoo TV tour that chugged into action in Florida in February 1992 exploded these themes with a machine-gun barrage of video screens, blipvert slogans and customised Vegas on Planet Trash.

However clumsy and confused, the new U2 were trying to smuggle soulful sincerity inside smirking irony. "I don't think in the '80s we were rock'n'roll," Bono conceded to NME. "I think we were the loudest folk band. And now we're a rock'n'roll and I know that the best way to make the same point is to be a bit smarter."

With its own private jet, which was christened Zoo Airlines, a touring staff of almost two hundred, and a mammoth haul of high-tech gear, the Zoo TV extravaganza only cleared a tiny profit - barely four or five percent on capacity shows. For all their deluxe swagger and cigar-chomping excess, U2 were turning money into art, cash into chaos. "We have a responsibility to abuse our position," Bono argued in Rolling Stone. "Because we had been spoiled by success financially, we had what Groucho Marx called 'fuck-off money'. If you waste that, you're just a wanker, you don't deserve anything."

In an interview with tour DJ BP Fallon in the Zoo TV programme, Adam Clayton is asked what one thing he wants that he does not have. "Naomi Campbell," he replies. Instant supermodel dial-a-date. Within months, the couple are an item, and marriage openly discussed. As further evidence of U2's world-conquering fame, Clayton is thrust into the tabloid spotlight on a level beyond even Bono. In Stockholm in June, events turned even more surreal when Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson joined U2 live on stage for a cover of Abba's all-time hen party classic, Dancing Queen.

A week later, on June 19, a scaled-down version of the Zoo TV show made its UK debut at Manchester's G-Mex arena, where U2 headlined the Greenpeace-backed Stop Sellafield concert. Britain's notorious nuclear reprocessing plant is a pet hate for the band, who live just the other side of the Irish Sea, reportedly the most radioactive stretch of water on earth. Among the support acts were the German electro godfathers Kraftwerk, who angered British Nuclear Fuels with their new Sellafield-bashing intro to Radio-Activity. Public Enemy and BAD II also played, while Lou Reed performed a surprise duet with Bono on Satellite Of Love.

Greenpeace originally planned a demonstration at Sellafield itself, one hundred and twenty miles away on the Cumbrian coast, but a court injunction was hastily imposed ("They've cancelled a peaceful demonstration on the grounds of public safety?" Bono fumed.) So U2 staged a dawn raid on Sellafield the next morning on board the Greenpeace ship, Solo. When Bono insisted on wading ashore in his biker boots, one organiser quipped: "It's all right Bono, I understand, you can walk on water."

After symbolically dumping irradiated sand from Irish beaches on the Cumbrian shoreline, the boiler-suited superstars formed themselves into the semaphore message H-E-L-P for the attendant press cameras. Very Beatles. Mullen's alternative suggestion was F-O-A-D: Fuck Off And Die.

U2 would return to play a full European tour in 1993. But for now they had more important matters to address. Ahead lay America's Zoo TV stadium shows, a bust-up with George Bush and a summit meeting with Bill Clinton. Plus, on the far horizon, a whole heap of trouble.

May 10, 1993. The Zooropa roadshow has just opened in drama and violence. Support act Einstürzende Neubaten are kicked off the tour after throwing an iron bar into the jeering Rotterdam crowd. Bono arrives in his bedroom to find a 10-foot crucifix waiting, a birthday present from his friend Gavin Friday. The singer turns thirty-three today, and the message on the cross reads: "Hail Bono, King Of The Zoos." Christ, you know it ain't easy...

The European leg of the Zoo TV tour coincided with Clayton and Naomi Campbell officially announcing their engagement. Re-christened Zooropa, the revamped tour came with more conceptual fireworks and Dadaist costume changes. The Galway theatre troupe Manass was recruited to spoof U2 in grotesque caricature outfits. Nightly news bulletins were beamed in from war-torn Bosnia by a Californian TV reporter called Bill Carter. Burning crosses became flaming swastikas, Leni Riefenstahl's notorious Nazi films were sampled and looped. Stadium surrealism with a dark European twist.

"We wanted to point out, before anyone else did, the similarities between rock gigs and Nazi rallies," Bono told Hot Press. Well, The Who's Tommy, David Bowie's Thin White Duke period and Pink Floyd's The Wall may all have got there first, but U2 were still using provocative, taboo imagery. Dissenters accused them of flirting with fascism, and bloating their own egos with political postures they could not quite sustain. A cheap holiday in someone else's misery, even.

The Zooropa show was unquestionably a technical marvel, raising the game for '90s stadium rock. Meanwhile, Bono was reborn as the glitter-suited Faustian cabaret crooner MacPhisto - half cabaret Satan, half post-modern Elvis. The singer called him the Fly in his Vegas period, and began closing the shows with Presley's Can't Help Falling In Love. As the show ended, a PA announcer boomed: "Elvis Is Still In The Building!"

"If you study those films of Elvis," Bono told Rolling Stone, "there were some very powerful moments as he was in decline. Maybe more powerful than when he was a svelte pop hero."

A new EP was planned to herald the tour, but somehow it ballooned into a 10-track album. Zooropa was largely recorded on the hoof, often in flying visits home between European shows. "It was mad," Bono told Hot Press. "We'd get back to Dublin at four o'clock in the morning, work till eight, sleep till noon, then go back on tour. So a few things suffered, but the record has a nice kinetic energy to it."

Released in June, the album that Brian Eno dubbed "quick and dirty" includes a dedication to Charles Bukowski, sampled Soviet orchestras and recycled soundcheck jams. One song, The First Time, had initially been intended for Al Green. Several of its stronger tunes become U2 standards, such as The Edge's dead-pan techno-stunt Numb, adapted from an unused Achtung track called Down All The Days. And the weightless disco shimmer Lemon, featuring a falsetto Bono vocal and a title inspired by the singer's late mother in newly unearthed home movie footage.

Originally called Sinatra, the achingly lovely Stay (Faraway, So Close) came with a Berlin-set video directed by Wim Wenders, who adopted it as the eponymous theme tune to his patchy 1993 sequel to Wings Of Desire.

But the most gloriously incongruous track of all is The Wanderer, a jaunty electro sermon initially titled Johnny Cash On The Moon and crooned by Cash himself in that unmistakable Mount Rushmore baritone. U2 cornered the Man In Black after a Dublin show, although Cash insisted on dropping one of the song's sillier verses about popping out for the papers and never coming home.

Overall, the Zooropa album sounds less calculated and coherent than Achtung Baby, but with inspired flashes of alt.pop brilliance. "It feels like a minor work," argues Neil McCormick, "and generally U2 don't do minor. But if you're not going to make the Big Statement, you're maybe going to come up with something that has the oxygen of pop music."

In a four-star review, Rolling Stone described the record as "the sound of verities shattering, the moment when exhilaration and fear are indistinguishable as the slide into the abyss begins."

By 1993, U2 owned a hotel, a night-club and the most glittering address book in rock. The celebrity guest list on the Zooropa tour included novelists and politicians, models and fashion designers, film-makers and movie stars. Axl Rose, Mick Jagger, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Geldof, Jim Kerr, Patsy Kensit, Wim Wenders and William Gibson all dropped by - Gibson taped an insert for an MTV "triple-cast" intended to close the tour, which was eventually aborted in favour of more conventional live document of the show.

When the Zooropa tour arrived at London's Wembley Stadium in August 1993, MacPhisto introduced the fatwah-threatened author Salman Rushdie on stage.

"You've got to remember I was dressed as the Devil at the time, so Satanic Verses did seem right," Bono told NME. "His dilemma is actually closer to rock'n'roll than you think. I think he has behaved with enormous grace under pressure and with humour. It must have scared the shit out of him to be on-stage at Wembley," he wrote. "Not many novelists ever experience what it's like to face an audience of over 70,000 people - and, fortunately for everyone, I didn't even have to sing."

Meanwhile, Naomi Campbell brought her own supermodel entourage to the Zoo travelling circus, including Kate Moss, Helena Christensen and Christy Turlington. "The supermodels definitely added their glamour and helped disguise the dark sincerity that has always lurked at the heart of U2," argues Neil McCormick.

Bono draped himself across Turlington on the cover of Vogue and, according to tabloid rumours, in more private encounters too. "I had fun flirting with Christy but I never had an affair with her," the singer insisted to Bill Flanagan. "After introducing these beautiful women to my wife they all lost interest in me."

In early November, Bono flew to Palm Springs in California for a bizarre summit with Frank Sinatra, intending to shoot a video for their newly recorded duet update of I've Got You Under My Skin. But the bewildered 77-year-old crooner bolted when a photographer tried to take an unauthorised snap, leaving just a few clips of him and Bono kerb-crawling in a stretch limo. Later that night, the U2 singer dropped in on Sinatra's house with the aim of pitching him a specially written tune, Two Shots Of happy, One Shot Of Sad. Instead, he got loaded, fell asleep and tipped his own drink into his lap. Waking up, he initially feared he had pissed himself. On Sinatra's sofa! Achtung, Blue Eyes!

As the tour hurtled towards its final run of Japanese and Australian shows in late 1993, much of the friction that had fuelled Achtung Baby appeared to have subsided. Now dating the tour belly dancer Morleigh Steinberg, The Edge told Rolling Stone he was feeling far more positive than during the album sessions, although "no closer to bringing my private life to a conclusion".

Looking forward to the end of the tour, Bono predicted the band's next nine months. "One of us has to die in a car accident. One of us has to book into the Betty Ford clinic. One of us should get married. And one of us has to become a monk."

His marriage to Naomi Campbell, Clayton said, would take place in 1994. "It's kind of a scheduling thing," he quipped. Ominously, Bono paid homage to Campbell's calming influence on Clayton. "When Adam bottoms out he goes all the way down... being with Naomi has been good for Adam because it's forced him to be the stable one in the relationship."

Ultimately, however, U2's head-long rush into the celebrity world almost proved to be their undoing. On November 26, the penultimate Zoo TV show in Sydney, everything finally unravelled. Laid low by drink after news reports linking Campbell to her former boyfriend Robert De Niro, Clayton missed his first ever U2 show. Bono was forced to announce that his bass player was "sick" and his roadie, Stuart Morgan, filled in at the last moment.

With cameras primed to film the concert, Clayton's no-show was a double blow for U2. The chastened bass player resolved to give up booze afterwards, but for a while the band's future looked shaky. "We thought that was the end, to be honest," Bono later told Hot Press. "We didn't want to go on if somebody was that unhappy and not enjoying himself."

Clayton and Campbell called off their wedding and separated soon afterwards. "This has been a very, very difficult year," the bass player told Flanagan afterwards. "I realised if I was going to be able to go on and be a useful member of this band - and indeed a husband - I had to beat alcohol. I had to realise that every fuck-up of mine, every problem over the last ten years that hasn't been quite so serious as that night, has been related to alcohol abuse... for me and the bottle, it's over."

On a symbolic level, U2's journey into the supernova of multimedia celebrity had melted their wings. In more human terms, the journey they began in Berlin three years before ended with bruised hearts, battered band members and one almighty motherfucker of a hangover. But the Fly has been swatted. The karaoke Elvis has finally left the building.

A Hard Axe To Follow

How our man learned to stop worrying and love U2.

When Uncut writer Stephen Dalton was critical of U2's Zoo TV tour for a 1993 NME cover feature, Bono sent him an axe - as in hatchet job. Reviewing the Zooropa stage show and album, he attacked the band for what he saw as their shameless attempt to acquire alt.rock cool and political credibility while their corporate lawyers shafted the penniless punk pranksters Negativland over a tiny stolen sample.

But as the decade wore on, with the Passengers project and the PopMart extravaganza, plus Bon's proactive stance on AIDS and Third World Debt, Dalton was forced to reassess his opinion of the band. Still, when he revisited the scene of the crime for this special investigative report on U2's most fascinating period - when they reinvented themselves spectacularly at the turn of the '90s for Achtung Baby and Zooropa/Zoo TV, and when Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr reached new creative heights and plumbed terrible personal depths - he took his axe along, just in case...

Cyber Class

The neuromance between U2 and William Gibson.

One of the names most often dropped by Bono in the Achtung Baby and Zooropa period was William Gibson, the Vancouver-based pioneer of "cyberpunk" whose sci-fi novels anticipated the birth of the Internet, virtual reality and future-shock urban nightmares like The Matrix. It was Zoo TV set designer Mark Fisher who first brought Gibson and U2 together.

"I had never paid much attention to U2's earlier music," Gibson tells Uncut. "A generational thing, rather than not liking music. So I was spared that meeting-the-Beatles thing. I thought they were extremely likeable and almost ridiculously sane, considering. Still do."

U2 even discussed flashing the entire text of Gibson's 1984 debut novel Neuromancer across the Zoo TV stage displays. "There was some talk about that, but I couldn't get my literary agent to go along with it," Gibson says.

At the end of the Zoo TV tour, Gibson recorded a short clip in Dublin for an MTV "triple-cast" that was later abandoned. But, even today, he remains friendly with U2.

"I've gone along and said hello at every Vancouver show since," he says, "and have gotten together with them twice in Dublin. I liked those albums a lot, and still do. The Chinese-Irish pop group in my novel Idoru is my U2 homage, so to speak."

Zoo World Order

How U2 got George Bush Sr out of the White House.

During their Zoo TV "Outside broadcast" stadium tour of North America in late 1992, U2 entangled themselves in the presidential elections. The show took pot-shots at the incumbent with its doctored video loop of George Bush Sr chanting Queen's We Will Rock You, and with Bono's on-stage calls to the White House: "This is Elvis here..."

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, courted U2 with a late-August radio phone-in, and they finally bumped into each other in Chicago two weeks later, swapping guarded but friendly words.

Bush tried to capitalise on the encounter with a campaign speech in Ohio on September 26. "I have nothing against U2," he smirked. "You may not know this, but they tried to call me at the White House every night during their concert. But the next time we face a foreign policy crisis, I will work with John Major and Boris Yeltsin, and Bill Clinton can consult Boy George..."

The speech was ill-advised, and Clinton romped to victory two months later. In January 1993, a supergroup of U2 and R.E.M. members calling themselves Automatic Baby played for the new President at MTV's inaugural Ball.

Berlin Babylon

Where do rock stars go to get serious? The capital of Wagnerian sturm-und-drang, of course...

David Bowie: "Heroes"

The only one of Bowie's "Berlin trilogy" actually recorded in Berlin. "Heroes" sounds playful and vital after the chilly psychic travelogues of Low. Shaking out of his cocaine period, Bowie rocks out against a backdrop of the Wall. Eno dropped in on the Hansa sessions, as he later would for Achtung Baby.

Iggy Pop: Lust For Life

Iggy's own Berlin-boosted come-back album is another Bowie production. Free of methadone, walking ten miles a day and sounding like superman, Pop's guitar-driven heroics celebrate survival against adversity.

Depeche Mode: Black Celebration

Recorded at Hansa, the Mode's first UK Top 3 album marked a major step forward, steeped in Berlin's grimy brutalism and S&M gloom. Also marked DM's first meeting with Anton Corbijn, U2's official snapper.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Tender Prey

Resident in Berlin for most of the '80s, Cave delivered his mid-period masterpiece in Tender Prey, which includes his immortal Death Row howl The Mercy Seat.

Peaches: Fatherfucker

Tapping into the town's tradition of gender-fuck and dirty techno, the salacious Canadian rap queen finally breaks out of the underground. She also recruits former Berliner Iggy Pop for the terrific Kick It, a tune which name-checks the German capital.

"It Was Humorous Sacrilege"

Did the Pet Shop Boys invent the 'ironic' U2?

Seven months before the birth of Achtung Baby, in March 1991, the Pet Shop Boys released their Hi_NRG disco medley of U2's Where The Streets Have No Name and the easy-listening cheese-pop number Can't Take My Eyes Off You. Intended as a mockery of U2's pompous '80s image, it seems the dead-pan duo unwittingly predicted U2's high-camp '90s reinvention. Coincidence?

"This is quite a sensitive subject," PSB's Neil Tennant tells Uncut. "I once saw an interview with Adam Clayton slagging us off because an NME journalist actually said that to them. I think they got the idea we'd said that, which we hadn't. We actually had the idea years before - originally we were going to do it with Patsy Kensit. But in 1990, when we made that record, the idea of applying humour to U2 seemed intriguingly sacrilegious. So we did it as a piece of humorous sacrilege. But it's funny - if we'd done it three or four years later it wouldn't have seemed humorously sacrilegious. By that time Bono had done MacPhisto and shown his humorous and ironic side, ha ha! No, I thought that show was great - it was the first time I'd ever seen U2 and the MacPhisto bit was brilliant. I don't hate U2. In the '80s, big anthemic stadium rock just seemed like the enemy. Nowadays it's crap pop. There isn't that much anthemic stadium rock going around any more. But I've heard that's what the new U2 album sounds like, so maybe I'll be able to start hating U2 again..."

"Every Artist Is A Cannibal"

U2 vs Negativland

In August 1991, a 12-inch bearing a "U2" logo appeared on US indie label SST. Featuring a short, unauthorised sample of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, combined with an off-air rant about the band's name by the TV presenter Casey Kasem, it was an irreverent piece of pop satire from punk pranksters Negativland.

Less than two weeks later a torrent of copyright infringement lawsuits from U2's label and publisher, Island and Warner-Chappell, hit SST and Negativland. Faced with heavy damages plus the cost of recalling singles and transferring copyright to Island, SST sued negativland.

"We knew we were taking some sort of risk," admits Mark Hosler, a founder-member of Negativland. "But our best guess was that we were so small we would be ignored, or get a nasty phone call."

R.E.M.'s manager Bertis Downs had stumbled across Negativland's single at a store in Athens, Georgia and sent it directly to U2's manager Paul McGuinness. At the time U2 denied any direct involvement in the lawsuit, while Island simply contended they were guarding against fans mistaking the record for new U2 product.

"Certainly we liked the idea of making something that was confusing at the point of purchase," Hosler admits, "but we assumed the music-buying public is intelligent and would figure out the prank aspect very quickly. Island assumed the average U2 fan was an idiot, I guess."

The magazine Mondo 2000 invited Negativland to conduct a 1992 phone interview with The edge. After a discussion about U2's liberal attitude to sampling, they revealed their true identities. "The lawsuit was not our lawsuit," squirmed the guitarist. "We weren't in a position to tell Island records what to do."

After losing $45,000 to SST, negativland asked The Edge to loan them $20,000 to start their own label - an official loan, with interest. "This is probably the most surreal interview I've ever had," the guitarist laughed. "I'll think about that request..."

Hosler concedes The Edge "seemed like a nice guy", but they never got the loan. They finally extracted a guarantee that Island would not sue if the record was reissued, but "only after four years of disingenuous bullshit". Negativland later chronicled the whole episode in their book, Fair Use.

Just months later, U2 became embroiled in a public spat with artist Jenny Holzer over Zoo TV stage slogans that looked uncannily like her own work. But then, as Bono sings on the Holzer-inspired The Fly, "Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief".