INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Gavin Martin
U2: ACHTUNG BABY
A glitzy rebirth proves "trashy", "sexy" U2 can be even better than the real thing.
Dublin, The Point Depot, December 1989. As his three bandmates play out the final bars of the last show on the Love Town tour, Bono makes a declaration. "Now we have to just go away and dream it all up again," he tells the audience. Thus, time was called on the first decade of U2 - and so began the often troubled journey that lead to their artistic and commercial peak of Achtung Baby.
The experience of seeing Rattle And Hum, their first major studio movie, taken apart by critics and flopping at the box office had certainly shaken U2 to their core. Never shy of throwing shapes or waving flags, the band were no strangers to the critical firing line. But they had always faced down the rebukes by developing their music in often surprising ways.
Rattle And Hum had, however, drawn attention to their foibles, excesses and naïvety, in what even the film's director Phil Joanou admitted was "an overly pretentious" document. Left exposed, U2 came up against their own reflection and didn't much like what they saw. Significant musical and cultural realignments were taking place all around the band, and they risked becoming outmoded and irrelevant relics from a recently vanished past.
A serious rethink was in order and, with Brian Eno adopting the crucial role of guide/therapist/advisor, Achtung Baby, it's absurdist title taken from Mel Brooks' The Producers, would radically recast the group's sonic template and image. In one of the most effective examples of rock rebranding ever undertaken, U2's air of pomp and ceremony - and even their songwriting - would be given a thorough makeover. Out of it would come a band still recognisable from their '80s incarnation, but now with a glitzy, though still passionate, new perspective.
Achtung Baby was planned and recorded in the shadow of such epoch-defining albums as The Stone Roses' debut. Nirvana's Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless (a firm favourite with The Edge during the recording sessions). Wearing his Abstract Arbitrator Hat, Eno provided vital touchstones to mark the way ahead, buzzwords that amounted to do's and don'ts for the new LP. Out went the old - "earnest", "righteous", "polite", "rockist" - and in came "trashy", "throwaway", "dark", "sexy", "industrial". The new direction, embracing Dadaist soundbites ("A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle") and trash aesthetics, presented a markedly different face to the U2 of the '80s.
That said, it'd be misleading to assume that the "EVERYTHING you know is wrong" instruction, later projected on the Zoo TV screens to thousands of fans, told the full story. The foundations for Achtung Baby had already been laid out months before Bono's 1989 farewell on The Point stage.
One of the new studio recordings on the Rattle And Hum album, God Part 2, gave an indication of at least one musical path and lyrical approach the band would now pursue, with its cranky, pugnacious attitude and roughshod motorik beat. And, sidelined at the time because they were not considered "U2 enough", two Bono-initiated songs from the Rattle And Hum sessions - Love Is Blindness and Even Better Than The Real Thing - would find full flight on the new album.
Indeed, the process of cultural assimilation that Rattle And Hum documented - albeit a little too closely - continued in a much more sophisticated and rewarding manner on Achtung Baby. Where U2's big adventure had previously brought them to the blues, gospel and the wide, wild Americana frontier, now their attention turned to emerging, distinctly urban, sounds: techno, electro, the hedonism of Madchester and the eruptive anger of grunge. If Rattle And Hum investigated a rich and sprawling past, Achtung Baby looked to a dystopian future, pulsed with the shock of the new. In The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum, U2 had been pilgrims in a vast American landscape. Now, they were voyagers in a world where upheaval, chaos and disorientation were commonplace.
Relocating to Berlin to begin recording would prove key to informing the album's songs and lyrical themes. U2 took the last-ever flight into West Berlin in November 1990, and headed for the Hansa Studios, where Eno had finessed the "Heroes" instalment of Bowie's Berlin trilogy. before setting to work, they joined a march on the street outside the studio, presuming it to be a celebration of German reunification. Soon enough, though, they discovered it had been organised by the Communist Party - against the destruction of the Berlin Wall. It was a comical foretaste of the confusion that would ensue as U2 tried to find their own creative direction in the weeks and months ahead.
The collapse of communism and demolition of the Berlin Wall became symbolic - of internal band tensions and the personal dramas of individual members Bono and The Edge, fresh from providing a loop-based soundtrack for a theatrical production of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, were keen to forge ahead with a new sound featuring drum machines, dance rhythms and sleazy industrial beats. Initially, the plan caused Larry Mullen considerable consternation. "We were suddenly, musically, on different levels and it affected everything," Mullen later admitted. "No one knew what the fuck anyone else was talking about."
As the sessions took shape, though, the band worked within their newly defined strictures and, as they always had, found a path through the internal dissent and frustrations. Eventually, the creative friction would produce dividends, with the pressure and flux in and around the band engendering two key songs before they returned to Ireland, completing recording at the band's Windmill Lane Studios in the spring and summer of 1991.
Taking its name from the transport hub close to Hansa, the opening Zoo Station, with its angry guitar squalls, distorted vocal and metallic groove harked back to the grinding euphoria of Bowie's Station To Station. The words themselves marked out a feisty new manifesto ("I'm ready for what's next"), but it was undoubtedly hard won. "In Berlin doing Achtung Baby was definitely the most serious sessions we've ever had - terribly tormented," Bono would later confess. Specifically, the personal turmoil that would provide grist to the lyrical mill included the disintegration of The Edge's marriage to Aislinn O'Sullivan, and Bono's own marital difficulties.
"I've had my problems in my relationship," the singer told Bill Flanagan for his book, U2 At The End Of The World. "I think fidelity is just against human nature... I may or may not be writing about my own experience."
Codified in myriad ways throughout the album, marital disharmony and emotional desolation certainly underpinned the lustful and lustrous So Cruel. Here, The Edge's looped five-note piano motif is encircled by a sabre-rattling guitar and a fine synthesised string part; lushly multi-dimensional, pregnant with poise and feeling. The lyrics of the song reinforce the idea of Achtung Baby as a kind of romantic masque, where images of love, debased or abandoned, abound. Those images recur on the rapturous and unsettling Love Is Blindness, originally written for Nina Simone. With its stark, church-like organ intro, pulsating bass synth and guitar reverb stretched into a hallucinatory squall, it brilliantly describes the discord and dread that provide a constant undertow to Achtung Baby. And yet, through its alluring sonic palette and wounded but sensual vocal, Love Is Blindness also maps out a search for harmony and salvation - not unfamiliar goals in a U2 song, but now wrapped in vibrant new colours.
Consequently, perhaps the greatest achievement of Achtung Baby was the way it presented the band's well-established spiritual longings and preoccupations in illuminating or contrasting settings. Nowhere was this more brilliantly achieved than on One, the other song that emerged from out of the dark days of the Berlin sessions. Still a prime candidate for the greatest moment in the entire U2 canon, this beautifully ravaged lament trawls the ashes of spent lust and faded love, ultimately revealing itself to be... what? A post-mortem on a failed marriage? A requiem for the AIDS epidemic? Or even a meditation on U2 themselves finding each other at the brink of disintegration?
On the album's lead single, The Fly, then, the new Bono emerged as a devilish underworld maven, taunting his former self with a sniggering, "It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest". Set against The Edge's temperamental guitar and jostling beats, Bono described the song "as a phone call from Hell - but the guy narrating likes it there". It was a canny piece of showmanship, providing the frontman with an alter ego to carry his band through the first leg of the Zoo TV/Zooropa tour that followed the album.
The Fly was not the only song that was delivered in an amoral voice, or which deconstructed the band's artistry and their singer's image. The fraught but cinemascopic Acrobat may have recalled the grand vistas of Bullet The Blue Sky, but now, amid references to Holy Communion and oral sex ("And you can swallow / Or you can spit"), there was a deliciously dark, deeply allusive backdrop of synth drones and depth charges. Bono sounded fragile, wounded, seeming even to ponder the band's usefulness: "What are we going to do now that it's all been said? / No new ideas in the house and every book's been read."
In such fashion, previously unlikely U2 bedfellows - doubt, vulnerability and black humour - now featured in the game-plan. Framed with the fearful booming symmetry of Adam Clayton's bass, Until The End Of The World was a further subversion of the group's classic core sound, conforming to Bono's wily description of Achtung Baby as "The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree". A ferocious guitar attack from The Edge is telescoped into a brain-searing buzz. Using the exchange between Judas and Jesus in The Garden Of Gethsemane as a lyrical starting point, Bono affects a jaded crooner persona, so that the song resembles Jim Morrison sharing a small-hours heart-to-heart with Frank Sinatra.
Even the slight but silky Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World emphasises the album's penchant for arrangements that were often endlessly, painstakingly remixed and reworked, band members and producers working separately before uniting for the final "committee approved" version.
Although Bono joked that someone had misheard him and that he had described Achtung Baby as a "dense" - not "dance" - album, the helter skelter licks of Even Better Than The Real Thing and the snakecharmer riff of Mysterious Ways forged a convincing union with club culture - preserving U2's integrity and identity, without falling into Grandad At The Disco embarrassment.
Significantly, the formerly disaffected Larry Mullen asserted himself, too, forming a dynamic rhythmic alliance with The Edge's astringent licks on Mysterious Ways, while Adam Clayton provides melodic undertow, weaving between glowering electro shadows. Throughout the LP, lyrically and vocally, Bono is at his best - providing words that were poignant, and richly suggestive. Or pared-down and adornment-free, as on One. "Force of will," was, according to Adam Clayton, what carried them through. "Everything was against making a great record. But no matter how people failed and became isolated, they saw what was good about it and followed that."
Having pulled through the most challenging period since their involvement with Charismatic Christianity around the time of October, the eighteen-million-selling Achtung Baby was a tribute to U2's cohesion as a unit, and to their determination to ensure their art overcame whatever obstacles lay in the way. True to their word, they had dreamed it all up again: the path for the next decade was now clear.
Tracks: Zoo Station / Even Better Than The Real Thing / One / Until The End Of The World / Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses / So Cruel / The Fly / Mysterious Ways / Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World / Ultra Violet (Light My Way) / Acrobat / Love Is Blindness
Released: November 19, 1991
Produced by: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois
Recorded at: Hansa Tonstudios, Berlin and Dublin's Dog Town, STS and Windmill Lane Studios
Chart position: UK: 2 US: 1