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November 19th, 1991 saw U2 release “Achtung Baby” after the bands longest hiatus between albums. At times they even doubted they would ever release another record after “Rattle and Hum”. However in one of the greatest re-inventions in rock history, U2 entered the 1990s with an era defining album in the shape of “Achtung Baby“.
The stratospheric trajectory that U2 followed, peaking with the mega-hit that was “The Joshua Tree”, was brought to a jarring halt by the critical mauling of their curiosity album and film “Rattle and Hum”. The musical landscape was also changing rapidly, with albums like Nevermind and The Stone Roses debut coming out between “Rattle and Hum” and “Achtung Baby“, U2 were in real danger of becoming dinosaurs. U2 were in a strange place.
A serious rethink was in order. Bono announced from the Stage at their hometown gig in Dublin in 1990 that “We’ve been around for ten years and we’ve enjoyed it. We say thank you to those that have believed in us since the beginning. But we’ve got to go away for a little while. Now we have to go away and dream it all up again.” The members of U2 were in agreement that their new album would need to be something new, they needed to re-invent the band.
The gestation and recording period for what would become “Achtung Baby” saw U2 take the longest time between records since they formed. The members of U2 felt they needed to get away from the familiar back at home in Ireland. They were taken by long term producer Brian Eno to Berlin to record, using the same Hansa Studios that he and the past master of re-invention, David Bowie, had used to such great effect in the 1970s on albums like “Low” and “Heroes”.
So, in early October 1990, U2 landed aboard the last plane to set-down in East Berlin as the Berlin Wall came down and from then on it was simply Berlin as Germany became re-unified. This could easily be seen as a great symbolic moment of the new U2 emerging, but in reality another incident best summed them up. Upon arriving, a march went past their hotel. They joined it, assuming it was going to be people celebrating the re-unification of their country, when in fact it had been organized by the local communist party protesting The Wall coming down!
Unlike the jubilation they expected, they found the mood in Berlin “dark and gloomy” as the initial jubilation had been replaced with a dawning realization about how much work re-unification would take. Their hotel was dilapidated and Hansa Studios had been converted from the SS Ballroom. The Edge‘s comment that this provided a certain “texture and cinematic location” was probably nothing more than the sepia tinged nostalgia as almost all the reports were of the friction and arguments. Bono himself described it as, “definitely the most serious sessions we’ve ever had – terribly tormented.”
The working dynamics of U2 were altering with the song-writing team of Bono and The Edge taking center stage. So much so that drummer Larry Mullen Jnr believed that it may have been the beginning of the end for the act. While he was listening to classic rock like Cream and Led Zeppelin, The Edge had been listening to music like Nine Inch Nails, Madchester and Jesus Jones.
The Edge and Bono had been working on dance and industrial sounds for a while before “Achtung Baby“. They had contributed to the loop-based score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatrical version of “A Clockwork Orange” and were keen to forge ahead with this new sound. The problem was that their ideas were “under-rehearsed and under-prepared”.
With The Edge and Bono unable to get their ideas across, Larry Mullen Jnr and Adam Clayton‘s suggestions were, they felt, being discounted unfairly and their producer, Daniel Lanois, who was expecting something more “cinematic” in scope, bemused. The frustrations and tensions were threatening to pull them apart. They knew they had to be forward thinking, but with the musical sands shifting beneath their feet, they really were not sure how to do this. As Larry Mullen Jnr later confessed, “We were suddenly, musically, on different levels and it affected everything. No-one knew what the fuck anyone else was talking about!”
According to Adam Clayton, what got them through this was “Force of Will”. “Everything was against us making a great record.” he said, “But no matter how people failed and became isolated, they saw what was good and followed that.”
Finally they got their breakthrough in the shape of “One”. The Edge combined two chord progressions he had been toying with. With Daniel Lanois‘ encouragement the band jammed on it and the song took shape very quickly. As The Edge remembered, “We were all playing together in the big recording room, a huge, eerie ballroom full of ghosts of the war, and everything fell into place. It was a reassuring moment, when everyone finally went, ‘oh great, this album has started.'”
As they threshed out the what it was they were trying to achieve, Brian Eno took on the role of Abstract Arbitrator. He would throw buzzwords around for the do’s and don’t of the album – no more “earnest”, more “trashy”, less “righteous” more “sexy”.
They set out their stall on the opener ‘Zoo Station’, which opens with a chainsaw guitar and industrial beats. Just in case you were still unsure that this wasn’t the same old U2, the lyrics tell you that they are changing, “I’m ready for the laughing gas” – U2, laughing? “I’m ready for what’s next…”
It must be said though, underneath the bluster of the noises and beats, musically it is still definitely U2 – and nothing wrong with that! Change within the band was a key factor in the switch to a more contemporary sound and even dance infused style of songs but the personal lives of the band members were going through massive changes as well.
Where they would depart from U2 most dramatically was in the way they embraced a more personal level of lyrics as the band regrouped back in Ireland at the beginning of 1991 at the seaside mansion “Elsinore” in Dalkey, a short distance from both Bono and The Edge‘s homes.
The Edge had recently split from Aislinn O’Sullivan, his wife and mother of his three children. Bono had recently become a father for the first time and his wife fell pregnant with their second child around this time. However Bono, in an oblique way, confessed his own marital problems, “I think fidelity is just against human nature….I may or may not be writing from my own experience.” The very un-U2-like themes of heartbreak, romance and new life were evident throughout the record.
Lead single ‘The Fly’, with its distortion and synthesized backing confounded a lot of the critics of the band who deemed them derivative and lacking the conviction to try anything new. It also saw Bono singing from a morally ambiguous place, even taunting his own image with lines like, “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest.”
The Edge‘s understandable heartache seems to come through on tracks like “So Cruel”. The refrain from the piano and lines like, “It doesn’t matter to you, it matters to me. We’re cut adrift but still floating. I’m only hanging on to watch you go down” portray someone fragile, bitter and alone.
All this and I still haven’t mentioned “One” possibly U2‘s high water mark. The song that got “Achtung Baby” up and running is a classic even amongst U2‘s impressive back catalog. A lament to a faded love, lost friends or just the way the band felt about each other at the time? Bono strips away the specifics of the lyrics to leave it as personal to each listener as it must have been to him.
As they finished recording at Windmill Lane Studios and turned it over to Steve Lillywhite and Flood for mixing, things were still no easier. In the last few days before having to deliver the tapes for mastering they will still not happy. “One” and “The Fly” were among the tracks with some last minute overdubs and recording before settling on a final mix and track order just in time to meet Island Records deadline for the album.
Part of the criticism that surrounded the band on their previous records and tours was a lack of humor and a po-faced seriousness but the Zoo TV and subsequent Zooropa Tours featured a different U2, one that could poke fun at itself whilst putting on a bewildering show. In taking the live show from music concert to interactive medium saw U2 move well ahead of the game and left their contemporaries looking very staid.
Well over a decade into their career with a number of highs and lows behind them, U2 found the nerve and courage to tear up their blueprint and came back stronger than ever, playing to bigger audiences and creating an album that the critics still rate highly today.
With the political posturing that Bono has undertaken in recent years, it can be easy to forget how the band were stung by their critics and looked to be close to calling it a day. “Achtung Baby” not only stands as one of the best records in U2‘s history, it is a perfect example of the merging of styles that ushered in the 1990s. With both “Achtung Baby” and live shows, when the band finally calls it a day, this era will probably be remembered as the critical high point of the bands illustrious career.
- Bono – lead vocals, additional guitar
- The Edge – guitar, synthesizers, backing vocals
- Adam Clayton – bass guitar,acoustic bass.
- Larry Mullen Jnr – drums, percussion
- Brian Eno – keyboards (on tracks “One”, “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” and “Love Is Blindness”)
- Daniel Lanois – additional guitar (on “Zoo Station”, “One” and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” ), percussion (on “Until the End of the World” and “Mysterious Ways”)
- Daniel Lanois – Main Producer
- Brian Eno – Assistant Producer
- Steve Lillywhite – Mixing and Engineering
- Flood – Mixing
- “Zoo Station” 4:36
- “Even Better Than the Real Thing” 3:41
- “One” 4:36
- “Until the End of the World” 4:39
- “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” 5:16
- “So Cruel” 5:49
- “The Fly” 4:29
- “Mysterious Ways” 4:04
- “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” 3:53
- “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” 5:31
- “Acrobat” 4:30
- “Love Is Blindness” 4:23
Awards and Accolades
- Rolling Stone (1/9/92) – 4.5 Stars – Outstanding – “…the band is able to grow confidently and consistently on its own native strengths…few bands can marshal such sublime power…”
- Entertainment Weekly (11/29/91) – “..refreshingly personal – deeper and denser than any of the band’s previous releases…” – Rating: A
- Q (12/91) – 5 Stars – Classic – “…U2’s heaviest album to date. And best…” – One of Q Magazine’s 50 best albums of 1991.
- Musician (12/91) – “…ACHTUNG, BABY is dense, tough and endlessly surprising…a great accomplishment…”
- Jazziz (Dec.-Jan./92, p.94) – Picked by critic John Dilberto as one of the 10 best albums of 1992.
- New York Times (Publisher) (1/1/92) – “..Dense, self-serious and overly ambitious: all the things this band is rightfully famous for..”
- Ranked #3 in Entertainment Weekly’s best album of the last 25 years
- Ranked #62 in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” – “…The album has lots of uncertainty, irony and distortion. It also has one of the most beautiful songs U2 ever recorded: ‘One’…”
- Included in Rolling Stone’s “Essential Recordings of the ’90s.”
- Ranked #19 in Spin Magazine’s “90 Greatest Albums of the ’90s”
- #11 on Spin’s “100 Greatest Albums, 1985-2005”
- Ranked #9 in Q’s “Best 50 Albums of Q’s Lifetime”
- Included in Q Magazine’s “90 Best Albums of the 1990s”
- Included in CMJ’s list of “Top 25 College Radio Albums of All Time”
- 1991 Grammy Award for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal”.