Achtung Baby was my first real immersion into U2. I’d been aware of the Unforgettable Fire and the Joshua Tree, but I’d never considered myself a fan until then.
At the end of the 80’s U2 were white hot. They had releases the Joshua Tree which had been a huge global hit, possibly one of the biggest selling albums of the decade. They followed this with a gigantic tour and a movie/album ‘Rattle & Hum’ (which was seen by many as arrogant but more on that some other time.) As the year and decade came to a close, U2 performed a number of gigs in their hometown of Dublin, at the end of their Lovetown tour. In one decade the band had gone from a struggling ‘post punk’ band to the biggest band on the planet.
As the concert, and the decade drew to a close, Bono said this was the “end of something for U2” and “we have to go away and dream it all up again”, hinting of a new musical direction to come.
The Path to Berlin, Baby
For U2, the early 80’s for U2 had been about growing up in Dublin, then looking towards America as the promised land (Unforgettable Fire), realising it wasn’t as good as they had hoped (Joshua Tree) but not before they had adopted the Americana of large hats and swagger for Rattle & Hum.
Bono’s ‘dream it all up again’ was to be a trip to Berlin to record in the world famous Hansa Studios. A large building in West Berlin, Hansa studios had become an iconic source of inspiration even before David Bowie added another layer of mystique with the recording of his ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of albums – Low, Lodger & Heroes. In the Eighties bands as diverse as The Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode and Marillion had all beaten a path to record in this hallowed studio.
Struggling for inspiration at the start of a new decade, the band decamped to Berlin at a time when both the Berlin Wall, and the Edge’s marriage were collapsing.
From Zoo Station to Mysterious WaysIf the previous albums had been influenced by Americana, all strings and orchestrations, Achtung Baby brought them right back to Europe melding Punk style guitar thrashing with synths and noise. The album opened with some serious guitar work and Bono’s distorted vocals on
The album mid section covered themes of desire, distrust and despair.
The Final Four Tracks – ‘Arms to Love is Blindness
For me, the final four tracks on Achtung Baby were overlooked. The hit singles had been played and now we were on the run out to the end of the album. Much like Pop the last few songs offered even greater depth and introspection that shows a deeper side of U2 that is overlooked by the casual listener (which is cool.)
From Achtung Baby to Zoo TV
Larry Mullen Jr had grown frustrated with the Joshua Tree/Rattle & Hum tour trotting out the band’s ‘greatest hits’ night after night. For this tour we were treated to Zoo TV, unlike anything I had heard or seen before. With a confessional booth in the car park (the confessions were screened later to the crowd), DJ Paul Oakenfold on the warm up, Trabants for lighting rigs and satellite TV broadcasts the tour was one of the most memorable of any concert I have been to. Zoo TV and Zoo Radio are enough to cover in another post.
I was first introduced to this album by a school friend, John. Somehow we became friends and he offered to lend me the CD, out of the blue. At that point I had only ‘Rattle & Hum’ on CD. I had heard ‘The Joshua Tree’ but I didn’t own a copy and didn’t consider myself a U2 fan.
The first single from the album was ‘The Fly’ which was unlike anything I’d heard before with a crazy ‘multimedia’ video to go with it. Back in those days you may have seen it on MTV but there was no YouTube or Itunes to see it repeatedly. It may look a little dated now, but at the time this was just nuts.
I would have copied the album to cassette and handed it back. I later bought it on CD and played it to death (well not quite, I still have the original CD.) This is one of those albums you put on then turn it up, then turn it up again every song until you get to Mysterious Ways by which time you’ve probably upset your parents, flatmate or whoever is in the car next to you!
As I grew to love the album, my focus shifted to some of the later tracks. The last few songs on the album, after the Fly and other hit ‘Mysterious Ways’ were slower and much more introspective. “Trying to throw your arms around the world” opens with this wonderful bass line that almost ‘doubles’ in sound before the singing begins. (They do that on ‘Seconds’ on the War album and later on ‘Last Night on Earth’ from Pop.) ‘Acrobat’ and ‘Ultraviolet’ often get overlooked but offer up some fantastic lyrics but it is the final song on the album that seals the deal.
“Love is Blindness I don’t want to see, won’t you wrap the night around me?…” on the subsequent Zoo TV tour the big screens just had the constellations spinning on a dark screen. This was the last song of the night and remains something I will always remember.
It was Achtung Baby that kick started my fascination with the city of Berlin, it made me a huge U2 Fan and a passionate listener to this classic album. Writing this article today was yet another excuse to play the album and delve into it’s meaning. Like any lyrics my interpretations are just that. They may be right, they may be wrong and I am sure they will change over time.