U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ — One of Rock’s Bravest Reinventions

After years of moving from being a post-punk band to a mainstream stadium headliner, U2 decided to reinvent themselves.

By Brian Ives

After years of moving from being a post-punk band to a mainstream rock and roll stadium headliner, U2 decided to reinvent themselves with their seventh album, 1991’s ‘Achtung Baby,’ which was released 25 years ago this month. Here, we look back at U2’s most daring album.

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The hints were there for a few years before Achtung Baby was released, that U2 was changing in a dramatic way. Over the first few years of their career, they moved from the world of alternative radio, getting played on stations alongside the Smiths, the Clash, Talking Heads and the Eurythmics, to mainstream rock radio alongside Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. And during that time, they moved from playing clubs to arenas, to, finally, stadiums.

1988’s The Joshua Tree was the peak of the band’s obsession with Americana and the roots of rock and roll. They recorded at Sun Studios, they collaborated with B.B. King, they covered Bob Dylan, and also collaborated with Dylan (he played organ on “Hawkmoon 269” and sang backing vocals on “Love Rescue Me”). They seemed to be looking towards a younger, hipper audience with the “Hollywood Remix” of the album’s first single, “Desire.” Other rock giants, from the Rolling Stones to Genesis, had dance remixes, but with those bands, it seemed like a stretch. With U2, it worked.  Instead of just adding beats in hopes of coaxing club DJs to play the song, it actually changed the song’s entire character, and showed new possibilities for what a U2 song could be. Also of importance: the “Hollywood Remix” threw in audio clips from news broadcasts, something that would explore more in the next decade.

Later, when they released the “When Love Comes To Town” 12″ single, it came with the “Hard Metal Remix” of “God Part II,” another effective re-imagining of one of their songs. It also included the band’s cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” an important nod to their post-punk roots. The appetite for new U2 music was so heavy that this b-side actually got some play on rock radio, which had rarely played any Smith songs other than “Because the Night.”

But the real harbinger that U2 was changing was their cover of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” for the 1990 Red Hot + Blue compilation album, a benefit for the Red Hot Organization, which raised funds for the war on AIDS. Had U2 still been in Rattle and Hum mode, they could have played it relatively straight. Instead, the synth-dominated song was propelled by loops and resembled Depeche Mode. In the video, they still looked like the old U2, but they definitely didn’t sound like like them. Notably, the song brought them back to alternative radio, while rock radio ignored it.

And then, “The Fly.”

Achtung Baby‘s lead single was released weeks before the album in October of 1991 and it was shockingly different from anything U2 had done before. It starts with a huge guitar riff and is followed by funky guitar loops. Bono introduces the song, singing, “It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky/It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight/They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by a moon/You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room.” This isn’t the optimistic guy who sang “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” or “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The visuals were just as shocking. In the video, Bono — formerly the self-serious frontman — is dressed in black leather, his hair is dyed jet black, he’s covering his eyes with warp-around shades and he’s walking around pranking people on the street. This was the debut of his “Fly” character that he’d embody on the band’s Zoo TV tour. The song announced to alternative radio that “Night and Day” wasn’t a fluke: “The Fly” topped the modern rock charts, while also reaching number two on the album rock radio charts.

I remember picking up Achtung Baby the day it came out and popping it into my CD player. Fifteen seconds in to “Zoo Station,” I hit “stop.” That loud, buzzing guitar riff, and the distorted drums made me think that either this wasn’t U2, or my stereo system was broken. I thought there might be something wrong with the disc, so I popped it out; it was fine. I checked to make sure my speakers were properly connected; they were. This strange sound, I now realize, was intentional. Co-producer Brian Eno wrote in The Achtung Baby Songbook that the band’s philosophy at the time was, “It was good if a song took you on a journey, or made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2.” This was the new U2. It sounded more like Nine Inch Nails or Ministry than anything U2 had done before. It’s about 35 seconds in to the song before you start to hear The Edge’s ringing guitar, the first thing that sounds identifiably “U2-ish.” Those traces popped up often on the album, but they were echoes of the past infusing a bold new vision.

The next single was “Mysterious Ways,” and it gave U2 their first party jam. The jubilant track topped both the modern rock and album rock charts, and was a top ten single as well. The band never sounded so funky, or so fun.

That was in direct contrast to the next single, “One.” The song was written about dissension in U2: Bono and the Edge were excited about new dance and industrial music; Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen wanted to stick with the more traditional U2 sound. On this song, they kind of spilt the difference. And in the Anton Corbjin-directed video, we see the Bono we knew, no shades, looking right into the camera, exposing his eyes and his soul. Sonically, it’s one of the few Achtung Baby songs that would actually fit in on prior U2 albums. Spiritually, it showed that between the glitz and ’90s sheen of Achtung, it was still the same heart-on-their-sleeves U2. It may well be their finest moment.

More than any other song on the album, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” set the tone for the Zoo TV tour. In fact, it was a bit ahead of its time. In 1991, Nirvana and the alt-rock revolution were at the center of pop culture; ostensibly, those bands were all about the music – being “real” – and not about the artifice of the ’80s. MTV’s “Unplugged” series was gaining popularity, and nearly every major act would eventually do a session. Notably, U2 never did “Unplugged,” and while they allegedly invited Nirvana to open for them, the Seattle band declined. But the song and the video question what is “real,” and also if being “real” is even important? And the video reflected the remote-control-driven attention deficit/instant gratification vibe that would only increase in the coming years. The video also threw phrases at the viewer, and the Zoo TV tour would do the same, via hundreds of video screens that adorned the stage.

Related: Not Fade Away: 20 Years Later, How ‘Zooropa’ Changed U2

Beyond the singles, there were other great songs: “So Cruel” is nearly as moving as “One” (and for some reason, has only been performed by the band three times); “Until the End of the World,” was an extraordinary jam that sees Bono droning in Lou Reed mode next to one of the Edge’s craziest Hendrixian guitar freakouts over one of Clayton and Mullen’s funkiest grooves. “Love is Blindness” takes a gin-soaked-late-night-and-down-on-his-luck-Sinatra jam and shoves it through a digital filter, again with devastating guitar from the Edge.

Brian Eno said in The Achtung Baby Songbook that “Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad).” Indeed, the album has often been characterized as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” and that was a risky gambit for a superstar band one decade into their career. Instead of staying in their lane, they not only made a sonic change as drastic as Bob Dylan’s when he went electric, but created a new band persona as Bowie did with Ziggy Stardust. Odds are, it could have ruined U2. Instead, it made them even bigger. And — importantly — as many other rock legends struggled to stay relevant in the ’90s, Achtung Baby positioned U2 as a band who could get played on the radio alongside Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, something few bands of their era were able to do.

A few years and electronic albums later, U2 would return to form on 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an album that seemed to gauge the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 ’00s as Achtung Baby gauged  the ’90s, and the band went back to a mostly guitar-bass-drums format, ditching the electronic elements and the adopted personas. But they never lost the sense of exploration and mirth that they gained in the ’90s, and that’s a good thing. If they stuck with their serious po-faced personas that they’d built up, they would be playing the role of authenticity, but it’d be fake. And as the band seemed to learn with Achtung Baby, there’s nothing duller than acting serious and “real,” when you really just want to have a wild night.

 

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